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Africans redefine solidarity as they approach Senghor's landmark anniversary

Africans redefine solidarity as they approach Senghor's landmark anniversary

There are African leaders, many, who have left legacies of corruption or brutal despotism. And then there's Senegal's Leopold Sedar Senghor, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday Monday and helped redefine the continent with sensual, modernist verse.
Schoolchildren memorize the work of the late West African poet-president and modern leaders invoke his calls for continental unity, even if they avoid his emphasis on race and "blackness."
"He gave us the concepts to name our African culture," said Amadou Ly, a professor of African literature at Senegal's Cheikh Anta Diop university in the capital of Dakar. "He permitted us to enter into the cultural conversation."
Senghor became the first president of Senegal after its independence from France in 1960. He ruled with a quiet, methodical socialism that has fallen out of favor in current market-driven African politics, but many say his influence endures through his idea of a unifying black identity.
"Naked woman, black woman ... Ripe fruit with firm flesh, dark raptures of black wine," Senghor wrote in a 1945 poem that epitomized the concept he called "negritude."
Ly said Senghor helped Africans embrace common themes such as respect for nature and pride in dark skin _ ideas that may seem simplistic today, but that helped French-speaking Africa divorce itself from the West and join a cultural debate that was starting at the same time in English-speaking Africa.
Now, five years after Senghor died at age 95, African politicians invoke his legacy, though now it's to set up cross-border economic partnerships and work to strengthen the African Union.
"There's still a strong sense of African unity but people are much less likely to use the kind of race language that Senghor was using," said Columbia University Professor Marcartan Humphreys, who studies political economy and rebellion in West Africa.
And Senghor remains an icon _ a key figure in helping Senegal gain independence and then the first postcolonial African leader to step down voluntarily in 1980.
"There's big competition now between Senegal's (political) parties to claim Senghor. They all want to be identified with his image," said Ibrahima Thioub, history department head and professor of contemporary African history at Cheikh Anta Diop.
He was "a model for presidents on the continent showing that if you step down from power, that can lead to more respect rather than less respect," Humphreys said.
But even in Senghor's native Senegal, some say they can no longer relate to the politics of their postcolonial president.
"We've forgotten him completely! We've gone past that," said 27-year-old Sadieubou Mbaye, who was collecting signatures to support independent candidates in Senegal's upcoming presidential ballot. Mbaye said Senegal had outgrown Senghor's socialism and didn't need philosophical themes.
"If Africa is led by a poet or an economist, it's the same. They just need to have the confidence of the people," said Mbaye, a university student studying history.
Senghor was much more connected to France than many of today's West Africans and some say this makes him harder to identify with. Though Senghor was born in the coastal Senegalese town of Joal, he attended a French high school, married a French woman and spent much of his later years studying language in the land of his colonial masters. He was inducted in the renowned French Academy, a group whose 40 members pledge to act as custodians for the French language.
"He sings the 'Black Woman,' but he marries a French woman," said Oumar Sankhare, a Senghor scholar and president of Senegal's Friends and Disciples of Senghor. Sankhare said he sees Senghor as a hero, but finds his decision to make France his final home hard to understand.
This as the West continues to hold Senghor up as a symbol of an African statesman who could embrace both African values and Western theories.
In recent visits to Senegal's capital of Dakar, French presidential hopefuls Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal both visited Senghor's grave. An American round-the-world reality show, "The Amazing Race," made the same spot its contestants' first destination in Africa.
And celebrations for Senghor's anniversary are occurring not just in his home country, but across the world. The Paris-based International Organization of Francophonie, which Senghor helped found, has turned 2006 into a year of homage to Senghor. Since January, French-speaking countries ranging from Martinique to Canada have commemorated Senghor. In the U.S., Harvard University is holding a symposium in late October on his poetry and the philosophy of negritude.
Yet some scholars say Senghor's importance in moving the region forward peacefully may be overemphasized.
"Yes, Senegal is stable and has been stable because of Senghor," said Ghanaian academic George Ayittey, a professor of economics at American University and author of "Africa Betrayed."
But Ayittey said trying to model leaders on Senghor is like "the world is saying, 'Well we hope we can find a Nelson Mandela somewhere to take charge.' That's not going to happen."
Instead, argues Ayittey, countries should focus less on finding the perfect leader and more on institutions such as a free press, an independent judiciary and an independent banking system.
The new leaders that Africans are electing to solve modern problems are less likely to talk of black identity or theories of language, and more likely to talk electricity grids and economic partnerships.
Abdoulaye Wade, the current president of Senegal, was an economist before he stepped into politics. Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf studied economics in the United States and then public administration at Harvard before returning to her native country to run for president.
But for many, Senghor will continue to define West Africa's people, if not its politics.
"In poetry, he did wonderful things. In junior high and then in high school we all studied his poems," said Moussa Mbegnouga, 30, a graduate geography student who said he used to head a literary group that studied Senghor.
"No doubt he marked us. It's he who established us," Mbegnouga said.


Updated : 2021-06-18 08:39 GMT+08:00