Monday, August 12, 2019

Al in Senegal!

My name is Al Rieder. I am a rising senior at UNCG, a History major, and a double minor in Geography and Islamic Studies. I am currently on my 2nd week of classes in my summer session study abroad in Dakar, Senegal at the Dakar Institute of African Studies. Dakar is the capital, largest city, and westernmost city in Senegal, which itself is the westernmost country in the African continent. I am here abroad studying the Wolof language and the intersection of Africa and Islam. 

In Senegal, the two official languages are French and Wolof, and most folks also know conversational levels of their regional ethnic languages (Serer, Mandinka, and Lebe to name a few), as well as basic levels of reading comprehension in Classical Arabic to read the Quran. This means most Senegalese have at least some grasp of anywhere from 3-5 or even 6 languages (some people knowing bits of English or Italian as well). Wolof itself is one of the regional ethnic languages, however, it has become a lingua-Franca in the nation, alongside and mixed often with French. The religious makeup of the country is about 95% Muslim (mostly Sufi variants of Sunnism), 4% Christian (of which the majority being Catholic), and about 1% Buddhist (from Chinese immigrants who have come as sponsors by the Chinese government for investment in sub-Saharan Africa). Most people back home I talk to find that surprising, but most places in West Africa are actually Muslim and have been for many centuries, while the “traditional African religions” are mainly found to the south and in the interior of the continent. Given, the history of Islam here was one of gradual growth, starting in about the 1200s, and slowly building until near complete adoption in West Africa by the 1800s. All of which too was caused by gradual exposure to Islam via trade with Muslim empires in North Africa. 

Of all of the enslaved peoples brought to the Americas, the greater majority of them historically were from West Africa, as the sailing ships could get to the Western Cape of the continent easier within the Triangular Trade with North America and Western Europe than they could any point in the interior or south or on the east of the continent. Because of this, the enslavement economy of Western Africa colonial ports like Dakar (of which was handled by numerous Western European nation-states since the 1400’s until being kept by France until the 20th century), ended up being the most likely point of forced departure from the continent for the majority of the enslaved ancestors of modern Black Americans. 

This trip has been a first hand & on the ground exposure for me to the history of colonialism and enslavement in West Africa. Even though it is only our second week here, already I have been able to see the infamous “House of Slaves” on Gorèe Island (where the “Door of No Return” is located), the French train station & adjacent shipyard that extracted the wealth and prosperity from the interior, the Westernmost Point in Africa, and the African Renaissance Monument. Despite the many hardships that last to even this day surrounding neo-colonialism, Dakar is a sprawling 2nd world city that is leading the charge for economic prosperity in Francophone West Africa. (This is the reason that the massive African Renaissance Monument was built too, as a testament to this.) If the Statue of Liberty is to North America, and the Christ the Redeemer Statue is to South America, then The African Renaissance Monument is the equivalent in Africa. 

My professors here warned me about not painting a neo-colonialist view of Senegal, either that it is somehow a “terrible 3rd world cesspool,” or the “promised motherland of African peoples.” The reality here is the country of Senegal, and even more so the city of Dakar, is especially nuanced. On the one hand, Senegal is a former French colony in which Catholicism (a colonial enforced faith) is present, French (a colonial language) is still spoken, and the French military and private sector to this day still takes advantage of it to this day. But on the other hand, I was made clear to explain that the identity here is not French by any means, but a nuanced and relatively new thing; it is an identity that wholeheartedly admits its colonized past, and embraces its multicultural present. Also, I would be lying if I said that all I do is go to the beach and watch the sunset. There are plenty more bugs than I could ever care for, I’ve had to use a mosquito nest to sleep for the first time in my life, and the smog from car exhaust/kicked up sand/horse poo/and litter is ever-present in the city. But at the same time, there are skyscrapers, boogie boutiques, and artisan restaurants, beach resorts, wonderful saltwater air, and I can’t express this enough and mean it wholeheartedly- friendly welcoming people. (Matter of fact, there is a whole term for it, “teranga,” which is southern hospitality on steroids.) 

In completion, for now, Senegal is a complex country with a rich history and vibrant culture, full of Islam, Mbalax music (which I can only really describe as a much faster Ska), grilled seafood n’ veggies, and a multi-lingual and multicultural people. They don’t want to be seen as an idealized homeland for the African diaspora, and they don’t want to be seen as a poor third world country. Senegal is nuanced and complex, and it is beautiful that way, bugs, skyscrapers, and all in between.  

PS, I 100% forgot to pack my Lloyd International Honors College dragon, I’m so sorry, I hope the pictures without it suffice.

Best regards to all,
-Al Rieder