How Senegal is decolonizing its heritage and reinventing an African future

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On the morning of September 5, 2017, residents of Saint-Louis, the regional capital of Senegal’s northwest coast, woke up to a strange scene. The statue of Louis Faidherbe which had been the focal point of Square Faidherbe since 1887 had fallen.

The effigy of the 19th century French colonial general and administrator lay next to his pedestal, his face buried in the sand of the public garden he had decorated (Figure 1). This followed the call for its removal that had been heard for years.

The statue of Governor Faidherbe, toppled in September 2017. Photo by Thierno Dicko.

After the fall of Faidherbe, the municipality quickly reinstalled the statue but removed it again in early 2020 claiming that they wanted to renovate the square where it once stood.

The city’s mayor, Mansour Faye, strongly opposed the removal of historic statues and spoke out in favor of the full preservation of Saint-Louis’ colonial heritage.

Faye had a substantial but controversial legacy to uphold. In the 19th century, Saint-Louis was an important trading post that developed into a military center from which the French conquered West Africa and established colonial control.

The city’s layout of military barracks, administrative buildings, ports, wharves, and traffic arteries provided Saint-Louis with the modern infrastructure necessary to support France’s “civilizing mission” in West Africa. This infrastructure was built under Governor Faidherbewhose achievements were celebrated with a statue unveiled in 1887 (Figure 2).

In a city that owes its existence to the French Empire, it is not surprising that its mayor wanted to maintain its colonial heritage and preserve the memory of Faidherbe. But many young people instead imagined decolonial futures and thought the statue should go.

A statue
Governor Louis Faidherbe, still standing, in 2004. Photo by Ferdinand de Jong.

Instead of the infrastructural legacy established by Faidherbe, they remember villages razed and crops burned by the colonial army acting under his responsibility. The controversy around the statue of Faidherbe has created a national debate in Senegal about the legacy of colonialism.

In my recently published book, Decolonizing Heritage: Time to Repair in Senegal, I examine Senegal’s decolonization of its cultural heritage. This work shows how Senegal’s reinterpretation of heritage sites enables it to overcome the legacies of the slave trade and colonialism. He manages to do this, I suggest, by acknowledging the legacies of the empire.

This interpretation stems from founding president Léopold Sédar Senghor’s philosophy of Negritude – or Darkness – through which he sought to restore pride in black heritage. By celebrating the cultural achievements of pre-colonial Africa in art, dance and music, Senghor sought to reclaim a legacy that had been rejected by racial science and colonial rule. Appropriating the racist insult Negro, Senghor has regained his Darkness. But Senghor also recognized the achievements of French civilization and, as a poet of the French language, was himself admitted to the French Pantheon.

As this article suggests, the decolonization of heritage is a project of self-recovery. It is a project that Senegal owes in large part to Senghor who, although anxious to reclaim his Darkness, was also fond of French culture, and sought to unite them in his quest for a Universal Civilization. However, this heritage is increasingly difficult to defend.

Disputed legacy

Senegal’s colonial heritage has always been a subject to be fought. But it has taken on added controversy and urgency in the current political climate, in which many former French colonies in West Africa are questioning the continuous presence of the French army on their territories, and new world powers like China wish to please African partners in the race for mineral resources.

This changing geopolitical context has all sorts of unintended consequences, for example for African heritage held in European museum collections.

Many monuments and museums in Senegal were created under colonial rule, but a few years ago the country opened its new Museum of Black Civilizations, funded almost exclusively by the People’s Republic of China. A project first launched by Senghor during the first World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966, the new museum finally opened its doors in 2018. With this project, Senegal signaled to the world that it has the museum infrastructure to store and preserve art looted under colonial rule, and property of French museums.

The museum opened just a few weeks after a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron called for the unconditional return of objects held in French museums. This resulted in the return of several objects kept in French museums in Benin and Senegal.

The global movement towards return of cultural objects received significant impetus from this initiative.

Senegal’s colonial heritage has been the focus of the country’s cultural policy since gaining independence in 1960. The decolonization of its colonial heritage was led by President Senghor.

A student in the Paris metropolis in the 1930s, he was one of the co-founders of the Negritude movement. The movement instilled a new pride in blackness and challenged the racism of empire. When Senghor took power as Senegal’s first president, he made heritage enhancement an integral part of Senegal’s cultural policy.

Today, Senegal figures prominently on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Reclaiming its heritage allowed the postcolonial nation to reconfigure its relationship with the former colonizer and transform its colonial past into decolonial futures.

Landmarks of the future

Senegal was the first African country to have its colonial heritage inscribed on the UNESCO list. In 1978, the island of Gorée, with its infamous house of slaves, has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its curator, Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye, dedicated his life to commemorating the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade, for which he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

The house of slaves on the island of Gorée in Senegal. Photo by Mamadou Gomis.

He put the House of Slaves on the map and made it an unassailable monument to which Pope John Paul II, George Bush, and Barack and michelle obama came to pay their respects. It is now sacred ground that serves as a place of pilgrimage for African Americans and a place of atonement for white Europeans.

But the country has also targeted the colonial monuments that the French left at independence. One of these monuments was that of Demba and Dupontnamed after two imaginary brothers in arms, Senegalese and French, who fought side by side in the French army during the First World War.

To commemorate the contribution of African soldiers to the French war effort, a monument was erected in Dakar in 1923. After independence, the Senegalese government removed it. However, in 2004, it was reinstalled in the city’s memorial landscape.

On the occasion of the commemoration of the fight against the Nazi regime, then 60 years ago, the Senegalese government recycled the monument to commemorate the role played by Senegalese soldiers in the liberation of europe. The monument played a pivotal role in reclaiming African agency and a role for African soldiers on the world stage.

The Demba and Dupont statue (1923), designed by French artist Paul Ducuing. Photograph by Ferdinand de Jong.

Monuments and museums clearly play a role in the reconfiguration of relations between Senegal and France. The decolonization of these relations is an unfinished and ongoing project. Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s third president (2000-2012), renewed President Senghor’s heritage policy, reinjecting his utopian hopes with a newly commissioned statue.

Erected on the westernmost tip of the African continent, The African Renaissance rivals the Statue of Liberty in size. The statue represents an African family. The future of Africa is represented by the young boy, carried on his father’s shoulders, knowingly looking across the Atlantic.

Recycling negritude ideals into a new era, the statue built in North Korea incorporates a plethora of sculptural styles, including socialist realism. But this reconquest of heritage is invested with the hopes of an African renaissance. This hope for another future, as my book demonstrates, is an integral part of the cultural heritage of Senegal.

Reclaiming one’s heritage, as Souleymane Bachir Diagnea Senegalese Negritude philosopher at Columbia University says, is to claim its future.

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