Monday, 9 January 2012

Wishing the journey is a long one

It all started six months ago, in a museum: the National Museum of African Art in Washington. No, it wasn´t an object. It was a film. A screen in a small corner showing a film about senagalese sculptor Ousmane Sow and his impressive and powerful figures. I had never heard of him before. I stood behind other people trying to watch. I got completely absorbed, seeing him while he was working, listening to his voice and his beautiful french. I went back the following week just for the film. Fewer people this time, but still no place to sit, so I sat on the floor and watched it again. Twice.

Ousmane Sow (Photo taken from
So, no wonder, when I started thinking of my next destination, Senegal was first on the list. I bought the guidebook and started reading and searching on the internet. It´s always exciting preparing a trip, but this time I realised I was preparing to go to a country I knew absolutely nothing about, apart from having a vague idea about its strong musical tradition. I knew nothing about its political history nor about its peoples, its cultures and arts.

Until recently, Africa below the Sahara didn´t exist in my mind (and in my readings) before the 15th-16th century. I was confined to the arab north, which always fascinated me (only to be confronted recently with a statement in the blog Africa is a Country that “‘arab’ is an imperial and ahistorical term that creates a false distinction between ‘North’ and ‘Sub-Saharan’ Africa”. Point quickly taken...). Little by little, I delved into the world of emperors and warriors and preachers who made history in the west african region before the arrival of the europeans and whose deeds are sung by the griots (praise singers, guardians of oral history).

More on Volker Goetze´s documentary here.

And, despite thinking initially that this was a men´s world, I´ve come across the griottes and, among them, a very special senegalese lady, Yandé Codou Sène, who passed away in 2010 and who was proud of her art (it´s worth seeing the video below; once she overcomes her anger, she actually sings – in minute 5), respected and cherished by her people (see here).

From oral history, I moved on to the written word and one of the first figures to come up was Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal´s first elected president, but also a thinker and a poet (among his most known poems, Femme noire and Poème à mon frère blanc), the first african to enter the French Academy. Some of his speeches on négritude (a concept he firmly imposed on the political dialogue of his time, that places the emphasis on black african ideas and culture as opposed to the french colonial policies of assimilation) may be heard here. Regarding other writers, I was initially limited to the ‘classics’ presented in my guidebook and I got particularly interested in two ladies, whose books I rushed to buy. Mariama Bâ, a feminist who was profoundly concerned with the fate of african women (their right to get educated, their place in a patriarchal and polygamistic society), wrote in 1981 a short story called So Long a Letter. Aminata Sow Fall, a critic of senegalese society – its inequalities, the power of the political elites –, is the author of four novels, the most famous one being The beggars´ strike. My search then took me to the younger generation, whom I look forward to ‘meeting’ in Dakar´s Athena bookshop: Sokhna Benga, Fama Diagne Sène, Woré Ndiaye Kandji, to mention a few. And, to mention also a man, Boubacar Boris Diop, author of Murambi, the book of bones, and a writer who, a few years ago, decided to write again in wolof, one of the languages spoken in Senegal (read article here).

Music is what really marks senegalese culture. It´s undoubtedly the biggest chapter in my guidebook. Once we start searching, there are so many names, so many different genres. What particularly caught my attention, though, in the middle of so much information, is the involvement of the the music world in the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled to take place next month. Apart from the country´s most famous singer worldwide, Youssou Ndour, being a candidate, there is a movement of young rappers, called Y´ en a Marre, challenging the actual President, Abdoulaye Wade, who tried to change the Constitution in order to be able to run for a third mandate (read the article in Le Monde here). The movement can be found on Facebook.

Senegalese cinema was another art I knew absolutely nothing about. I was so excited to find Ousmane Sembène´s (Senegal´s most known cinematographer; 1923-2007) Moolaadé fully available on You Tube, only to find out it had no subtitles in a language I could understand (those who understand bambara can find it here; the rest of us can get a feeling of it from the trailer).

And just as Sembène deals in his movie with female genital mutilation, Joseph Gaï Ramaka (1952 - ) is breaking other taboos in Karmen Gei, approaching sensuality and lesbian love.

There is very little one can find on the internet regarding Senegal´s big reference in photography, Mama Casset (1908 – 1992), namely photos. But my search took me also to the younger references. I particularly liked the work of Boubacar Touré Mandémory, especially, among his albums available on Flickr, the one entitled Émigration Clandestine.

Photo: Mama Casset
Among the various senegalese fashion designers who are leaving their mark in their industry internationally, I was very-very impressed with Oumou Sy and her particular way of mixing tradition with contemporary design (video of one of her fashion shows here).

Design: Oumou Sy
Another reference, in what concerns senegalese textiles, is Aissa Dione, here in a very interesting interview for CulturaDakar (a cultural initiative of the Spanish Embassy in Dakar):

It was dance/performance that brought me back to the man who inspired this trip: Danielle Gabou´s Hommage à Ousmane Sow (see here), which I found deeply touching. Moving on from there to contemporary senegalese dance, I was amazed at the performance of Assane Thiam Contemporary Sabar Dance Group in the streets of Dakar.

So, these are some of the references I came across while preparing for my trip to Senegal. Soon I´ll be on a plane to Dakar and I can´t wait to discover for myself everything one cannot find in a guidebook: the smells, the tastes, the noise, the silence, the mood and wisdom of people. The feeling of spending the night under the sky of the Lompoul Desert.

Photo taken from
Note: The diary from the journey to Senegal is published here.

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