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Senegal Needs to Stop Using French as the Primary Language of Instruction


I was inspired to write about this thanks to a friend’s Facebook status about how Senegalese wrestlers were interviewed in French ― “when many of them cannot communicate well in Wolof, let alone in French.” Although the wrestling match took place in Bercy, France, the journalists who interviewed the wrestlers should have addressed them in Wolof and use interpreters to translate for the French. As my friend noted, when Americans go to France, they are provided interpreters and not forced to speak the host language, even if they could manage a basic conversation in it. As a matter of fact, Juan Carlos, the wrestler from Spain who adopted the Senegalese sport and was among the participants at Bercy, was interviewed in Spanish.  Language is one of the major carriers of culture. Imagine if the wrestlers were asked to perform their bakk, these intricate panegyric chants that often highlight a wrestler’s trajectory while taunting possible opponents, in French! The meaning of such performance would have become senseless, if not comical.

The second reason for this post is Bousso Dramé’s letter to the French Consulate in Dakar, which went viral on social media in the past couple of days. Ms. Dramé won the National Grand  Prix d’Orthographe, a prestigious prize that proved her command of the French language. As the winner, she was supposed to travel to France for an all-expense-paid training in film studies. But when Miss Dramé went to the French Consulate in Dakar to apply for a visa, she was repeatedly disrespected by the staff, as it is often the case for Senegalese visa seekers. To show her outrage Miss Dramé wrote a letter to the French Consulate renouncing the visa as well as the prize. As she states in her letter, “It is time for Africans to respect themselves and demand to be respected by others.” I could not agree more but I feel that respect for oneself starts from being proud of one’s culture and Senegal is too dependent on the French language. The Senegalese educational system is a copycat of the French model and French continues to be the language of instruction. This practice only devalues Senegal’s indigenous languages and shows a severe complex of inferiority. I am happy that the Senegalese have great command of French and are able to win prestigious prizes for it. I however look forward to the day when similar competitions are held for Wolof, Pulaar, Diola, Sereer, and the many other ethnic languages that comprise Senegal’s rich linguistic heritage. Respect for oneself should start with ditching French as the primary language of instruction in schools and adopting Wolof, Senegal’s lingua franca― which over 70% of Senegalese speak or understand.  I am not against teaching French in Senegalese schools. I just think it should be a second language like English, German, and other European languages.

French has been imposed on the Senegalese for too long and learning it is a traumatic experience for many.I believe my attitude toward French is because I feel the language was imposed on me as well. Although I initially came to the US as a French instructor, my usage of French has been limited to reading and the occasional conversation. One might think that I ditched my “French roots” in favor of American ones, but that is not the case. I simply do not care much about French. I don’t remember loving French or feeling the need to speak it. Those of you who are old enough to remember le symbole know how traumatic learning French was in Senegal.  To those who did not go through it, le symbole was literally a “necklace of shame” made with some disgusting materials.  In my elementary school, it was a huge cow bone attached to some rags.  Any pupil in 4th grade and beyond who was heard speaking Wolof or any other indigenous language, would have to wear the necklace of shame as a symbol of their faux pas and unwillingness to speak the language of De Gaulle. I never wore that horrible necklace. Not because I was fluent in French as a 4th grader, but because I was good at cheating my peers. I was one of the best students and my classmates probably believed that since I was a good student, my French must have been good too. On occasions I was caught speaking Wolof, I would defiantly deny it and invent a French word. But despite the fact that I never wore the necklace, I was terrified of it. I knew that if word got to my parents that I was caught not speaking French, I would get in trouble. Yes, parents also participated in this “Frenchization” of their children. Ironically, many parents, especially those who did not understand French, found it disrespectful if their child spoke to them in French. So in a sense children were told to switch back and forth from their native language to French depending on the place, as if language and culture are accessories one can wear and take off whenever needed. I know it is possible to navigate languages and cultures but when the switch is forced on the person, it becomes problematic.

Fifty three years after independence, I still cannot comprehend why major effort is not being made to use Wolof. I understand that the Senegalese have appropriated French and made it their own. Actually, I believe that the French language is alive and richer because of the many former colonies that continue to use it as “official” language. This does not change the fact that French is a foreign language for most Senegalese because they do not speak it at home. I believe this is the major reason why the Senegalese educational system continues to be in crisis. Children have to spend a long time trying to master the language before engaging is learning other subjects. This approach makes it difficult for them to learn through critical thinking. Imagine how much better and faster children would learn if they were taught in the language they think in. Primary learning engages both the conscious and the unconscious, and therefore can be best accomplished if done in the language one thinks in. It is counter-productive to force children to learn and think in a language different than their native tongue, and expect them to achieve proficiency early on in order to learn math, sciences, and other subjects.

Although Senegal has come a long way in reclaiming some of its linguistic heritage thanks to the proliferation of private radios, which made it possible for the news and talk shows to be delivered in indigenous languages, the bulk of the effort should be directed at making Wolof the major language of instruction. Some would argue that Wolof is not the only indigenous language, and that adopting it as the primary language in schools might undermine other ethnic languages. I would say that if people have not objected to French being the language of instruction, they should be fine with using Wolof.

I look forward to your comments.

The Colours of Darfur

Most of you probably have a general idea of Sudan, but have you heard of Darfur, “home of the Fur” in western Sudan? For those who the name is familiar, they must have listened to reports on the 10 year-old conflict between the threatening Sharia law-driven Sudanese government and Darfur. The gravity of the conflict has even led some people to talk about genocide in Darfur.

Recently I met Aisha, a young woman, activist and voice of Darfur. Now 21 years old and part of the Fur tribe,  Aisha began to understand the meaning and importance of human rights 10 years ago when it all broke out in Darfur. Unlike the rest of Sudan, the Furs practise their own language (Fur), their ethnic dances and their land offers majestic mountains. Although the Furs are Muslims, ethnic traditions are paramount and must be transmitted to future generations. Aisha describes those Fur traditions…

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Where Are You From?

For my first post, I decided to explore the idea of where a person is from. Having lived between the cultural and linguistic spaces of Senegal and the US, the answer to this question has become less obvious or clear for me. Is where one is from defined by geography, nationality, culture, place of birth, place of residence, language, and other denominations that make one identify with a place as home?

I get asked where I am from at least every time I meet a new person. Frankly, I get annoyed by it once in a while, depending on how the question is asked and when it is asked during a conversation. If it comes up as soon as I speak, I get put off. For me, the listener is trying to define me by my accent.  I tend to believe that from that moment, everything that I say is judged by this accent and what the person assumes about Senegal or Africa in general. I do however understand that this question is valid, and its answer is not always easy. Most times, I reply that I am from Senegal. But is it really true?

I was born in Senegal and spent the larger part of my life there. But for fifteen years of my adult life, I have been living and working in the US. I go back to Senegal at the most once a year. Many meaningful events in my life such as post-graduate studies, wedding, the births of my children, and my first real job, happened in the US. Although the majority of my extended family remains in Senegal, most of my friends now reside in the US. On a daily basis, I speak English more than I speak Wolof and French. As a member of the community that I live in, I pay taxes and benefit from institutions like every American. But despite this obvious fact that my life as it is, happens in the US, I do not consider myself as being from America.  Neither do I believe that Americans I interact with would define me as “American.”

When I go to Senegal, I sometimes feel that I am not from there either. The country as I knew it has changed. Dakar where I spend most of my time during my visits (Yes, those trips are visits because they are temporary and their purpose is to see my family.) has changed. Many times, I have gotten lost in this city that I knew so well. My family sometimes treats me like a foreigner and care is taken to make me comfortable, explain things to me, and see to it that I have a great visit. My nieces and nephews have grown during my absence and I often meet some of them for the first time. The connections I had with my siblings, although still there, have a different nature. I need to catch up on so many things and no matter how many nights we stay up talking, we will never recover those missed moments. I need help and guidance to reconnect with the community. I forget the names of neighbors and family friends. I spend a lot of time catching up about those who moved away, got married, those who died and which families I needed to visit in order to present condolences. People refer to me as sunu gan gi [our guest] or Americaine bi [the American lady]. I am asked about food allergies and whether my children would eat certain things. A family member once remarked that I speak Wolof with an American accent! This frustrated me and made me conscious of my displacement. Don’t get me wrong, I do not think it is an insult to tell me that I speak Wolof with an American accent, although I don’t believe I do. I think the family member was projecting an assumption that after having spent so much time in the US, I should speak in such a manner. Even if I spoke Wolof with an American accent, there is nothing shameful or wrong about it. My frustration was the effect of how often in America I get asked “Where are you from?” This question implies that I must not be from America. To be told in Senegal that I speak my native language like an American would, also suggests that I am not from Senegal―leaving me without a country.

So in essence, I am a doxadeem, someone who is considered a stranger and whose residency status is temporary. But where is this temporality? Am I a temporary resident of the US or Senegal? Who gets to define this status? I believe I should be the one. Therefore, I choose to live in that very hyphen between the two countries, Senegal (—) America. Living in this space allows me to claim both and get the best of what each country and culture has to offer. I can eat thiebou jen for lunch and pot roast for dinner. I can wear my sër ak taille basse in the morning and change into a suit in the afternoon. The way I cook food or wear clothes might even be hyphenated.

Where are you from readers?