On April 4th, Senegal celebrated its Independence Day. For the most part it was a day like any other in my village, with farmers headed to their gardens to work and women pounding couscous for the evening meal. That morning, many of us sat down to watch the Independence Day parade in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. In the afternoon, my siblings and I fired up my wood fired oven and began baking to celebrate. We made a variety of dishes: vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, soft pretzels with mustard, breadsticks with marinara sauce, and hearty oatmeal bread. We ate a nice dinner (duck!) and broke out the goodies, sharing them around with the neighboring families. It reminded me of the cookouts that are often held in the US on July 4th – everyone gathering together to celebrate their country, eat good food, and enjoy the companionship of friends.
I also sat down with my host uncle, Mbagnick Dione, and asked him about the original Independence Day. Mbagnick was born in 1951, eight of years before Senegal gain independence from France. He grew up in an area called the Djolof (pronounced joe-lof), the arid, sandy center of the country. He started primary school in 1965, at age 14, thanks to a group of development workers who set up a school in his area. At his age, he had to convince the teachers to allow him in as he was older than most of the students. Eventually, he entered high school, travelling to the city of St. Louis about NUMBER of miles away. It was one of three high schools in the entire country at the time. Finally, he made it to the University of Cheikh Anta Diop, then the only university in the country, and graduated with a degree – an incredible feat of personal strength and commitment. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
On what Senegal was like before independence:
When we were a colony, we had no voice in our country. All the decisions were made in Paris, or by bureaucrats put in place by Paris in Dakar. These go-betweens in Dakar often altered the government’s policies coming from Paris to suit their own needs. This lined their pockets, but failed to help the other citizens. In many places the French and Senegalese were segregated, with some areas off-limits to the locals. The economy revolved almost entirely around peanut exports to France.
On what Senegal is like now:
Senegal today is freer than it was, but still faces many problems. We have been unable to maintain our infrastructure or build more because those skilled in planning, building and maintenance returned to Paris. Further, foreign companies stopped investing in Senegal, causing much of the economy to stagnate. Under recent Presidents, the investment has started to come back, and not just from France. We still have a long ways to go, because most of the investment goes to the cities and not the rural villages. Many villages still need access to electricity, healthcare, and clean water, but we have our freedom.
On the independence process:
When West Africa became independent, there was a serious conversation about forming a large country similar to the US. It was going to be called Mali, in honor to the ancient empires which had sprung from Mali in the past. However, this plan broke down because the different countries couldn’t agree on a common plan. In 1959 Mali and Senegal formed a Federation. This did not last long however, and Senegal soon became fully independent.
On the election of Leopold Senghor as President:
NAME was elected the first President of Senegal. He was elected despite being a minority – a Catholic, about 5% of the population, and an ethnic Seereer, about 14% of the population. This is because we didn’t care about these facts. What mattered is that he was smart, he was our foremost intellectual, he knew how to work with all of the religious leaders in Senegal, had the support of French President Charles de Gaulle and we believed he could lead us well.