La Francophonie again

I’m in Senegal for a couple of weeks, on business.

Pretty much everything I wrote about French in Burundi in this post last year applies to French in Senegal. All educated Senegalese speak French; most speak it really well; they’ve also picked up a lot of distinctly Gallic tics of gesture and conversational patterning. The French fascination with their former colonies is a lot easier to understand once you’ve visited; if you’re French, it must be so pleasant to be someplace where French is the language of learning and prestige, where everyone who matters speaks French, and where there’s never a need to break out the English.

There are some differences. Gallicization seems to run deeper here than in Burundi. No, that’s not exactly right. More like: the European influences seems more assimilated. In Burundi, rich and elite Burundians can seem like wannabe Belgians, cut-and-pasting the culture of the former colonists. Elite Senegalese seem to be more comfortable integrating the different influences. It may just be that Senegal is a much less desperately-screwed-up place than Burundi, and so has less of a cultural cringe… I’m not sure.

But anyway. Another difference is that Senegal has a small but significant population of non-African francophones. In Burundi, this group numbered perhaps a few thousand — perhaps a tenth of one percent of the population. Here it’s more like a hundred thousand — Lebanese, French, Spanish, Italian, and a scattering of odds and ends like Greeks and Vietnamese. The Lebanese, in particular, occupy an important social niche: there are thirty or forty thousand of them, they’ve been here for generations, and they’re mostly merchants and traders in the larger cities. By Senegalese standards, most are rich. So while they keep fairly quiet politically, they have a disproportionate impact on Senegalese society and culture.

The French, same but more so. Some are descended from colonial-era merchants and landowners who stayed on after independence; more are recent immigrants and their children. Their numbers aren’t large, but there are enough of them to support a thriving little community. A tremendous amount of ink has been spilled on the topic of immigration from developing countries into Europe; the flow in the opposite direction has been almost entirely neglected. True, it’s much much smaller — there are a hundred Senegalese trying to reach France for every Frenchman considering a move to Senegal. But it’s not negligible, and there are countries where its impact is surprising. The non-African communities in Senegal play a significant role in the country today; if nothing else, they’re helping to keep Senegal firmly connected to la Francophonie and engaged with the wider world. Dakar is not a rich city, but it’s a surprisingly cosmopolitan one.

(To a lesser extent, the whole country is. In rural Burundi, I attracted a lot of attention. In rural Senegal, the sight of a white face is… completely uninteresting. Everyone’s seen plenty of blancs before.)

One interesting thing about Senegal: politically, it’s West Africa’s great success story. Senegal has no history of ethnic strife. It’s never had a military dictatorship or a coup. Their first President stepped down from power peacefully and voluntarily; their second one was defeated in a fair election. There’s a free press and a lively political opposition. They’ve never had martial law or a civil war. (There was a regionalist rebellion down south, but it never got past the guerrillas-in-the-bush stage, and has since been resolved.) So, while it has the full complement of African problems — poverty, disease, bad infrastructure, illiteracy — it’s not a place where the government may suddenly take away your passport or your business, or where armed men may bang on your door in the middle of the night. I suspect that’s one reason the diasporid communities are so healthy.

Anyway. I’ve only been here a week, so these are first impressions. Comments by the better informed are welcome.

7 thoughts on “La Francophonie again

  1. Fascinating, what takes you to Senegal?
    Indeed, what took you to even Burundi?

  2. Looks like you have got “pregnant from your ears”.
    So, Casamanse is just a little “regional affair” and the interference of France and Senegal in Guinea Bissau is not “imperialistic”, to say the least.
    How nice!

  3. Um. I said the Casamance rebellion was regionalist rather than ethnic — true — and that it never got past the guerrillas-in-the-bush stage — also true.

    I didn’t say a thing about Guinea Bissau.

    I think you’re reacting to something that’s not in the post I wrote.

    Doug M.

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  5. Never been to Senegal, but your description reminds me a lot of Madagascar. Though the situation’s a bit more unusual there — the bulk of the minority/expat communities are non-Francophone (mainly Chinese and Indians) aside from the French themselves, yet the prestige of the French language persists quite strongly.

    Oddly enough, Wikipedia has articles on both the Chinese and Vietnamese communities in Senegal, but none on the Lebanese or French ones who are an order of magnitude larger — I guess I have to do my own research rather than being lazy about it …

  6. Hi,

    This is an interesting account of the local situation. You did not enroll into colonial,post-colonial arguments of any kind, from “critical assessment”, “retro-justifications” and the likes.

    In view of the evolving situation, quite a number of French people would agree that a soundly run French-speaking African country is potentially a place where to dwell and work. Why not say a place to live? It is fair to say alas that not all Africa enjoys this stability.

    Thanks for the feedback that comforts our gallic views. Well-run African countries potentially have an opportunity not held in centuries.

  7. I saw/met several Lebanese people in Dakar; we stayed in the Hotel Farid which is affiliated with an excellent restaurant across the street. We met a great number of French tourists in Dakar and even more of them in Saly-Portugal. Several of the restaurants we ate in appeared to be owned or run by ex-pat French people. In Thies where my daughter was teaching, we got quite a lot of attention for our white skin, especially from little kids. (toubab! toubab!)

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