Tread with care

He is an intellectual. Historian, thinker. And he would love to see his town re-established as a place that actually matters. It’s got it all: 350 years of history, a meeting place of Arabs, Africans and Europeans and an immensely rich cultural heritage as a result. But it’s not going anywhere. Saint Louis is…well, not exactly dying but it does not have the pulse, the drive, the vibrancy.  This place, the former capital of French West Africa today feels distinctly – provincial.

Not for want of trying. There’s plenty of culture. The arts, really. Literature, theatre, modern dance, music. This town has its own international jazz festival. There’s an artist association. Good work by a lot of good people.

So what’s holding it al back? Here, we need to tread carefully. Unlike those who invade this town every year in September for a massive religious event that sucks the life out of everything else. ‘It’s like being assaulted in your own home, it is terrible,’ says the intellectual. ‘The only thing you can really do is…leave town while they are there.’

“They” – are the religious brotherhoods. Fanatics? No, that does not exist here. Zealous? You bet. Zealous enough to constrict free thought and free speech. Note that I do not say: “ends free speech”. It does put limits, though. How?

Well that can be put in a very practical way. What does Saint Louis need to bounce back? It needs restoring. It needs cleaning up – the place, quite frankly, is a mess.

Done up only a few short years before: Point Sud, St Louis

‘What this city really needs is an economy,’ pursues the intellectual, ‘enough income that allows people to come to the festivals, the theatre and appreciate art.’

And indeed: art itself could be part of that economy. But for art to flourish – you need pretty much complete freedom of thought and expression. And for that to arrive, or to put it more bluntly: to restore the great tradition of Senegalese intellectual life…you need to roll back the zealots.

There, I have said it. I can – he cannot. At least not in public and not if you have responsibilities beyond your own little self. Address religion and the stranglehold it has on speech and thought – that is one thing. But criticize it at your peril. You don’t do ostracism as a hobby.

Pont Faidherbe, to be replaced and none too soon

This is what happens when you don’t paint a steel bridge for more than a decade. The same can be said for free speech and thought. It needs maintaining,in the subtlest and most comprehensive sort of ways. The French are paying for a new bridge, this one is beyond repair. But the cost of having your thinking space corroded is arguably much higher. Here’s hoping it does not get this far.

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