Thinking aloud…

In Senegal today, the election noise has stopped washing all around us and the candidates all await the Big Day, Sunday February 26th, to cast their votes. Time to revive this blog with a reflection on what Youssou N’dour told me almost two months ago.

‘I want to change Senegal, I want to change Africa.’ It’s something he has been saying for long. But what change does he have in mind?


There are a number of things you don’t mess with in Senegal. One is religion. There was outrage when a policeman in riot gear threw a teargas grenade into the El Hadj Malick Sy mosque in downtown Dakar. It belongs to the Tidiane Muslim Brotherhood and their home city of Tivaouane exploded on hearing the news. ‘Sacrilege!’ was the verdict. And even a hasty ministerial apology and the lame excuse a week later that the policeman in question ‘did not know that it was a mosque,’ dixit his police chief, carried little weight.


The other thing is family. Youssou N’dour cancelled an interview because he had family maters to attend to. If that happens to the world’s most famous Senegalese citizen, then clearly we must be paying attention.

I had a similar experience when sitting in the courtyard of Baaba Maal’s beautiful home in the northern town of Podor. There were literally dozens of people at any one time there, waiting for an audition. Every ten minutes or so, the door would open and a new delegation would be brought in. What struck me when I was accorded my ten minutes with Baaba, was how relaxed he appeared under what must be incredible pressure. I don’t think anyone in the West understands the level of obligation people are under, when dealing with family matters, here, or anywhere else on this continent.

I asked Baaba how on earth he managed all this. He just smiled and said: ‘It’s an obligation I cannot walk away from.’

This is key and you must realise this. Whatever position you have in society, family is an obligation you cannot walk away from. Family overrides political persuasion, standing in society, the office you hold… Mind you: even religion – at least here in Senegal – has been organised by and around powerful families: Mbacké, Sy, Niass, and many more.

Family trumps everything. Whatever you, me, or anyone else thinks of it, that’s the simple truth.

So when Senegal’s most high profile man says that he wants to change his country, what does that mean? He gave me some idea during our interview: ‘You know what happened at Independence? We just took the hats of the colonizers and gave them to the Senegalese. Is that independence? It’s not!’

The State

This suggests to me very strongly that “change” means a return to values, organising principles and structures that are Senegalese. But there is a complication here. And this complication has a name: the State.

When the French arrived and replaced the traditional structures with a colonial state, however rudimentary, it created a structure of administration that interfered with the way things were run here traditionally. Both structures co-exist. But the state structure is the only one the outside world looks at (especially from the West) because it is recognisable and understandable.

In truth, it’s the weakest link, even in Senegal, which has had a stronger state tradition that most of its neighbours.

This also reminds me of an experience I had in Guinea. I was visiting the hometown of a (now disgraced) former banker. We (that is, me and a colleague from Conakry) visited the man’s lavish home and, crucially, his many fruit plantations. As we sat in his guesthouse that evening, my colleague said this: ‘You know, we all understand that what we have seen today has been financed in ways that we consider unscrupulous and illegal. But look at it this way: if everyone in government did the same, we would not need any development aid!’

I could see his point and yes, I also struggle with it. Because at one and the same time the State is subverted (money disappears) but it also benefits – tangibly though temporarily – the people close to the person subverting the State. Until he gets caught. It’s the ancient and still crucial theme of Ayi Kweyi Armah’s great novel The beautyful ones are not yet born.


So when Youssou N’dour talks about change, what does he have in mind? Family and religion will certainly be at the core of that change. But then again: it’s no change. Because if you take the view that in spite of colonial indoctrination people have not fundamentally changed the way they live their lives, “change” means: going back to who we are.

Where does that leave the State? Should it be allowed to die a natural death, as it is a strange body in an environment that is alien to it? Or could it be subsumed into a new order in a way that the Senegalese (and by extension, many Africans elsewhere) will construct for themselves?

No easy answers but it’s worth thinking about, on the eve of the most important elections in Senegal’s history. Hence this rather long piece. Open for debate!


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