Dark, heavy furniture from Guinea and the Congo
Mats thick with silence,
Authentic, primitive masks
On primitive, solid walls
And, friendly lamp, your tenderness
Softens my obsession with this presence so
Black, brown and red, oh! Red as African soil.
Leopold Sedar Senghor was born in 1906 in Joal, Senegal and educated in Senegal and France. From 1960 to 1981 he was the President of the Republic of Senegal, and in 1983 became the first African and only black intellectual elected to the French Academy. 2006 marked the centenary of Leopold Sedar Senghor’s birth. From Dakar to Dijon, conferences, readings and exhibitions were convened in his honour.
A few years before his death, Melvin Dixon, an African American professor of English translated into English the collected poetry of Senghor, which have the imprimatur of Senghor himself, therefore it is considered a definitive collection and had revived some interest in the life and work of Senghor especially in the English speaking countries of Africa.
Clearly not enough interest to deserve a mention here and there in the numerous speeches of the great and the good of the continent that he had helped to give a voice and an identity; the lack of historical consciousness in the current crop of African leaders is mind boggling. Dr. Nkrumah and Mwalimu Nyerere continue to be the stars of the African renaissance. Both predeceased him but that did nothing to raise his stock among the political elite in Anglophone Africa. Language may have been a barrier for a deeper appreciation of Senghor’s poetic genius for non-Senegambians. But Senegambians have no excuse for not celebrating one of the most distinguished intellectuals of our region. Because when we honour Senghor, we honour ourselves! When we praise him! We praise SeneGambia!
When we remember his birth; we remember all the ceremonies and rituals associated with the promise and hope of the newborn everywhere, and what a blessed day and year it was that he entered our side of the world.
It is the destiny of some men to live forever in the hearts and minds of people long after they are dead and gone; to become more famous than their nationalities or the historical circumstances they were born and bred in. Leopold Sedar Senghor was such a man. Rarely has a man combined so much learning, culture and political savvy as in the life of the first President of Senegal. But this was not exceptional during the struggle for African independence; men like Dr Kwame Nkrumah and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere were in the same class with Senghor.
But what set Senghor apart, in my view was his ability to beautifully separate the personal from the political, the rapturous from the mundane and managed throughout his life to keep the artist and the political animal in watertight compartments. And in the process developed a philosophy based on a sensuous response to human experience: life should be felt, not intellectualised.
This explains why his poetry is so sensual and erotic, the poetic universe of Senghor is peopled by recollected emotions some transcendental and some quite ordinary with expressions of moods and feelings. His oeuvre is a meditation on loss; loss of the childhood kingdom and innocence, loss of loved ones and friends and the inexorable loss of time itself. While there are threads of sadness in this kind of poetry the overall effect is one of joy of being alive at certain times and places.
There is another way to look at the poetry of Senghor that is through the lens of Negritude for which he was world famous and with which another generation of African intellectuals had issues. But neither the fame nor the challenge from the Soyinka generation affected his artistic integrity and now it is possible to see each of his poems as a building block in a project to recover a sense of dignity that Africa had for centuries been denied.
I believe that negritude in its essence is a way of being free in a world where the odds were and still are stacked high against the African personality, free from the burdens of the past, the burdens of denial of a glorious African heritage and identity.
But I am not concerned here with an exposition of the philosophy of Negritude or the political legacy of President Senghor, even though I am of the view that Senegal was very fortunate in having him as the first president of the republic.
The national character of Senegal was largely shaped in the image of Senghor: confident, cultured, articulate and extremely elegant. The artistic and intellectual life of Dakar has continued to produce world-class talent and the cultural confidence of the Senegalese people is always high, for some too high. This in my opinion is due in large measure to the example of Senghor, who was the first African President to voluntarily leave power and the first African to become a member of the Académie Française, the grandest and oldest intellectual club in the French speaking world. With these achievements he had ensured his place in history.
But I think what most people who care to remember Senghor remember him for his poetry:
‘Ah, who will give back to me
The quivering arc of Salimata Diallo’s breasts
Her inviting figure
And the fine opulence of her hips?…’
Who is Salimata Diallo? Why has the great poet immortalised the shape of her breasts so? And does it matter at all? All that is known from the poem is the tribe of the muse from the title Fulani Beauty and for all we know she may not be a real person, but the beauty is real and memorable enough because of the poet’s representation. May be she is a composite of images that the poet might have seen or imagined and took poetic licence with the images that came closest to his own fantasies. The name and imagery is definitively an African beauty and this is important because Helen of Troy and her daughters were imposed through European painting, music and literature as the representative of feminine beauty from the renaissance to the colonialism.
Therefore it matters a great deal to disagree with that stereotypical image albeit in a light and personal way. It is obvious that the poet would rather have the ‘inviting figure and the fine opulence of her hips’ than one ‘who walks in beauty like the night in cloudless climes and starry skies’. It may be true that there is no accounting for taste but in a world full of variety one should be exposed to the full spectrum of choice, a la carte or buffet. One may even choose to have none-of-the-above! Still one would have heard the resonant name of Salimata Diallo who represented African beauty!
‘Naked woman, dark woman
Ripe fruit with firm flesh, dark raptures of black wine,
Mouth that gives music to my mouth
Savanna of clear horizons, savanna quivering to the fervent caress
Of the East Wind, sculptured tom-tom, stretched drumskin
moaning under the hands of the conqueror
your deep contralto voice is the spiritual song of the Beloved.
Upon reading the poem below a friend of mine radically changed his views about Senghor: that he was not only great and venerable but also good fun and full-blooded and should not be confined to book shelves and libraries but should be read out aloud and celebrated. If this poem was prescribed for study for any adolescent boy or girl it would be memorised on first reading if not for academic edification, at least to aid romantic intentions. And perhaps awaken an interest in literature and a taste for knowledge.
‘I think of you when I am walking or swimming,
Sitting or standing, I think of you morning and night,
When I cry in the evening, and Oh yes, when I laugh
When I speak to myself and when I remain silent
in my joy and pain. When I think and do not think,
my dear, I’m always thinking of you!’
In the pantheon of wordsmiths, poets are goldsmiths, revered for the pricelessness of their products, which sometimes lead to inaccessibility or is unaffordable by the common man. Thus the wrong impression is created that all great poetry is for the high-brow and mighty intellect and the subjects are worthy, noble, obscure and very serious. And anyone in pursuit of poetry should be of a certain disposition of mind and appearance. All these preconceptions and misconceptions have been demolished by Senghor’s poetry. His poetry is deceptively simple, the themes of which are from his personal experience. The diction, imagery and style even though in kosher French are distinctly Afro centric.
Take this piece for instance:
‘I come to offer you the offering of my
It is red like the altar
Of ancestral sacrifice,
Straight as the trunk of a Palmyra tree,
Pure as the gold of Galam.
I come to offer you the offering of my love
On my knees.’
Long before hybridity was fashionable or became a pillar of post-modern literary courses at western universities, Senghor’s poetry had already effortlessly blended European poetic forms with African metaphors, imagery and style. And it may be the wish of some poets to value poetry based on its genesis: if it is a fully imagined product, the higher the value, and when it is a recollected one it is less valuable. Of course to the reader it does not matter in the end because whether imagined or recollected both kinds of poetry are engaged in the recreation of something that has happened elsewhere where the reader was not present. What matters at the end of a poem are the emotions that are aroused in the reader.
Senghor’s poetic oeuvre may be neatly summed up in the famous Wordsworthian definition of poetry as ’emotions recollected in tranquillity’. Or as he himself put it “I feel that if I had remained a teacher, my poetry would have been gratuitous and more impoverished, for what feeds it is the communal life, the life of my people. In my poetry I certainly express my personal life, but I express myself as a black man, an African.”
This of great significance and symbolism especially for one who seeks the truth and the symmetry of the universe in everyday objects and occurrences, for what could be truer than one’s own personal experience out of which a thing of enduring beauty is created. Imagination may be more important than intelligence but I take issue with anyone who wishes to place the imagined above the beautiful.
I left my warm meal and the handling of many disputes.
Wearing nothing more than a pagne for the dewy mornings,
I had only words of peace as protection and to open every
road. And I too traversed rivers and forests full of dangers
where vines hung more treacherous than snakes.
I went among people who would easily let fly a poisoned
greeting. But I held on the sign of recognition
and the spirits watched over my breath.
I saw the ashes of burned-out barracks and royal homes.
And under the mahogany trees we exchanged long speeches
and ceremonial gifts.
And I arrived at Elissa, the nest of falcons
defying the pride of Conquerors.
I saw once again the old dwelling on the hill,
a village of long and lowering eyelashes.
I recited the message to the Guardian of our Blood:
The diseases the ruined trade, organized hunts,
and bourgeois decorum and the unlubricated scorn
swilling the bellies of the slaves.
Literature and African culture fascinated Senghor. He sought out new ideas of reconciliation and harmony in the brutal world of colonialism. He was extraordinarily sensitive to literary beauty and a creator of exquisite poetry, which illuminated the world. And this was so eloquently made by him:
“Yes, in one way, the Negro today is richer in gifts than in works. But tree thrusts its roots into the earth. The river runs deep, carrying precious seeds. And, the Afro-American poet, Langston Hughes, says: / I have known rivers / ancient dark rivers / my soul has grown deep / like the deep rivers. /
The very nature of the Negro’s emotion, his sensitivity, furthermore, explains his attitude toward the object perceived with such basic intensity. It is an abandon that becomes need, and active state of communion, indeed of identification, however negligible the action – I almost said the personality – of the object. A rhythmic attitude: The adjective should be kept in mind.”
In his poetry he aimed at describing his moods and feelings as meticulously as possible. The purpose was not self-justification or rationalization but to show the authenticity and uniqueness of the African experience in which he was a primogenitor and prime participant. He was a luminous man and his poetry reflected the radiance of his spirit.
Finally a word on the title of this review Senghor saw himself first and foremost as an African man, in the same mould that Dr. Nkrumah would like to have all Africans : “Africa needs a new type of citizen: A dedicated, modest, honest, informed man and woman who submerge self in service to the nation and mankind. A man and woman who abhor greed and detest vanity. A new type of man and woman whose humility is his and her strength and whose integrity is his and her greatness”.
Senghor unfailingly referred to himself as an African because in his ancestry was reflected the linguistic diversity of the people who live in the Sahel, who commonly intermarried and shared values to such an extent that to talk of ethnic purity is to attempt a monumental absurdity. In this melting pot of languages the people are one. And for the avoidance of doubt ‘Senegambia’ should not be read in any colonial, post-colonial or political contexts, rather it should be understood to mean the cultural continuum stretching from the West Atlantic coast all the way to Timbuktu in present day Mali. I doubt if there are any genuine Africans who would deny themselves a share of this, our great patrimony.
That is why it was possible for a Catholic man to lead a Muslim majority country like Senegal. We just have read his poetry again or for the first time to realize that he is truly immortal. That’s why I have quoted extensively from the collected poetry by Dixon to give the reader an aperitif of what is rightfully a gourmet cuisine.
Let’s hope that the paperback bilingual edition of the collected poetry of Senghor would found warm welcome in African universities and homes.
Naturally the last word goes to the poet:
‘I dream in the intimate semi-darkness of an afternoon.
I am visited by the fatigues of the day,
the deceased of the year, the souvenirs of the decade,
like the procession of the dead in the village on the horizon of the
shallow sea. It is the same sun bedewed with illusions,
the same sky unnerved by hidden presences,
the same sky feared by those who have a reckoning with the dead.
And suddenly my dead draw near to me.’ Disclaimer: All the poems quoted are translated by Melvin Dixon and I gratefully acknowledge his work. The book is available at Timbooktoo Bookshop, Bakau New Town.
With Almami F. Taal