Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Field Notes: Dakar, Senegal

Field Notes: Dakar, Senegal

Throughout the world, birthdays produce annual celebrations. In Senegal, April 4th brings forth momentous surges of national patriotism; parades, ceremonies, and soirees dominate the day. Dakar, the capital city on the western Atlantic coast, drapes itself with green, yellow, and red. Hundreds of Senegal banners—vertical stripes, centered with a green star—flutter in the Harmattan wind. The government grants workers and students a two week vacation, and, as in the United States, most plan their holidays around reunions with family and friends.

On April 4, 1960, France released the country, then known as the Federation of Mali, from almost a century of colonial bondage. Four months later, the infant nation split along tribal and political fault lines, dividing into Senegal and Mali. Although the same borders from 1960 exist today, the countries could not be more different.  With San Diego’s weather and Brooklyn’s entrepreneurial spirit, coastal Senegal boasts cultural tolerance. Islamic and Christian communities coexist alongside secular cosmopolitans and pagan traditionalists. Landlocked Mali struggles against the desert heat and, more recently, against cultural assaults from radical Islam. Early this year, with international assistance, the Malian government barely resisted a Taureg-led and Al Qaeda-backed invasion force. Security in Mali remains fragile, and peacekeeping operations will likely continue for some time.

Which is why on this independence day, not all Senegalese celebrated with their loved ones. Five hundred of the nation’s 19,000 servicemen remain deployed in Mali, and the national celebration—our equivalent of a Fourth of July Gala—was dedicated to their sacrifices. The Prime Minister and other dignitaries were on hand to watch as a military band and theater troupe paid homage. Senegalese singers praised their warrior’s heroism in the Casamance border dispute, Desert Storm (where 93 Senegalese soldiers died), and various United Nations peacekeeping missions. Supporting the troops appears to be a mantra almost any country can rally around.

During the evening ceremonies, the Senegalese military band integrated tribal drummers into their performance. When either unit performed solo, the music didn’t feel right—the band sounded tinny and off key, and the drummers, while compelling and rhythmic, were just… drums. But together they felt harmonious. It was an impressive and extraordinary sound; imagine John Phillips Sousa marching alongside leather Lakota drums and woodland reed flutes. The music suggested an impressive Senegalese capacity to fuse their colonial and traditional pasts into an authentic national identity; taking the best of both worlds and owning all as relevant to their origins. 

For Americans, this particular African independence day holds bitter irony. Eight years to the day after Senegal earned freedom, an assassin’s bullet in Memphis silenced our own dreamer. Martin Luther King Jr. died before many of his movement’s achievements could come full circle, and, although much has been accomplished, racial, tribal, and ethnic tensions still fuel conflict in King’s ancestral and physical homelands.  In a lengthy French poem, Senegal’s first (and then-sitting) president, Leopold Seder Senghor, rhapsodized on King’s life and death. The fourth section, translated in English, captures both the tragedy and enduring challenge to reconcile disparate worlds. Senegal’s independence and Senghor’s prose serve as useful reminders that violent struggles may appear to have simple answers, but the solutions are — all too often — far from black and white.