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    Discourse on Power and Powerlessness: The Colonial Linguistic Legacy as Exemplified in Senegal

    Somewhere… Boys. Photo: Alaoui Moulay YoussefAnyone who wants to participate in power must speak the language of domination. Under colonialism, that was the language of the colonial powers; but linguistic exclusion did not end with colonialism.

    In many former European colonies, the European language remained the language of the (now native) wielders of power even after their country had achieved independence. Large parts of the population were thereby systematically excluded from political, economic, and cultural development.

    In Senegal, a former French colony in West Africa, less than 30% of the population can speak and read French, even though that has been the official language since independence in 1960 and is also used in schools. The fact that basically only Senegalese who can speak French are seen as sources of hope in the political, economic, and cultural spheres is to be explained by the privileged status the Senegalese power elite has accorded the French language at the expense of African languages used for everyday communication (particularly Wolof) from the time of Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of the new state.

    In ‘the human language tree’, which a group of researchers around Vitaly Shevoroshkin believes has seven main branches, Wolof belongs to the branch of the Congo-Sahara languages. Even though the Wolof only constitute 36% of the people of Senegal, their language is spoken in Senegal and Gambia by over 90% of the population. A survey by Maurice Jean Calvet showed that in Senegal in 1965 as many as 96.62% of schoolchildren spoke Wolof. Among the twenty or so languages spoken in Senegal, Wolof is one of the six most important, a declared ‘national language’. Its written form was officially recognised in 1968 after long discussions between the then President Senghor and Senegalese linguists. The first draft of a Wolof grammar was produced as early as 1826 by Jean Dard, a French colonial official. Two still reliable studies of the grammar of modern Wolof appeared in 1971.

    The privileged status and ‘power’ of French in Senegal can be explained by various forms of political pressure, which both the former colonial power and Léopold Sédar Senghor (as a spokesman for African intellectuals in the decades immediately before and after independence) exerted on the Senegalese and other colonised Africans. France’s linguistic strategy as a colonial power consisted, on the one hand, in not paying Senegalese parents any child allowance if they refused to send their children to a colonial school, and, on the other, in punishing the children themselves if they talked together in their local languages. On the other hand, Senghor seemed to view this pressure by the colonial power as the most ffecttive means of providing colonised Africans with the supposedly best possible education.

    With his concept of education Senghor provided unilateral support for one of the two opposing viewpoints in understanding culture and education, expressed both internationally and in the German tradition as the conflict between ‘directing or allowing to grow’. ‘Directing’ education involves an externally structured process, mediating new abilities and skills to the pupil by way of pressures from outside. ‘Allowing to grow’, on the other hand, entails a process arising from within, which brings about the unfolding of the pupil’s personal disposition in the context of local conditions and values.

    Senghor’s decision in favour of using French in education has had far-reaching consequences for social, political, and cultural life in Senegal today. The dominance of an alien language in teaching and official transactions has divided Senegalese society and turned the illiterate majority, as well as many of those who complete formal schooling and university studies, into people who seem unresistingly to renounce comprehension of discourse in French, or else to make the risky decision in favour of exodus to industrialised countries where they hope to find new forms of economic activity.

    1. The ‘uneducated’ majority and their relationship with civic institutions and the ruling elite

    In Senegal, which was the first French colony in sub-Saharan Africa, the government invests 40% of the national budget in education. Every time the school system is hit by crisis, such as the frequent strikes in schools and universities, the authorities never tire of speaking about that 40% as if this amount of money were itself a guarantee that a solution will be found for the problems inherent in the fundamental orientation of the education system.

    In reality, around 70% of Senegal’s population must be regarded as uneducated. From those people the ruling elite expects ‘civic’ behaviour even though they had no chance of appropriating such terms as ‘state’, ‘citizen’, ‘civic duty’, and ‘civil laws’. That is why the elite encounters resistance, often silent, on the part of people who assume they have more experience of life than Senghor’s arrogant successors, who are believed to have avoided any necessity of accepting external prescriptions for how they should lead their lives. These people believe that regulations determining existence in a modern state take them away from the beliefs and habits to which their forefathers owed their survival amid many kinds of danger – above all, attacks by foreign aggressors.

    Cultural resistance by this important section of the population against the laws of the Republic takes different forms. The fact that people can neither speak nor understand the official ‘language of power’, and cannot read any texts translated into local languages, means that they generally have nothing to say when there is any possibility of making a (for them) positive change to the dominant system. They find themselves in a situation that does not offer them any opportunity of comparing and harmonising their new national laws with the code of honesty and almost reverential restraint which determined traditional social existence in rural areas.

    Nevertheless, the silent or noisy resistance and the often very conscious refusal by most Senegalese to behave – as the ‘Western world’ would like them to – as ‘free citizens’, obeying the laws and participating without distrust in the life of a democratic state (for instance, take part in elections without fear of corruption), cannot only be explained by the dysfunctional education system. Another reason for such resistance involves the government’s cunning exploitation – enabled, of course, by this same education system – of laws relating to local self-administration. The dominant system of formal education excludes the rebellious without attempting to arouse their interest in the fate of Senegal.

    The fact that the use of French as an instrument of power extended beyond the end of the colonial period is explicable in terms of the vested interests that have prevailed since Senghor, uniting French hegemony and ruling African elites. It is not only adults deprived of literacy who suffer from that, unable to help themselves in either the economic or the political sphere; so too do young Senegalese, no matter whether they go to school or study, whether they never attended school or broke off their schooling.

    2. The language of power and the helplessness of African youth

    The world is familiar with television pictures of young Africans who almost daily take great risks in trying to reach the Spanish coast in order to have a chance of getting paid work in Spain or some other part of the European Union. In Senegal the macabre phrase ‘Barça or Barzaq’ has been in use since the beginning of this form of mass emigration. This is a slogan used by candidates for self-chosen exile and since then also employed by Senegalese journalists to characterise the almost irresistible attraction of emigration. ‘Barça’ stands for ‘Barcelona’, and ‘Barzaq’, a word borrowed from Arabic, for ‘Death’. The phrase can be translated as meaning: ‘Barcelona or die’. By now no one can say precisely how many Senegalese and other young West Africans, aged between around fifteen and thirty, have set off for Spain in makeshift boats and lost their lives in the Atlantic Ocean.

    These are mainly semi-educated or illiterate youngsters who eke out a miserable existence with manual work or petty trade. They are waiting for the next opportunity to entrust their laboriously saved money to Senegalese or foreign swindlers who take them in unseaworthy boats onto the high seas, where they often vanish without anybody noticing.

    Faced with this catastrophic situation, the authorities in Africa and Europe repeatedly look for a plausible explanation for the desperate decision taken by these completely helpless youngsters. However, they only ever refer to the difficult economic situation in Senegal and other comparable African countries. Mention is never made of the fact that the dominant education system in Senegal – as in most former French colonies in Africa – has robbed these young people of the possibility of receiving their schooling in their local means of communication, allowing them to find their way in their own world, inclusive of economic opportunities; and that this might be a reason for the hopeless situation in which the emigrants find themselves. These youngsters despair of the fact that their African languages are not able to help them develop a perspective on life, and this is a consequence of the Senegalese authorities’ decision in favour of the language of power.

    In the formal acquisition of knowledge, young Senegalese experience a very special kind of approach in which they often have to be satisfied with a merely approximate understanding of the words and concepts used in a foreign language. As time passes, learners’ lack of orientation is transformed into an ongoing blasé attitude with regard to unconcerned French or Senegalese teachers, who in turn view the situation almost as fated. The reason for the awkward silence maintained by business students at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar only came to light when a Senegalese professor of mathematics, Sakhir Thiam, started teaching them his subject in Wolof, and in so doing succeeded for the first time in conveying to them the meaning of the term ‘exponential’ (in Wolof ‘jéggi dayo’) which they had used for years without comprehension.

    The amazement and satisfaction resulting from the belated discovery of the meaning of such scientific terms demonstrate the esoteric nature of most subjects for Senegalese and other African students, who mostly have to follow lectures in French, a language that is not their own. Even though Cheikh Anta Diop’s translations into Wolof of works relating to physics and mathematics provide adequate demonstration of an African language’s capacity to cope with abstraction, these translations remain without consequences as long as the education system excludes African languages from schools.


    I have attempted to show how the ‘power of language’ manifests itself as resistance on the part of speakers and writers in colonised communities, even if they make apparently unconditional use of the language of the colonial masters. This resistance results in grammatical, semantic, cultural, and aesthetic ‘traces’ of subordinate languages creeping into the ‘language of power’. The way in which the ‘language of power’, deriving from the former colonial and now hegemonic power in ‘francophone’ Africa (and in particular in Senegal), diminishes the ‘power’ of native languages, how it undermines their life, their capacity for self-development, their social and cultural potential, can be observed in the everyday behaviour of large parts of the population, and especially in the younger generation determined to emigrate illegally.

    When Cheikh Anta Diop, Senegalese professor of linguistics, physics, and history, demonstrated the indispensability of African languages of communication for the self-reliant education and development of the Senegalese people, the country’s president, then Léopold Sédar Senghor, banned him from teaching. That put an end to the influence Diop’s views had on his students. The fact that its hegemonic position – particularly in economic terms – leads a country to obstruct, by way of its language and culture, the economic, political, and cultural possibilities of development open to other countries leads in ‘francophone’ Africa to many problems and conflicts, without these being attributed to exclusion of the ‘power’ of African languages from national and social life, and above all from the education system.

    Like all citizens of our globalised planet, Africans also need, alongside their own means of communication, French, English, Arabic, Spanish, German, and other global languages in order to enjoy the cultural advantages of multilingualism, which can lead to economic progress. However, fruitful linguistic and cultural interaction demands that people also seek to understand why some things look different to a Senegalese.
    Khadi Fall
    is Senegalese, has a doctorate in German Studies, and until 2000 was director of the German Department at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. Today she works in the Senegalese Ministry of Education and is Deputy Secretary-General of the Association of African Germanists. Her text was written in conjunction with the Goethe Institute’s ‘The Power of Language’ project and appears in German in the book Die Macht der Sprache [The Power of Language], edited by Jutta Lembach and Katharina von Ruckteschell (Berlin, Langenscheidt, 2008).

    Translated by Tim Nevill
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

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