Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Warning: Scholarly Material Ahead

Greetings. I’m faced once again with the question of where to take this blog. Should it be academic and serious in nature, or should it recount only my humorous, entertaining, or near-death experiences (which some people seem to find entertaining)? Considering the way in which I engage very serious issues of culture and language using non-serious media like surfing, it should not come as a surprise that I want this blog to be both serious and fun. With that in mind, this post is going to fall mainly under the serious category. I’ve written several formal papers for my classes here in Senegal, and I’d like to share them – not really for the sake of inspiring literary or political debate but for the insights I believe they offer about Senegalese culture and about what I have been experiencing here on a near daily basis. I have copied and pasted a few excerpts from my two literary analyses and, following them, my final research paper for politics in its entirety. The politics paper, in particular, analyzes numerous aspects of Senegalese culture and offers my view on the status of democracy in this country. Though the oral presentation of my study resulted in a good bit of criticism, it inspired more debate than almost any other presentation, so I’m pretty sure I hit on something important. Additionally, the thesis I pose evolved from a very existentialist philosophical inquiry, demonstrating – as my friend reminded me – that the University Scholars existentialism class I took last fall “just won’t go away.” Read as much or as little of the following as you wish – I promise more entertaining stories with my next post, but I believe too that these analyses constitute a worthwhile read in themselves. Enjoy.

on Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy:

At the core of the West African storytelling tradition–and particularly evident in modern West African works–is a ceaseless struggle to define and, ultimately, to understand one’s self-identity. Truly spanning the ages, this struggle was instrumental in the rigidly hierarchical societies of centuries past and is equally, if not more, crucial for today’s generation of West Africans, which must at last move beyond the atrocities of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonial intervention and look ahead to a brighter future. Oyono’s Houseboy brilliantly captures this struggle for identity, particularly in relation to the clash between tradition and modernity, the interactions of religion and society, and the overriding importance of fate.

West Africa is perhaps one of the most “backward” yet simultaneously progressive regions in the entire world. Consider, for instance, the fact that Senegal, one of Africa’s most democratic nations, is bordered by Mauritania, one of the last countries in the world to outlaw slavery. In the streets of the region’s major cities, carts pulled by horses appear side-by-side with the newest and most expensive European and American cars. Off the coast of West Africa, local fishermen in hand-crafted pirogues compete against well-funded foreign fishermen using state-of-the-art equipment and boats. In every part of West African society, there exists an element of this clash between tradition and modernity, and it often makes defining one’s identity difficult.

Considering the importance of language–and the fact that particular languages not only express what one thinks but also how he thinks–how can West Africans living in Francophone (or Anglophone) West Africa truly understand their roots and, subsequently, their identity? Furthermore, how are French- (or English-) speaking West Africans to be called? In the beginning of Houseboy, a dying Toundi asks the narrator, (4) “‘Brother . . . Brother, what are we? What are we blackmen who are called French?’” With the advent of new languages and new cultures, many West Africans have become virtually nameless, lacking any genuine self-identity. Certainly, Toundi is not really a Frenchman as he says, but, having been in large part (though not fully) assimilated into European culture, he is no longer African in the traditional sense, either. Ultimately, the perplexed and disillusioned Toundi whom the reader encounters at the story’s outset, when Toundi is on his deathbed, reflecting on the tragic events which are recounted in his journal, is the embodiment of the West African without an identity. Perhaps a warning from Oyono to fellow West Africans or perhaps just a symbol of Africa’s lost generations, Toundi clearly illustrates the necessity of reconciling tradition and modernity in defining one’s identity.

on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus:

In spite of the desolate villages of torn Africa
Hope was preserved in us as in a fortress
And from the mines of Swaziland to the factories of Europe
Spring will be reborn under our bright steps.
– “The Vultures”

Modern-day West Africa sits at a crossroads–its past as relevant to the present as its future, the memories which beg to be forgotten intersecting with the hopes for a brighter tomorrow. It is at this crossroads that today’s West Africans must forge a new identity for themselves, amalgamating their histories with their dreams and their indigenous traditions with those they adopted from others. This crossroads is characterized by a constant struggle for freedom–freedom from political subordination and cultural submission to foreign powers–for though West Africa’s governments have regained their sovereignty, its people still struggle to define their identity. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Purple Hibiscus, the coming-of-age tale of a fifteen-year-old girl named Kambili’s personal transformation as she comes to recognize and–ultimately–to free herself from the bondage imposed on her by her overly paternalistic, fanatically religious father, brilliantly captures the essence of the modern-day West African’s struggle for freedom. Both Kambili and the society she represents find themselves bowing to gods they love yet simultaneously hate, and only by rediscovering the meaning of freedom can they begin the slow yet necessary process of accepting the past, looking to the future, and regaining the happiness that both deserve. Throughout the novel freedom is most clearly manifested in terms of love, laughter, and courage–perpetually contemporaneous ideals which truly transcend cultural boundaries.

As the colonial powers did for West Africa, Papa makes many praiseworthy contributions to the life of Kambili, so she cannot help but feel a sense of attachment, gratefulness, and perhaps even dependence towards him. Nevertheless, she also cannot help but feel conflicting emotions–resentment, detest, hatred–for being physically battered and psychologically abused on a regular basis by the same person who brings her so much happiness. Being a father, to Papa, is like the enterprise of colonialism: “A civilizing mission that is portrayed as benevolent, benign, and sanctioned by God” (Cham 50). What both he and the colonial powers fail to realize is that they themselves do not have the ability to decide what is “sanctioned by God.” By playing God, not only do they impose on others their own ideas, beliefs, and desires but also they take from those whom–for the most part–they wish to help the freedom which constitutes the very source of happiness for those people.

I laughed. It seemed so easy now, laughter. So many things seemed easy now. Jaja was laughing, too, as was Amaka, and we were all sitting on the grass . . . [Obiora] walked up slowly, holding something that turned out to be a grasshopper. . . . He spread his palm and watched the grasshopper fly off. (Adichie 284-285)
Kambili’s laughter is liberating for her, and, though she does not yet possess the wings to escape captivity as the grasshopper does, she can at least momentarily free herself from reality. Her reliance upon laughter is perhaps representative of how West Africans have managed to cope with their injustices and how they can continue to do so as they strive for greater freedom and personal identity. Closely tied to–and, indeed, emerging from–the oral tradition, laughter seems to hold special significance within the context of the West Africa of both yesterday and tomorrow.

In conclusion, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is a powerful story of change, both in terms of young Kambili and the West African society she represents. It is a tale of how blossoms of freedom can emerge in even the darkest of prisons and how, with love, laughter, and courage, enslaved individuals can triumph over their masters. Though West Africa has its political freedom, its people still search for an identity, living within a culture shaped by their own past as well as that of foreign powers. It is through coming to terms with this past and forging ahead with a new and unique sense of freedom that, like Kambili, modern-day West Africans can create for themselves the extraordinary future they deserve.

Politics: Final Research Paper:

A Culture of Car Rapides, Cadeaux, and Collectivism:
Impediments for Senegalese Democracy

Senegal, Francophone West Africa’s “beacon of democracy,” is heralded for having held relatively free and fair political elections and for having played host to not one coup since its independence in 1960. Likewise, the election of Abdoulaye Wade in 2000 and the alternance this entailed triggered worldwide optimism from democratic hopefuls. Further, in this day of religious intolerance and persecution, Senegal rests atop a pedestal as a model for religious cohabitation, particularly between Muslims and Christians. Unfortunately, however, upon closer inspection these successes constitute nothing more than a façade of democracy, beneath which exists many serious problems. Rampant corruption, the absence of a free press, gender inequality, widespread poverty, and, at times, nonsecular politics all stand in the way of democracy. This analysis holds that understanding why Senegal lacks a truly functioning democracy despite its history of political stability is as simple as hopping on one of the anachronistically comical yellow and blue car rapides which are considered a national symbol by locals and cherished as a fond memory by visitors. Unlike busses in the West with distinctly separate seats for each person, all of which typically face forward, Senegal’s car rapides consist of two benches facing one another and running from the front of the bus to the back. The result of this seating arrangement is overcrowded busses in which personal space does not exist and a collective mentality persists in its stead. It is this collective mentality, lying at the very core of Senegalese society and manifesting itself in all aspects of the nation’s culture, which is the most fundamental obstruction to democratic progress within the government. In this study evidence of collectivism and examination of how it encumbers democratic progress will be provided through an analysis of the religion, social and familial mores, and political centralization of Senegal, as well as a concluding look at the methodology of the analyses themselves.

Before proceeding, however, a note on the definition of democracy, as it will be considered in this analysis, is necessary. This study is not intended to be comparative in nature–simply juxtaposing Senegalese democracy (or the lack thereof) with American or European democracy–nor is it meant to be a purely theoretical inquiry based on a definition of democracy so rigid as to be unrealistic in any part of the world. Moreover, it is not meant to be perceived as a vindication for the spread of democracy; in fact, it is the author’s belief that the very reasons why Senegal lacks a functioning democracy perhaps also indicate that some other form of government might be better suited for the wellbeing of its people. Instead, this analysis will attempt to penetrate deep into the social framework of Senegal in order to understand better the collective mentality which unites its people and prevents its government from being able to establish a functioning democracy. Rather than navigating the intricacies of determining what truly constitutes a functioning democracy–in other words, what amount of socially redistributive political action is permitted before what was previously a democracy must be called something else–the emphasis of this study will be on the Senegalese people, particularly on instances or examples of their behavior and mindset which are undeniably collectivist in nature and therefore not conducive to democracy (however rigidly it is defined) on a political scale. It is the leveling nature of collectivist ideals which makes them incompatible with democracy; equality in a truly democratic sense champions the individual and his inherent right to pursue success without impediment. Rather than suppressing individualistic achievement to maintain social conformity, democratic equality exalts the personal freedom and self-determination present in a system which allows people to act out of self-interest. Freedom, individuality, and self-determination do not exist at the core of Senegal’s social framework, and, for this reason, close analysis of the mentality of the Senegalese people is more important than a meticulous, drawn-out study of the Senegalese government and its democratic shortcomings.

One of the most obvious ways in which the collective mentality of the Senegalese manifests itself is through religion, particularly Islam, which is practiced by approximately 95% of the population. Though Islam in Senegal differs greatly from that of much of the Arab world, in which fundamentalism is much more common, the core tenets of the religion are certainly present, and these were long ago identified as contrary to the basic spirit of democracy. Alexis Tocqueville, for instance, “had little confidence in Islam’s potential for fostering social equality and democracy . . . [and regarded it] as too detailed in its prescriptions and a rigid unbending fundamentalist religion where all the rules were clearly laid down and enforced by a theocratic state” (Sheldon Gellar 108). While it is important to note that Senegal is technically a secular state and that the vast majority of its Muslims are moderate and tolerant in their views, Islam is built upon a foundation of collectivism which does not readily coalesce with democracy. Consider, first, the principle of alms giving, which is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Though an emphasis on charity is certainly not in opposition to the spirit of democracy, the notion that individuals are morally obligated to give a percentage of their wealth to those who have less not only is anti-capitalistic but is indeed undemocratic, as well. Democracy implies only equality of opportunity, and, further, it grants individuals the freedom to act as they wish provided that they do not infringe upon the rights of others. In Islam, though, everyone who is able is expected to partake in almsgiving, regardless of whether the beneficiaries are truly needy or, for example, they are “wealthy men who desperately need money to repay their debts to avoid insolvency and public humiliation” (Gellar 113). Such a system in which fiscal irresponsibility and lack of motivation are condoned and their consequences mitigated by a wide-reaching social safety net is perfectly antithetical to democracy and capitalism as they are known in the West. The situation is complicated further in Senegal by the presence of talibés, young children enrolled in Koranic schools who spend much of the day wandering the streets as beggars to provide the salaries of their teachers. This is a case not only of a collectivist mentality (in that people readily give these children money) but also of genuine exploitation, in which “democracy” allows for minors to be manipulated and taken advantage of in the name of religion.

One last aspect of religion in Senegal which serves as an obstacle to democracy involves the widespread participation in Islamic brotherhoods and allegiance to marabouts, the spiritual leaders of the brotherhoods. Linda J. Beck, a political pundit, explains that “Mouride marabouts offer a prime example of . . . the ‘decentralized despotism’ of customary authority. . . . Because recent efforts at democratization in Africa have largely ignored decentralized despotism, political reforms have failed to empower ordinary Africans” (602). Because members of these brotherhoods profess absolute, undying allegiance to their marabout, they essentially sacrifice the self-determination they should possess as a result of democratic politics. Further, by relinquishing their individual autonomy, they reject democratic ideals and instead emphasize “strong communitarian values that [stress] the subordination of individual preferences to community norms” (Gellar 109). Finally, the prevalence of the brotherhoods and power of the marabouts threaten democracy in a theocratic sense: “The separation of church and state has become more problematic since Wade came to power. One of Wade’s first acts as president was to go to Touba to ask for the blessing of the Grand Khalife and to reconfirm his submission to his spiritual guide” (Gellar 122). How can a democratic, supposedly secular government allow its leader to acknowledge publicly his adherence to the desires of a particular religious leader? There cannot be a functioning democracy in Senegal while religious leaders wield more power than the president, the vast majority of the nation’s citizens prefer microcosms of despotism over democratic society, and a collective mentality which relegates the significance of the individual remains so rampant.

The social and familial mores of Senegal–particularly with regard to the exchange of assets, the structure of home life, and the art of association–also illustrate the collectivist mentality which obstructs democratic progress. The widespread prevalence of beggars in the form of talibés has already been noted, but the problem extends even further to constitute what might be termed a “culture of cadeaux.” Caucasian visitors to Senegal automatically are perceived as rich and affluent and face the overwhelmingly unified expectation of locals to hand out gifts to new acquaintances and strangers alike. Using the Wolof word for “foreigner,” local children and even some adults repeatedly demand “Toubab, cadeaux,” expecting a gift on the basis of being less financially secure (or, at least, perceiving themselves to be that way). Again, how can democracy hope to exist in a society in which this mentality of expecting free handouts–ingrained in children from the very beginning–flourishes? It cannot, and, further, it faces the added problem of a widespread acceptance of the redistribution of wealth. Sheldon Gellar reports that the Senegalese “stress consensus over majority decision-making rules, the importance of sharing benefits and burdens over maximizing profits, and solidifying social relations and networks over attaining specific economic objectives” (171). Thus, the desires of the Senegalese seem far more conducive to some type of socialist government than to a democratic one. Lastly, in terms of this notion of the exchange of assets, the way the Senegalese exchange information also is not representative of democratic thinking. Radio trottoir, or “pavement radio,” a truly African phenomenon in which the radio is used to spread news, rumor, and gossip, is an inherently collective media outlet, and “it is for the same reason that, in less modern communities, gossip and indeed witchcraft allegations often have an egalitarian effect, punishing individuals who threaten to become too much more powerful than their neighbours” (Ellis 329). The image of large groups of Senegalese sitting around a single radio, acquiring knowledge from a single, unreliable source, brings to mind the oral tradition and the long history of Senegalese sitting around a baobab tree with a single griot–again, an uncontestable if not unreliable source of knowledge with the power to make or break individuals at his discretion. This lack of individual thought in the exchange of ideas–like the collective means of exchanging material assets–is not conducive to democracy.

The structure of home life also exhibits a spirit of collectivism. First, unlike the small, atomic families common in the West, Senegalese society is comprised of large, extended family networks that function according to principles of sharing and solidarity, which are clearly illustrated in the communal method of eating in Senegal termed “around the bowl.” Also, rather than exhibiting the post-materialistic attitude often found in developed countries, many Senegalese simply “accumulate basic necessities in order to survive and to have the ability to assist members of the extended family in time of need” (Vengroff and Magala 135). This, perhaps, explains why there are relatively few homeless people in the streets of large cities like Dakar, considering the country’s widespread poverty. Though this is certainly positive in one regard, one might speculate as to whether having to support relatives who otherwise would be homeless fetters the rest of the family to a destitute, barely sustainable standard of living, thereby essentially nullifying the benefits of democracy. Lastly, familial mores encompass an acceptance of both polygamy and the superiority of males. Polygamy is, of course, in itself a collective institution–in which women must share their husband with others–but its implications are more severe in that it clearly sanctions gender inequality. Thus, with the structure of home life in Senegal permitting inequality and preventing individualist achievement, democracy unsurprisingly fades into the background.

A final aspect of Senegalese social and familial mores concerns what political analyst Sheldon Gellar terms the “art of association.” While some degree of association amongst individuals is certainly necessary for the perpetuation of a successful democracy, too much emphasis on sharing–as was noted earlier–downplays the importance of the individual and thereby limits what can be achieved on both a personal and societal level. Gellar asserts that “old attachments to the values of mutual reciprocity and solidarity became an integral part of the notion of Demokarassi, the newly coined Wolof word for democracy. . . . [These values] obliged individuals to be prepared to contribute when others in their social networks expressed the need for assistance” (106-107). A good example of how sharing and associative living are overemphasized in Senegal involves tontines, associations in which women contribute a set amount of money on a regular basis and take turns receiving the lump sum. The idea behind tontines is that receiving a large amount of money on occasion allows people to solve problems or make investments that typically would be out of financial reach. Tontines can, in some ways, be interpreted as a highly creative way in which Senegalese can counter collectivist pressures and take financial matters into their own hands in the absence of a well-developed banking system. At the same time, though, something seems amiss in the irony of fighting collectivism with a collectivist enterprise. The crucial question, then, is why tontines prove to be necessary at all. If so many people are trying to fight against collectivism–first–why does collectivism still persist, and–second–why is there not a more individualistic alternative for fighting against it? If there exists such a high demand for banks, why has no one taken advantage of this situation and, out of self-interest, sought to supply the country with banks? Paradoxically, the democratic desires of the people who participate in tontines are what illustrate the undemocratic core of Senegalese society; not only does the need of these individuals for tontines point to widespread collectivism throughout society but also the fact that these individuals resort instinctively to a collectivist strategy as opposed to one more reflective of their fundamental intentions (which are supposedly grounded in self-interest) indicates a foundation of non-democracy which permeates their culture.

Political centralization is the third element of Senegalese society which must be addressed in this study of collectivism and its relation to democracy. First, one of the most fundamental concepts to be elucidated is that of clientelism. Senegal has a long history of patron-client relationships between the government and the common people, and, in modern-day society, this system presents one of the most significant problems for democracy. Gellar concurs in the following passage, pointing out some of the dangers which accompany clientelism:
Given the persistence of patrimonial mores, it should not be surprising that many Senegalese political leaders see criticism as personal attacks, have difficulty sharing power and delegating authority to others, and seek to win support and popularity by generously rewarding their followers and constituents with money, jobs, and other material benefits. (156)
It seems highly unlikely that true democracy can emerge from a system that fosters corruption and does not permit serious criticism of the government. Additionally, clientelism fosters what Gellar terms “democratic despotism”; he says that after independence, “Senegal’s new rulers succumbed to the temptations of power and sought to establish a state apparatus that was even more centralized than the state structures they had inherited, often at the expense of their people’s political liberty” (43). It seems very likely that the collective mentality of politicians is what makes them feel justified in centralizing power and depriving the people not only of their right to make decisions but also of their right to complain. How, for example, could the Parti Socialiste maintain control of Senegalese politics for forty years while so many of the country’s problems persisted? The answer lies in democratic despotism and, even more fundamentally, in the collectivist mentality which continues to interfere with and obstruct the traditional safeguards of democracy.

The final subject which must be addressed–at least briefly–in this study is the methodology of interpreting and deciphering elements of Senegalese society and culture. Numerous examples of Senegalese collectivism–and their relevance to democracy and non-democracy–have been discussed in the preceding pages. It remains important to note, however, that Senegalese society is not exclusively collectivist; there do exist cases of individualist behavior and even traditions which point to an individualist mentality. The goal of this analysis, though, was to dig beneath the superficial Senegal portrayed by Western media, to weed out the atypical and the outliers in order to focus on shared traditions and behaviors, and then to demonstrate that what remains is overwhelmingly illustrative of a shared attachment to collectivist thinking. One may point to the vendors in Sandaga Market and speak of laissez-faire, free-market economics operating in its purest form–and the vendors are, indeed, undeniably persistent, resourceful, and interested in making a profit–but, at the same time, what lies beneath their outward show of aggressive self-interest? Is there a distinct hierarchy in Sandaga Market with some vendors emerging as the Walmart superpowers and others fading into economic oblivion due to inaptitude? Do the vendors go home each night, count their money over and over, and then think of ways to reinvest it in their enterprises to make additional profits? To answer these questions is to return to the starting point: collectivism. Sandaga Market has no hierarchy; virtually every shop is similar to the one next-door. Vendors probably make roughly the same amount of money, and, even more importantly, they often work together in collectivist fashion. Often, for example, a customer paying for a piece of artwork will realize that the man he has just paid is the owner of a nearby shop, that the actual creator of the artwork is in someone else’s shop, and that the man who returned the change does not even appear to work in the market! The vendors in Sandaga Market, despite the hard-nosed capitalist mentality they feign, work together to subsist on a very basic level and share their profits. They go home at night and divide the money they have earned among a large, extended family and then give the remaining change to talibés the next morning. While certainly there are anomalies of individualist behavior and thinking, what unites the Senegalese more than anything–transcending religion, language, and ethnicity–is a shared fondness for collectivist ways of living.

In conclusion, despite many successes since independence, Senegal still struggles to show signs of having a functioning democracy. Though on the surface this failure appears attributable simply to governmental corruption and abuse of power, the true source of failure runs much deeper. At the core of why Senegal lacks a functioning democracy are simple and seemingly innocuous traditions and patterns of behavior like riding on car rapides and expecting cadeaux from foreigners. Such behavior is representative of a collective mentality which pervades both the people and the government of Senegal and serves to impede and to obstruct the progress of democracy, as was seen in the previous analyses of the religion, social and familial mores, and political centralization of Senegal. Despite all that stands in their way, however, if the Senegalese decide that they truly want a democracy, they surely are capable of forging ahead and creating one which is grounded in their traditions and past yet empowers individuals to pursue their dreams and create for themselves and their country the bright future that both deserve.


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