Adventures in Sngal:

Celine Vaaler

I was fortunate enough to have been born into a household of dual nationality. My mother is French, giving my sister and I both French and American citizenship. Throughout my life, my dual citizenship generally accounted for a much shorter waiting period in any European airport’s customs line, and an interesting childhood.
Until recently, I took pride in this upbringing. I liked that my mother would stuff “souffl au fromage” into my thermos for my grade school lunches, although at the time I felt that lunches containing anything not packaged by Hostess to be mortifying.
And I continue to live for the conversations I have with my mother in her invented “Franglais,” English words put into French syntax with the frequent insertion, crucial for full comprehension, of French idioms and hand gestures.
Being half French was exotic to me, and I embraced it. It was not until I came to the formerly French colonized territory of Sngal that I began to feel otherwise.
Upon arriving in the city of Dakar, I was immediately struck by the appearance of the buildings downtown. I was taken aback by the fact that the architecture resembled so clearly the French architecture of the ’50s and ’60s, evidence of the last remaining decade of French control in Sngal.
It was as if no one had touched these buildings in decades – like ghost structures hollowed and unkempt. The buildings stand as a sort of battle scar left from a fight for freedom from French control, a freedom that was gained only 46 years ago.
As I soon learned, these buildings were not the only remnants of French colonization.
As I came to know the French culture, I came to understand the influence of France on the Sngalese way of life. TV shows, schools and banks are just a few of the major cultural influences structured and maintained under French guidelines and language.
The “francophonisation” of the Sngalese instructions affects the culture and its people. The children of my Sngalese host family, for example, aside from speaking French in the classroom, learn French children’s songs and the French national anthem, despite the fact that the language spoken at their home and by the majority of inhabitants of Dakar is Wolof.
After learning of the influence of French colonization on the Sngalese culture, and after reading two pieces of African literature recounting the tribulations of the West Africans under the oppression of France, my rose-colored view of my French heritage became tainted, to say the least.
I was perplexed and frustrated by the cruelty of the French colonizers. I wondered how much richer the already vibrant culture of Sngal would have been without France’s bombardment.
I thought of how dynamic this country would be if children were taught how to read and write in their native national languages instead of French – Wolof, Seerer and Pular are only a few of the national languages spoken in the city of Dakar alone.
Although my questions and general frustrations continue to make me wary of a culture that I once found solace in, I am continually put at ease when I experience the wealth of Sngalese culture that has prevailed, despite the former French colonization. The spirit of Sufism and Sngalese wrestling, called “La Lutte,” are just a few of the traditional practices that the culture holds strong to.
As the Sngalese continue to embrace their traditional dance, music and cuisine, I will embrace the beauty in the French culture, despite past mistakes – souffl au fromage and all.