Centennial of Aimé Césaire’s Birth – Cahier d’un retour au pays ancestral

March 20 has been declared jour de la Francophonie, a day where various Francophone cultures are celebrated throughout the world.  2013 marks what would have been Aimé Césaire’s 100th birthday, and the Francophone Ministry (based out of Paris) decided to throw a huge celebration/colloquium to honor his contributions to French and Francophone literatures – particularly Francophone African and Caribbean literatures.  In fact their work precipitated the advent of African literature.

Who is Aimé Césaire, you ask?  Well to put it very simply, he’s one of the three fathers of the Negritude movement which he and Léopold Sédar Senghor (who would later become the first president of Senegal) and Léon Damas started in Paris in the 1930s.  It’s a movement that highlighted black cultural identity of many of the then-colonized peoples, and fought against French political and ideological domination.  They forged their own literary style and theories, emphasized black African/African Diaspora culture by trumpeting traditional African values and rejected the longstanding relegation and dehumanization of the black race.  Here are a couple of links out of thousands that explain more about the importance of the movement and Césaire:

Negritude Movement – Encyclopedia Britannica

Aimé Césaire – Encyclopedia Britannica

His most famous work is a surrealist poem entitled Cahier d’un retour au pays natal – most often translated as Notebook of a Return to the Native Land.  Sometimes it’s a hard read, but it is beautiful.  The poem traces one man’s transformational journey from hating his race and its history to accepting it and seeking to be the voice of the voiceless.  The poem and the Negritude Movement encourage the abused and humiliated black man to embrace his difficult past and to proudly forge ahead into the future.  In this sense, the Negritude Movement has been associated with all battles against oppression – regardless of race, culture, or heritage – and the championing of universal humanity.  In the closing pages of the poem, Césaire wrote:

And the nigger scum is on its feet

the seated nigger scum

unexpectedly standing

standing in the hold

standing in the cabins

standing on deck

standing in the wind

standing under the sun

standing in the blood

standing

and

free

standing and no longer a poor madwoman in its maritime

freedom and destitution gyrating in perfect drift

and there it is:

most unexpectedly standing

standing in the rigging

standing at the tiller

standing at the compass

standing at the map

standing under the stars

standing

and

free

*I apologize to the literary people out there whose eyes are screaming from pain -Wordpress formatting didn’t allow me to follow the format/alignment of the stanzas*

Here’s a link to a pdf of the entire English translation of the poem – it’s not light reading and it’s not for the faint of heart.  Remember that this is surrealist writing with complicated, and at times graphic, metaphors.  And it can be hard to grasp what Césaire is trying to say, so it requires several re-readings.  But if you want to tackle it, here it is:

Cahier d’un retour au pays natal – English translation

All of this to say that Césaire’s contribution to literature and politics (he was mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique for 56 years) is enormous and cannot be overstated.  He’s huge.  And so are Senghor and Damas.  Giants among giants.  I’m not exaggerating.

At any rate, the 3-day-Ministry-organized-and-funded colloquium was held in Dakar last week.  International dignitaries, famous African authors, and well-respected professors throughout Africa, Europe and the Americas all gave presentations.  It was phenomenal.  I almost didn’t attend due to the fact that I didn’t know it was even planned.  Fortunately the weekend before the conference I walked the dog that I’m babysitting for the next few weeks around the Point of Les Almadies, and I saw signs advertising just outside the 5-star hotel where it was going to be held.  That Monday I asked to get a few days off of work so I could attend – fortunately there’s not much going on at the office, so it wasn’t a big issue.  And even if it had been, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, the president of our NGO and one of Senegal’s most famous writers was presenting… and that meant that what he says goes, and since he’s one of the people who got me over here (and I’m a literary PhD candidate), there’s no way that he would have wanted me to miss it.

Well it turns out that Macky Sall, President of Senegal, was presiding over the opening ceremonies.  And that means that they weren’t open to the general public and attendance was by invitation only.  And attendees had to present said invitation at the door…

Confession: I didn’t have an invitation…

Never fear – I get past Secret Service barricades all the time back home.  It’s a piece of cake.  NOT!  But I wasn’t going to miss any of the conference.  So I walked past the Presidential Guard who were decked out in their blood red uniforms and long swords, past the armed military escorts of the diplomatic corps, past the international press corps, and flashed my smile at the police and military guards that were blocking the entrance to the hall.  After looking them directly in the eye, flashing my smile again, exchanging a few pleasantries and answering probing questions about who I am, what I – as an American – am doing in Senegal and where I work, they lowered their guns and let me in.

Being an Crest Kid really pays off… 🙂

Yeah, talk about being in the presence of a pantheon of literary, political, and academic greats.  I knew that there’d be some pretty high profile guests in attendance, but I was pretty floored to see some of the faces that I did.  And it was then that it hit me just how amazing it is to be studying contemporary literature.

Do you know why?  BECAUSE THE GRAND MAJORITY OF THE AUTHORS I STUDY AREN’T DEAD!!!  Do you know what it’s like to have your nose buried in a bunch of dusty books written hundreds of years ago?  And then go to reading works written by people who are still breathing?  I mean don’t get me wrong, Molière, Racine, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire are pretty great (most of the time), but I’d be a little disturbed if I saw one of their skeletons walk into an auditorium.  Ummmm… that would not be cool.  Not in the slightest.  But do you know how big of a deal it is to see some of the greatest minds of your field?

Yeah.  I knew you’d understand.

But this post is long enough and it’s late.  So I’ll wrap it up with a list of presenters/significant attendees, some pictures, and my recordings of the conference proceedings.  The recordings are entirely in French, so sorry non-French-speaking friends, they won’t be of much use to you.  To my Francophone lit friends: you’re welcome.

  1. Macky Sall – President of Senegal
  2. Abdoul Mbaye – Prime Minister of Senegal
  3. Claude Bartolone – President of the French National Assembly
  4. Christiane Taubira – French Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seals
  5. Moustapha Niasse – President of the Senegalese National Assembly
  6. Serge Letchimy – Deputy President of the Regional Counsel of Martinique
  7. Muriel Berset Kohen – Swiss Ambassador to Senegal
  8. Fabienne Mathurin Brouard – Vice President of the Regional Counsel of French Guiana
  9. Clément Duhaime – Administrator of the International Organization of the Francophonie
  10. Khalifa Sall – Mayor of Dakar
  11. Raymond Saint-Louis-Augustin – Mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique
  12. Jacques Bangou – Mayor of Point-de-Pitre, Guadeloupe
  13. Marcel Bibas – Spokesman for the Césaire and Senghor families
  14. Amadou Mahtar Mbow – Former Director of UNESCO
  15. Alioune Tine – President of the Senegalese Committee of Human Rights
  16. Chiekh Hamidou Kane – One of Senegal’s most respected authors and former government Minister
  17. Aminata Sow Fall – One of Senegal’s most respected authors and the first black African woman publish a book and the first black African woman to win a prestigious international writing award
  18. Racine Senghor – Professor of Letters and former Counselor of the Minister of Tourism
  19. Abdoulaye Elimane Kane – philosopher and former Minister
  20. Daniel Maximin – Guadeloupean author and Professor of Letters
  21. Amadou Lamine Sall – Poet, President of the African House of International Poetry
  22. Ousmane Diakhaté – Professor of Letters and Director General of Senegal’s National Theatre Daniel Sorano
  23. Lise Gauvin – Quebecois author and Professor of Letters
  24. Michel Bouchaud – Headmaster of Lycée Louis-le-Grand (a prestigious high school in Paris)
  25. Souleymane Bachir Diagne – One of Senegal’s most respected philosophers and Professor of Philosophy, Islam and Francophone Literature at Columbia University
  26. Alain Houlou – Poet and Professor of Classics at l’Ecole National Supérieure-Ulm
  27. Moncef Follain – Chief of the Service of Cooperation and Cultural Action at the French Embassy in Dakar
  28. Hamidou Dia – Author and Special Counselor to the President of Senegal
  29. Monique Blérald – Professor of Letters at the University of the Antilles and French Guiana
  30. Eugénie Rézaire – President of the Friends of Léon Damas Association
  31. Lilyan Kesteloot – One of the world’s preeminent scholars of Francophone African Literaures, Professor of Letters at Université Cheikh Anta Diop
  32. Amadou Ly – One of Senegal’s leading scholars of Francophone African poetry and Professor of Letters at Université Cheikh Anta Diop
  33. Mamadou Bâ – One of Senegal’s leading scholars on the poetry of Aimé Césaire
Macky Sall - President of Senegal

Macky Sall – President of Senegal

Macky Sall

Macky Sall

Macky Sall

Macky Sall

Abdoul Mbaye - Prime Minister of Senegal

Abdoul Mbaye – Prime Minister of Senegal

Claude Bartolone – President of the French National Assembly

Christine Taubira - French Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seals

Christine Taubira – French Minister of Justice, Keeper of the Seals

Jacques Bangou and Amadou Mahtar Mbow - Mayor of Point-de-Pitre and former Director General of UNESCO

Jacques Bangou and Amadou Mahtar Mbow – Mayor of Point-de-Pitre and former Director General of UNESCO respectively

Cheikh Hamidou Kane - One of Senegal's most respected authors

Cheikh Hamidou Kane – One of Senegal’s most respected authors

Cheikh Hamidou Kane

Cheikh Hamidou Kane

Aminata Sow Fall (R) and Monique Blérald - One of Senegal's most respected author and first black African woman to both publish a novel and win an international writing award

Aminata Sow Fall (R) and Monique Blérald – One of Senegal’s most respected author and first black African woman to both publish a novel and win an international writing award

Souleymane Bachir Diagne and me - One of Senegal's most respected philosophers, professor at Columbia

Souleymane Bachir Diagne and me – One of Senegal’s most respected philosophers, professor at Columbia

Amadou Ly (L), Mamadou Ba (R) and me - Two of Senegal's literary experts and professors at UCAD

Amadou Ly (L), Mamadou Ba (R) and me – Two of Senegal’s literary experts and professors at UCAD. Mamadou is my main contact at UCAD

Mamadou Ba, Lilyan Kesteloot, Mamoussé Diagne and Amadou Ly - Professors of Letters at UCAD.  Lilyan Kesteloot is one of the world's preeminent Francophone lit scholars.  She is also working with me on my doctoral research.

Mamadou Ba, Lilyan Kesteloot, Mamoussé Diagne and Amadou Ly – Professors of Letters at UCAD. Lilyan Kesteloot is one of the world’s preeminent Francophone lit scholars. She is also working with me on my doctoral research.

Patrick Chamoiseau and me - a very influential and popular Caribbean author

Patrick Chamoiseau and me – a very influential and popular Caribbean author

One of Aimé Césaire's sons (L), Patrick Chamoiseau and Serge Letchimy (R)

One of Aimé Césaire’s sons (L), Patrick Chamoiseau and Serge Letchimy (R)

Macky Sall, President of Senegal – 14:39

Abdoul Mbaye, Prime Minister 10:11

Muriel Berstet Kohen, Swiss Ambassador to Senegal -open discussion on human rights, 1:15:12

Bâ, Kesteloot, Ly – Aimé Césaire, la parole poétique d’un homme d’action 1:49:31

Lise Gauvin – Aimé Césaire et les Amériques 1:18:07

Alain Houlou, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Moncef Follain – Aimé Césaire ou l’humanisme incarné dans la Cité; 3 normaliens parlent d’un normalien 1:27:43

Monique Blérald and Eugénie Rézaire – Léon-Gontran Damas ou la voix guyanaise de la Négritude 1:17:05

Amadou Mahtar Mbow – Témoignages sur Aimé Césaire 19:02

Cheikh Hamidou Kane – Témoignages sur Aimé Césaire 17:40

Christiane Taubira, French Minister of Justice 19:22

Claude Bartolone – President of the French National Assembly 12:13

Serge Letchimy, Deputy President of the Regional Counsel of Martinique 37:25

Moustapha Niasse – President of the Senegalese National Assembly, Part 1 12:44

Moustapha Niasse Part 2 8:51

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So… WHY are you going to Senegal?

I get this question a lot.  It boils down to three things:

  1. As an Africanist (focusing on French-speaking Africa) I have to have spent a significant amount of time on the continent in order to be respected in my field.
  2. Of all the Francophone African literature I have studied and researched, Senegalese literature and expression interests me the most.  I’ve also had a few occasions to meet highly-acclaimed Senegalese authors and I feel a larger connection to their novels/poems than with work that other authors have produced.
  3. Thanks to the mentoring and connections of some of my professors, I have more professional and literary contacts in Senegal who are in a position to help further my educational and professional pursuits.

In fact, the research and volunteer work that I will be conducting in Senegal concerning human trafficking – child begging in particular – can be found in the current events of several African countries and their literature.  So in actuality, my research is interdisciplinary and transnational.

The general topic of my dissertation will be family and child dynamics in French and Francophone literatures; I will specifically highlight child exploitation and trafficking in 19th century French novels and Francophone novels particular to West and Central African regions.  I will delve into more details about human trafficking and child exploitation in Senegal in subsequent posts.  So don’t fear, I’ll continue to share the generalities of my work, and, when I am able to do so, I will delve into the specifics of the Senegalese situation.  If you have specific questions, please let me know and I’ll make an effort to address them in future posts.

Until then, I thought that I would share the main essay that I wrote for the Boren Fellowship. It paints a good picture of what I will be focusing on during my 10-month stay in Dakar.  Please recognize first that the Boren Fellowship is given to scholars whose research relates to American national security.  The Boren Fellowship is funded by the government, so the research has to be valuable for the United States government on a national and global scale.  That is why those individuals who receive the Boren are required to work for the US government for a minimum of one year after the conferral of their degree.  Second, this is a very general overview of the plight of these boys and the length of the essay was constrained by a word-count specified by the Boren committee.  The situation includes many facets and it is quite complicated… which is one reason why Boren saw fit to award me the fellowship.

Since September 11th and the spread of terrorism throughout the world, the American government has taken a greater interest in Africa.  Together with the United States African Command, national security agencies monitor possible Islamic threats and the political instability of various African nations which may prove dangerous to the American people.  Historically, Senegal has been a fairly secure country.  However, with the recent presence of terrorist cells in its bordering countries and a rise in violations of Senegalese Islamic customs, Senegal is becoming more unstable and compounds the perils that face the United States.

This is due, in part, to an increase in the exploitation of Senegalese children.  In the Islamic Senegalese culture, many parents temporarily transfer guardianship of their young boys to a ‘marabout’ – a Koranic teacher – expecting that the children will study the Koran and the Islamic faith.  Because alms-giving is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, and adherence to this practice is such an expectation, the marabouts are able to avoid the obligation of feeding their students – known as ‘talibés’ – by requiring them to beg on the streets for their meals.

Over the past two decades some marabouts have transformed their schools into human trafficking rings.  The children are sent out to beg all day and upon their return, they must surrender the money to the marabouts without receiving adequate food, shelter, and education for their own well-being.  Consequently, the boys are placed in continual risk of becoming subject to drugs, violence, and sexual exploitation.  Additionally, Senegal’s geographic location facilitates the quick, illegal transportation of these boys to other parts of Africa and Europe.  Failure to publicize, educate, and then change these practices will continue to erode the stability of Senegal, and increase poverty and the occurrences of crimes against children.  Failure to check this problem by the United States and other countries who fundamentally despise such practices will undoubtedly increase the number of young, uneducated boys becoming attracted, or sent, to extremist Muslim circles that are currently located in the West African region.  These groups seek to threaten the physical safety of the citizens of the United States and other nations of the world.

The United States Department of Labor (USDOL) and the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (BILA) identify Senegal as a hub for child trafficking rings.  Senegal is both a trafficking transit country and/or destination for bordering countries, and a source of objects of sexual exploitation for Europe.  According to studies conducted by the USDOL and the BILA, the talibes are by far the most common trafficking victims; furthermore, a UNICEF report published in 2007 states that the boys range from ages two to fifteen.  All three agencies confirm that boys who are forced into this servitude spend their days begging in the streets, suffer the rages of various illnesses, and are the subjects of extreme acts of violence.  Talibés in southern Senegal live near known insurgent groups who, according to the CIA World Factbook, launch violent attacks upon neighboring villages.  Similarly, talibés who live on or near the borders of Mauritania and Mali have a high potential of exposure to militant Muslim extremists, including al-Qaeda adherents.  Many boys are transported to other African countries that harbor terrorist cells and are hostile to American interests.

In the past, USAID, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, UNICEF, and several foreign governments have joined forces with the Senegalese government to combat the social and political consequences associated with the mistreatment of the talibes.  These partnerships have focused on educating the general public about the boys’ plight.  Thanks to their efforts, Senegal has seen somewhat of a decline in child exploitation, yet the problem persists.  Within the last ten years, several NGOs have been created to broaden general awareness of this horrible reality and to root out corrupt marabouts.  They have endeavored to either return the boys to their families or to relocate them to legitimate schools.

One such Senegalese NGO, the Partenariat Pour le Retrait et la Réinsertion des Enfants de la Rue (PARRER), was established in 2007.  It is governed by an assembly of national Islamic leaders, private sector professionals, and former Senegalese government officials.  PARRER is one of the few Senegalese NGOs that comprehensively addresses the situation surrounding the talibés.  In addition to the activities mentioned above, it also seeks to educate poorer families living in the rural areas of the country which are most likely to entrust the care of their children to corrupt marabouts.  PARRER also aids the government in implementing educational standards in Senegal’s Koranic schools and in eliminating child begging from the Koranic curriculum.

With the help of Boren Fellowship funds, I plan to intern at PARRER in Dakar.  Doing so would complement my research interests concerning the portrayal of the Senegalese family in contemporary fiction and current events.

Several literary works address the talibés’ situation.  In 1961 Cheikh Hamidou Kane, founder and president of PARRER, published a semi-autobiographical novel entitled L’aventure ambiguë, in which he describes the life of a young talibé and the hardships he endured during his years at school.  Today the novel is one of the most revered literary works in all of Francophone Africa.  Thanks to his literary work and his efforts as a former minister of the Senegalese government, Kane is a national hero.  He and I also maintain an academic relationship.  Working at PARRER will give me the opportunity of cooperating with Kane, and will afford firsthand perspectives which will allow me to communicate authoritatively about issues facing Senegalese children.  Since Senegal is a small, impoverished country where only the educated elite use French, proficiency in Wolof is essential to be able to converse with exploited boys and their families.  Overcoming language barriers fosters trust and it enables the voices of the talibés to be heard both domestically and internationally.

Children are the future, and families are the basic units of any society.  If children continue to be victimized and trafficked to dangerous individuals who have no respect for the life and happiness of others, then eventually our families, societies, and nations will crumble.  As a future literary critic who will be familiar with Islamic practices and the plight of the talibés, I will be able to contextualize works that examine the social impact of practices that threaten children and families in Senegal.  Working as a Boren Fellow in Africa will yield unique perspectives that will prove beneficial to several entities within the federal government, especially to the Department of State and several embassies.  I hope fulfill my service requirement as an area studies specialist in either the Civil Service division or the Office of the Under Secretary for Global Affairs.

So there you have it – my winning essay.  This past semester (Jan-May 2012) I had the opportunity to research the religious reasonings behind the practice of child begging, and I presented that research at an international conference held at UW-Madison April 26-28, 2012, and I am working to get that paper published.  I will post more about that conference and paper in the future.

And last but not least, I cannot end this post without thanking my sister, Amber, for spending hours editing my essays (yes, there were a couple more) and giving me very insightful and pertinent information that I could use in my essays.  Thanks to Professors Chantal Thompson, Steven Winspur and Aliko Songolo for your invaluable help and feedback.  And last but not least, thank you to Angela Albretson, Margaret Merrill, and Matt Dinger for looking over my drafts for clarity and errors before I submitted my proposal.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of your help!