Uploaded on June 03, 2015
A secular nation with rich Islamic heritage
By Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Senegal remains one of the most peaceful nations in the African continent. With a massive 95% Muslim population Senegal was a French colony and thousands were people were taken as slaves by the Europeans in the 17th century. The beautiful city of Dakar is a peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean with beautiful French influence on its broader roads and buildings which undoubtedly make life here fascinating with a grand mix up of French and African traditions.
As you land at the small but beautiful Leopold Sedar airport which is about 5 kilometer distance from the downtown Dakar. Leopold Sedar was the first President of Senegal after its independence in 1963 hailing from a Christian Community who went to elite institutions in France for his education and was a statesman, author and poet. So those who comprehended that Muslims will not live in a plural and democratic society as long as they are a majority will have to not only change their opinion but appreciate it after coming to Senegal how a nation of 95% of its population as Muslims is thoroughly secular as well as democratic with first president belonging to Christian community.
The fascinating part of the Senegalese culture is a curious mix of liberal democratic values as well as sticking to tradition too. While women’s are in street, at the market, in the media and in the politics talking about democracy and modernism a large number of men practice polygamy and justify that in the name of Islam. ‘ Islam permit us four marriages’, said Fallou, a fifty plus tour guide who took us to Goree Island nearly 30 kilometer from the uptown of Dakar where we were putting up and added,’ in our society one marriages is nothing. You are not a ‘Man’ if you are married to just one. I have three wives and 9 children and six grand-children.’ I ask him if he is still missing one more wife and pat comes the reply,’ yes Sir. I am planning to marry again’. I joke how does he manages when we in India feel that even one marriage is not ‘workable’ in these economically tough times and he answers with full conviction,’ ‘you may not understand our culture. We are happy. There is no problem. Two of my wives live with me and the third one live separately. Now, after marriage, my new wife will live with my third wife and there is perfect harmony’.
It is not that all the men opt for polygamy. Abdullah owns a small shop of artifacts with beautiful design woods in the down town. He has one son and a wife. His wife works in a company to earn and add to the family. He is a caring husband. ‘Do you feel offended with the kind of ‘clothing’ women wear here, ‘No, there is nothing wrong in it. We are a secular country and all religions, customs, individuals have freedom to wear what-ever they feel comfortable,’ he answers confidently. Now, it is this trait of Senegalese that I loved the most. Despite the well-known fact that it is a secular country yet cultural influence of Islam is visible everywhere but it is also true that Islam here has strong African resonance. So both African identity as well as Islamic identity are important and kept the country together. The beauty of this great confluence African traditions mixing up with Islam is visible at every nook and corner. There is a strange paradox here. Despite feeling in traditions, men still talk about secularism and democracy. Fallou is one of the finest narrators, as a tourist guide that I ever came across in my life. He speaks at ease in both French and English. ‘We are a secular country despite over 95% of Muslim populations. Christians and Muslims in this country live in complete harmony’, he says emphatically.
Women are the foundation of this country. It is great to see them in so diverse and colorful dresses confirming both Islamic as well as African identities. They greet you in the shops, hotels and everywhere and are talkative enough to be friend with you. At the Goree Island, which was famous for slave trade for Europeans, today represent a famous tourist spot. There is no denial of fact that Senegal is a country of absolute romance with love for art, nature and boutiques. As you enter the island through boat which are easily available on a regular interval from Dakar, the fragrance and the structure attract you. You meet warm people who have a history of being taken into one of the most heinous crime that was inflicted by the Western World on the native people of Africa. Yes, slavery tortured the soul of Africa, tore their heart and destroyed their civilization. Stories of slavery at this island can bring tears into your eyes but a salute to the people of this place that their pains and agony have not converted into hatred. That is the best part that I found here that despite so much of torment one see people moving ahead, speaking to all and not in perpetual hatred. President Leopold Sedar Senghor wrote in his appreciation for Curator who developed the Museum in Goree Island dedicated to history and culture of Senegal,’ ‘Oh Lord, Forgive white Europe. For true it is during four centuries of enlightenment, Europe threw its gross and ruthless hordes on our lands and Christians, Forbidding the light and clemency of thy heart lit their bivouacs with parchments, tortures our fellows, deported our doctors, my ministers of science.’
Slavery was practiced locally in Africa before 15th century and once the European found it they exploited it to spread their trade towards West Indies, America and other regions. In the XXIIth century the British, the French, Dutch, Danes, Swedes and the Portuguese started coming here and started taking slaves for their business interest in the ‘New World’ which was far away in the Americas. Their conditions were pathetic and they were kept in a place. A visit to ‘Maison tics Esclaves’ or ‘Slave House’ is a resounding slap on the faces of those who claim to civilized the world by imposing their racist perception on human beings. Young men, women, old, young and even children were kept as slave to be taken to Americas. It wounded the African self-esteem and their civilization. I could see hundreds of tourists who visit here recording the entire narration by the guide. There is a deep sense of anguish and you are filled in deep resentment and anger against those who initiated this horrific tradition. A quote here says,’ May this ‘house’ serve as meditation ground for all generations of Africans to advocate immortal humanism and tolerance’.
While in the ground floor the slaves were living in utterly despicable, inhuman and torturous conditions, on the above the Europeans had beautiful wooden crafted rooms for their stay in Goree. One does not know how they would live peacefully when just below them were people being tortured and kept enslaved to be taken to Americas. ‘Only a wooden floor separated the lustful mores of the ones from the miserable decay of the others. How could they afford living upstairs with everything that was happening downstairs’, says another quote.
Goree is a very small island and one street link to others. There is a church, a museum and hills. One thing you notice here the art work by the local artists. Sand art is very popular here and you can see artists using sands of different colors in their paintings. Climbing up the hills and you will find ‘La Castle’ from where you can see the Island as well as Atlantic surrounding it. As you walk around scores of young men and women crave for your attention with beautiful selling items made of sand, wood and stones. I can confirm that it is rare you find such smiling people compelling you to buy their product. ‘I give you special price, my friend. Its beautifully carved item of local stone’, said a dark complexioned girl when she saw me negotiating for price from another man. Oh, you don’t want to speak to me because I am dark, she said to me, virtually piercing my conscience. No, you are beautiful, I said to her but I have already brought so many things that I neither have money, nor space to buy anything’. She is determined to sale her beautiful things to me and therefore she continue with her conversation. ‘You know, I am doing my graduation in International business and I am doing this work to assist my mother and complete my studies’, she says. ‘What does your father do’, I ask her. ‘Oh, he has got other wives to stay with as my mother does not stay with him any more’. ‘Why don’t you object to your father marrying more women’, I tease. ‘How can we object, four marriages are permissible in Islam’, she says but add that she would not like to get married in such a family’.
As I pass through the lanes of Goree and later Dakar, I found despite all odds and cultural issues, Muslims have contributed to art, culture and music of this nation. I have never found so many creative geniuses anywhere as I have seen in Senegal. The simple market of local products simply allures you to buy them. They have kept the spirit high despite international pressure.
The delicacies are simply delicious and the red chilies here are too hot to tolerate. I remained under impression that none eat hotter food comparison to Indians but Senegal proved me wrong. After the meals you are served mint tea in typical Senegalese style. At the road side eateries, many times, I greeted women with ‘asslamwalekum’ and it initiates a conversation more warmly. I asked about their colorful dresses which they wear most of the time. Burqa is not visible in Senegal though most of the Muslim women actually cover their head with diverse kind of scarfs. I questioned about this to many as whether there is any objection about their dressing or going out for work, in their families and the answer was a resounding no. The local delicacies, the long grilled fish with chutney and rice or shrimps gives you an insight of Senegalese food. La-Ghazal was the beer, which we enjoyed a lot during the trip. The cold drink named, as ‘Rani’ made me believe the influence of India in Africa. African friends in Kenya and Uganda confirmed many time that Indians do not really get mixed up with their societies and even when slavery has ended, the domestic servants always get a raw deal in their homes but the Indian businessmen have created a niche for themselves in Africa and different soft drinks as well as hard drinks are produced by seemingly Indian companies. Of course, when I asked the meaning of La-Gazal, as I thought related to Ghazal but it turned out to be ‘sexy lady’.
One of the most fascinating things for me was the roadside singer and drummers singing something, which you don’t understand yet if you love diversity and sound of music, it is worth enjoying. I loved each moment of these very talented youngsters who gave a feeling of Senegalese music and importance of keeping these traditions alive. Unfortunately in this age of mechanism and electronic instruments the manual traditions are disappearing giving way to loud ‘noise crackers’.
Senegal is a peace loving country and also an ideal tourist destination. And for me it is so for two to three different purposes. One, obviously, it is beautiful but most importantly it will remind each one of us the dirty passed of people who used their ‘knowledge’ to abuse others. The scars of slavery are not yet over as countries are still fighting for their basic needs. So, Goree and other islands provide you a link to the dirty games of European power in exploiting people through slavery, which is definitely crime against humanity.
This country and its political structure can easily dispel myth that Muslims majoritarianism takes you to Islamic way of governance based in Sharia laws. An overwhelmingly Muslim society has opted for secular ways of life and is absolutely in peace with Islam too. Though traditions and polygamy is prevalent there but it is actually not really an Islamic issue but the old communitarian culture of Africa where bigger families were considered to be the sign of ‘kingliness’ and religious. Most of the men that I spoke to actually justified it in the name of tradition but a large number of women felt that though it was a tradition yet they felt it is every difficult for a man to love his wives equally as defined and ordered by Islam. Interestingly, Senegal saw two women prime ministers in the past and there are politicians, bureaucrats and even journalists. The oldest journalist as one my friend who interviewed me said was 85 years of age. People are adopting modernity as well as also sticking to their moral values as prescribed under Islam for them. Their religion is not coming in the way to go to school or do any kind of work. I found that absolutely great given the nature of obstruction that we see in our part of the world when women try to come of their home for work, it looked refreshing. There may be issues of polygamy but one hope with the passage of time these things will disappear slowly as education and work pressure will bring necessary changes as woman journalist who I interviewed mentioned to me that though things may not be that great yet they are changing slowly as mindset here is more open and amenable despite religious values in personal life and that is why there is no prohibition on women to join services of their choice. Most of the women that I interviewed here suggested that religion and modernism have never been in conflict in Senegal and women will always enjoy their identities of being a Muslim and African. The statue of African renaissance reminds us the glorious traditions of Africa and how women they are playing greater role in the strengthening social and political democracy fighting for not just their own rights but also seeking control over natural resources. It is remarkable that Senegalese have developed positive changes without any malice and hatred towards any one despite having faced racial discrimination and exploitation at all level from those who claim to be the most ‘civilised’ societies. Today, Senegal is actually giving lesson of tolerance and respect to the entire world. g