As interesting and necessary as it may be, it seems to me that the current critique of the presence of colonial symbols in our public spaces needs to be, as of this moment, reexamined.
Let me emphasize “as of this moment.” I readily acknowledge that there will be some who believe the time has not yet come for internal criticism of a process that remains incomplete and that has even, in a certain sense, just begun. Is there not, as they say, a time and place for everything? Should we not prioritize certain actions and deeds? Demolish all of the problematic statues first, rename certain spaces, and only then, once we have recovered the feeling (or the illusion) of a sovereign liberty beyond all humiliation, turn our thoughts to other challenges?
This argument is well taken, but I would counter it with another. The problem posed by the presence of colonial symbols in public space is only the visible part of a deeper and more widespread crisis: that of the relationship a people—the Senegalese people in this case—maintains with its so-called symbols. More fundamentally, this is a crisis in the actual knowledge that this people has of the symbols they are exposed to. It is not clear that replacing the current colonial symbols with figures that are judged more authentic will mean that the greater part of the local community will take more interest, identify more clearly, or be more attached to them.
The moment we are currently witnessing does not therefore seem to me to be a simple prelude to a time when our relationship to historic figures will be less problematic. Tragically, this moment has already (or again) tested our true knowledge of our history, and the result is damning. Not only do we not know our own history, but we don’t even really care to know it.
From an ethical perspective, the statue of Faidherbe that still stands imperiously over Saint-Louis presents a definite problem. I am in favor of taking it down from its pedestal and moving it to a place where the painful memory it represents can be brought into the light and reflected upon as lucidly as possible.
But from an epistemological perspective, which is to say from the unique perspective of the knowledge an era produces or possesses about a fact, an event, or a person, this statue poses the same questions that would be posed, in its place, by a statue of Lat-Dior, Ndaté Yalla or her sister Ndjëmbëtt Mbodj, Aline Sitoé Diatta, or Koli Tenguela.
What do I really know about this person standing on a pedestal, or whose name has been given to this street? Have I really been taught their history? Why are they here? What values and virtues did they possess, that they should serve as inspiration for my own life?
I am not the only one to have asked this question since the debates over Faidherbe’s statue began to rage. How, for all these decades, has this statue stood without anyone really taking an interest in its meaning? Is it because our struggles were focused elsewhere? Because one did not consider this symbol all that important? Because the demands of daily life prevented people from taking the time to wonder why this statue was presented to them? Because we cannot be engaged in all causes with the same intensity? Each of these hypotheses have their element of truth, but there is one, I believe, that should be given more weight than the others, since it encompasses them all in its undeniable obviousness: if we were not so worried about the statue of Faidherbe, it’s because we didn’t really know Faidherbe. Or rather: it’s because what we did know about him, what we had been taught about him, only overlapped every so partially with his sinister deeds and his life.
I do not mean that nobody knew of the horrors committed by Faidherbe, nor do I accuse historians of failing to document the most gruesome aspects of what he did. What I mean is that those who knew this history were a tiny minority (and remain so overall). Unfortunately, the works of academics such as Iba Der Thiam or Abdoulaye Bathily, to mention only the best known, have not been discussed more widely. It is in no way their fault alone. It involves a whole system which has not allowed these works to infuse or penetrate the social fabric so as to leave a more lasting mark. This process has, for multiple reasons, failed. The knowledge that it was meant to convey has not successfully moved beyond a circle of initiates to the moment when one sews the first crucial seeds of knowledge: childhood.
The memories I have of Faidherbe from primary school—and Lord knows I had some excellent teachers, admirably cultured and pedagogically well-trained—vaguely involve a man who “pacified” a specific territory and “repelled the attacks” of some invader or other who attempted to conquer or break up the country. And perhaps he did; but he also did other things. These other things, these terrible other things, took me years to discover. Until then, I spent several years in Saint-Louis and I passed by Faidherbe’s statue hundreds of times without paying it any attention.
This is my point: as far as symbols are concerned, though it could also be said of anything else, the more specific knowledge we have, the better we are able to reflect and react emotionally. This, in turn, defines our collective and individual relationships with the figure in question. As long as this knowledge continues to be mutilated, embellished, distorted, poorly taught (I would say not taught at all), apocryphal, or even mythologized, we can place any figure we like on a pedestal and most of the population will remain indifferent.
What is happening in this moment is a welcome opportunity to open a deeper debate about: the knowledge we possess about the major figures of our history (Faidherbe is but one of them); the manner by which this knowledge is adapted, communicated, digested, and reformulated so that it can be transmitted to the public; and the relation that the masses have with the very idea of using symbols in public spaces. (I use the term “masses” here with no contempt, to refer to those who have not always had the opportunity to go to school and who, either geographically or mentally, live far away from big intellectual debates held in French about collective memory).
Make no mistake, I do not consider Faidherbe the same as, let’s say, Aline Sitoé Diatta. However, I do hope that the second, if she ever finds herself on a pedestal one day, is not reduced to a few vague details and then gradually condemned to a general indifference broken only by periodic insights into her life, by quarrels among specialists about this or that episode in her biography, or by some forced tribute.
I also hope that the current debate can avoid seeing these problems only through the lens of colonialism
I also hope that the current debate can avoid seeing these problems only through the lens of colonialism—with all the polemical, emotional, and ideological baggage that comes with it. It would be hypocritical to say, on the one hand, that we are reclaiming the entire history of our country while systematically relating all of our debates about this history back to the colonial enterprise, as if nothing else existed outside of it.
Finally, I would hope that the current movements to take down old statues arrive at some end other than noisy and hollow symbolism. Overloading symbols with ideology or power with no concern for their impact on our collective situation would make no sense. The ideological pride of renaming a university after one of our own eminent scholars (Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar) remains vain and superficial if, within this university, one is concerned with everything except knowledge for its own sake and the quest for truth. Naming a street after a courageous female figure drawn from our own history is an empty act if, on this street and on plenty of others, a woman’s dignity can be violated by men at any moment and in any way (including the most vile).
I will conclude with a more general and open reflection on historic figures, be they colonial or Senegalese. Perhaps, most fundamentally, it is the act of “statue-fying” a human being that poses a problem today. As we know, a certain number of “great men” in our history were also ruthless conquerors who massacred other peoples, or they were notorious slavers, or schemers who, by allying themselves with colonists for strategic reasons, betrayed their alliances with “their own people” without hesitation. If we begin with the premise that most historic figures were not perfect or pure, and if we acknowledge that some of those whom we take for heroes are seen as executioners or “traitors” elsewhere, perhaps not too far away, how do we justify building a statue to their glory or giving their name to particular spaces? What are the criteria for promoting certain figures from Senegalese history to the rank of national symbols when we know at what cost they achieved their greatness?
I don’t have the answer—and perhaps I am not even asking the right questions. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that the events put into motion over the last few weeks (This article was published in 2020, editor) will soon surpass the framework of colonialism, which can both inform the debate or simplify it down to less useful binary ways of thinking. The question will then no longer be whether there is support for or opposition to Faidherbe’s statue in the street—this opposition alone is insufficient and unproductive—it will be whether we can discover, through Faidherbe, the meaning and background of all the symbols in our public spaces and in our history.
Mohamed Mbougar Sarr (Dakar, 20 June 1990) is a novelist from Senegal currently living in France. In 2021 he won the Prix Concourt for his novel La plus secrète mémoire des hommes (In Dutch: De diepst verborgen herinnering van de mens).