Colonialism is the establishment of political, economic and cultural power over another country, involving the conquering of one people by another. During the colonisation of Senegal, the French imposed their culture and attempted to overpower Senegalese heritage and qualities.
A brief history of French colonialism in Senegal
The French conquest of Senegal began in the early 17th century. French businesses started to trade at the bay of the river Senegal, located in the region of Saint-Louis. Gorée, an island off the coast of Dakar (the capital of Senegal), ultimately became controlled by the French between 1817 to 1960. It was used as a base for French trading companies that bought slaves, gold, and acacia gum. In 1854, Louis Léon César Faidherbe was elected Governor of Senegal. He spread French colonisation onto the mainland. The country did not gain independence from French rule until 1960.
Impacts on language
The control of culture by the French included enforcing the French language. The aim was to establish French as the new means of communication between the Senegalese people. The colonisers dominated the education system, teaching in French, about French culture, using French textbooks. This attempted to emphasise that the French way of life was superior to the Senegalese way of life, leading to a struggle of cultural identity. French remains the official language of the country today, but the recognised ethnic languages in Senegal include Wolof, Serer, Mandinka, Pulaar, Diola, and Soninke. It is estimated that around 80% of the population speak Wolof as a first or second language whereas between 15 to 20% of men and 1- 2% of women can speak and understand the French language.
Négritude is a literary movement that became popular in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In reaction to colonial cultural domination by the French, it aimed to celebrate the richness of African heritage. One of its founders was Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first President of Senegal. Négritude promoted the publishing of African works of art and literature across Europe and the rest of the world. This meant circulating African works that celebrated African culture for its own worth. They were not compared to the European values that had been enforced during colonial times.
World Festival of Black Arts
In 1966, the World Festival of Black Arts was held for the first time in Dakar. It was initiated by Senghor and aimed to embrace African culture after Senegal gained independence from France. The festival lasted for a month and celebrated music, dance, theatre, literature, art and architecture on an international level. This celebration of culture was symbolic in the decolonisation movement in emphasising black identity. It went against the French conception that African culture was “uncivilised”.
The French language left behind a colonial legacy in Senegal and created an elite through the education system. Even today, those who can access education must adopt French to the detriment of their native languages, and those who cannot access education are put at a disadvantage in a population where Wolof is the main but not official language. Nonetheless, the colonial era led to a reassessment of the importance of African values and culture after a long period of imposed European culture.