Cultural home-coming in Senegal

January 5, 2011 by Diane Morgan   Comments (0)

As CLP Project Manager, one of the programme strands I oversee is Powerbrokers - leadership development opportunities for Black and Minority Ethnic leaders. 



Since 2008 CLP, in partnership with Maureen Salmon, has delivered Powerbrokers International Leadership Placements. Our most recent placements took place from October 2010 to January 2011 in Delhi and Dakar.  I accompanied Maureen on a visit to Dakar to meet with Lynda Rosenoir, Business Development Associate at the Association of Arts Presenters and Festivals of Senegal (ADAFEST) and Beverley Sterling, Creative Development Associate at the Biennial of Contemporary African Art Senegal and Saint Louis 350.  Also accompanying me on this trip was Nike Jonah, Decibel Project Manager and a CLP Woman to Watch.


Journeys & Discoveries


Senegal – A former French colony with a rich history and culture, is considered to have one of the most stable political democracies in West Africa.  Its’ most famous artistic exponent - Youssou N'Dour - is the musician/singer whose collaborations with artists like Peter Gabriel, Neneh Cherry (‘Seven Seconds’) and Branford Marsalis have increased his status to International Musical Icon.  Dakar, the musical heart of the country, comes alive at night (the daytime market scene is strictly for the fearless), beats out its’ potent global rhythms and is rightfully regarded as the most vibrant African city for its incredible music scene. This, I was prepared for.  What I experienced was much more; a beautiful (still relatively tourist-free) tropical landscape; monuments for remembrance and celebration of Africa’s past and future; arts and culture woven into the lives of its’ residents; an exciting and thriving contemporary art scene; empowered women cultural leaders; and nothing short of a ‘home-coming’ feeling during this visit, my first to West Africa.

This blog documents my eight days in Dakar in December 2010; meeting with the associates and host organisations to discuss the nature and value of the placements; learning about the leadership culture in Senegal; and my experience of attending some of the truly inspirational World Festival of Black Arts. 


Thursday 9th December

So it’s goodbye to the ‘cold snap’ (understatement of the year) and after leaving London at 5.30 pm on Wednesday, we arrive (exhausted) in Dakar (via Casablanca, Morocco) at 6.30am on Thursday ( I have no idea of the 48 hour hell that would be bestowed onto me on my return to Heathrow - save that for later....)


First impressions

The (anticipated) hoard of unofficial baggage carriers & taxi drivers descend on us as we leave the airport and the use of the English language is non-existent.  Wolof is the most widely spoken African language although French is the official language here. The Hotel Novotel Dakar is an affordable, sleek and modern hotel with minimalist design and efficient staff. It could easily be a European hotel if it wasn’t for the scattering of large wooden carvings and the inclusion of Tiebou Dienn (cheb-oo-jen) Senegal’s national dish on the hotel menu, which as soon as I try and being a lover of fish, becomes a staple meal during my stay. 

First on the agenda is a few hours sleep (although I confess to getting distracted by the TV channel with the melodramatic ‘Nollywood-style’ drama in my hotel room), followed by the purchase of a local sim card, currency, food, and a two-hour long heavy-weight fee negotiation with Ahmed, an English speaking thirty-year old year old MBA graduate, currently seeking work, who has agreed to be our driver (cheaper, safer & no language barriers).  Senegal is a majority Muslim, tolerant country but for some, women walking about on their own is viewed with suspicion (and women smoking in public – well that’s another story). 


It’s early evening and I bump into Lynda, one of the PILP associates, sitting by the pool, working on her masters’ dissertation (wouldn’t you?).  Although I’ve caught up on her progress via her reports, it’s wonderful to hear first-hand how much she’s benefiting from the placement – she is visibly more confident than the woman I met a few months ago, buzzing with motivation and glowing from the experience of working in Senegal.  It’s a wonderful introduction and I’m so pleased to be here (and secretly hoping Senegal will hit me with a dose of her energy and spirit).  Before sleep takes hold, Nike, Maureen and I meet to go through our itinery of meetings and visits, ensuring space for evening festival events (and a little weekend downtime - a.k.a. shopping).  The festival programme is incredibly world-class, full and eclectic but little talked about back in the UK. We will be attending the opening ceremony as special guests tomorrow evening. How exciting!


Friday 10th December

My first full day begins with an introduction to Dakar life.  The streets are noisy and bustling with cars and traders on foot. You cannot walk without being approached by a man with or without goods to sell. Here, It is not polite to talk to someone before enquiring about their health, their day and their family members. We soon learn though that in the centre of Dakar, talk isn’t cheap and seemingly friendly new acquaintances require payment for acting as a ‘guide’ and pointing out the route to your destination.   We head out to the Gallerie Arte Dakar, driven by Ahmed, who quite casually scrapes the side of parked cars, cyclists and the odd crossing pedestrian.  He appears  amused by our objections.  The gallery is owned by Joelle Le Bussy, she has a larger gallery in St Louis, a designer-maker herself and a director of St Louis 305, one of our host organisations.  An all-round formidable woman - who leads with grace, humility and quiet confidence.  Large mixed media paintings cover the walls, cabinets display crafts, jewellery, carvings and other delightful treasures and we peruse intently before heading off to her house for lunch and conversation.




Senegalese are legendary for their teranga (hospitality) and while I modestly offer my gift of English shortbread, Joelle’s housekeeper lays on a delicious feast made from of fresh local seafood, chicken vegetables and rice – seasoned to perfection. The house is how I’d imagined, with expansive but homely inside and outdoor spaces and a showcase for her favourite pieces of art and objects.  At the end of the garden (past the patio and pool) two men are industrially manipulating wood in her outdoor workshop.


The World Festival of Black Arts

or Fesman (Festival Mondial Des Arts Negres) as it locally known.

The first Fesman was held in Dakar in 1966, to highlight the struggle and persistence of black people in the face of colonisation. The second in Lagos, Nigeria in 1977 and now, three decades later, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade brought it back to Dakar- in it's new context: Africa as free, proud, creative, and optimistic.  Free concerts, plays, exhibitions, dance performances, film screenings and seminars. Reasons to celebrate yes? Not for all.

Although Joelle is one of the few Senegalese artists showing her work in the festival, with a cultural event of this scale it is inevitable that there will be critics.  The festival, funded by the African Union has reputedly cost £50m and was given as a ‘pet project’ to the president’s daughter who (it is said) focused on rallying her international contacts at the exclusion of cultural leaders and practitioners in Senegal (bar the most famous names). With no local or fringe activities being promoted, Senegalese artists are frustrated and insulted that the profile and programming has reached and benefited African nations and across the Diaspora but left no legacy for them.  The expense is also under-fire considering that the host country is in need of much development and many still live in poverty.  Finally (which was our observation also) the programme was announced just over a week before the festival commenced and promotion has not been well organised given the scale and potential impact of a cultural event of this magnitude.

It’s difficult not to be affected by what I’ve heard but after more glowing reports about her placement from PILP Associate Beverley Sterling and our VIP tickets to the opening ceremony in hand– we look forward to our evening.


A Night To Remember


40/50,000(?) people filled the Leopold Sedar Senghor Stadium for launch of the festival – greeted by fireworks and a lone kora player in the centre of the field.  What followed was an extraordinary spectacle to behold. Hundreds of dancers lined up around the field before performing beautifully choreographed and synchronised routines, powerful movement and full-on dance. Billowing fabric shapes, stilt walkers, video projections and music perfectly combined in this feast of vision and sound – the scale of which could be compared to an Olympic games opening ceremony.  The meaning was a bit lost on me, but I have read that the video screen behind the field showed minnows and sharks - a warning to  young people not to make the dangerous trip over the ocean to seek work in Europe.


The speeches were not translated but (again thanks to other reports) President Wade spoke of his vision of creating the United States of Africa by 2017 whereby there would be free movement across borders, one currency, and all African presidents would become governors. He rallied young people to dedicate themselves to building the African Renaissance and led a call and response-- “Work, work again, always work”. The finale was the singing of the anthem of the African Renaissance – composed by Wade.  The presidents of Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Equatorial Guinea also made their remarks.   At that point we left the stadium, due to the lack of translation and regrettably missed performances by Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal.   We did however bump into Kwame Kwei Armah in a restaurant later that night – the very exhausted and visionary Artistic Director of the festival, the opening ceremony and (equally important) a CLP Women to Watch Judge – had a lot to be proud of.


BBC Video clip of the festival

World Festival of Black Arts: a once in a decade event: How Britain's Kwame Kwei-Armah amassed 6,000 artists for a festival that has only happened three times in 40 years