'Poetry Has Lost One of Its Masters'. (Senegal)

Article excerpt

The news broke on 20 December. Senegal's founding president, poet, philosopher, professor and great statesman, Leopold Sedar Senghor had died at his residence in Verson, northern France, at the age of 95.

It was Senegal's current president, Abdoulaye Wade, who first announced the death to a summit of West African nations taking place in Dakar. A wave of eulogies soon followed.

The French president, Jacques Chirac, mourned Senghor as a historic figure for Africa. "Poetry has lost one of its masters, Senegal a statesman, Africa a visionary and France a friend," Chirac said.

Rightly so. Senghor's life was a paradoxical blend of African and European experiences.

He was born on 9 October 1906, in the small Senegalese coastal town of Joal. His father was a prosperous peanut planter and trader who had four wives and 20 children. His mother, a Roman Catholic, had him educated at a nearby Catholic seminary and nurtured Senghor's first ambition -- to become, as he recalled many years later, a "teaching priest to work toward the intellectual emancipation of my race".

When he turned 20, Senghor abandoned the priesthood and transferred to a secondary school in Dakar. In 1928, he won a partial scholarship that permitted him to study at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he formed a lifelong friendship with Georges Pompidou, later to become prime minister and then president of France.

At the Sorbonne, Senghor was recognised as one of the most brilliant students, and upon his graduation in 1935, achieved the distinction of the first African "agrege", the highest-ranked teacher in the French school system. He taught French to French children in Tours.

In 1939, while teaching at another school near Paris, he was drafted into the French army, serving in an all-African unit until 1940, when he was captured by the Germans. During the two years he spent in Nazi prison camps, he wrote some of his best poems, collected in 1945 into a volume titled Chants d'Ombres (Songs of Shadows).

Senghor returned to teaching and writing after the war, and in 1945 became a deputy in the French Constituent Assembly. A year later, he was elected one of Senegal's two deputies to the National Assembly in Dakar. Sitting in the legislature for the Socialist Party, he soon decided that only an African party could adequately represent African needs.

That same year, Senghor married Ginette Eboue, the daughter of a Guyanese who was a prominent colonial official in Africa. They had two children before divorcing nine years later.

He later married Colette Hubert, a French woman from Normandy, where he spent much of his time after retirement. The couple had one son, Philippe, who died in an accident in the 1980s.

Life in politics

Having founded the Senegalese Democratic Bloc in 1948, he ran as its candidate in 1951 and defeated the Socialist candidate for the National Assembly.

By the mid-1950s, the French parliament had embarked on a policy aimed at giving a large measure of self-government to its African colonies. Senghor opposed the policy, believing that it would result in a proliferation of small, weak nations. Instead, he favoured a federal unity between French Equatorial Africa and French West Africa.

Later, he successfully appealed to President Charles de Gaulle for independence, and Senegal became a republic in 1960. Senghor was elected its first president.

Two years later, he repulsed an attempted coup led by a long time protege, Prime Minister Mamadou Dia, ordering his old friend imprisoned for life. He would grant him amnesty 11 years later and releasing him from prison altogether.

From then onwards, Senghor tolerated no challenge to his generally moderate, pro-Western policies. He won re-election to the presidency in 1963, 1968, 1973, and 1978 and remained president until his retirement on 31 December 1980, when he handed over to his chosen successor, Abdou Diouf, thus, becoming the first post-independence African leader to voluntarily resign and hand over power. …