Colonization and Senegal

Emma Anderson - Senegal

July 10, 2013

Colonization and Its Legacy

The world is in a constant state of flux. Empires rise and fall while the nations of the conquered seen to fade back in the shadows of their conquerors. The history of the dominating Romans pervades our ideas of the ancient world and it has always been from the perspective of the European invaders that we view the colonized countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Now, however, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the age of human rights and globalization has finally begun to acknowledge the important, resilient cultures of previously marginalized parts of the world as they maneuver themselves to become independent from the devastating legacy colonialism and thrive in the modern world.

That unique and vibrant culture of resilience is visible today in the nation of Senegal. In this small country in the west of Africa, there are over a dozen different ethnic groups all of which speak their own native language. Though today, fifty years after gaining independence from French rule, all Senegalese children still start learning French in preschool, the Senegalese have turned this colonial influence on its head and use French as a lingua franca that allows communication between all ethnic groups. Before Europeans colonized this area of West Africa, the ethnic groups were concentrated in clans and tribal empires that often warred with each other. These days in Senegal there is a nationwide, idiosyncratic custom of “joking cousins”, the understanding that specific surnames denote one’s lineage and historical caste in society (as a queen or a blacksmith) which acts as a humorous resolution to ancient tribal conflicts. It is because of these effective solutions that Senegal is one of the few African states that has been able to avoid any military or political coups since it’s independence in the 1960s. The Senegalese people have focused on their commonalities rather than their differences, thus fostering the development of one of the most successful countries in all of West Africa. Colonization profoundly altered the way civilization functioned in Western Africa, but out of the ashes of colonial oppression and exploitation the people of this region have come together and created a nation-state with their resplendent, communal culture.

Under French rule, the poor farmers of Northern Senegal were forced by oppressive economic policies to resort to the monoculture of peanuts and rice. The legacy of colonialism on traditional farming practices was the desertification of the delicate Sahel soil and a devastating famine in the late twentieth century (Kloby 103). In what was once a civilization of communal living and bartering, the French instituted elements of capitalism that would best serve the European metropole. Instead of nurturing a complete capitalist system and educating the local populous about the newly developed concepts of industrialization and economic theory, the Europeans exploited the rich resources of both land and people to further advance their own development (Rodney 112). In essence, the success of the Northern world relied almost solely in the oppression of the rest of it. In her eye-opening essay “The Myth of Catching Up Development”, Maria Mies denounces the idea that the South, countries such as Senegal in what is known as the “third world”, should (or even could) as it were “catch-up” to the North. She observes that, “the very progress of the colonizers is based on the existence and the exploitation of the colonies” (Mies 153). However, those nations that were colonized did not bow down to the power of guns and exploitation. Instead, as can be seen in Senegal, these cultures maintained their integrity, achieved independence, and are bravely trying to grow into the modern world in the face of exploitation and oppression.

The colonization of Africa was a selfish and greedy maneuver by the European nations. It stole lives, resources, and stunted the economic growth of an entire continent of people. However, as much of a disgrace as colonization was, the subtle leeching sickness of neocolonialism and eurocentrism is perhaps worse. Not only did the North build its success off of the oppression of the South, but it continues to manipulate the way these cultures function. As resilient as the Wolof people have been in the past several hundred years, mass media and consumerism threaten the continuation of this culture. The language of Wolof is and always has been largely oral and auditory based. The establishment of radio and television networks in the nation has thus been particularly successful because, as opposed to books or newspapers that require literacy, these means of communication are accessible to all citizens. Unfortunately, the influence of advertisements and television shows that depict Dakar as a gleaming metropolis tend to nurture consumerism – a practice that only benefits the manufacturing and distribution economies of Europe and Asia. In her piece on “Women, Colonization, and Racism”, Jan Jindy Pettman emphasizes the importance of women in the history of colonization. As she notes, “colonial powers made use of certain ideas of women and sexuality to construct and police both women’s bodies and radicalized boundaries” (Pettman 142). The legacy of this racial manipulation is still at large today. Senegalese actresses and popstars mimic their lighter-skinned, American or European counterparts in the search for fame. Sadly, the abhorrent practice of skin bleaching (akin to the tanning obsession of light-skinned women) has been found to have detrimental effects on a woman’s reproductive cycle and the astronomical amount of money spent on wigs and weaves by women trying to attain smooth, silky tresses does nothing for Senegalese women themselves but pour their life savings down a drain straight to Southeast Asia (where most of the thick, dark hair of natural and synthetic hair wigs is harvested) and America or Europe (where the raw hair is manufactured). Mies wisely notes that though the North may indeed be more technologically developed, it is not necessarily the most happy. Her solution to the destructive forces of consumerism and industrialization is a “deliberate and drastic change in lifestyle, a reduction of consumption and a radical change in the North’s consumer patterns and a decisive and broad-based movement towards energy consumption” (Mies 156). Only when Wolof women deliberately change their lifestyle and feel beautiful in their own natural skin can their country truly be free from the legacy of colonialism.

After sixty years of independence, it is clear that Senegal is not free from the ties of colonialism. Of the few Senegalese who have access to the internet, a majority have email addresses that originate in the French web domain. Imports and foreign aid are an enormous part of Senegal’s economy and there are still no factories to process the groundnuts that farmers continue to grow. With that said, Senegal has indeed experienced successful growth away from its colonial history. Innovative farming practices, such as sustainable irrigation, have been introduced that slow the desertification of the northern farmlands, and farmers are moving towards a return to the cultivation of a variety of crops for national consumption. In the town of Ross Bethio, rice farmers produce enough grain to feed their own families with bountiful leftovers to distribute to the rest of Senegal. The problems of infrastructure (really the lack thereof) continue to prohibit optimal distribution of products around the country, but the new president, Macky Sall, has assured his nation that appropriate construction is underway. Despite strong, lingering ties to France and its colonial legacy, the Senegalese, through their vibrant and resilient culture, have assumed sovereignty over their own lands and started a movement to become more self sufficient in order to maximize Senegal’s continuing success and happiness.

Works Cited

Koby, Jerry. “The Legacy of Colonialism.” Beyond Borders: Thinking Critically About Global Issues. Ed.Paula Rothenburg. New York: Worth Publishers, 2006. 99-106. Print

Mies, Maria. “The Myth of Catching-Up Development.” Beyond Borders: Thinking Critically About Global Issues. Ed.Paula Rothenburg. New York: Worth Publishers, 2006. 150-157. Print.

Pettman, Jan Jindy. “Women, Colonization, and Racism.” Beyond Borders: Thinking Critically About Global Issues. Ed. Paula Rothenburg. New York: Worth Publishers, 2006. 142-149. Print.

Rodney, Walter. “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” Beyond Borders: Thinking Critically About Global Issues. Ed. Paula Rothenburg. New York: Worth Publishers, 2006. 107-125. Print.


Emma Anderson