Sin bi Jalo
January 20, 2018
I first met Sin bi Jalo on my third day in Senegal. His job was to help me, along with the five other fellows that made up our language group, learn to communicate with our host family and community in Wolof. He has since become one of the most important people during my time here in Senegal. We meet every Wednesday for lessons where we discuss grammar, learn vocab, and get answers to questions that come up throughout our week. When he isn’t working to help a bunch of confused foreigners, Sin bi Jalo teaches English at a local middle school and high school in Khombole. He has a 13-year-old, an 8-year-old, and a 2-month-old baby. Sin bi Jalo is Pular, one of the many ethnic groups within Senegal. He speaks fluent Pular, Wolof, French, and English*. Like 95% of Senegal’s population, he is Muslim. For a recent project about Senegal’s history of colonization I interviewed Sin bi Jalo, and what was supposed to be five minutes turned into half an hour as he addressed multiple aspects of Senegalese history, culture, and present day challenges. I edited our conversation to keep it under ten pages, and with his permission am sharing it today in the attempt to spread a deeper understanding of the country I currently call home.
How did life change in Senegal after it gained independence?
In many ways. First in the ideas, because when France colonized Senegal they—its different from the British colonization— here the French people, they insist on culture. Yeah, they insist on culture, they insist on civilizations, and then change many things, many African things that we used to do. That’s why I can say in many ways. First in thinking: there came a time when if you could not speak French, you were not considered an important person. Then we are obliged to learn French and speak French. This is in the language. The way of wearing clothes, also. You see today in Senegal, we wear Western clothes. And we have our traditional clothes, but it’s very rare to see Senegalese people [wearing them]—especially the young, to be wearing traditional clothes. Then in wearing clothes, this is also a big change. Yes. Also there is a kind of complex, because the way the French colonized Senegal, if you are not very conscious you are going to think that French civilization is better than Senegalese civilization. Then you are obliged to copy the French civilization. And that’s sad, and that’s what happened. Then I can think the impact is in many, many ways: in culture, in speaking, in wearing clothes, and even thinking also.
How has Senegalese culture been affected by the French?
Yes. Here also, it’s very deep. It’s very, very deep. Because in everything, in every action that we are doing, we can see the French culture. To give you an example: when we have a wedding, look at how we organize the wedding. We go to the mosque, this is the religion, but right after the mosque, we organize a party to celebrate. This is the French culture. This is the French culture. All the aspects of life, you see the French culture. The French culture appears in our activities, in weddings, in speaking. The way to speak, the way to speak with people*, the way to wear dress, this kind of thing also. Yes sometimes it’s very difficult to separate the two cultures.
*French is the official national language of Senegal
Do you think that people realize how so many of the things in Senegalese culture is French?
Most of the time here it depends. When you take the adults, they can know. But when you take the young, most of the time they just think this is Senegalese. They don’t know. The have problems to identify this is French, this is Senegalese. But for the grown-ups, they can know.
Why do you think Senegal has faired so well as remaining politically stable since gaining independence while other former French colonies, specifically the Ivory Coast, struggle with stability?
This is maybe, it’s due to the fact that there are many, many religious leaders in Senegal. They do a good job to help the population. You take the example of Senegal here; when you talk about Senegal we have the Mourides. We have the Tijaniyyah. We have also the Layene. All these [religious] communities, on top, they have a spiritual leader. You take the example of the Mourides, they have Cheikh Amadou Bamba. And the French did not conquer Cheikh Amadou Bamba. They tried. They tried and they sent him into exile all around Africa, and he came back safe. And he was a non-violent. You take also the example of Cheikh Ahmad al-Tijani for the Tijaniyyah, it’s the same. The French people, they did everything that they can, just to eliminate him, and they did not succeed. You take the example of the Layene, in Dakar, it’s the same. Then this means these people, culturally, they are strong, and also in the terms of intelligence, they are intelligent. They help the country, they build the country, [the religious leaders] are the pillars of the country. They pave their own way, and the Senegalese, they follow this way. This is, I think, that’s why Senegal escaped compared to other countries. They initiate people to live in peace. Especially to live in peace. Don’t think about tribes, that’s what they achieved in Senegal. Don’t think of tribes; don’t think of religion, but think of doing good things. This is what they initiate to all of the Senegalese. That’s what they cultivate in this country. And it’s different here so in Senegal whenever there is a problem, I myself can take my example: when my mother was sick, if I am very nervous, very frustrated, and my Marabout will say, “Please calm down. Stop”. And I will listen to him. The Mourides also are the same. They are frustrated, very angry against the government, even if they want to create a kind of demonstration, the Marabout say “please stop” they gonna stop. This is very, very important. The other countries, that’s what they don’t have. There is no one who is on top, whenever he speaks guys going to listen to him. This is a problem. In Senegal, we have this.
Can you tell us a little bit about globalization and Western influence as it impacts Senegal? Have you noticed a shift away from traditional Senegalese culture and values?
Yes, that’s it. This is something that we see every day, yes, every day we are loosing our traditions due to these sophisticated things: TV, computers, the Internet, that for sure. But [the Marabout] keep on asking, they keep on saying to come back to the good values. The idea is that we are not against these modern things; the problem is how to use them to have a good life. And [the Marabout] always keep on, yes, asking people, to use it in a good way. But everyday for sure the traditions are changing. With the young generation they don’t know. Honestly speaking they don’t know the traditions. When you ask them they don’t know. This is a big challenge the Senegalese people are facing.
There are many gatherings, we have the Magal, this is an occasion for [the Marabout] to talk to the people, just to sensitize them, to advise them. Then also we have the Gamo. These are the special events where the Marabout speaks directly to people to come back to the values. That’s it. To try to use what is good in Western cultures and mix it with what is good in our own culture.
You have three children. Do you make a conscious effort to teach them about Senegalese culture?
Yeah, yes. I am doing it. But you know it’s very, very difficult. For here the problem is you can do the best in your house, but once they are out, this is something else. But at least I am trying. First as a Pular I am trying to help them to express themselves in Pular. This is my first challenge. And also, I am trying to make them good Muslims, Muslims with open minds who can talk to everybody, share with everybody. To not be a kind of Muslim who thinks that this [one thing] is good, the others, not. This is a very big challenge. They are Muslims, but just be open; open to the world, open to people. This is a very, very big challenge. Also, just to teach them just to have some principals of Islam. For instance, when they open the Quran and read by themselves, they can understand also—because many Senegalese, they can recite all the verses, but they don’t know the meaning. It’s like a parrot. They recite, and they don’t know, really, the meaning. This is also a challenge for me. I am helping them to read the Quran, to understand. And also how to contextualize, because the Quran was since the sixth century, and today we are in the 21st century. When you take ideas at that time and then apply them to now, this is a problem. We have now to contextualize. This is important. For many Muslims, that’s where they have problems. They don’t contextualize. [Raising children] is a very big challenge that’s not easy, because at school there are many temptations, many temptations. But anyway we just try to put the basics.
Can you speak to us a little bit about education in Senegal, and the French influence upon education?
You know, in education, yes, all the poor countries today, they have problems. Because with education what is happening, the government, they don’t have enough means, they don’t have the means to invest in education. What is happening most of the time is that there are donors. Donors, they give their money, and they have their own curriculum. Most of the time, once they give you money, they say, “this is what you have to do”. This is the biggest challenge in education today. Even today, there are many, yes, many programs—we don’t need it. But the government, since they want to have money, they are obliged to use it. But today there is a group, and I am optimistic. Why I am optimistic? Because there are some groups advocating to come back to the teaching of our spiritual leaders. At least to have some programs related to what they teach. Because here, the ideas of Senegalese, the main objective of our education is first to be rooted in our values, in our culture, but at the same time have openness to the world. This is a motto of our education. But now, our roots, I think we have problems there. Yes. This is that’s why most of the time we are copying the French system, because they are giving money to the government, and they dictate also what we have to teach in our schools. This is the biggest problem that we are facing.
You mentioned a difference between the French method of colonization and the British method. Can you tell us more?
The British, when they came here in Africa, their main interest is just to take the riches of the country. They don’t care about how we behave. Their main interest was just to take the riches of the country, and they don’t care about your behavior. The French, compared to the French, here they took both the riches of the country, but here they care about your behavior. This is how you should behave.
Why, in your opinion, did the French care about not only taking the resources of a country, but also the actions of those they colonized?
Maybe it’s the French, they want a kind of colonization that is for eternity. And now if you want that, you have to insist on the mentalities. Today, we say there is no more colonization. But I think there is a new form of colonization. Yeah, that’s why they insist on the mentalities, on assimilation. When someone is assimilated, yes, he belongs to you forever. And that’s what the French did in Western African countries. And this colonization of today is a new one, the forms are changing but the ideas are here. Because when you take the example of France, geographically, it is a country without resources. No resources. Now that’s why they insist on the assimilation. Because once the people are assimilated, it’s forever. It’s forever. And this is the biggest challenge. The African countries, they have this problem. And still today, here, France is present. Look at today in Senegal; all the industries are French industries. And they have money and then the money goes back to France. Then you see, this is just a continuation of colonies, of colonization.
Do you have anything else to say about this new type of colonization and why the Senegalese government is letting it happen?
Yes, the government is letting it happen. This is the biggest problem. But now here we are trying, you see. It is up to the population to see who is the good president of the country. It is up to the people to learn who is here for the country and who is here for the Western countries. And new there is a new mentality coming with some organizations, with the young. Trying to see now that we need to come back to our values. You take the example of China, India, and even South Korea. If we want a real development, we should start on our own basis, our culture. Our biggest problem is we want to develop, and all the ideas that we are using, they are coming from the Western world. This is a problem. Now we should stop and come back to our roots. Start from there. I think we can change things. We need to come back, yes. Our spiritual leaders, they wrote in all aspects of life: if you want economy, what to do and how to do it, if you want good educations, how to, yes. They wrote in everything, all aspects of life. Then why not try to start there? This is, yeah, this is a big challenge. It’s going to be difficult, very difficult, but it’s the right way.