A Wound Against the Horizon

A Wound Against the Horizon

Fall 2023

Dakar sprawls.  In the last 25 years, the city’s population has doubled, and as a result of that frenetic growth, a cityscape of bland and blocky concrete has risen along this westernmost reach of the African continent.  People from all over West Africa are drawn to Dakar’s vitality; if its builders have worked in haste, they must also be given credit for housing some 1.7 million new inhabitants during the last 

quarter-century.  They are a determined and lamentably underfunded workforce.

In the end, then, Dakar is a city whose allure is its people rather than its architecture.

During our van trips to Ile de Goree and the American Embassy, to the Black Civilization Museum and the West African Research Center, we had repeatedly seen “The Monument” on the skyline.  Beloved by some, despised by others, its audacious size and setting near the coast so dominated Dakar’s horizon that we could navigate by it.  The Monument is 17 stories high, the tallest in Africa; adding to the effect is its booster seat:  the easternmost of the two Collines de Mamelles (“Breast Hills”), a 100-meter prominence twice the height of The Monument itself.

The State Department had arranged our visit for our final afternoon in Senegal.  Our Senegal cohort were abuzz with tales from our three teaching outposts within the country, and maybe a little exhausted too, with a couple of us were trying to medicate away some GI distress we’d developed during our travels.  The Monument was obviously important to the citizens of Senegal, so we summoned enthusiasm for the climb up the 198 stairs and remained devoted to our goodwill mission.  I guessed that The Monument might well be Senegal’s “Statue of Liberty,” so I endeavored to grant it the respect it deserved.

Alas, there were many Senegalese citizens who had decided The Monument deserved no respect.  For starters, its construction was costly—crews brought the project in for $27 million in 2010 dollars—a not insignificant percentage of its 2010 GDP of $16 billion.  (For comparison’s sake, building our American Statue of Liberty required over $15 million in 2010 USD, plus another $39 million for its mid-1980’s rehab.)

Some saw the project as a self-aggrandizing monument to President Abdoulaye Wade more than to West Africa.  Wade had slated its completion for 2010—the 50th year of Senegal’s national independence.  Opposition leader Abdoulaye Bathily of the Movement for Labor Party called the statue “the product of a power-drunk president.”  A January 2010 story on NPR records Bathily complaining that "The economy has collapsed. ... The education system is in a crisis.  The health system is in crisis.  And yet Abdoulaye Wade is squandering public money….  People are so frustrated by this.”  (To hear a 13-year-old NPR story on the subject, link to https://www.npr.org/2010/01/05/122220923/for-many-in-senegal-statue-is-a-monumental-failure.)

In fact, an editor at Luxembourg’s Le Quotidien newspaper calculated the cost of The Monument to be “equivalent to the debts of the capital’s public hospitals, which are forced to turn patients away because resources are scarce.”


Wade’s brainchild was subject to other grievances as well:  The Monument, whose official name is “Monument de la Renaissance Africaine”—that is, the African Renaissance Monument—was actually constructed by a Korean sculpting firm, and Wade insisted that he receive 35% of all admission-fee profits, claiming intellectual property rights for “drawing” the monument.

And then there was the matter of the “scantily clad” figures featured in the statue, which outraged many imams in this country that recognizes 97% of its population as Muslim.  There seemed—and still seem—to be legions of detractors for the project, from disgruntled citizens to art critics to political theorists who see The Monument’s grandeur as bound up in “elder-thought” and fashioned in the heroic socialist aesthetic of a bygone area.

But I was moved by it.

When I’d asked my young guide Nabi Tin about The Monument during my visit to Ile de Goree, he implied that criticism had faded since 2010 and that many in Dakar had come to respect it—had even grown fond of it.  “People in Dakar like to protest,” he said, laughing.

I was moved by The Monument’s ambition as well as by its bold profile.  The figures—a mother, a father, and their child, presumably—seemed to be emerging from the earth itself, as though having spent decades—centuries, even—imprisoned underground.  Where an imam might have been scandalized by the mother’s dress, for me her clothing suggested liberation.  Yes, the man was the center of the monument—the rooted trunk of this family tree—but I think I liked most that he was holding his child rather than the mother, as though sharing in the child-rearing more than fathers of the recent past had done.

The mother gestures behind, toward Isle de Goree...

...while her son, lifted on his father's arm, points across the Atlantic to the African Diaspora.  Not everyone is inspired, but I must admit that I was. 

All my interpretations of The Monument are utterly suspect, of course.  When we like a sculpture, we prop it up with our justifications, and when we despise one, we undermine it with all our might.  I admit to a fondness for socialist art, for political idealism, for statues that celebrate the heroic neglected.  Even the pronounced—some would say brazen—line from the mother’s extended arm through the father’s shoulders to the son’s pointing finger resonated with my affection for this valiant, troubled nation.

But it was my trip to the crown of the Monument—the father’s kufi cap—that conquered all the obvious criticisms of President Wade’s “boondoggle.”

Inside the copper monument we discovered a sculpture exhibition on its second floor.  It presented life-size and heroic figures representing various West African ethnic groups and depicted a haunting chain gang of enslaved Africans, their faces evincing despair, bewilderment, and endurance.  One sculpture—the “Accomplice”—featured a seated African man who, according to our guide, profited from the slave trade whilst in collusion with European slavers.

During my time in Senegal, I had encountered little discussion of the Middle Passage, of colonialism, of reparations.  Perhaps the Fulbright Program had arranged our journey so that we bypassed such topics, but it seemed to me that Senegal was concentrating on its future; citizen grievances were more often directed towards corrupt public officials than towards oppressive social structures.  Or so it seemed to me, pinioned by linguistic ignorance and my unfailing “good manners” as guest of the nation.  Here, on our last full day in Senegal, we were reminded of how the country had been pillaged by invaders, of how for five centuries West Africans had suffered genocide, witnessing—besides death by violence and disease—the dismantling of family ties, of community self-determination, and of individual dignity.

When we arrived at the top floor of The Monument’s internal structure, I was astonished to find a mural depicting President Obama and Dr. King.  The two American leaders flanked a child who sat, head between his knees, in the passageway to the “Door of No Return” at Ile de Goree.  Above the child a dove fluttered; on its left wing were written Dr. King’s most famous declaration, “I have a dream,” while on its right wing were written President Obama’s insistence that “Yes we can!”  The words were written in English, and I wondered who, most of all, was the mural’s intended audience.

Very likely, the African Diaspora.

The mural had surprised me; what our guide told us next moved me:  the mother in The Monument drew her hand away from Ile de Goree, while the infant child on the father’s arm pointed directly across the Atlantic to the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

My eyes brimmed and I looked away so that no one would see how moved I was.  For cover, I took a photo, embarrassed and marveling at my usually covert patriotism, now oozing out of my eyes in betrayal.  I didn’t dare speak aloud the words that were forming in my mouth:  Somebody still believes in us.

Keeping hope alive in the African Renaissance Monument;  "My eyes brimmed and I looked away so that no one would see how moved I was.  For cover, I took a photo, embarrassed and marveling at my usually covert patriotism."

As I shot my photos, I thought harder, admitting that the “us” the sculptor and the muralist paid tribute to was an “us” despised my a third of my fellow Americans.  My “us” included people like Dr. King and President Obama, like Eugene Debs and Ida B. Wells.  Their achievements were worthy of a gesture across an ocean.

Months have passed since that visit, and I have to ask myself:  did the African Renaissance Monument let me off the hook?  Did it allow me to believe, for a dizzying moment peering out the window of a copper statue some 17 stories above hyperactive, turbulent Dakar, that the world was changing enough that yes, we really could, that Senegal could, that the world’s newly independent people could bust through the catacombs of the last five centuries and bask in the light of a possible dream?

When I returned to street level, I cast a last glance at Wade’s very old-fashioned monument—the colossal vision of an 80-year-old man who, despite his political shortcomings, had endeavored to symbolize the “triumph of African liberation from five centuries of ignorance, intolerance, and racism,” who saw his people emerging “from the bowels of the earth to leave darkness behind and move toward the light.”

The Monument had not been built for me.  It had not been funded at my expense, and I had not endured the frustration of being turned away from one of Dakar’s underfunded hospitals whilst watching the Africa Renaissance Monument rise on the city skyline.  But I had the luxury to cherish its best intentions.  I could, as an idealistic outsider, valorize its erupting hope while admiring the unrelenting scrutiny—even censure—of Senegal’s citizens.

The second floor of The Monument features life-sized figures from West African history. 

Among the most moving figures are sculptures depicting a chain gang of enslaved Africans, their faces evincing despair, bewilderment, and endurance.  

One sculpture from the exhibit—the “Accomplice”—features a seated African man who, according to our guide, profited from the slave trade whilst in collusion with European slavers.

Many devout Muslims found The Monument downright immodest—even offensive—in its depiction of the human figure.

This painting by renowned Dakar artist Kalidou Kasse, the “Brush of Sahel,” features prominently in the third-floor gallery.  When I stare Kasse’s hallway of multiple doors, I can’t help but think of Ile de Goree.  It’s striking that Kasse, who is also a sculptor, affixed a key into his painting.

Its critics call it a boondoogle, an eyesore, an arrogant monument to its creator.  Its defenders find it inspiring.  In the coming years, will the African Renaissance Monument become a beloved Dakar landmark?