Enigmas & Revelations

The Dekal Geej sign painted on a Dakar wall is my signature reminder that what I encountered in Senegal was often half-understood—or worse, misunderstood.  But it’s also a reminder that, with a little research (and maybe a return visit someday…) revelations are possible.

The Dekal Geej “yin yang” attracted my camera lens because it used two fish to represent the dark-&-light opposites of the Dao.  Mostly, it made me laugh:  the white fish’s bones are showing and his eye is an X, the universal cartoon symbol for dead.  As it is, fish are the only animals I eat (unless seated around a platter of poulet yassa my hosts have prepared for me…); I’ve made a tentative peace with the hard fact that another creature dies so that I can be fed.  In the Dekal Geej logo, the black fish—alive—becomes the white fish on my platter—dead.  May I add that fish dishes were my staple whilst in Senegal; no country’s cuisine prepares it better.

It turns out—props to The Google for its vast library at my fingertips—that Dekal Geej is a program sponsored by USAID to help Senegal achieve sustainable fishing practices.  “Our tax dollars at work,” as Americans are fond of saying:  a program that, at first glance, I am delighted my taxes are funding.  Of course, others may see Dekal Geej as another “developed-world” manipulation of “developing-world” economies, but I can say that Dekal Geej’s goals at least are all laudable:

•Reduced use of inappropriate or illegal fishing equipment and practices •Reduction in overfishing • Improved ecosystem capacity to adapt to climate change • Improved management of solid waste and pollutants, including plastics and micro-plastics • Reduced mangrove deforestation

If you’d like to learn more about USAID’s Dekal Geej project, you can begin with this fact sheet:  https://winrock.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/20200103-FtF-Senegal-Dekkal-Geej-Handout.pdf

In the Dekal Geej porject, it seems I’ve encountered further “oppositions” in the Dao:  rich country, poor country; abundance, limitation.

Near our hotel in Saint-Louis, on a side street not far from the Pont (Bridge) Faidherbe, I found a wall of lovely—and enigmatic—murals that seemed to immortalize Saint-Louis notables.  Of course, I recognized not one of them—which ignorance should have prompted another interrogation of my host teachers—but prepping for my teaching gigs led me to postpone my research with an “I’ll figure it out when I get home” promise to myself.

What follows are photos of the mural, along with the fruits of my internet research.  If you’re willing to stick with the research, you will find that the backstories just get better and better.

Four of the major figures depicted are surrounded by a kind of nimbus of what seems to be Arabic script—am I advertising my ignorance to guess that the muralist may have been “sainting” these Saint-Louis natives?

At the end of the street is an image of Abdoulaye Diaw, a sportscaster for Sport Africa News.  Calling Diaw a "sportscaster for Sport Africa News" is apparently like calling Howard Cosell “a sportscaster for ABC.”  One sports journalist begins his interview with Diaw this way:  “Abdoulaye Diaw.  Say this name and you will cause crazy enthusiasm in the sporting world.  Because since a young age, this native of Saint-Louis has given his life to sport.”  In a country crazy for football, Diaw was an institution.

You may also notice, if you look closely at the street sign embedded in Diaw’s nimbus, that these murals can be found on Rue Henry Guillabert.  Naturally I had to find out who Henry Guillabert was (after all, the only proper response to ignorance is a Google search)—and I learned that Saint-Louis native Henri Guillabert was—and perhaps still is—keyboardist and guitarist for the Senegalese jazz ensemble Xalam.  (In fact, I’ve been listening to their album Goree on Spotify while scouring the web.)

Xalam toured with Hugh Masekela in 1975, relocated temporarily to Paris in the 1980s, performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1991, and have since been honored throughout Africa and Europe for their musicianship.  (For the record, if you’re a hard-core Rolling Stones fan, you can find Xalam providing percussion on 1983’s Undercover of the Night.) Guillabert himself ran the Quais de Arts (Center) in his hometown of Saint-Louis.

Here depicted is Marie Madeleine Diallo, an actress born in Saint-Louis in 1948.  She appeared in the groundbreaking 1971 Senegalese film Kodou as N’Doumbé and then later became a radio host on RTS, as well as an actress in a radio theater troupe.  According to her Wikipedia biography, “In 1990, [her] performance in the TV film Bara Yeggo gave [her] national fame in Senegal.”  Alas, I could find only a film trailer for Kodou on Youtube, and Episode 1 of Bara Yeggo, performed in what I assume is Wolof, offers no subtitles for a monolingual American.  But you can still look up Youssou N’Dour’s tribute to Madeleine Diallo on his 1992 album Eyes Open, which song is titled “Marie-Madeleine La Saint-Louisienne.”  Musically, it’s a delightful tune from my favorite Senegalese songwriter, but I can’t make heads-or-tails of the lyrics.

Golbert (Alioune Badara) Diagne, here pictured, a fellow RTS radio personality, made his fame in Bara Yeggo as well and later founded his own radio station, Teranga FM.  A reporter for Gambiana describes him as a “towering cultural figure in Senegal,” renowned for his comic TV performances.  Apparently he was so beloved that a petition circulated to replace the defaced statue of the French colonial governor of Senegal, Louis Faidherbe, that once stood in the broad plaza named in his honor.  (Find out more about M. Faidherbe’s falling stock further below.)  Alas, I found no statue of Golbert Diagne in the former Faidherbe Square, which a month after my visit was renamed “Baya Ndar”—“Saint-Louis Square” in Wolof.   More on that renaming below.

In another search, a discovered an obituary for Mame Sèye Diop, a Saint-Louis actress.  The obituary notice described her as “an icon of Saint-Louis theater in particular and Senegalese theater in general, active in the social movement and municipal councilor.”  Like Madeleine Diallo, she appeared in Bara Yeggo as part of the RTS radio theater troupe.  In her later years, she served as president of the Culture Commission of Saint-Louis.  It’s lovely to see all these arts leaders so honored on my favorite mural in Saint-Louis.

The kind and beautiful face that gave me the greatest research challenge belongs to the Senegalese novelist Aminata Sow Fall.  She is perhaps the most famous personage depicted, but an erroneous reading of her name stalled my search.  It turns out that Ms. Fall, another Saint-Louis native, became the first published woman novelist from francophone Black Africa.  After earning her degree at the Sorbonne, she returned to Senegal, became a teacher, and while a member of the Commission for Educational Reform advocated for the introduction of African literature into Senegal’s syllabus.  She has received a multitude of awards during a celebrated literary career—her biography can be readily found in Wikipedia and elsewhere, and her most famous novel is available in English translation as The Beggar’s Strike, or the Dregs of Society (originally published in 1980).

The most fascinating biography inspired by the mural is that of Battling Siki.  His image kept presenting itself during my visit—a folk-sculpture along the Corniche in Saint-Louis, later an earnest mural that depicted the boxer and declared him an “Etoile [star] for ever.”  (I managed to snap a picture of the mural, assigning myself further investigative homework.)  After I found his image on the Rue Henry Guillabert near my hotel, I had to find the backstory for Battling Siki.


It turns out his story is told in at least one biography (Peter Benson’s Battling Siki:  A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race, and Murder in the 1920s, a graphic novel titled Championzé (unfortunately for me, captioned in French), a recently released documentary titled Return to Your Corner, a slew of Youtube boxing footage, and even a jazz album of 14 compositions, Mauro Gargano’s Suite for Battling Siki.

In 1922 Battling Siki—born Louis Mbarick Fall in Saint-Louis—became Light Heavyweight Champion of the World when he knocked French war hero Georges Carpentier to the canvas.  Before the title bout, Siki had agreed to take a fall and give Carpentier the victory, but when, in Siki’s opinion, Carpentier sucker-punched him, he erupted and KO’d the French champion.  The match’s referee called foul, alleging that Siki had tripped his opponent, but indignant spectators protested the call and the three ringside judges awarded the fight—and the world champion title—to Battling Siki.  He was Africa’s first world champion.

In his prime, Louis Fall compiled a record of 43-3, with 21 KOs.  (For those interested, a list of his fights can be found on Wikipedia.)  His reign as world champion was sensational, both in the ring and out:  he walked a pair of lion cubs, purchased after his title bout, down the Champs-Élysées, and he was generous—perhaps to a fault—with his temporary prizefight wealth.  While in the United States, he married a white woman—unremarkable today, but in 1920s America, downright scandalous.  In America, his boxing prowess faded, and his life ended tragically, at the age of 28.  To read a short, well-written biography of Battling Siki, link to Vince Raison’s tribute in the UK’s Independent:  www.independent.co.uk/sport/boxing/battling-siki-boxing-history-african-world-champion-feature-international-hall-of-fame-a8585286.html.

Raison quotes Battling Siki within his profile:  “A lot of newspaper fellows have written that I have a jungle style of fighting, and that I am a sort of chimpanzee who has been taught to wear gloves.  I was never in the jungle in my life.  I am Senegalese and I am proud of it.  I am black and where I am from it was very fashionable.”

The Pont (Bridge) Faidherbe is Saint-Louis’ most famous landmark.  Many mornings I thumped across the bridge on my way to the Corniche on my morning run, where I could watch the city awaken.


The bridge is named for the French colonial governor of Senegal, who served from 1854-1865 (minus a 2-year interval).  During his governorship, Saint-Louis was the capital of Senegal, so he enjoyed considerable power in French West Africa.  Faidherbe himself didn’t construct the bridge I ran across each morning; during his governorship, he established a ferry that transported 150 people (along with horses, cows, and camels) across the Senegal, but the ferry was soon overwhelmed with traffic.  The current bridge was completed after his death and christened Pont Faidherbe in his memory.

Faidherbe is credited with—I’m quoting encyclopedia boilerplate here—“contribut[ing] greatly to the development and modernization of Saint-Louis.  His large-scale projects included the building of bridges, provisioning of fresh drinking water, and the construction of an overland telegraph line to Dakar” (New World Encyclopedia); the editors of Encyclopedia Brittanica are even more effusive in its praise:  “Faidherbe was no mere conquistador; he possessed a real sympathy for his African subjects and a genuine concern for their welfare.  He also was an uncompromising enemy of slavery in all its forms.  He sought to improve indigenous society without destroying it, and to this end he maintained the traditional authority of the chiefs while training their sons to become more efficient agents of French rule.”


But others see Faidherbe’s legacy as a dark and brutal chapter in West Africa’s colonial history.  In addition to his public works projects, he was an aggressive—even renegade—imperialist crusader who dreamed of establishing a French African colony from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.  He learned the Wolof, Pular, and Sarakolé languages from the 15-year-old Sarakolé girl he took as mistress after he arrived in Senegal.  An unadorned Wikipedia biography mentions that, after launching a war against the Serer people in Sine, he gave an order for the province of Fatik and its surrounding villages be burned to the ground.  A 2022 New York Times article claims that Faidherbe  “led military expeditions that killed tens of thousands of people” (godfreytimes.com/2022/05/05/in-senegals-former-capital-a-colonial-statue-in-hiding-is-no-longer-welcome).


A statue of Faidherbe—vandalized and then removed—once stood in Place Faidherbe, bearing the legend on its pedestal, “To its governor Faidherbe, Senegal is grateful.”  But Place Faidherbe has been renamed Baya Ndar, according to an article published on CGTN a couple months after I left Senegal (africa.cgtn.com/senegal-renames-central-square-in-former-colonial-capital/).  Ndar is the Wolof name for Saint-Louis, while Baya simply means “square” in Senegal’s most widely spoken language.


We might view the Faidherbe statue’s removal as another expression of an expanding decolonizing movement on the African continent; as the New York Times article points out, a statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from Cape Town, a statue of Queen Victoria was toppled in Nairobi, and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a statue of Leopold II was installed in 2005, only to be removed a day later after protests from its citizens.


Such historical reappraisals are not unfamiliar in our own country, of course.  The United States continues to struggle over the removal of Confederate statues, as citizens reevaluate former heroes.  Schools, military bases, and streets have all been renamed in light of historic reassessments.  Mississippi became the last state in the former Confederacy to remove the Stars and Bars from its state flag.  Some see the toppling of statues and the renaming of landmarks as an “erasure of history,” but as a history teacher, I am encouraged by the overdue reckoning we are making with our national history.  That’s not to say that I support every instance of statue-toppling, of course, but I relish the agonizing reappraisal that accompanies our struggle.


Such discussions and disputes over our historical tributes—in the United States as well as in Senegal—are signs of a healthy democracy.  That those discussions remain civil is the sign of a mature society—and of that sign, alas, we can be less certain.