On Friday, September 25th, at an hour when some prefer to gather in order to turn towards the Kaaba, a woman and a man are crossing the Faidherbe bridge, walking past the administration to end up in the middle of a huge construction site.
"It’s here," says the thin-voiced young woman, pointing.
This is Faidherbe Square, at the heart of the dispute according to Ndeye Coumba Kane, a 25-year-old lawyer, activist and citizen, and Thierno Dicko, a 33-year-old computer scientist, activist and founding member of the bloggers network of Saint-Louis, which includes the Faidherbe Must Fall movement.
Under the watchful eye of a few workers, their supervisor and the engineer – a woman with the silhouette and the stride of a model, her protective shoes being the only clue that she isn’t walking down the catwalk of a fashion show – the small group is authorized to enter into the square under construction, once suspicion has been removed and with the backing of a person in charge reached on the phone from Dakar. But not without surveillance. With her frail shoulders, the engineer remains firm.
"You are not allowed to take photos of the site," she warns them.
It doesn’t take long to understand why: everything inside is being rebuilt. Most importantly, everything is considerably delayed. For twenty months, beginning in September 2019, there hasn’t been a whole lot of progress. We walk between concrete blocks and gaping holes, and thread our way through machines and cranes, to end up in front of a stone pedestal missing its ornamental piece. Henceforth, the statue of Faidherbe no longer looks down upon the inhabitants.
Epitaph of Dignity
After multiple degradations and acts of vandalism by other activists, as in November 2017, the statue has officially been moved for "work to be completed".
"It’s at the Senegal Centre for Research and Documentation," later added Fatima Fall Niang, Director and Curator of the organisation (CRDS).
On one side of the stele: "Born in Lille on the June 3, 1818, graduate of the Polytechnic University, Engineering Officer, Governor of Senegal from December 16, 1854, to December 4, 1861 and from July 14, 1863, to July 12, 1865 […]." On the other side: "To its Governor Faidherbe, the Senegal grateful – 1886."
"It’s an epitaph of dignity. We should identify ourselves with role models and not with those who represent the dark side of our history. This coloniser is the perpetrator of mass killings. I don’t support the idea of celebrating that," regrets Ndèye Coumba Kane, the jurist and militant.
One side of the street, noisy, does not hear these patronyms relating to colonization. Burning or boiling, the other side has had enough of these sounds from a bygone age.
Just like its name, Saint-Louis or Ndar, the city that was once the capital of West French Africa, a federation of eight French colonies, from 1895 to 1958, presents two aspects related to history and memory. Here, geographers and urbanists could focus on the phenomenon of "the conurbation of markets". They juxtapose to form one market over nearly one kilometer. Going past the Faidherbe Bridge, on the mainland side, clandestine stalls are lined up. Puddles of water mixed with bitumen, cooked in the fiery sunlight, scrape the bottom of the olfactory tract: in need of air, in need of water.
Far in the distance, is a worn out building whose architecture stands out from the everyday surroundings. Faience: a decorative object that marks the mid-nineteenth century as a historical caesura. For more than half a century, these famous ornaments characterized the Ecole des Otages (School of Hostages), created in 1855 by Faidherbe, Governor of what was the Senegal colony. It welcomed, by force, the sons of chiefs and local dignitaries in order to watch and train them to become auxiliaries of the colonial power. Among them are two marked opposition histories.
The opposition was between Yoro Diaw Booli Mbodj, who would later become a cantonal chief, and Sidya Diop, Prince of Waalo, a kingdom located in what is now North Senegal. He was the son of Queen Ndatté Yalla, a pioneer of the resistance against colonization and a reference point for generations of local feminists. The two graduates had different visions of colonization. Yoro Diaw Booli Mbodj was a zealous agent of the colonial administration which actively took part in the repression of the armed resistance of the Waalo Prince, Sidya Diop, in 1876.
The opposition between the two is emblematic of what is actually happening in Saint-Louis.
"It’s a continuation," says Fatima Fall Niang, Director and Curator of the CRDS which took the name of Yoro Diaw Boly Mbodji, colonization’s collaborator.
Has official history chosen its side? The turmoil which followed the death of African-American George Floyd and the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement reinforced the rivalry.
"This revived debates about colonial symbols, even though our fight has been going on since 2011," said Thierno Dicko.
"In order to denounce Floyd’s death, racism, and colonial symbols, we had planned a sit-in on June 9 on the southern tip of the Isle," explained Ndèye Coumba Kane. "It was dispersed by the police who forbade gatherings, using the measures already in place to fight Covid-19."
Not far from here, at Bacre Waly Guèye quay, named after Lamine Gueye’s father, one of the founders of independence who was once called Roume, we have an appointment with a symbol of the city.
"The Saint-Louisans are not collaborationists," says Louis Camara by way of introduction. A firm stance which contrasts with his characteristics of subtlety, elegance of mind and a sense of restraint.
In the idyllic setting offered by a restaurant on the river bank, the moon reflects on the Senegal River, illuminating the skiffs in national colors, as well as the couples quietly gathered on the restaurant’s pontoon.
Between a four-cheese pizza and a local cocktail, the fragrance of his pleas for ‘his’ Saint-Louis are escaping. Still no agitation. A velvet voice, always calm. The seeming mildness of the night has no hold over Louis Camara’s opinion. Master of clocks, but mostly of words, the 1996 Grand Prize of the Head of State for Literature for his novel The Choice of the Ori speaks for itself.
"The Faidherbe statue doesn’t bother me," he says euphemistically. "The street names are condensed into what makes Saint-Louis. Replacing settlers’ names by locals’ names with no consensus carries a troubled history. I wonder if it’s a real enlightenment of the debate or a balanced solution to identity problems. We need introspection to decide what we want to keep from our past.”
"'Assimilation and openness,' Senghor would say," Louis Camara reminds us in a tirade at the end of the night.
The next day, the Saint-Louis Isle reveals a city like a museum that’s not looked after, not to say in ruins. The city shows her true colors. No make-up. No artifice.
"That’s not kind," whispers Louis Camara when I point that out to him. "She’s too old now," he continues.
Saint-Louis is for modernity what charisma is to beauty. Young or wrinkled, the sun shines on its face. Which doesn’t stop the militants of the Faidherbe Must Fall movement continuing with their activism, going along with the wave of international protest about streets, avenues, squares, and boulevards named after colonials and genocidal individuals.
"Iba Der Thiam (Senegalese historian, editor’s note) states that Faidherbe is said to have killed more than 20,000 Senegalese within eight months, during the conquest of Waalo," relates Thierno Dicko, the 33 year old young man.
"He was a genocidal person who doesn’t deserve to have our streets and squares dedicated to him," says the jurist Ndeye Coumba, irritated. And a recent event proves her right.
Indeed, a few hours later, the municipality decides to rename Faidherbe Square, the heart of the city. It becomes Baya Ndar.
"One less," smiles Thierno Dicko, militant and coordinator of the Faidherbe Must Fall collective.
"Baya Ndar has been the square’s name for generations. We are only going back to the original name," explains Fatima Fall, curator of the CRDS.
Yet this announcement is the subject of an explosion within the small cosmos of activists who prefer "domou Ndar" (son of Ndar) to Saint-Louisans, as the name of the inhabitants of the city. "It’s a big surprise" for Thierno Dicko. He makes a connection with the global protest movement against racism following George Floyd’s death and also with the fall of statues reminding people of colonization and slavery. With his acolyte, Coumba, the young man analyzes how "this victory" happened while considering what comes next. "It shows that the government is finally paying attention to the demands of half of Ndar’s population. It’s a good start, but we would like the square to take the name of a heroic Senegalese figure to prevent the original statue from ever returning. If we name it after a Senegalese personality, it will stop all ideas of putting the statue back," he maintains.
The tone of the discussions rises like mercury, especially after the announcement of the decision to change Faidherbe Square into Baya Ndar. "This leaves me a bit doubtful about how street names are being changed. We don’t take the public’s opinion into sufficient account. The people of Saint-Louis must have their say," protests Louis Camara, meeting us at the entrance of the former De Gaulle High School, which has been called Oumar Foutouyou Tall since 1983. Baya Ndar? That doesn’t mean anything. I would have gone for 'Mom sa rew' (Wolof for Sovereignty). The political movement of the African Independence Party (Parti Africain de l’Indépendance, PAI) whose slogan was 'Mom sa rew' has played a part in Senegalese history. This movement was born in Saint-Louis. Do we remove the name of Faidherbe Square? That I agree with. Saint-Louis is no longer a French city so it’s alright to change the name. But to change for the sake of changing, that I am against. This is about history; the specialists must decide on Faidherbe. Saint-Louis must look forward," continues the writer.
However, the tour of the island sends us back to a frozen time with traces of colonization on several streets and buildings of which Faidherbe is a symbol. A bridge, a square and a statue were named after him until the first renaming.
"A process of renaming streets began several years ago," says Fatima Fall Niang, also a member of the commission in charge of the study for the establishment of street names.
Interbreeding and meetings
Thierno Dicko, known for his opposition to the recently deceased Golbert Diagne, journalist, actor, press baron and ardent defender of the presence of the Faidherbe statue and the colonial legacy, (“It earned me death threats.”), wants the city’s references to colonization to disappear. An idea which is not really shared by all those who see Saint-Louis as a city of convergence, with a mosque close to a minaret and a belltower.
A plaque outside the place of worship states: Marked out by El Hadji Omar since 1825, the Great Mosque was built, by the colonial administration, around one of the few wells of the island. This may explain the unusual presence of a belltower which became the remaining minaret.
"We are intermingling, and the city is a meeting place. Here, black and white Africa, as well as all the ethnic groups of Senegal, intersect. This interweaving became stronger with colonization. It is an outpost of Islam with the Almoravid Dynasty. There is also a Christian presence as the first cathedral of Senegal was built in Saint-Louis in the last half of the nineteenth century. Thus, one cannot speak of Saint-Louis without mentioning its past. It’s like talking about Venice without evoking the doges, or the water of that city."
Having begun over thirty years ago — for example the De Gaulle High School was renamed Oumar Foutouyou Tall in 1983 —, the changes of the patronyms chosen to name streets and buildings in the old city seem to have accelerated. And the Black Lives Matter protests are certainly not unrelated to this.
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