Arabic in Africa and the Problem of Archival Thinking

Archival material held in a private archive in Northeastern Senegal. Author’s photo.

Ideally, ‘Eid al-Fitr joyously marks the end of Ramadan fasting with communal prayer and equally communal feasting. In Senegal, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, there are some translations in the form of the holiday but the message is the same. Known in the vernacular as Korité, it functions to bring together the community of believers and cultivate a sense of unity in the West African nation, around 94 percent of which is Muslim. However, during my pre-dissertation research on Islamic textual collection in Senegal this summer, Korité appeared to be as much a point of disunity and contestation as solidarity and community.

Because ‘Eid and the rest of the Islamic year follows a lunar calendar, the start of a new month must be observed by someone with the authority to determine the start of the full moon, thereby making time an inherently political concern. This necessity has produced a notorious, yet predictable, low-level controversy across the ummah, the world community. When does the month start? When does it end? And according to whom? While many countries follow religious authorities in Saudi Arabia, it is sometimes the case that they establish national bodies to determine the appearance of the new moon and hence the beginning and end of the holy month. In some places, this determination is even made at the local level. In Senegal, all three seem to be the case, forcing people to decide between multiple days on which to celebrate their connection with the larger Muslim world.

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Tariq Ramadan’s Burden

Tariq Ramadan faces off claims of Arab colonialism in Africa. Source:

During a recent debate on the Senegalese television channel TFM about the ongoing violence in Palestine, Tariq Ramadan accused one of his interlocutors Bakary Sambe of the most offensive crime for an African intellectual: having a colonized mind.

Sambe, a professor at Senegal’s Gaston Berger University and coordinator of the Observatory of Radicalisms and Religious Conflicts in Africa, had been asked about American leadership in peace talks when his response solicited Ramadan’s comments. In a clear departure from the flow of the conversation, Sambe offered his reflections on the Islamist threat of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood while staring directly at Ramadan. Observing that Sambe’s comments had “nothing to do with” the conversation, Ramadan asked Sambe if he was speaking live from Washington or London. Humorously, Sambe slips and says that he is speaking from Washington, before correcting himself by saying that he was speaking from here (here being Dakar). Ramadan then gives a dismissive gesture while Sambe appears clearly flustered and at a lost for words.

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Lessons from Senegal’s Democracy

senegal_03192012Elections in Senegal have a long history, going back to 1848 when the citizens of Saint-Louis and Gorée were granted universal (male) suffrage. Although limited in scope, this electoral political culture is an important legacy, and this may explain why the breakdown of the electoral process, which many observers predicted, did not happen.

The unconstitutional candidacy of current President Abdoulaye Wade was the key contentious issue, resulting in many days of protest and police repression which cost the lives of around fifteen people. Despite this tension, election day was extremely peaceful and 65% of voters confidently voted against Wade. Continue reading Lessons from Senegal’s Democracy