World Heritage vs. Local Memory

Imagination of the Past in Senegal
Throughout the day, we have reified the past, talked it into existence. But in fact, the past does not exist. Only remnants of the past exist. What we should be asking is therefore not "who owns the past", but, which constructions of the past do we want? And in case there are conflicts about constructions of the past, we should ask which constructions we want to prevail. In order to help the debate, I will suggest that some constructions of the past are irrelevant to other constructions of the past. Obviously, I think that heritage can be irrelevant to local memory. In this quarter of an hour I will juxtapose a world heritage site to local memory.

One of the earliest French trade posts established in Africa was the comptoir of St Louis, named after the patron saint of France. St Louis is situated in the north of Senegal, 20 kilometers upstream in the Senegal River.

2 slides: maps of Senegal and St Louis
2 slides: St Louis postcards
2 slides: St Louis as I saw it
2 slides: St Louis in ruins

The UNESCO WH website describes the city as follows:

"Founded as a French colonial settlement in the 17th century, Saint-Louis was urbanised in the mid-19th century. It was the capital of Senegal from 1872 to 1957 and played an important cultural and economic role in the whole of West Africa. The location of the town on an island at the mouth of the Senegal River, its regular town plan, the system of quays, and the characteristic colonial architecture give Saint-Louis its distinctive appearance and identity."

The island in the Senegal River was selected as a World Heritage site in 2001. The UNESCO WH website gives the following justification:

"The Island of Saint-Louis, a former capital of West Africa, is an outstanding example of a colonial city, characterized by its particular natural setting, and it illustrates the development of colonial government in this region."

Postcards dating to the colonial period demonstrate that the architecture of the island of St Louis was different from the architecture of the other parts of the city:

2 slides: The island and mainland Sor
2 slides: The island and Guet N'dar

But the island was not only different in terms of architecture. The island in the Senegal River was a settlement of which the inhabitants had French citizenship. The island was inhabited by French adminstrators, soldiers, traders, and people of mixed descent. Those living at Guet Ndar or those living at the mainland remained without citizen rights and were simply sujets, subjects to the French colonial regime. So one wonders whether the selection of the island of St Louis as WH site does not in a particular way commemorate colonialism.

When I visited St Louis this summer, I was so lucky as to stumble into an annual commemoration held at the city's island. Every 5 September, the disciples of the Muslim brotherhood founded by Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba commemorate how this saint defied French authority and conducted a prayer in front of the assembled French authorities in the Governor's palace.

Senegal is a country where more than 95% of the population is Muslim. Most Muslims adhere to a Muslim brotherhood, such as the Mouride brotherhood, founded in the 19th century by Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba. The leaders of the brotherhood are thought to be close to God and one may justifiably call them saints. The French colonial regime initially feared Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, as he was capable of mobilizing large numbers of followers against the French, if he so wished. So they repeatedly exiled him. However, the French realized that they had no authority whatsoever and therefore depended on collaboration with the saint, who then legitimized their worldly authority. The alliance worked to the benefit of all, and was even continued after Independence. To this day, Senegalese leaders need to express their respect to the Mouride brotherhood. President Wade is a Mouride himself and when he was elected President, he visited the leaders of the Mouride brotherhood in their spiritual capital before swearing the oath of national allegiance in the National Parliament.

What is commemorated by the Mourides at the 5th of September? Moustapha Seck, follower of Cheikh Ibra Fall, told me the following story:

The French colonial administration was afraid of Islam and convoked 84 West African Muslim leaders to the Governmental Palace, the Gouvernance, in St Louis. There, the French asked them to sign an agreement in which they declared to abscond from Islamic propaganda. All of the leaders complied with the French demand. But Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, when entering the office where the meeting was proceeding, signalled the impurity of the gathering and ordered his follower Sheikh Ibra Fall to cleanse the room. And so Sheikh Ibra Fall did.

Slides: CIF cleansing the office; painting hanging at the Governor's Palace

Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba then prayed two rakkas (two sequences of the bodily movement that constitute one prayer). He then refused to sign the document and was incarcerated in the Governmental Palace. He was subsequently condemned to exile. However, by this act of defiance, my interlocutor assured, the purity of Islam and Senegal were saved for posterity. Today, the annual commemoration of the prayer attracts thousands of pilgrims, some of whom visit the cell where Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba was incarcerated following his act of defiance.

Slides: cell door and statue of General Faidherbe

It should be remembered that the Governor's Palace is placed at the centre of the island, at the Place Faidherbe. So when the pilgrims visit the cell, they actually turns their backs at General Faidherbe's statue. For several days, the central square of Saint Louis is decorated with images of the Muslim saints and seems entirely appropriated by the brotherhood.

Slides: CAB and CIF on the Place Faidherbe

The absolute highlight of the commemoration consists of a prayer at the Friday afternoon. Thousands of pilgrims come to St Louis and pray in front of the Governor's Palace. The island, formerly inhabited by French citizens, is invaded by thousands of descendants of colonial subjects, appropriating the public space as legitimately theirs. So many pilgrims visit St Louis that the Pont Faidherbe is actually closed to motorised traffic. The Pont Faidherbe is a very distinct landmark in Senegal, and has undoubtedly contributed to the selection of the island as WH site:

2 slides: original plate depicting the construction of the bridge and nostalgic postcard

Here is a restaurant next to the bridge at the island, from where one has a wonderful view of the bridge. The menu includes some historical information on the bridge, presented in the playful form of "Did you knows?" The nostalgic postcard might be said to be part of such a cultural orientation. However, the Mourides appropriate the bridge for their own policy, and decorate it for the time of the commemoration with their own flags.

2 Slides: bridge and flags

Interestingly, after the Friday afternoon prayer, many pilgrims are leaving the island in great hurry, running back to the mainland. Their mood seems slightly elated, as if they are saying: "We've done it. We've beaten them again!" Clearly, the bridge represents very different values to different audiences.

Finally, I would like to show a slide of a printed folder that was for sale for 50p on the 5th of September.

Slide Far/Right

I am intrigued by its symmetry. It shows Sheikh Amadou Bamba dominating the scene. Behind him is a fragment of the painting displaying his act of defiance. Then, there is the bridge as a clear signifier of the place of action. Finally, we have two buildings. The one in the top left corner is the Governor's Palace. The top end of the tower on the right hand represents the central minaret of the mosque in the spiritual capital of the Mourides. This seems to suggest that Sheikh Amadou Bamba incorporates all, both world authority, as represented by the Governor's palace, and spiritual authority. Heritage, here, seems conspicuously absent, irrelevant really.

Ferdinand de Jong | Mar 2004