Part of my daily routine is to listen to music. In the morning, while in transit, and even as I am doing work I have music playing. After a week there has been no need to reach for my mp3 player or headphones. Throughout the day, I am hearing the spoken languages of Senegal and they seem to have a musicality about them. Arabic, English, French, and Wolof can all be found in one setting here and Dakar. The one commonality, on which I will elaborate, is the passion a Senegalese person has when using one of these oral languages.
As a piece of music begins, it has a strong introduction with sounds that will hopefully catch your attention early to continue listening. In this context, that would be the call to prayer. Every morning at dawn there is the booming sound of Arabic that blast through speakers and can be heard all around the neighborhood of Sacre Cœur. Each morning the spirit and tone of the call never wavers. The tone is set consistently for the day to move into its next movement of the song.
The biggest part of a song is the melody and it is the driving force that transports you through the music. Similarly, much of our time is spent in taxis or in meetings with key players in this debate on national language and its role in formal and non-formal education. These are the moments when I hear silence from the taxi driver interjected with exclamations regarding traffic or poor drivers that inhibits a timely arrival. This same enthusiasm I seen in the classroom as well. I observed a bilingual education classroom that began in the national language Wolof and then shifted to French language. Normally, hearing Wolof sounds different than the way its written. It wasn’t until I was in the classroom that Wolof sounded clearer and sounded like its written equivalent. Furthermore, the echoing bass of the teacher resonated against the walls of the classroom with the same vigor as the taxi driver in the streets.
A song is not complete without a climax or drama in the music to add another dimension. I can recall at least two moments where there was drama added to the narrative of my experience in Senegal. On a Monday afternoon our group went to meet with USAID. They discussed their $70 million reading program they will be implementing with the Ministry of Education. The goal of the project is to have all primary school children reading at grade level in five years. They planned on working in 7 regions and they strategically, excluded a region where there tends to be conflict and the highest amount of illiteracy. One of the Senegalese nationals that accompanied us on our visit spoke up to advocate for this region. As he spoke there were subtle signs of emotion and sincerity in his voice which was rarely displayed from other presenters. The same day, I was witness to a political debate between friends. My host sister was so involved in the conversation that she found herself frequently stepping away from the stove where she was cooking and closer to the face of her opponent. This was by far the loudest dialogue I experienced since I arrived.
It is a shame that will such a language that is filled with energy, enthusiasm, and emotion is being marginalized and oppressed by the French language. Dr. Mbacke Diange presented on the colonialization of Senegalese education system and at the end of the presentation he was direct in saying that Senegalese people do not need French to speak and work in Senegal or unite the ethnic groups. He went on to explain that French is used still in the government as a post-colonial result. If the elected officials speak their national language behind closed doors with the ones closest to them, why can they not speak up and speak out and join others as they sing to the music of Senegal.