Tag Archives: African Studies

Senegal Abroad

Today we present an interview with Maya Angela Smith, author of the new book Senegal AbroadThis book illustrates the experiences of Senegalese people in Paris, Rome, and New York, and is a part of our series Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture.


How did you become interested in language in the context of migration, and why did you decide to focus on the Senegalese diaspora?

I first became interested in the relationship between language, identity, and setting as a college student. While studying abroad in Paris and Dakar, I experienced the social nature of learning a language and how this social practice varied with context. For me, learning French in Paris was a more challenging experience than learning French in Dakar. Many Parisians seemed to have little patience for language learners, and I was often self-conscious about my French-speaking abilities, worried about making mistakes. By contrast, while learning French in Dakar, I felt less pressure to speak French perfectly, partially because I was simultaneously studying Wolof, the most widely spoken national language of Senegal. Senegal, however, represented a conundrum to me. While I did not sense the same imposition of standard French as I had when studying in France, there was still a reverence for the French language that surprised me. People I met in Dakar insisted that Senegalese spoke the best French in Africa and even better than many people in France. I had not expected an African country to place so much pride in a colonial European language, all the while enthusiastically championing the various national languages of Senegal.

Furthermore, when interacting with people in Dakar, I realized that so many people had either been abroad, were planning to go abroad, or had family members abroad. Senegal, thus, was a mobile space constructed and managed through various diasporic settings. Many of the students at the university in Dakar had spent time studying in France, and I assumed that this mobility was tied to social class. However, I soon found that people from all social classes had access to the world beyond Senegal. For instance, vendors at the Marché Sandaga, Dakar’s largest market, when realizing I was American would tell me about their experiences living in New York City and about how many of their family members were still there. They would proudly show off the English they had acquired. Others, when learning of my travels to Spain and Italy, would talk about their time in these countries, and we would compare our experiences there especially as it pertained to language. These were not isolated incidents. It seemed like everyone had a story from abroad. These informal conversations I had with Senegalese in Senegal thus became a point of departure for a more formal inquiry into language and migration in the Senegalese diaspora.


How does your research inform your pedagogy?

My scholarship broadly focuses on the intersection of racial and linguistic identity formations among marginalized groups in the African diaspora, particularly in the postcolonial francophone world. As someone trained in sociolinguistics but who has always been housed in French departments whose primary interest is literary and cultural scholarship, my practice of bringing close textual readings to ethnographic interviews allows me to tell something new about the human condition. In my courses, I give students the tools to think critically about how we as humans engage with our environments and how we act, react, and interact with others. My goal is to help them articulate not only what they experience in their own lives, but to thoughtfully analyze how different communities and societies make sense of the world. In addition to the various forms of cultural production that we analyze in class—language, art, film, music, literature—I often have them grapple with the data I collect. I find that my interview data offer a productive space for students to comprehend the larger social and cultural phenomena that become visible in the themes we explore in class.


Speaking of your data, do you have a favorite anecdote from your research?

For my most recent book, Senegal Abroad, I interviewed over 80 people of Senegalese descent across Paris, Rome, and New York as they convey a variety of illuminating experiences on language, blackness, and migration. While it is hard to pick a favorite, I have a tendency to gravitate toward the anecdotes that showcase multilingualism, creativity, and humor. For instance, in winter of 2010, I was eating lunch with some Senegalese acquaintances at a restaurant in Rome. Although Wolof was the most common language used among this group, a regular patron named Idi abruptly switched into Italian to announce that he was discarding his Senegalese identity and claiming an Italian one instead. One of his friends then retorted that if he were so Italian, he should drink his water in Italian, to which Idi replied that drinking was not part of the Italian language. While the group began to argue playfully in Wolof and Italian about national identity and what constitutes being Italian, a man named Bachir exclaimed in French that he was proud to be Senegalese. As the only use of French in the whole exchange, I wondered why he would use French to profess his Senegalese heritage, especially considering the negative position he had taken in previous discussions concerning the role of the French language in Senegal. The linguistic intricacy of this exchange conveys the complexity surrounding where the Senegalese fit in discussions of Italian identity, the role of French as the former colonial language in current articulations of a Senegalese identity, and the agency that people have in negotiating these and other dynamic identities. Importantly, this exchange was happening over laughter and playful teasing as they shared a meal, demonstrating the cultivation of joy even in what many of them view as hostile spaces.


Why do you think the work that you do matters?

I place a lot of importance on representation. In this moment where political discourse and the media provide such a skewed and myopic view of immigrants and where their stories are usually told by those in positions of power and privilege, I wanted to find a way for the most marginalized among us to share in their own words the complexity of their lived experiences. Furthermore, in academic scholarship, most of the work on transnationalism depicts African migrants succumbing to economic temptations as the sole reason for migrating and creates a depressing picture of their existence in host countries. While I do not minimize these motivations and difficulties, I go beyond political economy and also concentrate on the pride, passion, and happiness that the people in my research achieve through their reflections on language. Their stories blur the lines between utility and pleasure, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of why and how Senegalese move.


Maya Angela Smith is an assistant professor of French and Italian studies at the University of Washington.

Universal Witchcraft and the Problem of Categories

Today we present a piece written by Douglas J. Falen, author of the new book African Science.


In 1935, the British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard wrote, “Witchcraft is an imaginary offense because it is impossible.” Although Evans-Pritchard made a sincere attempt to explain the rationality of African witchcraft, his remark voiced an enduring Western view of the distinction between imaginary witchcraft and scientific reality. Since then, anthropologists have used less dismissive language to address such cultural differences, but this does not automatically mean they accept the reality of other cultures’ magical forces. What is the role of our own reality in our interpretation of other cultures? And what do we make of a society where witchcraft and science are not competing paradigms, but rather are similar forms of knowledge? These are the philosophical and interpretive dilemmas that an anthropologist faces in studying the occult in the Republic  of Benin, West Africa.

Sacred objects used in the creation of a deity’s new shrine

In the course of many years of research, I have come to recognize that my Beninese friends do not feel the need to make a choice between science and magic. For them, western scientific knowledge is a kind of magic that is responsible for fantastic technology, such as airplanes, cellphones, and the internet. This “white people’s witchcraft” as Beninese call it, is often likened to the incredible accomplishments of their own occult knowledge, which they call “African science” – an indigenous force that also permits people to travel around the world and to communicate via invisible waves. Another feature that these two systems share is their moral ambiguity. Beninese people acknowledge that, despite their benevolent potential, technology and witchcraft are similar in that both can result in death and destruction – such as through bombs or invisible soul attacks. This suggests that in Benin, what we might call “witchcraft” (àzě in the Fon language) is a much broader category drawing up ideas about knowledge, technology, and magic. Some informants also suggest that witchcraft is the animating force behind their indigenous deities, Christian churches, and esoteric societies like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. They regard witchcraft as the ultimate, all-encompassing, and universal force in the world. While people attribute misfortune, illness, and death to the work of malevolent witches, àzě’s incorporative tendencies allow traditional healers to adopt and employ new, often foreign, spiritual traditions in a supernatural arms race to triumph over evil. Beninese witches and healers battle over people’s souls, reaffirming the existence of good and evil in the world.

 A healer, right, engages in an Asian-inspired ritual to protect a patient from witchcraft

Rather than reduce witchcraft to mere folklore, or a naïve belief held by those lacking scientific rationality, I have taken inspiration from my Beninese friends for whom witchcraft is not a traditional belief giving way to modernity. Witchcraft is instead a contemporary, adaptive, and inclusive system that incorporates many domains that westerners regard as distinct – science, medicine, religion, and the occult. Although I do not expect foreign people to accept another culture’s supernatural reality, one of the lessons of anthropology’s “ontological turn” has been to encourage us to take native categories seriously and to let them shape our interpretation of other cultures. Through long-term, intimate ethnographic experience, I have come to appreciate my Beninese friends’ understanding of their world without feeling the need to discount it or frame it terms of my own categories of real, imaginary, science, or myth. Anthropology’s contribution to current social debates is to show us that cultural difference does not have to result in judgment, disavowal, and discrimination. If we make an effort to befriend people who are different from ourselves, we usually find that they possess the same human rationality as we do.


Douglas J. Falen is a professor of anthropology at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. He is the author of Power and Paradox: Authority, Insecurity, and Creativity in Fon Gender Relations.