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A letter from two leading African authors to the president of Senegal

YOUR Excellency President Bassirou Diomaye Diakhar Faye

Allow us to introduce ourselves to you before getting to the heart of what
we have to say. We are Ngugi Wa Thiong’o from Kenya and Boubacar
Boris Diop from Senegal. Both novelists and essayists, our best-known
books are respectively Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in
African Literature. (1986) and Murambi, le livre des ossements (2000), about the
genocide perpetrated in 1994 against the Tutsis in Rwanda. But the most
important thing to emphasize with regard to the motivations behind this
open letter is that we have not exclusively published works in English and
French – the languages of the former colonizers – but also novels –
including Matigari (1986) and Bàmmeelu Kocc Barma (2017) – in our mother
tongues, Kikuyu and Wolof.
Congratulations on your assumption of power as the new President of the
Republic of Senegal. Our congratulations also go to your Prime Minister
and brother in arms, Mr. Ousmane Sonko. With this brilliant election,
which not one of your rivals contested, the Senegalese people have not
chosen you as their  master but as their  servant. We have no doubt
whatsoever that you will live up to this expectation. We have never met in
person but all Africa, indeed the world, has met you and we know that your
youth gives Africa hope. That’s why we are writing to you as both your
African elders and admirers.
Up to now, except for a few leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, the African
leadership has betrayed African people. They have simply normalized the
abnormalities of Colonialism and neo-colonialism which is simply the
Africanization of the colonial system. Our resources have continued to
develop Europe and the West.  As we only look up to the West, one
wonders where our inventors are? Our engineers? Our space explorers?
Africa longs for a leadership that can fire the imagination of the continent’s
youth.  But we cannot do that when our leadership simply mimics, always
imitating the West, with no belief in ourselves, in our people. You are in a
position to steer Senegal onto a new and different path towards a collective
self-confidence, relating to the world on the basis of equal give and take.
But if you choose that path, you will create enemies in the West. The West
wants an Africa that always gives to Europe and the West. 

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Don’t accept an inequity which will be at the expense of your people. And if they demonize
you for that, just don’t care, don’t accept any other judge than the
Senegalese people.
Let us now share a few thoughts. We ‘ve chosen to focus on the language
problem because as writers we’re familiar with it, but also because, in our
humble opinion, the resolution of the language problem is a prerequisite
for any economic, political, social, and cultural revolution and therefore for
the well-being of your compatriots.
These are some points we want to stress:
1.Your Power is the Senegalese people. You defend them, they defend you.
You speak to them they speak to you. But you cannot do that using a
language they can’t understand. It is as simple and self-evident as that. 

  1. Senegalese languages must be the bedrock of the new Senegal. Every
    Senegalese has a right to their mother tongue. Avoid hierarchy of languages.
    So, mother tongue first, be it Pulaar, Seereer, Soninke, Wolof Mandinka or
    Joolaa or any other language spoken in Senegal.  But if one Senegalese
    language, say Wolof, becomes the language that enables conversation
    among all the other Senegalese languages, that is good. The language
    policy: Mother tongue first. Then say, Wolof. Then say Swahili, French etc.
    If you know all the languages of the world, and you don’t know your
    mother tongue, that is mental enslavement. But if you know your mother
    tongue, and add all the languages of the world to it, that is empowerment.
  2. Encourage translations among Senegalese languages. This is a
    particularly important point for us. To that end, set up a national
    interpreting and translation center that would enable a symbiosis and a
    cross-fertilization between the languages of your country, and between
    them and the languages of Africa and the world. Your Excellency, many
    Africans appreciated the fact that during your first official visit to the
    Gambia, you and President Barrow spoke directly to each other in Wolof.
    We also know that, unlike your predecessors, you make most of your
    speeches in both French and Wolof, and we think that’s exactly the right
    thing to do. Make your speech in a Senegalese language and then make it
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available in all the other Senegalese languages. And then in French etc. At
the United Nations, speak in a Senegalese language. You can have it
translated and or interpreted into French or English, as necessary. In other
words, do what all other Presidents in the world do; they make their
speeches in their languages.  In France, with a French President, speak to
him in a Senegalese language. You have an interpreter with you etc.
In short, please invest in the Senegalese languages. And this must start with
the repeal at the earliest opportunity of the strange article 28 of the
Senegalese Constitution, which requires all presidential candidates to be
able not only to speak but also to read and write French.

  1. Organize the Senegalese farmers and workers. Fire their imagination.
    They are your defenders. Don’t worry about all the self-proclaimed elites
    who have so much to lose in the development of your country’s languages,
    and who are multiplying maneuvers and specious arguments to derail the
    train of History.
  2. The works of Sembène Ousmane, especially God’s Bits of Wood, and those
    of other literary giants like Cheikh Hamidou Kane should be available in all
    Senegalese languages. As for Cheikh Anta Diop, his books should be
    taught in all Senegalese schools
  3. Progressive literatures from Africa and the rest of the world should be
    made available in Senegalese languages and also taught in Senegalese
    schools and universities
  4. Senegal first. Then Africa. Then Asia and Latin America. Then Europe
    etc. This should be reflected in the country’s educational system.
  5. Senegal must become a nation of thinkers, inventors, manufacturers,
    explorers, a nation of makers of things, relating to the world on the basis of
    equal give and take.
    These are, Your Excellency, just a few thoughts from two African
    compatriots and well-wishers from Kenya and your beloved Senegal.
  6. Respectfully yours,
    Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Boubacar Boris Diop
By The African Mirror