Fatou Kandé Senghor is a Senegalese artist and filmmaker. Born into a family of diplomats, she grew up in various African countries in the 1970s and 1980s. In this inter- view, she talks about the pan-African icons of her youth, the icons of Senegalese society, and the difficulties of passing on their lessons to her daughters in the digitalised and globalised 21st century.

Perspectives: What or who is an African icon for you?

Kandé: I grew up with a lot of icons – and thinking of African icons reminds me of a quote by Kenyan writer Ngu~g ̃ı wa Thiong’o: “Since culture does not just reflect the world in images but actually, through those very images, conditions a child to see that world in a certain way, the colonial child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as seen and defined by or reflected in the culture of the language of imposition.” Although born in the 1970s, when most colonies were already independent, I remember how I was often trapped in the Western gaze. Luckily, as a daughter of travellers, I got to know Africa better.

While living in Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, the suffocating experience of successive military dictatorships, lifetime presidents and traditional chiefs made me and my siblings look up to popular icons who changed the stories of their countries and people in a more positive way. Iconic figures that united us with the rest of the globe, such as Kwame Nkrumah from Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya, Amilcar Cabral from Cape Verde, Patrice Lumumba from Congo, the boxer Muhammad Ali from the US, Steve Biko from South Africa, Thomas Sankara from Burkina Faso. And of course, Nelson Mandela, who was in the shadows for twenty-seven years before his face conquered the world.

Today you live in the country of your birth again. Who are the icons of Senegal?

When you arrive at the international airport, you are introduced to its namesake Leopold Sedar Senghor as the country’s icon of choice – whether you agree with it or not. He was of course remarkable: a young Roman Catholic who became the first president of a country with 90 percent Muslims, and yet he was able to give the independent Senegalese nation a new political life. It was also Senghor who created a concept called négritude, or the essence of blackness. He organised the famous World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar celebrating blackness for the world to see the contributions of the black man to civilisation. At the doors of the airport you will bump into a very different type of icon, a “Ndiaga Ndiaye”, a Mercedes-Benz 508d bus named after a local businessman who was born in 1931. Ndiaye changed public transportation with his bold character when the national transport company, SOTRAC, was not serving places where workers lived. Over the past fifty years, he managed to impose his name on Mercedes-built vehicles transporting the nation. Ndiaga Ndiaye is a perfect example of what a local icon is. His busses have been decorated with a silver sticker of the queen-of-pop Madonna amid images of powerful religious icons, Islamic prayers, and other quotes of wisdom.

Cars rapides, the local minibus taxis, are important national icons. © Ferdinand Reus

Cars rapides, the local minibus taxis, are also important national icons. They were produced in France’s Renault factories between 1945 and 1965, and reinvented by their Senegalese owners, who decorate them in very bright colours and other accessories. As much as they are feared on the road for their bad driving habits, they are Senegal’s pride. In a car rapide, you get to fully experience the rhythm of the country, the pulse of its people. Inside, photos of wrestlers, soccer players, singers, wives, and cousins who emigrated cohabitate with images of religious patrons. They will pass you by jampacked with people and drums accompanying their favourite wrestlers to the arena. Wrestlers like Balla Gaye 2, Yékini and Tyson are another crop of Senegalese icons, enjoying the status of warriors and living legends, with their fans ready to die for them.

Being an artist yourself, which Senegalese artists do you look up to?

When we were students abroad, it was Youssou N’Dour – a young singer from Medina, a thriving populous area in Dakar – who kept our hearts beating to the drums of the mbalax music. He comforted us that a young Senegalese could conquer the world, if one’s dreams are genuine enough. He is an undeniable iconic figure, a global celebrity introducing local Senegalese music to the world.

Another great iconic figure dominates our film history: Ousmane Sembène. Sembène was self-taught and ambitious. He travelled the world and started writing novels in 1956. Because he had so much to share with his continent, he attended film school in Moscow at the age of forty in order to reach larger audiences. He blessed us with great films until he passed away ten years ago. When I first met him in his office in Dakar, he asked me which religious brotherhood I belonged to before letting me sit down. I was part of none; it amused him and he answered, “It won’t be for long”. I did not say I had great admiration for the Baye Fall.

Who are the Baye Fall?

It is a religious brotherhood that can be traced back to Ibrahima Fall. He was one of the first followers of Cheikh Amadou Bamba who founded the Mouride Brotherhood in 1883. Ibrahima Fall’s followers – the “Baye Fall” – have a special way of practicing Islam. Wearing dreadlocks and colourful dresses, they are important guardians of Sufi practice. Among the four Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, the Mour- ide Brotherhood is the biggest.

In fact, my favourite icons are all the women of the past and present that contribute to the wellbeing of Senegal. Their stories are pushed to the sidelines by portraying them as supporters of their men, even though they have been true change-agents

Until today Cheikh Amadou Bamba is one of the favourite icons for Senegalese youth. Conscious of the influence of his teachings on people, he was exiled by the French. The admiration for his knowledge and wisdom, his generosity and simplicity that have drawn followers in great numbers to him in the past is reviving. Today, the Mourides are a powerful community, spread all over the world, that Senegalese politicians value highly.

All the popular icons you have mentioned thus far are men. What about female icons?

There are many of them, millions if you like. Their stories are hidden, though, and more difficult to relate. In fact, my favourite icons are all the women of the past and present that contribute to the wellbeing of Senegal. Their stories are pushed to the sidelines by portraying them as supporters of their men, even though they have been true change- agents. In the 19th century, women in the northern Senegalese village of Nder refused to be captured by the Maures and Toukouleur kings, setting their village and themselves on fire. Aline Sitoe Diatta is another remarkable example of female resistance, in this instance to colonial rule in the southern region of Senegal. She was deported to Timbuktu where she died in 1944 at the young age of 24. The public memory has also forgotten to mention that women followed the famous Senega- lese corps of colonial infantry in the French army known as les tirail- leurs sénégalais that served in both World Wars. They catered for their wellbeing, and loaded guns in the trenches. While on the move, they carried the kitchen utensils and the heavy gunpowder. Another often unnoted chapter is that of Sukeyna Konaré, who led the first female political organisation that fought to give all the women on French territory the right to vote in 1944. In May 1945, an official bill was passed by the French metropolis. In the 1950s, a powerful women’s union sent Rose Basse to a meeting in Cotonou, Benin, where the future of Africa was discussed by its leaders prior to facing General de Gaulle to tell him what they wanted for the future of the colonies. In her speech, Rose Basse was the one who clearly used the word “independence”. All those women are too often forgotten.

Many of the icons you mentioned are icons from the past. Can they be sustained into the future?

I am 46, with daughters who are digital natives and Africans of Islamic faith. I chose to throw the anchor in Senegal to watch them grow and groom them into the different narratives of the continent, the continent I have travelled and know so dearly with all its flaws. Yet I am often asking myself, “What could I possibly pass on to their generation? What should I share with them, how, when and why in this globalised world of modern technologies?”

My three daughters seem to be colour- and gender-blind, more confident and tolerant than me. However, I am not sure whether my attempts to teach them about pan-Africanism, Sufism or feminism have delivered good results.

Every now and then, as my nine-year-old would part from her television to come to me for a quick hug, I ask, “You know who Bob Marley is, right?”, and she would answer,  “A football player? A basketball player?” My consolation is that his music has been sampled by a number of DJs and MCs all over the world that my daughters follow on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook – and that a nine-year-old is not a good barometer.

When I read African authors like Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Maryse Condé, Ken Bugul, Boubacar Boris Diop, when I watch films by African filmmakers Abderrahmane Sissako, Ousmane Sembène, Souleymane Cissé, I cannot stop thinking about my daughters.

I keep on trying to introduce them to all my icons, especially the forgotten women of our country. Because if I don’t, my daughters would miss out on chapters that had so much impact and that show them about the women they could become in their families, their communities, their schools and their country. What future awaits us, if my daughters would be only exposed to women who gave birth to iconic religious figures, and those who bore heirs for them in a country still looking for saints and miracles, while global television and social media only presents them Kim Kardashian, Nicky Minaj and Rihanna? Wouldn’t the whole world be in danger?

The article is part of a series of articles by This is Africa in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa.