Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 3-11
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Léopold Sédar Senghor:
A Personal Memoir
Léopold Sédar Senghor played an important role in my life long before I met him. I had come to Nigeria in 1950 and had spent my first frustrating year in the English Department of the University College, Ibadan. It was a very colonial institution. The English Department insisted on teaching the students Anglo-Saxon and then they had to work through the canonized masterpieces of English literature, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to Spencer's Fairy Queen, Shakespeare, and so on and so on. When asked about the relevance of some of this material in Nigeria, the standard answer was: "We have to maintain British standards." Needless to say, English was the only modern language that was taught—not even French, though Nigeria was surrounded by francophone countries. The possibility of introducing an African language was not even considered—but Greek and Latin were an integral part of the program of "maintaining British standards" (see my "In a Colonial University").
I would have returned to England after the first year if it had not been for the appearance of Robert Gardiner, 1 a brilliant and inspiring Ghanaian who had been appointed to create the Department of Extramural Studies of the university. He was the only African Head of Department and the only senior staff member who had some sympathy for my concerns. In 1951 he appointed me Regional Tutor for the Western Region of Nigeria and encouraged me to introduce courses that were relevant to the experience and needs of the students. Fortunately, the university could not impose their syllabus on us, because there was no London University examination at the end of the course. However, to create a course on contemporary African literature was not so easy, because literature in the English language hardly existed in Nigeria and Ghana, and there were few translations of oral Yoruba or Igbo poetry. In this situation, Léopold Sédar Senghor's collection Anthologie de la poésie nègre et malgache de langue française that had appeared in 1948 was a real godsend. I began to translate poets like Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Damas, and Rabearivelo. I sent my tentative translations to Senghor for comment. In the mid-fifties, we exchanged letters occasionally.
We first met in Paris in 1956 at the "First World Congress of Black Writers and Artists." The congress was exciting through the sheer wealth and variety of artistic talent and scholarship. The participants had come from all over Africa, the Caribbean, and the US. Scholarly discourse, like Malam Hapate Ba's paper on the culture of the Fulani people, alternated with brilliant performances like E. L. Lasebikan's demonstration of the Yoruba talking drum. The dramatic highlight of the conference was the clash between the famous African American novelist Richard Wright and the poet Aimé Césaire from Martinique. Richard Wright had visited the Gold Coast a few years before it became Ghana. But because he had arrived [End Page 3] with so many preconceived ideas, he had remained a hopeless tourist, insensitive to the values of African culture. He confronted the impressive gathering with the notion that African cultures were backward and primitive and that the new nation-states should become modernized and "militarized" as soon as possible. "Thank you, Mr. Whiteman," he shouted, "for freeing me from the rot of my irrational traditions and customs!" 2
Aimé Césaire did not find it difficult to demolish the simplistic argument of Richard Wright. He pointed out that it was not a question of having to choose between African culture and Western civilization. Nor was it a problem that posed itself only to black cultures, but in all cultures there had to be a balance between the old and the new and that this balance had to be recreated by every generation.
Léopold Sédar Senghor seemed to be the perfect example of a man who had reinvented this balance for himself, who had achieved...