- Space and Human Agency in the Making of the Story of Gershom through a Senegalese Christian Lens
As a teacher of the New Testament in the United States, I find that the Senegalese, West African context that shaped my formative years has become more probing to me than ever before. Like our first Senegalese president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who spoke of how his “childhood kingdom” affected his poetics of negritude, I try to engage my own poetics in conversation with biblical voices to the extent possible. I share much in common with Kenneth Ngwa, especially when it comes to French colonization and its lasting effects on our countries. My childhood kingdom, like that of many Africans, had and still has its share of problems, including family feuds, intergroup skirmishes, diseases, and a protracted war for independence that severely affected my family. Diola ethnographers trace the causes of this war back to the colonial period.1
I concur with Ngwa that a meeting held in Berlin (1884–1885) led to the occupation of the African continent. Senegalese people awoke to this “strange dawn,”2 as French colonists, proud of their constructed Celtic/Gaulic identity as a legitimate mandate for exercising France’s civilizing mission, arrived in Senegal. Over time they created four communes, “towns/cities,” a “France Overseas” (Saint Louis, Dakar, Gorée and Rufisque, 1887–1960), to frenchify Senegalese people. This assimilation experiment was exercised under the aegis of “France’s civilizing [End Page 882] mission” ironically called the peace of France.3 The cities, similar to ancient Greek gymnasia, became religious, economic, political, and assimilation centers, and since 1914 the inhabitants received French citizenship and political representation in metropolitan France. Protectorate dwellers, on the other hand, had to earn their citizenship by excelling in French education. In that vein, education and the granting of citizenship rights wooed the populace to French ways but also generated contempt as the frenchified of the towns (originaires) believed they were more civilized than and superior to their country cousins.4 Most of the originaires had European ancestry. Because they were privileged politically and economically, they understandably tended to “accept European culture and Christianity.”5 Catholic missionaries introduced French ways to “Africans alongside catholic teachings” to secure French dominance in Senegal. As a result, “christianization and civilization were practically mixed”6 and the colonizers argued that “to civilize is to Christianize.”7 This was a terrifying message that turned the biblical message into a colonizing tool.8
Lacking political power, most protectorate dwellers and those leaders who refused to collaborate with French colonial officials, resorted to various oppositional tactics ranging from violent confrontations to daring defiance.9 Many Diola, objectified as uncivilized, living in the most fertile southern region of Senegal called [End Page 883] the Lower Casamance,10 fought the then-prevailing French system of occupation to preserve their socioreligious memory, culture, and rice-farming practices.11 Colonial administrators forced Diola elders to sign treaties, which were ignored as soon as colonial officials retreated to their civilized spaces such as Gorée and Saint Louis. This went on from the onset of the occupation until the 1920s, when Diola were considered to have been somewhat pacified. This brings me to Ngwa’s “The Making of Gershom’s Story.”
Space matters. Ngwa’s argument, as I mentioned earlier, is an intriguing innovative take on a story often missed by readers. If the story is read at all, the violence that undergirds and directs this narrative’s “interregional and intergenerational identity, as well as its ethics and cultural values” (p. 855) are often sanitized and its pervasive terror spiritualized or cheapened to an extent that Gershom is simply reduced to a son of Moses circumcised by his mother Zipporah. Exodus 2, as Ngwa sees it, is nothing short of a “postwar narrative” whose multivalent meanings he purposed to uncover through a “Cameroonian postwar” hermeneutical lens informed by trauma and inspired by a resilient and innovative drive to survive in assigned spaces. In the end, what Ngwa offers is a Cameroonian hermeneutics arising from trauma-shaped experiences and complex identity construction empowered by a resilient and yet delicate will...