The Staged Nation: Memory and Heritage in Post Colonial Senegal (AHRC)

  • De Jong, Ferdinand (Principal Investigator)

Project Details


The French historian Renan said that 'the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common; and also that they have forgotten many things.' By this he meant that a nation has a collective memory that is selective in what it remembers and what it forgets. To remember, every nation establishes monuments that invoke historical events and commemorate historical figures. Every nation also has a collection of archaeological artefacts and works of art that constitute its heritage and tangible evidence of its human achievements. These monuments and museums enable the citizens of a country to be united in what they remember/forget and focus their attention at a material site during commemorations. The French historian Nora has referred to these sites as lieux de mémoire.

But this definition of museums and monuments reflects a particularly European way of remembering/forgetting. How then, should memory and heritage be conceptualised in nations outside 'the West'? Which technologies of memory are used in postcolonial nations? And, as products of colonialism, where do these nations situate their origins? This study analyzes the technologies of memory in postcolonial Senegal. It attempts to account for other technologies of memory and for other memories than the traditionally self-aggrandizing ones of Western nations.

The problem of remembrance is particularly astute in Africa. Nation-building has proved increasingly problematic. High levels of illiteracy do not enable citizens to imagine their nation as in literate societies (The political scientist Anderson considers literacy a precondition for the imagination of the nation). Moreover, while independent African nations initially traced their origin in pre-colonial empires, such discursive strategies have proved divisive as they privileged some ethnic groups over others. Today, African nations increasingly recognize their origins in colonialism. This study analyzes how this process works in one postcolonial nation.

This study therefore focuses on a range of lieux de mémoire. It looks at the commemoration of the slave trade at Goree Island, either through statues or performances (illustrations 4, 5, 6, 7); the commemoration of a prayer conducted by a Muslim saint at the centre of the French colonial administration (illustrations 8 and 9). It also looks at the commemoration of the contribution that African soldiers made to the liberation of Europe in 1944 (illustrations 10 and 11). And it examines the commemoration of a shipwreck in the southernmost region of Casamance (illustrations 12 and 13).

My research focuses on material monuments and the commemorations performed at these monuments. One particular problem that this research addresses is how the materiality of the monument relates to what it makes people remember. The research demonstrates that monuments in Senegal are often contested, and one of the arguments pursued in this study is that the materiality of monuments makes people think and act. In other words, the form of the statue and its location often lead to reflexivity, and thereby shape a civic subjectivity.

This study also wants to take into account that colonialism, colonial anthropology and postcolonial theory have affected the ways in which the citizens of Senegal see themselves and their heritage. It therefore includes research on an ethnographic museum (illustrations 1 to 3), a tradition of divination and a tradition of conflict resolution, because all of these are partly the product of a shared Euro/African imaginary. Indeed, one of the aims of this study is to acknowledge the hybridity of the postcolonial heritage.
Effective start/end date1/01/0930/04/09


  • Arts and Humanities Research Council: £24,612.00