Four Communes, Four Brotherhoods, Four Winds

by Melanie Friedrichs

Dakar sits in a crosswind, both literally and figuratively. Senegal’s capital has neither geographical isolation to shelter it, nor size to anchor it, nor wealth to protect it. It sways helplessly in the storm of globalization.

Four Communes

I’ll start my tale in the 14th century, when the first Portuguese ships landed on the western coast of Africa. Europeans transformed West Africa into a patchwork of “strip states,” located around major rivers and dedicated to trading for ivory, gold and slaves. Ports on the coast slowly grew into cities. In the 1600s, France claimed the area’s four main ports: St. Louis, Rufisque, Dakar and L’Ile de Goree.

The Island of Goree, a former port in the slave trade and one of the four Senegalese communes.

In the 1600s, French traders began to marry Senegalese women, contracts that were conveniently valid only while the traders were in town. The daughters of these Senegalese wives seduced the next generation of French traders and won from them bigger houses, better education and slightly more respect. Soon a class of mixed-race, French-speaking Senegalese known as the Métis took over the port towns, and French traders found themselves connected to the country by blood as well as gold.

The Métis. Source: Black Past

Perhaps because of the Métis, or perhaps just because it was still early in the age of colonization, the French allowed Blaise Diagne, a native Senegalese man, into their Chamber of Deputies in 1914. He convinced them to grant citizenship and voting rights to the inhabitants of the four major trading ports (renamed “the four communes”) in 1916. The rest of the country remained under authoritarian rule.

Although France revoked the rights of the four communes when it realized that naturalizing the colonized would soon leave native-born Gauls outnumbered, de jure separation between the communes and countryside created a de facto divide between baguette-eating urbanites and their “backward” rural brethren, which still exists today. When France finally deigned to listen to African calls for independence, she listened first to the French-educated elite and handed the government to its rebellious but respected son, poet-president Leopold Senghor.

Senghor did many great things for Senegal, but he also cemented the culture of the colonizer into the culture of the free colony. He modeled his administration after the French bureaucracy, he made French the official language and he kept the currency pegged to the franc. Common menu items include nutella on baguette, steak-frites with salade, and pain-fromage with ham. Public schools teach exclusively in French, even though one headmaster I spoke with told me that 94 percent of his students speak only Wolof when they enroll.

But this is a history of many winds. While the French buffeted Senegal with slavery, oppression and white bread, other winds have also shaped the dunes of Dakar’s sandy streets.

Four Brotherhoods

Islam hit the western Sahel only a few centuries after Gabriel came to Muhammad on the mount. For nearly 800 years it remained the province of a privileged elite, serving as a distinction between the Muslim rulers and the animist ruled and as a cultural link to trading networks across northern Africa. Although Catholic missionaries came with the colonizers (you can still see their churches today), the religion never took root. Instead, the 1861 conversion of Lat Dyor Diop, King of the Cayor, catalyzed the conversion of the masses.

Mansa Musa I of Mali, who brought so much gold on his hajj that he devalued currency in the Middle East for a decade. Source: Wikipedia

Over time, four dominant Sufi brotherhoods emerged: the conservative Qadiriyya brotherhood from Iran, the small but devout Layene brotherhood, based in the small Dakarai fishing village of Yoff, the Tijaniyyah (alternatively Tijani, Tijaan Tidiane or Tidjane) brotherhood from North Africa, and the largest, the Mourides (alternatively Murits, Muridyyas or Murids). The French helped the Mourides succeed by persecuting, exiling and attempting (but failing) to execute their founder, Amadou Bamba (or Serigne Touba), who emphasized hard work, education and peaceful resistance to colonization.

The only known image of Serigne Touba, founder of the Mouride Brotherhood. Source: Hizbou-Darou Khoudoss

Like most religious institutions, the the brotherhoods dealt not only with spiritual affairs but with economic and political ones. The “marabouts” (meaning “ones with followers”) filled the vacuum created by the exploitative but minimalist colonial government by combining the roles of spiritual leader, political official and traditional chief. The French soon realized that the marabouts could be powerful allies and began courting them aggressively.

The Mouride marabouts of Touba, located in the heart of Senegal’s “peanut” basin, became plantation owners and exporters. Leaders of the other brotherhoods also took bribes and made ties with the French. After independence, the French-speaking Senegalese elite continued to offer the marabouts special treatment in return for political support. Senghor, though a Catholic, gave state funds to a Mouride festival each year in exchange for a political endorsement in the keynote speech.

The brotherhoods have a hand in the Car-Rapides, Dakar’s dominant but completely private mass transportation system.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when the Senegalese government was losing face over the ramifications of the World Bank-designed Structural Adjustment Program, the marabouts began to distance themselves from the government. Today official policy sometimes comes into conflict with religious dictums.

Four Winds

When I stayed in Senegal, my 12-year-old host sister took me to La Librarie des Quatre Vents (The Bookstore of Four Winds) in Dakar. The bookstore was one of the most modern public spaces I had seen in Senegal and sold local academic texts and cookbooks, but also French novels, American bestsellers, British classics and phrasebooks in every imaginable language.

For me, La Librairie des Quatre Vents represents the many cultures that shape Dakar. Most obvious is the “West,” through the many foreign nationals who live or vacation in Dakar, the economic and migratory ties to Senegal’s closest European neighbors, Spain and Italy, and the American music blasting in the streets. American commercial chains haven’t made many inroads (no McDonalds!), but American academia has. Apparently unsold college merchandise is shipped and resold in Africa, and I saw as many Texas A&M tees in Dakar as I have in New York.

A street peddler on the road out of Dakar.

India also gusts into Senegal. A couple of nights into my homestay I was shocked to see my host siblings settle down to watch the same incredibly dramatic Indian sitcom I had watched in Delhi, dubbed in French. HLM, Dakar’s largest fabric market, sells Indian cloth and ready-made salwar kameez modeled by Indian mannequins.

An advertisement for Indian cosmetics with Indian cloth in the background at HLM Market in Dakar.

Senegalese merchants source mass manufactured goods from China. The government hires Chinese engineers to build new infrastructure, particularly roads. Chinese companies even import their own workers, unfortunately for the local labor market.

Finally, via North Africa and the Islamic Ummah comes the influence of the Middle East. Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia have all built cultural centers in Dakar and funnel considerable resources toward promoting their strands of Islam. Girls cover their legs and women cover their hair, and the call to prayer faithfully resounds from the many city mosques five times a day.

A Senegalese woman in traditional dress.

Last but not least, a hot breeze constantly blows from the sandy Sahel and the hot, humid African interior. From there arrive the bold designs worn by Darkrai women, the millet eaten on traditional occasions, the bandy-legged dances and mad Mbalax drumming. Many of Dakar’s inhabitants are first-generation migrants from small villages, and still return or send money back to the country. They keep rural traditions alive, at least tenuously.

A traditional Senegalese dish.

Senegal is a country caught at a crossroads, and nowhere is the clash and blend of cultures more visible than in Dakar.

Credits: Photos by Melanie Friedrichs unless otherwise noted in the captions.

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  1. Thank you very much for this lovely article! I spent 2 months in Dakar last year and had a very exciting time there. It is definitely a crossroads of various kinds with a cosopolitan vibe, which is precisely what made it so fascinating to me.

    As you point out, this has also something to do with the unique historical ties to France. In fact, the inhabitants of the 4 Communes were technically French citizens since 1792. Those among them who had a higher education (the so-called "évolués") already voted a representative into the French parliament in 1848 - a métis, Barthélémy Valantin. The lois Diagne of 1915 that you mention extended voting rights to all citizens of the 4 Communes, in exchange for military service. As far as I know, this was never revoked, but actually extended by the lois Lamine Gueye in 1946 to include francophone Africans outside of the communes.

    One or two African representatives in a Parliament of several hundred do not mean of course that French colonial rule in Sénégal was in any way "democratic" or benign - it certainly was neither. As you point out, it helps to explain, however, the deep roots of the political as well as cultural connections to France. One could even argue that the longstanding tradition of "Western-style" elections and elected office (e.g. compared to the chief-based system of British "indirect rule") did play a role in the remarkable success of the Senegalese democracy after independence. You already mentioned the elitism and neglect of the rural areas that are also part of the heritage.

    Sorry for such a long rant, and thank you again for the article!