Rising amid squalor, Senegal monument stirs anger 

Towering on a hilltop overlooking the Atlantic, the 160-foot-high bronze statue depicting a family rising triumphantly from a volcano is supposed to symbolize Africa's renaissance.

But on a rutted trash-strewn path below, the old Africa is still in view: one where a poverty-stricken population endures incessant power blackouts and flooding — and considers the $27 million monument just another outrageous example of wasteful government spending.

"Senegal is going through a profound crisis," said Djiby Diakhate, a sociologist at Dakar's Cheikh Anta Diop University. "Our economy is dying. People are struggling to eat. We should be spending money helping people survive."

Perched on the westernmost tip of the continent, Senegal has gained notoriety as a launchpad for migrants who risk their lives crossing the high seas on flimsy wooden boats bound for Europe, hoping for a better life — or at least illegal employment. Countless numbers have died attempting the voyage.

They have left behind a capital filled with jobless university graduates, half-day power outages and rains that wreak havoc on the city's outdated infrastructure, flooding homes with stinking, shin-high sewage that has to be scooped out by hand.

The mammoth statue, atop a 330-foot hill, shows a muscular man in a heroic posture, outstretched arms wrapped around his wife and child, who is balanced on one of his biceps. It is to be completed in December.

Octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade has compared the work to France's Eiffel Tower and America's Statue of Liberty; it is 13 feet taller than the latter.

And he has sparked outrage by maintaining he is entitled to 35 percent of any tourist revenues it generates because he owns "intellectual rights" for conceiving the idea, with the rest to go to the government.

Local media have lampooned the monument. One cartoon depicted its figures as a ragged, dripping family climbing onto a tin roof surrounded by flood waters. Another replaced them with Wade's own family, alluding to allegations it was his way of leaving a mark on the nation before he dies.

Presidential spokesman Sitor Ndour defended the project, saying unoccupied government land was sold to fund the endeavor and no state funds were used.

Critics say the money from the sale could have been put to better use — like purchasing badly needed medicine for public hospitals, assisting families who eat only one meal a day or helping combat rising crime.

"Before we spend money on prestige, or tourism, we have to deal with local emergencies," Diakhate said. "Why not use that money where we need it more?"

Ndour countered that the government already spends money helping Senegalese and "we believe culture is also a factor of development."

Wade's administration has plans for a series of major projects, of which the monument is but one. He has called for a new airport and a cultural center that will house a national theater and a museum of African culture.

Last year, the government completed other ambitious infrastructure, including a highway that cuts through the traffic-clogged heart of the city. It has also sold public land to developers building the country's first mall and international hotels.

Only the wealthy, however, can enjoy the $15 pina coladas overlooking the seaside Radisson SAS's Olympic-sized pool, and rains have flooded the tunnels of the new palm-tree-lined seaside artery, engulfing cars up to their windows.

Nearly 50 North Korean workers from the state-run Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang were brought in to build the statue because of their expertise with bronze art, and some Senegalese have complained of its communist-era design.

Abdoulaye Elimane Kane, a former culture minister and spokesman for the main opposition Socialist Party, said it reminds him of statues in North Korea — which he visited while a Cabinet member — and not of African art.

The statue has also drawn complaints from Muslims — who make up 94 percent of Senegal's population — because of Islamic prohibitions on works that represent the human form.

Wade insists any money he makes from the project will go back to the people, channeled through a foundation to help children's schools and education.

And he says he hopes the monument will show the world that Africans are rebounding from a history of enslavement, subjugation and neglect, that "after six centuries of darkness, we are headed toward the light."

To critics like Kane, it smacks of "unlimited presidential power, an absence of consultation, state privilege" — the autocratic tendencies Africa is trying to shed.

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Monday, Sep 15, 2014

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