This piece is part of a series based on Sam P.K. Collins’ travels to Dakar, Senegal.
In the days before my significant other and I arrived in Dakar, several young people had gone toe to toe with local police forces in response to the conviction of Ousmane Sonko, a presidential opposition candidate who had been accused of wrongfully influencing the youth.
We saw the remnants of that deadly clash while walking through Cheikh Anta Diop University on June 16.
Students and teachers spent much of their time picking up scraps of paper scattered along the ground. To my immediate right stood a car burnt to a crisp. Later, soldiers guarding the main entrance of the university kindly but bluntly told me in French that I couldn’t walk beyond the gates to take the photo of the voluminous Cheikh Anta Diop mural.
The campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University spanned several miles and had along some of its walls murals of great African leaders like Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana.
I also saw political messages on these walls conveying the need for peace and African Liberation. Despite the concerns some people had about my travels to Senegal during this precarious time, I felt safe here. Like many of our anti-violence organizers in the District, the Senegalese people fight for a peaceful state of mind day in and day out, even with some hiccups along the way.
Years prior to my visit to the university, I read Diop’s 1978 book, Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a Federated State. In that book, Diop, an anthropologist and political scientist, explained the benefits of a political system where independent West African countries form a federation, much like what the original 13 colonies achieved when they became the United States.
Diop said that, in forming a federation, these West African nations, and all nations on the African continent for that matter, could prevent foreign powers’ economic and political takeover of newly independent African nations.
Because of our collective failure to listen, that is exactly what has happened over the last 60 years under what many understand as neocolonialism. Our African nations, though independent in name, are still attached to their former colonial overseers as well as other foreign powers that continue to exploit the continent and its people — all with the approval of neocolonial heads of state who are backed by these foreign entities.
Long story short, we have a ways to go in achieving global African sovereignty. It won’t be done in the presidential mansions and legislative chambers of Africa and the Diaspora. It must instead take place in the grassroots among everyday people, much like who I encountered while in Senegal.
Since 2018, I have been able to participate in grassroots organizing for global African sovereignty as a member of the Pan-African Federalist Movement (PAFM). This campaign, which started in 2015, was inspired, in part, by Diop’s scholarship.
As the PAFM’s youth coordinator in North America, I am organizing young adults in the U.S. and Canada around the campaign for a United African States. We are conducting these activities in alignment with youth and elders around the world with the goal of amassing global grassroots support for the United African States by 2030.
The United African States, which includes African countries and the Diaspora, would also be the realization of Nkrumah’s vision, as articulated in his 1963 book Africa Must Unite.
Though I wouldn’t be traveling to Senegal in my capacity as a PAFM youth coordinator, the trip served as the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in Senegalese culture and acclimate myself to life on the continent — which includes spotty Internet service, pandemonium in the streets, and long wait times for fresh food.
What I am learning further affirms my understanding that Black people in the United States are not a minority, but part of a global majority that shares a kinship with other Africans on the continent and around the world. Despite ongoing efforts to divide African people along the lines of ethnicity, nationality, language and culture, I am more convinced of commonalities in our customs and attitudes that highlight the need for African political unity.
Everywhere I turn, I see reminders of my life in D.C., especially as it relates to the people. While staying in Dakar, I’m further emboldened to embrace all that has become taboo in American society for Black people — posting up on the streets in large groups, laughing and talking loudly in public, playing music, chanting and dancing.
In Senegal, children are free to do what they want, even pushing elders out of the way to get into a ferry taking us from Goree Island back to mainland Dakar. Their smiles and carefree nature makes me overcome with sadness for many of our children in the District who might never have the opportunity to feel the same way under the siege of gunfire, prescription drugs, copious amounts of standardized testing and adult restrictions on their natural expression.
Amid all the talk about traffic safety in the District, I’m also amazed at how Senegalese people are able to drive safely without a traffic signal in sight. With so much activity in the streets, there’s respect for pedestrians and other drivers. People drive at a reasonable speed and push their way into intersections without issue. In the event a biker hits a car, they apologize without issue.
Despite the political scuffle that kept Dakar on lock before our arrival, the people carried on with their lives. While traveling through Ngor, Goree Island, Sommes, and the Alaides, I saw an entrepreneurial spirit that reminded me of what I often see exhibited along New Hampshire Avenue in Northwest or South Dakota Avenue in Northeast, or even portions of downtown, while out and about in the District.
Admittedly, I became enamored and annoyed with that spirit. Even though we wore African garb and sandals, we stuck out in the crowd of thousands who flooded the streets of Dakar. Merchants left and right walked up to us trying to sell bracelets, dresses, shirts, fans, sculptures, rugs, sunglasses, knives, and beautiful artwork of various mediums.
They were relentless. Some would follow us for several steps at a time. Others went as far as engaging us in conversation and putting the garbs on us before naming a price. They were hard negotiators. They have a price in their mind and they want to come out of the exchange having fulfilled their goal.
Over time, my annoyance turned to admiration as I learned how to respectfully decline people’s advances from the onset. I also came to an understanding about the value placed on work in Senegalese society.
Senegal is a mostly Muslim society with many Senegalese people practicing a type of Africanized Islam that evolved out of opposition to French colonization in the 19th and 20th centuries. The dreadlocked Senegalese people who call themselves Baye Fall prioritize work and service over prayer, as they see the former as the means by which they serve a higher power.
Baye Fall or not, the merchants not only wanted to work with us, but aspired to know about where we came from, and our history. It got to a point where we dedicated much time to learning about each other while finalizing a deal.
Interactions in Senegal are more deeply personal. It’s less so about getting money, and more about providing a service. It’s also about connecting with one another to form authentic relationships.
It’s somewhat like what happens in Black communities throughout the United States. Meetings in Black-owned businesses might take a bit longer than intended because folks are enjoying each other’s company. We might offer each other a grace period to meet deadlines. That’s not the case all of the time, but this is an aspect of our existence that we often find ourselves in conflict with living in a fast-paced, results-driven American society.
As has been expressed earlier in this reflection, that conflict for African people in the United States plays out throughout our daily lives, and in the way that policy is shaped to our detriment. It’s important that we organize as a race-conscious unit to assess if decisions being made in the Wilson Building and elsewhere have the proper cultural context for a group of people who have African customs, attitudes and traditions, despite centuries of separation from the continent.
By the end of the day, we are Africans living in America, not African Americans. That erroneous label has taken us away from our African values, in turn making us our own worst enemies at a time when we need to form a society that reflects and celebrates our true nature.
Despite neocolonialism’s hold on Africa, African people on the continent benefit from being the numerical majority in their communities and having the latitude to celebrate their culture without it being commercialized and criminalized.
In my travels throughout Senegal, I’m learning that we too can have that in the United States if we fight to unite, embrace our African selves and pivot toward achieving what Diop and Nkrumah demanded of us decades ago.
Follow Sam P.K. Collins on Twitter: @SamPKCollins
For more information about the Pan-African Federalist Movement of North America, visit pafm-northamerica.org.