Leopold Senghor: a founding father of modern Africa

Leopold Sedar Senghor was born in Portuguese Joal, south of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, in 1906 to a Roman Catholic family in a predominantly Moslem region. Educated at a Catholic mission, he graduated to the Lyceum in Dakar, after which he gained entry to the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied Arts. From then on, poetry and politics were to rule his life.

After a period as a schoolteacher, he entered the world of politics, but poetry was a constant friend in times of need. Until he was seven years old, he spoke only the native language, Serere but his poems were all written in French, a language he loved and loved to defend: “Among us, languages are naturally crowned with sap and with blood, the words in French shine with a thousand fires, as if they were diamonds”.

His first collection of poetry, “Chants d’Ombre” (1945), is one of lyrical poems which speak of the loneliness of exile and the “nostalgia for the country of Negroes”. The works “Liberte I, II, III, IV and V” (1964 – 1999) which was a mixture of the political vision of “assimilating without being assimilated” and poetical skill.

He was nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize several times, being the inventor of the term “Negritude”, a phrase he coined in 1932 to convey the expression and feeling of the people of his Continent, which he loved deeply.

His last poem, explains his wife Colette Hubert, a Frenchwoman from Normandy, was written in memory of their son, Philippe, who was killed in a road accident in 1981. Leopold Senghor described poetry as “The place where the essence exists” and culture as “the foundation and the ultimate aim of politics”.

In politics as in poetry, the stature of Leopold Senghor transcended his small figure by far. After having fought alongside the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation during the war, he was elected to the French National Assembly in 1945, representing Senegal, one of France’s most important colonies.

He was to become Secretary of State of the Presidency and in 1958, Charles de Gaulle made him his Advising Minister. Leopold Senghor was the natural choice to be the first President of his country in 1960 and for twenty years, before retiring voluntarily in 1980, he led his country on a balanced and peaceful path in the middle of a period of political convulsions on his continent.

In 1983, Leopold Senghor became the first African to be elected to the Academie Francaise, a fact which gave him the greatest pleasure. Since then, he dedicated himself entirely to his poems.

The death of Leopold Senghor will leave Senegal, Africa, France and the French language in mourning for a long time to come.