African sage who won the hearts of the French

Local Hero: Leopold Senghor

Imagine that Hastings Banda, instead of turning Malawi into one of the world's nastiest dictatorships in his declining years, had bowed out of politics in his mid-70s and retired to Scotland.

Perhaps he chose to live in, say, North Berwick, a seaside town east of Edinburgh and birthplace, for the purpose of this fantasy, of a woman he met and married while at Edinburgh University. Would the merchants of North Berwick have decorated their shop windows with his country's flags, on the occasion of his 90th birthday? Would pictures of the former president, and posters wishing him well, have lined the streets? Would North Berwick's "Banda Centre" have honoured him with readings from his literary oeuvre, while children of the town gathered around him and his wife to sing "Happy Birthday"?

It is not easy to imagine. But something like this happened in the Normandy town of Verson last week, on the 90th birthday of the former Senegalese president Leopold Senghor.

The assembled schoolchildren were told that they would soon be in the presence of one of the wisest men in the world, then the beating of the tom-tom began and the diminutive sage appeared.

As he sat next to his wife, Paulette, a daughter of Verson whom he married in 1957, the mayor of the town, Jean-Claude Rouault, said the party was a "family occasion" and a chance for the community to recognise its most celebrated son. There were poems - Mr Senghor's - and the children sang the Senegalese national anthem, written by Mr Senghor.

Once Britain started to pull out of Africa, around 1960, it was as if it could not cut loose from the awkward empire quickly enough. France was keen to retain its influence over its old colonies, however, and Mr Senghor is a living example of the different way that relationship developed.

He read French at the Sorbonne between the wars, making friends with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and the Caribbean nationalist writer Aime Cesaire. He was introduced to socialist ideas by his friend Georges Pompidou, the future president. Together with Cesaire and another black intellectual, Leon Damas, from Guyana, he developed the idea of "negritude".

This attempt to describe the contribution of black African culture to world culture - without black Africans, civilisation would "lack the rhythm- section of its orchestra, the bass voice of its choir", he said - was a direct precursor of the discipline of Black Studies and such 1960s slogans as "black is beautiful". In 1983 he became the first black man to be elected to the Academie Francaise.

Perhaps there is something about Mr Senghor that appeals to that corner of the French soul that likes the idea of a philosopher-king. But he was also a philosopher-action man: he served in the French infantry during the Second World War and was captured by the Germans.

When he was released he joined the Resistance and it was probably these experiences that diverted him from his intellectual calling to a political one. Having helped to lay the intellectual foundations of African independence, and having played a key role in persuading De Gaulle that the African colonies could become independent within a French community of nations without things falling apart, he became in 1960 the first President of Senegal. A Christian, he led the mainly Muslim country for the next 20 years, being re-elected twice and stepping down voluntarily on 31 December 1980.

Celebrations in his home village of Joal, 130km from Dakar, last Wednesday were led by his successor, President Abdou Diouf. "Senghor is of the race of empire-builders, a pathfinder, a guide," Mr Diouf said, announcing that the country's main airport and biggest football stadium would be named after him. "This child of Joal and of Africa, whom they call Senghor in faraway places, is a citizen of the world."

Another elaborate party is planned for Friday at the Paris headquarters of Unesco, where presidents Diouf and Chirac will pay tribute. Mr Senghor will not make the journey, being, in the words of Dorothee Lemonnier, director of Verson's Senghor Centre, "very tired, and very old".

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories