A poet who was once a president. Senegal's senior world citizen sees future multiracial civilizations
It was six years ago that L'eopold S'edar Senghor decided to step down as President of Senegal -- the first time a black African leader peacefully handed over power to his successor -- but Mr. Senghor still rises at 5:30 every morning, just as he did when he was Senegalese head of state. That's because the schedule of this world-known poet and statesman is even busier today than it was during his 20 years in power when he turned Senegal, a former French colony, into one of West Africa's most successful multiparty democracies.
As he reaches his 80th birthday, today, the former president is continually on the road and may turn up anywhere imaginable -- from Rabat where he is a member of the Royal Academy of Morocco; to Tokyo where he has been elected president of an international authors' rights organization; to Athens where he was awarded the Athinai prize, given annually by the Alexander B. Onassis Foundation to an international celebrity; to New Delhi where he received the Jawaharlal Nehru award for international understanding.
Senghor has three principal residences: in Dakar where he lives in a modest waterfront home that faces Gor'ee Island, the deportation point for many African slaves toward America; in Paris where he spends most of his time; and at Verson in Normandy where he spends his summers. But wherever he finds himself in the world, his daily schedule never seems to vary: Upon arising he does a good half-hour of calisthenics, has breakfast, reads the day's press, then writes until lunchtime; he writes again in the afternoon, then receives guests and spends the remainder of the evening reading.
Because of the record he established in bringing Senegal into independence, Senghor is much sought out by other national leaders for the advice he can provide on running their own countries. The French, whether of the left or the right, have long listened to his advice.
Although it has never been officially acknowledged, Senghor played a key role in defining France's new cooperation policy toward its former African colonies and is very proud of the fact that for the first time the French cooperation policy will have an important cultural component. Senghor is very close to Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who, during a speech he gave recently in New Caledonia, directly referred to the former Senegalese president, saying that he ``agreed with [his] friend Senghor that we are all of mixed blood.''
If there is one thing that dominates Senghor's thinking today, it is the idea of mixed blood, of m'etissage, of the ideal civilization being that which contains elements of all other civilizations and promotes the mixing of the races. Senghor considers the United States as already close to this ideal. In his estimation, whereas America had only 50,000 mixed race marriages 10 years ago, today there are 10 times as many. Senghor predicts that by the year 2000 the world will have two such civilizations: Africa and what he has called ``Euramerica,'' a civilization common to the European and North American continents. Senghor's ideas on the subject are spelled out in a book he has been working on these past several years, which he has titled: ``De la N'egritude `a la civilisation de l'Universel.'' Senghor's most ambitious current work, however, appears to be the study he is writing of the culture of Normandy, the northwest region of France that his wife, a Frenchwoman, comes from and where he spends an increasingly large part of his time. Doing something similar to what what he did for Africa with his theories on ``N'egritude,'' Senghor has developed the idea of ``Normandit'e,'' a trait he attributes to the people of this region and that he claims to have located also in the works of such Norman French authors as Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. He also calls this trait ``lucid lyrism,'' a poetic way of seeing the world that he claims is found especially in this region of France, otherwise known for its cider and cheese. Listening to Senghor speak of ``Normandit'e,'' one is convinced it will become in his work as important an idea as ``N'egritude,'' a word that has made its way around the world. Although he receives many awards (he has even made the short list for a Nobel Prize a number of times), Senghor remains a modest man who does not seem too concerned about glory or even immortality. When Senghor speaks these days, it is much less about his life as a political figure (he refuses to discuss politics) than his life as a poet. (One of his poems appeared in the Monitor's Home Forum Oct. 6.)
Senghor speaks much of his childhood, which he refers to as le Royaume d'Enfance -- the kingdom of childhood -- the period of his life when, growing up in Senegal, he was happiest. He makes sure to point out that ``I do not place this Royaume d'Enfance only at the beginning of my life. I place it also at the end. I would say, generally, that the ultimate goal of man upon this earth is to recreate his Royaume d'Enfance.'' What better way to sum up the life and work of L'eopold S'edar Senghor, more than ever, at age 80, the poet-child?