In 1961, less than twelve months after the independence of both Mauritania and Senegal, I was in my last year of high school at Van Vollenhoven, the prestigious French lycée in Dakar, Senegal. I still remember the beautiful green, white and beige cranes parading in the park of the presidential palace, the residence of former governors of French West Africa. I remember, too, going with a friend to visit my own President, Moktar Ould Daddah, then the guest of his Senegalese colleague Léopold Sédar Senghor.
To my surprise, President Senghor sat and spoke with us, giving a dissertation on lions ("quiet but respected kings of the bush") and explaining why Senegal's most important national award, "the Order of the Lion", is named after them. Senghor also spoke, beautifully and emotionally, of the baobab tree as a symbol of endurance, resilience, strength, but at the same time fragility; he was, of course, speaking in metaphor about humanity. Africans, he suggested, should be like the baobab: resilient but emotionally open. On leaving the palace for my boarding school, I was bewildered: There were almost no lions in Senegal except for one or two in the zoo. So why so much about lions, and why the baobabs even if there were plenty of them?
By 1972, I had become a member of my country's cabinet and went to Dakar in a presidential delegation visiting Senegal. As Senghor awarded me the Order of the Lion, his earlier comments on lions came to my mind. At a small dinner I followed his comments about universal civilization but also about cultural differences and manners among nations, and his jokes to illustrate his points. That same year I was lucky to travel with him from Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, to Dakar in his private plane. It was a delight. There were only five of us on board and he was in an excellent mood, talking to us after a difficult negotiation on the future of Air Afrique (still being debated!). He spoke of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the late President Sékou Touré of Guinea, a political enemy, and of military juntas. Zaire, he said, is prone to conflicts because Mobutu-then his political ally-has a good heart but a rather slow brain mechanism, making him easily forget commitments and, worse, his own past mistakes. President Senghor complained of Sékou Touré, the boisterous leader of a "revolutionary" party, but said that he should be forgiven his foibles as his brain had been permanently damaged by syphilis. He noted that military coups are not helpful, but their occurrence should be blamed on the mismanagement of civilians rather than on soldiers. Finally, he added that the interior minister of neighboring Mali was much more at ease with soccer fans than in discussing an issue with him; in this Senghor clearly showed his discomfort with exuberant or loud behavior.
Was he advising us, as we flew, on African politics or was he relaxing as a human being, speaking his mind, confident that he was with discreet and loyal traveling companions? He might also have again been sending a message from a professor to students: "Be alert but quiet, strong but human." Again I remembered the lions and the baobabs.
Years later, I became Mauritania's Foreign Minister and had more encounters with Senghor. I remember in particular two meetings with him, one in a group and the other one alone. The first was at an Organization of African Unity (OAU) Summit in Liberia in 1979. There was a heated debate on the question of Western Sahara-still on the OAU agenda today. Backers of the Polisario and Algeria were pushing for a new resolution based on one adopted by the United Nations. But Senghor supported Morocco and spent more than half an hour vigorously opposing the other group. He explained that the expression "takes note" is tantamount to a commitment of support and that all delegates should therefore pay more attention to the real meaning than to the superficial political acceptability of words. He was certain that political rhetoric often carried leaders far away from daily realities.
Later that same year, Senghor came to Nouakchott for a one-day official visit. There was a new political regime in Mauritania, with military officers unknown to him bestriding the scene. As Minister of Foreign Affairs I was responsible for the overall preparation of his visit. Upon his arrival, I had a short private meeting with him to present the program. He told me to feel comfortable as he had only three small requests: to meet the Ambassador of Spain to Mauritania, a writer; to have 45 minutes of rest after the luncheon; and-after pausing-to see the press communiqué on his visit before making it public. Smiling, he added, "you should not worry, I will not ruin your work. I will only add some punctuation as the French language cannot be dissociated from commas (virgules). The commas bring substance and sense without adding new words." When he read the document he indeed added four or five commas. That was typical of Senghor: methodical, well organized and disciplined. I still treasure that 22-year old press communiqué.
Although I was not a close associate or a confidant of Senghor, a number of coincidences in life brought me near to him. Sometimes, in the presence of a great man, that is enough. I had great respect for his political behavior. At a time of authoritarianism-the Cold War in Africa-he was strong and human enough not to impose a one-party system or to enforce state ownership over the economy. In 1980, he became the first post-colonial African leader to step down from office voluntarily. At that time it was an unheard-of political move, and one that sent his African colleagues into jitters. A "bad example", they said, criticizing him. Similarly, he liked to repeat that, in politics, family is the enemy, hence denouncing nepotism.
Beyond politics were Senghor's humanity and his art. His vision of humanity was not just African or Francophone but universal. Influenced by his early contacts with the French theologian, Pierre Teillard de Chardin, he stressed the need for a dialogue of cultures, of "giving and of receiving", not of culture conflicts. His poetry, in which he developed the idea of negritude, was-and is, for language outlives its author-sublime. When he died at age 95 this past December 20, humanity lost one of its most eloquent patrons.
The political and the personal merged in Léopold Senghor in the best of ways. A man who can really see beauty is bound to be humble before it, and so Senghor never built status for or statues to himself, or imposed his picture on his country's currency bills or postage stamps. At one of our encounters he said: "Birds are much more graceful than presidents on stamps." That made me remember the cranes I saw for the first time in the presidential park forty years ago; and now I cannot help but remember their grace and that of Senghor together.
Ahmedou Ould Abdallah is executive secretary of the Global Coalition for Africa in Washington, DC. He has served as the UN Secretary-General's representative in Burundi, and as Foreign Minister of Mauritania.Essay Types: Essay