“Standing Up” for Pulaar: Activism and the Politics of Language Loyalty in Senegal and Mauritania

“Standing Up” for Pulaar: Activism and the Politics of Language Loyalty in Senegal and Mauritania

John Hames

My research on a language activist movement in Senegal and Mauritania is part of a decade-long engagement with Pulaar-speaking communities in West Africa. Ten years ago, during my Peace Corps service in the Gambia, friends in my host community introduced me to cassette recordings of speeches, mainly by Senegalese, about the need for Pulaar speakers in West Africa to wear their linguistic identities with pride. I began purchasing copies of these cassettes and learned that a vibrant movement led by Pulaar speakers (known as Fulɓe or Haalpulaar’en) from the Senegal-Mauritania border region known as Fuuta Tooro, had been promoting their language since the late 1950s. My growing fascination with this movement became the inspiration for my dissertation project. Four fieldwork trips to Senegal and Mauritania and one to France, where many Pulaar-speaking migrants reside, have yielded many lengthy biographical interviews with Pulaar-speaking broadcast journalists, grassroots literacy teachers, poets, film actors and political activists. I consider the people, often regard as those who “stand up for Pulaar,” to be language activists, in that they see their work as an effort to increase the influence of their language in the public domain. They also seek to inspire their fellow Pulaar speakers to take pride in their language and to resist the temptation to abandon it in favor of more dominant languages in Senegal and Mauritania, such as Wolof or Hassaniya.

Though Pulaar speakers are linguistic minorities, it would be misleading to characterize the movement as nothing more than an example of local resistance to external political forces. Going back to the 1960s, the trans-border biographies of many of the movement’s key players were built on opportunities tied to national citizenship and state-building that facilitated their efforts. For example, Pulaar activist broadcasting on national radio stations, though part of a trans-border Pulaarophone public sphere, often frames its grievances within the national political arenas of Senegal and Mauritania. This development points to an interplay of loyalties to national citizenship on the one hand and trans-border linguistic citizenship on the other, in which the salience of each shifts depending on the political moment.
Language activists- whichever language they promote- attempt to challenge ideologically many taken-for-granted assumptions about languages and the sociopolitical hierarchies that distinguish them. One of the original motivations of Pulaar language activists from Senegal and Mauritania was the notion that if Africa was to rid itself of the influence of former colonial powers, her people would need to learn how to read and write in their own languages. The practice of Pulaar literacy, as well as literary and media production has sought to challenge views of Pulaar and other national languages spoken in West Africa as unfit for official education or high politics (as opposed to, say, French). In addition, personalities such as Tijjaani Aan, a broadcaster on Senegal’s Radio Nationale, criticized notions that Pulaar was any less tied to Senegalese national identity than Wolof, the country’s urban lingua franca. Another important ideological component of the movement has to do with how Pulaar language activists deploy a politics of language loyalty that valorizes maintaining and promoting their language under circumstances in which other languages may be more dominant. Through my research, for example, I have observed a particular concern and debate regarding how Pulaar-speaking parents raising children away from Fuuta ensure that their children speak the language.

The movement’s politics of language loyalty also appear in many powerful stories of Senegalese and Mauritanian language activists who have let me into their lives. Many of them are deeply proud of their tireless efforts volunteering as Pulaar teachers or performing in theater or poetry groups. On the other hand, some of them express suspicion towards public figures whose support for Pulaar causes appears opportunistic. These activists’ life stories indicate that popular movements inspired by ethno-national or linguistic solidarities can function by offering participants a sense of purpose, access to social networks and public recognition in contexts where the means of social and economic mobility are scarce. I observe that people who have accessed these benefits of participation in the Pulaar movement have done so at least partly by earning credibility as people perceived as having a long-term interest in promoting the Pulaar language, regardless of whatever material profits may be involved.
One of the distinct features of Pulaar language activism is the looming influence of a small group of (mainly) men whose legacies have profoundly shaped their movement. They include radio broadcasters, political dissidents, poets and novelists regarded as heroic exemplars to be emulated by others with a desire to promote Pulaar. They are often referred to with the title “ngenndiyaŋke”, a term which literally translates as “child of the soil”, but which more recently has been understood as “nationalist” or “patriot.” More specifically, the highly politicized term has become reserved for those who have appeared to engage in personal sacrifice and courage in the name of promoting Pulaar. I am interested in how these high-profile Pulaar language activists have become standards against which people seeking public recognition as promoters or spokespeople for the Pulaar movement are judged.

Finally, my research accounts for various forms of Pulaar-language media production, including through broadcasting on state-run, private and community radio stations, the airing of TV programs, the publication of print newspapers, online blogs, news sites and Internet radios, as well as the creation and distribution of movies, many of which have been marketed towards audiences in the diaspora. One of the ways in which these media reach audiences is through a large, informal market in media and entertainment content. More often sold nowadays in the form of Mp3 or Mp4 files, the availability of Pulaar-language music, poetry, as well as recorded broadcasts and speeches by Pulaar language activists for purchase at urban and rural market stalls has comprised an important aspect of the movement’s media infrastructure. These wide ranging media engagements, I argue, have played an important role in complementing the literacy teaching and literary production that have often been the central focus of Pulaar language activism. Among Pulaar speakers- particularly those with sympathy for Pulaar language activism- these media engagements are embedded in the practices of a transnational imagined linguistic community that relies on a diversity of print, electronic and broadcast mediums. Such diversity of mediums is crucial for an “imagined community” whose constituent parts occupy different sociopolitical and infrastructural contexts.