From the Parisian Press Room to the Senegalese Village: Narrative Imperialism in the Age of Development

From the Parisian Press Room to the Senegalese Village: Narrative Imperialism in the Age of Development


We say that, if you go there, it is like winning the lottery… The young men were asking me about my home. What is it like in Canada? America? Or for that matter, Europe? I spoke to them about busy people—some happy, others sad. In the moment I wanted to tell them how it “really was.” But of course, there is no “real” America, no true once-and-for-all defined experience of something as big as a country. Yet here I was, in the community of Guédé Chantier in northern Senegal trying to represent a complex of experiences, flattened by the channels of globalization, turned into a “lottery”—some magical yellow brick road to an imagined, exotic world for the youth of a community five thousand miles from my own home in Camrose, a small rural community in Alberta, Canada. In a way it was a feeling I understood only too well: growing up, all I wanted to do when I turned eighteen was to win the college lottery and fly far away. I went to Boston on a plane. Many of these youths would end up instead taking buses and cars to Dakar. For the “lucky” few, a berth could open up in one of the many boats shipping migrants across the Mediterranean wall of fortress Europe, finding their way to a world very different from the ones imagined by these youths: a difficult life of being an illegal, a forever-outsider, on the peripheries of the under-class within the European welfare state.

There are certain expected ways of talking about this situation, formulations of my relationship to these aspiring youths that might create an inseparable, hermetic barrier between us. I am a Harvard educated American-Canadian citizen, a member of a global elite—some might point out. The young men are barely high school graduates, facing “dim” prospects in a country that suffers from “high unemployment,” “poverty,” and a lowly position within that box of the “developing world.” Such a narrative would invariably turn to solutions: how could something be done for this seemingly hopeless situation, some way to fix these great problems of “our” age, a way out of the cycle of poverty that limits so many while enabling the few. There is truth, of course, to be found in such accounts. Yet, as with the young men in Guédé, something else seems to be going on too—a flattening, a levelling out of the fullness of human experience, a reduction to a narrative that delegitimizes certain ways of thinking while approving others. The youth were not describing a “real” world when they talked about Europe simply as a place of streets paved in gold, just as the development literature does not describe a “real” world if it characterizes these young people as caught in total despair, separated into some radically more impoverished universe of human experience. In spite their simplifications, these turn out to be dominant narratives presented by newspapers, development organizations (including the World Bank and IMF)—and in Senegal by Western media looking to expand their markets. Each view erases, or at least limits, the complex, lived realities of people elsewhere.

"For the “lucky” few, a berth could open up in one of the many boats shipping migrants across the Mediterranean wall of fortress Europe, finding their way to a world very different from the ones imagined by these youths: a difficult life of being an illegal, a forever-outsider, on the peripheries of the under-class within the European welfare state."

It was in seeing such erasures and simplifications that I realized how foolish it might be to engage uncritically in “doing” development work. What seemed more urgent was the need for a better understanding of the multiplicities and contradictions of our intersecting worlds, which often emerge only through discussion with ordinary individuals about the complexity of their experiences—hardly possible, one imagines, in a policy board room among the experts of the World Bank. The dominant travelling narratives of development, the ones that make “Africa” into a particular kind of place for Westerners as much as “the West” is a kind of place for Africans, began to seem inseparable. Could it be, I wondered, that the forces at work shaping narratives of development in Senegal were the same as those that made Europe seem such a desirable place for African migrants?

There are no easy answers to this question, but even during my brief stay at Guédé a pattern began to emerge. While living in their home communities, these same youths were preparing for the Baccalauréat (or Bac), a High School finishing exam that uses the same standards, questions, and pedagogical material as the French educational system. The students memorized details about the North American Free Trade agreement (“yes, I know Canada very well … you signed an agreement with the United States”), knew the location of major American and Canadian cities, and conducted all of their classes in French. There were not, it seemed, any expectations that they should study the history or culture of Senegal: Wolof, Pulaar, Diola, and other regional languages were not considered acceptable ways of advancing toward educational attainment. The goal of education in Senegal was to have students who could pass the Bac, get to university, and secure one of the few high-paying jobs provided by local businesses, government, and international development organizations. Education reinforced French ways of doing and thinking, remnants of colonial power that continue to this day in the form of language politics, cultural hegemony, and pressure to “develop.” Schools, in short, are a training ground into the mindsets and worlds of the European worlds glamourized in the media—less ways of challenging existing structures of power than granting memorized access points to them. And in a Senegal where only thirty percent of students will go on to finish the Bac, that educational system is a veritable dead end: many, including those who go onto university, never gain access to the coveted jobs.

When not studying for the Bac, these same students would be watching television, mostly French programming and advertisements, marketing Western life styles and catering to desires for European products and services. Young people in the community, many of whom had little to do outside of school, would be hanging out playing games, listening to French hip-hop, wearing clothing that made them look like characters straight from the banlieues of Paris. They occupied themselves, like so many of us, with posting things on Facebook rather than helping their parents—to the extent that one adult in the community complained, “Many young people will have less than nothing, and would rather starve and spend their last money on Facebook rather than on food.” There was little appeal, for them or indeed for me, in the working ways of the communities’ older generation. The lives worth living seemed to be elsewhere, in exotic, if imagined, places. And it was particularly the globalized, wealthy Western world to which many of these youth aspired: to futures almost entirely disconnected from the past that had produced their present reality.



On the other side of this coin, one can look in any of France’s leading newspapers—or for that matter, the preponderance of Western media—to “see” Africa through the eyes of a European. I experienced these attitudes among many who had made their way to Senegal, including a Franco-American engineering colleague who would often point to some aspect of local life and remark in astonishment, “They haven’t yet developed that!” The “that” was always some Western convenience, presented as if the be-all of progress. At other moments he would insist that Africa is the “future,” with all its potential for solar energy. Contradictory as they were, these views, on the whole, presented Africa and its development as having only one future—with countries like Senegal either hoping for resource development that would lift them from backwardness toward a Europeanized future or feeling trapped in the status of a society perpetually under construction forever separated from the club of “developed” Western nations. Only infrequently does one find narratives that emerge from Africa’s own experience. From the naïve views of some Westerners who see Africa as little more than a cradle of poverty, starvation, and war to the views of my Franco-Canadian engineer, there is a troubling sense that the varieties of lived experience in Senegal are overlooked and ignored in a continued translation of the colonial project into our modern era of economic development. Most problematically, what narratives there are about the future of Senegal appear more to serve the interests of powerful Western élites, even as they affirm that a single imagined path to development will serve in the country. Money from international investment projects, for example, often goes back to the places of origin—as when solar energy initiatives invest in German or Chinese companies.[1]

Even Le Monde Afrique, a sub-section of Le Monde with a staff of African and French writers, presents some troublingly flat views, describing the continent as a place where “fifty-four countries are undergoing a major transformation.” Africa, that imagined unity of an unimaginably diverse number of languages and peoples, is described as a place on a “path,” that will “emerge,” even (in its blog series Africa Nova) as a visit to a, “Continent in construction (en chantier).” Other headlines are just as telling: “The three limits to the dream of Africa’s emergence”[2]; “The difficult path brought to the creation of a zone of African free trade”[3]; “Fourteen start-ups that are moving Africa” [4]; and “Financing the transformation of Africa.”[5] Beyond being a place considered resistant to the paths and ways of modernization and development, Africa becomes in these pieces important as a place of investment for outside financial interests, illustrated by the provocatively juxtaposed headlines: “financing development is investing in the future”[6]; “investing in the South is investing for France.”[7]

"The lives worth living seemed to be elsewhere, in exotic, if imagined, places. And it was particularly the globalized, wealthy Western world to which many of these youth aspired: to futures almost entirely disconnected from the past that had produced their present reality."

Le Monde Afrique appears to need additional outside funding to exist. Like so much going on around Africa, it is financed by development agencies: l’Agence Française de développement (French Development Agency), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank Group, and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa. While the newspaper boasts the independence of its reporting, which certainly includes alternative perspectives, the headlines above illustrate that its interest in development and progress often plays to dominant, Franco-centric perspectives. In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising: the reporters on these sites are the “lucky” ones who made it through the Bac. These are the people who were disciplined by French education, by structures of power that reinforce French imaginaries of the future. And little, if any, attention is given in this training to the actual lived past of French imperialism—the aftershocks of which include today a development discourse that evades any meaningful connection to that troubling past.

 It became clear to me that there is no easy way of escaping—for any of those looking to “advance” according to the development paradigm in Senegal—being conditioned into Francophone ideologies and worldviews. Such views, quite contrary to Senegalese notions of téranga (hospitality; includes feeding, housing, and caring even for strangers), will tend to analyze the migrant crisis in largely economic and bureaucratic terms, as a management problem. Indicative of a sort of modernist rationality, the problem is understood in terms of “legal avenues” and the need for “collective centers where asylum seekers can be met, housed, fed and screened”— tellingly, the EU is struggling to handle a mere 310,000 immigrants compared with the 3.5 million that Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are already sheltering.[8] Assembled together, these pieces—the youth’s perceptions of Europe in Guédé, the French newspaper articles, and the casual belittling of Senegalese ways of living I saw on the part of European development workers—reveal a legacy of domination, of the prevalence of particular rationalities in thinking about the worlds problems. The French do not need to probe their own assumptions when they have billions of dollars of clout to shelter their world-views against critique. And those in Senegal—the illiterate, those without the French schooling or a colonial language, even without the Internet—seem to have little chance of contending with the perceptions and analyses presented on the pages of Le Monde or the New York Times. There appears to be little space for thinking in ways that are more true to the local context, its history, and how that can connect with people’s desire to shape their own futures, ones that may not be well adapted to Western modernizing logics. The unintended consequence of the promise of development, it seems, is that it robs local thinking and practice of their generative force: whether through irrelevant imported educational programs or by turning the entire country into a construction site for foreign interests, the way forward becomes defined by outsiders.[9]

In Senegal, the overall pattern that emerged through my research was striking: it fits people in Senegal into the broader narrative of an Africa that is always being built, of a land that is only ever on the “path” to some things that Europeans have allegedly achieved. It installs them into the disciplining ways of European-style modernization, inscribing onto Africa Western imaginaries of development, even as a home for high tech and innovation—as with that once darling child of the global elite, Rwandan President Paul Kagame.[10] Yet what these narratives fail to present are the daily lives of people in African countries, lives with concerns that might diverge wildly from the powerful work being done by development officials, in places that are as thickly layered, as my own response to the question “what is Canada like” would suggest. This is no mere claim that life is just “more complicated” on the ground than is depicted in the written descriptions of newspapers, development reports, or NGO brochures. These narratives, how we are describing and thinking about the world as it “really” is and imagining futures of how it will be, are both instrumental expressions of power and the results of power in action. From Senegal to Canada, the “West” to “Africa,” power justifies its rulership through such conceptual and discursive strategies. We would ignore at our peril the French colonial imprint on educating the Senegalese elite, the wealthy development agencies that extend the power of global capitalists, and the “innocent” ways that certain ideas become normalized in the online media: indeed, these are the very means through which the local past is effaced, and disconnected from an imposed imaginary of Senegal’s future.

Figure 2: From le Monde

Figure 2: From le Monde

But the fullest force of this critique is not to be found in some sophisticated academic discussion of power or epistemic injustice. No, it is in looking at the front page of Le Monde (August 28, 2015) and seeing the picture of a drowned body washed ashore, alongside articles about 71 rotting corpses in trucks, and the squalor of even those migrants in Calais who were lucky enough to penetrate the borders of fortress Europe. Watching Franco-Senegalese films such as La Pirogue (available on YouTube), one feels there is little saving grace in the raw horror of young people risking lives and livelihood for the false dream of some idealized Europe. It is not enough, however, to feel such horror, or appeal to shame or guilt: it is to see, in part, the varieties of domination that produce the displacements we see today, products not of recent “economic” events but of a more complex history of imposed ideologies, exploitation, and the inevitable backlash here seen as the result. What sorts of worlds are being imagined that compel thousands of people in transit to risk their lives—or suffer political or economic subjugation on arrival in a distant, sometimes hostile, foreign land? To better address these problems calls for more than finding a short-term managerial solution to the “refugee crisis”; it requires us to interrogate more critically the sorts of discourse that are so commonplace in imagining Africa. It is to ask why we have come to see the world this way, instead of exploring the possibilities—with Senegalese intellectuals like Felwine Sarr—for imaginaries that are truer to people’s lived pasts, allowing for a fuller variety of experiences to inform paths to the future. To do so would be to ask of fortress Europe, as much as of leaders in Senegal, an imagination of futures beyond the promise of perpetual growth or even the concreteness of large-scale government programs. It would be to look beyond the standardizing, linear moves of modernization.

"Most problematically, what narratives there are about the future of Senegal appear more to serve the interests of powerful Western élites, even as they affirm that a single imagined path to development will serve in the country."

That it is nearly impossible today to think of our world independent of the economics of the World Bank, and its mission to eliminate “poverty,” speaks to the utter failure of modern global imaginations and leadership. The weak responses to drowning bodies and suffering masses of migrants by governments and their experts calls to mind the prophetic words of W.B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming:”

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Today ours is not so much the threat of fascism, though there are frightening echoes in European anti-immigrant sentiment, but the indifference to suffering that the rhetoric of technological advance and “good governance” (in “developing” countries) does little to counter. Ours is a time of the slow, unstoppable march, of a global order that produces armies of disenchanted youth—whose “passionate intensity” turns into violent backlash against hegemonic systems. With its neglect of the persisting after-effects of colonization, environmental destruction, and the importation of American-style economic individualism, this is a global system entirely incapable of absorbing individual voices like that of one young Guinean migrant who spoke, “You see we sacrifice our lives, because we the children suffer a lot in Africa. The migration of young Africans to Europe is first of all the cause of the politics of development, that since the period of colonialism has emptied us.”[11]

How to live in a world where dominant institutions do so much to drown these painful cries in the ideology of global development and economic dominance? How to awake from twenty-one centuries of “stony sleep” without the terror of Yeats’ concluding lines, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” It is to think a new world, beyond the European-inspired development projects, with their fences and quotas and management systems? How would a world look that opens itself to these ignored after-shocks of colonisation—that meets the gaze of present suffering without the emptying abstractions of “development”? Can there be such an imagined future, a new birth of hope that, without dishonesty or arrogance, picks up and restores the pieces of the fragmented past?


[1] In my own research, I found that the narrative of development was used to justify investing large sums of foreign aid in solar panel technologies for rural villages. While it is tempting to see this as perfectly rational, it should be noted that many community members felt such technologies were beyond their needs, and that investment could have been more wisely used elsewhere. The other point to make is that much of the investment from international organizations does not go to local industries; as one example, in Senegal solar panels are purchased from either Germany or China.

[2]Les trois limites au rêve d’émergence de l’Afrique

[3]Le difficile chemin qui mène à la zone de libre-échange africaine

[4]Quatorze start-up qui font bouger l’Afrique

[5]Financer la transformation de l’Afrique

[6]Financer le développement, c’est investir dans l’avenir

[7]Investir au sud, c’est investir pour la France

[8] See for example the moves being made by this NYT analysis to frame the migrant crisis in terms of “strain” on existing populations and even “mandatory quotas for settlement”—based on analytics partly made by the World Bank. The influence of economic thought exists too in Le Monde’s analysis, one of the most in-depth it has on the crisis, whose headline is couched in economic terms: “Migrants: and if opening the border creates wealth?” This is not a mere headline, of course. While challenging the conventional arguments against immigration, it suggests the existence of a sizeable public that is ostensibly more concerned with the overtly economic, rather than say ethical, dimensions of the migrant crisis.

[9] The sense that outsiders might know best was something I found out myself when interviewing a community leader in a small village in southern Senegal. This community had been trying to develop into an “ecovillage,” but was having trouble negotiating what this idea actually meant. Still and all, I was told, “we must be on the right track if people like you are interested in our project.”

[10]The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman


Hilton Simmet can be reached at

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