Senegal buys back library of poet-president Léopold Senghor from France

Senegal © RFI/Isabelle Chenu
© RFI/Isabelle Chenu

More than 300 books collected by the first president of independent Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, will be transferred to Dakar after the Senegalese government stepped in to stop them being auctioned off in France.

In total, 344 volumes will leave the house in Normandy where Senghor spent the final 20 years of his life, several of them personally inscribed by authors including Martinican poet Aimé Césaire

Along with Césaire and other African and Caribbean intellectuals, Senghor was one of the founders of the Négritude black consciousness movement born in 1930s Paris.

"We didn't want to see the collection split up, given it includes works that document the emergence of the Négritude movement," said Céline Labrune-Badiane, a historian who helps coordinate an international project to inventory Senghor's archives.

On the instructions of Senghor's heirs, his library was to go under the hammer at an auction house in the city of Caen in mid-April, divided into nearly 200 separate lots. 

But the newly elected president of Senegal, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, asked for the sale to be suspended while his government negotiated to buy the complete collection.

That deal was finalised earlier this month.
"Even beyond these particular assets, we believe that Senghor himself constitutes an inheritance: Senegal's heritage, Africa's heritage, the world's heritage," the Senegalese ambassador to France, El Hadji Magatte Seye, told RFI.

"Saving it from being broken up was essential."

Scattered heritage

According to the ambassador, Dakar ultimately hopes to incorporate the library into a museum of Senghor's life.

His former home in the Senegalese capital was opened to the public in 2014.

"There's still a lot of work to be done to gather together the Senghor estate, which is principally divided between France and Senegal," said historian Labrune-Badiane.

Senghor and his French-born wife, Colette Hubert, moved to France after he stepped down as president at the end of 1980.

They spent the remainder of their lives at her family home in Verson, near Caen, where Senghor wrote much of his poetry. He died in December on 20 December 2001 at the age of 95.

On Hubert's death in 2019, the house and its contents were left to the town in the hope it would one day be opened to the public.

But while local authorities are working on it, for now the property and its archives remain mostly closed.

Rightful home

Last October, Senegal's previous administration intervened to stop another auction of items belonging to Senghor and his wife, eventually paying €240,000 to acquire 41 objects – including medals, pens and jewellery – for the Senegalese state.

"From Senegal's perspective, it's tough to understand why Senghor left the entirety of his estate in France," Labrune-Badiane told RFI

"The fact that the Senegalese state has had to buy it back rankles a bit," she said – all the more so because Senghor has been criticised for maintaining close ties with former coloniser France throughout Senegal's first decades of independence. 

"But there's also the sense that this heritage belongs to Senegal."

Labrune-Badiane hopes to see digital copies of the papers stored at Verson, which are believed to include early drafts of Senghor's work written from the late 1950s onwards, made available to researchers in Senegal.

"Through these archives we can trace a whole stretch of Senegal's history from the '60s to the '80s," she said.

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Started: 02-07-2024 | Ends: 31-10-2024