15 September 2012

The Monument to African Renaissance – Magnificent Symbol or Colossal Folly?

At one hundred and fifty meters in height the Monument to African Renaissance dominates the skyline of the Senegalese capital of Dakar. Its scale is quite breath-taking: new monuments of this size are rare and this is the largest statue in Africa.  

Yet although it was billed as a celebration of the continent’s renaissance it has become something of a scandal in the economically distressed African republic. Unveiled in 2010, it may be a couple of lifetimes before this symbol of a desired renaissance is rehabilitated.

The Monument to African Renaissance, designed by Pierre Goudiaby, is situated on the most western tip of the continent and, it was hoped, would become Africa’s most instantly recognizable monument – a kind of Statue of Liberty for the new millennia (and a good size bigger). 

Unfortunately for the mastermind behind this colossal folly, Senegal’s octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade (who lost an election in 2010 when he made a bid for a third term) the statue has offended a large part of the population of the country. 

The locals living around the giant are suffering from an economic downturn that makes ours look like a Sunday School picnic.  Power cuts are frequent, food prices are rising to an all-time high and floods regularly make large numbers of people homeless.  Instead of a celebration of their long road to freedom, many Senegalese look at the monument as something that goads them on a daily basis. Perhaps prolonged familiarity will produce something gentler than the contempt many feel for it at the moment.

Somewhat reminiscent of Soviet era statues (oddly enough, it was built by North Koreans) you may be inclined to think that those behind the statue are suffering from a large dose of good old fashioned megalomania.  When you take in to account the fact that the average yearly wage in Senegal is only around 1000 US dollars a statue which cost around $40m might not go down too well, whether you admire its aesthetics or not.

There too lies something of a rub. A large proportion of Senegalese are Muslim – ninety four percent to be exact. Although they are not hugely radical in religious terms the skimpily dressed female with a bare breast exposed and her shirtless male companion is not to the taste of many.  At all. 

$40m may not seem an awful of money in many ways, but to the cash strapped Senegalese that money could have solved quite a number of their ills. Yet for many, the biggest irony is that a symbol of independence and freedom from oppression has been built by foreigners.

Monuments can be reviled when first built. St Paul’s in London was considered a terrible blot on its landscape when first constructed but is now one of that city’s most iconic buildings. Perhaps in a decade or two, when the country has recovered and its people happier, the statue - and its worth to the nation and the world - can be judged again.

First Image Credit Flickr User Jeff Attaway.  All images by Jeff Attaway unless otherwise state.