Waly Fay of Senegal had an obsession. He was determined not to let one of Senegal’s local languages become a footnote of linguistic history.
Not only was Serer the third most spoken language in Senegal but it was the language of the country’s first president. Although Léopold Sédar Senghor, a president and a poet, wrote most of his couplets in French, he never lost his “Serer-ness,” he told Fay with whom he corresponded over the course of his life.
Now, three decades since he began translating Senghor’s French language poems into Serer, Way’s book has been released.
Fay, a poet and academic, presented the book of presidential poems at a three day party in the Serer-speaking region of Fadial.
Senghor was the first of a generation of African leaders to be democratically elected in 1960 after the end of colonialism and is widely regarded as one of the leading African intellectuals of the 20th century.
Ndela Fay, in The Guardian newspaper, wrote about her father’s work. “His fascination with the president began in the late 1970s when he started translating Senghor’s poems to help cement a sense of cultural identity and pride in the Serer people. Though Senghor may have occasionally spoken his poems in Serer, they were only ever written down in French.
“My father faced a daunting task: the younger generation is losing interest in local languages in favor of Wolof or French.”
Using Senghor’s written works, Faye has pushed for the government to standardize the Serer language, which had been written according to French phonetics with no official written rules.
In 1978, Senghor established a committee that would decide on the language’s official spelling, using Latin script,
Senghor and Faye met in the late 1970s to “check over some of the translations and so Senghor could give me feedback,” Faye said. They two men stayed in touch, corresponding until the former president’s death. In one of his last letters, the former leader penned: “Rest assured that my Serer-ness has never left me, and be certain of my loyalty to my roots.”
Fay has since translated three major collections of Senghor’s poems into Serer, which have recently been released in Senegal. He is putting the finishing touches to a four-part analysis on the president’s work in French and would like to see all of Senegal’s school textbooks translated into Serer one day.