Senegal's colossal statue stirs big controversy

DAKAR, Senegal — A muscled man emerges from a volcano. His left arm holds a baby aloft toward the West, his right arm pulls a scantily clad woman behind him.

This is the Monument to the African Renaissance, currently being erected here. It is supposed to symbolize Africa emerging from centuries of oppression, but the statue has left women in Dakar asking: Whose renaissance exactly?

“This woman [in the statue], she is completely subjugated to man. It’s the man making the decisions. It’s the man as protector, and that doesn’t fit with the African reality,” said historian Penda Mbow.

While the half-naked man represents physical strength and control, the woman is a “sex object,” Mbow said. She sees the female figure as an afterthought, an appendage, an accessory.

A Senegalese columnist called the statue an example of “revolting sexism” and wondered whether any women was consulted in the design of the monument.

It’s but one of many criticisms to the bronze behemoth going up on one of Dakar’s hills overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Others say the statue, which dominates Dakar's horizon, is wasteful and disrespectful of Muslim culture.

At 164 feet tall — just higher than the Statue of Liberty — the monument is the pet project of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. He claims it will become a tourist attraction as popular as the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty.

Rumblings of discontent erupted this fall when Wade announced that he, as "intellectual creator," would be taking 35 percent of all tourist revenue the state monument earns.

Supporters say the giant statue will draw tourists but critics charge the colossus — estimated to cost $27 million and built by North Koreans — highlights how disconnected Wade, 83, has become from the daily struggles of Senegalese citizens.

Politicians charge that Senegal's economy is declining and health and education are in crisis, yet massive public funds are being squandered on the statue.

About 95 percent of Senegal's 12 million people are Muslim and some of the country’s imams spoke out against the statue in December, citing wastefulness and Muslim restrictions against representing the human form. Wade shot back that, at church, Christians pray to a man named Jesus and was later forced to apologize to the country’s offended Christians, who protested in Dakar.

And now, the monument’s architect has suggested adding a concrete coverup to the woman’s bare legs, citing complaints he had received.

“I don’t see myself in that woman”

The woman gazes skyward as the man pulls her to the summit, her arms extended backward and a cloth blowing over her perky breasts.

In a country where women dress in floor-grazing boubous, carrying heavy loads on their heads and babies strapped to their backs, the artistic rendering seems a bit out of touch.
Indeed, from a woman selling vegetables on the side of the road to an educated office manager and single mother of four, there was a similar refrain when asked about the monument: “I don’t see myself in that woman.”

In Senegal women dress modestly and cover their bodies, said Magatte Sy of Siggil Jigeen, a Dakar-based women’s rights organization that runs a domestic violence counseling center.

But Sy is more concerned about the woman’s position and size in relation to the man’s, which she said are telling and troubling in a country whose family code still declares the man the head of the family and gives him the sole right to choose where his wife and family will live.

“It’s the man who is the head of the family, the man who is ahead. It’s the man who runs everything. Everything revolves around him,” Sy said. “That’s not the future for the African woman. I don’t want to see the woman behind of or in front of the man, I would like to see her next to him, on the same level.”

Female activists, like attorney Aminata Kebe, say they have been too busy trying to help women survive childbirth, escape domestic violence and become more financially independent to lose much sleep over a statue.

Kebe runs a free legal center in Dakar for the Senegalese Association of Female Lawyers, an organization that is working to reform the family code, make polygamy the exception rather than the rule, and get more women in political office.

“Sure, the woman in the statue is troubling, but I’m much more concerned about the women 50 meters below, on the ground, who are coming into my legal clinic,” Kebe said.

Then, cocking her head, she considered for a moment.
“But does this monument represent the African Renaissance for women? Does this statue represent the future [for the African woman]?” she added firmly. “No, absolutely not.” 

Editor's note: This story was updated to correctly describe the statue.