John Hames, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology, used his 2015-2016 Rothman Doctoral Fellowship to conduct anthropological fieldwork in the West African countries of Senegal and Mauritania. His fieldwork contributed to his dissertation entitled, “Activism and the Politics of Language Loyalty: The Pulaar Movement in Senegal and Mauritania.” Although Pulaar is not the official language of Senegal or Mauritania, it is a set of dialects of a language, also known as Fulfulde, that is spoken from Senegal to as far east as Sudan. Since independence from the France in 1960, Pulaar language activists have pursued and advocated for the dissemination of the Pulaar language in Senegal and Mauritania. Many of these activists have ties to the Fuuta Tooro region straddling the Senegal-Mauritania border and are known as the Haalpulaar’en.
Hames’ research is specifically concerned with how language gives people access to political and economic power, and how politically marginalized groups organize to increase the visibility of the language they speak. Hames observes that Pulaar language activists offer strong critiques which challenge discourses that tie Senegalese and Mauritanian national citizenship to the Wolof and Hassaniya languages, respectively. Through grassroots literacy teaching, broadcasting, poetry and theater, these linguistic militants have created an alternative public sphere rooted in a shared transnational linguistic citizenship. Their practice of linguistic citizenship emerges as a collective effort to renegotiate the political and cultural status of Pulaar within the two countries.
The lives and examples of important Pulaar language activists provide inspirational “symbolic capital” for current activists by creating an oral tradition around their achievements. With the assistance of the Rothman Doctoral Fellowship, Hames traveled to Dakar, Nouakchott and several other towns in Senegal and Mauritania to conduct oral interviews and participate in the lives of Pulaar language activists. Their conversations revealed how important past activists were in shaping the current Pulaar movement. Amadou Malick Gaye, who was born in Mauritania but made his career in Senegal, was an important activist who in the 1960-70s helped create two organizations that became instrumental to Pulaar literacy activities; as a broadcaster for Senegalese national radio, Elhadj Tidiane Anne earned fans in Senegal and Mauritania for his strident linguistic advocacy; and Mamadou Samba Diop became the most famous (and mythologized) of Pulaar language activists with a reputation for asceticism and selfless service of the cause.
The Pulaar movement is also transnational because of popular media. In the Senegal River Valley, community radio broadcasting in particular provides a medium of common communication and helps to shape a locally imagined community centered on the Pulaar language, blurring any sharp distinction between the national borders of Senegal and Mauritania. However, the Pulaar movement should not be viewed simply as an expression of cultural resistance against the state. Aspects of late colonial and post-colonial state-building, including the establishment of mass political parties and national radios, made it possible for many Pulaar activists to cultivate the very trans-border ties that have given the movement its vibrancy.
Hames’ project shows that the process of nation-building is not always related to physical boundaries. National and linguistic citizenship provide different but nevertheless important public spaces. National citizenship is often focused on a discourse of “one people, one state” while linguistic citizenship is less homogeneous because it is not centered on a bounded place. Rather, the practice of linguistic citizenship is centered on a common culture and shared form of communication that produces loyalty through symbolic capital and social bonds. Importantly, when linguistic citizenship takes on a transnational character, it does not necessarily conflict with particular regimes of national citizenship, but rather provides an alternative to national citizenship whose salience varies with circumstances.
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