An Alternative Narrative for Africa

Humanities4 MIN READ

In his first novel, Mouhamédoul Niang celebrates rural life while reimagining an urban modernity

Associate Professor of French Mouhamédoul Niang
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Caitlin Penna
February 17, 2022

Mouhamédoul Niang has never forgotten the first novel he read in English. It was the mid-1980s, and he was a French-speaking middle schooler in the city of Thiès, Senegal. A teacher had recently introduced him to English, a language that captivated him.

Then came the book. The Haj, by Leon Uris. Reading all five hundred pages was a significant achievement that engendered deep pride for the young Niang.

In that pivotal moment, a love of literature and language took root. 

That passion blossomed and propelled Niang through college in Senegal, graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and to Colby, where he’s an associate professor of French. Now, after teaching Francophone fiction for a decade, he turned to French to write a novel of his own, Rêves d’adolescents en terre noire.

Dreams of adolescents in black earth (L’Harmattan, 2021) tells the story of four modern-day African youth wrestling with divergent views of urban and rural life. Through the lens of these adolescents’ experiences, we understand what Niang sees as an imbalance in contemporary Africa: a glorification of urban life and a devaluation of rural life.

The novel introduces the city-dwelling Madièye, the oldest of two brothers, disillusioned and protesting against injustices that prevent him and his girlfriend from leading the idyllic urban life they envision. The younger Malamine, however, reaps the fruits of rural life borne from the strong work ethic instilled by their father. Meanwhile, the rebellious urbanite Cheikh is sent to a summer camp in Senegal’s Sine Saloum delta region. There, he discovers the power of nature and the importance of the region’s cultural heritage while fighting to save Africa’s sacred baobab tree.

Rêves d’adolescents en terre noire does more than denounce urban inequities, institutional corruption, and violence that plague contemporary African cities, said Niang. It reminds us of the importance of rural life—agriculturally, economically, and culturally.

“We shouldn’t be living like our ancestors. But we shouldn’t overlook the legacy that they left us with. We should be proud of that legacy. And understand that sooner or later, we’ll return to the land.”

And for Senegal, currently grappling with youth migration and joblessness, the book’s promotion of rural life bolsters its efforts to encourage youth to return to agriculture to ensure the country’s self-sufficiency in the future.

Even as Niang champions rural life, he also hopes his book raises awareness of Africa’s urban ills and the need for new policies “so that young Africans can benefit from an authentic urban experience and not a mediocre one.” It’s an invitation to change, he said, and to reimagine a more sophisticated, authentic modernity rooted in social justice.

Niang’s scholarship and teaching engage with representations of gender, body, and space within narratives of identities, ideologies, as well as innovative literary/cinematic aesthetics in Francophone Africa. And Rêves d’adolescents en terre noire crystallizes many of those themes, including nationalism, memory, and migration. 

“I try to make sure that my students understand what it means to be a migrant, an African living in Paris, having left his family behind. To understand what it means to be someone belonging to an ethnic group and being immersed in a new nation-state of which you have no real understanding.”

Other projects underway for Niang include the African Storytelling Project, which aims to translate and illustrate folktales from the Senegambia region. His goal is to work with artists from his hometown of Thiès and with institutions such as Le Forum Media Center in Dakar to enable young Africans to discover previously oral stories by reading them in French and in English.

He’s also working on a comprehensive study of the work of Safi Faye, the first female African-Francophone filmmaker. This project coincides with the Senegalese government’s efforts to bring African cinema back to the public space.

Niang penned his first novel as a contribution to Francophone African literature, to walk in the footsteps of writers he admires, he said. But there’s something even larger at play.

“I want a way of contributing to the narrative on Africa … to retell the story about Africa by deconstructing stereotypes and prejudices African people face.”