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Vietnamese Continue Traditions in Senegal

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The West African country of Senegal shares a common French colonial past with Vietnam. Some Senegalese soldiers serving with the French army in Vietnam in the 1930s had children with Vietnamese women. Many of these children, now in their seventies, moved to Senegal, and some 50 years later, still practice Vietnamese traditions. Phuong Tran speaks with one of them in Dakar, and has this report for VOA.

A group of friends gather at a table over steaming cast iron pots to make the Vietnamese dish lau. They take turns dipping seafood into the bubbling broth, waiting for it to cook before spooning it out into small bowls of rice.

They share laughter, most weekend meals, and a common family trait: they each have a Senegalese father and a Vietnamese mother.

Jean Gomis, 74, speaking in Vietnamese, says he is mixed, with red blood and black skin, but that his heart is gold, referring to one of the colors on Vietnam's national flag. He says he loves Vietnam as much as people who live there, because that is where he was born.

Gomis says a happy childhood filled with songs and close friendships make him want to hold on to his past even though he moved away from Vietnam at age 14.

Gomis says his Senegalese father was often away fighting in the war between the French and Vietnamese independence fighters, which lasted until 1954. He says he spent most of his childhood helping his mother in the countryside. He says that is probably why he loves to cook so much now.

Gomis says he cooks a Vietnamese meal every day for himself and his Senegalese wife. He is recognized as the unofficial leader of the Senegalese Vietnamese community in Dakar because he is the oldest male in the group born to parents from both countries. He and others estimate there may be about 300 Senegalese Vietnamese in the country.

Gomis says there are about a dozen like him who were born in Vietnam and still speak Vietnamese. He says fewer than five Vietnamese women who moved to Senegal with their husbands in the 1940s are still alive.

One of those women is Madame Wone. At 87 years old, she has decided to learn Vietnamese grammar. Wone says when she grew up in Vietnam in the 1920s, she was not allowed to go to school.

She says even though her memory is not so good anymore, her will is strong and she wants to speak more fluently, even though most her friends she used to talk to have died.

Wone says she wants to visit Vietnam one more time. There, she says, she can practice her Vietnamese.

Jean Gomis says within 10 years, he expects the Vietnamese language to no longer be spoken in Senegal because the younger Senegalese-Vietnamese do not know how to speak it.

Gomis says it makes him sad a part of Vietnam's culture will die in Senegal when his and Madame Wone's generations die, but that is how life is, he concludes.

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