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Link Between Senegal, US Creole Culture Explored


In West Africa, historians and descendants of slaves brought to the Americas are looking for cultural links from both sides of the Atlantic. One example connects Senegal and what is known as Creole culture in the southern U.S. state of Louisiana.

Tarzan Honor and his daughter Joni Goheen stand in deep silhouette against the bright sunlight streaming through the infamous "Door of No Return" on Senegal's Gorée Island, where many slaves were once trafficked. Today, the door opens to nothing - a one-meter drop to the rocky shore below.

But in another time, the door led to ships that carried captured Africans on the treacherous passage into slavery.

The father and daughter are African-Americans who have traveled from the United States. They trace their U.S. roots to the southern state of Mississippi.

"It would be neat and nice to be able to say, we are from this country, that country and meet some of the people in which we are family," said Honor. "And, I understand that we are talking about several generations, but still it gives you a place that you can call home."

To determine where to focus the hunt for family, Honor is looking to his DNA, the cellular material passed from parent to child that acts as a blueprint for how a cell, or a person, will develop. Scientists are able use this information to trace back generations, and pinpoint the birthplace of one's ancestors.

For many African-Americans, especially those from Louisiana, historians say, the search would start and end right here in Senegal.

Ibrahima Seck is a cultural historian, who teaches at University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. He has spent the past few years excavating and renovating a former slave-owning plantation in southeastern Louisiana. He says the plan is to turn it into a museum.

He explains that about 70 percent of African slaves in the Mississippi River valley came from the part of west Africa that became Senegal and The Gambia. Many of them were members of the Wolof ethnic group.

"If you go to southwest Louisiana, you find thousands of people whose family name is Senegal," he said. "That means, originally, they were Wolof, because in the plantations of Louisiana, they were listed as Senegal, and those people chose to pick that family name after emancipation."

Elsewhere in North and South America, African slaves from disparate regions were thrown together. Forced to communicate across different languages and backgrounds, many old ways were abandoned. But, in Louisiana, a law required slave owners to keep parents and children together or on neighboring plantations. This enabled parents to pass on history and traditions to their children.

The culture that developed is called Creole, which was originally a linguistic term for the new language that arises in a place where speakers of two or more different languages live side-by-side.

Louisiana Creole originally developed from French and the African languages. France controlled Louisiana until 1804.

Creole is also the name given to the regional cuisine. Gumbo is a signature spicy dish featuring the green pod-like vegetable, okra. But in several Sene-gambian languages, Gumbo is the word for the vegetable itself, which features in many typical Senegalese dishes. Likewise, jambalaya is an American adaptation of what you would find in Senegalese households as "thiebu yapp," Wolof for rice with meat.

Cultural historian Seck says Louisianans can also look to Senegal for roots of their jazz music.

"If you look at the word 'jazz', you can find the word in at least three African languages: Wolof, Fulani, and Hasani, the language of the Moors of Mauritania, north of Senegal. The same word 'jazz', or 'jayz', when the Fulani say "jayz, that means dance, real dance," said Seck. "And, if you look at the early, real original jazz in New Orleans, it was dance music."

For Honor and his daughter, the search for family history has been full of surprises, including a big surprise in Honor's DNA. When the preliminary results were conveyed to him, he learned that, on his father's side, his ancestors were not all African.

"It was amazing to have this guy tell you that your ancestors were Vikings and Scandinavians," he said. "And I said, 'He has got to be kidding.'"

Honor's African heritage, then, comes from his mother. While already in West Africa, he learned that her DNA traces to Angola, which he hopes to visit someday.