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Dakar's 'African Renaissance' Monument Project Has Detractors

A colossal monument is planned for a hill overlooking the Atlantic in Dakar, capital of Africa's western-most nation, Senegal. The Senegalese president says the "Monument to the African Renaissance" is meant to symbolize the potential and growth of the continent. Detractors say it is a misuse of funds and a distraction from the everyday problems of the Senegalese people. For VOA, Brent Latham has more from Dakar.

A foreman yells instructions in Korean to a team of workers. A large open air kiln, reminiscent of the industrial age, spews thick black smoke into the sky.

The laborers pound steel and bronze on their anvils. These are North Koreans, and they are building a monument, something they have become accustomed to after years of paying tribute to Kim Jong-il, North Korea's long time communist ruler.

But this is not Pyongyang. It is Dakar, Senegal. On a large hill at the western-most tip of the continent, the North Koreans are helping to erect an African monument to rival others worldwide. With a height of more than 50 meters, the Monument to the African Renaissance, when completed, would be taller than the Statue of Liberty, if everything goes according to plan.

The monument, which will depict a man emerging from a volcano with his wife in one arm and child in the other, is an initiative of Senegal's octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade. The project's principal architect is Pierre Goudiaby Atepa.

"This is an idea of President Wade. Way before he became president, he wrote a book on his vision of Africa, and in part of the book, he pictured an African giant coming out of a volcano with his wife and his child, and pointing out the way to development, which is the north, America," he said. "He wrote about it and when he became president. He called his architect, which is my good self, and told me, listen, I want to make a big monument that would symbolize the African Renaissance."

The ambitious job, which Atepa hopes will be completed by the end of next year, is another in a long line of large projects undertaken by Mr. Wade's government. On the agenda for the remaining four years of Mr. Wade's second term as president are a national theater projected to be the largest on the continent, advancing on plans for a new airport, and a huge Museum of African Culture.

The president's choices have brought criticism from political opposition and citizens alike, who say that Mr. Wade has focused on glossing over the country's poverty with construction projects that serve mostly the wealthy.

The monument distracts attention from the lack of jobs in Senegal, say two men standing by the side of the road, staring up at the rising monument on the hill above them.

They make their living washing cars in an empty lot below the monument's construction site. They say they are annoyed that the government spends money on monuments and building projects, while much of the population has little to eat, and faces a lack of employment and rising food prices.

Spokesmen for the presidency have repeatedly said the monument is being funded by private sources. The architect, Atepa, says he and the president are acutely aware of the criticism. Though his explanation indicates the funding is coming from the sale of government land, Atepa maintains that the government is not spending public funds on the monument.

"As far as the funding - it is not public money. We tried, because when you are in a government that does not have money sometimes you have to think of other ways of financing things than taking public money," he said. "The monument is in a site, and next to the site the government has decided that they will sell some government land, which is laying there for nothing, giving it to Senegal entrepreneurs, who will buy the land from the government. Instead of buying it for the regular government price, which is almost nothing, we put it at the commercial price, and they are giving the money to the government to build this, at commercial price. It is not costing anything to the government."

Atepa says he understands there is little public information within Senegal about the monument project. He says the government is anxious to avoid the criticism that comes with announcing big projects like this one and not following through. He says he prefers to complete the project first, and then publicize the results.

The architect says critics need to think more of the long term. He says the building of the monument does not represent a choice to ignore the problems of poverty, but rather to tackle those problems with a long term perspective in mind. Though the advantages of the monument may not be obvious in the short term, Atepa says, the Senegalese economy will eventually reap benefits from the monument and the building spree in general.

"I am an architect and I pressure the president to do things that will make Dakar, in Senegal, I do not want to say a showcase, but as you see everyone goes to Paris because of the Eiffel Tower," he said. "I want a lot of tourists to come to come to Senegal because we will have the monument of the African Renaissance, we are doing the national theatre, we will be doing the archives of Senegal, we are doing the African museum. We are doing all these things because in the year 2010 or 2015 we want people to come to Senegal, and this is what will make Senegal a rich country."

Mr. Wade has attempted to publicize the monument abroad, giving out pamphlets to international visitors to the president's office and on his trips outside Senegal. He has promised to have replicas of the monument built to be given to other African nations.

But inside Senegal, the construction on the hilltop remains a relative mystery. Visiting the project site requires the approval of the president himself, the architect's office says.

It will be difficult to avoid talk of the project much longer.

Above the lighthouse guarding the cape where Africa gives way to the ocean, the immense base of the statue is growing quickly. The first two stories are nearly complete. Plans show a winding staircase on the front of the monument, which visitors will be able to climb for a view of the Dakar peninsula and the ocean.

As for the North Koreans, Atepa says they are expert monument builders and bronze workers. The architect hopes some of that knowledge will be passed along to his Senegalese team.