Public debate

Felwin Sarr

The defining moment for the African continent to reinvent the terms of its presence in the world

A teacher, economist and writer, Felwine Sarr was due to see his text Traces – Discours aux nations africaines (Traces – Speech to African Nations), which he wrote in 2018, staged at the Avignon Festival in July 2020. The global pandemic decided otherwise and the event was cancelled, but the thinker continues to question the future of the continent and the world. From Dakar, he speaks of this unprecedented period and how it resonates with the concerns dealt with in his work.

Updated on 30/01/2023

5 min

Felwin Sarr
Felwin Sarr
© Antoine Tempé

As a thinker, you are very involved in reflecting about the current crisis. How do you view this moment of our lives?

This crisis is important, unprecedented and will probably be a historical marker for several reasons. Firstly, because it is global and affects every country in the world without distinction. Beyond health, it has implications for society, ecology and even civilisation. It also blatantly reveals the inequalities of our world. But what I find interesting is that it reopens the contingency of history. For a long time, we have felt like we were on a train that would never stop. Whatever utopias some of us might have created, reality seemed immutable. The crisis is creating a gap in time. No one knows what will happen, but it seems that once again we can shape history afresh. New possibilities are opening up to us.


Does this global crisis also say something about our imaginations and how they address one other?

People’s first reaction was to turn inward, to behave like tribes, like clans. We identify with those who share the same history, geography, and “culture” in quotation marks. We are French, Italian or African, but at the moment we are still unable to form a human community. From this perspective, the situation in Africa is revealing. In the face of the crisis, many were predicting disatrous consequences and carnage, as if no one would be satisfied unless we were affected by the virus’ lethal nature. If we had been humane, we would have welcomed this lower cost in human lives. Yet the clichés about the Continent have resurfaced, leaving no doubt that we are not yet a community.


In the "pandemic diary" that you are currently keeping for a German media outlet, you write that “Africa is an imaginary reality whose strength of representation consigns its reality”. Does the African continent today have cultural, intellectual and human resources that Western countries seem to lack in the face of the virus?

Since time immemorial, Africa has faced many shocks, be they to do with culture, civilisation or health. Experience in fighting epidemics has enabled us, to set up treatment centres and medical teams capable of organising several forms of response to this type of crisis, for example. It is a fact: the Continent has a great capacity for resilience. Saying this does not mean that Africans accept calamities or encourage them, but rather that they have had to develop survival strategies. In the long memory of African societies, there is a wave of life, a willingness to fight that is reborn in the face of challenge. Let's face it: these men and women are nothing special, they are just like any other human being. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the wealth of experience stemming from their history.


We are French, Italian or African, but at the moment we are still unable to form a human community.

Your text Traces is specifically intended for Africans and was produced in 2018. Does have a particular resonance today?

Originally, it was a speech to African nations, to get back on track, to look upwards, to heal from their traumas and to return to the subject of their history. Today, it seems to me that we are indeed at the heart of these issues. I have rarely heard so many voices expressing the desire for different societal models in such a short space of time. Basically, the big question is what the world will be like after this crisis. Will we hit the ground running in the same direction? Or make profound changes because we have become aware of something? For me, this is the critical moment for the African continent to reinvent the terms of its presence in the world, to regain sovereignty over its resources and to use them in an environmentally responsible way which meets the needs of its inhabitants. Africa has what it takes: resources, land, youth and vitality. It needs full self-confidence to transform these assets into opportunities for well-being and human dignity.


One of your other literary successes, Afrotopia (2016), suggests rethinking the concept of utopia. Can we find a way to inhabit the world after the crisis?

The notion of utopia is absolutely essential. It's not a sweet dream, it's a place that doesn’t yet exist. This means that if a society is faced with contradictions that it cannot resolve immediately, it first unravels them in the space of the imagination and subsequently effects a utopian conversion. Once this desirable world is configured, behaviours change and utopia becomes concrete. In the world of humans, nothing fundamental has ever been achieved without dreams. Rehabilitating the philosophical dimension of utopia as an active ingredient, such as the need to open up the space of history, seems crucial to me. This crisis indicates that the situation cannot continue. How can one get away with the idea that nothing can change the trajectory of the world? Miguel Abensour says utopia is the infinite search for a just and good political order. But I do not believe that the current world order is this.


Faced with the temptation to turn inward, what roles can those like you play in creating and thinking about the world of tomorrow?

I am very clear on this point and I know that the forces of withdrawal are one step ahead, as they already have the state apparatus. Institutions are already formulating a business continuity plan to restart the machine as quickly as possible and prevent people from seeing the possibility of a new experience. This fight is going to happen and I tell those who want a different world that they don't have to just want it anymore. We need to think about how to harness social forces to drive change at a fundamental level. Bruno Latour created a think tank. As an economist, I and some 20 colleagues contribute to rethinking Senegal’s economy and expanding this reflection to West Africa. These are just examples, but our role is there: to show, with lucidity and clarity, what is possible. Human action only unfolds when people are convinced there are paths. And thought remains the finest - the first - of these actions.

The Institut français and the writer

The performances of Traces – Discours aux nations africaines (Traces - Speech to the African Nations) with Etienne Minoungou, which were planned in Africa in spring 2020, were supported by the Institut français. They have been postponed due to the Coronavirus Covid-19 health crisis.

This play is part of La Collection, an initiative that brings together 90 turnkey proposals for the French cultural network abroad, which are easy to broadcast and modular, and span the fields of performing arts, visual arts and architecture, urban planning and landscape. Traces, discours aux nations africaines is offered in partnership with the Théâtre de Namur and the Grand T de Nantes

In 2019 the play received the SouthNorth Foundation prize, an organisation that the Institut français partners.

Felwine Sarr is also a regular guest of the Night of Ideas. For the 2020 edition he was at the Institut français of Egypt in Cairo.

Finally, the Institut français is a partner of the Ateliers de la Pensée (Ideas Workshops) in Senegal, an initiative by Achille Mbembé and Felwine Sarr, and an event that brings together leading African and diaspora thinkers, writers and academics to reflect on the new questions raised by the transformations of the contemporary world.

L'institut français, LAB