Samba Gadjigo

Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Samba Gadjigo’s career, he will tell you, has been marked by stories: first by the rich oral tradition of Eastern Senegal—the stories his grandmother told him, growing up in a small village—and then by those of the French literary tradition, which he studied far from home in a high school in Saint-Louis, and in a language other than his own. At 17, the discovery of an important work, Les bouts de bois de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood) would connect Samba’s intellectual interests with his experience and sense of identity, and would set him on a course not only to study Africa, but to make the focus of that study the life and work of the author of that book, Ousmane Sembene.  Those of you who have seen the film, Sembene!, directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman,  will recognize this  story as the opening of the  movie—and, as much as this documentary recounts the career of Sembene,  it tells the story of Samba’s own extraordinary and successful career.

It is a career that spans more than three decades, and which has seen Samba travel from Dakar to Urbana-Champaign, and from there to South Hadley, where he has been teaching and pursuing his scholarship at Mount Holyoke College since 1986.  During this time, Samba has authored four books, three of them on Ousmane Sembene (including the biography, Ousmane Sembene, The Making of a Militant Artist, a 2010 translation of his 2007 work in French), and a first book, published in 1990, on colonial schools in francophone African literature. He has also published two co-edited volumes and over twenty articles.  Meanwhile, apart from inspiring students at Mount Holyoke and in the Five Colleges, he has also been translating works, and serving as an escort and interpreter to the man whose work was the object of this intense fascination and detailed study. Samba has, then, spent much of his life with Sembene, on film sets and international stages. He has translated Sembene’s films for distribution in the US, and made a documentary about one of these, Moolade (2004).  He has received many invitations to speak, from coast to coast in the United States, in Canada, in Europe, and in Guyana.

His is truly an international, multi-disciplinary career—a career throughout which his own story-telling has merged with that of Sembene’s, interweaving African literature, film, history, politics, and indeed these with language and with life itself.  Samba Gadjigo’s most recent gift of scholarship is the documentary film, Sembene!, which pays tribute both to Sembene’s drive to communicate through film, and to Samba’s own intellectual motivation to make Sembene’s work  better known and understood.   Students describe Samba’s teaching as “inspiring,”  “passionate,” and “exciting,” while critics have praised Samba’s “impassioned biopic” as a “a crucial piece of cinematic history, (finally) introducing a global audience to a groundbreaking filmmaker who deserves to be much more widely recognized for his audacious and legendary storytelling than he is today” (Kristin McCracken, Huffington Post, 02/03/15). Sada Niang, in the African Studies Review, describes it as an “eloquent, touching, and fitting tribute,” a dutiful devoir de mémoire, tactfully yet candidly executed and generously offered to posterity” (58:2 (2015) 289-91). International film festivals, including Sundance and Cannes, TV interviews, newspaper features, and in-person presentations are just the latest accolades received by Samba for his earnest intellectual commitment to Sembene’s work, and for his devotion to the man.  It is, then, only fitting that we honor Samba Gadjigo with the Meribeth E. Cameron Award for Scholarship, in recognition of his intellectual contributions to Mount Holyoke College and the world.