Translating America, into Wolof

How a radio host explains US politics to Senegalese listeners in New York and Africa

At about 7:30 p.m. on election day, as Dame Babou waited for the returns at Londel’s Restaurant in Harlem, he bristled. A disc jockey bumped Make it Funky, by James Brown, competing with ABC’s pundits, talking about the early results on wall-mounted flat screens. Women in business suits and men in Yankees caps chomped on yams and drinkers clinked their cocktails. When Obama won a state, viewers whooped.

Babou was only an hour from broadcasting his radio program about the US presidential election to listeners in both New York and in Senegal, West Africa, and he needed to concentrate. “How am I supposed to hear?” he said from his corner dais, motioning to his microphones and the TVs.

But by 8:30 the DJ had silenced his speakers. Babou took one of the microphones and began a conversation in French, with three Columbia University professors and a pair of correspondents who spoke to him via Skype from China and Tunisia. The show also featured a conversation in Wolof—Senegal’s most widely spoken language—with professors Souleymane Diagne, a philosopher, and Mamadou Diouf, a historian.

On his radio program—called African Time, and broadcast on both WPAT 930-AM in New York and on Sud FM in Senegal—Babou explains the US political system to his listeners, alongside his regular discussion of Senegalese affairs. He has broadcast from New York since 1993, and over the course of five presidential elections, he has cleared up confusion about many facets of American democracy for his audiences.

“It’s not just giving the information,” Babou says. “It’s translation and explanation.”

The Electoral College, in particular, has persistently vexed his listeners. Listeners call in and ask why the candidates do not campaign much in New York. Babou explains the system in detail, sometimes going into the historical reasons for its creation. He links this explanation to descriptions of the US House and Senate, which he says helps, because both Congress and the Electoral College were based upon a similar idea—fair representation between the states.

“Sometimes, they just don’t see it,” Babou said. “But you have to explain.”

On the election night broadcast, Babou and his guests— Diagne, Diouf, joined by a history professor, Gregory Mann—explained the concept of Swing States, discussed the legacy of Obama’s first term, and offered differing consequences of a possible Romney presidency and a second Obama term, for both America and Africa.

The four men also discussed polls, another feature of the American presidential election that confounds many of Babou’s listeners. Polling is prohibited in Senegalese elections, to prevent such information from skewing voters’ intentions. Broadly, Babou said, Senegalese elites and the general population believe that voters are not “mature enough” to be uninfluenced by polling.

“Polling is something I really need to explain, that it’s not necessarily what’s going on at the time,” he said. “Obama’s very popular, but they see one poll with Romney ahead by five points, and they think that it’s over.” Newspaper endorsements are illegal in Senegal, too, but for different reasons. Babou said that endorsements lead to allegations of corruption in the street and in competing newsrooms.

It’s not just the elections that need explaining—Babou often provides primers on how the US government works. For example, when both George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to pass immigration reforms, he used the opportunity to explain the limited power of the president of the United States. “When they see the president almost begging Congress to get something to pass,” he says, “it’s something they don’t understand.”

This misunderstanding, Babou says, arises from the Senegalese system, in which the presidents choose the candidates to appear on their party’s ballot. Senegalese elections are between parties rather than individual candidates, and the Senegalese president holds immense power over whom from his party will govern if the party prevails. This privilege allows the Senegalese president to pass his agenda virtually unchallenged by the legislature.

Although Babou educates his listeners, he has no formal education. He is 43, and was born and raised in Kebemer, a rural region of Senegal about 150 kilometers northwest of Dakar. He moved to that city as a young man and quickly found work as a translator for several political activist groups that were fighting for a more open, less French-influenced democracy. He said it was easy for him, because he was one of the few people in these groups who spoke Wolof “very, very well.” Babou eventually worked his way up the communications ladder to become a Wolof translator for Cheikh Anta Diop, a French-speaking scholar of early humanity in Africa and the namesake of Senegal’s most prestigious university.

When Babou moved to New York in the 1980s, he worked the graveyard shift at a gas station. He grew restless, finding little to do to pass the time on slow nights. His Haitian co-worker listened to reggae music on the radio until the station switched in the morning to multi-language shows—in English, Arabic, and more. He wondered why there could not be a similar show focused on Senegal, in Wolof and French. Some 7,000 Senegalese live in the city.

“I was working with somebody who was a trained journalist from Senegal whose brother was my friend,” Babou said. “And I told him about it, and he said, ‘Let’s do it!’ And we started.”

Babou’s program was the first Wolof-language radio show in New York, but more striking: it was the first program broadcast in Senegal about national and political affairs to be broadcast in Wolof. “In Senegal, they had radio that was Wolof programming, but usually it was entertainment,” he said. “The serious things, they think it has to be said in French. It was the first time they hear somebody giving the same weight to French and Wolof.” There are other such programs now.

Nearly 20 years on, Babou employs four correspondents in Senegal, two in New York, and individual correspondents in France, Benin, Ivory Coast, and Mauritania. He usually records in a studio in downtown Manhattan. But Hurricane Sandy knocked it out of operation, which is why he did his election night show from Londel’s restaurant.

Many listeners called him during his absence to ask why African Time had not aired. On election night , Babou’s listeners received their first broadcast since the storm.

“People that will see you in the street, they will say, ‘We really want to know what’s happening,” he said. “They will say, ‘This evening, we are waiting for you.’”

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Seth Maxon is a student in Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Tags: , , ,