St Petersburg University Professor Svetlana Adoneva: ‘In Africa, the traditional is integrated into the modern’

Svetlana Adoneva, Professor in the Department of History of Russian Literature, has visited Mali and Senegal with a group of Russian ethnographers and musicians. The trip took place within the framework of the 'Pushkin's Africa' project, which was initiated by the Autonomous Non-Profit Organisation 'Preservation of the Intangible Heritage of Russia' and received a grant from the Ministry of Education of the Russian Federation.

Could you please tell us what is the essence of the Pushkin’s Africa project?

The first aspect of the project is literary and linguistic, the idea being ‘Pushkin sets off on a journey in Africa in search of his roots’. In my opinion, this idea is very nice. The second aspect is lecturing, promoting the Russian language, and introducing Russian culture to Senegal and Mali. The third one is a cultural mission: joint music-making, improvisation festivals with the use of Russian and African traditional musical instruments.

The partners of the Pushkin's Africa project were: the Russian embassies in the Republic of Mali and the Republic of Senegal; the embassies of Senegal and Mali in Russia; the Russkiy Mir Foundation; Cheikh Anta Diop University (Dakar); and the University of Letters and Human Sciences (Bamako) to name just a few. The coordinator of the project in Senegal was Professor Boly Kane, a teacher of Russian language and literature. In Bamako, the group was supervised by Aliou Tunkara, a member of the Malian Parliament.

It happened that my colleague could not go. The project managers Maksim Dmitrienko and producer Pavel Korotkov invited me to become a member of the project's working group. I had two weeks left from my summer vacation leave. The decision was made quickly: a yellow fever vaccination, Senegal and Mali visas, PCR tests, and a week later we set off on our journey.

Who else was involved in the project?

The literary and poetic concept of the project belongs to the writer and anthropologist Igor Sid (Sidorenko). The art director of the project is Pavel Korotkov (his pseudonym is Afrikanda). He is the producer of music festivals dedicated to traditional music, including African music, which he himself knows and performs well. A project leader from the Centre for the Preservation of Intangible Heritage is Maksim Dmitrienko. Our group consisted also of instrumentalist Sergei Chernyshev, guitarist Nikolai Evstafev, and cameraman Alisa Baturina. 

What was on the programme?

Our academic venues were Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, and the University of Bamako in Mali. My lectures were titled 'Russian in spoken communication: past and present'. I spoke about Russian oral speech, addresses and terms of kinship, folklore and customs related to childhood, lullabies, fairy tales, and charms. I showed video recordings made in northern Russian villages during our folklore expeditions.

I wanted to show how Russian people use speech to create and maintain their world.

For this, I chose three themes: kinship terms and patronymics in spoken language, lullabies, and fairy tales. Russian people still use ‘father’ when referring to any elders, ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ when referring to a neighbour. And in public speech they use patronymics when addressing their bosses and colleagues, despite the rejection of patronymics in corporate culture. Still today, people in towns and villages sing lullabies to their babies in which the main theme is their native land. Children learn that there is something beyond the edge of the world. Grandmothers tell their grandchildren tales in which cats and dogs can talk and can save you, stoves can hide you and swan geese hear when they are called for. Communicative conventions (how we communicate, what speech genres we choose, what plots we use in our stories, and what words we use) are an area of unspoken agreements. Following them ensures the effectiveness of communication and the social balance (coherence) of the speech community. I have tried to convey this idea by using examples of Russian spoken language.

Igor Sid spoke about his project 'Dictionary of Culture of the 21st Century', which involved authors from 35 countries, including Senegal and Mali. Sergei Chernyshev conducted a master class where he showed what a traditional Russian dance looks like and how traditional Russian instruments sound. It was very spectacular and beautiful.

The second part was the concerts. In Dakar, this action took place in the Daniel Sorano National Theatre, and in Bamako, in the concert hall of the Conservatory. Our musicians performed a Russian bylina. Sergei Chernyshev played the gusli (the Russian psaltery), the balalaika and the button accordion. Then our musicians were joined by locals. Using recordings of our performances, the project team plans to make a film.

Who came to listen to your lectures?

The academic part was attended by undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate students and teachers specialising in the Russian language. To my surprise, there were plenty of them. The lectures were interpreted, but interpreting was quite unusual and not exactly consecutive. I was telling something and showing a video, and then the teachers joined in and, in the role of interpreters, were telling their version of what they had heard. Then we had to figure out whether the listeners understood the material, and clarified their understanding of the realia I was talking about.

What does Africa know about Russia?

As it turns out, Russia has not been very invested lately in making sure that we are well known in Africa. It would seem that such a sketchy, modernist project as ‘Pushkin's Africa’ should have been not more than a decoration of the main Russian cultural programme. But it turned out that this year there was no such programme. Ironically, despite the great interest in Russian culture and the Russian language in Africa, there have been no cultural initiatives on our part for quite some time now.

I have had experience of giving lectures on Russian culture in the USA, England, and Finland. Such events are usually attended by a fairly narrow circle of people who are interested in Russian culture. In Africa, there is much more interest. Many representatives of the generation that now occupies leading positions in the policy, education, and economy of Mali and Senegal studied in our country. These people provide interest and affection for Russia in Senegal and Mali. These are very well-educated, energetic, intelligent, and positive people. We met with the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research of Mali, who has defended two dissertations. One of them is written in Russian, and is on the political history of Russia.

There are people in these countries who are interested in cooperation with Russia. We met with the Minister of Culture of Mali and with members of the Parliamentary Commission on international relations. They all spoke of their interest in having Russian culture on their country's agenda.

The President of the Malian community in Moscow, who was at our meeting, reminded the Minister of Culture about Vladimir Arsenyev, who studied and worked at the Faculty of Asian and African Studies of St Petersburg University. A large part of the Mali collection in the Kunstkamera was created with his help. He studied West Africa, was initiated into the caste of hunters, and studied their life. It is not the Russians who remember and honour his contribution to African studies, but the Malians.

How could Russia interest Africa?

More important is the question what Africa can do for Russia. It seems that at the level of speech and attitudes we are living in a very modern world. We talk about the new, about technology and the future. But any future is determined by the fullness and richness of the past, and the better this past is integrated into the present, the more successful the future is. Russians today are creating their genealogies, looking for places where their grandparents lived because the future needs a foundation.

There is an illusion that everyone in Africa has just come out of the primitive communal system. This is a mistake. Africa is a continent of old cultures. For example, in Mali there was a state similar to Kievan Rus’ as far back as the 13th or 16th centuries. African cultures are old cultures, with their ancient traditions, rituals, and social institutions. And we know almost nothing about them. For example, Aliou Tunkara asked me if I knew about Kouroukan Fouga. It is the place where the medieval Mali empire was ratified and that is recognised by UNESCO as a site of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. I didn't know about it, nor, to my shame, did I know about the West African epic Sundiata. I hope we will fix this situation. We need a new academic programme in folklore studies that is not limited to the Russian tradition. St Petersburg academic and university science has a sufficient number of competent specialists in this field. For now, let us try to create a collective special course on the epics of different peoples. Boris Putilov once taught such a course at our faculty.

African rituals, folklore and traditions are not exotic things. They are things that help us understand ourselves better.

And they are also interested in our lives, they are interested in how our domestic habits and rules work. For example, at a lecture at Dakar University, I presented a video of a village grandmother showing how to ‘cut passion’, that is, fight your fears, when a small child takes his or her first steps. One of the listeners, a student, responded to this example with his own: 'Our grandmother does the same thing, only she doesn't use a knife but a pestle with which she grinds grain in a mortar'. We have much to discuss in terms of our customs and share with each other. And at the same time, it seems to me, they integrate their traditions into their modern lives easier and better than we do. The kora, a traditional musical instrument, is played by young people. For us, playing the gusli is still exotic.

What surprised you the most during your trip?

One of the most interesting things for me in both Senegal and Mali was textiles and clothing. Senegalese ‘flower women’ talk about their moods and status in the language of their clothes. I tried my best to photograph this beauty. Custom-made suits are sewn from fabrics of incredible colours. Mali fabrics are more graphic, more restrained in their colours, and more ornamental. But there is also a conversation in the language of the fabric. Indications of specific events are put in frames with the year and abbreviation and decorate men's traditional shirts. I haven't seen such special treatment of colours and ornaments anywhere else.

What is the future of the project? Will you go to Africa again?

If the Russian Ministry of Education makes such a decision, the project will live on. For example, Igor Sid and I have discussed the possibility of publishing Russian fairy tales in the Bambara language. I also think it would be very promising to invite Russian-speaking African students to lecture on Russian traditional culture. We could compare traditions and customs of rural life in our countries in seminars. We might find points of contact in this way.