Translating America


Radio host Dame Babou explains the U.S. election to Senegalese listeners in New York and in Africa.

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

Babou with Columbia University Professors

Babou hosted three Columbia University professors: Gregory Mann, Souleymane Diagne and Mamadou Diouf (from left). Photo Credit: TIFFANY SALONE

Babou was only an hour from broadcasting his radio show about the U.S. presidential election to listeners in Senegal, and he needed to concentrate on what was happening. “How am I supposed to hear this?” he said from his corner dais, motioning to his microphones and the television.

By Babou’s 8:30 showtime, the D.J. had silenced his speakers, and Babou took one of the microphones for a conversation in French with three Columbia University professors and two 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 shows that air on WPAT 930-AM in New York and on Sud FM in Senegal, alongside discussion of Senegalese affairs, Babou explains the U.S. political system to his listeners. The show can be heard Fridays and Mondays on WPAT, from 8 to 11 p.m. 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 Senegalese audience.

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

The Electoral College, in particular, has persistently vexed his listeners. Many call in and ask why the candidates do not campaign much in New York. Babou often explains the system in detail, even going into the historical reasons for the system’s creation. He often links this explanation to descriptions of the U.S. House and Senate, which he said helps because both Congress and the Electoral College were based on a similar idea—fair representation between the states.

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

Mohamed Keita, a West African journalist who currently works to promote African press freedom and safety for the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said Babou is well known in both Senegal and among the Senegalese community in New York. “Dame has been around and is popular/respected,” Keita said in an email.

Diouf, the history professor and frequent guest on Babou’s programs, said in another email that Babou’s broadcasts provide a bridge between Africans, African migrants and Americans.

“Dame’s programs offer to a very diverse audience a window on the world of African migrants in New York and their interactions with the city and with Americans,” Diouf wrote.

On the Election Night broadcast, Babou and his guests—Diouf , Diagne, and history professor Gregory Mann—explained the importance of the swing states on which the race would hinge, Obama’s first term, and the differing consequences of a possible Romney presidency and a second Obama term for 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.

“That’s completely out of the question,” he said. “Once an editorial board says, ‘This is the guy,’ that [publication would] not only lose credibility on the ground, but with reporters, too.”

It’s not just the elections that need explaining. Babou also explains U.S. governing processes to his listeners. When both George W. Bush and Barack Obama failed to pass immigration reforms, he used the opportunity to explain that despite the so-called power of “the bully pulpit,” the president cannot always do as he pleases.

“Some of these guys come from a real presidential government. When the president wants it, that happens. They think that if he didn’t do it, that means he didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I have 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, it’s something they don’t understand.”

This misunderstanding, Babou says, arises from the Senegalese system, in which the president chooses the candidates to appear on his (or her) party’s ballot. So in elections that are for parties (rather than individual candidates), the Senegalese president holds immense power over who from his party will govern if they prevail on Election Day. This privilege allows the Senegalese president to pass his agenda virtually unchallenged by the legislature.

Although Babou educates his listeners about U.S. politics, he has no formal education. Now 43, he 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 fought 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 scholar of early humanity in Africa and the namesake of Senegal’s most prestigious university, who wrote only in French.

When Babou moved to New York in the 1980s, he worked the graveyard shift at a gas station. He grew restless as he found that there was little he could do to pass the time through slow nights. Meanwhile, 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.

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

Babou says his show was the first Wolof-language radio show in New York, and the first Wolof-language show broadcast in Senegal about national and political affairs.

“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.”

Nearly 20 years on, Babou now 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 downtown, which, as of Sunday, was still out of operation because of Hurricane Sandy.

Many listeners have been frustrated during his absence, and they have called him to ask why the show has not aired. On Tuesday night from Londel’s in Harlem, 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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