Two young men met on a quay at the port in Conakry, Guinea in 1946. One, waiting dockside, was Mamadou Madeira Keita, a low-level civil servant and archivist. Years later, when he was a political prisoner in the Malian Sahara, some would argue that he was “the first francophone African ethnographer.” The other, descending the gangplank, was the Frenchman Keita had come to meet. Georges Balandier was unknown then, but would soon become a leading figure in the fields of sociology and anthropology. The encounter between Keita and Balandier was foundational for both men. Conakry incubated a canonical intervention—Balandier's 1951 article “La Situation Coloniale”—that some attribute an ancestral role in a particular francophone tradition of postcolonial thought. Conakry, and Guinea at large, was also the crucible in which a powerful anti-colonial politics were forged by Madeira Keita and his allies. In this particular corner of West Africa, anti-colonial politics and an emergent, politically engaged social science conditioned each other, like the two strands of a double helix, each a necessary yet ultimately contingent element of the other's structure. Though these links did not last long, they had important effects. This article, by emphasizing the contingencies of the two men's intertwined biographies, seeks to carry out Balandier's dictate to emphasize the “concrete” nature of this particular situation in order to understand how and why anti-colonial politics and an innovative sociology converged and ultimately diverged.
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