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  • JAY STRAKER (a1)

Recent research on twentieth-century Africa has been marked by a surge of interest in autobiographical narrative. While this development is generally praiseworthy, the knowledge it has produced has been uneven, in temporal as well as spatial terms. This article channels the current interest in personal experience and narrative to a place and time where resonances of the ‘common’ voice have been rather weak: the Republic of Guinea, across the final decades of the twentieth century. Foregrounding the autobiographical reflections of a local teacher in the country's southeastern forest region, it forges new perspectives on political subjectivity in Guinea's understudied provinces.

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1 Two edited volumes particularly illustrative of this wave of research are L. White, S. F. Miescher and D.W. Cohen (eds.), African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Bloomington, 2001), and K. Barber (ed.), Africa's Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self (Bloomington, 2006). For a more bounded case study, see S. F. Miescher, Making Men in Ghana (Bloomington, 2005).

2 For an insightful exploration of the difficulties of researching subjectivity and lives, see D. W. Cohen, S. F. Miescher and L. White, ‘Introduction: voices, words, and African history’, in White, Miescher and Cohen (eds.), African Words, 1–27; and C. Kratz, ‘Conversations and lives’, in ibid. 127–61. On the theme of historical memory, see D. W. Cohen, The Combing of History (Chicago, 1994).

3 Two of the most influential studies on the topic are J. F. Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (New York, 1993); and M. Mamdani, Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Princeton, 1996).

4 See Mbembe's, A. oft-cited ‘Provisional notes on the postcolony’, Africa, 62 (1992), 137, and On the Postcolony (Berkeley, 2001).

5 K. Barber, ‘Introduction: hidden innovators in Africa’ in Barber (ed.), Africa's Hidden Histories, 6.

6 The four countries constitute the foci of the fifteen chapters comprising Barber (ed.), Africa's Hidden Histories.

7 For a penetrating study of the meaning of ‘historical consciousness’ and its distinction from ‘historical determination’, see G. Marcus, ‘Past, present, and emergent identities: requirements for ethnographies of late twentieth-century modernity worldwide’, in S. Lash and J. Friedman (eds.), Modernity and Identity (Oxford, 1992), 309–27.

8 For an illuminating overview of works exemplifying polemical positions on Guinean revolutionary state and society, see M. S. Camara, His Master's Voice: Mass Communication and Single Party Politics in Guinea under Sékou Touré (Trenton, 2005), 1–21.

9 Touré can be seen as leader of the nationalist movement from 1952 when he became Secretary General of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africaine (RDA)/Parti Démocratique de Guinée (PDG). Some of the most vivid portrayals of the pan-African enthusiasm stirred up by political change in Guinea can be found in the special issue of Présence Africaine entitled ‘Guinée Indépendante’ (29 [1959]). Contributors included Présence founder Alioune Diop, poets Aimé Césaire and Jacques Rabemananjara, French historian Jean Suret-Canale and Guinean historian Djibril Tamsir Niane.

10 The most detailed study of Touré's rise to political stardom is S. K. Kéita's Ahmed Sékou Touré: L'homme et son combat anti-colonial, 1922–1958 (Conakry, 1998). See also E. Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939–1958 (Portsmouth OH, 2005). Recently Schmidt has contested portrayals of Touré's role in Guinea's move to the left; see Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946–1958 (Athens OH, 2007), and ‘Cold war in Guinea: the Rassemblement Démocratique Africaine and the struggle over Communism, 1950–1958’, Journal of African History, 48 (2007), 95–121.

11 Teachers were accused of harboring ongoing attachments to colonialist ideologies of schooling and willfully transmitting their views to young charges, enticing them towards ‘anti-national’ sensibilities and actions. For local press coverage, see ‘Manifestations antinationales scolaires: Le film des évènements’, Horoya, 5–7 Dec. 1961. For more recent reflections on the so-called ‘teachers’ strike', see M. Diawara's documentary, Conakry Kas (New York, 2003).

12 For coup plots, foreign invasions and other efforts to subvert Guinea's post-independence government, see G. Chaffard, Les carnets secrets de la décolonisation (2 vols.) (Paris, 1967), II: 218–19, 236–51, 259–61; C. Rivière, Guinea: The Mobilization of a People, trans. V. Thompson and R. Adloff (Ithaca, 1977), 121–40; R. Faligot and P. Krop, La piscine: les services secrets français, 1944–1984 (Paris, 1985), 217, 226, 245–9, 252, 335–7; J. Foccart, Foccart parle: entretiens avec Philippe Gaillard (2 vols.) (Paris, 1995), I: 166, 175; II: 193–4. Concerning the post-independence crackdown on intellectuals, see Rivière, Guinea, 127–8; B. Ameillon, La Guinée: bilan d'une indépendance (2 vols.; Cahiers Libres, 58–9) (Paris, 1964), 179–81; L. Gray Cowan, ‘Guinea’, in G. M. Carter (ed.), African One-Party States (New York, 1962), 203–4; S. S. Camara, La Guinée sans la France (Paris, 1976), 175–6; R. W. Johnson, ‘Sekou Touré and the Guinean revolution’, African Affairs, 69 (Oct. 1970), 357–8. For Touré's relationship with intellectuals during the pre-independence period, see E. Schmidt, ‘Top down or bottom up? Nationalist mobilization reconsidered, with special reference to Guinea (French West Africa)’, American Historical Review, 110 (Oct. 2005), 975–1014.

13 A concise synopsis of Touré's own views on the importance of the Cultural Revolution can be found in the contemporary Guinean teachers' journal L'Enseignement Révolutionnaire, 2 (1968), 1–2. For a summary of the Portuguese invasion and its effect on Guinean state and society, see Rivière, Guinea, 136–7.

14 A. Fantouré, Le cercle des tropiques (Paris, 1972).

15 Kaba, L., ‘The Cultural Revolution, artistic creativity, and freedom of expression in Guinea’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 14 (1976), 201–18.

16 For a text that illustrates this desire to portray the revolutionary rural interior as a dormant zone, see C. Colle (ed.), Guinéoscope: la Guinée à l'aube du IIIème millénaire (Paris, 1997).

17 For a broad perspective on these dynamics, see X. Leunda, ‘La réforme de l'enseignement et son incidence sur l'évolution rurale en Guinée’, Civilisations 22, 232–62.

18 See Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses, 103–8, for insight into the importance of colonial-era chieftaincy conflicts in spurring and shaping this regional volatility.

19 The notion of the postcolonial nation as a composite of asymmetrical ‘fragments’ is drawn from P. Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, 1993). For a general picture of the forest's real and figurative marginality in most Guineans' and outsiders' imaginings of Guinée française and the nation-state, see C. Rivière, Mutations sociales en Guinée (Paris, 1971), 246–61; A. B. Barry, Les violences collectives en Afrique: le cas guinéen (Paris, 2000), 88–91; and F. L. Touré, Une enfance africaine, vol. II (Conakry, 1997). For a detailed examination of sociocultural relations between Malinké and forestier ethnic groups, see J. Fairhead and M. Leach, Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest–Savanna Mosaic (New York, 1996).

20 A useful study of the campaign's core events is Rivière, Mutations, 247–57. For broader perspectives on religious life in the forest prefectures in the decades immediately preceding the campaign, see M. H. Lelong, N'Zérékoré: l'Evangile en forêt guinéenne (Paris, 1949), and Ces hommes qu'on appelle anthropages (Paris, 1946). For a longer view of the campaign's aftermath, see M. McGovern, ‘Unmasking the state: developing political subjectivities in 20th century Guinea’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Emory University, 2004).

21 Scholarly literature on the ethnic groups comprising the Poro/Sande ‘belt’ of the Upper Guinean forest region, and the centrality of initiation cults to their formation and reproduction, is abundant, though mainly focused on Liberia and Sierra Leone. Some of the richest studies include W. Murphy, ‘Secret knowledge as property and power in Kpelle society: elders versus youth’, Africa, 50 (1980), 193–207; C. Bledsoe, Women and Marriage in Kpelle Society (Stanford, 1980); Little, K., ‘The political function of the Poro’, Africa, 4 (1964), 349–65; and D'Azevedo, W., ‘Some historical problems in the delineation of a Central West Atlantic region’, Annals, New York Academy of Sciences, 96 (1962), 512–38.

22 For a study of these Guinean groups' sociohistorical roots and interrelationships in the colonial period, see J. Germain, Peuples de la forêt de Guinée (Paris, 1984).

23 The name is a pseudonym.

24 Citations of Béavogui's voice are translated transcriptions from interviews conducted in French in N'Zérékoré in spring 2001.

25 For an overview of the multiple roles of ancien combatants as factors of social change in the Guinean interior, see Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses, 37–54.

26 These dynamics are best explained in Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses, and ‘Cold war in Guinea’.

27 For a broader view of the generally hostile relationship between the Church and the revolutionary regime, see M. Camara, Repères pour l'histoire de l'église Catholique en Guinée, 1890–1986 (Conakry, 1992).

28 National school attendance rose from 46,616 in 1958 to 159,494 in 1962. Enrollment rates of school-aged children rose from 9.5 per cent to 29 per cent. See Rivière, C., ‘Les investissements éducatifs en République de Guinée’, Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines, 5 (1965), 626–7.

29 Interview, J. Straker with A. Béavogui, 2 Apr. 2001, N'Zérékoré.

30 The most useful compilation of these speeches, delivered from 1959 to 1962, is S. Touré, L'action du Parti démocratique de Guinée en faveur de l'émancipation de la jeunesse guinéenne (Conakry, 1962).

31 Interview, J. Straker with A. Béavogui, 2 Apr. 2001, N'Zérékoré. The seminar was held at the same Donka scholastic complex in central Conakry where ‘the teachers’ strike' had erupted the previous November. Recent ‘anti-national’ behaviors of Conakry students and teachers partly inspired and shaped the seminar's design; the leadership felt a need to convince students and teachers throughout the country that there was no pathway to success independent of the political program of the PDG. Touré strove to make this point abundantly clear throughout the speeches recorded in L'action du PDG.

32 Touré was on the threshold of some of his more intricate ruminations on the ideal mentality and social roles of teachers, particularly those called to work in the interior. Two of his most interesting texts in this regard are the poem ‘L'instituteur et L'Ecole guinéenne’, Revue de L'Education Nationale de la Jeunesse, des Arts, et de la Culture, 4 (1964), 3, and the essay ‘La morale révolutionnaire et la fonction enseignante’, in L'Afrique en Marche (4th ed.) (Conakry, 1967), 537–55.

33 Interview, A. Béavogui, 2 Apr. 2001. Most forestier accounts of Conakry are rife with depictions of the capital's material and moral decay.

34 Béavogui proudly remembered being asked by the local Commandant to deliver a speech to the wife of Patrice Lumumba and a group of Chinese women dignitaries who had come to visit the famed mountain. Other memorable pleasures in N'Zo included playing guitar and banjo in small venues during the lively nights before and after the weekly market, and witnessing the emergence of Nimba Jazz, an electric ensemble that later won nationwide fame at Conakry arts festivals.

35 Interview, J. Straker with A. Béavogui, 1 May 2001, N'Zérékoré.

36 Ibid.

37 With the proclamation of the Socialist Cultural Revolution, Touré declared that all schools would henceforth be CER. See L'Enseignement Révolutionnaire, 2 (Oct. 1968), 5–6. Teachers, students and parents throughout the country accurately foresaw how devastating the new ‘productionist’ reforms might be for rural youths' general educational prospects. For an overview of contemporary official and unofficial meanings attributed to the advent of the CER, see Leunda, ‘La réforme’.

38 A useful synopsis of teachers' reflections upon this state of affairs is République de Guinée, Actes de la Conférence de l'Education Nationale (Conakry, 1984).

39 Evidence for 1964 supports the view that forestiers were exceptionally hungry for education. At that time, school enrollment in the coastal region (outside Conakry), the Fouta Djallon and Upper Guinea ranged from 13.9 to 21.7 per cent; in the forest prefectures of N'Zérékoré-Yomou and Kissidougou 36.1 per cent and 69.1 per cent (respectively) of local youths attended school. See Rivière, ‘Les investissements’, 632–3. The notion that heightened stress on material production would yield exceptionally impressive results in and around forest schools emerged in the early years of revolutionary pedagogical reform. Verbal and visual representations of the forest as an underexploited region ripe for vigorous agricultural transformation via teacher and student training punctuate official teachers' journals of 1964 and 1965. See the Revue du Travailleur de l'Education Nationale, 5–6.

40 For a synopsis of a similar case of quantitative measurement as a form of state power in a contemporary African socialist state, see the discussions of Tanzanian villagization in J. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, 1998), 226–56.

41 Many N'Zérékoré residents told me that harvests cultivated by local town and rural students rotted in storehouses there also, again waiting for hypothetical transport.

42 For an understanding of the political roots of antagonistic relations between the two countries, see Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses, 157–60, 189–90; for roughly contemporary figures on Guinean migration to Côte d'Ivoire and other neighboring countries, see J. P. Atala, ‘Problèmes culturels guinéens depuis l'indépendance, L'Académie des Sciences d'Outre-Mer 36 (1976), 585–601.

43 Interview, J. Straker with A. Béavogui, 24 May 2001, N'Zérékoré.

44 Touré's book-length works have long been referred to by this term, partly out of reverence for their uniqueness and partly in mockery of the exaggerated self-importance of their author.

45 Foremost among these policies was the establishment and enforcement of agricultural production quotas.

46 The notion of ‘cathartic effervescence’ is drawn from F. Eboussi Boulaga, Les conférences nationales en Afrique noire: une affaire à suivre (Paris, 1993), 171; its significance for Francophone Africa is elaborated upon in D. Thomas, Nation-Building, Propaganda, and Literature in Francophone Africa (Bloomington, 2002), 154–65. For reportage on the forms ‘effervescence’ took in Conakry during the first days of transition, see R. G. Zomou, ‘Les familles des martyrs réhabilités apportent leur soutien au CMRN’, Horoya, 12 Apr. 1984.

47 For a broader overview of the bases for such comparisons, see Barry, Les violences, 127–44, 151–62.

48 For a more detailed portrayal of contemporary local sociological dynamics, see J. Straker, ‘Youth, globalization, and millennial reflection in a Guinean forest town’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 45 (2007), 299–319.

49 Interview, J. Straker with A. Béavogui, 2 June 2001, N'Zérékoré. For insight into contemporary anti-refugee sentiments in the forest, see M. McGovern, ‘Conflit régional et rhétorique de la contre-insurrection: guinéens et réfugiés en septembre 2000’, Politique Africaine, 88 (2002), 84–102.

50 Interview, A. Béavogui, 4 June 2001.

51 In contrast to the multi-ethnic constituency of student bodies and teaching corps at local public schools, the new private institutions tended to recruit and employ students and staff on ethnic (and religious) lines.

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