Harry Gamble. Contesting French West Africa: Battles over Schools and the Colonial Order, 1900-1950. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 378 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-9549-0.
Reviewed by Harrouna Malgoubri (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Published on H-Africa (November, 2019)
Commissioned by Dawne Y. Curry (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
In Contesting French West Africa, Harry Gamble reveals that in 1908, William Merlaud-Ponty, the new governor-general of the Federation of West Africa, launched a new era of French colonialism in the region. Ponty embarked on a series of reforms to make the region economically profitable to the metropole. In his vision, the imperial project could not succeed unless there were a significant number of educated natives to support the ideology and articulations of colonial domination. The governor-general addressed his collaborators in these terms: “I repeat that education is, to my mind, the most effective means to which we can resort to assure the rapid development, from all standpoints, of this land and of the influence that we wish to exercise here” (p. 6). From then on, the authorities in the Federation designed multiple education policies that they deemed suitable to the needs and capabilities of the indigenous population. Gamble reveals that the French barely consulted native West Africans, but the latter’s persistent resistance to most of the policies undermined the colonial vision of education.
Gamble’s work is an important contribution to the scholarly literature of education in the former French colonies in West Africa because it illuminates schools as arenas of power struggle between the colonizers and the native populations. The book shows the evolution of education from 1900 to 1950 and the contestation between the French and the indigenous populations that saw the latter voice their grievances against the colonial educational system. The efforts of the originaires, Africans from the Four Communes of Senegal get much attention here. Yet, Gamble also reveals that these battles around colonial schools and their curricula and prospects volleyed back and forth between Paris, Dakar, and the African villages where rural schools extended the tentacles of French domination.
Using the colonial administrative archives for the area and the metropolitan archives on education, Gamble provides valuable insights on the colonizer’s perspective regarding its missions with education in its overseas territories. Official policy documents and correspondence reveal that beyond the discourse of the civilizing mission, colonial schools were meant to produce African graduates who would become the local agents of French imperialism. Gamble complicates this discussion by including the voices of African communities and graduates as they attempted to influence the mission and praxis of the educational system. Through their print press, personal publications, and correspondence, the originaires articulated a vision of education that stressed their personal goals to attain social and political empowerment.
The first two chapters of the book provide the background for understanding the power dynamics behind education in the Four Communes. Covering the period from the late nineteenth century to the early 1920s, these chapters discuss access to equal education as part of the originaires’ battle for full French citizenship rights. As early brokers between French and European trading posts and populations in the interior, originaires had a liminal status in the colonial space. The French designed their social and political status using a succession of arrêtés and decrees, the last one granting them French citizenship in 1916. Through their efforts to claim privileges inherent in a political status that set them on a higher plane than other Africans, originaires aroused extreme anxiety, with their black skin making them strange French citizens in the eyes of the administrators and most white residents.
Gamble’s research identifies the First World War as the first major booster of African agency. The forced cultivation of crops for the French army and the loss of able-bodied men weakened African communities, but this predicament also created the mental conditions for native people to overcome their inferiority complexes. Participation in the conflict opened new horizons for natives and, particularly, the urban elite in the Four Communes who interpreted their wartime sacrifices as a debt which France should pay off through social justice. Additionally, other educated Africans joined originaires to push back against the abuses of French colonialism.
However, an ill-prepared colonial administration fought back, and local officers questioned the efficiency of the Federation’s education system for “turning out too many potential elites” (p. 86). In that regard, it is important to mention that as early as the late nineteenth century, multiple French administrators endeavored to restrict Africans’ access to the elite status of originaire. They centered their efforts on family roots, skin color, and the level of assimilation of French culture but failed to generate clear boundaries between Africans. For instance, the growing mixed-blood population, métis, constituted a threat to race-based projects in education and other citizenship rights because of their in-between racial status. Together, originaires, métis, Africans with French citizenship, and indigenous populations caused tension in the empire because no single legislation could encompass them altogether. Therefore, the French had a hard time trying to codify the rights of these colonial subjects in the educational system.
In chapters 3 and 4 Gamble expands the scope of his analysis to the West African Federation, where tension with African families and graduates arose because the colonists opted for mass education as a strategy to have school graduates contribute directly to the colonial economy. The changes implemented through the Ecoles rurales, for example, stressed preparation of African students for agricultural production only and downplayed academic achievements. Based on their experience in the Four Communes, the French hoped that severing African students from a form of education that enhanced critical thinking would reduce the challenges educated Africans posed to the colonial administration. With the Ecoles rurales, the curricula and teaching methods integrated some local languages. Officially, the innovations were intended to maintain the students’ roots in the land but in private, the colonists recognized that it mattered to prevent the rise of a “floating population” of educated natives whose consistent demands for equality threatened the survival of the empire (p. 88).
The next two chapters reveal how these Africans contested the colonial system. Here, the book highlights the agency of the originaires and other African elites between the mid-1930s and the end of the Vichy regime in 1944. During this period of uncertainty and political instability in France, Africans questioned the colonial perspective of education in a more vigorous and refined manner. Surprisingly, they did not always demand a replica of metropolitan curricula in the colonies. Most notably, Leopold Sedar-Senghor, in opposition to many of his peers and the French, called for schools to be frameworks of “active and personal” assimilation of Africans (p. 137). He believed that this would preserve African students’ cultural roots while giving them relevant Western knowledge to take up the challenges of the modern world. These divergent opinions further highlight the power, diversity, and complexity of African intellectual thought at that time.
The final chapters show how the colonists articulated different forms of education in West Africa around the same time that the metropole faced a long period of political chaos after the early defeat in World War II. After the short Vichy interlude, the new French authorities held the Conference of Brazzaville (1944) to reshape the foundations of the empire within a new political framework, the French Union. Despite the absence of African delegates, the discussions revealed that education was also a major terrain of contestation between officials in the West African Federation and their counterparts in Paris. In defense of the policies in their area, the administrators in Dakar articulated a rhetoric of continuity regarding rural schools, which stood at the core of their educational system. Two years after Brazzaville, the birth of the Fourth Republic granted full French citizenship to all French colonial subjects. In West Africa, the comprehensive access to citizenship beyond the realm of the Four Communes increased the tension between Africans, local administrators, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Colonies.
Contesting French West Africa analyzes these tensions and develops some useful arguments for further research. African agency, for example, is a permanent reminder that the colonizer scarcely had complete control of West Africa. French administrators encountered African resistance whenever originaires and other colonial populations believed that the school system and curricula would not empower their children. Because they understood that education offered avenues for upward social mobility, Africans closely monitored the policies and practices in their school system. By voicing their concerns, they often embarrassed colonial authorities as they built their discourse on the French promise of civilization.
Gamble also shows that indigenous people used education to fashion their strategies of overt resistance to colonial domination, though not always in a confrontational manner. However, their move shifted the nature of African resistance from hidden strategies such as the customary initiation rites that the community in Camara Laye’s memoir The Dark Child carried out to ensure the sustainability of their culture. Here, Gamble shows that African school graduates embarrassed the French as they openly articulated a vision of education that reflected a growing demand for human, social, and political rights. The intellectual refinement these Africans displayed through their interventions through correspondence, the print press, and their publications demonstrated that they had indeed learned to “join the wood to the wood.” So, to the French, it was important to overhaul the school system to ensure that African graduates would not challenge the foundations of the colonial empire.
Another major argument and contribution of this book is that colonial education was not a linear and Manichean project. The changes reflected not only the permanent tension with Africans but also the anxiety among the French administrators themselves, as they could not agree on a definite form of schooling in West Africa for their economic and political goals. From the cultural assimilation policies to those of association, the numerous reforms in the school system testify to the changing attitudes of the colonizer toward indigenous populations in the overall colonial project.
For anyone interested in the genesis and development of Western education in French West Africa, this book answers multiple questions about the rationale and articulation of colonial policies as well as the attitudes and reactions of local populations. Gamble also does a good job of analyzing anxieties about education in West Africa in the broader context of the French empire. The tensions in the Federation were in many ways like those in Morocco, Madagascar, Indochina, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guiana, and Reunion. In those other parts of the empire, educated native people questioned colonialism by highlighting the incongruences between the promise of civilization and the inhumane practices of race-based capitalism. More importantly, Western-educated leaders in Indochina and Madagascar ignited armed rebellions after World War II against French colonialism. By also showing that the French empire was not immune from the global tensions of its time—the Great Depression, the Cold War, and Third World nationalism—Gamble gives an international dimension to the tug-of-war about French schools in the Federation.
However, one important gap in Gamble’s analysis is the absence of a gender perspective. This book deserves to include a gendered discussion of African agency vis-a-vis the changing education policies; otherwise we are left to infer that only male parents and students participated in the debates on the role and mission of education and that newspapers and other publications never allowed female voices from the Four Communes and the rest of the territory to be heard during this historic period. Adding women to the discussion would also reveal France’s gendered vision of native education and roles in the colonial empire. It would also provide valuable leads to further research on gender and nationalism in West Africa. For instance, the scholarship of Pascale Barthélémy suggests that the French did not stress girls’ education, and that teaching, and nursing remained the only professions accessible to African women for a long time.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, Contesting French West Africa is a must-read for Africanists and scholars of the French empire in West Africa because Gamble makes extensive use of colonial archives, which can guide other research regarding education and colonialism.
. Camara Laye, The Dark Child (New York: The Monday Press, 1954), 93-135.
. Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Ambiguous Adventure (New York: Collier Books, 1974), 20. In the novel, the Diallobes, an indigenous community overrun by the French military in West Africa, decide to send their children to the white man’s school to learn to “join the wood to the wood” by acquiring foreign knowledge likely to make the community more resilient.
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Harrouna Malgoubri. Review of Gamble, Harry, Contesting French West Africa: Battles over Schools and the Colonial Order, 1900-1950.
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