Reading a Classic in Hindsight

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Georges Balandier, Ambiguous Africa. Cultures in Collision,  The World Publishing Company, 1969.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam.

Originally published in French as: Georges Balandier, Afrique ambiguë, Plon collection Terre humaine, 1969.

History, historians tell us, should not be read backward, as if leading automatically to a present that we always already know. There is however virtue in reading a book in retrospect. One is able to find elements that prefigure the future, and to note others that are conspicuous by their absence. The point in reading classics is to reinterpret them from a modern perspective, by finding issues that belong to our present time in a way that the author could never have anticipated. In reading books with the privilege of hindsight, we also realize that the past was different, and that our present was not preordained. By realizing that many futures were possible, we come to the conclusion that our choices are open as well, and we may work to make another world become reality. It is said that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Maybe. But the first lesson history teaches us is that there is no lesson from history: we can only learn from the present, and from the radical indeterminacy that time brings.

L’Afrique ambiguë was greeted as an important work at the time it was first published in 1957, and benefited from several reeditions since. It is published in its original French by collection Terre humaine, with a closing chapter dated 1962 and a new preface written in 2007. Ambiguous Africa was a kind of littérature engagée. Although the text stays clear of politics, it was often read as a political manifesto heralding African independences. People credited Georges Balandier for several intellectual breakthroughs: for showing that Africans belonged squarely to history; for drawing attention to the rapidly growing cities of Francophone Africa; for redirecting anthropology from the ethnography of isolated tribes to the sociology of connected societies; for shifting the emphasis of the discipline from the cultural to the political; and for its contribution to the political debates of the day and the prefiguration of the independences that took effect around 1960. More recently, Balandier was also reclaimed as a precursor by post-colonialism scholars and historians of empires, who praised him for having first drawn attention to the non-violent forms of resistance and accommodation to colonialism, as well as to the heterogeneity of colonial societies on both sides of the imperial divide.

The colonial situation

People still use the notion of the “colonial situation” to describe life under colonialism. By coining this expression, Balandier was implying that colonialism was never a parenthesis, after which Africa would be able to reconnect to its precolonial time, nor a destiny, forever deferring the moment of true emancipation. “Situation” has to be understood in the meaning given by Jean-Paul Sartre in his series of critical essays bearing the same title: a reference to the here and the now that forces the reader to take a stance and to commit to a political course of action. In 1957, writing about the colonial situation was engagé enough. Balandier had contacts with political activists, trade unionists, and African intellectuals advocating a more equal form of partnership between French Africa and the métropole. In his 1962 closing chapter, he draws the portrait of three independence leaders representing three types of postcolonial emancipation: Léopold Sédar Senghor and humanist socialism; Sékou Touré and revolutionary self-reliance; and Félix Houphouët-Boigny and liberal developmentalism. In the self-portrait added to the 1962 edition, Balandier also claims that he chose to be the associate and not only the bystander of the independence movement, becoming the companion of those who were to lead the newly independent states.

And yet, L’Afrique ambiguë’s politics is profoundly ambiguous. The book is based on his first six years of residence as an anthropologist working in the territories that composed the French Union established by the French constitution of the Fourth Republic: Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Côte-d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Gabon, and Congo. At the time, independence was only a distant objective; and even when the book was first published in 1957, French progressives and their African counterparts were envisioning a form of association along a vaguely defined federalism rather than outright independence. The only real independence advocates that Balandier was able to interview were the leaders of the British colonies that rapidly evolved towards self-rule: Nigeria, where he had to escape the surveillance of the British authorities to meet with nationalist intellectuals in Ibadan; and Ghana, where Kwame Nkrumah declared independence in 1957. Part of the ambiguity of the title is therefore the indeterminacy regarding the political future of Africa. Balandier doesn’t chart a single course of action, and the politics he nurtured during his fieldwork in the immediate postwar period was certainly different from the one he cultivated at the time of the book’s first publication, or the one that transpires in the added chapter of 1962 and in the lengthy foreword of 2007.

The anthropologist’s mission

The book is therefore composed of several layers of testimony. But to remain true to the genre (“an ethnological and philosophical diary written in accordance with the ancient usage”), Balandier focuses on the time of his discovery of Africa, from 1946 to 1952. He describes his contacts and experiences with the eyes of a young man freshly disembarked from France, with the fantasies and optimism from youth. Dakar was the place where he lost his youthful illusion about the anthropologist’s mission. Set to reach Conrad’s heart of darkness, he encountered a bustling city, alive with cultural creativity and political debates. His first impulse was to flee the metropole and to find a desert tribe that he could study in ethnographic fashion. He spent a few weeks among the Bedouins in Mauritania and came up with a theory of their musical creations built on complex philosophy and arithmetic, a kind of structuralism avant la lettre. After this flight into abstraction, and having returned to Dakar, he tried to recreate the village within the city and to study a well-defined community that would fit the standards of traditional ethnography. He set his inquiry on the Lébous, a fishing community living on the peninsula of Cap-Vert in the outskirts of Dakar.

Here at last, he encountered the “real” Africa by witnessing rites of possession and trance by women from the Lébou community. For Balandier, who develops the description of the trance ceremony in a dozen pages under the heading “traditions,” the dance of possession “belongs to the deepest layers that are revealed to us today by African civilizations.” He sees the pagan-inspired dances as remains of an old and authentic religion that has been relegated to the female population at the margin of society. There, the “cult of léfohar” maintains “a religious behavior that is genuinely African, having been expelled by Islam from official places of worship.” Against Balandier’s fascination for primitive religion, it may be worthwhile to remind readers that, for modern anthropologists, the rites of spirit possession once observed by Georges Balandier and his master Alfred Métraux were and still are an urban phenomenon, spreading among migrants who had no experience of urban life and who created new spaces of participation in social life. In particular, it was a way for women to articulate emotions and sometimes grievances that were repressed in patriarchal society, without openly challenging social rules and male dominance. It is also a popular touristic attraction, and has been turned into a neo-ethnic performance.

Tradition and modernity

The contrast between tradition and modernity, continuity and change, is not so much a contrast in the observed situation as it reflects two conflicting views of colonial Africa: the traditional view, which saw Africa steeped in its customs and social hierarchies, and the modern view that had to acknowledge the many changes taking place at the time. Anthropologists were formed by their training to adopt the first view. Theirs was an Africa of tribes and villages, of ancestral rites and traditional customs. But people who took the effort to observe Africa and to listen to contemporary debates were forced to recognize the many changes that were ongoing. Balandier is stuck between the two visions. His upbringing and disciplinary affiliation lead him to look for the authentic, the pristine, the original. Hence, for instance, his disregard for Islam, which he sees as a foreign import and a force of regression. But as a progressive, he is open to change and innovation. Tasked with administrative functions, he works in the city, not in the village. This leads him to lend an attentive eye to social movements: trade unions and strikes, modern ideologies and political debates, new religions and millennial aspirations.

Nowhere is this ambiguity more evident than in his treatment of the role of women. Here the opposition between tradition and modernity takes the form of the well-known trope of the Madonna and the whore. Sexuality occupies an important place in Ambiguous Africa. Studying the Lébous, Balandier sees prostitution as the greatest evil brought forth by the proximity of a military camp. Open sexuality is shattering the very foundations of traditional society, based allegedly on the respect for women and the strict regulation of sexuality. Loose morals and the monetary economy are presented as a coruscating force gnawing at the very heart of the social order. The disappearance of traditions such as initiation ceremonies and other social rites brings in a state of anomia and sexual confusion. The dowry has transformed marriage into a monetary transaction; many adult men who do not have enough money to afford a wife live in frustration and anger. Balandier places women squarely on the side of tradition, and he scolds them for their attempt to participate in modern urban life, which he conflates with prostitution or promiscuity.

A continent on the move

Ambiguous Africa is built on the simple opposition between tradition and modernity, a trope that Balandier abandoned in his subsequent research. We may put to his credit the attention he pays to the modern, to the urban and to the young. In doing so, he was crossing disciplinary boundaries and escaping the traditional focus of anthropology on village customs and rural communities. Hence his choice to title one of his books as the “sociology” of Black African cities. But rural areas were not less exposed to the forces of modernity than the urban environment. The Africa that Balandier visited was a continent on the move. Migrations were commonplace, building on a past of itinerant herding and trans-regional commerce. Cash crops further encouraged these migrations, giving poor peasants the opportunity to offer their labor in richer regions. They held clientelist relations with land owners, who often allowed them to move from paid labor to land ownership. It is only in the mid-century that observers began to talk about an agrarian revolution, blind to the fact that powerful evolutions had already transformed the rural landscape. It is the whole of Africa, not just its cities, that can claim its place in the here and the now.

Catégories : Book reviews