The N’ko Alphabet: Then and Now

Dianne White Oyler. The History of the N'ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons.
Dianne White Oyler. The History of the N’ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons. Cherry Hill, N.J. : Africana Homestead Legacy, 2005, 2007. xiv, 241 p. : ill., map

Dianne White Oyler
Dianne White Oyler

Dianne White Oyler’s article on the N’ko Alphabet   includes my contextual annotations and corrections. The paper appeared in 2001, four years before the same author’s book named The History of the N’ko Alphabet and Its Role in Mande Transnational Identity. Words as Weapons. I focus here on the article below, which Dianne wrote based on her fieldwork in Conakry and Kankan, back in 1994. As the saying goes one is entitled to one’s opinion but not to one’s facts, lest they are the “alternative facts”  per Ms. Kellyanne Conway now infamous TV statement. In this case, it is normal and routine  to study and even support cultural activism and language revival efforts around the world. However, does such an activity and commitment permit to publish fabricated facts or falsifications of the historical record? I don’t think so. Dianne correctly points out that “Sékou Touré’s archival documents, including personal papers and correspondence, were either destroyed or hidden after his death. Consequently, there are no currently existing archives of the First Republic and the papers that are hidden are inaccessible.” However, it is counterproductive to try to fill in that void with superficial documents and inaccurate information. Such a shortcut circumvents academic deontology. Worse, it ends up hurting the cause championed, here the N’ko Alphabet. And it lowers considerably the quality and the value of the output. That explains —but does not justify— why Dianne’s article “A cultural revolution in Africa:  literacy in the Republic of Guinea since independence” is replete  with errors and exaggerations. Again, I react contextually below on those shortcomings.
That said, and for the record, my track record in the Guinea national language debate dates back to the mid-1970s. I was then a young faculty in the Linguistics and African Languages department of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I also headed the Pular section of the Academy of National Languages, in close collaboration with a competent and elder deputy in the person of  the late Mamadou Gangue (a survivor of the “Teachers Plot”). The work environment was quite collegial, and I was great professional rapport with the head of the Sosokui section, the late Kanfory Bangoura.
In 1975 I wrote a lengthy descriptive and analytical paper titled “La politique linguistique du Parti démocratique de Guinée,” in Miriya, Revue des Sciences économiques et sociales, of which I was co-publisher with Bailo Teliwel Diallo. My article generated positive verbal comments from my colleagues, Yolande Joseph-Nöelle, for example, and from her husband, Senainon Béhanzin, the de facto intellectual guru of Sékou Touré
During the 2010 presidential election campaign, relying heavily on the Maninka electorate of Haute-Guinée, the RPG candidate, Alpha Condé, vowed his support for the ongoing N’ko campaign. He subsequently “won” the second round. But his regime did little to translate the promises into funded programs. Having managed to gain a second term in 2015, Mr. Condé does not give cultural activities the priority they deserve. His former deputy, the late Ahmed Tidiane Cissé, lamented the lack of governmental support for his ministry of culture.… In sum, N’ko has not fared  well under any of the three Maninka presidents of Guinea: Sékou Touré, Sékouba Konaté and Alpha Condé. Ditto for the heritage of each of the other 15 ethnic cultures of the country.
See also my article “The cultural policy of the PDG.” and “Are Fulɓe Disappearing? And Is Adlam Their Savior?
Overall, I was an active participant-observer of cultural life under the dictatorship of Sékou Touré. For instance, I was a prominent member of the National Film Censorship Commission (1971-1981). We screened, discussed, authorized or rejected movies imported for distribution around the country. Given the nature of the police-state the pro-bono function was not risk-free. Thus, in August 1978 Sékou Touré admonished the sub-commission I led was on the air waves of the Voice of the Revolution. For what reason ? We had signed our names for the approval of the film Midnight Cowboy. Unfortunately, the regime’s secrete police filed a report slamming the content of the R-rated movie. Subsequently, when I visited him with the late Zainoul A. Sanoussi, President Sékou Touré somewhat downplayed privately his public communiqué blaming us by name on the radio. It was a meager consolation for us, and particularly for our families and friends. They had been alarmed by the fact that Sékou Touré and the Bureau politique national of the PDG decided to disavow our official action so openly. They did not even watch themselves the incriminated movie, in the first place ! Although a screening session was held after the facts, in presence of Mamadi Keita, member of the Politbureau, and Senainon Behanzin, memer of the Central committee. The two officials acknowledged that despite its implicit sexual content, the film had artistic and substantive quality.… After all, it won the Motion Picture Academy Best Picture award for 1969.
Another record worth mentioning, from 1975 to 1977, I was, first co-host then sole host, of a radio show called “Voyage à travers la Guinée”. Still teaching at the University, I decide to explore radio-broadcasting. My mentor was veteran journalist Odilon Théa. We featured a different region  each week, presenting its history, culture, economy, touristic potential, etc. And we had fun preparing and airing the weekly (every Tuesday) program. For nearby Dubréka, I recall that we rented a cab and visited the town to collect information from residents. Later on, Marcelin Bangoura joined us. And, feeling confident in my performance, Odilon graciously bowed out and let me do the show alone. There too, an incident reminded of the peril involved in living and working under Sékou Touré. Having scheduled the town of Boffa (northwestern coast) I produced the show by going to the archives. There I dug out files about Nyara Gbèli, a mulatto female slave-trader. I aired selections of her biography and historical record. It turned out that Sékou Touré and all members of the Politbureau were tuned in. At the end the show, some were not please to hear about the slavery piece of the show. They suggested that I be summoned for explanations. Luckily, Sékou Touré agreed with those who opposed the idea, arguing that it would not be a boost to my confidence in exploring the country’s past. How did I know what happened in the higher echelon of the government? Well, Léon Maka, National Assembly president attended the meeting. His daughter, Madeleine, was a colleague and a good friend of mine at Voix de la Révolution. He told her about the discussion they had had. And she, in turn, shared with me, saying: “Tierno, careful! Last you were nearly dragged before Sékou Touré and the Bureau politique!”

Tierno S. Bah

Dianne White Oyler
A cultural revolution in Africa:
literacy in the Republic of Guinea since independence

The International Journal of African History. Vol. 34, No. 3 (2001), pp. 585-600


Guinea and Decolonization
The N’ko Alphabet
Guinea’s Cultural Revolution
The Role of Literacy in Cultural Revolution
Souleymane Kante’s Indigenous Approach to Literacy
The Contest: Sékou Touré vs. Souleymane Kanté


At independence most African nations attempted a process of decolonization in the three spheres of European imperialism: political, economic, and cultural. While progress in the political and economic arenas is apparent decolonization of the cultural area is much harder to define because European cultural impositions had usurped the areas of language, socialization through education, and technology from simple writing to electronic media. However, the approach of the Republic of Guinea to cultural decolonization can be analyzed in light of the more formal “Cultural Revolution” launched by its independence leader Sékou Touré in 1958 as a policy of the First Republic.

Erratum. — That program’s official name and acronym were “La révolution culturelle socialiste” and RCS, respectively. And it was not launched in 1958. To the contrary, it was declared ten years later at the improvised Conseil national de la révolution held in Kankan in 1968. — T.S. Bah

Touré’s objective was to validate the indigenous cultures that had been denigrated by the Europeans while at the same time creating a Guinean national consciousness 1. In other words, Touré launched a countrywide campaign to recapture indigenous culture by formally focusing on language and education. His specific intent was to validate indigenous culture by using maternal language education to achieve better control of European science and technology. This action, he believed, would lead Guinea into creating global economic partnerships within the modem world’s economy.

An unanticipated consequence of Touré’s campaign, however, was the cultural awakening of the Maninka speakers who consider themselves to be the direct descendants of the ancient empire of Mali. Although dispersed through the countries of West Africa (including Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Burkina Faso, Benin, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria), the Maninka speakers constitute roughly 40 percent of Guinea’s population. Many of them live in the region of Haute-Guinée, which makes up about two-fifths of Guinea’s territory.

Errata. — (1) Ms. Oyler shows here the first sign of her sole reliance on verbal informants at the exclusion of available written sources. Thus it is plain wrong for her and her informers to state that Sékou Touré did not anticipate a “Maninka cultural awakening.” Actually, he was an hands-on president who exhausted himself micro-managing every aspect of social and, indeed, family and personal life. Accordingly, it’s just valid to speak of a social movement like the N’ko, that he would not have predicted, and more or less tolerated.
(2) In percentage the Maninka demography comes second to the Fulɓe (Peul, Fula, Fulani) in Guinea. The former stands at approximately 35% of the population while the Fulɓe actually hold 40%. Given their respective size, the two groups weigh heavily in the political sphere. — T.S. Bah

The Maninka cultural revolution that began within Touré’s larger “Cultural Revolultion” continues today in the Second Republic of Lansana Conté, which began in 1984. The cultural revival of the Maninka language, its oral literature, and its connection to the heroic/historic past has been juxtaposed to any official policy of creating a Guinean national consciousness since 1958.

Note. —Guinea’s quest for “national consciousness” in the wake of the independence declaration stemmed from the heritage of all 16 ethnic communities, not that of the Maninka alone, especially in the first decade of the republic. Take for instance, the various musical traditions — either from sizable groups, like the Kisi of Forest Guinea with the Kebendo danse and song (see my review of Sia Tolno’s My Life album, or fom minorities, such the Koniagui (Unyëy) of Koundara with the rhythm Sampacthe. Everyone  contributed and enjoyed the celebration of the birth of the new nation. Alas, the euphoria lasted no more than two years!
— T.S. Bah

This article specifically addresses Guinea’s internal revolt against European cultural imperialism as evidenced in the issues of language and literacy that have dominated the political landscape in post-1958 Guinea 2.

Note. — This passage reads like a militant statement. But it lacks a specific to lend it credence. Where, when, how, and who staged the so-called revolt? How was it actually expressed? — T.S. Bah

It further addresses the concept of maternal language learning that became central to decolonization, and particularly the policy Sékou Touré developed and implemented with the support of UNESCO—the National Language Program (1968-1984) 3.

Erratum. — Beginning in the late 1960 UNESCO assisted the cultural policy of the Sékou Touré regime. However, the first illiteracy campaign was supported by the government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, in 1964-66. — T.S. Bah

More importantly, however, the article documents one result of Touré’s program that has acquired a life of its own outside government control, a grassroots literacy movement that centers on an alphabet called N’ko. The dissemination of N’ko shows the growth of a literacy movement that is currently spreading across international boundaries throughout West Africa. A salient aspect of the issue of language and literacy was the involvement of Souleymane Kanté (1922-1987), a Maninka-speaking “vernacular intellectual” who invented the N’ko alphabet in 1949. Souleymane Kanté was born in Soumankoyin-Kölönin about thirteen kilometers from Kankan. He was the son of the famous Quranic school teacher Amara Kanté. When Souleymane had finished his Quranic school education, he could read and write Arabic and translate Islamic texts. After his father’s death in 1941, Kanté left Guinea for Côte d’ Ivoire to make his fortune as an entrepreneur in a more cosmopolitan urban setting. Becoming an autodidact there, he read extensively, learned other languages, and became renowned as a scholar.

Guinea and Decolonization

Under Sékou Touré’s leadership, the Republic of Guinea ended political imperialism in 1958 when 95 percent of the voters cast a “No” vote in a referendum addressing the country’s wish to join the “French Community.” Thus began a real struggle for autonomy in the political, economic, and cultural spheres of national life.
At that time the reality of political independence meant indigenous leadership; in Guinea’s case, it also meant an inexperienced leadership. Sékou Touré’s experience offers a salient example of the under-preparation of emerging African leaders.

Note. — There is no such thing leadership preparation for independence. Colonialism meant hegemony, domination, exploitation, racisme, alienation. The colonizer did not —and would never— intend to genuinely associate the colonized in power-sharing. Read Albert Memmi’s Portrait du Colonisateur. — T.S. Bah

Possessing an eighth grade, French-style colonial education, plus a bit of training supplied by French communist trade unionists, and the experience of ten years in governmental service, Touré deliberately created an eclectic form of government that drew upon the strengths of his equally eclectic education. In the Cold War period Touré chose the political path of African Socialism and the diplomatic path of nonalignment. The type of government he called “positive neutralism” allowed him to open Guinea to all manner of foreign investment without committing himself to any specific ideology 4.
Inherent in the political independence of Guinea, however, was the problem of a revenue shortfall; France had withdrawn both its economic aid to Guinea and also its trade partnership. At the same time, Guinea lost its trade connections with many of France’s trading partners, especially among France’s NATO allies.
Guinea’s sister colonies within French West Africa (AOF) continued to trade with her unofficially, however.
As a Third World country producing raw materials to supply the First World industrial complex, Guinea produced many of the same products as other Third World nations that were constantly being encouraged to increase production. One result was a decrease in Guinea’s share of the world market, forcing the new nation to find alternative markets. With its doors closed to Western capitalist markets, Guinea became a trading partner with the Eastern bloc nations. Trade with Second World nations, however, exacerbated Guinea’s economic shortfall, as these nations were unable to purchase Guinea’s raw materials with foreign exchange, substituting instead manufactured goods. They then sold Guinea’s raw materials on the world market, thus gaining foreign exchange that improved their own economies to the detriment of Guinea’s. Although Guinea received Second World technology, she never did receive the support system that would have allowed her to maintain and expand upon that technology.

Today Guinea is one of the poorest nations in West Africa.

In the cultural sphere of Guinea’s national life, Sékou Touré opted to keep the French language; all documents would be written in French in the Roman alphabet, Guinea’s official language. It seems that Touré chose the colonial language with an eye to national unity in order to avoid the conflicts that would arise over choosing one of the twenty ethnic languages as the country’s official language.
French also served Guinea in the international marketplace where buyers and sellers were not likely to learn an African language. Guinea also continued to use the French system of education. However, university training for Guineans was now sought in First and Second World countries. Students received scholarships in the United States as well as a “free” education in the Soviet Union.

Although Touré had earlier implied that Guinea would be an Islamic state after independence, he imposed religious toleration instead in a country of Muslims, Christians, and African traditional religions; this eclecticism became one method of promoting national unity.

Note. — Since the above assertion provides no reference to  written sources, or to verifiable quotes, it appears pretty much groundless.
— T.S. Bah

Nevertheless, in the years following Guinea’s political independence, a large segment of Guinea’s Maninka-speaking population has tried to return the cultural initiative to African hands by utilizing an indigenous alphabet created by an indigenous scholar and cultural leader named Souleymane Kanté. While Sékou Touré, a Maninka-speaker himself, had encouraged Kanté in this initiative, he preferred not to allow the use of the writing system known as N’ko as a national language/writing system. Ultimately, though, Kanté’s research and promotion of learning in the maternal languages may have directly influenced Touré, who had addressed the issues of indigenous languages/writing systems as a way to reclaim African culture by implementing a National Language Program (1968-1984).

Notes. — (1) The above paragraph is too general and vague. How does the expression “large segment” translate numerically, statistically?
(2) It is hypothetical to write Souleymane Kanté “may have directly influenced” Sékou Touré’s language policy. Adverse, one can argue, the former did not inspire the latter. In the absence of any evidence from the author, I am enclined to think that Guinea’s adventurous linguistic initiatives had little to do with the efforts of Souleymane Kanté.
T.S. Bah

The N’ko Alphabet

According to informants, Souleymane Kanté created the N’ko alphabet both in response a media-based challenge 6 that Africans have no culture because they have no indigenous system of writing, and because of his growing realization that foreign writing systems could not fully express the meaning of such tonal languages as Maninka, his maternal language. Kanté responded to the allegation that “Africans have no culture” by creating an alphabet that would transcribe the twenty languages of the Mande language group as well as other tonal languages.
Thus, in his role as a “vernacular intellectual,” 7 Kanté campaigned against ignorance and illiteracy by providing a writing system that would allow his countrymen to acquire knowledge without having to depend upon outside interpretation. According to informants, he expressed the idea that Africans needed to learn their own maternal languages first, because learning in a second or third language often obfuscated the cultural meaning of the text 8. The potential for indigenous literacy would enable illiterates to read and write, even though they had been excluded from the colonial education system. Kanté devoted four years (1945-1949) to research and application, trying to write the Maninka language first in Arabic script and then in the Roman alphabet. In both cases he found that foreign alphabets could not transcribe all the tones produced by the spoken Mande languages. While still living in Cote d’Ivoire, he thus embarked on an entirely new project—the creation of a writing system that would reflect the specific characteristics of Mande languages, especially their tonality. The result was the N’ko alphabet. Having developed the alphabet, he called together children and illiterates and asked them to draw a line in the dirt; he noticed that seven out of ten drew the line from right to left 9. For that reason, he chose a right-to-left orientation. In all Mande languages the pronoun n- means “I” and the verb ko represents the verb “to say.” By choosing the name N’ko, “I say” in all Mande languages, Kanté had united speakers of Mande languages with just one phrase.

Furthermore, all Mande speakers share the heroic past recounted in the tale of Sundiata, an epic of Mande history—reflecting the cultural dominance of men of valor who say “N’ko,” the clear language of Mali (Niane, 1989:87) 10.
After Souleymane Kanté had perfected his alphabet, informants recall his becoming absorbed in creating reading materials in the N’ko script. Kanté’s lifelong passion then became the production of N’ko texts to highlight knowledge that should be written in the maternal language. Kanté worked assiduously after returningt o his native Guineai n 1958. He translated and transcribed Islamic texts and also works of history, sociology, linguistics, literature, philosophy, science, and technology. Then he wrote textbooks for teaching the N’ko alphabet, and, like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster before him, he created a dictionary for the written form of the Maninka language. There are no dates for the translations of any of the above mentioned texts. Other than the fact that religious works were translated and transcribed first, informants are not aware of the order in which other texts were renderedi n N’ko. After hand-writing these texts, an arduous task in itself, Kanté would then create copies to give as gifts to teachers, thus encouraging N’ko literacy within the Mande community. Teachers then made these texts available to students, who in turn reproduced additional books by copying them.
Consequently, Kanté directly touched the lives of many of those who became literate in N’ko, and he was the prime mover of a type of cultural nationalism that gave people the pride of sharing a language that could stand in words and script alongside any other.

Guinea’s Cultural Revolution

When Sékou Touré called upon all Guineans to return home to help build the new nation after Guinea achieved independence in 1958, Kanté returned from Côte d’Ivoire to a new social order 11.

From the 1940’s through the 1960’s, Guinea was in the process of reinventing itself politically and culturally at the local, regional, and national levels 12.

In the midst of this cultural upheaval, nationalist leaders professed a desire to shed colonial trappings and to tap into their heroic/historic African past. Since the ethnic groups within Guinea’s national borders had never before been joined together, a nationalist rhetoric was developed that sent mixed messages about loyalty to the past. Harking back to the grandeur of an African heritage, however, also tempted each group to focus their allegiance internally rather than to a greater Guinean nationalism. At the national level, the Partie Democratique Guineen (PDG) agitated for a Guinean “national consciousness,” 13 while local ethnic groups continued the cultural re-identification process that had begun in the mid-1940s 14.

The Maninka speakers of Haute-Guinée, for example, had established the Union Manden in 1946 as a voluntary mutual aid association organized around a linguistic, ethnic, and regional base 15. That action kindled interest in the glorious Mande past.

This mutual aid association had been founded by such Maninka speaking political activists as Sékou Touré and Framoi Bérété. The association had also served as a regional political party with the ability to launch candidates in national elections, something the Maninka speakers had been unable to do in the 1945 elections.

Despite the desire of the Union Manden to give national expression to Mande discontent, it never developed beyond its regional, cultural base 16.

The conflict between Guinean nationalism and regional, ethnic/cultural nationalism continued to manifest itself throughout the First Republic, particularly in the implementation of the National Language Program (1968-1984).

The Role of Literacy in Cultural Revolution

Souleymane Kanté introduced Sékou Touré to the idea of maternal language literacy and education in 1958 17. Although Sékou Touré had praised the Mande styled alphabet, he rejected the idea of its becoming the national alphabet of Guinea 18 because he believed it could not improve written communication among Guinea’s ethnic groups, and he knew that it would also obstruct communication with the outside world 19.

Nevertheless, Touré rewarded Kanté’s scholarly achievement by honoring him with a 200,000 CFA gift from the Guinean peoplefor indigenous excellence 20. But he still refused to support or promote the alphabet unless Kanté could prove that more than half the population of Haute-Guinée used the technology 21. Touré further requested that Kanté and his family return to his home country 22.

Answering the call, Kanté went to the area of Treicheville in Abidjan, where he was met by a military truck sent overland by Touré to collect the Kanté family 23.

The Kanté family moved to Kankan where Souleymane Kanté then became a merchant who taught N’ko on the side 24. Interestingly, however, the alphabet preceded Kanté’s arrival in Kankan; many of the initial students of N’ko had been merchants who had carried the new alphabet with them along trade routes throughout Mande-speaking West Africa 25. Informant family members reminisced that Souleymane had visited them in Guinea, and that they had visited him in Côte d’Ivoire. He had taught them the alphabet, and they in turn had taught their neighbors.

Although Sékou Touré had rejected Kanté’s Mande-styled alphabet as the national alphabet, he did eventually accept the concept of maternal language education 26.

Touré is reported to have introduced Kanté to his national education minister, Barry Diawadou, and to his minister of national defense, Fodéba Keita 27.

Touré excluded Kanté from policy making sessions, however, as he worked together with his minister of ideology and information, Senainon Béhanzin, to produce the model for a maternal language program that would accommodate Guinea’s multilingual society 28. Touré’s final proposal was then submitted to the rank and file of the PDG membership at the cell level within villages and urban districts 29.

One informant from Haute-Guinée had participated as a member of the party cell at the village level voting on the proposal for teaching in the maternal language. A teacher who had also been involved in standardization the Maninka language in the Roman alphabet, this informant explained that in 1958 Guinea was struggling to regain its political, economic, and cultural independence. The country chose to free itself culturally through a National Language Program: Congress established a National Education Commission to formulate government policy, and teachers were called upon to contribute to the effort in two ways-to standardize their specific, spoken language in the Roman alphabet and to translate into the national languages modem scientific knowledge that had been written in French. Finally, the government intended to use its publishing house, Imprimerie Patrice Lumumba, to print textbooks for the project 30.

Informants who had participated in implementing these educational reforms reminisced about the rationale behind the new policy. Literacy acquisition in French had been discarded as too complicated a procedure, as students would have had to learn both a new alphabet and a new language. The process would be simplified if people first learned a new alphabet to which they could apply the familiarm aternall anguage 31. The government established two autonomous agencies to deal with the National Language Program, the Institut de Recherche Linguistique Appliquée (IRLA) and the Service National de l’Alphabétisation (SNA) 32.
Eight of the twenty different languages spoken in Guinea were selected on the basis of the numbers of people using them as a primary or secondary language:

Maninka, Susu, Pular, Kissi, Guerzé (Kpelle), Tome (Loma), Oneyan, and Wamey.

Each either was or would become a lingua franca in its region or sub-region. Although Mande languages were widely used in all four regions, the Maninka form was selected to be the dominant language to be taught only in Haute-Guinée. According to the National Language Program, an illiterate adult Mande-speaking family in Kankan would be taught the Maninka language written in the Roman alphabet; adults would be taught at work while children would be taught at school. Likewise, a Pular-speaking family living in Kankan would have the same experience; even though they were non-Mande speakers, the language of instruction would be Maninka 33.
Financial constraints delayed the immediate implementation of the National Language Program 34. The regional education directors for Haute-Guinée believed that the infrastructure did not exist for a massive assault on illiteracy; despite the government’s commitment to provide free public primary education, it had failed to anticipate the additional funds necessary to generate materials written in the newly formulated and standardized national languages 35. Teachers themselves had to finance the standardization of the national languages by giving their time to the endeavor. In 1965 Touré applied for and received UNESCO funding for a maternal language education program called “Langue Nationale,” which the government implemented in 1967 36. UNESCO sent experts to assist the Guinean government in standardizing local languages in the Roman alphabet 37. Although the preparation for the National Language Program had begun in 1959, the actual campaign for adults did not begin in 1967, and in 1968 the campaign entered the schools. Both programs were associated with Sdkou Touré’s larger social program, “La Révolution Culturelle Socialiste.” 38
The reforms implemented in 1968 consisted of two coexisting educational tracks—one for schools and one for adults and school leavers. From 1968 to 1984 students in the public elementary schools were taught all subjects in the maternal language 39. During the First Cycle, in grades one through three, the language of instruction was the maternal language 40. At grade four, they were introduced to an academic course in French, which they continued each year through grade six. Academic subjects were still taught in the maternal language. In the Second Cycle, affecting the lower secondary grades seven through nine, students continued the program with an academic course in French and with the maternal language as the language of instruction. To advance to the upper secondary level, students had to pass an exam, the Brevet Elémentaire du Second Cycle Technique. During the Third Cycle, students experienced a change in the language of instruction, and the language of instruction at the lycée gradually became French 41. To be admitted to the university level—the Fourth Cycle—students had to pass the exam for the Baccalauréat Unique.

In 1973 the Ministry of Education added a thirteenth grade that bridged the third and fourth cycles, and exams were administered at the end of the thirteenth level 42. The second track consisted of adults and school leavers who were given the opportunity to acquire literacy (alphabétisation) by attending literacy programs in the maternal language before or after work either at their places of employment or at schools after the normal school day 43.

In preparation for the 1968 implementation of the National Language Program, each ethnic group was charged with standardizing the spoken language into a written form in the Roman alphabet. Educators in Kankan, the capital of Mande-speaking Haute-Guinée, looked for people who possessed a rich vocabulary and who were generally well informed who could participate in translating the diverse curricula into the maternal language.

It was then that the committee invited Souleymane Kanté to participate in the standardization process 44. They considered him an expert because while inventing the N’ko alphabet he had spent years trying to find the best way to write the Mande languages in the Roman alphabet. Kanté agreed to participate unofficially in the project.

Souleymane Kanté’s Indigenous Approach to Literacy

Although Souleymane Kanté assisted the government with the standardization of his maternal language, Maninka, he did not abandon his own literacy program.
Kanté disapproved of Touré’s National Language Program because it depended upon a foreign alphabet and on foreign constructions. In fact, he held that if there were to be a cultural revolution that drew upon the African past, then African cultural forms should be its foundation. Kanté’s goal was to control Mande and modern knowledge through the use of a Mande language and literacy program. He thus offered an indigenous alternative to the official National Language Program. The two literacy initiatives, he believed, were not mutually exclusive.
Touré’s state-funded literacy campaign dominated the formal education scene, drawing upon the existing infrastructure, its curricula and its personnel. Kanté is remembered as having taught N’ko in the marketplace. He had taught the members of his own extended family and had recommended that others do the same 45. The “each one teach one” policy was actually a recommendation for each person to teach at least seven others. Informants recalled that Kanté attracted many followers by demonstrating N’ko at social functions, such as funerals,  where he opened his Qur’an written in N’ko and read the Word of God 46. Kanté suggested that everyone should learn N’ko and that those who refused would later regret their error. Kanté’s literacy movement slowly gained support as it operated on the fringes in an informal educational environment that paralleled Touré’s state system. Kanté’s movement possessed no infrastructure, enjoyed no financial assistance, had no texts except the ones students copied for themselves. The engine that powered the movement was a person’s desire to repossess Mande culture by controlling knowledge through Mande language and literacy.
Teachers were the key to this grassroots movement. Some teachers were drawn from the existing state-funded pool of personnel. Others were businessmen and workers who taught N’ko at their businesses or in their homes. Most in the N’ko teaching force contributed their time without remuneration. In some cases the students’ families gave gifts to their teachers at the end of the service in order to help support the teacher or the school. The process of learning N’ko took about four months. Each N’ko teacher could teach three groups per year. In the beginning,  students were mostly adults, who later saw to it that their children were also educated in N’ko. Armed with a blackboard, a tripod, and a piece of chalk, the N’ko teachers employed a methodology similar to that of Quranic school—memorization, imitation, and utilization. Students would congregate at the compound of a teacher where they would copy the alphabet on slate or paper and then would use oral recitation as a tool for memorization and reinforcement. The teacher conducted the class, but students, regardless of age, had the responsibility for leading the recitations. Students who were quick and adept were recruited as assistants and eventually became teachers themselves. Students copied the texts that Kanté had translated and transcribed to produce personal or family copies. Those who became N’ko literate were well equipped to read the literature Kanté had generated, were able to communicate with others literate in N’ko, and could keep records and accounts for their businesses. Some students undertook the task of recording the oral histories of older members of their families to preserve in writing first-hand knowledge 47.

The Contest: Sékou Touré vs. Souleymane Kanté

An informal competition over the recasting of Mande culture developed as Sékou Touré and Souleymane Kanté seemed to wrestle with each other for the number of Mande speakers in Haute-Guinée who acquired literacy in the maternal language.

Maternal language literacy was the goal, but the choice of alphabet seemed to become a personal issue. Touré appeared to have the advantage because his program was heir to the already existing state program. His selection of the Roman alphabet was prudent because the alphabet was already used throughout much of the world, and local typesetting existed and was in place. While a few maternal language textbooks were published, the translation and publication of other works in the maternal languages never materialized 48. Kanté worked at a disadvantage. From the standpoint of infrastructure and funding, he lacked resources, and N’ko required an innovation in typesetting that was not locally available. Yet he continued to produce handwritten translated texts in the N’ko alphabet. These translations systematically spread throughoutt he Mande-speaking community as students hand copied them so as to have their personal copies for reading and teaching.

The two Mande-speaking competitors had developed opposing teaching methodologies. Sékou Touré imposed the Roman alphabet upon children and adults through the state-supported literacy program. The concept of a National Language Program had been supported by the PDG rank and file. But some educators observed that the program had a negative effect on learning French as an international language of diplomacy and economics 49. Because the educational system was universal only at the elementary level, students who failed the exams at the end of the Second Cycle never had the opportunity to continue French language instruction. In addition, adults who were acquiring literacy through the program never had the opportunity to learn French because they were limited to the maternal language. The goal was national literacy, and children and adults were becoming literate in the maternal language, limiting them to regional participation. By using the educational process in this manner, the government had effectively restricted the numbers of participants in the national arena, and, by so doing, restricted access to full knowledge of the French language itself.
On the other hand, Souleymane Kanté had attracted students by focusing upon Mande culture. Adults and children learned the alphabet voluntarily because it was culturally important to them. Having learned the alphabet, students used it for correspondence and business, and they amassed handwritten translations of religious, historical, and modem scientific texts. The significance of N’ko literacy led to a personal understanding of a wide variety of knowledge. Learning N’ko became a form of self-improvement because it was not promoted as the acquisition of knowledge for advancement in the political or economic structure of the nation. Touré had clung to a limited vision—that of the European—conceived nation-state that while striving for a Guinean national consciousness could not leave the designated borders of the Guinean nation. Kanté’s arena had been regional; he created a Mande consciousness that eventually drew together Guinea’s resident Mande speakers of Haute-Guinée and Guinée Forestière, and, more importantly, ultimately connected all the Mande speakers in West Africa.
Although Touré’s motives cannot be wholly known 50, in formants have characterized his relationship to Kanté based on conversations with either or both men and through the events the informants themselves witnessed.

It appears that in the 1960s Touré had hoped to isolate Kanté from his work by coopting him into the National Language Program. Kanté would not abandon his own work, however, and continued teaching the N’ko alphabet and translating texts into N’ko. Informants relate that Kanté wrote out texts by hand and used a Renault duplication machine capable of producing books of ten to twenty pages. In 1971 when the machine broke down, he journeyed to Conakry to ask the government for financial assistance in establishing a larger-scale print shop capable of duplicating works such as the N’ko version of the Qur’an 51.

In Conakry, Al-Hajj Kabiné Diané helped Kanté as much as he could by printing small runs at this Arabic printing press 52. Touré did nominate Kanté to the Conseil Islamique National (charged with defending Islam and its principles in Guinea) 53, but Kanté declined the appointment, saying that the committee meetings would interfere with the time he needed to translate texts into N’ko 54. Making his home in Conakry in the early 1970s, Kanté continued to write documents by hand; then he took them to Al-Hajj Kabiné Diané for printing 55. Kanté sold the printed manuscripts for a small sum in order to promote further literacy in N’ko in all segments of the community 56.

His family and friends reported that the relationship between the two men continued to deteriorate until Sékou Touré’s death in 1984. Thus, from the late 1970s through mid-1980’s, Kanté was forced to leave Guinea on several occasions and to reside in neighboring countries under the threat of being arrested or killed by Touré’s government 57.

During this self-imposed exile, Souleymane Kanté continued to translate works into N’ko and to compile a text of Mande healing arts 58.

Sékou Touré’s National Language Program from 1968 to 1984 had produced people who were literate in their spoken maternal language.

Under the leadership of Lansana Conté, the Second Republic implemented a new language program: French became the single national language and the language of literacy.
Although maternal language radio programs occurred during the Touré regime, the new government has systematically supported learning in the maternal languages by producing radio and television programs of cultural and news content spoken in only three of Guinea’s maternal languages—Susu, Maninka, and Pular.

After his return home to Guinea in 1985, Souleymane Kanté lived in Conakry teaching his alphabet until his death from diabetes in 1987 59.

Statistics on the number of adults and children who know how to read and write N’ko have not been established.

Under Kanté’s direction, his disciples established the Association pour l’Impulsion et la Coordination des Recherches sur l’Alphabet N’ko (ICRA-N’KO) in 1986. ICRA-N’KO was officially sanctioned by the government in 1991 as a non-governmental organization (NGO) 60. Only since then has the group actively begun to compile statistics based on the current number of students enrolled in N’ko classes. Each teacher turns in a list of students to the local ICRAN’KO association, which records the numbers and sends them on to the Service National d’Alphabétisation to be included in the year’s literacy statistics.

By looking at the numerical fragments, it can be seen that the number of students in N’ko classes had steadily increased from 1989 to 1994; however, it is not possible to say whether or not this was the result of an increase in the number of students or the result of better record-keeping.

A literacy survey of Kankan I conducted in 1994 presents the first literacy statistics for the city 61. Canvassers interviewed each household about the languages spoken and about the alphabets used to transcribe those languages. One would expect a competitive percentage of those who were able to read and write the Maninka language in the Roman alphabet after sixteen years of Touré’s National Language Program.

The results of the survey are enlightening because they show that only 3.1 percent of the 128,000—plus indigenous inhabitants (men, women, and children above the age of five) knew how to read and write in French, while 8.8 percent knew how to read and write N’ko 62.

Other figures show that among the people of Kankan, 8.5 percent could read Arabic and 14.1 percent could read and write French. The “langue nationale” appears to have been discarded, while the N’ko alphabet appears to be blossoming.

Kanté’s N’ko seems to have become more widely accepted in Kankan. Thus the ultimate advantage seems to lie with Kanté’s approach rather than Touré’s.


Since independence the Maninka speakers of Guinea have struggled against what they perceived to be Western cultural imperialism in the area of language and literacy. As a conflict within the nation-state, it reflects the ongoing struggle for autonomy. Being literate in N’ko has become an important part of the current Mande cultural revival because the possession of N’ko signifies the reclaiming of the area’s cultural integrity.

The N’ko alphabet has offered Maninka speakers a renewed capacity to make culturally significant choices, and they seem to have chosen N’ko as an indigenous alternative to the education of language/literacy promoted by the Western-influenced Mande speakers who have controlled government and religion since Touré’s time.

Persons seeking to learn N’ko have steadily created enthusiasm and support for learning the alphabet, which has spread from Mande-speaking Kankan both to other Mande speakers throughout Guinea and also to Mande speakers residing in neighboring states.

* This article is based on the research in Kankan, Republic of Guinea in 1991, 1992-1993, and 1994, with the assistance of a Fulbright Dissertation Research Scholarship for 1992-1993 and a West African Research Association Fellowship for the summer of 1994.

1. In the same year in the British colony of Nigeria, Chinua Achebe also validated indigenous culture by writing his classic novel, Things Fall Apart (1958).
2. It is difficult to divorce the broader issues of Guinea’s “Cultural Revolution” from ethnic ones, however, particularly the view that during the Touré and Conté periods (1958-1984 and 1984 to the present, respectively), Maninka speakers may have been progressively disfranchised from the nation’s political process. Touré did not empower all Maninka speakers but gave preference to the ones from his own area of Faranah. Conté is a Susu speaker who has systematically alienated the Maninka speakers since taking power in 1984. However, his support of the Maninka based grassroots literacy movement might be an attempt to change this.
3. Sékou Touré’s archival documents, including personal papers and correspondence, were either destroyed or hidden after his death. Consequently, there are no currently existing archives of the First Republic and the papers that are hidden are inaccessible. With regard to the personal relationship between Sékou Touré and Souleymane Kanté, interviews provide some insights.
4. André Lewin, La Guinée: [Que Sais-je?] (Paris, 1984), 67.
5. By 1990 there were approximately 16 million speakers of the 20 languages classified as Mande, radiating out from the Mande heartland across the borders of ten West African countries. The Maninka speakers of Guinea reside in the region of Upper Guinea adjacent to the Mande heartland, which lies just across Guinea’s border with Mali.
6. Informants explained that Kanté accepted a 1944 challenge posed by the Lebanese journalist Kamal Marwa in an Arabic-language publication, Nahnu fi Afrikiya [We Are in Africa]. Marwa argued that Africans were inferior because they possessed no indigenous written form of communication. His statement that “African voices [languages] are like those of the birds, impossible to transcribe” reflected the prevailing views of many colonial Europeans. Although the journalist acknowledged that the Vai had created a syllabary, he discounted its cultural relevancy because he deemed it incomplete. Personal Interviews 08 in Karifamoriah, 46 in Kankan, and 70 in Conakry, 1993. To protect the identity of the informant or informants, interview citations include only the interview number, date, and location. The informants are equally divided between N’ko practitioners and those outside the N’ko community, some of whom have never heard of the alphabet. All interviews took place with the author and research assistant in in Guinea unless otherwise indicated. Interviews were conducted randomly as informants were available, or as travel arrangements could be made I have in my possession the audiotapes in Maninka and the written translations in French.
7. See Steven Feierman’s stimulating use of the term in Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Madison, 1990).
8. Group Interview 18, 5 April 1993, Balandou, Guinea. Kanté emphasizes the integration of local knowledge with foreign knowledge by preserving both in the maternal language in a script that he himself creates. For that reason, one should characterize him as a vernacular intellectual.
9. Interviews 62 (14 July 1993) and 70 (18 July 1993), in Conakry, and Interview 09, 11 March 1993, Kankan. Souleymane Kanté’s experiments, reinforced by his acquisition of Arabic literacy as an Islamic scholar, were responsible for the selection of this right to left orientation. It might also have been a political statement rejecting African deculturation by Europeans.
10. Interview 70, 8 July 1993, Conakry. It is evident that this informant associates Kanté with his own ethnic pride in the heroic/historic Mande past as descendants of the ancient kingdom of Mali.
11. Odile Goerg, “La Guinée,” in Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch with Odile Goerg, L’Afrique Occidentale au temps des Français Colonisateurs et Colonisé (c. 1860-1960) (Paris, 1992), 365.
12. R.W. Johnson, “Guinea,” in John Dunn, ed., West Africa States, Failure and Promise A Study in Comparative Politics (Cambridge, 1978), 38.
13. Defined by Victor Du Bois as “a feeling among the citizens of the young republic that their destiny is somehow linked to that of other peoples with whom in the past they have never shared a sense of kinship or identity.” Du Bois, “Guinea,” in James S. Coleman and Carl. Rosberg, Jr.,e ds., Political Parties and National Integration in Tropical Africa (Berkeley, 1964), 199.
14. Ibid., 186.
15. Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa (Oxford, 1964), 224.
16. Jean Suret-Canale, La République de Guinée (Paris, 1970), 144.
17. In Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant said that as a Mande speaker himself, Sékou Touré sincerely admired Kanté’s invention but that he was a political man wanting to promote national unity. In Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry, a personal friend of Touré said that the latter wanted to support N’ko but that the other members of the Political Bureau, and his cabinet, did not.
18. Choosing Mande as the national language or even institutionalizing the Mande-styled alphabet for orthography would have caused dissension between Mande speakers and the other ethnic groups in Guinea. Furthermore, while Mande speakers could write the Mande language in N’ko, Susu speakers could write the Susu language in N’ko, and Pular speakers could write the Pular language in N’ko, they would not be able to read each other’s texts; although the script was the same, the languages would not be mutually intelligible. The former regional director of education in Kankan commented that the rejection of Kanté’s alphabet was divisive among the leaders of Touré’s government. Interview 64, 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
19. Interview 09, 11 March 1993, in Kankan; Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 68, 7 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry; Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan; and Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire.
20. In Group Interview 43, 18 May 1993, in Kankan, one informant stated that Sékou Touré had promised Souleymane Kanté that he would build a school for N’ko.
21. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana; Interview 59, 28, June 1993, in Kankan.
22. There is some confusion about the manner in which this occurred. Some informants have said that Sékou Touré sought out Souleymane Kantd in Abidjan after hearing about the alphabet through the grapevine. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana. Others insisted that Souleymane Kanté went on his own to Conakry to present the alphabet to Touré. Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan. One informant claimed to have taught Sékou Touré N’ko, after which Touré told the informant to invite Kanté to visit him in Conakry. Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry. Regardless of who initiated the interview, informants concur on the rest of the story. In Interview 81, 9 August 1994, in Conakry, the informant reasserted the claim that the informant in Interview 80 had in fact taught N’ko to Sékou Touré, but that Sékou abandoned his studies when the political arena heated up. In Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, we visited the house where the Kanté family shared a room and spoke with neighbors who witnessed the military truck moving the family back to Guinea.
23. Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana.
24. According to the informants in Group Interview 08, 8 March 1993, in Karifamoriah, at the time only Maninka-speaking long-distance traders were merchants in Abidjan. When the exploitation of the Sefadou diamond mines in Sierra Leone began, many of these merchants carried the ability to write and teach N’ko with them into the new marketplace.
25. Prior to independence, many Guineans were dispersed throughout West Africa. Some were employed by the French as bureaucrats, teachers, or as railroad transportation workers. Others, such as a large number of Maninka speakers, were dispersed along West African trade routes. For example one informant’s father had been the railroad station-master at Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, in 1944. Interview 07, 6 March 1993, Kankan; Niane, Sundiata, 93.
26. Sékou Touré, “Débat culturel: Le Chef de l’Etat sur les langues africaines,” Horoya 2889, 25-31 Octobre 1981, 13-16.
27. Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
28. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
29. Johnson, “Guinea,” 55. In Touré’s attempt to reconnect to the African past, he organized the party structure to imitate the organization of village councils. The system appeared to consult the common man on every major government decision. Ideally, the idea originated at the cell level and gained acceptance as it moved to the high-ranking leaders of the Bureau Politique National (BPN). In this case the idea originated at the top and was presented for approval to the Comités d’Unité de l’Education. Du Bois describes the organization of the PDG in his political commentary, “Guinea,” 200-205. UNESCO, The Experimental World Literacy Programme: A Critical Assessment (Paris, 1976), 26-30.
30. Interview 34, 10 May 1993, in Kankan, and Interview 55, 24 June 1993, in Kankan.
31. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry; and Interview 55, 24, June 1993, in Kankan.
32. Interview 66, 16 July 1993, in Conakry. The informant was a Directeur Régional de l’Education in Kankan.
33. Mohamed Lamine Sano, “Aperçu Historique sur l’Utilisation des Langues Nationales en République de Guinée,” unpublished paper (1992), 3-4.
34. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry.
35. UNESCO, World Literacy Programme, 42.
36. Interview 64, 15, July 1993, in Conakry.
37. UNESCO considered its program separate from the government’s national campaign. Interestingly enough, the UNESCO funds were not used for a pilot project in Haute-Guinée. The program targeted 3,500 illiterate and newly literate industrial workers in Conakry and 75,000 illiterate farmers living in lower Guinea (the Susu language), middle Guinea (the Pular language), and the forest region (the Kissi, Guerzé, and Toma languages). UNESCO, World Literacy Programme, 42-43.
38. Interview 64, 15 July 1993, in Conakry; Group Interview 46, 19 June 1993, in Kankan; and Interview 55, 24 June 1993, in Kankan. See Ministère du Domaine de l’Education et de la Culture, La Reforme de l’Enseignement en Republique de Guinée Novembre 1958-Mai 1977 (Conakry, 1977), 6-8.
39. Kamori Traoré, “Guinée,” in Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow, ed., Langues et Politiques de Langues en Afrique Noire: l’Experience de l’UNESCO (Paris, 1976), 265.
40. Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.
41. Ministry of Education and Culture, Cultural Policy in the Revolutionary People’s Republic of Guinea (Paris, 1979), 36.
42. Ibid., 9-10.
43. Interviews 34 and 55, 10 May 1993 and 24 June 1993, respectively in Kankan were with one informant.
44. Interviews 34 (10 May 1993) and 55 (24 June 1993), in Kankan.
45. Souleymane Kante’s recommendations were that each person should teach seven other people. Group Interview, 08, 8 March 1993, in Karifamoriah. In Interview 05, 3 March 1993, in Kankan, the informant said that the instructions were to teach the family, so he taught all of his children.
46. Interview 60, 9 July 1993, in Conakry.
47. Those who were literate in N’ko were spoken of as preserving for posterity the oral histories of elders. Interview 05, 3 March 1993, in Kankan.
48. Secretariat d’Etat à l’Idéologie-Service National d’Alphabétisation, Sori ni Mariama (Teheran, n.d.) and Académie des Langues Conakry, Maninkakan Sariya, Grammaire Maninka 2e et 3e cycle (Conakry, 1980) are examples of texts produced for the literacy program.
49. Interview 66, 16 July 1993, in Conakry.
50. According to this informant, the government could not fight the N’ko alphabet directly. It was necessary to formulate a political strategy to eliminate N’ko, either to isolate the creator so that he would abandon it or to exile him so that the population would forget about it. Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan. In Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, the informant stated that the government used Kanté in the National Language Program because he was the only one who could translate all of the necessary terminologies.
51. A local merchant, Sékou Diané, is remembered as having given Souleymane Kanté money to buy this machine in Abidjan. Interview 29, 3 May 1993, and Interview 49, 20 June 1993, in Kankan; Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry.
52. Interview 82, 10 August 1994, in Conakry. El Hadj Kabiné Diané was a prominent businessman from Kankan who also owned a business in Conakry and was a part of the National Islamic Council.
53. In Interview 09, 11 March1 993, in Kankan, the informant established the date as 1973.
54. Interview 62, 14 July1 993, in Conakry.
55. Ibid.; and Interview 32, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.
56. Interview 32, 8 May 1993, in Kankan.
57. Interview 80, 20 July 1994, in Conakry, the informants described Touré as being troubled by leadership problems he was experiencing with Guinea’s intellectuals. In Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan, the informant told a story he heard from Souleymane Kanté: The government had supplied Kanté with transportation to Romania for treatment of his diabetes in 1974. Assisting the Guinean government, th e Romanian government institutionalized Kanté in a psychiatric facility, where an attempt was made on his life by lethal injection. Kanté refused the treatment and escaped death. Kanté convinced the doctors to release him, since, in the end, his condition itself was a death sentence. Later in Conakry he met the person who had been the Guinean ambassador to Romania at the time of his incarceration, wh o thought that Kanté was deceased. Interview 31, 8 May 1993, in Kankan, Interview 62, 14 July 1993, in Conakry and Group Interview 46, 19 June 1993, in Kankan.
58. Interview 31, 8 May 1993, in Kankan, Interview 51, 22 June 1993, in Djankana; Interview 62, 14 July 1993, in Conakry; Interview 59, 28 June 1993, in Kankan; Group Interview 30, 4 May 1993, in Bamako. Group Interview 84, 15 August 1994, in Abidjan, the informants recalled that Kanté told them that he had returned to Côte d’Ivoire in political exile and said that Touré was jealous of his invention. Theye estimated that he spent eight years with them in Côte d’Ivoire, two years in Bouake and six in Abidjan, interspersed with trips to Bamako.
59. Interview 62, 14, July 1993, in Conakry.
60. Interview 68, 17 July 1993, in Conakry, and Interview 69, July 18, 1993, in Conakry.
61. Literacy Survey of Kankan, 4 August 1994. There are no complete literacy statistics at any level. The numbers represented in the survey offer a beginning point at which literacy statistics can be assessed and can be later measured in percentages. I conducted another Literacy Survey of Kankan in July 2000. When I have finished entering the data, I will be able to determine growth in the numbers who are literate in N’ko over the last six years.
62. The literacy survey showed that 14.1 percent of the population knew how to read and write French, 8.5 percent of the population knew how to read and write Arabic, 8.8 percent of the population knew how to read and write [the Maninka language] in N’ko, and 3.1 percent of the population knew how to read and write [Maninka] in the Roman alphabet [Langue Nationale].

Are Fulɓe Disappearing? And Is Adlam Their Savior?

The answer to the questions in this blog’s title is flatly and emphatically No! First, Fulɓe are not about to disappear, because they are one Africa’s most distributed and populous nations. Second and consequently, the “new” Adlam alphabet cannot be their rescuer. Yet, entitled “The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing,” a paper published in The Atlantic Magazine presents Adlam as the would-be-savior of the Fulbe/Halpular Civilization. I could not disagree more and object stronger.

Kaveh Waddell, The Atlantic Magazine
Kaveh Waddell, The Atlantic Magazine

But I congratulate the Barry brothers for getting a write-up on Adlam in The Atlantic, a major US publication. Unfortunately, the author of the article, Kaveh Waddell, focuses on the digital technology aspects of Adlam (Unicode, Social media, computers, operating systems, mobile devices, etc.) And he does so at the expense of the history and culture of the Fulɓe (See also Fulɓe and Africa). Such a glaring omission defeats the very —and curious—idea of Adlam coming to save Fulɓe/Halpular populations from disappearing!

Before outlining some of the many points of contention, and for the sake of clarity, I should sum up my experience, which spans +40 years of teaching, research, and publishing on the Fulɓe and their  language. I majored in linguistics and African languages, and graduated from the Polytechnic Institute G. A. Nasser of Conakry, Social Sciences Department, Class of 1972 (Kwame Nkrumah). I then taught linguistics and Pular there for 10 years (1972-1982). And I concurrently chaired (from 1973 to 1978) the Pular Commission at Guinea’s Académie des Langues nationales. With my deputy —and esteemed elder—, the late Elhadj Mamadou Gangue, I did field research in the Fuuta-Jalon, inventorying dialects, meeting literati and artists, collecting data.… In 1978, President Sékou Touré sent an original visitor, Adam Bâ, to the Academy. A Pullo from Benin, Mr. Bâ wanted to offer his new Pular alphabet. In addition to the letters, he also had invented a new vocabulary for greetings, leave-takings, titles, ranking, trade, etc. In a nutshell, he was—seriously—asking us to learn a new version of our mother tongue! After listening to his pitch and debating the worthiness of his proposal, we filed back an inadmissibility (fin de non-recevoir) report to the authority.
In 1982 I won a competitive Fulbright-Hayes fellowship and came to the University of Texas at Austin as a Visiting Scholar. My selection rested mainly on my sociolinguistics essay in which I laid out a blueprint for the study of esthetic discourse and verbal art performance in Fuuta-Jalon. I focused on three communities of speech-makers: the Nyamakala (popular troubadours), the caste of Awluɓe (or griots, i.e. court historians and royal counselors) and the Cernooɓe (Muslim scholars, masters of the ajami literature).

That said, here are some of my disagreements and objections from the article.

Students learn to read and write Adlam in a classroom in Sierra Leone (Courtesy of Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry)
Students learn to read and write Adlam in a classroom in Sierra Leone (Courtesy of Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry)
  1. The title of the paper vastly misrepresents the situation of the Fulbe/Halpular peoples. Indeed, those populations —who number in tens of millions— are in no danger of vanishing at all. Therefore, there is no ground for the journalist to claim that Adlam alphabet will rescue the Fulɓe from a hypothetical oblivion. After all, they are one of Africa’s most ancient and dynamic people. Again, to the best of my knowledge the Fulɓe/Halpular do not face an existential threat or the probability of extinction!
  2. The article refers to the Arabic alphabet 11 times. But it doesn’t say anything about the Pular/Fulfulde Ajamiyya traditional alphabet. Yet, the founders of that writing system achieved significant successes in spreading literacy and educating the faithful, from Mauritania and Fuuta-Tooro, on the Atlantic Coast, to Cameroon, in Central Africa, with Fuuta-Bundu, Fuuta-Jalon, Maasina, Sokoto, etc. in between. They developed an important literary corpus and left an impressive intellectual legacy. Some of the brilliant ajamiyya authors include Tierno Muhammadu Samba Mombeya (Fuuta-Jalon), Usmaan ɓii Fooduye (aka Uthman dan Fodio) founder of the Sokoto Empire, Sheyku Ahmadu Bari, founder of the Diina of Maasina, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, etc.

For a partial anthology see  La Femme. La Vache. La Foi. Ecrivains et Poètes du Fuuta-Jalon

3. Ajamyiyya had the backing of the ruling aristocracy in theocentric Fuuta-Jalon (1725-1897). Moreover, it conveys the dogmas, teachings and writings of Classical Arabic in a deeply religious society. That’s why individuals were motivated to write in their language. They acknowledged what Tierno Samba Mombeya famously summarized in the Hunorde (Introduction) of his landmark poem “Oogirde Malal” (circa 1785):

Sabu neddo ko haala mu'un newotoo Nde o fahminiree ko wi'aa to yial.

Miɗo jantora himmude haala pular I compose in the Pular language
Ka no newnane fahmu nanir jaɓugol. To let you understand and accept the Truth.
Sabu neɗɗo ko haala mu’un newotoo Because  the mother tongue helps one best
Nde o fahminiree ko wi’aa to ƴial. As they try to understand what is said in the Essence.

How has History rewarded Tierno Samba and the pantheon of ajamiyya scholars? Alfâ Ibrâhîm Sow has best captured their invaluable contribution. He wrote:

« If, one hundred-fifty years following its composition, the Lode of Eternal Bliss (Oogirde Malal) continues to move readers of our country, it’s chiefly because of the literacy vocation it bestows on Pular-Fulfulde, because of its balanced, sure and elegant versification, its healthy, erudite and subtle language, and the national will of cultural assertion that it embodies as well as the desire for linguistic autonomy and dignity that it expresses. »

4. “Why do Fulani people not have their own writing system?” M. Barry wondered. Actually, they do have it with Ajamiyya. By applying their curiosity and creativity they first reverse-engineered the Arabic alphabet by filling the gaps found the original Arabic graphic system. Then they took care of giving the letters descriptive and easy-to-remember Pular names. That didactic and mnemonic strategy facilitated the schooling of children.

5. Again, it is amazing that age 14 and 10 respectively, in 1990, Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry began to devise an alphabet. But it was a bit late for many reasons. I’ll mention only two:
Primo. Back in 1966  UNESCO organized a conference of Experts (linguists, teachers, researchers) for Africa’s major languages in Bamako (Mali). Pular/Fulfulde ranks in the top ten group of African idioms. The proceedings from the deliberations yielded, among similar results for other languages, the Standard Alphabet of Pular/Fulfulde. Ever since, that system has gained currency and is used the world around. It covers all aspects of the language’s phonology, including the following consonants, —which are typical and frequent, but not exclusive to Pular/Fulfulde:

  • ɓ,  example ɓiɓɓe (children), ɓiɗɗo (child)
  • ɗ, example ɗiɗo (two, for people), ɗiɗi (two for animals or objects)
  • ƴ, example ƴiiƴan (blood)
  • ŋ, example ŋeeŋeeru (violin)

The respective decimal Unicode equivalents for the above letters are:

  • ɓ
  • ɗ
  • ƴ
  • ŋ

All modern text editors and browsers are programmed to automatically convert those four codes into the aforementioned Pular/Fulfulde letters.

As a Drupal site builder and content architect, it happened that I filed last night an issue ticket on the Platform’s main website. In it I requested  that —just like in Drupal v. 7— Fulah (Pular/Fulfulde) be reinstated among the  options on the Language Regionalization menu. So far the latest version of Drupal (v. 8) does not include it.

Secundo. Launched as an experiment in 1969, the Internet was 21 years old when Adlam got started in 1990. Ever since, the Digital Revolution has moved to integrate Unicode, which today provides covers all the world’s languages.

6. In 1977, as linguistics faculty at the Social sciences department of the Polytechnic Institute of Conakry, I attended the event. The speaker was none but the late Souleymane Kanté, the inventor of N’Ko. But today —forty-years later— and despite all efforts, the Nko  is still struggling. It is far from delivering its initial promises of  renaissance of the Mande culture area.
President Alpha Condé’s electoral campaign promises to support the N’Ko have been apparently forgotten. And President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita of Mali doesn’t seem to even pay attention to the N’Ko. Is it because he prides himself of being a French literature expert?


No! There is no end to any debate on language, literature, culture. An alphabet is not a gauge of cultural and linguistic development. Let’s not forget that both literacy (letters) and numeracy (numbers) are required for scientific research, administration, shopping, etc. Consequently,  the emphasis on creating new alphabets is, in my view, outmoded. It is sometimes more economical to just borrow from either near or far. Western Europe did just that with the Arabic numbering system. And in this 21st century, Unicode meets all —or most— written communication needs. Luckily, Pular/Fulfulde has been endowed with a Standard Alphabet since 1966. Let’s use it and let’s not try to reinvent the wheel.

Tierno S. Bah

Les centres culturels en AOF

Afrique Occidentale Française
Afrique Occidentale Française

“Les centres culturels en AOF : ambitions et échec de la politique culturelle coloniale française”. tome 2, pp.759-772
In AOF : réalites et héritages : sociétés ouest-africaines et ordre colonial, 1895-1960 / sous la direction de Charles Becker, Saliou Mbaye, Ibrahima Thioub. Dakar : Direction des Archives du Senegal, 1997. 2 t., 1273 p.

Depuis le début de l’ère coloniale et plus nettement encore depuis la création de l’AOF en 1895, le pouvoir colonial français s’est heurté à la question de la promotion et de “l’enculturation” française des auxiliaires africains de la colonisation. Cette question récurrente de la gestion politique, culturelle et sociale de l’élite colonisée a reçu, suivant les époques, diverses réponses visant à répondre aux inquiétudes suscitées par cette fine frange de la population à l’interface du rapport colonial. Le développement des associations sportives pendant les années 1920, du théâtre franco-africain pendant les années 1930 dans le prolongement du théâtre de Ponty, puis les associations d’anciens élèves des écoles primaires supérieures pendant la même période constituent autant de tentatives d’adaptation du modèle de diffusion culturelle de la France en AOF et ailleurs dans son Empire.

Au début des années 1950, aux lendemains de la guerre, à la faveur du New Deal Colonial 1 incarné par l’Union Française, la France se lança en AOF dans une politique de développement des services sociaux et des activités culturelles et sportives dans le prolongement de la modernisation socio-économique du système colonial engagée avec le FIDES. Concernant la jeunesse on vit par exemple l’apparition de coordinations territoriales des associations de jeunes, la création du Conseil de la Jeunesse de l’Union Française (de Benoist 1992 ; Nedelec 1994) ou le développement des institutions et installations sportives.

Au sein de ce nouveau mouvement de pénétration de la culture française en Afrique colonisée, les centres culturels forment une figure emblématique de la volonté du pouvoir colonial de promouvoir la culture française et de contrôler les formes d’expression culturelle de la jeunesse africaine. Pourtant paradoxalement, cette institution socio-culturelle a fait l’objet de fort peu de travaux (Mignon 1984a et 1984b), alors que les sources 2 ne manquent pas pour traiter ce sujet qui se situe au coeur de la problématique de “l’enculturation” occidentale en AOF et de l’analyse des échecs et des succès de la politique culturelle française. Quels furent les objectifs visés par cette institution novatrice ? en quoi peut on parler d’echec ? et à quel niveau peuton le situer ?

1. Origine et objectifs des centres culturels en AOF

Les centres culturels en AOF sont issus de la tradition métropolitaine des centres sociaux instaurée pendant l’Entre-deux-guerres. En quête d’une fomule institutionnelle adaptée à la réalité culturelle et politique de l’AOF des années 1950 pour promouvoir la culture franco-africaine, le Haut-Commissaire Bernard Cornut-Gentille transposa en AOF cette formule qu’il avait initiée à Brazzaville en 1949.

Bernard Cornut-Gentille, Gouverneur Général de l'A.O.F. (1954-1958)
Bernard Cornut-Gentille, Gouverneur Général de l’A.O.F. (1954-1958). Lire également André Lewin, “25/26 août 1958 — De Gaulle à Conakry

Dans l’esprit du Haut Commissaire et de ses conseillers, aucune évolution positive ne pourrait se réaliser sans un rapprochement réel et fraternel entre Français et Africains. Les centres culturels devaient jouer ce rôle d’instrument de sociabilité franco-africaine nouvelle. Une circulaire du Haut Commissaire en AOF du 14 mars 1953 fixait le cadre institutionnel de cette formule de regroupement socio-culturel. L’objectif des centres culturels était de créer un lieu d’activités de loisirs et de formation où pourraient se rencontrer les Français, les “évolués” et les illettrés sous la direction d’un comité de gestion formé de militants associatifs du lieu d’implantation.

« Les centres culturels étaient un moyen de formation complémentaire pour les élites anciennes et nouvelles mis à leur disposition jusqu’à l’échelon des chefs-lieux de brousse. Ils leur permettront de remplir leur rôle en rayonnant sur la masse paysanne et constitueront un des moyens de lutte contre l’abandon des campagnes par les jeunes … un terrain de rencontre et de travail où s’uniront dans un même désir d’évolution et de compréhension les cadres européens et africains » 3.

Les commandants de cercle ou de subdivision devaient y exercer leur autorité en veillant au bon fonctionnement de ces centres. Il était prévu d’en créer un par chef-lieu de cercle dans tous les territoires de la Fédération. Le Haut Commissaire insistait pour que ces lieux soient ouverts au plus grand nombre, afin de modifier l’état d’esprit des “évolués” qui avaient tendance, selon lui, à former « dans les chefs-lieux de brousse, une caste égoïste manquant d’esprit humain » 4.
Ces centres culturels ne devaient pas être « des officines de l’administration, ou des officines politiques des partis africains » 5. Les administrateurs français avaient l’ordre d’y participer activement pour en sauvegarder l’esprit tout en laissant leur direction et les initiatives aux Africains. Le Haut Commissaire exhortait les Français à concourir activement à leur succès : « Vous mes collaborateurs métropolitains, cessez totalement au centre culturel d’être le chef qui condescend à s’entretenir avec ses subordonnés » 6.

Ces lieux de dialogue et foyers d’amitié, que Bernard Cornut-Gentille appelait de ses voeux, étaient également un moyen pour l’administration de soutenir les associations, de mettre à leur disposition des salles de réunions, une bibliothèque, une scène de théâtre et dans certains cas un projecteur de cinéma. Les centres culturels étaient des instruments pour subventionner le tissu associatif tout en permettant le contrôle de celui-ci par l’administration au nom de “l’intérêt public”.

2. Les moyens mis en oeuvre pour créer des creusets de culture franco-africaine : fleuron d’une politique culturelle

Ces creusets de culture franco-africaine, chargés de désamorcer la radicalisation des rapports entre l’administration et les “évolués”, connurent dans un premier temps un succès enthousiaste. L’insistance du Haut Commissaire, bien relayée par son chargé de mission aux Affaires Sociales, Monsieur Poinsot, fut un atout déterminant pour leur succès quantitatif. De 1954 à 1957 les territoires de l’AOF se dotèrent de 170 centres culturels financés essentiellement par le budget général qui leur consacra 259 millions de francs 7. En 1957, la répartition territoriale des 137 centres était la suivante :

Colonie Nombre de Centres
Côte-d’Ivoire 35
Soudan (Mali) 27
Guinée 26
Dahomey (Bénin) 22
Haute-Volta (Burkina Faso) 17
Sénégal 14
Niger 9
Mauritanie 8 7

La création des centres culturels en AOF en 1953 (Bugnicourt & Levallois 1955 ; Mignon 1984a) et leur essaimage, sur l’ensemble du territoire dans les chefs-lieux de cercle et de subdivision jusqu’en 1957, constituèrent des appuis logistiques importants pour les associations culturelles et sportives de jeunes. En juin 1953, Monsieur Poinsot fit une longue tournée à travers l’AOF pour cerner les besoins culturels de l’élite et analyser le type de structure adapté aux populations et à l’intérêt politique de la France (Poinsot 1953).

La formule de direction retenue fut celle du comité de gestion composé de représentants associatifs désignés par les associations et les délégués des grandes catégories de population : les jeunes, les notables, les anciens combattants et les commerçants. Le commandant de cercle ou le représentant de l’administration conservait la haute main sur la gestion financière. Cette présence d’un administrateur souleva beaucoup de critiques parmi la jeunesse politisée d’AOF ; elle était justifiée par l’administration « par le fait que le centre est entretenu sur les deniers publics et doit être soumis au contrôle d’un comptable en matière administrative » tout en reconnaissant que « le président devait être le principal moteur du centre » (Poinsot 1953).

Les associations pouvaient trouver dans ce cadre des salles pour se réunir, répéter des pièces de théâtre, organiser des bals et des conférences. Il semble qu’il y ait eu au départ un certain engouement de la jeunesse d’AOF pour ces nouveaux espaces d’expression.

Pour les animer et les relier, une revue de liaison, Trait d’Union, fut éditée sur des fonds du Gouvernement général de l’AOF. L’administration attacha beaucoup de soins à sa réalisation et à sa diffusion. De 1953 à 1957, avec 19 numéros qui constituèrent un lien entre les différents centres, il contribua à développer le sentiment d’appartenance à l’AOF. Diffusé à plusieurs milliers d’exemplaires, (2 000 en 1954 et 10 000 en 1956) la revue était principalement rédigée par des intellectuels africains comme Ahmadou Hampaté Bâ, Boubou Hama, etc.) et comportait diverses rubriques : Etudes et libres opinions, synthèse des enquêtes des cercles d’études, la vie des centres culturels et des associations, les activités artistiques et les variétés, le service de la jeunesse et des sports de l’AOF.

Bernard Cornut-Gentille y écrivait fréquemment des éditoriaux militants, enthousiastes en 1954-1955 puis plus réalistes et désabusés en 1955-1956.

La coupe théâtrale des centres culturels de l’AOF organisée en 1955, 1956 et 1957 connut un succès populaire certain dans tous les territoires, même si les observateurs s’exprimant dans la revue Trait d’Union s’accordaient pour reconnaître la faible qualité des pièces représentées et leur manque d’innovation par rapport au “théâtre de Ponty” des années 1930 9.
C’est cette compétition qui permit au théâtre d’expression française de poursuivre son implantation dans toute l’AOF, y compris dans les chefs-lieux des régions éloignées des capitales. Au plan international, les vainqueurs de cette compétition purent faire connaître pour la première fois en France les spectacles de théâtre et de danse africains.

Dans les nombreuses bibliothèques des centres culturels les jeunes évolués pouvaient se tenir au courant de l’actualité, elles étaient dotées de revues soigneusement choisies par le service des affaires sociales de Dakar.
La pâture intellectuelle proposée se composait de Réalités, France Illustrations, Paris-Match, But club, Le Miroir des Sports, Elle, Constellation, Le Chasseur Français, et Bingo 10. Les ouvrages étaient choisis dans la catégorie des romans coloniaux, à l’image des films glorifiant l’aventure coloniale du genre de : A l’appel du silence, sur l’épopée du père de Foucauld, La sentinelle de l’Empire ou d’autres films exaltant les prouesses des occidentaux comme Mermoz ou A l’assaut de l’Himalaya.
Le service des affaires sociales de Dakar avait mis à la disposition de nombreux centres des projecteurs de 16 mm et un camion de projection qui sillonnait les pistes de l’AOF pour proposer des films dont certains avaient été réalisés dans cette optique comme Images du pays foulah, De la brousse à la capitale et Au service du paysan noir (film de propagande pour les sociétés mutuelles de production rurale).
Ce nouveau réseau de distribution cinématographique de propagande de l’Union Française s’élabora autour des deux filmothèques de Dakar et d’Abidjan et fit découvrir à un public enthousiaste, et souvent émerveillé, selon les commentaires des administrateurs, quelques splendeurs de l’architecture française et des régions de métropoles. Les voitures-cinéma constituèrent une véritable innovation, à défaut d’avoir pu trouver des chiffres pour l’ensemble de l’AOF, l’exemple du Soudan en 1956 où les véhicules-cinéma parcoururent 20 000 km et organisèrent 70 séances commentées et traduites en langues locales donne la mesure de l’effort accompli par le pouvoir colonial en ce domaine. En 1957, les deux filmothèques de Dakar et d’Abidjan approvisionnaient 30 postes fixes et sept voitures-cinéma, alors que les services du Haut Commissaire de Dakar confectionnaient des bandes d’actualités à diffuser dans toute l’AOF, selon une périodicité bimensuelle.

Parmi les supports de la propagande de la culture franco-africaine, les services de Dakar avaient aussi élaboré des conférences modèles illustrées de photos en couleur portant sur différents thèmes : Dakar, Versailles, les châteaux de la Loire, différentes provinces françaises… D’après Poinsot ces conférences et films obtenaient un réel succès auprès des populations dans les centres secondaires du territoire 11.

Les centres culturels jouèrent également un rôle non négligeable dans la propagation du sport civil en AOF. De nombreux centres avaient une section sportive souvent de football mais également dans certains cas de volley ou de basket. De nombreux centres se sont dotés de terrains de football et ont ainsi encouragé la popularisation du sport-roi.

Les centres culturels ont donc fonctionné et apporté une certaine dynamisation socio-culturelle dans les centres secondaires, même s’ils n’ont pas atteint les ambitieux objectifs fixés par l’administration.
Les pick-up et les radios qui équipaient la majorité des centres ont favorisé l’appropriation des musiques et danses occidentales en AOF ; une part importante des jeunes des villes africaines n’ont connu ces centres que par le biais des soirées dansantes qui attiraient un large public.

La couverture inédite du territoire de l’AOF par 170 centres culturels, relais de diffusion de traits culturels empruntés à la culture occidentale, constitue en soi une innovation remarquable de la période du New Deal colonial. Malgré la faible fréquentation d’ensemble et l’échec global de l’expérience en terme politique et idéologique, il est indéniable que ces lieux de colonisation ont eu un impact certain sur l’évolution socio-culturelle des milieux lettrés des centres secondaires de chaque territoire. Ces centres furent des points d’appui logistiques importants pour le développement de la vie associative juvénile en AOF. Dans le cas du Soudan, c’est entre 1953 et 1957 que l’on assiste à la plus forte croissance des déclarations d’association de toute l’ère coloniale. Pendant cette période d’essor des centres culturels, les associations de jeunes au Soudan de 1953 à 1958 représentent 77,1 % de celles déclarées entre 1946-1960 et 64 % de la période 1920-1960 (Nedelec 1994 : 144-180).
Sans qu’on puisse bien entendu attribuer aux seuls centres culturels cette dynamisation de la société civile en AOF, il est probable que les centres ont apporté leur contribution logistique à ce phénomène.

Beaucoup de moyens financiers et humains furent ainsi investis dans les centres culturels pour que ceux-ci deviennent des carrefours de culture franco-africaine. Ils fournissent un bon exemple des grandeurs et misères de la politique culturelle et sociale coloniale en AOF. En fait la pierre d’achoppement de l’édifice était comme toujours d’ordre politique.

3. Les problèmes des centres culturels

3.1 La question de l’investissement des coloniaux

Cet enthousiasme initial était patent pour les centres secondaires de même que le caractère hiératique des activités dont l’intensité variait en fonction de l’arrivée ou du départ de quelques fortes personnalités. Par exemple, au centre culturel de Bougouni au Soudan Français, l’activité était en sommeil de 1954 à 1955 puis elle redémarra « Grâce au concours bienveillant de l’administrateur Even et la présidence du comité de gestion de Georges Marion des Travaux publics, il deviendra un lieu de rencontres pour tous les jeunes de la ville » 12. Le départ de Georges Marion de Bougouni en 1956 fit retomber le centre dans la léthargie et les querelles politiques 13.
A Kolokani, « Après la première flambée d’enthousiasme qui a suivi la création du centre l’engouement se ralentit … nul doute que si le chef de subdivision n’y avait mis constamment du sien l’activité du centre s’éteindrait presque totalement. L’aspiration à la culture et à l’ouverture d’horizons intellectuels n’est qu’une attitude mimétique chez de nombreux évolués » 14.

Les rapports de tournées effectuées en 1954 par de jeunes administrateurs de l’ENFOM dans les centres culturels du Soudan insistent sur les difficultés à trouver des membres volontaires pour les comités de gestion et le manque d’investissement des Français dans ces centres. La mission proposée aux fonctionnaires français par le Haut Commissaire était utopique, il leur demandait de « participer en s’abstenant d’encadrer ». En 1954, Rémond et Césaire notaient :

« Il est curieux de constater que le blanc discute avec l’Africain comme un chef envers son subordonné et non comme un homme envers un autre homme » (Rémond et Césaire 1954 : 47).

Un an après, Jacques Bugnicourt et Michel Levallois 15, alors  jeunes administrateurs de la France d’Outre Mer en stage au Soudan, constataient le mépris des Européens envers les centres culturels, la fatigue occasionnée par leur travail les inclinaient à se retrouver entre eux dans leurs clubs 16. Les Français invoquaient le prétexte de l’ignorance de leur autorisation d’accéder à ces centres pour les boycotter. Le corps enseignant français, qui aurait du jouer un rôle majeur dans l’animation des centres, se montra franchement hostile, par souci de préserver son magistère dans le domaine de l’éducation. Selon Bugnicourt et Levallois, ils essayaient sournoisement de faire du tort aux centre culturels et considéraient les administrateurs comme incompétents.

De manière significative les quelques anciens administrateurs interrogés lors de mon enquête répondaient ne pas avoir connu de centre culturel pendant leur séjour au Soudan.
Echec de la participation des Européens, mais aussi échec dans la fonction de médiation entre “évolués” et “illettrés” que s’était attribuée cette institution. Dans les circulaires, les centres devaient :

« Rayonner sur la masse paysanne et constitueront un moyen de lutte contre l’abandon des campagnes par la jeunesse » 17.

Dans ce domaine, la responsabilité incombait aussi à l’administration qui craignait que les “évolués” n’aillent vers le peuple pour diffuser des idées “contre la France” pour reprendre l’expression de Jacques Bugnicourt (Bugnicourt & Levallois 1955 : 45).
Dans les faits, la plupart des centres culturels au Soudan ne concernaient qu’une infime minorité d’évolués et ne se donnaient pas beaucoup de peine pour y faire participer les masses. Les centres culturels ressemblaient en de nombreux cas à des petits clubs de fonctionnaires regroupant à peine une ou quelques dizaines de personnes. Dans les chefs-lieux de brousse, les animateurs étaient le plus souvent d’origine allogène au lieu d’implantation, et occupaient des fonctions dans l’administration ou le commerce ; ils étaient mal placés pour soutenir une dynamique socio-culturelle locale. Ainsi, ces centres culturels existaient surtout comme cercles d’études et de discussion vivant de l’enthousiasme de quelques personnalités.

3.2 La composition sociologique des comités de gestion

La formation précise des comités de gestion des centres culturels du Soudan révèle, pour les 11 centres dont j’ai pu retrouver la composition socio-professionnelle 18,, l’absence totale du corps enseignant français. Les seuls Européens figurant dans ces comités étaient des commandants de cercle ou de subdivision, le plus souvent au rang de président d’honneur. Ils étaient au nombre de 3 sur les 119 personnes dont la profession est indiquée. Les comités de gestion étaient essentiellement composés de Soudanais. Les agents et commis de l’administration viennent largement en tête avec 28 %, puis les instituteurs avec 15 % ; les médecins et vétérinaires occupent une bonne place avec 11 %, de même que les directeurs d’école avec 7,5 %. Les autres professions représentées étaient les commerçants (11 %), les chefferies de ville, de clan ou de canton (6 %), les infirmiers (6 %) les agents des PTT (4 %), les greffiers (3 %), les anciens combattants (4 %). Seul le centre culturel de Bourem respectait l’une des consignes du Haut Commissaire qui préconisait d’ouvrir les comités de gestion à des gens peu instruits, puisque l’on y trouvait un maçon et un tailleur. Cet échantillon des cadres de la vie associative du Soudan fait apparaître l’accaparement de la direction des centres culturels par les Toubaboufing ou Toubaboubaarala 19. Cette sociologie des leaders des centres culturels du Soudan rejoint celle portant sur la vie associative juvénile dans le même territoire. Il est vraisemblable qu’ailleurs en AOF ce phénomène d’accaparement de la vie associative par les auxiliaires de la colonisation soit à peu de choses près similaire.

3.3 L’échec politique des centres culturels

En principe, ces lieux devaient être apolitiques. Les règlements intérieurs des centres culturels de Kayes et de Ségou mentionnent explicitement l’interdiction de discussion politique 20. Pourtant, dans leur rapport sur les centres culturels du Soudan en 1955, Bugnicourt et Levallois, soulignaient le caractère hautement politique de ces centres.

« Sans négliger une formation culturelle large, il faudrait détecter et détruire les thèses adverses, définir les idées forces que l’on veut faire passer chez les autochtones… pour éviter que le regroupement des élites ne se fasse contre la France » (Bugnicourt & Levallois 1955 : 92).

Au Soudan français, dans toutes les villes de taille importante, ces centres culturels furent paralysés par la lutte acerbe entre le PSP et le RDA. Le centre culturel de Bamako en fit particulièrement les frais et ne put organiser que quelques conférences. Lors du renouvellement du comité de gestion du centre culturel de Bamako le 24 janvier 1956, le président sortant, Tiemoko Sangaré, instituteur membre du PSP, reconnaissait : « Le centre culturel de Bamako a déçu tous les espoirs », alors que l’abbé David Traoré du comité de coordination de la Jeunesse du Soudan fustigeait : « La carence intellectuelle des membres du centre culturel ».

Le nouveau comité de gestion élu relevait du dosage de la parité politique avec trois membres du PSP et trois de l’Union des jeunes du Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA) sous la présidence et l’arbitrage de l’abbé David Traoré 21. L’USRDA était contre les centres culturels ; au congrès de 1955, Gabou Diawara, responsable de la jeunesse demandait le soutien du parti : « Contre le paternalisme de l’administration qui tend à canaliser la jeunesse dans les officines spéciales dites centres culturels à la place desquelles nous demandons la création des maisons des jeunes et de la culture » 22.
A partir de 1956, ces centres sont rentrés dans une grande léthargie, en l’absence de la participation des administrateurs français et minés par des querelles politiques internes. La lassitude des quelques personnes de bonne volonté qui s’étaient manifestées à la création des centres culturels (Koné 1957) et le désengagement de l’administration française après la mise en vigueur de la Loi-cadre participèrent également à l’enterrement sans cérémonie de la plupart de ces pôles de diffusion de la culture francoafricaine.

Comme dans bien d’autres domaines, la Loi-cadre de 1956 et l’essor de l’idée d’indépendance et d’autonomie ruinèrent ce projet d’intégration sociale franco-africain de son contenu. Le Conseil de la Jeunesse d’AOF fit en 1955, sous l’influence du conseil de la jeunesse du Sénégal, un procès en règle de ces lieux de colonisation et demanda leur transformation en Maison des Jeunes. Ce conseil fort turbulent était largement influencé par les Eclaireurs de France et avait de nombreux contacts avec la Fédération Française des Maisons des Jeunes et de la Culture. Si l’administration reconnut l’opportunité de cette transformation pour le Sénégal où une Maison des Jeunes fut inaugurée à Dakar en 1956 (Mignon 1984a) et dans quelques autres villes secondaires de ce territoire, elle était par contre opposée à ce projet pour les autres territoires de la Fédération. Au Soudan, ceci ne se réalisa qu’après l’indépendance, malgré la promesse faite par Bernard Cornut-Gentille, lors de l’inauguration du centre culturel de Bamako en 1954, de créer rapidement une Maison des Jeunes.

4. L’échec de la politique coloniale face au malaise de la jeunesse africaine

4.1 Les générations de la rupture

Malgré les efforts déployés par le pouvoir colonial pour contenir les associations de jeunes sur le terrain de l’apolitisme et du divertissement, le réseau associatif juvénile exerça un rôle de remise en cause des abus de l’administration coloniale. Ce sont des jeunes fonctionnaires des villes âgés de 20 à 35 ans qui composèrent les bataillons des premières associations à caractère politique comme les Groupes d’Etudes Communistes ou les Comités d’Etudes Franco-Africaines nés en 1945 avant de constituer les premiers partis politiques.

Dans la conjoncture de 1954-1956, la stratégie d’arrière-garde du pouvoir colonial ne pouvait contenir le flot de la contestation radicale des jeunes. La décolonisation de l’Asie sous tutelle britannique, le revers français en Indochine, le réveil du peuple algérien avaient ouvert le champ des possibles. Le rêve de l’indépendance prenait corps dans les esprits des jeunes d’Afrique et en ce domaine, celui du mythe et de l’imaginaire, la métropole semblait désarmée idéologiquement pour stimuler la jeunesse à s’intégrer au cadre de la communauté franco-africaine. Cette carence idéologique, de nombreux administrateurs l’exprimaient et tentèrent de faire renaître un idéal pour la jeunesse africaine dans le cadre de l’Union Française, mais :

« Il y avait un rejet de tout ce qui venait de l’administration coloniale, il fallait que l’administration accepte ce qui vient de nous, désormais c’était l’émancipation qui était prise entre les dents comme un cheval prend le mors » 23.

Bernard Cornut-Gentille constatait en 1954 l’impuissance de la France à donner un idéal aux jeunes Africains :

« Le problème ne se règlera ni par des mesures dites sociales ni par des circulaires, encore moins par un bienveillant paternalisme, il ne se règlera que dans le temps et plus encore dans la mesure où les lignes générales de notre politique absorberont par leur dynamisme les réflexes et les complexes d’une jeunesse à laquelle il faut bien un but, une mystique dont nous ne nous sommes pas assez occupés » 24.

La radicalisation des jeunes urbains scolarisés, plus visible à Dakar ou à Paris du coté de la rive gauche dans la cité universitaire, se généralisait aux capitales de l’AOF ; le Soudan et surtout la ville de Bamako participaient pleinement à ce phénomène. Elle exprimait une rupture importante de la société face au paradigme occidental colonial, l’échec de la politique d’encadrement de cette élite en formation traduisait l’incapacité de l’appareil colonial à mettre en oeuvre une transcendance idéologique à la modernisation de la société.

4.2 Un puissant facteur d’échec : la ségrégation raciale

Pendant le Front Populaire, les administrateurs français des capitales territoriales et des centres secondaires furent très actifs dans le champ associatif. Il faut reconnaître que beaucoup le faisaient, animés par un militantisme républicain. Ce type d’engagement semble devenu rarissime après la Deuxième Guerre mondiale. « La quasi totalité des européens vient à la colonie non par devoir mais par nécessité, celle de gagner sa vie … on peut rarement parler d’apostolat colonial » 25.
Cette analyse des motivations des coloniaux met en évidence un paradoxe pour l’administration coloniale : elle ne pouvait pas compter sur ses propres agents et se trouvait dépourvue de troupes ou de forces sociales pour mettre en oeuvre son projet culturel franco-africain imprégné de l’idéologie assimilationniste.
Les Français étaient préoccupés par leur situation personnelle, les problèmes matériels dominaient surtout pour ceux, de plus en plus nombreux, qui venaient aux colonies avec femme et enfants 26.
Après 1945, ils sont bien sûr présents dans les centres culturels et quelques clubs de sport, mais la dynamique associative des années 1950 repose sur la capacité d’innovation sociale des toubaboufing situés à l’interface de la situation coloniale. Un autre élément vient étayer cette hypothèse de l’étonnante absence des Français : ainsi je souhaitais recueillir de nombreux témoignages d’administrateurs de la France d’Outre Mer ayant servi au Soudan. Par l’intermédiaire de l’annuaire de l’association des anciens élèves de l’ENFOM, j’ai envoyé à 69 personnes un questionnaire portant sur les associations au Soudan, mais n’ai obtenu que neuf réponses dont deux seulement ont apporté des informations détaillées sur une association. Il s’agit de celles de Messieurs Briselet et Castelet, tous deux administrateurs à Ségou et joueurs à l’Association Sportive de Ségou 27. Ces deux administrateurs faisaient figure de marginaux en participant à la vie associative. Ce fait me semble significatif du faible intérêt des administrateurs ou enseignants français pour la vie associative africaine pendant les années 1950.

Des travaux récents d’histoire sociale comme celui de Francis Simonis au Soudan (1993), d’Alain Tirefort en Côte-d’Ivoire (1989) ou de Didier Gondola au Congo (1993) mettent en évidence la très faible interpénétration entre les Français et les Africains après la Deuxième Guerre mondiale. La tribu coloniale européenne, malgré son hétérogénéité, est restée soudée, repliée sur elle même, sourde aux injonctions de ses supérieurs hiérarchiques qui se désolaient de : « L’éloignement des évolués indigènes des tuteurs Français ». Depuis l’époque où Pierre Boisson occupait les hautes fonctions de gouvernement en AOF, tous les Gouverneurs généraux et Hauts Commissaires n’ont cessé d’appeler leurs compatriotes à oeuvrer aux côtés des évolués pour participer à la culture franco-africaine.

L’échec des centres culturels au Soudan comme ailleurs en AOF, malgré les efforts particuliers de quelques personnalités d’exception dans le cas du Soudan, comme Briselet et Castelet cités plus haut ou Maurice Meker à Sikasso et Maurice l’Espinasse à Bafoulabé et à Mopti, illustre bien cette distance entre le colonisateur et le colonisé. La vie des coloniaux, comme l’a bien montré Francis Simonis pour la ville de Ségou, était repliée sur la famille, les clubs ségrégués comme le Soudan club à Bamako ou le Ségou club à Ségou qui n’admettaient que des Européens majeurs.

« Contrairement à ce que voudraient faire croire beaucoup de coloniaux, il n’existait, en règle générale aucun contact extra-professionnel entre les Africains et les Européens, les coloniaux ne vivaient pas parmi les Africains, ils vivaient à côté ou au dessus » (Simonis 1993).

Un trait marquant de la présence coloniale française en AOF après la Deuxième Guerre mondiale est la très forte progression des effectifs français. Au Soudan, la population française et assimilée passe de 2 733 personnes en 1936 à 7 382 en 1956. En AOF pour la même période les effectifs évoluent de 24 786 à 88 240 28. Cette progression numérique encouragea la structuration de la communauté française et son repli sur elle-même, si on compare le comportement des années 1950 à celui des années 1930. William B. Cohen, fin observateur de l’administration coloniale française (1973), met en évidence l’évolution de la mentalité des coloniaux, les changements de leur condition de vie caractérisée par une moindre insertion dans la société colonisée. Les administrateurs viennent souvent en famille et ne prennent plus de Muso (ou moins…) 29, ils n’apprennent plus la langue. La perception du Soudanais comme un subalterne, sorte de “grand enfant sympathique”, lorsqu’il courbe l’échine et fait révérence avec le sourire, reste vivace. Cette vision paternaliste inamovible pendant toute la période coloniale et encore malheureusement en vigueur dans de nombreux milieux, se change en méfiance et rejet des “Africains évolués” perçus comme agressifs et complexés tout en demeurant incompétents (Simonis 1993 : 554-557). Ces représentations prégnantes, en quelque sorte identitaires, de l’agent colonial  en Afrique ne portaient guère la majorité des Français à s’investir dans le champ associatif non marqué par la ségrégation.

Ces caractéristiques démontrent rétrospectivement la richesse de l’innovation de l’ère du Front Populaire en AOF : à cette époque les clubs sportifs et les associations culturelles des anciens élèves étaient un terrain d’investissement important des militants républicains de gauche de l’ARP.
N’arrivant pas à se détacher d’une vision raciste, les coloniaux ne purent élaborer, sauf exception 30, une conception égalitaire de l’altérité africaine. Se mêler au milieu soudanais relevait de l’aventure peu prisée en milieu colonial. Briselet et Castelet insistent sur l’attitude fort réservée des supérieurs hiérarchiques à l’égard de leur pratique sportive 31.
On perçoit ici les limites de l’instrumentalisation de la société colonisée par les coloniaux et une contradiction inhérente à la situation coloniale 32.

Jusqu’à l’indépendance, les Français en AOF, issus de la société métropolitaine, constituent une minorité ethnique allogène et dominatrice. Cette minorité numérique s’est érigée en majorité sociologique, en modèle à suivre pratiquant une idéologie bourgeoise élitiste. Pour reprendre le terme pertinent de Robert Delavignette (1946), la petite communauté de fonctionnaires et de commerçants a développé “un idéal héroïque”.
Pour se perpétuer, la situation coloniale convoquait les parties prenantes de la société d’en haut à évacuer le critère de masse et à faire respecter le principe féodal et raciste de supériorité des “blancs”. La logique de domination impliquait le maintien d’une distance, une ségrégation sociale renforcée par la ségrégation spatiale en vigueur dans les villes. Elle nécessitait aussi la mise en oeuvre d’une idéologie où le groupe dominant se posait en modèle tout en réfutant le droit aux autres franges de la société d’y accéder pleinement. Ce fut la fonction de l’idéologie assimilationniste française dont les effets se sont fait sentir dans la formation et l’expression des élites d’Afrique occidentale française dont les meilleurs fleurons se recrutèrent à Dakar 33.

En ce sens la faible participation française à la vie associative juvénile en AOF n’est pas le fruit du hasard ou d’une quelconque mauvaise volonté des coloniaux, mais elle résulte de causes systémiques relatives au fait colonial.
Les conséquences de ce repli de “l’albinocratie” 34 sur elle-même furent importantes pour le champ politique. Il a accentué et entretenu le phénomène de rupture générationnelle remarqué par les observateurs de la vie coloniale 35. Les jeunes générations d’Africains qui accèdent à la conscience politique dans les années 1950 ne purent s’appuyer sur des réseaux de sociabilités non marqués par la ségrégation. Pendant cette période, la relation de domination de type père-fils relativement ouverte, qui avait cours dans la première moitié du siècle, se mue en relation fermée aînés sociaux/cadets sociaux. Les jeunes des années 1950 n’ont pas connu l’autoritarisme de “l’âge d’or colonial”, ils sont nés en politique avec Dien Bien Phu, Bandoeng, Suez et la guerre d’Algérie et ont été influencés par leurs aînés étudiants exilés à Paris, à la cité universitaire du boulevard Jourdan, adeptes de la diatribe radicale et les différentes sections du RDA qui avaient une certaine ascendance politique chez les jeunes de l’AOF.


Incontestablement, les centres culturels en AOF n’ont pas connu le réussite que cette formule obtint au Cameroun et en AEF. Malgré un beau succès initial, qui se traduisit par la constitution d’un réseau de 170 pôles de diffusion de la culture occidentale en AOF par le biais des bibliothèques, des expositions, des films et des conférences, il se dégage un puissant sentiment d’échec parmi les administrateurs coloniaux et les nombreux militants associatifs qui s’investirent dans les centres culturels. Pourtant, ces centres ont contribué à faire progresser la conscience territoire et fédérale des jeunes de l’AOF à travers les compétitions entre territoires. Ils ont aussi durablement marqué les modes d’expression culturels des urbains d’Afrique. Ainsi, lors du festival de la jeunesse africaine de Bamako en 1958 (Nedelec 1992), toutes les activités de divertissement et de connaissance (sports, danses, conférences, théâtre…) portaient la marque indélébile de la culture française et témoignaient ainsi des progrès de “l’enculturation” occidentale parmi les jeunes, y compris les plus contestataires de l’ordre colonial.
La France engagea cette bataille culturelle dans un contexte marqué par la montée de la radicalisation des rapports euro-africains parmi les jeunes générations et du rejet du pouvoir colonial. L’exemple des centres culturels français en AOF met l’accent sur la difficulté de promouvoir une politique culturelle en situation coloniale. Malgré les outils de l’école, des mouvements d’éducation populaire ou des centres culturels, la France ne parvint pas à combler la faille qui séparait dominants et dominés dans une situation marquée par l’entretien du complexe d’infériorité chez le colonisé et du complexe de supériorité chez les coloniaux.

Serge Nedelec

1. Voir pour ce concept la thèse de Serge Nedelec (1994).
2. Parmi ces sources on peut citer les nombreux mémoires de l’ENFOM consacrés aux centres culturels en AOF, qui sont disponibles à Aix-en-Provence. La revue Trait d’Union, bulletin de liaison des centres culturels d’AOF (19 numéros parus entre 1953 et 1957), disponible à la Bibliothèque Nationale de Versailles et de nombreux dossiers d’archives aux Archives Nationales, section outre-mer, à Aix-en-Provence ou de la série O aux Archives Nationales du Sénégal à Dakar fournissent la matière de cette contribution.
3. Bernard Cornut-Gentille, circulaire 144 du 23 février 1954 portant sur les centres culturels, Trait d’Union, 1954.
4. Bernard Cornut-Gentille, Trait d’Union, 6, 1955.
5. Bernard Cornut-Gentille, circulaire portant sur les centres culturels 23-02-1954, cité par Jean- Marie Mignon (1984a).
6. Bernard Cornut-Gentille, Trait d’Union, 7, 1955.
7. ANS O-655 (13).
8. Calculs réalisés à partir de la note d’information du 5 décembre 1956 sur les centres culturels en AOF, par M. Poinsot, chargé de mission pour les affaires sociales auprès du Haut-Commissaire. ANS 0-655 (13).
9. Voir notamment les études de Gary Warner (1976), H. A. Water (1978), L. Koné (1955) et Abdou Anta Ka (1955).
10. Liste des revues proposées à l’abonnement dans les centres culturels du Soudan, ANS O-655 (13).
11. Les centres culturels, terrain de rencontre et de travail pour les élites et les masses d’Afrique, ANS O 655 (13), 13 p.
12. Trait d’Union, 6, 1955.
13. Les centres culturels au Soudan en 1956, ANSO. 655 (13).
14 ANMK FR 1 E 7 (II), [1955] : 31.
15. Jacques Bugnicourt a fait une longue carrière d’agent du développement en Afrique après sa formation initiale à l’ENFOM. Son engagement socialiste et son tempérament lui ont permis de créer avec quelques autres militants l’association ENDA-Tiers-Monde à Dakar dont il est le secrétaire général. Cette ONG du Sud pionnière est une référence dans le milieu du développement.
16. Ce repli de la communauté des Européens sur elle même en dépit des injonctions des directives fédérales est parfaitement mis en lumière dans la remarquable thèse de Francis Simonis (1993) sur les Français de Ségou.
17. Circulaire de Bernard Cornut-Gentille du 23-02-1954, Trait d’Union, 1954.
18. Il s’agit des centres de Bougouni, Mopti, Bandiagara, Tombouctou, Nioro, Baguineda, San, Kolokani, Bourem, Douentza et Kenieba, relevés dans les articles de la revue Trait d’Union.
19. Mots bamana signifiant “blanc à peau noire” ou “travailleur des blancs”, qui s’appliquaient aux travailleurs africains de l’administration coloniale.
20. Annexes de la thèse d’Andrée Audibert (1972 : 99-104).
21. Les membres du PSP étaient tous des instituteurs, Tiémoko Sangaré, Mmes Thiam née Diallo et Diop née Sissoko, alors que le RDA était représenté par trois commis d’administration, Aly Cissé, Sidi Konaté et Cheikh Tidiani, ANS O. 671 (1).
22. Gabou Diawara, “Rapport sur la jeunesse”, congrès de l’USRDA, 22-24 septembre 1955, Archives du CRDA, dossier 8/1, 3 p.
23. Témoignage de Moussa Keita.
24. Bernard Cornut-Gentille, Les problèmes politiques de l’AOF, Dakar 1954, p. 28, cité par Joseph-Roger de Benoist (1982).
25. Conférence de Brazzaville 1944, ANSOM AP 2201 (1).
26. Rapport politique du cercle de Bamako, 1948-1950. ANMK FR 1 E 7 (III), ainsi que la thèse de Francis Simonis (1993).
27. Je tiens à remercier particulièrement Messieurs Briselet et Castelet pour la qualité et le soin de leur témoignage vivant et sincère.
28. Ces recensements de la population européenne et assimilée ne prenaient pas en compte les citoyens originaires des Quatre Communes. Voir Recensement de la population européenne et assimilée, Haut Commissariat de la République en AOF, Dakar, 1957.
29. Muso en bamana signifie la femme ; au début de l’ère coloniale les administrateurs prirent l’habitude de vivre avec des Muso qu’ils laissaient au Soudan lorqu’ils partaient ailleurs. La catégorie non négligeable quantitativement des métis est issue de ces unions coloniales. Après la Deuxième Guerre mondiale, ce phénomène se raréfie, mais certains célibataires n’ont pas abandonné cette pratique, partagée d’une autre manière par les hommes mariés prenant “un deuxième bureau colonial”, à savoir une maîtresse. Dans les milieux de la coopération, ces phénomènes sociaux de première importance dans les relations “Noirs/Blancs” se perpétuent avec leur lot de drames et de bonheurs.
30. Bernard Dumont, administrateur de la FOM, chargé de l’inspection du travail à Ségou dans les années 1950 et membre actif des CEMEA, fait figure de cas. Il fut d’ailleurs l’un des rares Français à rester comme conseiller ministériel du Mali après l’indépendance qui s’accompagna d’un reflux massif de la société coloniale du Mali.
31. Un ami français, coopérant au Sénégal au début des années 1970, subissait la même réprobation de son entourage “toubab” pour son engagement dans un club de football sénégalais. La colonie est passée, mais les représentations de l’Africain demeurent…
32. Ce terme est à prendre ici au sens de celui développé par Georges Balandier.
33. Voir l’article pertinent de G. Wesley Johnson sur les élites au Sénégal pendant la période d’indépendance (1993).
34. Ce néologisme parait justifié, car pendant l’ère coloniale où le principe d’accapararement du pouvoir et des hautes fonctions dans l’appareil colonial était fondé sur la variable de la couleur de la peau qui renvoyait à des statuts distincts et à un rapport de domination de type ségrégationniste “Blanc/Noir”. La lutte anticoloniale est ainsi un combat politique dirigé contre les “Blancs” et pour l’accès aux postes occupés par ces derniers. On note d’ailleurs l’apparition d’une argumentation de type raciste parmi les mouvements politiques africains. L’indépendance peut être perçue sous cet angle comme l’avènement de la Toubaboubaraalacratie.
35. Voir à ce sujet le témoignage de Jean Capelle, dans son ouvrage de mémoires, sur l’enseignement en AOF à la veille des indépendances, paru en 1990.


  • Audibert, Andrée, 1972, Le service social en Afrique francophone dans une perspective de développement, Paris, Université Paris I [thèse de 3e cycle].
  • de Benoist, Joseph-Roger
    • 1982, L’Afrique Occidentale Française de 1944 à 1946, Dakar, NEA : 617 p.
    • 1992, « Entre la Way et la FMJD : les conseils de la jeunesse de l’AOF », in Hélène d’Almeida-Topor, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Odile Goerg, Françoise Guittart (éds), Les Jeunes en Afrique, Paris, L’Harmattan, tome 1, : 571 p., tome 2 : 526 p.
  • Bugnicourt, Jacques, Levallois Michel, 1955, Les centres culturels au Soudan Français, Paris, ENFOM : 120 p. [mémoire ENFOM].
  • Capelle, Jean, 1990, L’éducation en Afrique à la veille des indépendances (1946-1958), Paris, Karthala/ACCT : 328 p.
  • Cohen, William B., 1973, Empereurs sans sceptre, Paris, Berger Levrault : 373 p.
  • Delavignette, Robert, 1946, Service africain, Paris, Berger Levrault.
  • Gondola, Didier, 1993, Migration et villes congolaises au XXème siècle, Paris, Université Paris VII, 2 vol., 622 p. [thèse de Doctorat]
  • Johnson, G. Wesley, 1993, « Les élites au Sénégal pendant la période d’indépendance » [: 25-40], in M. Michel, C. R. Ageron (éds), L’Afrique noire française : l’heure des indépendances, Paris, CNRS : 729 p
  • Ka, Abdou Anta, 1955, « A la recherche d’auteurs dramatiques africains », Trait d’Union, 11 : 66-67.
  • Koné, L.
    • 1955, « Coupe théâtrale en AOF », Trait d’Union, 9 : 4-5.
    • 1957 « Esclaves des préjugés », Trait d’Union, 14 : 1-2.
  • Mignon Jean-Marie
    • 1984a, « Les centres culturels en Afrique francophone », Le Mois en Afrique, 227-228 : 145-160.
    • 1984b, « Les centres culturels et les maisons des jeunes et de la culture en Afrique francophone : trente-cinq ans d’équipements socio-culturels 1949-1984 », Cahiers de l’animation, III, 46 : 59-75.
  • Nedelec, Serge
    • 1992, « Le festival de la jeunesse de Bamako en 1958 » [t.2 : 204-221], in Hélène d’Almeida-Topor, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Odile Goerg, Françoise Guittart, Les jeunes en Afrique, Paris, L’Harmattan.
    • 1994, Jeunesses, Etat et sociétés au Mali au XXème siècle, Paris, Université Denis Diderot/Paris VII : 615 p. [Thèse de doctorat, Laboratoire “Connaissances des Tiers-Mondes”].
  • Poinsot, M. 1953 « Les centres culturels », ANSO 655 : 32 p.
  • Remond et Césaire 1954 Les centres culturels en AOF, Paris : 130 p. (Mémoire ENFOM).
  • Simonis, Francis, 199?, Une communauté d’Européens en Afrique, les Français à Ségou, Paris, Université de.Paris VII [Thèse d’Université].
  • Tirefort, Alain, 1989, Européens et assimilés en Basse Côte-d’Ivoire 1893-1960, réalités et mythes d’une société coloniale, Bordeaux, Université Bordeaux III, 3 tomes : 1508 p. (Thèse de doctorat d’Etat).
  • Warner, Gary, 1976, « Education coloniale : genèse du théâtre africain d’expression française », in Présence Africaine, 97 : 93-116.
  • Water, H. A. 1978, Black Theater in French Africa : a guide, Québec, Naaman : 91 p.

A quarter-century of Linux

Linus Benedict Torvalds with the Penguin, mascot of Linux
Linus Benedict Torvalds with the Penguin, mascot of Linux

Linux celebrates its 25th anniversary: a quarter-century in which it truly changed the world. Luckily for me, I was an early convert. And an adopter, if not in practice at least in mind. It was 1991, and I was living in Washington, DC, Southwest. Somehow my MCIMail account was among the recipients of a mailing list message that is likely to remain a memorable and historic announcement. It read:

From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)
Newsgroups: comp.os.minix
Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?
Summary: small poll for my new operating system
Message-ID: <1991Aug25.205708.9541@klaava.Helsinki.FI>
Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT
Organization: University of Helsinki
Hello everybody out there using minix –
I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready. I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).
I’ve currently ported bash (1.08) and gcc (1.40), and things seem to work. This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and I’d like to know what features most people would want. Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them 🙂
Linus (
PS. Yes – it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs. It is NOT portable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-(.

I don’t recall giving Linus Torvalds a technical feedback or even a broad suggestion. For I was still a UNIX newbie challenged by an entrenched industrial operating system. For a while, I looked into A/UX —Apple’s defunct version of UNIX. Next, I made unsuccessful efforts to run an Apache web server on MachTen UNIX, from Tenon Intersystems. That company’s Berkely Software Distribution (BSD)-based OS targeted Macintosh computers built on either the PowerPC, M68K or G3 chips.…

Dr. Bob Kahn (left) and Dr Vinton Cerf (right): inventors of the TCP/IP Internet, which made the creation of Linux possible, and spurred its growth and popularity.
Dr. Bob Kahn (left) and Dr Vinton Cerf (right): inventors of the TCP/IP Internet, which made the creation of Linux possible, and spurred its growth and popularity.

Months after receiving Torvald’s email, I had the privilege of participating in the 1992 Kobe, Japan, conference. Co-inventor, with Dr. Robert Kanh, of the TCP/IP Stack — of Standards and Protocols — that underlies the Internet, Dr. Vinton Cerf chaired the event. And I was part of a group of technologists from eight African countries (Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria, Senegal, Guinea) who were invited to the meeting. There, with the other delegates, we witnessed and celebrated the founding of the Internet Society.…
In hindsight — and for a social sciences and humanities researcher like me —, the early 1990s proved serendipitous, challenging and groundbreaking. As Linux began to gain foothold, I alternatively tested some of its distributions: MkLinux, Red Hat, CentOS, Ubuntu, Debian… before settling on CentOS and Ubuntu. Ever since, I keep busy managing my Linux Virtual Private Server (VPS) which hosts a fairly complex array of services,  languages, utilities, applications, front-end frameworks (Bootstrap, Foundation), the Drupal, WordPress and Joomla Content Management Systems, etc. The VPS runs in full compliance with rules, regulations and Best Practices for efficiency, availability, productivity and security. It delivers rich content on each of my ten websites, which, together, make up my webAfriqa Portal. Still freely accessible —since 1997—, the sites offer quality online library collections and public services: history, anthropology, economy, literature, the arts, political science, health sciences, diplomacy, human rights, Information Technology, general topics, blogging, etc. They are searchable with the integrated Google Custom Search Engine.
Obviously, with the mobile devices onslaught, websites can double up as apps. However, beyond responsive web design stand  Web 3.0 era aka of the Semantic Web. Hence the raison d’être of the Semantic Africa project. It is yet a parked site. Hopefully, though, it will  evolve into an infrastructure capable of mining and processing Big Data and Very Large  African Databases (MySQL, MongoDB), with advanced indexing and sophisticated search features (Solr, Elasticsearch). The ultimate goal is to build networks of knowledge distribution aimed at fostering a fuller understanding of the African Experience, at home and abroad, from the dawn of humankind to today.
Needless to say, such an endeavor remains a tall order. Worse,  an impossible dream! For the roadblocks stand tall; chief among them are the predicaments of under-development (illiteracy, schooling, training, health care, food production, water supply, manufacturing, etc.), compounded by the self-inflicted wounds and crippling “technological somnanbulism” of African rulers and “elites.”

Looking back at the 2014 USA-Africa Summit in Washington, DC, I will publish additional articles about the continent’s economic and technical situation and prospects. One such paper is called “Obama and Takunda:  a tale of digital Africa,” another is named  “African telecommunications revolution: hype and reality.”

For decades now, proprietary and Open Source software have been competing head to head around the world for mind and market share. I wonder, though, to what extent African countries seek to leverage this rivalry. Are they implementing policies and spending resources toward balancing commercial applications with free software? Are they riding the Linux wave ? Or are they, instead, bucking the trend? To be determined!
Anyway, I share here Paul Venezia’s piece “Linux at 25: How Linux changed the world,” published today in InfoWorld. The author is profiled as “A devoted practitioner (who) offers an eyewitness account of the rise of Linux and the Open Source movement, plus analysis of where Linux is taking us now.”
Read also “A Salute To Shannon
Tierno S. Bah

Linux at 25:
How Linux changed the world

I walked into an apartment in Boston on a sunny day in June 1995. It was small and bohemian, with the normal detritus a pair of young men would scatter here and there. On the kitchen table was a 15-inch CRT display married to a fat, coverless PC case sitting on its side, network cables streaking back to a hub in the living room. The screen displayed a mess of data, the contents of some logfile, and sitting at the bottom was a Bash root prompt decorated in red and blue, the cursor blinking lazily.

I was no stranger to Unix, having spent plenty of time on commercial Unix systems like OSF/1, HP-UX, SunOS, and the newly christened Sun Solaris. But this was different.

The system on the counter was actually a server, delivering file storage and DNS, as well as web serving to the internet through a dial-up PPP connection — and to the half-dozen other systems scattered around the apartment. In front of most of them were kids, late teens to early 20s, caught up in a maze of activity around the operating system running on the kitchen server.

Those enterprising youths were actively developing code for the Linux kernel and the GNU userspace utilities that surrounded it. At that time, this scene could be found in cities and towns all over the world, where computer science students and those with a deep interest in computing were playing with an incredible new toy: a free “Unix” operating system. It was only a few years old and growing every day. It may not have been clear at the time, but these groups were rebuilding the world.

A kernel’s fertile ground

This was a pregnant time in the history of computing. In 1993, the lawsuit by Bell Labs’ Unix System Laboratories against BSDi over copyright infringement was settled out of court, clearing the way for open source BSD variants such as FreeBSD to emerge and inspire the tech community.

The timing of that settlement turned out to be crucial. In 1991, a Finnish university student named Linus Torvalds had begun working on his personal kernel development project. Torvalds himself has said, had BSD been freely available at the time, he would probably never have embarked on his project.

Yet when BSD found its legal footing, Linux was already on its way, embraced by the types of minds that would help turn it into the operating system that would eventually run most of the world.

The pace of development picked up quickly. Userspace utilities from the GNU operating collected around the Linux kernel, forming what most would call “Linux,” much to the chagrin of the GNU founder Richard Stallman. At first, Linux was the domain of hobbyists and idealists. Then the supercomputing community began taking it seriously and contributions ramped up further.

By 1999, this “hobby” operating system was making inroads in major corporations, including large banking institutions, and began whittling away at the entrenched players that held overwhelming sway. Large companies that paid enormous sums to major enterprise hardware and operating system vendors such as Sun Microsystems, IBM, and DEC were now hiring gifted developers, system engineers, and system architects who had spent the last several years of their lives working with freely available Linux distributions.

After major performance victories and cost savings were demonstrated to management, that whittling became a chainsaw’s cut. In a few short years, Linux was driving out commercial Unix vendors from thousands of entrenched customers. The stampede had begun— and it’s still underway.

Adaptability at the core

A common misconception about Linux persists to this day: that Linux is a complete operating system. Linux, strictly defined, is the Linux kernel. The producer of a given Linux distribution — be it Red Hat, Ubuntu, or another Linux vendor — defines the remainder of the operating system around that kernel and makes it whole. Each distribution has its own idiosyncrasies, preferring certain methods over others for common tasks such as managing services, file paths, and configuration tools.

This elasticity explains why Linux has become so pervasive across so many different facets of computing: A Linux system can be as large or as small as needed. Adaptations of the Linux kernel can drive a supercomputer or a watch, a laptop or a network switch. As a result, Linux has become the de facto OS for mobile and embedded products while also underpinning the majority of internet services and platforms.

To grow in these ways, Linux needed not only to sustain the interest of the best software developers on the planet, but also to create an ecosystem that demanded reciprocal source code sharing. The Linux kernel was released under the GNU Public License, version 2 (GPLv2), which stated that the code could be used freely, but any modifications to the code (or use of the source code itself in other projects) required that the resulting source code be made publicly available. In other words, anyone was free to use the Linux kernel (and the GNU tools, also licensed under the GPL) as long as they contributed the resulting efforts back to those projects.

This created a vibrant development ecosystem that let Linux grow by leaps and bounds, as a loose network of developers began molding Linux to suit their needs and shared the fruit of their labor. If the kernel didn’t support a specific piece of hardware, a developer could write a device driver and share it with the community, allowing everyone to benefit. If another developer discovered a performance issue with a scheduler on a certain workload, they could fix it and contribute that fix back to the project. Linux was a project jointly developed by thousands of volunteers.

Changing the game

That method of development stood established practices on their ear. Commercial enterprise OS vendors dismissed Linux as a toy, a fad, a joke. After all, they had the best developers working on operating systems that were often tied to hardware, and they were raking in cash from companies that relied on the stability of their core servers. The name of the game at that time was highly reliable, stable, and expensive proprietary hardware and server software, coupled with expensive but very responsive support contracts.

To those running the commercial Unix cathedrals of Sun, DEC, IBM, and others, the notion of distributing source code to those operating systems, or that enterprise workloads could be handled on commodity hardware, was unfathomable. It simply wasn’t done — until companies like Red Hat and Suse began to flourish. Those upstarts offered the missing ingredient that many customers and vendors required: a commercially supported Linux distribution.

The decision to embrace Linux at the corporate level was made not because it was free, but because it now had a cost and could be purchased for significantly less — and the hardware was significantly cheaper, too. When you tell a large financial institution that it can reduce its server expenses by more than 50 percent while maintaining or exceeding current performance and reliability, you have their full attention.

Add the rampant success of Linux as a foundation for websites, and the Linux ecosystem grew even further. The past 10 years have seen heavy Linux adoption at every level of computing, and importantly, Linux has carried the open source story with it, serving as an icebreaker for thousands of other open source projects that would have failed to gain legitimacy on their own.

The tale of Linux is more than the success of an open kernel and an operating system. It’s equally as important to understand that much of the software and services we rely on directly or indirectly every day exist only due to Linux’s clear demonstration of the reliability and sustainability of open development methods.

Anyone who fought through the days when Linux was unmentionable and open source was a threat to corporate management knows how difficult that journey has been. From web servers to databases to programming languages, the turnabout in this thinking has changed the world, stem to stern.

Open source code is long past the pariah phase. It has proven crucial to the advancement of technology in every way.

The next 25 years

While the first 15 years of Linux were busy, the last 10 have been busier still. The success of the Android mobile platform brought Linux to more than a billion devices. It seems every nook and cranny of digital life runs a Linux kernel these days, from refrigerators to televisions to thermostats to the International Space Station.

That’s not to say that Linux has conquered everything … yet.

Though you’ll find Linux in nearly every organization in one form or another, Windows servers persist in most companies, and Windows still has the lion’s share of the corporate and personal desktop market.

In the short term, that’s not changing. Some thought Linux would have won the desktop by now, but it’s still a niche player, and the desktop and laptop market will continue to be dominated by the goliath of Microsoft and the elegance of Apple, modest inroads by the Linux-based Chromebook notwithstanding.

The road to mainstream Linux desktop adoption presents serious obstacles, but given Linux’s remarkable resilience over the years, it would be foolish to bet against the OS over the long haul.

I say that even though various issues and schisms regularly arise in the Linux community — and not only on the desktop. The brouhaha surrounding systemd is one example, as are the battles over the Mir, Wayland, and ancient X11 display servers. The predilection of some distributions to abstract away too much of the underlying operating system in the name of user-friendliness has rankled more than a few Linux users. Fortunately, Linux is what you make of it, and the different approaches taken by various Linux distributions tend to appeal to different user types.

That freedom is a double-edged sword. Poor technological and functional decisions have doomed more than one company in the past, as they’ve taken a popular desktop or server product in a direction that ultimately alienated users and led to the rise of competitors.

If a Linux distribution makes a few poor choices and loses ground, other distributions will take a different approach and flourish. Linux distributions are not tied directly to Linux kernel development, so they come and go without affecting the core component of a Linux operating system. The kernel itself is mostly immune to bad decisions made at the distribution level.

That has been the trend over the past 25 years — from bare metal to virtual servers, from cloud instances to mobile devices, Linux adapts to fit the needs of them all. The success of the Linux kernel and the development model that sustains it is undeniable. It will endure through the rise and fall of empires.

Paul Venezia
Paul Venezia

The next 25 years should be every bit as interesting as the first.

Paul Venezia

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