The cultural policy of the PDG

“Such regimes of the family sort seem to go back to the old laws of inbreeding, and not anger but shame is felt when we are faced with such stupidity, such an imposture, such an intellectual and spiritual poverty.” (Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth)

The following is a review of the situation of library and information science, of precolonial Ajami literature and oral tradition under the regime of the Parti Démocratique de Guinée, referred to hereafter as the PDG. The emphasis on the Party stems from historical circumstances. The PDG won the 1956 elections by a landslide and gained an overwhelming majority (57 of the 60 seats) in the Territorial Assembly. Under the provision of the Loi-Cadre, adopted by Paris to enforce semi-autonomy in the sub-Saharan French colonies, it was consequently called on to form the Government. After the proclamation of independence in October 1958, the PDG went on to establish an unchallenged supremacy over the legislative, judiciary and executive branches of the State. As suggested, I identify here three domains. The first two, the urban and the Ajami domains, are relevant to library and information science in Guinea; the third, the oral domain, pertains to the broader realm of cultural policy.

  1. The ‘urban’ culture resulted from early contacts with Europe and the subsequent colonial domination. It encompasses a wide range of communicative skills in French, mainly in the administrative, professional, technical, educational and diplomatic sectors. Under the PDG rule, import and distribution restrictions severely affected the circulation of printed information. Moreover, the primacy of ideology and politics seriously hampered scientific, intellectual and artistic endeavors. Thus not only was education hard hit by the regime’s chaotic policy, but learned activities and technical skills, which together support teaching, recorded a tremendous setback. At the demise of the PDG regime, in April 1984, the country had only one library, squeezed in the wing of an office building which was not designed for intensive public access. The previous facility had been vacated to house the ministry of information. Besides the national library, the other facility was at the Institut Polytechnique Gamal Abdel Nasser (IPGAN) of Conakry. It was open to students, faculty and staff. However, that library was in even worse shape. For with the exception of occasional and symbolic donations by diplomatic missions, the University library did not receive any addition to its stacks from 1970 to 1981. It lacked an acquisition policy: purchase, subscriptions, exchange agreements. At the time of my appointment as director of the IPGAN library and during my short term (1981-1982), I could witness, helpless, the extent of the degradation of Guinea’s information and library resources. Finally, a smaller collection was kept at the Ecole des Cadres du Parti. It consisted of a roomful of political and literary books in French. But its access was even more restricted. At the same time, Guinea was boasting one of the highest school graduation ratios in Africa. Thus the University, or Centre d’Education Revolutionnaire (CER) du 4è Cycle, in the official jargon, counted more than 30 departments of agriculture, botany, zoology, etc. These stunted institutions remained in a total denudement with respect to teaching and research equipment. The school system did not provide students and instructors with the minimum documentation and research tools. As a result, the education received by two or three generations of Guineans remains questionable. Faculty and students lacked reading material while Guinea possessed the P. Lumumba printing plant, probably the largest in West Africa. Equipped with a complete if not state-of-the-art East German technology, the plant ran way below its installed capacity. But nothing mattered as long as it managed to publish Horoya, the official newspaper and the literature of the Party: essentially the writings (more than 25 volumes, two collections of poems) and lengthy speeches written by Ahmed Sekou Toure, the Supreme leader of the Revolution. Meanwhile, mismanagement, lack of incentives in training, promotion, salaries, stretched employees apathy to extremes. Plant workers’ indifference was lifted only when they could carry out side orders (business and invitation cards) to make ends meet. The situation at the National Archives was identical. The building — formerly a leprosy sanatorium located on the seashore — had no ventilation, no air conditioning. Invaluable documents were either mutilated, removed or let to decay in the humidity of the oceanic climate. Elsewhere, in the respective sites of local government in the hinterland, documents were subject to the same fate. In Labe, for instance, papers of historical importance piled up on the floor instead of being filed. In 25 years of rule, the PDG regime did not show any concern for the collection and the preservation of the country’s history. For instance, collections relating to Guinea’s colonial past, such as the Fonds Gilbert Vieillard at IFAN (Dakar) were ignored. In the same way, history unfolding under the revolution was poorly or not recorded at all.
  2. The Ajami domain. Despite its prevalence, the literature in Roman alphabet is not the only form of written communication in Guinea. Quite on the contrary, Guinea has had an extensive Ajami literature, dating from the precolonial era. Mainly written in Pular using a customized Arabic alphabet, the Ajami counts masterpieces, such as Tierno M. Samba Mombeya’s pioneering work, which now belongs to the universal literary domain. Embedded in tradition, this literature has greatly contributed to Islamic culture, by and large. Its authors use their thorough knowledge of classical Arabic to emulate its poetic system and authoring techniques. Takhmis is one of these techniques; it has to do with inserting new verses in another writer’s poem without disturbing the fundamental pattern(s): alliteration, rhyme, musicality, rhythm, etc. The addition of three lines to the previous binary rhymes yields five-verse stanzas, also rhymed. The Ajami provides the framework for a creative spirituality expressed in various aspects of theology and philosophy. Finally, it is conducive to an ethnography of speaking (sermons: waaju, chant: jaaroore, psalms: beyti, recitations: hunjo) and to an ethnography of writing (calligraphy: bindi nhardhinaaɗi, talismanic: talki, etc.) Today, although Alfa Ibrahim Sow, et al. have edited an important Pular Ajami collection in Paris, in Guinea, handwritten Ajami works continue to be scattered in rural private collections of Muslim scholars. Evidently, the PDG regime did not perceive the relevance of Ajami to the national heritage. In the same regard, the Nko (Maninka) graphic system developed by Suleymane Kante and the Kpelewo-Lomaghoy scriptures of the Forest, received only a short-lived official interest on the eve of the World, African, and Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in 1977, in Lagos (Nigeria).
    The ‘urban’ and Ajami domains reflect each the nature of the dominant culture, i.e., the colonial state (1896-1958) and the precolonial Islamic hegemonies, for instance, the Fuuta Jaloo Islamic theocracy (1725-1896). They must be distinguished from oral popular culture per se.
  3. The oral domain and the PDG’s cultural policy. Last but not least, orality and verbal art represent the bulk of Guinea’s cultural life. Yet, despite the availability of modern recording technology, they received no support. The State radio, the University, the National library, and the Party’s institutions failed to give orality the adequate and neccessary attention it deserves. Consequently, the land of Farba Mamma Niang, Farba Tuura Seck, Bakary Cissoko, Facely Kante, and many other brilliant carriers/performers, Guinea, today, has no consistent records on the life and contribution of these and other great minds and talents. Furthermore, there was no effort to enhance the diverse genres of popular art and knowledge. No center, institute or otherwise funded body for the endowment of traditional art was created. Yet valorization of African culture is still considered by some as a tangible achievement of the revolutionary regime. Such an opinion can only be based on a superficial evaluation of the PDG’s views and praxis regarding traditional society. The fact is that the PDG failed to build a lasting legacy, domestically as well as externally.

PDG’s domestic cultural policy

Popular art was selectively enlisted in the ideological propaganda aimed at strengthening the nation-building process. Slogans such as “la creation d’un homme nouveau” asserted the necessity to eradicate colonial mentality. To convey its message the Government encouraged the creation of an official art: songs, dance, poetry, and painting. However, by dwelling on the Party’s past achievement, mainly the proclamation of independence from France this art only materialized Fanon’s foresightful analysis regarding “the baleful influence” of the Leader. The charisma of the Leader, the panegyric of his genealogy , the celebration of his assumed qualities and virtues, became central themes. Simultaneously, a system was set in motion in the youth organization (JRDA) of the Party: it promoted cultural products only if they conformed to the official esthetic doctrine. The Party codified artistic expression and regulated freedom of association. It scheduled cultural festivals, distributed themes, awarded or banned productions, rewarded or castigated artists and their local sponsors. In the course of this authoritative policy, official festivals offered the only legitimate opportunity for voicing social critique while avoiding a zealous censorhip. For instance, drama pieces denounced bureaucratic corruption, abuse of authority, false women’s liberation, etc. In 1983, the drama “A qui la faute ?” expressed a widespread sentiment of failure and waste (of energy, time and human life) when it asked the bitter question “Who bears the culprit?” The theater group of Mamou staged the play. [This may not come as a surprise insofar as the town of Mamou, located in Central Guinea, hosted in the early 1960s an important left-wing faction. The National Political Bureau moved swiftly to disband it. Nonetheless, in the following years Mamou deservedly claimed the title of cultural capital of Guinea for its remarkable contributions to the success of the Party’s festivals.] Not surprisingly, the script of the drama A qui la faute ? was never published, although pirate audio-cassettes of the performance were available on the market. Several other drama pieces addressed burning social issues. But, with the exception of erratic radio re-plays, they all had a life cycle limited to the duration of the Festival itself. La Cinquieme Bis (which I co-edited in 1977) was the only printed version of these products of popular dramaturgy, which indeed document aspects of life under the PDG. The play La Cinquieme Bis depicts the fate of a high-school girl whose education was undermined after she became pregnant from a State company executive, who seduced her with embezzled money, gifts, frivolous parties and a deceitful promise of marriage.

PDG’s external cultural policy

The government of the PDG used a few cultural organizations (Ballets Africains, Ballet Joliba, National Bands) as ostentatious window displays. Featuring talented artists, these institutions earned admiration in Africa. They brought recognition to the regime from delighted audiences around the globe. Their performances heightened the stays of visiting dignitaries. However, the deserved success of these groups should be seen as the exception rather than the rule in the revolutionary regime’ s policy toward traditional culture. Such a success served as a smokescreen for an opportunistic and shallow policy. For Guinea’s brief triumph in music and the performing arts was rooted in the early nationalization of the Ballets Africains (1959) of Keita Fodeba and of the Balla and Keletigui (1961) bands, all founded in the mid-1950s. Subsequently, under the watchful patronage of the Party the performing arts blossomed during a short decade (1960-1970). Adversely, this development created an imbalance, as the material (craftsmanship) and verbal (speech art) lore, traditional sports and games, etc. were neglected. Anyway, a reputation of Guinea as a heaven for African music emerged. It peaked in 1968 when the Bembeya Jazz led by Demba Camara performed its milestone concert Regards sur le Passe: a tribute to Samory Toure, who fought French military expansion. The Bembeya and later the Horoya Band were promoted Orchestres Nationaux. Both bands relocated from their hometowns (Beyla and Kankan) to Conakry. Again, all these bands casted members with impressive credentials and solid mastery of their instruments. For instance, they included young Jeli (Griots) who blended admirably traditional and modern techniques. These individuals turned to oral tradition for ‘new’ material they arranged to suit their style and satisfy their listeners. Guinea’s musical reputation lingered well into the 1970’s, until at least the memorable FESTAC ‘77, where the Ballet Joliba merged with the Ballets Africains in outstanding choreographic shows. Also, on the opening day of the Festival the Nigerian Federal Government hosted a dinner for attending Heads of State and chiefs of delegations. The ceremony was enlivened with live cora music and medieval Mande songs performed by Sory Kandia Kouyate. This Jeli genius grew up as a court poet in the Fuuta Jaloo. He rose to international fame as a stage mezzo-soprano.

Back inGuinea, when television began broadcasting the same year, the Information ministry scheduled Kandia and his Ensemble as the main attraction during the trial phase. However, displaying incredible shortsightedness, the authorities failed to adequately supply the production services with blank videotape to record, duplicate and archive the shows. Instead, they resorted to filming new performances over previous ones, thereby permanently erasing precious artistic material. Consequently, when Kandia died prematurely a few months later, in December 1977, they were left with only a couple of shows. Kandia’s death somehow hastened Guinea’s decline on the African music scene. Sekou Toure, himself, officially acknowledged the setback in the inaugural speech of the 1978 Congress of the Party. In the same regard, when the Ministry of Information stalled the construction of a recording studio, it probably spoiled a chance to reinvigorate a withering official music. The project was cancelled after the director of the state-owned records distribution company fled to Ivory Coast. He allegedly took with him a collection of master recordings. Nobody officially assessed the damage. Whether it was serious remains doubtful given the pace and the nature of the records production program, which depended on scarce contracts with foreign companies. As a matter of fact, the few albums released under the revolutionary regime were those of modern bands. The bureaucracy consistently shunned traditional art (epics, legends, tales, story-telling, etc.), who was only distributed on the radio. It is not clear whether this discrimination was based on elitism or on the assumption that the modern audience had more buying power and thus constituted a viable market. The fact is that the ministry of information treated even the most noted troubadours (Fode Conte, Hamidou Balde aka Bonnere, Moussa Fode, etc.) like second-class artists

Nota bene. After 1970, Senainon Behanzin was appointed Minister of Information and Ideology. This mathematician received Jesuit education, eluded priesthood and claimed to be Marxist. In fact, Behanzin personifies the uprooted African intellectual. As the intellectual adviser to the President he was (with Mamadi Keita, an intellectual nonentity) the official ideologue of the Party. In that capacity he masterminded the cultural policy and the drastic reforms of the education system. Endowed with a photographic memory, Behanzin knew more about Europe’s traditions of scholarship that about Guinea’s people, their history and customs. Highly proficient in French he never sought to achieve competence in a Guinean language. He therefore lacked both knowledge and comprehension of a country his policies affected so dramatically. In 1985, Behanzin was freed from detention and repatriated to the Republic of Benin without further explanations from the current ruling body, the Comité Militaire de Redressement National.
In any case, by the mid-1970s Guinea had fallen under a strife-ridden family dictatorship. The nation building process became less relevant than the ambitions of a kin-based political coterie, anxious to perpetuate its power. Consequently, the extent to which the State sponsored musical groups and soccer teams (Hafia Football Club and Sily National) represented Guinea’s cultural diversity is questionable. In the countryside, such a diversity expressed itself during the 1960s. Minorities’ cultural genres, for instance, Kebendo from the Kissi in the South-East, Patyar from the Wamey in the North-West, gained popularity. However, at the State level the major ethnocultural and linguistic traditions gradually become the standard of creativity and success. This applied particularly to Maninka, who prevailed in the repertoire of the national bands and ensembles —and to a lesser degree to Soso and Pular.

In conclusion, it is not possible to summarize in one formula the PDG’s 30 years of contradictory theory and practice on traditional society. Therefore I shall only make four remarks:

  • After the euphoria of independence had faded and during the last two decades of the PDG rule, the nation-building process was stifled in Guinea by contradictions between the ways of life of a multiethnic, multilinguistic peasant (more than 85%) society and the aspirations of a post-colonial elite to ‘modernity’. For instance, the successive literacy campaigns ended in an impasse, not because workers and peasants did not want to learn but because they could not link literacy to the betterment of their living conditions and to their cultural background. In fact, they passively withdrew from the campaigns after they realized the futility of mastering literacy in their native tongues. They figured out that despite the Party’s claims to the contrary communicative competence in French remained the key to social mobility.
  • During that period, popular oral tradition faced the PDG’s coercive thrust to create its own ‘revolutionary’ tradition. The latter sought to control, exploit and/or suppress the former. Control existed in the form of a tight grid applied to the country. This political, economic and administrative mapping was designed to fit the Party’s structure of democratic centralism. Exploitation took the well-know form of folklorism, i.e., a situation in which the dominant ideology legitimizes the reification and the use by the State of selected aspects tradition and folklore as propaganda tools and internationally marketable items. Suppression was ruthlessly imposed by the PDG leadership, who silenced the small French-schooled intellectual fraction of the capital, snubbed traditional knowledge groups, patronized the peasantry, and resorted privately to beliefs and value systems, behavior patterns, cultural objects and symbols it publicly derided and attacked as “irrational” and “backward”.
  • The hegemonic assault on popular culture failed because it met the resistance of the people and because the PDG was ill-equipped to implement its program. It is true that France’s ‘mission civilisatrice’ spelled domination, exploitation and alienation for her colonies. But again, the singularity of the Guinean case is that instead of building on the meager colonial infrastructure the PDG plunged the country to a critical level of mass deprivation and hardship. It created a repressive environment which shattered a people’s hopes and dreams.
  • A final and optimistic remark though: behind its apparent obedience, oral culture withstood State pressure. It folded but did not break. Today, it provides us with an advantageous platform for study. I submit therefore that it is still possible and urgent to organize the preservation of oral culture by combining conventional fieldwork with the limitless capabilities of digital technology.

Tierno Siradiou Bah
Anthropology Department
The University of Texas at Austin. 1986