William Derman
Serfs, Peasants, and Socialists:
A former Serf Village in the Republic of Guinea

University of California Press. 1968. 280 p.


This study has attempted to describe and analyze two interrelated phenomena: the changing nature of Fulbhe-serf relations during three periods of history – indigenous, colonial, and independent; and the restructuring of the internal organization of a serf village as a result of the abolishment of serfdom. The most important aspect of precolonial Fulbhe-serf relations was economic. Specifically, this took the form of labor obligations of the serfs to their masters, and the exclusive ownership of land – both fields and women’s gardens – by the Fulbhe. The breakdown and ultimate demise of labor obligations was initiated during the colonial period, and has been reinforced by the present state.
Although the emphasis of this study has been the role of the serfs and the transformation of their lives, the Fulbhe society has greatly changed and continues to do so. The same factors that have led to the end of serfdom have also led to the restructuring of Fulbhe society as a whole. No longer is access to political power based on maximal lineages, nor is the wealth of the Fulbhe any longer dependent on the labor of their serfs. It is in the context of the new lines of development of the Fouta-Djallon that both Fulbhe and serfs have been characterized as peasants.
Certain land relations between Fulbhe and former serf continue, however, deriving their form in part from the earlier pattern of organization. Most significantly, former serfs still do not own their own fields unless they were bought during the colonial era.
Even those who do own land usually borrow fields during the years their own must lie fallow. It thus continues to be normal behavior for former serfs to borrow land from the Fulbhe.
In general, former serfs now may borrow land from any land proprietor, irrespective of whether he is their former master. However, in a crisis such as the one during my last year in the village, former masters can be asked for assistance in obtaining land, and such a request still creates an obligation for the master to which other Fulbhe would not respond. A former serf woman is especially likely to seek such help, because she usually retains much closer ties to her former master than does her husband. This is because of the traditional way in which serfs were inherited; the owner of the woman inherited her children. Thus a former master is still likely to accept the request of a woman that he help her obtain the means to feed her children.
The farilla, the traditional ten-percent payment of the field crop, is taking on a significance more economic than religious and political. Although giving the farilla was and is obligatory for Fulbhe and serfs, there are no specific rules with regard to how a person should dispose of the farilla he receives. The political significance of a Fulbhe’s freedom in choosing to whom to give the farilla should be underlined. In contrast, the serf’s obligation to give the farilla to a particular individual validated his subordinate status. The Fulbhe, in general, used the farilla to demonstrate their greater religiosity, in accord with their belief that eating the farilla they received jeopardized the possibility of having many descendants, and that eating the farilla of their own fields was to risk going straight to Hell.
With the termination of labor obligations the farilla has taken on a much greater economic importance. Land-rich Fulbhe are now more likely to use the farilla they receive to feed their families or to build up cattle herds from its sale . Another indication of the growing economic significance of individual land proprietorship is the stretching of the meaning of farilla, by asking for money from a former serf who wants to borrow land, in addition to ten percent of the harvest. Although this practice is still quite limited, it is possible it will spread in those areas where cultivable land is most scarce.
Ownership of the fields has retained much of its earlier form, but this is not true for the compound. Through a combination of the notion of usufruct and the ideology of the Guinean state that the land where a man lives belongs to him, the former serfs now regard the land on which they live and which their wives cultivate as their own. Whereas traditionally farilla on the corn harvest was demanded by the proprietor of the compound land, he can no longer expect it as a matter of course. Both Fulbhe and former serfs are cognizant of the changing situation, but both exaggerate it. The Fulbhe say they no longer receive anything from their former serfs. (This particular statement was made at the same time that one of the former serfs of the informant was bringing his farilla.) The former serfs claim that the Fulbhe own all the land. The Fulbhe’s estimation of the present situation is inaccurate but may very well indicate the direction in which land tenure is evolving. The former serfs seem to be expressing grievances about their lack of full land proprietorship.
In the countryside the former serfs continue to carry out many of the same tasks that they performed when they were still serfs. Whereas in the past these labor services were rendered to the Fulbhe without any payment, former serfs are now quite aware that they no longer have to work for the Fulbhe except for money at relatively fixed rates. The only exception to this is « work » done in a ceremonial context.
The traditional division of craft specialties persists, but most goods and services are exchanged for money. Both Fulbhe and former serfs are engaged in the new occupations – as

  • tailors (at first primarily Fulbhe but now increasingly former serfs)
  • butchers (more likely to be former serfs),
  • merchants
  • transporters.

State supported professions such as teaching and nursing tend to be dominated by Fulbhe: this came about mainly during the colonial period and is now being rectified. Earlier differences in status are no longer of key importance within the new occupations and professions as the demands of making a living override social distinctions. Thus, within the area of Popodara kerosene merchants cooperated with each other during times of scarcity regardless of their origin.
The former serfs’ acquisition of economic independence is nowhere more clearly marked than in the area of inheritance. Formerly a master had rights to almost all of his serf’s property upon the serf’s death. Although there was a great deal of variation depending on both region and an individual’s relation to his master, it seems clear that this practice did not end entirely until independence. The property of former serfs is now inherited according to Islamic law, which is carried out by the major lineage of the dead person. This has further reinforced kin relationships among the serfs, giving kin groups functions and importance they lacked previously.
We have noted earlier the importance of money and the market in transforming the economic status of the former serf population. This process took place during the colonial era. The result has been that buying and selling in the market place in no way reflects the former status of serfs or Fulbhe. Rather, one now finds Fulbhe and former serfs competing on equal terms. Further, the national and regional authorities, in their dealings with the population, do not recognize the older distinctions.
In sum, Fulbhe economic domination of their former serfs has ended, with the exception that very few former serfs own land. However, the problem of landlessness does not concern only former serfs. Cultivable land is becoming more difficult to find because of an increase in population, and an absence of change in agricultural techniques. In the area around Hollaande finding cultivable land was becoming a problem for all segments of the population, and there were several Fulbhe who, because of the exhaustion of some of their fields, had to borrow land from nonkinsmen . Nevertheless, the generalization that former serfs remain a landless group is true, and this fact perpetuates some of the aspects of their former subordinate status
Dramatic changes have occurred in the political domain. Under the reign of the Fulbhe chiefs prior to French colonial rule, serf villages were atomized because the ties of the serfs led outward, toward the various villages of their masters. The political realm centered around the mosque and the chief. Denied access to chieftainship and the offices of the mosque, the serfs retained responsibility for only minor affairs of their village.
Under colonial rule villages became relatively more important as a result of the various kinds of conscription imposed by the French. The French never considered making use of the social organization of the Fulbhe in their administration; rather, they insisted on using villages even though these were not the functioning political units. In each serf village a manga was appointed by the chef de canton whose responsibilities were to see that the orders of the chef de canton and French administrators were carried out. In turn he was freed from any labor obligations to the French. The manga became both internally and externally the head of the village.
Since independence the political relations between Fulbhe and former serfs have been transformed. This transformation has two aspects:

  • first, with the end of colonial rule there now exists political equality of all citizens by state law
  • second, the former serf villages now have control over their internal affairs.

Both of these aspects are reflected in a new political institution, the committee, which is the main political unit of the Guinean state. The committee system has provided the village with the opportunity to elect officials of their own choosing to deal with their affairs. The committee has also replaced the mosque as the key local political institution.
New attitudes toward the problem posed by traditional political status differences between Fulbhe and former serfs are highlighted by an event that occurred during the yearly « renewal » of the committee. It was necessary to vote for a new president. There was a sharp dispute within the committee provoked by the Fulbhe, who wanted a Fulbhe to replace the president, a former serf. A letter was sent to the regional authorities stating that the former serfs were interested only in having one of their own become president. In stating the Fulbhe position, the writer cited his lineage and village as part of his identity. The response of the officials was that those who use gorol (patrilineage), lenyol (maximal lineage), and hodho (village) were « racists. » The writer of the letter was removed from the ten-member executive of the committee by the political officials in charge of the renewal, and another from his village was selected in his place.
It is true that in the eyes of the regional and national authorities earlier status is no longer of any importance, but it remains of some importance in the interrelations of villages and committees. To a great extent this is due to the persistence of Islam and the control of the mosque and its affairs by the Fulbhe. To a lesser extent it is due to the difference in access to power between the Fulbhe and former serfs during the colonial period, which remains of some importance in the countryside.
The political freeing of the serf villages has been the precondition for a restructuring of the social organization of the runde. The greatest social changes have not created new institutions so much as they have given former serfs greater autonomy and control over their lives. The serfs did not have functioning maximal patrilineages, but were said to belong to their masters’ maximal patrilineages. The serfs’ major patrilineages lacked generational depth in comparison to those of the Fulbhe. The only category of serfs to know an ancestor more than seven generations back were the indigenous (ndima) serfs.
Today a myth of genealogical common ancestry has been developing. With the end of Fulbhe domination and interposition the serfs have been freer to create and sustain their own myths of ancestry. These myths have primarily taken the form of demonstrating that their ancestors were indigenous to the area, and that they were neither war captives nor brought as serfs from other areas It should be noted that these new genealogical myths will not serve the former serfs as the Fulbhe myths served them, because political leadership, authority, and social status are no longer obtained primarily through descent. The myths serve instead to provide a new ideological charter for the new statuses of former serfs, a charter that masks their serf origins. There are two major patrilineages in the Hollaande, neither one of which has a « real » genealogical basis, i.e., a common ancestor for all or most of the members. However, through genealogical fictions there is a greater appearance of genealogical closeness than the village members themselves know to be true. Within two generations the new members might not be cognizant that the genealogical myths are « fictions. »
We have also seen that one of the major functions of the major patrilineage in a Fulbhe village is to regulate the marriage of its members. The Fulbhe formerly had an important voice in the selection of the marriage partners of their serfs. The interest of the Fulbhe in having their own serfs intermarry is clear: to insure the proper marriage partner for female serfs, and to maintain their serfs’ close proximity for purposes of work. The Fulbhe also received a considerable part of the bridewealth from the patrilineage of the groom. The virtual removal of the Fulbhe from any decision-making in the choice of marriage partners for former serfs has strengthened the role of the major patrilineages among former serfs. Currently the patrilineage of a man is responsible both for the selection of an appropriate spouse and the wedding arrangements.
The present independence of the serfs from Fulbhe control over their marriages can also be observed in the current infrequency of intermarriage between the two groups. At present there are only two former serf women from Hollaande who are married to Fulbhe men. The reasons for the decline bear repeating. Formerly, no advantages from intermarriage accrued to the serfs. They did not want their daughters to marry Fulbhe because it meant, in essence, losing their grandchildren. When Fulbhe-serf marriage did take place, they received only minimal consent or no consent at all from the serf parents. The earlier advantages to the Fulbhe of marrying a serf – little or no bridewealth, minimal kin obligations, and the political reasons for which the chiefly lineages chose to marry their serfs – have all come to an end.
There is now virtually no intermarriage between Fulbhe men and former serf women in the countryside. In the towns and cities, however, former serfs who have obtained great wealth attempt to marry Fulbhe women. There were two individuals from Hollaande who had married Fulbhe women. They lived in cities, and did not expect to return to the village. Fulbhe men commonly took serf women as lovers and concubines. The former practice continues, but concubinage no longer exists. In a revealing reversal, former serf men now very often attempt to find their lovers among Fulbhe women and taunt Fulbhe men by saying that they take only Fulbhe women as their lovers.
Since my departure from Guinea there have been further changes in the status of women. These changes reached their culmination in the first national congress of Guinean women held on January 28, 1968. At this congress decisions were made

  • to end the practice of polygamy
  • to limit the reasons for divorce
  • to increase the literacy of all women, and
  • to increase and expand further the role and importance of women in the P.D.G.

Unfortunately, I do not have any indication as to how the women or men of Hollaande responded to these dramatic changes in national law and policy. I am, however, skeptical about their immediate application in villages such as Hollaande. But as guides for the future, and for raising the hopes of women, such actions are of great importance, even though they will probably not affect Fulbhe-former serf patterns of intermarriage.
When we turned to a consideration of ideology and religion, we reviewed many practices and beliefs that were part of traditional Fulbhe society but that continue after its end. The continuing Fulbhe predominance in the area of religion and ceremonies partakes more of the earlier organization of the Fouta than the other areas of life already described. This predominance continues despite the efforts of the government to end all such ideological distinctions rooted in the precolonial past.
Until the independence of Guinea, education of Fulbhe children was coterminous with learning the Koran. Serfs and former serf children until recently were systematically denied such education. Ninety-five percent of the boys in Hollaande now go to Koranic school, and of the four boys circumcised during the period 1966 to 1967 all had read the Koran completely. Even when the parents are not particularly religious, they insist that their children have the Koranic education they did not have when they were children. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the children of former serfs still go to Fulbhe teachers.
Not only the children have increasing access to Koranic education. Following the end of some of the labor obligations after World War I and the beginning of the commercialization of the Fulbhe economy, former serfs with a religious bent could, if they had time and financial means, pursue higher Islamic studies. Some Fulbhe tiernos became amenable to teaching former serfs. Former serfs who obtained financial means through military service in the French army were particularly able to begin the study of the Koran and its translation into Fulfulde
A few former serfs have obtained the title of tierno and serve within their own villages as muezzins, but they do not assume such positions of leadership at the mosque or when in a mixed gathering of Fulbhe and former serfs. The Fulbhe are quite conscious of the change of status of their former serfs, but retain their Islamic « right » to dominate in sacred matters. They express this in a statement they believe comes from Islam; namely, that neither serfs nor their descendants can lead free men in prayer.
Former serfs have had one option by which to escape from this form of ideological domination by their former masters. A few former serf villages (not in the immediate area of Hollaande, however) have constructed their own mosques and have provided their own almamy and elders. Whether this practice will spread I do not know.
The ideological predominance of the Fulbhe over their former serfs also remains significant in life cycle ceremonies. The Fulbhe still play a crucial role in the naming ceremony of a new-born child, circumcision, marriage, and death. In these situations in which the Fulbhe interpose themselves between former serfs and Allah, the dominance of the Fulbhe reflects their superior religious status.
In the precolonial society serfs, denied religious instruction under the political domination of the Fulbhe and augmented in number through the continuing influx of new captives from the east, were regarded by the Fulbhe as ignorant in the ways of Islam. However, they were practicing Muslims. With the change in political rule from the Fulbhe to the French, the serfs began to look for means to change their status, but within their existing ideological system. Therefore, as the serfs found their social status improving they became better practitioners of Islam. While it is theoretically possible to ask why the serfs did not adopt the Catholicism of the French the answer is not difficult to find. Catholicism was not acceptable due to three factors:

  • the exploitative role of the French
  • the difficulty, if not impossibility, of living in one’s natal village as an adult without being at least a nominally practicing Muslim
  • and the traditional integration of the serfs into the general Fulbhe way of life.

The former serfs’ efforts to become more religious Muslims is nowhere more marked than in their changing attitudes toward sorcery. Sorcerers are still believed to exist, and most individuals, including the religious leaders, believe they will exist until the end of the earth. However, according to both Fulbhe and former serf informants, there is a decline in the practice of sorcery in former serf villages. This is expressed in terms of numbers, that there are now fewer sorcerers than there used to be. The greater number of children now in the former serf villages is cited as clear evidence of the decreasing activity of the sorcerers.
Women, who receive a minimal religious education, have a belief system different in certain respects from that of the men. Both Fulbhe and former serf women continue to believe more than do men in the existence of sorcerers, and they attribute most deaths, except for those of the very elderly, to their actions. Many Fulbhe informants remarked on the irreligiosity of their wives and spoke disdainfully of their beliefs about sorcerers. While there is no definite answer as to why sorcery has declined, it is clear that it is sex-related, Fulbhe women and former serf women having more in common with each other than they do with their men, and that it is related to the change in the status of the former serf men and their greater concern with Islam.
The continuation of Fulbhe dominance in ideological areas is problematical. The older generation, when questioned on the role of the Fulbhe, maintained traditional attitudes. The former serfs have many phrases for expressing the superiority of the Fulbhe and the belief that their superiority did not come from man but from Allah. For example, they say, « Whoever says a Fulbhe and a serf are equal, it’s true for the blood. But for the law, that which Allah has made, they are not equal. Don’t insult or underestimate a Fulbhe, no matter how poor he may be » The young believe this much less than their elders, but it is difficult to predict how they will act when they become elders for two reasons First, it is hard to predict how youths will behave when they become adults. Second, the government might intervene more directly in peasant practices that do not fit the ideology of Guinea and the P.D.G. For example, national laws have been passed recently regulating the possible age difference between a husband and his wife and outlawing polygyny. If enforced, these laws will produce an even greater social revolution than has yet taken place in the countryside.
The issue of social identity remains a difficult one for the former serfs at this point. In this transition period between an earlier identity and a not-yet-complete national identification, the former serfs literally do not have any clear way of referring to themselves.
The Guinean government has not only abolished the status of serfdom but has declared illegal the terms used for serfs. The terminology of address now used between Fulbhe and former serfs is one reflection of the present changing, although still contradictory, state of social relationships between men of formerly unequal status.
Before and during French colonial rule the serfs were referred to as mattyudho, or kaadho. However, with the de facto and de jure abolishment of serfdom these terms cannot be and are not used (except in certain circumstances). Kin terms are now often employed. This is especially true of the term kaawu (which denotes mother’s brother, a relationship of love and support). Used between Fulbhe and former serfs it expresses a feigned closeness, a feigned genealogical relationship. Although kaawu may be used reciprocally, it is more often than not employed only by the Fulbhe in addressing former serfs. The emotional content is not much different from what Powdermaker describes for the term uncle when used by whites to address blacks in Indianola, Mississippi (1966: 151).
A former serf still refers to the Fulbhe who in former times would have been his master as « my Fulbhe » (pullo an) and to his wife as « my Fulbhe’s wife » (fulamusu). A Pullo (sing.) man is usually addressed by prefacing his name by moodi or modibbo, now roughly equivalent to our mister or sir. Fulbhe do not use these terms with former serfs, nor do the latter use them when addressing one another.
Religious titles are always applied to Fulbhe who achieve them, but only with reluctance to former serfs. There were two former serfs in Hollaande who had obtained the title of tierno, but the Fulbhe in the area referred to them by the lesser title of karamoko; the former serfs employed the full title. Former serfs who served in the French army and who achieved any position at all – usually sergeant or corporal – are referred to by their former army ranks. In the case of those who have achieved the status of karamoko or tierno, it is a slight to call them by their army titles.
The way former serfs refer to themselves is in a state of flux, The traditional term mattyudho is clearly unsatisfactory, and the earlier status differences do not permit the former serfs to refer to themselves as Fulhe . The most frequently employed usage is simply the word for an occupant of a serf village, rundeedyo. The alternative is bhaleedyo (someone who is black), which has a connotation of inferiority when referring to someone of serf ancestry
As one might expect, there are differences in the usage of terms of identity depending on the age of the individual concerned. Older former serfs use mattyudho in describing themselves and their relative position in the world given to them by Allah. They also employ the term as a compliment to younger children who are particularly hard-working, strong, and relatively uneducated, characteristics formerly associated with the serfs. Younger former serfs are ashamed, if not angry, about their background and refer to themselves most often as bhaleedyo. They are searching for an identity independent of the Fulbhe. Older Fulbhe men still use mattyudho, generally in an insulting way, toward former serfs and their children. Younger Fulbhe are embarrassed to employ the term.
The Guinean state has taken the position that within the Republic of Guinea there are no longer any « tribal » differences or status distinctions, but only the Guinean people. The P.D.G. has formulated a detailed and advanced program to eliminate the remnants of traditionalism or colonialism in the new society. The attitude of the Guinean political leaders in the face of invidious distinctions between Fulbhe and former serfs has been to deny them any semblance of legality and to term those who raise them as « racists » or « tribalists. »
An important step taken by the government in the creation of a national identity has been the establishment of schools in the countryside. The Guineans have already developed some of their own textbooks which emphasize Guinean history and culture and the equality of all the peoples of Guinea. Moreover, close supervision is given to the teachers to see that they do not lapse into earlier Fulbhe beliefs about the negative qualities of the former serfs. As more children go to school, many of the attitudes of the Fulbhe about former serfs, and of the former serfs about Fulbhe, should change still further.
The different languages and traditions within the country, however, are given recognition and support. These differences are being used to help create a national identity by means of the current alphabetization program. In this program it is planned that Guineans will learn the other major languages of Guinea aside from their own and French. The major languages of Guinea (Pular, Malinke, Soussou, Guerze, Toma, and Kissi) will have the status of national languages. An alphabet has been developed which is being used to create a literature accessible to everyone in the various national tongues. Other institutions have been created to support the cultural traditions. The best example is the biannual national arts competition in which performers from all over Guinea develop and perform art forms that reflect both their own heritage and their experiences within the new Guinean nation
The forces acting on the Fouta-Djallon as a whole irreversibly changed the basis of the economic wealth and political position of the Fulbhe. This has led to convergence of the formerly stratified society. The termination of legitimate Fulbhe chieftainship and the decline of serfdom during the colonial period weakened the strata differences among the Fulbhe themselves. Thus the earlier social and political distinctions based on descent group and rank have lost most of their significance. With the legal abolition of serfdom and its political and social privileges, the process of convergence of the Fulbhe and former serfs has been accelerated. Further, the introduction of money and markets emmeshed all segments of Fulbhe society in a money economy. Thus a peasantry has been created whose economy remains geared to self-subsistence while it serves as a major supplier of labor
In the ideological sphere a different kind of convergence is taking place. The former serfs are adopting the ideology and life-style of the Fulbhe which were denied to them as serfs. Those features of serf life that epitomized their inferior position, such as sorcery and the lack of Islamic education, are being consciously changed. This is leading to a growing similarity in life-style between the Fulbhe and former serfs.
The Parti Démocratique de Guinée is attempting to create a national identity for all the people of Guinea. This identity is based on the historic role that each people has played and on what each can further contribute to the building of the Guinean nation. At the same time, the common aspirations and goals of all Guineans, as an African nation, are emphasized. As of now it appears that the present trend in the Fouta-Djallon will continue until there is commercialization of agriculture or until the introduction of industry. What will happen in the future depends a great deal on what further economic and ideological changes the Guinean government can bring about in the Fouta-Djallon. In my view, the transformation of peasants into socialists will be far more difficult than the transformation of serfs into peasants or the transformation of Guinea from colony to independent nation

. Fulbhe claim they still always give away the farilla from their own fields. I do not have sufficient data to verify this.
. In this situation the Fulbhe gives the farilla to the owner of the field.
. In the cities former serfs refer to themselves as Fulbhe and attempt to hide their origin.
. The word is also used to refer to other peoples whom the Fulbhe think are darker than themselves. It is not known to what extent the Fulbhe were influenced by the French, who considered them less dark and less « negroid » than other African peoples.