webGuinée/Société/Anthropologie/W. Derman/Serfs-Peasants-Socialists/Introduction


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

University of California Press. 1968. 280 p.

The inhabitants of the Fouta-Djallon in the Republic of Guinea are overwhelmingly Fulfulde (Pular) speakers. Fulfulde speakers refer to themselves as Fulbhe, a usage I shall follow despite the extensive literature that refers to them as Fulani or Peul. The Fulbhe of the Fouta-Djallon are linked historically, culturally, and linguistically with the other Fulfulde speakers of West Africa.
Fulbhe society in Guinea has undergone a series of profound transformations as a result of French colonial rule and recent independence. The crucial impact of these two periods is evidenced by the fundamental change in the role and position of serfs The institution of serfdom is now legalIy abolished. Despite the widespread distribution of hereditarily subordinate populations in precolonial Africa there has been little discussion of the effects of colonial rule on their status. In examining the past relations of former serfs to their Fulbhe masters in the Fouta-DjalIon, the key economic, social, and ideological institutions of the Fouta-Djallon, and the great changes they have undergone will be discussed. In this context, an ethnographic account of contemporary life in Hollaande, a village of former serfs, will be presented.
Before the coming of the French at the turn of the century the Fouta-DjaIlon was a confederation of provinces under the almamy (from the Arabic imam) of the Fouta-Djallon. There existed a relatively developed territorial organization based upon an Islamic model, but it did not supersede the kin organization which was based on maximal, major, and minimal patrilineages. Four major social strata cut across the territorial and kin organizations. These were

  • the chiefs and their patrilineal kinsmen
  • the free Fulbhe
  • the Fulbhe of the bush
  • the serfs.

We might speculate that had the French not intervened, the Fulbhe sociopolitical organization might have evolved toward a pyramidal « feudal » organization with chiefs as lords, the free Fulbhe as vassaIs, the Fulbhe of the bush as freemen, and the « serfs » as serfs. However, French colonial rule abruptly halted indigenous trends. The features of colonial rule that undermined serfdom also undermined the position of the other strata and led to the creation of a peasantry.
The political changes induced during the colonial period resulted in the alienation of political power from the underlying popuIation. We need not underestimate the power of political leaders during the precolonial era in order to emphasize the far greater power of the French and their Fulbhe representatives, the chefs de canton The legitimacy and the reciprocal nature of chieftainship was ended. The generosity of chiefs toward the population decreased as the exactions demanded from them increased. A clear separation of interests between the developing peasantry and their new colonial overlords was created. As a result all Fulbhe and serfs came to view the « state » (the colonial rulers and the chefs de canton) as separate and distinct from themselves. Admittedly this is a question of judgment as well as an analysis of the relation of chiefs to other Fulbhe during precolonial and colonial times. In the precolonial period the chiefs ruled in conjunction with the elders and religious leaders of the nonchiefly, maximal lineages. In contrast, the French did not seek the consensus, agreement, or support of the Fulbhe in the selection of the chefs de canton, as the most important criterion for office became loyalty to the French.
Another political consequence of colonial rule was the decline in significance of the maximal patrilineages. The abolition of the chiefs’ right to tribute from the Fulbhe of the bush led to a decline in the importance of the distinction between them and the free Fulbhe. Even the chiefly lineages declined greatly in political importance for during the 1920s the French began selecting the chefs de canton and village chiefs from the other nonchiefly maximal patrilineages. Moreover, the separation of all strata from the new French rulers deemphasized earlier distinctions and led to a merging of the strata.
The economic consequences of colonial rule were as great as the political effects. We shall consider the results of the imposition of taxation, the introduction of money and markets, and the competition for the labor of serfs as significant processes leading to the decline of serfdom. The beginning of the end of serfdom appears to have been the breakdown of the reciprocal relations of serfs and master, as serfs had to assume the payment of their own taxes to the French. However, taxation affected all strata of Fulbhe society. The new taxes will be viewed as the fund of rent that the new rulers took from the population. Once payment in money became a necessity no strata of society was free from the new demands of the colonial authorities. Because taxation was imposed on all sectors of Fulbhe society it had the effect of forcing most of the population, at least in part, into a money economy.
The particular form the economy took was greatIy influenced by the ecology of the Fouta-Djallon. The ecology has, at least until the present, mitigated against large-scale cash cropping, inhibited the formation of plantations, and provided no mineral resources of significance. This has meant that there have been no sources of large scale employment within the Fouta. In order to earn money, many Fulbhe have had to seek sources of employment outside their natal area. Although small cash-crop gardens were introduced and a few state farms were established by the French, these provided only limited employment opportunities relative to the need for cash. The consequence was that many Fulbhe left the Fouta for work on the peanut farms in Senegal, the pineapple and banana growing areas of Guinea, and the cities of Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and of the Ivory Coast. In short, the dominant commodity the Fouta could supply was labor.
Unlike most other commodities, land did not greatly enter the money sector of the economy. Some land was sold during the coloniaI era, but in the land-short area around Hollaande – and I suspect this to be true of most areas – the amount sold was small. This was due in part to the inalienability of land from the major patrilineages. Some serfs became land proprietors by buying land, but the small extent to which land entered the market impeded the merging of the Fulbhe-serf strata. The vast majority of serfs did not become land proprietors, and therefore, despite the gradual ending of their labor obligations, significant social and economic differences remain between serfs and Fulbhe.
The introduction of taxation, money, and markets, in combination with French political rule, produced a merging of the strata of Fulbhe society. It shouId not be thought, however, that this process has taken place at the same rate or in the same direction for the different strata. During the colonial era the distinctions between the various Fulbhe diminished, but the distinction between Fulbhe and serf remained important until the present period of independence. Independence has ended much of the political significance of whether one is Fulbhe or descended from serfs and with independence all the rernaining labor obligations of serfs were ended. However, there are strong social and ideological continuities with the past. The merging of former serf and Fulbhe is not yet complete.

The Guinean government considers its citizens as Guineans first, members of their committee second, and only last as members of different language groups. All persons are theoretically considered equal, and earlier social distinctions are no longer recognized. This attitude on the part of the Guinean political leaders is in advance of the population as a whole. The Guinean revolution is young, and time is needed to create a new society. Older social categories remain important for the population in the countryside. To refuse to recognize this would be to ignore a key feature in the life of former serfs.
The government and party of the Republic of Guinea believes itself to be socialist. In the writings of President Ahmed Sekou Toure one finds perhaps the most systematic examination of socialist policies and thought in a sub-Saharan African nation. President Toure has already published seventeen volumes – virtually all of them printed at the Imprimerie Patrice Lumumba in Conakry – setting out in great detail both the theoretical and programmatic aspects of his thought. Even though President Toure has been Africa’s foremost radical leader there has been no biography of him and only a few articles concerning his political development and theories in English . The Guinean leaders are committed to socialism. In their opinion socialism is both a goal and a process – the way in which Guinean development has and should take place. According to President Toure, socialism involves the transformation of the relationships of humans to each other, of society to nature, and will be the outcome of the present development of all societies (volume 16: 45). Moreover, socialism is not a state which once attained will last forever but is part of an onoing evolution involving human society as a whole.
There seems to be little controversy among American scholars that Guinea is in fact socialist, if not communist. In this connection William Attwood‘s account of his personal fight against the specter of advancing communism is particularly interesting. And among those who have constantly kept in touch with Guinean events, Victor Du Bois stands out for his vitriolic attacks on Guinea and her leaders. Significantly, the real questioning of the socialist character of the Republic of Guinea has taken place among French leftist scholars among whom the debate was touched off by B. Ameillon (apparently a pseudonym) in La Guinée, Bilan d’une Indépendance. Ameillon argues that Guinea will become neocolonialist and elite controlled as have other newly independent African nations. The debate has been picked up and continued by other scholars such as Yves Bénot and Jean Suret-Canale. While it is beyond the scope of this book to engage in extended discussion of the political character of Guinea, it is my hope to provide additional and substantial information about the evolving character of the Guinean countryside. Perhaps this study will be of greater import because it concerns the area of Guinea thought to be most recalcitrant to independence and the government of the Democratic Party of Guinea

. For an introduction to the Fulbhe the reader is referred to Stenning (1959), still the most complete summary available of the distribution and characteristics of the Fulbhe. Of more recent interest, and unfortunately too late to be incorporared in this study, is M. Dupire’s (1970) study of the social organization of several Fulbhe groups.
. R. W. Johnson of Magdalen College, England, appears to have begun this work.



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