Guest contributor historian and anthropologist Julien Bondaz from the university of Lyon reports on his research into West Africanists’ conferences.
At the end of the Second World War, Théodore Monod, director of the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire (IFAN) founded in Dakar in 1936, organised the First International Meeting of West African Ethnologists, Geographers and Naturalists. This conference that aimed to federate academics working in West Africa was retrospectively renamed the First International Conference of West Africanists when the participants agreed it should take place biennially in different West African colonies. The project was ambitious, involving the organisation of large-scale local conferences for what the IFAN director called ‘bush researchers’, as opposed to metropolitan researchers, and defending a trans-imperial approach connecting French, British, Portuguese and Spanish researchers and research institutes. The inspiration came in part from the international seminars of the International African Institute created in London in 1926. Its director, anthropologist Daryll Forde was invited to Dakar where he praised the merits of this ‘first international meeting of Africanists on African soil,’ marking ‘an important step forward’ (Gouvernement général de l’AOF-IFAN 1950: 9). These international conferences played an important role in the transfer to and institutionalisation of Africanism in West Africa.
The history of these Conférences Internationales des Africanistes de l’Ouest (CIAO) bears witness to the circulation of IFAN researchers, the connections they made with colleagues from other colonial contexts, the exchanges and debates on their presentations, and the specificity of scientific work in colonial situations and political contexts. However, the conference papers and proceedings do not properly reflect the cultural transfers and intellectual exchanges that resulted from the interactions and friendships formed or maintained during these meetings.
The excursions organised before, during or after CIAO working sessions were hybrid occasions combining cultural visits, scientific discoveries and important moments of socialisation and celebration. They embodied a form of scientific tourism characteristic of many conferences, albeit with an additional, colonial dimension. During the outings organised on sites of scientific or touristic interest, the (mostly male) participants were welcomed by academic colleagues, but also by colonial administrators, missionaries or local chiefs, who sometimes organised dance ceremonies or mask outings, soliciting the help of local populations. With their colonial helmets usually screwed on their heads to protect them from the sun, the congressmen travelled in groups for quick visits, frequently documenting their visits. Ethnologist Georges Duchemin and archaeologist Raymond Mauny from IFAN took many photographs whose status is uncertain, oscillating between scientific documentation and tourist photography, and that constitute a particularly rich source for studying the place of excursions in these international congresses.
The first CIAO proposed an excursion model that was subsequently repeated at later conferences. Duchemin organised a two-day excursion for the ethnologists attending the congress. On Sunday 21st January, he took them to Diohine, a little over one hundred kilometres from Dakar, where they were received by the canton chief and the Spiritan Fathers of the Catholic mission, who invited them to lunch. Father Bernard showed them around a Serer village and “baobab griots” (griot graves built into baobab trunks). The group of about ten participants then went to Thiakkar where they were welcomed by canton chief Mayécor Diouf, who offered dinner and organised a Serer festival in their honour. The next day, the “ethnological excursion” continued in the Gossas region with a visit to two Wolof and Fulani villages. This outing takes on the appearance of a quick tour providing a brief overview of the ethnic groups present in the region. The photographs taken by Duchemin during the excursion were both a way of promoting the IFAN’s activities and of capturing personal memories.
At the second CIAO, organised in Bissau (Guinea Bissau) from 8th to 17th December 1947, Duchemin took a series of photographs of an excursion that again included Daryll Forde. Monod and the ethnologist Paul Mercier, director of the IFAN centre in Dahomey (present-day Benin), represented the institute together with Duchemin. Several excursions were organised during the conference (Correa 1948), in particular in the interior of the colony. Villages of the different ethnic groups of Guinea Bissau were visited, allowing the congressmen to observe the types of dwellings, the different industries or agricultural techniques, the places of worship and cemeteries and the diversity of dances. One of the photographs taken by Duchemin on this occasion was published on the cover of Gradhiva No. 5 in 1988, with an erroneous caption: ‘British ethnologist Daryll Forde among the Yako of Nigeria around 1936 (Cl. X, Fonds Michel Leiris, Musée de l’Homme)’ [link: https://www.persee.fr/issue/gradh_0764-8928_1988_num_5_1?sectionId=gradh_0764-8928_1988_num_5_1_1596]. During this excursion, schools and health facilities were also visited, such as the headquarters of the Scientific Mission against Sleeping Sickness. Hospitalized patients were even presented to the congressmen so that they could observe different phases of the disease. The excursion programme, intended for international researchers, obeyed the logic of colonial propaganda by putting forward the supposed modernisation of the colony.
The excursions offered during the third CIAO, that took place on 12th-15th December, 1949 at the University College in Ibadan (Nigeria) are even better documented. Mauny took numerous photographs and kept a travel diary in which he detailed the conference programme and pasted his pictures, making it possible to follow the daily life of the participants, in particular the members of the IFAN delegation that included Mauny, Monod and Mercier, as well as entomologist André Villiers. On the first day, an excursion was organised to Ife, allowing the congressmen to visit several sanctuaries in the town and the places where eighteen objects, including the famous “Ife head”, had been discovered by chance in January 1938. Other excursions were proposed during and after the conference: to Lagos for participants interested in the problems linked to maritime fisheries; or to Zaria, devoted to trypanosomiasis. A third expedition to the Jos plateau was chosen by the “bulk of the troop”, Mauny noted: Mercier, Villiers and Monod, ethnologist Georges Balandier and geographer Gilles Sautter, from the Institut d’Etudes Centrafricaines in Brazzaville, the Lebeuf couple, who had come from Chad, William and Bernard Fagg, archaeologists specialising in Nigerian art, as well as Forde and Richard Nunoo. The group left Ibadan by plane on 16th December, reaching Jos at 12.30 p.m., where they stayed at the Hill Station. The afternoon was spent visiting the Jos Museum, which was being built by Fagg. The next day, Fagg showed them the Rop rock shelter, which he had excavated in 1944, and the village of Bargesh. Mauny then continued the visits with a “grand excursion” from 18th to 20th December to Nok, famous for its recently discovered terracotta statuettes. On 19th December, he attended dances, masquerades and mock fights. Mauny describes the conditions in which he took his photographs: “I was jubilant, from the top of the rock dominating the scene where we were all perched. Daryll Forde, very dignified, would point a vengeful finger at any assistant who entered the circle of dancers and was dressed in Arab or European style: he was immediately cleared out.” In addition to the “view from above”, this orchestration of the session was based on the staging of a supposed local authenticity, with exogenous elements kept out of the picture. Finally, on 20th December, Mauny visited the new Fagg excavation site with Nunoo, also an archaeologist, before having lunch at the American mission.
These excursions to Nigeria resembled those organized during the two previous CIAOs, halfway between tourist visits and “study trips” (an expression sometimes used by the delegates). They allowed for quick research, in passing, on the model of the collection tours that still prevailed at IFAN. During the excursion to the Jos plateau, Monod and Villiers collected insects to enrich the institute’s botanical and entomological collections. The congressmen’s scientific observations sometimes led to published articles. Sautter, referring to an “excursion of physical geography and geology”, devoted an article to the Jos plateau in the Annales de Géographie (Sautter 1951). Mauny published a long article on archaeology in Nigeria in Notes africaines, IFAN’s liaison bulletin (Bertho and Mauny 1952: 98), based on his ‘high speed’ visit to Ife, as his notebook states. Mauny co-authored the article with Jacques Bertho, a father of the Société des Missions Africaines, who had had the good fortune to visit Ife in 1938. The missionary’s photographs are used as illustrations, since Mauny’s turned out to be of poor quality. The pictures of the shrine visits, although better, are not reproduced either, unlike several drawings made during the excursion.
Like Duchemin’s, Mauny’s photographs possess an uncertain status that reflects the ambivalent status of the excursions organised as part of the International Conferences of Western Africanists. These visits combined socializing, knowledge sharing, research and touristic experience. The dances and festivities organised for the delegates also partook in relationships of domination and a quest for exoticism specific to colonial contexts. Drawn from the archives of researchers, the photographs offer a broader perspective of the construction of a singular gaze and the ways in which science was made, including on the fringes of major international congresses.
Jacques Bertho and Raymond Mauny, “Archéologie du pays yoruba et du Bas-Niger”, Notes africaines (1952) n° 56, pp. 97-115.
Gouvernement général de l’AOF-IFAN, Première conférence des Africanistes de l’Ouest. Comptes rendus, tome 1 (Dakar: IFAN, 1950).
Mendês Correa, “2.a Conferência Internacional dos Africanistas Ocidentais”, Trabalhos de Antropologia e Etnologia (1948) vol. XI, fasc. 3-4, pp. 365-371. Gilles Sautter, ‘Voyage au Plateau de Jos (Nigeria septentrionale) organisé par la troisième conférence internationale des Africanistes de l’Ouest’, Annales de Géographie (1951) vol. 60, no. 320, pp. 220-224.