Ambiguous Africa: Cultures in Collision
False Start in Africa
Africa's Search for Identity
Here at last are English translations from the French of two of the most famous books on Africa published in recent years. Balandier is a sociologist, and his book is a very attractive, largely autobiographical by-product of his professional field notes. His investigations were pursued in Senegal and Guinea, Gabon and Congo Brazzaville, and among communities as various as the fishermen of the Atlantic beaches south of Dakar, the gold-washers and miners of the Upper Niger and its tributaries, the negrillo hunter-gatherers of the forests north of Stanley Pool, and the whitecollared intelligentsia of the Brazzaville suburbs. There are striking portraits of individuals, ranging from a pagan familyhead in the remotest depths of Guinea to the French doctor in Lambarene who ended his African career shooting at empty Perrier bottles balanced on the heads of his household servants.
English-speaking readers should bear in mind that Balandier’s experiences are between ten and twenty years old. The first French edition of Afrique ambigue was published in 1957. The travels on which it was based were undertaken from 1946 onwards. What Balandier was studying was the end of the colonial period in French Africa, not the beginnings of independence. The problems that mainly preoccupied him were those arising from the transformation of African societies by European rule. What he was chiefly questioning was “the civilizing mission of France,” about which he says “Certain material successes do not justify our inability to establish in Africa social relations and creative activities that surpass those we have destroyed by our domination.” While it was clearly abandoning its traditional institutions, it was no less clearly rejecting the Western models offered in their place. To Balandier this was the essential ambiguity. To him, the most typically ambiguous African of all was the independent religious leader, who on the one hand outdid the European missionary as a destroyer of traditional fetishes, and on the other hand spent his time denouncing the missionary and his doctrine as an imperialist manifestation.
AT THE TIME when they were made, Balandier’s observations had a dramatic relevance. The decision to decolonize had been taken, but the substance of power had not yet been transferred. This was the time when not only the colonial powers, but the whole of the Western world was infected by a euphoria about the experiment shortly to be made. At this time it was widely imagined that the transfer of power could be effected without crisis, that political leadership could pass into the hands of a westernized élite which could continue to draw on outside sources of administrative, military, managerial, and technical skills while indigenous sources were being further developed. The outside world knew only the élite, and it could not imagine the pressures to which it would be subject on the withdrawal of colonial power. Colonial administrators knew the back country, but were insulated by their power and privilege from sensing the real feelings of either the élite or the masses. Only the intimate, yet comparatively detached, fieldworker…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.