The Production of Ethnographic Writing in the Context of Colonial Africa: Jean-Hervé Jezequel’s “Voices of their own? African participation in the production of colonial knowledge in French West Africa, 1889-1919.”

Jezequel, Jean-Hervé. (2007). “Voices of their own? African participation in the production of colonial knowledge in French West Africa, 1889-1919.” In Tilley, Helen and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp.145-172). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Jean-Hervé Jezequel’s chapter focuses on the political and social history of ethnographic writing among West African educated elites, or indigènes, in French-speaking Africa during the late-nineteenth century to early-twentieth century (145-146). The authors who produced these ethnographies were African “schoolmasters trained at the Ecole Normale William Ponty in Senegal” (145). Due to the “structural inequalities” of colonial Africa, which influenced the status and scholarly division of labour between African ethnographers and colonial administrator-ethnographers, the contribution of these African authors to the discipline of anthropology and ethnographic writing was, and remains, overlooked (145-147). Jezequel’s examination constitutes one of the five imperial relationships investigated within the Ordering Africa volume and demonstrates how African educated elites, though restricted by imperial power structures, contributed to the development and material body of anthropological scholarship in the context of French colonialism (Tilley 3; 166). By investigating three contexts, “the history of knowledge production, the social history of African intermediaries, and the political history of the local arenas”, all of which influence how these African ethnographies were produced, read and stored, Jezequel reveals that these neglected ethnographies contain a wealth of data about the political and social realities of colonial West Africa and that within this colonial context, ethnographic writing, for African authors, became “a vehicle to advance their own interests” (146). In addition to revealing the ties between imperialism and anthropology, this chapter allowed the ANTH 603 participants to review how diverse motivations influence the production and interpretation of anthropological knowledge, but also appreciate that the discipline’s subjective qualities yield valuable information about the contexts wherein this knowledge was produced.

Jezequel begins the history of anthropological knowledge production in West Africa in 1895 and demonstrates that it is characterized by structural inequality and a division of scholarly labour (145-147). French colonial officials required ethnographic data as information about the local people and area provided them with “a better understanding of native cultures as well as a better means to control them” (146). Local informants, both illiterate and educated were utilized by French scholars and colonial administrators in order to acquire and produce this ethnographic information, which resulted in a division of scholarly labour, characterized by networks of local informants providing ethnographic data for French officials, who had publishing privileges (146-147). Interestingly, it is during this period that we see the emergence of indigenous studies, an example of the links between knowledge production and colonialism (146).

Despite the contributions of African informants, specifically the written work of literate informants, their role in the production of knowledge remained unofficial and subordinate as they were viewed by western administrator-ethnographers as lacking the skills to engage in ethnographic interpretation and writing (148-149). However, Jezequel identifies a change in the 1930s, as colonial authorities began encouraging local participation in indigenous studies (149). This encouragement, however, was tied to colonial motivations and was a method of procuring colonially-relevant data from educated Africans and discouraging “the publication efforts of detribalized Africans”, which could potentially threaten the legitimacy and ideology of the French colonial administration (149-151). Despite the dubious intentions of colonial administrators, by encouraging indigenous studies, the ethnographies produced by African authors began to be accepted and by the 1940s there were career opportunities for African ethnographers in academia, though they were still subordinate when compared to other academic positions and opportunities (152-153).

Though limited and smothered by the power and intellectual dynamics of colonialism, Jezequel encourages readers to see that the participation and material produced by African authors reveal valuable political and social information about the roles Africans played in the local and transnational dynamic of imperialism and knowledge production (153; Tilley 26). Jezequel demonstrates that as “knowledge intermediaries, capable of producing the information that colonial administrators needed”, educated Africans saw indigenous studies and ethnography as a method of achieving higher status and potentially navigating and succeeding in a “stratified colonial service” (158-162). In addition, African authors were also influenced by the local political arena. Knowing that their writing would be stored in local archives and that it would be referenced by colonial administrators, ethnographic writing was an opportunity to reinvent indigenous traditions or reinvent the legitimacy of an author and their family’s claim to local social and political power (163-165). Writing was an opportunity for educated Africans to benefit from the colonial administrations’ faith in the written archive and influence the colonial administrations’ perspective towards the local arena (163-164). This interpretation, heavily inspired by the work of Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm, demonstrates how educated Africans appropriated a degree of power through colonial structures and standards of knowledge (164).

Producing knowledge was a method of social and political advancement within Africa’s colonial and local arenas (162). In these settings, individual and collective motivations for success and advancement influenced the interpretations and content of African auto-ethnographies (Tilley 7). In an effort to attain higher status, African authors could reproduce colonial discourse or strategically contest it within their ethnographic writing (162). By studying the contexts in which African ethnographies were produced and identifying who was reading and using African auto-ethnographies, Jezequel demonstrates that African authors had diverse motivations for participating in indigenous studies and ethnography, despite their ties to colonialism (153).

Colonial power incentives promoted the development of anthropological research and indigenous studies. However, the participation of African authors was an opportunity “for capturing power and influencing the colonial authorities”, who trusted written resources (165). Jezequel’s descriptive investigation provides insight on “the intricate ways imperialism and anthropology in Africa shaped one another” and that despite the inequalities that colonialism produced, African ethnographers contributed to this dynamic (166). The subjective motivations of colonial officials and African authors for producing ethnographic writing fosters scepticism about anthropology’s claim to scientific objectivity. Nonetheless, as Jezquel’s investigation demonstrates, subjectivity reveals information about social and political realities and the ideologies that drive anthropological interpretation. Recognizing the value of subjectivity provides contemporaries with the opportunity to understand the conditions in which anthropological knowledge was and continues to be produced.

However, to truly appreciate Jezequel’s work, the participation of African authors in colonialism and the production anthropological knowledge can no longer be neglected. By “privileging an elitist perspective” towards anthropology and its intellectual contributors, contemporary anthropologists prevent themselves from understanding how colonialism functions and the conditions in which anthropological knowledge was produced (153). Contemporary researchers must ask themselves if the continued disregard of African participation in the history of colonialism and anthropology is evidence of colonialism’s ongoing legacy. As the graduates of ANTH 603 concluded, contemporary researchers must be aware that the discipline of anthropology is historically intertwined with colonialism and that by ignoring this, we risk reproducing the power and intellectual inequities of this context.

Tilley, Helen. (2007). “Introduction: Africa, imperialism, and anthropology.” In Tilley, Helen and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp. 1-45). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.


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