Life for the average citizen of the Republic of Guinea has undergone profound—and
even traumatic—changes since Guinea's historic “No” vote in the
referendum of September 28, 1958. That vote made Guinea the first of the former
French territories in Black Africa to reject membership in the nascent French Community.
It made Sékou Touré, Guinea's volatile young president, a hero to
much of the Third World and its sympathizers, and led to the collapse of General
de Gaulle's grand design for a new relationship between metropolitan France and
its overseas territories.
At the time Guinea embarked on its lonely and courageous adventure as an independent state, hopes were high in many quarters of the world for the success of the new nation. Virtually everyone in the American academic community then writing about this small country in West Africa readily acknowledged that Guinea's importance as a political entity far exceeded its relatively modest size (97,000 square miles; 3 million population in 1959). Its principal leaders at the time—Sékou Touré, head of the Parti Démocratique de Guinée (PDG), and his two principal opponents, Barry Ibrahima (called Barry III), former head of the Guinean branch of the Mouvement Socialiste Africain (MSA), and Barry Diawadou, leader of the Bloc Africain de Guinée (BAG) —appeared willing to subordinate their differences to the common good and to work through Touré's PDG which had won a triumphant victory at the polls in the territorial elections of 1957.
Guinea, at the time it became independent, excited the imagination, for it held forth the promise of being a place where bold and innovative programs would be tested for the social and economic advancement not only of its own citizens but also of Africans everywhere. This new order in Guinea proclaimed itself proudly and defiantly as a society that would be both more humane and more just than any other—precolonial or colonial—which until then had held sway in the country.
Unfortunately—and for the people of Guinea, tragically—that promise was never fulfilled. Today, seventeen years after it gained its independence amid such hope and fanfare, Guinea remains what it has progressively become under Sékou Touré's ruthless dictatorship: a land of economic stagnation, political turmoil, and personal terror—a kind of West African Haiti.
It would be unfair to evaluate William Derman's book Serfs, Peasants and Socialists: A Former Serf Village in the Republic of Guinea, by the criteria used by political scientists, for Mr. Derman is an anthropologist. His book, based upon a doctoral dissertation prepared for the University of Michigan, is pre-eminently an anthropological study of the changes that have affected the social organization, economic life, and life style of a Fulbe serf village in the Fouta Djallon region of Guinea. Insofar as Mr. Derman deals with anthropological data, the book provides a wealth of carefully researched and well-documented detail concerning such topics as the social and economic relations under the impact of French colonial rule and, subsequently, of the new national government.
The book moves along smoothly for the first two-thirds, but begins to falter when it reaches the section dealing with ideology. Judging from the word “Socialist” in its title, one anticipates a detailed discussion of the nature and impact of the PDG's socialist ideology on the Fulbe and on their attitude toward their government, not merely an anthropological survey of such phenomena as life-cycle ceremonies, sorcery, and the nature of Islamic tradition in Fulbe society.
What we do not get from Mr. Derman's book is a true sense of the direction that social, economic, and political changes have taken in Guinea under the policies (ambitious but often ill-conceived) formulated and put into effect by Sékou Touré and the PDG. From a work that aspires to provide insights into the effects of socialist ideology on the serf and peasant classes of Guinea, the reader has a right to expect a discussion of some of the more critical developments that have occurred in Guinea during the period under examination: for example, the result of the intensive politicization that has taken place under Touré's leadership and the control of the country by the PDG. One would have liked to get some idea of what the problems have been between Touré and the Soussou—Malinké constituency (which he originally represented) and the Fulbe who were their traditional enemies and, significantly, are the largest ethnic group in Guinea. Mr. Derman, regrettably, provides us with very little information on any of these topics. In brief, what the book lacks is a sustained attempt to relate the social and political implications of the microcosm of a serf village to the macrocosm that is the rest of the country.
One senses, instead, that in these pages there is a conscious effort to avoid at all costs broaching any but the most innocuous subjects: those that will not risk giving offense to the authorities back in Conakry. One cannot but be understanding of the author's timidity, for Guinea is one of the most difficult countries in which to do research. Government officials, particularly President Sékou Touré, resentful of criticism of their régime, have for years placed extraordinary obstacles in the way of anyone wishing to conduct research in their country, especially Westerners. If a researcher does not abstain totally from making any value judgments not in keeping with the accepted views of the party leadership, he runs the risks of being denied access to essential sources of information, and even of being expelled from the country.
Unless there is a fundamental change in the present xenophobia on the part of Guinea's leaders (a development unlikely to occur until there is a change in régime), the best that the academic community can probably expect is additional methodical but nonprovocative studies like the volume under review. The really important things that are happening in Guinea today, the tumultous events that have wrought dramatic and far-reaching changes of profound significance to that society and to the larger polity which is Africa, are part of a story that still remains to be told.
Victor D. Du Bois
American Universities Field Staff
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Fulbright Scholar. Rockefeller Foundation Fellow. Internet Society Pioneer. Smithsonian Research Associate.