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Les indépendances en Afrique

Odile Goerg
Jean-Luc Martineau
Didier Nativel

Troisième partie. La fabrique des mémoires : les ambiguïtés de la fête dès 1958-1960

Recollections from the times of Independence. Talks with elderly people in western Ivory Coast

Kathrin Heitz

Texte intégral

1On Friday, 5th August 1960, Abidjan Matin, the national daily in Côte d’Ivoire, published the programme of the independence celebration for the coming Sunday on its first page. The flamboyant festivities in Abidjan were going to last for two days. It started on Saturday, 6th August at 3 p.m. with political and religious ceremonies that prepared the ground for Félix Houphouët-Boigny’s declaration of Côte d’Ivoire’s independence at the National Assembly in the first minutes of the 7th August 1960. The official ceremony continued at 8.45 a.m. the next morning with the processions, receptions and folkloristic performances and ended with fireworks at 11 p.m.

  • 1 By History with a capital “H” I mean so-called great events of (political) history: war and peace, (...)
  • 2 At Côte d’Ivoire’s 50th anniversary celebration, the Historian-President Laurent Gbagbo (2000-2010 (...)

2The History leading to this moment is well documented1. Côte d’Ivoire’s historiography of independence is intimately linked with the name Félix Houphouët-Boigny (Morgenthau, 1964; Yacono, 1994; Weiskel, 1988; Chafer, 2002)2. The son of a Baoulé canton chief, he was trained as a physician in Dakar, the capital of the Afrique-Occidentale française (AOF), and later worked as a planter. He became politically active as the founder of the Syndicat agricole africain (SAA), who advocated equal rights with European planters. The settlers had historically enjoyed the undue advantage of drawing on manpower recruited through forced labour to work on their plantations as opposed to local entrepreneurial planters like Houphouët-Boigny. As deputy of Côte d’Ivoire, Houphouët-Boigny committed himself to the abolishment of forced labour in French territories, resulting in the so-called Houphouët-Boigny law, passed in 1946 (Chafer, 2002: 55), which laid the foundation for his political career and popularity. After the break of the RDA (Rassemblement Démocratique Africain) with the Communist party in 1951, he campaigned for sustaining an amicable relationship with France. In 1960, he became Côte d’Ivoire’s first president and eventually died in office in 1993 (Weiskel, 1988: 350). The first period of his presidency went down in history as the “Ivoirian miracle”, due to the prosperous economy and political stability. Although the country slipped into a violent crisis after his death, it remains a taboo to this date to blame Houphouët-Boigny’s rule for the country’s downfall even in opposition circles (McGovern, 2011: 154).

  • 3 I will describe the background of my interviewees further down. For a discussion of the political (...)
  • 4 The author is conducting her PhD in Man about the re-configurations of trust, security and social (...)

3The political events shaping Côte d’Ivoire’s History of independence are situated in a national or international arena. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that most research on the era of independence is conducted at the national level, in capital cities. This article, however, strives to look beyond the national arena and accordingly locates its inquiry in a mid-sized city, a regional capital in western Côte d’Ivoire. Sometimes the interior is called “hinterland”, a term which reflects the view from a power centre to its margins. Comparatively, we know only little about these areas and their residents, other than perhaps the local elites. One of the reasons is the lack of written records left by actors and social groups in these spaces. Hence, a further preoccupation of this paper is to give voice to a group of people underrepresented in written sources and historical research3. One possibility of retrieving information was to speak to people who had lived in the interior at the time (Armitage and Mercier, 2009: xi-xii). Due to previous field research done in Man, a regional capital in western Côte d’Ivoire, I chose to interview elderly people there about their recollections and work with the oral testimonies4.

  • 5 Different researchers give different meanings and interpretations every time the document is used.

4The decision to concentrate on memories, however, had further implications concerning the scope of my enquiry. Unlike written records, data obtained from memory narratives is tied to specificities and characteristics that influence the content of the information received. The data from oral history interviews differs considerably in many respects from a written document that is stored in a box in an archive (Jureit, 1999: 10): if stored correctly, the content does not change5. Memories, however, are modified and adjusted to the present self whenever they are remembered (Welzer, 2003: 187 in Heitz and Schüep, 2011: 13). With regards to the question of what “really happened” (empirical events) and how events are remembered, literature on oral history and memory studies usually distinguishes between three theoretical positions (Heitz and Schüep, 2011: 42-45): The realists aim at bringing up the (empirical) past; constructivists believe that the retrieving of the (empirical) past is unachievable and conceive of memory narratives as situational constructions; last but not least, there is a middle position that presumes social reality to be constituted by different perspectives with overlapping intersections – irrefutable facts and subjective experiences (Rosenthal, 1988: 10). This article orients itself on the latter position. For on the one hand, the interviews revealed particular, subjective details about past times, and on the other hand there were issues that turned up again and again, revealing certain patterns that allow teasing out a shared past.

5This paper will first introduce the local historical context and present the corpus of the study’s interviews. In the main part, the findings are presented and discussed along three axes: colonialism and forced labour, the merging of dates in recollections, and finally, the question of caesura and continuity.

The study and its context

  • 6 One of the neighbourhoods in Man still carries the name sofa in Dioulabougou today (Touré, 2009).
  • 7 Interview Touré, 2009.
  • 8 To my present knowledge, spelling varies between “Gbeypleu”, “Gbêpleu” and “Gbépleu”. I follow Ree (...)
  • 9 Talk with Chef de terre Gbêpleu, 2009.

6In order to contextualize the oral testimonies and situate the interviewees in their time, I have assembled some information about the region of Man, in western Côte d’Ivoire. The town’s beginnings are usually traced back to the colonial conquest by the French and to the capture of Samory Touré in Guélémou/Géoulé in the North of Man in 1898 (Person, 1976: 148-151). Some of his mounted warriors, the sofas6, settled in this area of farmers7, close to the Dan villages, Gbêpleu8 and Gbapleu (Reed, 2003: 36). According to the elders in Gbêpleu, the ancient village is located in the nearby sacred forest and the arriving colonialists asked them to leave their residence on the mountain and to settle at its foot9. Gbêpleu and Gbapleu are neighbourhoods of Man today. Most of my interlocutors grew up in small villages surrounding Man or moved to Man long ago. The population in this region has been trading with the drier North for centuries (with kola nuts, for example). French settlers, and particularly immigrants from the Sahel region, started growing coffee and cocoa as cash crops; this led to a new dynamic and the creation of a small town (Dan, 2005).

  • 10 The first post-conflict elections were held in November 2010.

7Until the 1920s, Ivory Coast was considered to be among France’s least advanced or developed colonies, a fact often forgotten due to the economic miracle in the 1960s/70s. By 1924, Man had a village school and a dispensaire, which was the rule in all western parts of Côte d’Ivoire (Kipré, 1992: 305). In the 1950s Man had become the administrative centre of the colonial administration for the entire region. Due to the absence of administrative centres in rural areas, many elderly people were unable to tell me their exact date of birth. By 1960, the town’s population had almost risen to 50,000 people (Bonnal, 1986: 24); the literacy rate was below 20% (Kipré, 1992: 334). This also explains why most of my interviewees are illiterate. Schooling was offered at the time by the White Fathers who founded the Paroisse Saint Michel, which celebrated its 25th year of existence in 1960. Today Man is the district capital of the région Les Dix-Huit Montagnes with about 150,000 inhabitants and suffers from the consequences of a relatively short war followed by almost a decade of rebel governance10.

The corpus

8I started the small study during my stay in Côte d’Ivoire to attend the cinquantenaire on August 7th, 2010. Before and after the Jubilee celebrations, I collected eight oral testimonies (for details see list at the end). Without my presence, five elderly men were interviewed in French and recorded by my assistant, Richard Gonty Dan, in June 2011. To raise the number of testimonies from women, I interviewed and recorded two more women in June 2011. They were translated from Dan (Yacouba) into French by Money Leontine Tia. Three more talks had to be translated from Dan into French and vice-versa by family members and my research assistant. There is no extra term in Dan for independence and they use the French independence to refer to the event. Some meaning is always lost in translations. An interview situation was new to most of them and to ease rapport, most interviews were conducted with people that I already knew from my previous field trips, other interviewees were parents and grand-parents of friends, research assistants and informants. For contextual embedding, I will also draw on three talks I had recorded during my earlier visits in 2008/09. All talks took place in the elderly people’s homes.

  • 11 Several experts on memory recommend not revealing the actual subject of study to the interviewee, (...)

9Some elder people interviewed at the time of the Jubilee were merely asked about what they remembered about independence, whereas with others, I fixed an appointment and asked them about their childhood, the 1960s and the present. These interviews were recorded and transcribed. In order to learn more about the emic perspective of what is subjectively of relevance to people, I intended and tried to avoid the term independence when asking for an interview, as Rosenthal suggests (Rosenthal, 1988: 10). However, there were two constraints for such an approach: first, from an ethical point of view of how to conduct field work in anthropology, this approach slightly contradicts the request to inform interviewees of what we do and in what kind of project we involve our interlocutors11. The second difficulty was that most elderly people had grown up in an oral culture in which it is/was alien to relate one’s life in a chronological, linear manner. Hence, they asked me to pose more concrete questions.

  • 12 Most of them did some farming at one point in their life.
  • 13 First settler family and owner of the land.

10Some of them were followers of local religions, Christians or Muslims; most happened to be Dan-speakers, others Manding and one Wê. The men’s occupations are diverse: farmers12, regraters, traders, two teachers (one of them a civil servant, fonctionnaire, one private, catholic), two clerks (fonctionnaires). All the women did domestic work, as well as either farming or petty trade; one of them was a dressmaker. Two were widows of a veteran and still had access to the pension. Some of the interlocutors also had particular social functions in their respective communities: either village or neighbourhood chief or chef de terre13 in their respective localities.

11Half of my interviewees were illiterate and all four women I interviewed were illiterate and didn’t speak French. This is not surprising considering there were hardly any schools at the time and that boys were sent to school more often than girls. Dan Soumahoro, who later became a teacher himself, recalls the day he was told to go to school:

  • 14 Interview, Soumahoro, 2010.

«J’étais recruté quand j’étais au quartier à la poursuite des bestiaux de ma grandmaman et on m’a interpellé pour me dire: “Eh, petit viens!” Je suis arrivé. “D’où viens-tu? Montre-nous ta maison.” J’ai conduit ces deux monsieurs à la maison et ils se sont adressés à les [sic] parents pour dire: “Celui-là sera élève l’année prochaine; donc en telle date en novembre tu viens à l’école”14

  • 15 Shifting cultivation is an agricultural practice that involves moving the cultivated area regularl (...)
  • 16 Explained by translator Tia, in Tassy, 2011.

12Most of my interlocutors were aged between 63 and their mid-80s. Their exact date of birth often remained unclear, as mentioned above. Many said that the date indicated on their papers made them younger; the written date of birth seemed to be an estimation made at the receipt of their first papers. Those who worked on the fields remembered the time and years by the shifting cultivation cycles15. For example: They remembered which field they cultivated in the year a child was born. As they shifted to another plot every consecutive year, they counted the plots used since the child was born16. If they counted three fallow fields, the child was in his fourth year of life or three years old, as we would commonly say.

  • 17 Interview, Seu, 2011.

13When my interviewees talked about later times in their lifecycle, they used different ways of measuring time. For example, one man said that when independence came, he was like those boys that he called “young children” today, but that at that time he “hadn’t known what one calls a woman”, meaning it was before he had had sex with a woman for the first time in his life17. Women, on the other hand, remembered that at the time of independence, they had already carried their first child on their back. These very personal bodily memories related to life-stages were used by my interlocutors to locate the events of big History, as for instance, independence.

  • 18 Interview, Soumahoro, 2010.
  • 19 Interviews, Chérif, 2010; Soumahoro, 2010; Tassy, 2011.

14The interlocutors had different ways of responding to my request to tell me about the time of independence. One man, a former teacher, thought I was interested in received wisdom. He recollected the History of the time, as well as he could18. When asked to remember former times, several interviewees also began comparing former times with today. They came up with cultural practices they felt had changed drastically since their childhood years: relationships between parents and children, marriage practices etc.19.

  • 20 Field note records.
  • 21 We have suffered a lot!
  • 22 He uses this word to refer to young people including teenagers and young adults. His strategy is t (...)
  • 23 Interview, Chérif, 2010.

15When I informed my host, Bakari Chérif, about my intention to learn more about the earlier times, before independence, he responded that all changes were painful and shook his head with a smile20. He said that there is a huge difference between “you” and “us”. They had lived in miserable conditions, he said. He remembered that his parents shared one cloth. There was one piece of good clothing in the compound which was good enough to be seen with in public, beyond the village and in more formal situations. The mother wore it on market days to go to the regional market in Man and her husband stayed in the village that day. For formal assemblies, his father wore the same piece of cloth. He continued to tell me that one day his older brother said to his father that the whites will leave and the father slapped his son for being so stupid. In order to avoid recruitment for forced labour, his father sent him away with a marabout. On foot, he walked with the marabout to Monrovia (Liberia) and later to Bamako (Mali). By the time he got his first pair of sandals, he said he was 37. «On a trop souffert21!», he exclaimed. “Today, ‘children22’cannot even walk to Libreville, a neighbourhood of Man; they ask you for transport money to take a taxi! This surprises us23!” In contrast to this childhood, present times seemed affluent, even after the political conflict in Côte d’Ivoire that had burdened the country. He ended his spontaneous response by saying that there were rivalries among them as to how radical the break with France had to be. As a long-time supporter of the opposition against Houphouët-Boigny, the first president, he was one of the few who remembered, and more importantly, mentioned the conflicts at the time between the different political parties (Morgenthau, 1964: 166-218).

16This brief account demonstrates how people in Man conceived my question. Chérif’s response is an example which supports the thesis that how times are remembered is shaped by the speech situation, including the language of the interview. The reiterative process of memorization is a situational and performative process – performative in the sense that the moment we testify, we create a meaningful narrative of ourselves in a specific social setting (Jureit, 1997: 99, Assmann, 2001: 107). By saying “you” (the whites) and “us”, we see that his recollection was stimulated by my presence. Therefore, even if we draw on the past, memories are always constructions of the present.

Subjective memories: Independence and the end of forced labour

17A dozen witnesses to 1960 do not allow for broad generalizations. Nevertheless, my objective here is to present and discuss what contemporary witnesses remembered today about the times of independence. The discussion is organised along the following three reoccurring issues: colonialism and forced labour, the merging of dates (1946 and 1960, as well as 1960 and 1969) and the question whether 1960 is experienced as caesura or continuity.

Colonialism and forced labour: equated in memories

18The following conversation was translated by my research assistant Richard Gonty Dan. As we had done during previous field trips, we passed at Saty Sably’s house to greet her and to exchange small gifts in August 2010. Saty Sably is the youngest wife of the founder of the village Grand Gbapleu and one of her sons is the acting village chief today. When my research assistant asked her age, she produced a birth certificate from a chest in her room in the compound. It said 1930 on it, but she remembered that she had had her first child when the paper was issued, she said she was older than that.

  • 24 Game known as “mât de cocagne”, introduced by the French for festivities e.g. for the 14th of July

19Concerning independence, my assistant translated from Dan that her husband was a chef de groupe or chef de canton in charge of the forced labourers and served as an intermediary between the local population and the colonial authorities as well as the later national state administration. She said that she had to collect rice and prepare it for those who were doing forced labour. As the youngest wife, she used to accompany her husband during his official trips together with Houphouët-Boigny. She had to prepare food for him and to care for his well-being. Her husband was part of the entourage of the first President during official visits and ceremonies, the independence celebrations included. What she recalled from the independence ceremony was a slippery wooden post on whose head a small pot was fixed24. Young men – my research assistant used the word “warriors” – had to climb up the post in a competition, in order to grab the gift hidden in the pot. Another scene she remembered was that there was a “throne” or podium on which speakers who held speeches sat and that each of the chiefs had to contribute something for the dance groups’ compensation. She also mentioned the presence of Modibo Keïta, the first president of Mali, who had come to Man. When asked about the importance of independence, she said that independence meant the end of forced labour and that everybody came home.

  • 25 Interview, Dohi, 2010.

20When listening to her account and how she linked episodes so as the end of forced labour coincided with independence in her mind, I wondered whether others shared this idea. A good friend’s grandmother, Dohi Fatouma, was about 16 when the independence celebrations took place. Although she cannot remember many details, as she said, she nevertheless attributes great importance to the event. She emphasised that with independence, forced labour ended and everybody came home! She also remembered the procession of the social or professional groups in Man, during which each professional group carried its symbol on their head: the farmers had a basket with rice or cassava, the chicken farmers a chicken etc. She was a dressmaker at the time and she carried her sewing machine on her head to show that she had a profession now and was independent, as she explained25.

21Again, the interpretive pattern of the end of colonialism was linked to the end of forced labour and hence was remembered as a major event that was celebrated. It is also noteworthy how both women described the end of forced labour as the moment when “everybody came home”. Having suffered forced separations, families were relieved to be together again.

  • 26 Interview, Diomandé, 2011.
  • 27 Interview, Tassy, 2011.

22Since forced labour appeared to be an issue for my interlocutors, I asked further elderly people about their experience of forced labour. One of the informants said he was too young to have conducted forced labour himself and remembered that in 1946, Houphouët-Boigny came to abolish it26. To describe the hardship of forced labour, he said that people had to dig the roads with their bare hands. He also remembered accompanying his mother to Man, where she had to deliver rice and straw. Another interviewee, too, mentioned that she was forced to work when she had to carry food far to the Mont Tonkpi, where the men of the family had to quarry27.

  • 28 Interview, Seu, 2011.
  • 29 Interview, Tia, 2011.

23Tassy remembers that in the times of forced labour, “when the whites came, the women hid and the boys hid”. During the night, according to Seu Anatole, people stayed in the seasonal dwellings on the fields or hid away in the bush to avoid recruitment. “They put ropes around people’s necks as if they were sheep! I have seen that myself; I didn’t say they did it with me”, Seu emphasised. His father did not have to do forced labour, but his father’s three younger brothers were recruited. They left. Then they came back to rest and the next was sent to do forced labour28. Tia Paul remembers that men sent the children of their least favourite wife with the whites: they kept two of their sons with them in the village, gave one to the whites for forced labour and sent one to school29.

  • 30 “When they left, you return to your husband. People took women by force to give them. Whether, one (...)
  • 31 “There is no way saying I am pregnant, I can’t go.”
  • 32 Interview, Ouohilou, 2011.

24Tassy’s co-wife, Ouohilou, grew up along the main road leading to the North of Man. During forced labour she said that doctors (term often used for whites in general) came to “look at people”. They chose the most beautiful women; they took them and gave them to the doctors (whites) for the time these men stayed there. «Quand ils s’en vont, c’est là, tu te retournes chez ton mari. Les gens prennent les femmes par la force, par force pour les donner. Si c’est un mois, deux mois, [elles] vont faire femme des gens [sic]30.» Something else this informant associated with this period was that they were forced to paint their houses white with kaolin and use red stone for decoration. To receive the stone, people were recruited to dig for kaolin “with their bare hands”, as is emphasised again, a phrase that interviewees used repeatedly to describe forced labour. Everything was done by force, she remembers: «Il y a pas affaire, je suis enceinte, je [ne] peux pas aller [sic]31.» Once, the quarry caved in. One of the women was buried there, no one came to her rescue or recovered her body later32.

  • 33 The Dan are a segmentary society, meaning they do not have an institutionalised, hierarchical chie (...)
  • 34 “Know paper”, meaning they know how to read and write.

25When the village failed to arrange their houses in the way the whites wanted, the “village head33” was attached to a tree and beaten. Often those who were severe were not even Europeans, but Africans who had gone to school, who “connaissent papier34 ” as the local expression goes and who worked for the whites. The Dan use the same word for the whites and for educated Africans alike “kwi” (Vydrine and Kességbeu, 2008).

  • 35 Conclusion by translator Tia in interviews, Tassy, 2011; Ouohilou, 2011.

26The translator finished this sequence by saying that «Avant l’indépendance, quand on a fait indépendance, elle avait déjà son premier enfant sur son dos. Donc elle-même, elle a vu. Houphouët il est venu enlever travail forcé sur les gens35».

  • 36 Interviews, Seu 2011; Tassy, 2011.
  • 37 Trade with surplus, crafts and schooling can be seen as additional ways of generating income.

27The testimonies just presented seem to suggest that colonialism is to a certain extent equated with and exemplified by forced labour in the experience of this generation, particularly for peasants with no or little schooling. Forced labour was arguably one of the most concrete forms of colonial domination in people’s experience and it affected ordinary families directly36. The absence of manpower had a decisive impact on the daily life of subsistence farmers, which was what most families lived on in the first place37. It would also be interesting to learn more about the implementation process of the Houphouët-Boigny law, particularly in remote areas. Is it possible that forced labour continued to be practised after 1946, but in another guise? This question certainly requires more research.

28Another distinctive feature linked to the equation of colonialism and forced labour is that some elderly people mention the end of forced labour in the same breath as independence. Both events are linked to the person of Houphouët-Boigny, but this phenomenon is not unique to Côte d’Ivoire. Historical research in Madagascar, too, has come to the same conclusion, namely that the end of colonialism is linked in people’s memories to the end of forced labour (Cole, 2001: 165). Both political events, in 1946 and 1960 respectively, signal important political changes and are symbolically laden with “liberation”, which might provide us with some explanation as to the merging of memories. In the next section, I will continue the analysis with the merging of dates, in particular for the ceremonies of independence.

Independence celebration in Man: the merging of dates

29Independence, the abolishment of colonialism as a legal form of domination, constituted first and foremost a decisive political change at the national and international level (Cooper, 1999: 582). Consequently, it was celebrated in the capital city above all, the assigned apex of national power: «c’est tout naturellement dans les capitales que se déroulèrent les plus importantes manifestations marquant cet événement [l’indépendance]…» (dAlmeida-Topor, 1999: 255). This statement reminds us that the major locus of the 1960s independence ceremonies was the capital city. This does not exclude the possibility of public celebrations at the regional level. In her account, for instance, Saty Sably mentioned wooden posts, a throne for speakers and Modibo Keïta, an important visitor and personality. Dohi Fatoumata remembered the procession of professional groups sporting a representation of their trade on their head – a sewing machine in her case. What do other elderly remember about the independence celebration in Man?

  • 38 Interview, Bleu, 2010.
  • 39 Interview, Lai, 2010.

30Vincent Bleu, born in 1949, was still a boy at the time of independence and was very willing to help me, but admitted to memory shortcomings. When prompted to recall the festivities, he described a sequence of events constitutive of any official ceremony in Côte d’Ivoire – except the many French soldiers he mentioned participating38. Lai Blaise, the chef de terre of Podiagouiné (about 60 km from Man), also remembered that they were all called to join the celebration in Man in great numbers39.

  • 40 Konstanze N’Guessan confirms this. She is writing her dissertation on the Jubilee in Côte d’Ivoire (...)
  • 41 Interview, Soumahoro, 2010.

31Another witness, Dan Gouiné André, who had taught at the catholic school for 32 years, asserted with conviction that he was unable to remember a ceremony in Man; it had taken place in Abidjan, he said. Dan Soumahoro, another retired teacher, also placed the first independence celebrations in Abidjan with further celebrations rotating throughout the country in the 1960s40. In fact it was 1969 before it became Man’s turn to host the official national celebration41, an event documented by Fraternité Matin, the Ivorian daily (Fraternité Matin, 7th August 1969, p. 1-2; Fraternité Matin, 8th August 1969, p. 5).

  • 42 «Le grand événement qui a marqué Man.»

32When I asked whether there was a celebration in Man, Dan Soumahoro first explained that there have been many celebrations in Man. When I insisted on the year 1960, he said the one he remembered in 1960, right after independence, was a visit from Modibo Keita, from Mali, whom Saty Sably had also recalled. He emphasized that this was “the big event that marked Man42”. People gathered from the entire region and there was food for everybody. The visitor from Mali was showered with gifts such as palm oil and cloth and entertained with dance and music by different cultural groups of the region.

  • 43 Most explicitly in interviews with Fofana, 2011; Tia, 2011; Sati, 2010; Seu, 2011; Diomandé, 2011, (...)

33Further details only Dan Soumahoro remembered and other witnesses did not mention were that Houphouët-Boigny asked the population to change all thatched roofs to corrugated iron, so that when he passed over them by helicopter the roofs would shine back. Another detail recalled was a football match which took place between two major football clubs; at the time of the nation’s independence the country was divided into followers and opponents of the respective clubs. Subjectively, this made a major impression on this witness, even if marginal in the History of independence. There is, nevertheless, common ground found by all witnesses: the times under Houphouët-Boigny at independence seemed abundant in comparison to present times in their life narratives43.

34The details surrounding independence celebrations that witnesses remember are from ceremonies that took place after 1960. Some elderly people remember independence in 1960 as the celebration that took place in Man in 1969. Others confuse it with the visit of Modibo Keita, President of Mali, right after the country gained independence. These two events were large celebrations with region-wide mobilisation. How do we explain these intermingled memories?

35To fully understand the nature of remembered information in oral narratives, we must return to the moment in which a person witnessed something. The way in which human beings experience an event is already highly subjective. Furthermore, aspects of an event that have a strong emotional impact on the person will be perceived and stored, whereas other aspects – less impressive to the person – pass unnoticed and do not proceed to leave a mark in their mind (Jureit, 1999: 44). In the course of communicating our experiences and thinking about them, we memorize events. Whenever we remember, memories are retrieved and simultaneously restored in an updated version. As all celebrations seem to follow a similar protocol with the participation of the same social groups (Fauré, 1978), experiences of different celebrations merge. Older memories are overwritten with experiences of more recent ceremonies and the originally distinctly separate events are difficult to keep apart nearly fifty years later.

1960 – Caesura or continuity?

  • 44 Interviews, Zogbe, 2008, Lai, 2009; chef du quartier Gbêpleu, 2009.
  • 45 Interview, Lai, 2009.

36In my interviews about past times conducted in 2008 and 2009, independence never came up spontaneously44. For instance, when the chef de terre of Podiagouiné asked me to come and record the history of the village, his major focus was the conflicts between different families in pre-colonial and post-colonial times45. He also had much to say about the first contact with and the arrival of the whites, but much less about the end of their rule.

37These musings beg the question: Was the independence of 1960, in the collective experience of many Ivoirians, more of a continuity rather than a fierce new break? The thesis that independence might not be judged as a caesura in the long term is not new after all (e. g. Crowder, 1987: 11). It is well-known that Houphouët-Boigny employed French personnel for the development of the new nation and that he only gradually moved to the so-called “Africanisation” of the cadres (e. g.: Person, 1981: 49; Weiskel 1988: 378).

  • 46 Interview, Seu, 2011.
  • 47 Interview, Soumahoro, 2010.
  • 48 Interview, Yaya, 2010.
  • 49 Interviews, Bamba, 2011; Tassy, 2011.

38Taking this into consideration, it has been argued that the more profound turning point of Côte d’Ivoire’s history of independence was Houphouët-Boigny’s break with the Communist party in 1951 (Weiskel, 1988: 372-378): “The declaration of ‘independence’ as such on 7 August 1960 was not a very meaningful event in this continuum, for the significant choices had already been made” (Weiskel, 1988: 378). To set the turning point of the Ivoirian history of decolonisation in 1951 is certainly reasonable from an analytical point of view. However, in the longer life narratives of elderly people who did not work in the administration – of which I was only able to present some glimpses here – 1951 does not figure as caesura either. Instead, decisions by parents46, a promotion47, health issues48 or marriage49 shaped people’s life sketches and are accordingly reflected in the talks as turning points. Hence, from the perspective of individual life trajectories of elderly people in the hinterland and at the grassroots, independence was more a continuity than a rupture. At another level of consciousness, however, independence figured as an important event and is remembered as a caesura, namely, if asked explicitly. This is popular knowledge, after all.

39Initially, the research interest of this study was how independence was celebrated in a regional centre like Man. In a realist fashion (Armitage and Mercier, 2009: 3), I expected to ascertain something about the ceremony itself and the spirit of the time. But the first testimonies I collected were rather short, often fragmentary and partially contradicted each other. Recollections regarding forced labour seemed more vivid than those concerning independence. In some accounts, independence (1960) coincided with the end of forced labour (1946) and independence ceremonies seemed intermingled with other ceremonies that took place at the time of independence and later ones.

  • 50 My translation.

40There are several ways to interpret and deal with these inconsistencies of time and events. It could be argued that some of the elderly did not remember what had happened correctly, whereas others did. Such reasoning would consider some memories wrong and exclude them from the body of data as faulty information. But this particular approach seems to miss the point of what recollections are able to tell us, after all. Obviously, I am not the first to face this problem of “accuracy”. It has been argued that recollections might depart from the “facts”, but remain valuable in the personal and collective memory (Assmann, 2001: 115). To dismiss memories as fictions would be wrong; they are better conceived as “personally authentic meaning constructions50” (Jureit, 1997: 99 in Heitz and Schüep, 2011: 18). Applying these theoretical insights into oral history and memory studies, one might postulate that what “actually happened” (empirical events) and what “happened” in people’s recollections should not be seen as forming a dichotomy. To some extent, what people recall as having happened, sometimes with the aid of local educational systems – schools and radio – or of national mythology, assumes the importance of what may be empirically demonstrable.


41As I have argued above, the rupture elderly people remember is the end of forced labour, when “everybody came home”, as they repeatedly put it. This historical moment which has not been marked by a celebration in Man, merged in the memories of elderly people to coincide with the public commemoration of independence. This is how at a symbolic level, this generation brought a subjectively critical moment in the lives of their families (the end of forced labour) together with a public important celebration – the national day – that is reiterated yearly on August 7th. In the collective memory of this generation (in the hinterland and at the grassroots), independence is reduced to a symbolic core of a sense of liberation, which is a) coherent with their personal memories and b) also corresponds to the accepted social discourse (importance of national independence and birth of the nation). Whether the images of a grand ceremony are nourished from a celebration that took place nine years later than 1960 is irrelevant in this light, for there is agreement after all: Independence is perceived as a very significant event.




Bamba Auguste, b. 1929, planter, Man, June 2011.

Bleu Vincent, b. 1940s, civil servant, Man, 2nd August 2010.

Chef de terre et chef de quartier de Gbêpleu, Man, March 2009.

Chérif Bakari, b. 1930, regrater, Man, 2nd August 2010.

Chérif Yaya, b. 1942/43, Man, 5th August 2010.

Dan Kouiné André, teacher, Man, 26th February 2009, 8th August 2010.

Diomandé Yorogo Jean, b. 1941, civil servant, Man, June 2011.

Dohi Fatouma, b. 1940s, dressmaker, Man, 2. Aug. 2010.

Fofana Mamadou, b. 1935, civil servant, school service, Man, June 2011.

Lai Blaise, Chef de terre, farmer, Podiagouiné, January 2009, 7th August 2010.

Ouohilou Mawa, b. 1946, (Tassie’s co-wife), Man, June 2011.

Sably Loan Saty, farmer, wife of village founder, Man, 4th August 2010.

Seu Anatole, b. 1937, warden/caretaker at a school, Man, June 2011.

Soumahoro Dan, b. 1937, civil servant, Kandopleu, 3rd August 2010.

Tassie Kony, b. 1934, Man, June 2011.

Tia Paul, b. 1928, farmer, Man, June 2011.

Touré Fereboué, b. 1930s, merchant family, Man, March 2009.

Zogbe Martin, b. 1930s, carpenter, Man, November 2008.


Abidjan Matin

«Dimanche à 0 h le Chef de l’État proclamera l’indépendance», 5th August 1960.

«Indépendance Man 1969. La fête à la montagne», 7th August 1969.

Fraternité Matin

«La fête à la montagne», 8th August 1969.


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1 By History with a capital “H” I mean so-called great events of (political) history: war and peace, change of power etc. (Armitage and Mercier, 2009: 1-5).

2 At Côte d’Ivoire’s 50th anniversary celebration, the Historian-President Laurent Gbagbo (2000-2010) promoted the histories of marginalised nationalist movements that advocated a more radical break with France (N’Guessan forthcoming).

3 I will describe the background of my interviewees further down. For a discussion of the political elite or leading class in Côte d’Ivoire see Fauré and Médard 1982.

4 The author is conducting her PhD in Man about the re-configurations of trust, security and social orders in post-conflict western Côte d’Ivoire which is part of a comparative study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Man was under rebel control at the time of the cinquantenaire.

5 Different researchers give different meanings and interpretations every time the document is used.

6 One of the neighbourhoods in Man still carries the name sofa in Dioulabougou today (Touré, 2009).

7 Interview Touré, 2009.

8 To my present knowledge, spelling varies between “Gbeypleu”, “Gbêpleu” and “Gbépleu”. I follow Reed 2003 in this article. “Pleu” means village in Dan (Vydrine and Kességbeu, 2008: 361).

9 Talk with Chef de terre Gbêpleu, 2009.

10 The first post-conflict elections were held in November 2010.

11 Several experts on memory recommend not revealing the actual subject of study to the interviewee, in order to achieve a better assessment of the relevance of the topic for the interviewee himself. Rosenthal’s point makes sense, but such an attitude is inconsistent with the code for field research of the AAA, in which for ethical reasons anthropologists should always inform their informants on what they research on and what will happen with the information they provide (De Walt and De Walt, 2002).

12 Most of them did some farming at one point in their life.

13 First settler family and owner of the land.

14 Interview, Soumahoro, 2010.

15 Shifting cultivation is an agricultural practice that involves moving the cultivated area regularly in order to avoid the exhaustion of the soil.

16 Explained by translator Tia, in Tassy, 2011.

17 Interview, Seu, 2011.

18 Interview, Soumahoro, 2010.

19 Interviews, Chérif, 2010; Soumahoro, 2010; Tassy, 2011.

20 Field note records.

21 We have suffered a lot!

22 He uses this word to refer to young people including teenagers and young adults. His strategy is to display his high status as a respected elderly person. He refers to men in their thirties and forties as «ce sont des jeunes».

23 Interview, Chérif, 2010.

24 Game known as “mât de cocagne”, introduced by the French for festivities e.g. for the 14th of July.

25 Interview, Dohi, 2010.

26 Interview, Diomandé, 2011.

27 Interview, Tassy, 2011.

28 Interview, Seu, 2011.

29 Interview, Tia, 2011.

30 “When they left, you return to your husband. People took women by force to give them. Whether, one month, two months, they will make the woman of people” [sic]. I have tried to stick to the original wording as closely as possible, in the way it was translated to me by Léontine Tia; neither the translator, nor Tassy and her co-wife Ouohilou have gone to school.

31 “There is no way saying I am pregnant, I can’t go.”

32 Interview, Ouohilou, 2011.

33 The Dan are a segmentary society, meaning they do not have an institutionalised, hierarchical chief.

34 “Know paper”, meaning they know how to read and write.

35 Conclusion by translator Tia in interviews, Tassy, 2011; Ouohilou, 2011.

36 Interviews, Seu 2011; Tassy, 2011.

37 Trade with surplus, crafts and schooling can be seen as additional ways of generating income.

38 Interview, Bleu, 2010.

39 Interview, Lai, 2010.

40 Konstanze N’Guessan confirms this. She is writing her dissertation on the Jubilee in Côte d’Ivoire (N’Guessan, 2011).

41 Interview, Soumahoro, 2010.

42 «Le grand événement qui a marqué Man.»

43 Most explicitly in interviews with Fofana, 2011; Tia, 2011; Sati, 2010; Seu, 2011; Diomandé, 2011, etc.

44 Interviews, Zogbe, 2008, Lai, 2009; chef du quartier Gbêpleu, 2009.

45 Interview, Lai, 2009.

46 Interview, Seu, 2011.

47 Interview, Soumahoro, 2010.

48 Interview, Yaya, 2010.

49 Interviews, Bamba, 2011; Tassy, 2011.

50 My translation.


Doctorante en anthropologie, Institut d’anthropologie sociale, université de Bâle, Suisse

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