- Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939–1958 by Elizabeth Schmidt
Elizabeth Schmidt’s latest book is a welcome addition to African historiography and in particular among works seeking to recast and question our historical interpretation of post-World War II African nationalism. This is a groundbreaking work both in its scope and methodology, as Schmidt combines careful archival work with nuanced use of oral histories. The result is a much needed synthesis of two previously opposing tropes: the political narrative of African nationalism as the confines of elite Western-educated men, and the social historian’s understanding of non-elite participation in strikes, community politics, and regional and ethnic associations. Throughout the book, Schmidt successfully questions the conventional wisdom concerning the “top down” approach of male leaders towards what was often assumed to be a malleable and undifferentiated body of popular support. The “masses” in Schmidt’s work are far from undifferentiated or docile, and the resulting narrative offers numerable insights into the nature of African politics not only in the period of nationalist mobilization but for other periods as well, including the recent past.
Schmidt’s attention to detail and her commitment to presenting local history within a wider colonial context make this book accessible to readers with little knowledge of Guinea. Until this book, treatments of nationalism in this period have been dominated by the “big man” history of Sékou Touré and the commonly held view that he had single-handedly defied Charles de Gaulle’s call for unity in the former French African Empire. Guinea was the only former French African colony to vote against participation in the 1958 referendum for a new French Community, and this exceptionalism is often attributed to Sékou Touré relatively more radical position vis-à-vis his contemporaries, Leopold Senghor in Senegal and Houphouët Boigny in Cote d’Ivoire. Schmidt’s work offers a challenge to this view, arguing instead that Sékou Touré as in fact willing to cooperating with his counterparts in accepting the 1958 French Community, but an important strata of male and female teachers, youth leaders, and others within the nationalist movement in Senegal, the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), literally forced Sékou Touré to endorse a “no” vote on the referendum. To describe the national convention where this showdown occurred, Schmidt uses the words of one of her key sources, Bocar Biro Barry, ending the book on a note that provides legitimacy to the role of those not in Sékou Touré’s inner-circle and suggesting that the memory of nationalist mobilization is not simply the heroics of a few men at the top. Explaining how the political and economic situation developed to allow for this dramatic showdown in 1958 between leaders and cadre is what makes this a book such a fascinating read.
Using Bocar Biro Barry’s words to deliver the setting and context of the narrative is not the only example where Schmidt decides to use individual memories to set the tone and atmosphere around events and mobilizing strategies. This is a very innovative approach, and like the history of political mobilization elsewhere in Africa, it is virtually the only way to reconstruct the tactics and motivations of grass-roots organizers. Alternative archival sources, such as colonial police informants and official reports back to Paris, are no more reliable and certainly equally open to exaggeration. In order to avoid the excesses of popular memory, Schmidt is careful to juxtapose diverse views within the cohort of male and female activists she interviewed in order to challenge their memories as “gospel.” An excellent example of this concerns the political activism of Tourou Sylla, and outspoken woman who challenged the male-only world of public political discourse in her career as an RDA mobilizer. Schmidt describes stories of how Sylla would go to the very status-conscious areas of the interior where she shocked the “highborn Peul elders by violating the most important social codes” of gender and public...