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Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939-1958 (review)
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Guinea's singular affront to France—preferring immediate independence to President Charles de Gaulle's offer of "Community"—is generally attributed to the audacity of Ahmed Sékou Touré, trade-union activist, national party leader, and Guinea's first president. Schmidt challenges this dominant perception with her remarkable study of Guinea's grassroots nationalist movement. She contends that although Sékou Touré and other African Democratic Rally (rda) leaders skillfully harnessed anticolonial sentiments among the masses to achieve early electoral success against rival parties, the masses were, in fact, responsible later for compelling the rda leadership into the radical demand of immediate independence.

To support this contention, Schmidt culled an impressive array of existing literature in French and English, bringing to Anglophone audiences the insights of Guinean scholars in particular, hitherto largely hidden behind the language barrier. More significantly, she sought out and interviewed twenty-six Guinean participants in the early nationalist movement. Finally, she checked and corroborated those written and oral sources with meticulous use of archival evidence, consulting police and administrator reports, correspondence, and party documents in the archives of Guinea, Senegal, and France.

A sometimes uncommon companion to such thoroughness is Schmidt's exceptionally clear and captivating prose. After an initial chapter that lays her foundational argument, she organizes the book around the four main groups in which she locates the motor of nationalist activism: military veterans, trade unionists, rural peasants, and women. A sixth chapter highlights divisions that arose within these groups over time—tensions about female emancipation, ethnic exclusiveness, and the use of violence. The final chapter builds to the climax of Guinea's historic vote for independence in 1958.

As she weaves her compelling account, Schmidt makes three valuable contributions. First, she differentiates the "masses" throughout the work, carefully demonstrating the cleavages that persisted despite leaders' efforts to meld a unified movement, as well as divisions that developed specifically as the movement grew. Second, she reveals the central role of women in this struggle. Her chapter on women's activism is her most original and colorful, largely because of its source. Whereas other chapters sprinkle a handful of interviews among archival and secondary sources, half of the notes in this chapter refer to oral interviews with participants. Third, Schmidt methodically (yet creatively) details the mechanisms of mass mobilization—from targeted speeches by leaders to clandestine communication between market-women—providing the rich microfoundations to theories of nationalist movements that more often remain assumed.

Although Schmidt does not claim to provide a general theory of mass mobilization, her insistence that the masses, rather than the leadership, pushed Guinea's historic "no" vote may require more comparison than she provides. She shows impeccably well the reasons for the rda's early success in relation to its rivals within Guinea. But if the strength of the masses was decisive for Guinea's "no" vote, comparable grassroots sentiment must not have been present in other territories that voted "yes." The entire book is devoted to elaborating the elements that strengthened Guinea's nationalism, but they are presented as a mounting stack of evidence, rather than weighed for their relative contribution. Crucial factors to Guinea—extreme wartime deprivation, unusual union strength, exceptional women's activism, unique severing of chiefly power—would persuade even more if contrasted explicitly with their weakness or absence in other territories.

In her care not to elevate Touré to mythical centrality in Guinea's "no" vote, she underplays the strategic skills that she attributes convincingly to him a decade earlier. The extraordinary cunning and foresight that served to mobilize various sectors of Guinea's population (particularly women) in the early years were replaced by a reactive, indecisive leader in 1958. Certainly, Touré's experience with power enticed him toward conservatism. But between early ideals and later collaboration a space may have remained for continued strategic action on his part, and he might have used the radical stance of the masses purposely to tie his own hands as he negotiated with France to the end. Nonetheless, Schmidt wholly persuades that only the strength of the masses allowed the possibility for such an option.


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