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Research in African Literatures 35.4 (2004) 17-32

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From Ethnography to the African Novel:

The Example of Doguicimi (1938) by Paul Hazoumé (Dahomey)*

Bayreuth University
In memory of Richard Bjornson

From Ethnography to the Novel"— this title could be understood in several possible ways. 1) On the individual level, it could mean that the author had taken ethnographic material and built it into his fictional work or conducted ethnographic studies that then served as a basis for his literary work. 2) On the collective level—of the literary system or field (champ littéraire)—the title could be understood in the sense that ethnographic research (as a necessary first step) suggests certain subjects and content to fictional literature, which the latter then appropriates for its own use. 3) Finally, ethnographic research as a whole is the very prerequisite for the production of the fictional writing of a given historical period, which gives rise to such literature and indeed makes it possible in the first place.

It is the third perspective that forms the basis of our investigation. During the period between the two world wars, when African literature written in the French language came into being, African authors undoubtedly were compelled to produce a considerable number of scholarly texts (historical, anthropological, ethnological) before they were admitted into the field of fictional writing. Both on the collective and individual level, it was necessary for the French-educated African intelligentsia to legitimize their entry into the world of fictional writing by first publishing a respectable number of non-fictional works. The literary and journalistic "conquest" of the public space by the Africans, explored by Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink in Conquête de l'espace public colonial (2003), whereby they gradually won back the power to describe their own historic and contemporary world—a right "confiscated" from them by the colonial overlords (see Moura)—succeeded only bit by bit and encountered the greatest resistance when Africans laid claim to the right to define themselves through fictional writing. This situation, which seems so surprising at first,1 will be discussed and clarified using the example of the ethnographic novel by Paul Hazoumé.

Paul Hazoumé was born in 1890 in Porto Novo, which at that time was already under a French protectorate (Garcia, 1988). In the same year the French began their war of conquest against King Béhanzin, which ended in 1894 with the "pacification" of the country and the creation of the "Colonie du Dahomey et Dépendances." Thus, [End Page 17] the beginning of the author's life coincided with the French colonial conquest of his country and ran parallel with its complete takeover, including the establishment of a colonial administration and education system. At this time his father, Alamavo Hazoumé, was a councillor at the royal court of Toffa I in Porto Novo. In 1895, he led an official mission of his country to Paris (P. H. reverently kept a photograph recording this event). Thus, one can say that, due to his birth and the position of his family, Paul Hazoumé was from the beginning a witness and participant of the events that delivered his country to seventy years of French colonial rule.

Paul Hazoumé began his education at the Catholic mission of the Societé des Missions Africaines de Lyon of Porto Novo and taught there as Moniteur from 1905 to 1907. He was a protégé of Rev. Francis Aupiais, whose importance as a role model and influence he acknowledged until the end of his life.2 Robert Cornevin summarizes the importance of this relationship as follows:

L'œuvre scolaire catholique au Dahomey doit beaucoup au R. P. Francis Aupiais (1877-1946). Arrivé en 1903 au Dahomey, il est affecté à Abomey où, moins de dix ans après la reddition de Béhanzin, il a la révélation de la société fon. Bientôt chargé d'enseignement à Porto Novo, il y fait merveille et forme des générations...


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