- Introduction to Special Issue: Memory and the Formation of Political Identities in West Africa
This collection of essays centers on the relationship between memory work and political processes in several West African nations: Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Guinea-Conakry, and Mali.1 The authors analyze from different angles what Hagberg (this volume) aptly calls "politicized memory," that is, selective recollections of the past that reflect politically informed agendas for the present. State-promoted memorialization of the past, both colonial and postcolonial, has long been recognized as a powerful strategy of state affirmation and legitimization. In addition, scholars have become increasingly aware that remembrance and memorialization represent arenas for the confrontation of a variety of social and political forces, such as the state, the political opposition, and minority groups (Comaroff 2005; Eyoh 1998; Mbembe 1986; Werbner 1998). Memory and its symbolic expressions (both tangible and intangible) come to reflect power claims as well as critiques of power.
The study of memory challenges positivist understandings of history and ethnography—scholarly projects informed by the search for objective historical truths and pristine cultural traditions (Bellagamba, this volume). What aspects of the past will be remembered or forgotten, how, and by whom reflect agendas and orientations in the present (see Bellagamba and Goerg, this volume). Memory is not a static entity, but a process, one in which preservation and change, if in differing degrees, are mutually implicated (Clifford 2004). Memory articulations2 intimately reflect negotiations among local, national, and international actors and their often diverging agendas (ibid.). For instance, Bellagamba shows how, in The Gambia, decisions about what to preserve, document, and exhibit depended upon the cultural agenda of the government, preservation policies promoted by international organizations (such as UNESCO), and scholarly traditions. Similarly, Arnoldi focuses on the hybrid process of public memory formation in postcolonial Mali: she details how institutions such as art festivals and museums, now perceived and portrayed as authentic Malian artistic traditions, are complex historical formations, which emerged during the colonial period. Though these cultural institutions are of foreign origin, they have been reappropriated in light of local traditions, and have become intrinsic parts of the national patrimony. [End Page v]
The study of memory not only informs much analysis of public culture, nationalism, and the interplay between local and national histories in contemporary societies, but also serves in the reexamination of the colonial period and strategies for imperial domination, as well as local responses within the limits of the colonial administrative apparatus. Thus, Goerg shows how, after the dismantlement of local authority structures during the early phase of the French colonization of Conakry and its suburbs, the past became a valued criterion in the appointment of local chiefs and a powerful tool in the hands of aspiring local dignitaries.
Although the study of memory intimately reflects social and political processes, contributors are wary of reducing the analysis of memory to instrumental political usages. Indeed, contributors engage with the meanings that specific categories of people—for instance, public intellectuals, local lineages, minority groups, etc.—attach to the struggles over the recollection or representation of the past and their changes over time. People's identity is intimately connected to their ability to assert a certain reading or interpretation of the past and to retain or establish some control over the local patrimony.3 For example, Hagberg shows how sacred knowledge and its spatial embodiments (e.g., ritual boundaries and sacred groves) have come to represent legitimate ways by which local actors can articulate their efforts at maintaining control over their territories in the face of state and international encroachments. De Jorio analyzes how a variety of opposition forces are challenging the memorialization of the colonial past promoted by the Malian democratic state. Rising in defense of their city's patrimony for a paradoxical site of their city's history (the statue of one of the main agents of French conquest), citizens of Ségou express their dissatisfaction with the government and its strategies of exclusion.
Goerg's contribution focuses on French colonial perspectives on the African past and how these informed the administration of specific colonial possessions, in particular the appointment of indigenous chiefs in Conakry and...