Beginning in 1933, West African students at the Ecole Normale William Ponty—the elite French colonial teacher-training college—completed their studies by writing ethnographic monographs on some aspect of their community of origin during their summer vacation. This corpus of nearly eight hundred monographs is collectively known as the “Cahiers Ponty” (Ponty notebooks). Ponty students were encouraged to “avoid false literary descriptions” but in practice many drew heavily on the tropes of novelistic prose—especially those of the bildungsroman. This essay examines the rhetorical and narrative strategies Ponty students employ to produce legible accounts of their own socialization as modern subjects, as well as the feedback from teachers that constrained their performances. I argue that the Ponty notebooks exemplify a distinct discipline—para-literary ethnography—that had a role in shaping the contours of colonial modernity and early francophone literature in West Africa.


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