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Baga identity: Religious movements and political transformation in the Republic of Guinea

Baga identity: Religious movements and political transformation in the Republic of Guinea


Department of Anthropology, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UNITED KINGDOM.


By and large, the thesis is organised historically, although some chapters are more historical than others. Chronologically speaking, the thesis contains three separate bodies of data. The first one is made up of pre- and early colonial data, either extracted from written sources or based on oral accounts gathered in the field. The second contains data on the late colonial period and particularly on the iconoclast revolution led by Asekou Sayon, including on the one hand his own accounts, and on the other the accounts of my informants (together with a scholarly contextualisation based on library research). The third is, to put it this way, data on the "ethnographic present. " This tripartition of Baga history is adopted not only because I found it appropriate in order to present my material, but also because it seems to me to be a widespread model which both scholars and local individuals use to think Baga history.

In the thesis, however, this chronological tripartition of data is not respected in a strict historical narrative. In fact, many ethnographic elements are revealed at quite an early stage (in Chapter Two and, notably, in Chapter Three) so as to provide the reader with some elementary background that will make reading about today's historical and cultural processes (Chapter Six) easier to follow. Here is a more detailed breakdown of the chapters:

Chapter Two ("The mangrove people") situates the Baga in the coastal region where they live today and deals with their pre-colonial and early colonial history, and at the same time with the natural environment of the Guinean coast where the Baga live today. It is argued that the history and even the ethnogenesis of the Baga is best understood as that of a group formed on the periphery of the Fulbe Fouta Djallon highlands, a group made out of migrants from the Fouta itself, from Bundu (once a pre-colonial Fulbe state in today's Senegal) and probably from elsewhere. In precolonial and early colonial sources, the Baga territory is often described as an "asylum", as a region that used to attract different layers of outcasts from the hinterland who would be incorporated into the "Baga" category. If my analysis is correct, this would be similar to other coastal "hollow category" regions, such as those analysed by Edwin Ardener on the Cameroonian coast (Ardener 1972). This incorporative logic, which has strong parallels in other parts of the Upper Guinea coast, most notably in Guinea Bissau (Crowley 1990, Crowley 1997) is still active today. The so-called Bagatai attracts people from all over Guinea and Guinea Bissau for medical reasons (each village being specialised in a particular disease), many of whom decide to stay in the region and never go back to their own.

As would be expected, the view of the coast as an "internal African frontier" in Kopytoff's terms (Kopytoff 1987) and of its inhabitants as "frontiersmen" is often contested by the Baga themselves, who present a much more unified version of their history and of their origins. In fact, it is almost paradoxical that while Baga are literally fascinated with their origins, the concept of ethnogenesis is normally abhorred and avoided, or projected to such a distant past that it becomes a myth not subject to historical analysis. The Baga normally say that they were Baga long before they were on the coast. Indeed long before they were on the Fouta Djallon highlands prior to the arrival of the Fulbe, or even before that, when they were in such distant places as the Niger delta or still more distant ones such as Ethiopia or Egypt. They do not deny that they have a history. In fact, their identity is always historically presented and discussed. But they will strongly deny that they are the result of a history. When reflecting on this point I realized that much debate on the interrelation between history and ethnicity in Africa is vitiated by a lack of some basic definitions of history. Thus, when J. -P. Chretien and G. Prunier wrote, in the title of a book, that "ethnic groups have a history" (meaning that there are no "peoples without history") they did not seem to realize (at least not in the introduction to their volume written by Chretien) that "to have a history" may mean two different things: to be the agent of a longer or shorter history (in this sense the Baga would proudly agree with them, since they are sure that they have a particularly long one), and to be the more or less unfinished outcome of a series of events and the sedimentation of different processes in which different agencies are involved. In this sense, they would probably not agree 12. Yet, it is my contention that Baga identity is the precipitate of a series of processes that took place on the coast (hence the title of the chapter). In this chapter we will also see how, over the centuries, the people called the Baga inhabiting the mangroves have managed to build an impressive, somewhat fearsome stereotype about themselves, and that this stereotype was a crucial element of the protection granted to the Baga by the coastal mangrove, at least as crucial as the actual mangrove was. In this sense, the Baga, like other groups on the periphery of the Fouta Djallon, could be described as being a "deep rural" society, using a concept coined by Murray Last (Last 1980) and recently applied to the Upper Guinea region by Richard Fanthorpe in his study of the Limba (Fanthorpe 1998).

Chapter Three ("Social institutions") will present the basic components of a Baga identity as we know it today, with particular attention to the Baga Sitem among whom I was living. The idea is not to provide a full ethnographic account of the Baga; it is rather to provide specific background knowledge to help us understand the data presented and discussed in later chapters. I will therefore try to make explicit in this one a series of ideal typical forms that constitute a societal matrix in which meaning is always heavily contested. Issues of hierarchy, seniority and "purity" will therefore be given special attention.

Chapter Four ("The colonial legacy: Baga chiefs and Baga customs") adopts a more straightforward historical mode of presentation of data on the colonial experience of the Baga, especially of the Baga Sitem of Boke Prefecture (Cercle de Boké in colonial times). This chapter is based on data obtained in the prefectural archives of both Boke and Boffa, very rich sources that so far had remained unexplored. In order to understand the religious and political transformations that the Baga were to experience in 1957, often described to me as the moment in which the Baga "got rid of their heavy customs," I think it is crucial to understanda ll the pressures,internal and external, that the Baga suffered under colonial rule. It is also necessary to understand the impact of the creation of chieftaincies, with the imposition of chiefs in a region where there were no easily recognisable pre-colonial chiefdoms. Despite being a historical rupture, the colonial period also presented some continuities with the pre-colonial Baga. The fact that the first chief of the Canton Baga was a Fulbe man and that the Baga attempted to murder him in the village of Tolkoc by making an oath to amanco ngopon has a clear pre-colonial resonance: the story reminds us of other pre-colonial stories in which the mangrove and the "paganism" of the Baga allied to protect the Baga against the Fulbe.

In strict continuation with Chapter Four, Chapter Five ("Youths vs. elders: The politics of an iconoclast movement") deals with the iconoclast revolution of Asekou Sayon and his followers. This chapter incorporates part of the material gathered from Sayon himself. I have entitled it "youths vs. elders" because I think the best angle to analyse what happened in 1957 is to look at it as a generational conflict. This approach is not only congruent with what Baga people say but at the same time allows for a comparison between the situation in 1957 and the situation they are living in today. Indeed, the Baga experience today a strong generational problem, and it is possible to find both differences and similarities between the situation today and the situation in 1957. The similarities can reveal some structural features of Baga social life and of the articulation of power and age, while the differences will reveal the importance of political contexts (decolonization in the 1950s, democratization in the 1990s) in shaping discourses about Baga "culture" and in creating internal confrontations. While the youths in the 1950s were trying to escape from the burden of their own culture (to put it in their words), the youths in the 1990s are willing to return to the customs their elders despised in 1957, giving rise to a very interesting set of debates and negotiations that we will see in the next chapter. In order to contextualize the movement in a broader framework (the creation of the independent Republic of Guinea) and to avoid seeing it as merely an internal generational conflict, I will discuss the relationship between Islam and French decolonization, and will bring into my discussion some authors who have written on, as well as those who have pointed out the importance of religious movements in the making of public spaces, most notably the French authors J. -P. Dozon (Dozon 1995) and J. -F. Bayart (Bayart 1993a and 1993b).

Chapter Six ("Revitalizing Baga culture, rewriting Baga history") deals more directly with the situation today and with discourses about Baganess in the contemporary Republic of Guinea. This chapter links the "ethnographic present" to the events described in the previous chapter (which, incidentally, was also an ethnographically based chapter, not just a historical one: most of Asekou Sayon's followers and opponents were still alive when I conducted my fieldwork and to them the 1956/57 events were not as distant as they may seem to us). Although the title of this chapter refers to a "cultural revitalization, " my intention is not to prove that revitalisation does or does not take place but rather to use the concept in order to elucidate what we refer to when we are talking about Baga culture. Revitalisation is a difficult enough phenomenon to assess, one of those whose existence very much depends on our definitions and on our criteria to establish the relevance of data. With the same strength with which someone could say that the Baga are revitalising their culture, someone else could say that such a culture is dead and gone, and that Kamsar and "modernity" are going to finish with whatever is left anyway. Things and debates are happening among the Baga that are particularly interesting from the angle of the politics of culture. The Baga Sitem, together with their neighbours the Baga Fore and the Baga Pukur are strongly involved in activities aiming at expressing their culture both in Guinea and abroad. This contemporary definition of Baganess involves both a precise delimitation of the Bagatai or Baga territory (in clear contrast with the fuzzy notion of Baga used in Conakry that I alluded to in the first part of this Introduction), partially achieved through cultural performances such as the Baga football tournament analysed in the chapter, and the elaboration of a proper Baga history, written by educated intellectuals. The interesting thing, however, is not this literate production in itself, but its articulation with the by and large illiterate rural community. How does the need to have a history interact with notions of secrecy? How does the relationship between the lack of customary initiation and the rise of literate education affect notions of identity? What is the role of educated ressortissants in the development of the area?

Chapter Seven ("Rice and salt: Being Baga through time") offers conclusions to the thesis by pulling out a few more or less constant themes in the thesis. The title is based on the phrase "sna abaka malo-mer" ("we the Baga rice - salt"), which was written on a long stick carried by a woman during the "carnival" that accompanied the football tournament in Mare in April 1994 (Figure 10). At a time when most educated men were giving me highly intellectualised discourses about the deeds and the culture of the Baga I welcomed the reminder by that woman of this rather humble, succinct, practical and somewhat more poetic definition of Baga: "rice and salt" (which is, besides,a gender-balancedd efinition, since salt making is a women's occupation). Indeed, salt extraction and mangrove rice farming are the two activities that the Baga have been practising in the mangroves ever since they arrived there, whenever that was, and that have made them be the Baga (as opposed to other people on the coast, who do not do these two activities). In some way the phrase connected the past with what the Baga were saying about themselves already in the early 19th century: that they were an independent people, and that all they wanted was to be let alone so that they could continue their two main mangrove activities: to farm mangrove rice and to extract sea salt. It expressed the "deep ruralness" of the Baga and it made me think that whatever the intellectual ressortissants wanted to say about the Baga, they would have to come to terms with their rural reality. In this chapter I will explore the duality of Baga "culture" (things they do and things they say); the interaction between on the one hand secrecy and elusiveness and on the other hand public discourses and international projections; the differences between the reification of culture and cultural transmission. My general point about history and identity will be similar to the one made by John Peel in his seminal article on Yoruba ethnogenesis (Peel 1989), namely that in order for history to be "invented" the invention must be based on real historical experiences, and by Bruce Berman in his recent article on ethnicity and the state, where we can read that "ethnic identity cannot be conjured out of thin air, it must be built on real cultural experiences" (Berman 1998: 312). I am aware of the risk of reintroducing primordialist ideas through the backdoor, of falling into a somewhat vicious circle in which the identity of the group is explained by the non-explained existence of the group: the Yoruba inventing their Yorubaness, the Kikuyu discussing the civic virtues of Kikuyuness and thus defining their "ethnic" identity (Lonsdale 1996b), the Baga defining their Baganess, etc. But I think that such vicious circles are not to be avoided by researchers (as "presentists" and "inventionists" simply do), but rather that they are to be documented and analysed: social, cultural and ethnic identities are often (and certainly in the Baga case) formulated and reinforced through a feedback between experience and discourse and, as I will show, between oral "tradition" and literate elaborations.

As previously stated in my fieldwork section, having not been initiated into amanco ngopon's mysteries, I do not know what the meaning of "Gaga" may be. Etymologically, it is possible that "ba ka" means (in Susu) the "people of the sea. " The Baga priest Dominique Camara once told me that Baga means "the person, " and certainly I have heard it used as a synonym for "fum" ("person") (see Chapter Three). Other people told me there is an esoteric meaning of "Gaga" and many Baga Sitem told me that the Baga who live in Conakry are Baga Foté ("white, European Baga") because the "real" Baga are black and live away from big trading centres. 13 The Baga seem to be obsessed with definitions about themselves, and I believe that definitions are historically grounded. Today, Baga no longer have initiations (which was probably a powerful instrument to control who was and who was not a Baga), and whatever the meanings of "Gaga" will be in the future, they will have to be historically linked to the events I am describing in this thesis. Let this be the justification of my work; maybe one day someone may find it useful in order to investigate the different meanings of "Gaga. "