In a review of my first published book one of the founding figures of african historical studies suggested that instead of giving so much attention to European colonial administrators and African traditional chiefs I should have focused upon “the clerks, the schoolmasters and the evangelists, who were to take the lead when indirect rule had failed.” The terms in which this admonition was expressed implies a confidence in the nationalist project of “educated elites” that is less tenable today than it was during the 1960s. Nonetheless, in the late stages of my own career I have come to the conclusion that of the various occupational categories cited by Roland Oliver, African clerks do deserve greater examination than they have received so far in the historiography of colonial Africa. However, if they do prefigure the political leadership of postcolonial Africa, it is less in the heroic and innovative mode of “nation-building” than in the more problematic and continuous role as “gate-keepers,” or “brokers” (honest or not) between subject populations and external sources of power/patronage.
I am not alone in this concern and an entire recent volume of essays has been dedicated to the study of such colonial “African intermediaries.” I contributed a chapter to this book and have continued to pursue a study of colonialism from “the middle” (as opposed to the “above” of my previous work as well as the social history “from below” that emerged in more recent decades). The focus of my research on this topic is upon two figures who are of both historical and literary significance: Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900-1991), the very renowned Malian writer and scholar who produced a memoir about his early career as a colonial clerk; and “Wangrin,” a clerk and interpreter of an earlier generation, who is the subject of Hampâté Bâ's most widely read book.