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the central events in this story took place in the river-side town of Kaédi in the French colony of Mauritania on February 15, 1930. That morning, two men, Mamadou Sadio and Dieydi Diagana, prayed together in a mosque in the neighborhood of Gattaga. Both members of the town's Soninke ethnic minority, Mamadou Sadio was the son of one of Kaédi's Islamic scholars, and Dieydi Diagana was the French-appointed chef de village for Gattaga, Kaédi's Soninke enclave. This day, in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan, was supposed to have been a day of reconciliation, for the two men had been on opposite sides of a conflict that had unsettled Kaédi for months and were praying together to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful coexistence.
The conflict had begun the previous August 1929, when a young man named Yacouba Sylla arrived in town and began preaching a message of religious and social reform that took Gattaga by storm. A Sufi teacher, Yacouba Sylla had incurred the hostility of the local representatives of the French Empire and the disdain of Kaédi's elite by calling for radical changes in social and religious practice and by claiming authority out of proportion to his age and his rather minimal formal education. He claimed instead to derive his authority from a controversial holy man named Ahmad Hamallah, from Nioro in Mali, who at the time was being detained by the French administration.
Achille Mbembe has insisted that it is impossible to understand the “logics of the disordering [la mise en désordre] of colonialism in Africa” simply by analyzing the structures of colonial rule and then identifying instances of African resistance in relation to them. What is needed instead, he argues, is an examination of acts of “indiscipline and insubmission” in all their “misfires,” “equivocations,” and “slippages,” their “very incoherent plurality.” In this Mbembe echoes Gayatri Spivak's famous claim that the “colonized subaltern subject” is “irretrievably heterogeneous.” But Mbembe also distinguishes the process of identifying “interprétations indigènes” – in the sense of locating the procedures of insubmission and the reasons for their plurality within debates over authority, equality, and belonging and the political articulation of those debates – from a “substantivist drifting that seeks to explain everything in reference to a collective mentality, disconnected from contexts, time and agents.” Mbembe thus leaves open a possibility that Spivak forecloses: writing a meaningful history of insubmission.
To what extent is the history of Yacouba Sylla and his followers one of insubmission? Aside from its rough beginnings, the community can be seen from 1934 on as moving in close sympathy with the major trends in West African history, establishing good relations with the colonial state, finding a home in nationalist movements, and surviving the rougher waters of postcolonial Côte d'Ivoire with fewer losses than might have been expected. Only on the ideational level does radicalism seem to have persisted.
L'aristocratie religieuse (coopérant avec les notables) annonça au peuple illuminé qu'avec la fin des travaux forcés et l'inauguration du «labeur librement consenti», tous obtiendraient – bing!– iru turu inè turu, «une véritable liberté et une citoyenneté entière»…
– Yambo Ouologuem Le devoir de violence
If writing the history of women and gender in West Africa is often hampered by methods that cannot adequately confront silences in sources, the same is true for the history of slaves or members of other marginalized social groups. For former slaves both documentary and oral records are particularly problematic. In the absence of formal guarantees of equality, freed people and their descendants often found that the best strategy was to disguise their family history. Martin Klein and others have noted the way this can result in serious misinterpretation when researchers take oral sources too much at face value. But if silence or forgetting are active strategies of self-emancipation, and if the keepers of memory, like the assemblers of archives, guard knowledge that reinforces their power, then it may be that no history of postslavery West Africa is truly possible and that efforts to write it cannot but reinscribe the perspectives of former masters; history itself may become a source of oppression. Other conceptual problems, here traceable to researchers themselves, have also afflicted scholarship on the topic. In large-scale narratives of West African history, the end of slavery appears as a set of fitful, hesitant moves away from a range of forms of unfree labor and toward the gradual appearance of contractual labor governed by markets.
most of the documentary evidence on the history of Yacouba Sylla and his followers comes from surveillance files, intelligence reports, and captured correspondence that were assembled and preserved by the French colonial administration. These reports and dossiers on which we rely were not, of course, maintained to facilitate objective historical analysis, but rather as the working memory of a process of domination. Much recent theorizing by historians and others has sought to address the paradox that sources that are indispensable for the study of domination and exploitation are themselves marked by the often unconscious strategies that justified and legitimated such actions. Virtually all state archives are, in this sense, “technologies of rule” as well as monuments to those technologies. The archives on the Yacoubists are no different; they owe their general form to the broad strategies of French rule in Africa and to their relations with other instruments of governance, such as the colonial police force and administrative patronage networks.
There are many ways to respond to this problem. Systematic exploration of the rules that governed the production of colonial archives can tell us much about the rules of governing empires and help us identify more readily the gaps and silences within the knowledges of those who governed. To take one striking example, much of what is known about the Yacoubist community during the 1940s comes from the report compiled in 1943 by Commissaire Rortais in response to accusations that Yacouba Sylla was trading in slaves.
outside observers have generally known yacouba sylla and his followers either for the violence in Kaédi in 1930 or for their success as merchants in Côte d'Ivoire, and have sought to explain the community with reference to those local contexts. Opponents within the Hamawiyya and the Tijaniyya have viewed the entire trajectory of the community as the inevitable consequence of Yacouba's own personal character flaws, particularly his ambitiousness and lack of formal religious training. The community's Ivoirian neighbors tended to assimilate Yacouba and his followers to the stereotypical categories of the acquisitive, spiritually powerful marabout and his devoted, materialistic disciples. When Yacoubists themselves explain their past, they too generally present it as a unified tale. For most, the development of their community represents the culmination of a set of transformations in African social life begun decades – if not centuries – before the advent of the colonial state. In particular, they see in their past the unfolding of a series of spiritual gifts that Shaykh Hamallah imparted to Yacouba Sylla and which he in turn had received from Ahmad al-Tijani and, through Tijani, ultimately from the Prophet Muhammad himself. The most important of these gifts was the community itself, its solidarity, and success in the face of indignity, suffering, and the inevitable selfish desires of individual members.
This “unity of action” was not, for most Yacoubists, a consequence of applying a reductive framework to limited information. It was a hard-won truth and a vantage that had to be constructed and actively maintained.
this chapter is unavoidably teleological. its premise is that it is possible to explain the actions of Yacouba Sylla, his followers, and his opponents by contextualizing them within long-term intellectual and social trajectories that were both specific to the Western Sudan and part of a broader Islamic “tradition.” The explanatory success of this contextualization does not demonstrate that such a tradition existed as an autonomous force that could channel behavior and representations in predetermined directions. Rather, it suggests that Yacouba Sylla and his followers drew on patterns they saw in the past as if they constituted a coherent repertoire of creative solutions to problems and precedents to legitimate certain courses of action. Socially composed and situationally invoked in practice, these patterns are here presented synthetically to make them analytically meaningful.
This “Western Sudanic” tradition, which incorporated elements of the regional past as far back as the twelfth century and as recent as the 1920s, had four basic features. First, Muslim religious specialists organized themselves into a self-consciously distinct “Islamic sphere,” characterized by hierarchical relationships between teachers and disciples, constituted by the circulation of and commentary on knowledge pertaining to moral, ethical, and cosmological principles, and reproduced through the transmission of this knowledge in transformative, initiatic stages. Second, these religious institutions were imbedded in a set of notional hierarchies, including the subordination of slave labor and the exclusion of artisans from political authority, with knowledge playing an important role in the legitimation and maintenance of these social distinctions.
Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed. In capitalism, things have a meaning only in their relationship to the cult. … [It] is the celebration of a cult sans rêve et sans merci. … There is no day that is not a feast. …
– Walter Benjamin “Capitalism as Religion”
The history of work in West Africa is obscured by scholarly practices that divide studies of religion as ideational and rhetorical from the analysis of religious “networks” as social institutions of forms of cultural capital, and that, more generally, isolate the history of colonial social change from that of African intellectual traditions. The Yacoubists explicitly understood their religious and economic practices as of a piece. Rather than linking their experiences to stories similar only in their “shared relationship to [some] relevant European category” like “commoditization” or “labor,” and thereby reinforcing the implicit coherence of European knowledges and the fragmentation of all others, the Yacoubists' visions of their own history call into question the very categories of economic activity and individualization that define the colonial era for most scholars. By the late 1930s, when the community had come fully into being both in Côte d'Ivoire and Kaédi, its defining features were the collective organization of work, the sharing of all property, and the successful accumulation of wealth.