knowledge production on equal terms? The linguistic collection of Koelle and Ali Eisami: insights into early 19th century knowledge production

By Carolin Rippstain

The above mentioned topic is the object of my doctoral project that is affiliated to the EHESS and CNRS and started in December 2020 under the supervision of Camille Lefebvre as a part of the ERC/Langarchive and is intended to be finished by the end of 2023.

The name S. W. Koelle is quite well known among contemporary historians of Africa mainly for his Polyglotta Africana, a comparative Vocabulary of more than 100 African languages, which stands out due to its containing various biographical sketches of the speakers consulted, making it a rich historical source. Koelle compiled it in a 5 years stay at Sierra Leone where he was sent as a first socalled missionary linguist by the British Church Missionary Society (CMS) at the end of 1847. Yet, this work which earned  him a lot of attention already soon after its publication, originally was a private project that Koelle pursued in his free time against critisism from his fellow Missionaries and the Home Committee. His actual main task was to chose one language that he would learn so well that he could write a grammar of it and possibly translate some of the Holy Scriptures, following the main goal of spreading the Gospel. His choice of the Kanuri, spoken by a traditionally Muslim society, over the course of time did not quite turn out to be the right means to this end, yet by then had already proceeded so far that it was decided to have Koelle finish it nonetheless. Compared to the Polyglotta these Kanuri studies have always attracted much less attention, although they are a very interesting source both in regard to its content as well as its production. But recently this collection came into focus in the process of searching out African sources for African history mainly in hitherto neglected linguistic collections.

Photograph of Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle, from Robert Needham Cust ‘A sketch of the modern languages of Africa’ (1883)

Renowned scholars like P. E. H. Hair, David Dalby, Paul Lovejoy, or Sara Pugach have conducted research regarding Koelle providing us with short biographical scetches, as well as some insights into the production of the collection. But this has never been done extensively and also, knowledge about his counterpart Ali Eisami falls rather short in comparison – only two articles concerning him have been published by F. C. Smith, D. M. Last and Gambo Gubio as well as Lovejoy.[1] Both of them, however, are based almost entirely on a report Eisami himself gave of his life. Moreover the knowledge about the two men has only very scarcely been connected and both never studied as a joint project – likewise their cooperation has not been the focus of any research project, or at least publication. In my research project I intend to draw a more complete picture combining the various aspects in relation to the two mens intellectual cooperation. Therefore I will work with Koelle‘s publications, the extensive CMS archive as well as British colonial records both in Britain and Sierra Leone and Koelle‘s correspondence with various scholars scattered over Germany, that I have already partially explored. A special focus is put on Ali Eisami and the outstanding publication ‚African Native Literature‘, as well as further parts of his narrations possibly to be found.

Image of Ali Eisami, from the frontispiece of Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle’s ‘Grammar of the Bórnu Or Kānurī Language’ (1854)

The Kanuri collection in question is a product of hundreds of hours joint linguistic sessions of Koelle and his chief interpreter the native Kanuri Ali Eisami Gazirma. The latters life had gone in disarrey in the turmoil of the Sokoto Jihad, culminating in his being kidnapped at around age 25 and enslaved for a period of 5 years in different regions of Western Africa. Finally, when about to being shipped across the Atlantic, Eisamis vessel was captured. He then was resettled in Sierra Leone in April 1818 as one of the socalled ‚Liberated Africans‘, eventually enabling his encounter with Koelle. Noticing early into their work that the Kanuri was a very complex language Koelle decided on forming a literature to get acquainted with the language and obtain a foundation for what he calls ‘grammatical investigations’.[2] Therefore he would usually cause his interpreter to give him “any narration”[3] in Kanuri – that he did not know at all in the beginning – and immediately wrote down in simple and consistent orthography the sounds he heard, while Eisami was narrating. Thereby, in the course of their cooperation Koelle accumulated around 800 quarto manuscript pages of narrations by Ali Eisami containing texts ranging from fables over types of snakes in Bornu, the longevity of his great grandmother to political events or the succession of Kings in his home region – as well as an account of his life until his resettlement in Sierra Leone. When checking the reliability and accuracy of Eisamis narrations by consulting other people (generally almost exclusively men) from Bornu Koelle found Eisami to be very consistent despite being in his 60s and having spent more than half of his life away from his home, which led Koelle to marvel at Eisamis „more than ordinary strength of memory“[4].

Their intellectual cooperation finally led to the publication of a first ever Kanuri Grammar in 1854, after Koelle had returned to London. It was accompanied by a second book called ‚African Native Literature‘ which today constitutes the main point of interest due to its rareness. Originally the CMS had intended no further Kanuri publication than the grammar, but thanks to encouragements by fellow linguists Koelle lobbied to have a selection of Eisamis narrations published as well. This is already a lucky exception but even luckier (from a historians perspective) is the decision to publish Koelles English translations of the stories alongside the original Kanuri texts and a Vocabulary, which, together with the grammar, allows the translation to be checked. This is a remarkable degree of transparency and therefore as well a rare exception. So even if we can once again only access an Africans perspective through European documentation – containing the common dilemma of a European acting as a mediator – due to the competence, accuracy and transparency of its creators this linguistic collection offers an almost unmediated and thus undistorted insight into a certain part of African history and culture from the perspective of an African. This is interesting not only when it comes to facts and events, but also in the style of narration or attitudes exposed. In offering details of his experiences as well as his own reflexions on those, Eisamis original narrations constitute a source quite contrary to European colonial or missionary archives that usually mainly provide indexical and superficial and above all instrumental information on African actors.

Due to this there has been a quite extensive search for the unpublished (and therefore unknown) majority of the manuscript collection. While most researchers concluded that the missing parts are probably lost, there is some trace of it to be found pointing to German archives. In this doctoral project therefore further attempts at finding parts of the wanted collection are being made, extending the scope of research to German archives that to date have barely been taken into account.


[1] Ali Eisami Gazirmabe of Bornu, in ‚Africa Remembered, Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade‘, Philip Curtin (ed.), 1967. – and: Ali Eisami’s Enslavement in Jihad and Emancipation as a Liberated African, Paul E. Lovejoy, in: Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807–1896, Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy (eds.), 2020.

[2] African Native Literature.: II.

[3] See CMS, CA1/O135/12, Rev. S. W. Koelle, Original Papers, “Rev. Sigismund Wilhelm Koelle, Half Yearly Report,” 25 March 1848.

[4] Grammar of the Bornu or Kanuri Language: VII.


Le Fonds AkolI Daouel : Une Introduction à la culture orale nigérienne

Par Étienne Bauza

Akoli Daouel, né en 1937 à Tchingarène, département d’In-Gall, dans la région d’Agadez (Niger), est un ancien journaliste et homme politique nigérien. Issu d’une famille d’éleveur de bétail dont le père était chef de tribu, il devient dans les années 1960, le premier infirmier touareg du Niger. Le parcours d’Akoli Daouel au cœur du moment de la décolonisation est marqué par les évolutions liés au besoin d’élite formée dans un pays naissant : infirmier, journaliste, homme de radio, enseignant, entrepreneur dans le domaine du tourisme, acteur politique. Sa vie politique débute en 1970 et se continue avec quelques interruptions jusqu’en 2001 où il occupe deux postes de ministre sous deux gouvernements différents . Pendant cette période, il occupe plusieurs postes à responsabilité mais il est aussi journaliste ; il couvre les déplacements d’Hamani Diori, devenu le premier président de la République du Niger en 19601. Entre 1961 et 1963, sa carrière de journaliste le mène à devenir directeur de la station régionale de Radio Niger d’Agadez puis, après 1974, il devient directeur des programmes de La Voix du Sahel2. En 1981, il est le directeur d’une société d’Etat, la Société Nigérienne de Télévision (SNT), qui a commencé à introduire la réception en noir et blanc des émissions télévisées au Niger. Continuer la lecture de Le Fonds AkolI Daouel : Une Introduction à la culture orale nigérienne

  1. Fiche wikipédia, « Akoli Daouel » : https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akoli_Daouel []
  2. A la suite du coup d’Etat de Seyni Kountché, Radio Niger, créé en 1958, devient La Voix du Sahel en 1974. Cette station dépend depuis 1967 de l’Office de radiodiffusion-télévision du Niger – ORTN. []

The Langarchiv ‘Making Sense’ Conference

reviewed by Melanie Horstead

27-28 mai 2021 – Online Workshop

From the single word to the many lexicons and the politics, power, hermeneutics and deciphering of the spoken and written word in all its forms, this ‘Making Sense’ conference gets to the very heart of key questions about making sense of meaning in Africa-focused research. Though it may raise more questions than answers, this journey of reflection is the point of the conference. How do we as researchers come to understand the meaning of authors without objectifying the subject and subjecting it to the meanings we bring to it? And what about the intended audience? How is a source intended to be disseminated, heard or read? Who owns the word? This undertaking was no easy task. The following is a very brief report that cannot possibly do justice to the rich, detailed presentations that all contributors gave, but it at least gives you a small glimpse of what the conference entailed.

Professor Paulo de Moraes de Farias opens the conference in his talk entitled ‘Making Sense in a Globalised Context’. In his presentation he considers how ‘old genealogical links with the Iberian Peninsula have been re-emphasised, or posited in completely new ways, by Timbuktu Arma lineages’. His talk encouraged questions and discussion that ranged as far as the role of a library; what it is and how it is used, and whether universities have or should have the role of authenticators or even ‘delegitimizers’ of the past. The politics of historiographies and narratives are brought into question as we begin the struggle to make meaning in the respective geographical areas’ we work in.

In the first panel, West African sources between politics and Linguistics, Dr Stephen Bulman ‘considers production of knowledge on Sunjata Keita at Nioro, Mali…between 1850-1930’ and provides rich examples of his comparative approach to multiple versions of history in late 19th century and early 20th century Nioro du Sahel. He observes and questions how these ‘historical projects intersect’. Dr Stephanie Zehnle notes that we see ‘a whole world emerging in tackling the history of the myth, document, or source’. Dr Ari Awagana directly addresses the challenges faced in the translation of sources and searches for an understanding of the production of texts. He compares ‘the choices of phonic notation, morphology and syntax of Hâz Mûsā bin Hisēїn with the forms of a text glossed in Old Kanembu’. He describes his experiences in translating from old Kanembu to modern Kanuri (Manga) and elicits interesting ways of quantifying linguistic and historical data. Dr Jeremy Dell introduces the discussion on the conditions in which meanings are produced. He looks at the history of authority and authorship of the xasida written by Shaykh Amadu Bamba. From handwritten copies to the printed form and now online platforms, Dell points out that despite ease of globalised dissemination today, oral versions and productions of these works in Senegal still influence textual culture. Dr Abdulbasit Kassim completes the panel and delves into a ‘meta level’ analysis of his work on West African Arabic and Ajami manuscripts and raises the problem of decline in linguistic training and cultural mistranslation in anthropological research (on Islam). He discusses the limitations of various approaches to texts and looks towards creating a ‘convergence of discursive meanings’. He emphasises how the setting for how sources are read is crucial to the meanings we make. This thought on how we as researchers read sources was echoed throughout the conference. The context of the researcher reading microfilm isolated in a booth is far removed from the way in which the source was originally disseminated and interpreted. What are we missing? What is being lost?

Panel 2: Making & Contesting Meaning in East Africa could be subtitled as what Professor Samuel Nyanchoga calls the ‘politics of remembering and forgetting to remember’. Both Nyanchoga and Professor Felicitas Becker focus on interpretation of slavery in East Africa. Becker grapples with the positionality of the researcher. The texts she studies ‘address slavery as a historical phenomenon in the Muslim world and beyond’ and she addresses the challenges of facing claims in sources that cannot be ignored or sidestepped but which tell us about how the author construes the audience. Becker highlights the awareness of what the researcher brings to what they are reading. Becker goes on to talk about the importance of names and descriptive terms and how different terms used can reflect different hierarchical positions. Professor Samuel Nyanchoga works through the ‘multi-layered cultural and historical landscape’ of the Swahili Coast. He considers how descriptive terms that are assigned to us define us and affect how we interact with society. He considers the creation of multiple identities and a ‘hierarchy of rights’ and notes a ‘plasticity in the use of terms of identity’. He notes that there is a conspiracy to silence the history of slavery, the history from above is contested by the marginalised of the below, however Nyanchoga acknowledges that the entanglement of these histories raises more questions than it answers.

Panel 3: Changing Meanings of Slavery as Official Category and Lived Experience.

The third panel, and following discussions get to the heart of making sense of epistemologies and terminologies. As Dr Benedetta Rossi notes, different groups of people use (the term) slavery, but it means different things (in different contexts) and there are different sets of meanings attributed. In his work on ‘Hearing Recaptive African Voices and Discerning Meaning in Colonial Court Records’ Professor Marcus Filipello works through the distorted historical records and deals with the complexities of agency alongside ‘interpretations of psychoanalytical theory’. He works through the sense of unbelonging and unfamiliarity of spaces,  places and assigned names experienced by ‘liberated’ women in a colonial court. He asks, ‘how are we to sift through the layers of translation?’ As an historian writing about a past that is constantly changing in Sawab Mauritania, Professor Ann McDougall addresses the ‘‘empirical’ impact on knowledge production’. She  asks, ‘what does it mean to write about a past that is itself constantly changing…to create a new present?’ She observes that there is no one vision or view of the haratine people in Mauritania, in different regions there are different terms and relationships, and perhaps of most significance for the conference she found that a source ‘when explored through a different lens, tells a different story’. The confines of a frame or structure (such as the modern slavery discursive frame) contain the source and McDougall probes, ‘what are we not seeing’ and ‘leaving outside’? From the complexities of agency and the sifting through of distorted translation and records to the restrictions of a frame to the perspective of a different lens, we arrive back at the lexicon and the descriptive terms and how these terms affect social life and interaction. Aicha Kolan Kolan applies a socio-linguistic approach to the very names and categories used to refer to people of slave descent in a specific village in Niger. Here how one is named determines how one lives and what one is permitted, and not permitted to do. Even liberated slaves are given specific names according to their rank and importance.

Day 2 of the conference starts with Panel 4: The Politics of Canon and Interpretation: Rethinking Approaches to African Voices and Texts. Professor Cecile van den Avenne investigates ‘how to reconstitute and describe old language practices, to which we no longer have access except through writings, direct or indirect testimonies, of a definitively lost interaction’. In her close analysis of the notebook of European explorer Louis-Gustave Binger, who himself learnt Bamana (Bambara), she looks for the clues between linguistic description and communicative practice. She asks, ‘what do we lean from the reading of this notebook’? How the book is read indeed demonstrates more than just a colonial account and shows traces of real interaction between Binger and people he interacted with. The question of how we read and indeed categorize a text is echoed in Dr Oliver Coates’ presentation whereby he asks, ‘how geographical, historical, and moral knowledge are constituted’ within J.O. Ariyo’s book, Oju M Ri Ni India [What I Saw in India]. Coates looks into the text’s reception history as simply a piece of propaganda and a narrative of wartime Asia and World War Two Africa. Oliver cautions against  such reductionist categorisation and notes that various textual techniques would be lost if the piece was so judged. He argues that it goes beyond not only historical representation but has meaning in various contexts. Dr Augustine Farinola engages in both close and distant reading of textual data in the study of diaries (and consequent essays and lecture series and conference papers based on) the treatises of ‘Philosophical Sage’ Emmanuel Osigwe Anyiam-Osigwe. He problematizes the fact that the diaries were never published, there is no canon of work and that interpreters may be able to alter the source to fit their own frameworks. Farinola shows how ‘hermeneutical practices with corpora…can be enhanced through both close and distant reading of textual data as a means of making sense out of primary sources in the humanities’. Included in the presentation is Farinola’s interpretation of Osigwe’s view of allowing African agencies and African voices to be heard. Guided by the Bakhtinian philosophy of dialogism where ‘metaphorical language exists in a state of constant ‘becoming’ within a given interpretive encounter’, Professor Advice Viriri demonstrates how metaphors are powerful vehicles of persuasion in politics in Zimbabwe. He provides a convincing argument about the discourse of othering. “Weevil” and “Gamatox”  became “Lacoste” and “G40”; metaphors which ‘conceptualised…experiences in Mugabe’s autocratic rule’. We are led to question, who owns the metaphor? Who owns the word? Such questions tie back into the presentation of Jeremy Dell on the question of ownership of the xasida of Shaykh Amadu Bamba.

Panel 5: Beyond Interpretation: Decolonising Genre and Accounting for How Audiences Make Sense. Themes of the setting of reading a text or listening to and engaging with the text and the genre in which text is categorised come to the fore again in the presentation of Professor Karin Barber, entitled ‘The Textual Host’. Barber informs us of how ‘early written Yoruba histories relied mainly on oral genres’ which ‘capture and reactivate elements of the past…in a non-linear way’. She considers the final volume in a series of Church Missionary Society’s Yoruba language readers for schools, segmented historical narratives that appeared in early twentieth-century weekly newspapers and in the CMS school readers various local historical narratives were laid out side by side in a patchwork format. This patchwork and unlinear format achieved popularity due to its ‘keeping with long established oral modes’. Barber observes that the segmented accounts of historical events depend on others to actually constitute meaning. In complete contrast Dr Peter Brooke observes how audiences ‘listen in a linear fashion’ to radio broadcasts in his presentation focusing on how Zambian people heard about the Soweto uprising of 1976 via the popular mass medium of radio. He considers the audience and what impact these various radio broadcasts had on the audience. ‘How did audiences choose to source their news and consume it?’

The final keynote speech ‘Les gardiens du silence. Donner la parole à la parole pour raconter le monde’ was delivered by Professor Mamadou Diawara. It would take a separate review of its own to try and do justice to such a gripping, inspirational, and thought-provoking speech. In his abstract, Diawara states that ‘[O]ral narratives have become an essential foundation of African studies. Any story, beyond its object, is endowed with meaning. How do the recipients, recipients of the story, as well as the academics produce it?’ He queries the role of the academic in ‘keeping the monopoly of the production of meaning’, and notes that there is ‘always a risk of projecting what you know upon what you learn from the ones you are listening to’ thus becoming the ‘keepers of silence’. In this way, as Professor Becker stated, what we bring to what we read affects how we read, and the very meanings we make. In the closing discussion and in reflection on the conference as a whole Dr Rossi asks, in reference to Professor Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias’s talk, ‘what happens in the twenty first century when interpretations can be totally globalised?’. Langarchiv PI Doctor Camille Lefebvre notes in her closing remarks that ‘we start with hermeneutics; most of the papers presented question our analytical categories, the ones we use in our research’. She considers the symbiotic shift in putting oral tradition into writing. Who keeps the word? How is ‘authenticity’ interpreted in different cultures of societies? There were of course far more questions raised than answers but what we all came away with was more to reflect on and build on.

Découverte sur la culture écrite à Zinder

En décembre 2018, notre équipe a fait une découverte dans le quartier du Birni de Zinder au Niger. Chacun, au cours de ses recherches respectives, (Camille Lefebvre travaillant sur les premiers temps de la colonisation et Ari Awagana sur le old Kanembu), avait entendu parlé de la réputation de la famille Chétima. Camille Lefebvre leur avait même rendu visite en 2017 dans le cadre de son enquête. Cette fois, c’est grâce à Monsieur le Maire de la commune 3 de Zinder, Laminou Issaka, que nous avons été introduits auprès d’eux.

Cette famille de lettrés, descendants de Limam Borkoma, l’un des principaux savants de la cour du Sultan du Borno, est arrivée à Zinder dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle, suite à la conquête du Munyoma par le Sultan du Damagaram Tanimoun.

Mallam Mamadou Chétima devant sa maison vers 1900 et son petit fils en 2019

Dans le cadre de l’exposition Zinder 1900, nous avons retrouvé dans les archives françaises des photographies d’une figure de cette dynastie, Mallam Mamadou Chétima. Nous les avons rapportées à ses descendants et avons entamé avec eux une discussion sur leurs pratiques de cultures écrites. Ils nous ont alors montré un manuscrit coranique entièrement glosé en old kanembu selon une très ancienne tradition des malamai du Kanem-Bornou. Les membres de la famille, s’ils pouvaient déchiffrer les caractères arabes, ne comprenaient plus le sens ni la signification de ce qui avait été écrit. Aussi, Ari Awagana leur a expliqué comment leurs grands-parents glosaient dans cette ancienne langue les textes religieux.

Discussion autour d’un Coran glosé en old Kanembu

Intéressé par ces discussions et notre intérêt pour leurs archives, le patriarche de la famille Chétima a alors évoqué l’existence d’un ensemble de documents, conservés dans la maison, qui avaient appartenu à son grand-père, Mallam Mamadou Chétima. Cette figure du tournant du XIXe et du XXe siècle est le fils du cadi de Zinder, Malam Chétima, et un proche du Sultan dan Bassa. Il sera d’ailleurs arrêté avec lui en 1906 et déporté en Côte d’Ivoire. La famille dit que les caisses de manuscrits et documents qu’elles conservent sont celles qu’il ramena avec lui en revenant de son exil en 1922.

Les caisses conservées dans la maison de la famille Chétima

Ce sont ces trois caisses en bois, recouvertes de poussière et remplies de manuscrits, d’imprimés et de centaines de documents auxquelles la famille nous a permis d’accéder. Etant donné l’ampleur de la collection, l’état de dégradation avancé des matériaux et l’endroit où ils étaient conservés, nous avons décidé de revenir pour une mission de sauvegarde dans les plus brefs délais et avant la saison des pluies

Camille Lefebvre et Ari Awagana

crédits photos : dans l’ordre 1) ANOM fonds Gaden, 2 et 3) ©Pauline Rousseau et 4) Ari Awagana

Projet Old Kanembu

Par Ari Awagana

English version in the project section of the menu

Depuis les découvertes de A.D.H. Bivar au début des années 1950, l’existence de traces anciennes d’utilisation d’ajami est attestée pour le nord du Nigeria, notamment à travers les gloses interlinéarisées que l’on retrouve dans les Corans et qui sont considérées comme l’une des premières preuves d’écriture d’une langue africaine. Ces dernières années, plusieurs études ont été conduites par Dmitry Bondarev, à qui nous devons par ailleurs la dénomination « Old Kanembu ». Ce sous-projet propose d’établir un état des lieux dans le Bornou occidental, c’est-à-dire le Manga, le Damagaram, le Damergou et les contrées environnantes afin de contribuer à la connaissance de cette langue ancienne. D’après nos premières investigations, cette tradition du « old kanembu » a été pratiquée et continue d’être pratiquée dans cette partie du Bornou. Un premier document a été découvert à Kribitoa, un village manga de la région de Diffa.

Old Kanembu de Kribitoa

Jusqu’à présent, la découverte la plus importante sur le « old kanembu » est certainement celle que nous avons faite en décembre 2018, dans le Birni de Zinder où, au-delà des corans interlinéarisés, plusieurs autres textes dont notamment des ouvrages de Fiqh ont été retrouvés dans des archives privées.

Old-Kanembu de Zinder collection de la famille Chétima

Ce sous-projet propose également de faire une comparaison dialectologique entre le « old kanembu » et les dialectes occidentaux du kanouri, à savoir le Manga et le Dagara. En effet, les premières comparaisons systématiques des formes de l’« old-kanembu » avec les données du Manga et du Dagara montrent des similitudes frappantes sur le plan phonologique et lexical ainsi que dans les formes pronominales. Cette étude contribuera à comprendre l’histoire dialectologique du kanouri sur la base d’un corpus de données écrites ce qui constitue une exception méthodologique de la linguistique descriptive africaine.

L’équipe de Langarchiv collabore avec celle de AjamiLab de Hamburg et notamment Dmitry Bondarev sur ce sous-projet ainsi que les collègues du Département des manuscrits arabes de l’Institut de recherche en sciences humaines de Niamey et ceux de l’Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey. Elle reste ouverte à d’autres collaborations avec des groupes de recherche qui travaillent sur le Ajami, notamment ceux qui s’intéressent à l’histoire du Soudan central.

Exposition Zinder 1900 (Zinder)

To read about the exhibition in English follow this link

Le projet d’exposition Zinder 1900 est né de la rencontre, en janvier 2017, de Camille Lefebvre et du Maire de la commune 3 de Zinder, Laminou Issaka Brah. Ensemble, ils ont formé le vœu de mettre en scène l’histoire de cette ville, carrefour des mondes culturels haoussa, kanouri et touareg au tournant du XIXe et du XX e siècle, en ramenant au Niger et en exposant des photographies prises il y a environ 120 ans, et qui pour beaucoup, n’avaient jamais été montrées au public. L’idée était de permettre aux habitants de Zinder d’appréhender leur histoire, de renouer avec leur passé et de se le réapproprier. Le projet s’est concrétisé en décembre 2018, à la faveur des célébrations des 60 ans de la République du Niger qui avaient justement lieu à Zinder.

Affiche de l’exposition

Pour la mise en œuvre de ce projet, nous avons bénéficié du soutien de plusieurs institutions françaises de conservation dont les Archives d’outre-mer pour le fonds Gaden, les archives du Ministère des affaires étrangères pour le fonds Gouraud mais également du soutien de l’ambassade de France. La production de l’exposition a, pour sa part, été entièrement réalisée au Niger, grâce à l’appui du Centre culturel franco-nigérien Jean Rouch.

Trait d’union entre le Sahara et le Sahel, le Sultanat du Damagaram est, à la fin du XIXe siècle, un État musulman et un carrefour commercial au cœur de réseaux régionaux et transsahariens. Sa capitale, Zinder, est une ville cosmopolite où vivent commerçants nord-africains, caravaniers touaregs, paysans kanouris ou haoussas et éleveurs peuls. L’espace urbain y est marqué par la dualité : d’un côté, le Birni, quartier fortifié, siège du pouvoir politique, de l’autre, le Zango, quartier des caravaniers et des commerçants.
L’histoire de la relation entre cette ville et les autorités coloniales françaises est marquée par une grande violence : d’abord, en 1898, par l’assassinat par des Zindérois des premiers Français à entrer dans la ville, le capitaine Cazemajou et son interprète Olive, puis par l’occupation de la ville et l’exécution du sarki Amadou Kouran Daga, en 1899, par les militaires français.
En octobre 1900, militaires français et tirailleurs s’installent à Zinder, sur un petit plateau rocheux entre le Birni et le Zango, sans, dans un premier temps, abolir le sultanat, ni détruire les murailles du Birni. Mais en 1906, le sultan Amadou dan Bassa, accusé de préparer un complot, est arrêté et le sultanat aboli pendant près de vingt ans.
À travers des photographies, des enregistrements de traditions orales et des récits historiques en kanouri et en haoussa, jusqu’ici inédits, cette exposition propose de donner à voir et à entendre le passé disparu de la capitale d’un État africain au tournant du XIXe siècle et du XXe siècle. Une époque où les lettrés du Damagaram voyageaient pour étudier de La Mecque au Caire et à Jérusalem et où les commerçants zindérois envoyaient leurs plumes d’autruche dans le Paris de la Belle époque et leurs esclaves et eunuques dans le monde arabe.

L’exposition installée dans la cour du palais du Sultan

Le Sultan du Damagaram Aboubakar Oumarou Sanda a accueilli l’exposition dans la cour de son palais et l’a pour la première fois ouvert à tous, ce qui était en soi un événement. Le succès de l’exposition a surpris tous le monde, près de 25 000 personnes sont venues la visiter, de toutes les générations et de toutes les classes sociales, dans une grande émotion.

Le vernissage
Nombreux débats autour des photographies
Le sultan admirant la photo de son grand-père

Pour de nombreux Zindérois, à l’instar du sultan qui a pu admirer pour la première fois une photo de son grand-père, la découverte de ces images d’un autre temps a été marquée par une grande fierté car elles font prendre conscience à ces citadins de l’importance passée de leur ville. Les enfants se sont passionnés pour les légendes, recopiant ces descriptions de l’époque, dont certaines étaient écrites en Haoussa, qui est la langue la plus utilisée dans la région.

Les enfants de la ville recopiant les légendes des photographies

Tous crédits photographiques : © Pauline Rousseau

à propos de l’exposition

un article du journal du CNRS 

Commissariat d’exposition : Camille Lefebvre, CNRS-IMAf; Laminou Issaka , Maire de la Commune 3 Zinder

Direction artistique et production : Olivia Marsaud et MOMOMOisHERE

Les organisateurs de l’exposition remercient les Archives nationales d’outre-mer, Isabelle Dion, la Bibliothèque nationale de France, Isabelle Nyffenegger, Franck Hurinville, Olivier Loiseaux, la Société de géographie, Sylvie Rivet, le Musée de service de santé des armées, Marc Beaumelle, Aymeric Lichtenauer, l’association des Anciens et Amis du Pharo, Francis Louis, Pierre Hostier, les Archives diplomatiques, Jean-Philippe Dumas, ainsi que la famille Gouraud et Antoine Gouraud, ainsi que Claire Bosc-Tiessé et Pauline Rousseau.

Language as archive: European linguistics and the social history of the Sahara and Sahel in the eighteenth and nineteenth century

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