The Languages of Childhood: The Discursive Construction of Childhood and Colonial Policy in French West Africa

by Lisa McNee


In spite of the deceptive familiarity of the terrain, childhood, that stage of life that we are all supposed to experience, resists easy definition. Our fascination with childhood experiences has created an international boom in autobiographies and children’s literature, as well as in self-help manuals and in discourses, programs and policies concerning child abuse and child crime. The images of children as “victims,” “rebels” or “the hope of the future” that appear and reappear in these discourses suggest that we actually construct childhood as an object of concern, and that these constructions are products of a particular period and a particular cultural framework. These “languages of childhood,” however, are usually foreign to children and to childhood taken as a phenomenological experience, for they are produced by adults attempting to understand their own or others’ childhood. The difficulties involved in attempting to understand children and their history have also become a source of debate about the social sciences as disciplines. As Mary Galbraith writes:

[W]hat is really called into question by childhood studies, what is raised to visibility that was previously taken for granted as given, is the meaning of adulthood  in relation to childhood. The crisis of legitimacy in all areas of authority in the last half of the twentieth century is particularly urgent with respect to the category adults. In fact, it may be that it is only by consciously reentering a childhood perspective on adulthood that we can find our way through some of the most difficult moral and intellectual challenges of our era.”

In undertaking an exploration of key questions in the history of childhood in French West Africa , with a special focus on Upper Volta , I hope to address the issues Galbraith raises in a double movement. Although we cannot speak for children, it is possible to enter their world as visitors. A brief discussion of Mossi children’s games and their own views about their social roles is included in order to nuance the discussion of adult discourses about childhood that in fact reflected assumptions and policies related to adults in colonial West Africa . Moreover, gender roles are particularly important, just as they were during the colonial period. French colonizers’ attempts to regulate indigenous sexualities through education and medical care were directly related to attempts to control childbirth and childcare in the colonies in order to swell the ranks of taxpayers and workers.

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Lisa McNee is an Assistant Professor of French Studies at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario). She has written about gender, human rights and censorship, as well as about women’s self-representation in articles and in her Selfish Gifts: Senegalese Women’s Autobiographical Discourses (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).