Volume 11, Issue 1
Jay Straker. Youth, Nationalism, and the Guinean Revolution. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.
Focusing on the cultural and moral development of Guinean youth during the period 1958-1984, this book provides a penetrating exposé of an understudied population during a turbulent time in Guinean history. According to Guinea’s first president, Sékou Touré, it was the youth who would fight imperialism, promote cultural authenticity, and establish national unity. As the first generation of citizens fully formed during the First Republic, the youth would spearhead the development of the revolutionary nation-state. Straker’s book is the first major examination of this important topic.
Departing from previous works about the First Republic, which tend to be either intensely critical or overly laudatory of the Touré regime, Straker’s work is characterized by nuance, complexity, and texture. Straker attempts to understand Guinean youth from the inside and from the bottom up. He delves into the experiences of those who came of age during revolution, asking how the revolution shaped their social identities and historical imagination, and how they, in turn, affected the way the revolution played itself out. His primary sources include the writings of Sékou Touré, Horoya—the official organ of the party-state—party tracts, newspapers produced by teachers and youth, films, novels, poems, and memoirs written by Guinean intellectuals, photographs, popular plays, and numerous interviews with male and female participants, most notably from the forest region. Basing his claims on information gleaned from these sources, Straker rejects the received wisdom that grants absolute, tyrannical power to Sékou Touré and reduces the Guinean people to one dimensional figures devoid of agency, whose postcolonial history consists only of oppression. Straker argues that Guinea was composed not only of two groups–those with power and those without; rather, it was divided by a multiplicity of conflicting and overlapping categories, including ethnicity, region, religion, generation, gender, and class.
The Guinean revolution was characterized by intense conflict in multiple arenas. Turning tradition on its head, the party-state promoted young people over their elders, granting them a political role unimaginable in earlier times. In their attempts to transform both town and countryside, the youth challenged local authority structures for the power and authority to define nation and culture. Nor were the youth homogeneous. They were divided into schooled and unschooled, urban and rural–with the unschooled and rural idealized by the state as authentic, untainted by French culture and individualist aspirations. During the First Republic, Western-educated urban youth were compelled to go to the countryside to engage in manual labor and to receive the wisdom of their rural counterparts. It was with this authentic indigenous knowledge that the new youth were to transform the nation.
Rejecting the unspoken assumption that Conakry and the coastal towns represent the nation, Straker asks how the revolution was experienced in the interior–particularly, in the remote forest region. In the process, he demonstrates the state’s ambivalence toward the forest and its peoples. While idealizing the rural populace in general, the state withheld its seal of approval from the forest region, with its unfamiliar rites and rituals that struck fear into the hearts of the predominantly Muslim ruling elite. From 1959 to 1961, it carried out a harsh demystification campaign against the forest entities it could not control, destroying fetishes and other objects central to forest religions and cultures. The campaign was implemented by forest youth and widely resisted by local elders. Gender conflict also ensued, as the state forced male elders to reveal secrets previously off-limits to women.
Other groups also resisted state impositions. Intellectuals in the urban areas protested educational reforms that rejected the French-centered colonial curriculum and threatened their privileged social positions. In 1961 and again in 1965, the state cracked down on teachers and students, whose allegiance to the revolution was in question. The “Socialist Cultural Revolution,” launched in 1968, initiated major reforms that were intended to transform the national culture and economy. Reluctant to rely on schools to complete the task, the state turned to militant theater, dance, and music–“authentic” African culture–to accomplish its goals. Local and national theatrical and dance competitions, with mandatory participation, became the preferred locales for capturing youth allegiance and imagination. Forced participation resulted in more conflicts with students who preferred to spend their time in study, with parents who protested their loss of control over their children’s time and labor, and especially with the parents of girls, who feared the widespread sexual harassment and abuse associated with some of the cultural troupes. However, there was also a positive side. The final competitions, held in the Conakry, brought together youth of all ethnicities and regions. Performing “Guinean culture” in the capital, these youth could truly imagine themselves as a nation.
The only weakness in Straker’s book is a function of the complexity of his task. The book is divided into two parts--the first laying the theoretical and historical groundwork for the youth revolution, the second focusing on experiences in the forest region. While the first part is necessary, the second is by far the most compelling. It is there that the voices of ordinary people make the story their own. A more dynamic opening, incorporating African voices, would give the reader a preview of the richness of the book’s second half. These points aside, the book makes an important contribution to the historiography of independent Guinea. It is mandatory reading for graduate students and scholars interested in youth, revolution, and nation-building in Guinea and elsewhere.
Elizabeth Schmidt Loyola College, Maryland