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FIELDWORK, ORALITY, TEXT: ETHNOGRAPHIC

AND HISTORICAL FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE IN


COLONIAL AND POSTCOLONIAL GABON
JOHN M. CINNAMON
MIAMI UNIVERSITY, OHIO
I
I can claim no direct pedigree from African Studies at Wisconsin, but one
of my own graduate school mentors, Robert Harms, benefitted from David
Heniges and Jan Vansinas influence; all three have profoundly marked
my own approaches to the historical anthropology of equatorial Africa.
1
In
this paper I draw on David Heniges illuminating and still relevant insights
into the problem of feedback, in light of a key methodological preoccu-
pation in my own discipline of anthropology fieldwork. In particular I
want to suggest how ethnographic fields are formed over time through a
layering process that involves ongoing cycles of intertwined oral and writ-
ten traditions.
Heniges 1973 article, The Problem of Feedback in Oral Tradition,
prefigures by a full decade Terence Rangers highly influential essay on
The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa.
2
In that 1973 article,
Henige argued that given traditions were dynamic over time. British Indi-
rect Rule had led the Fante of the Gold Coast to devise new oral traditions
History in Africa 38 (2011), 4777
1
Later, I also benefited from the skillful editorship of Allen Howard and attended a
superb NEH summer seminar run by Joseph C. Miller, both of whom trained in African
history at Wisconsin. Finally, I have learned a great deal about the colonial and postcolo-
nial history of Gabon and Congo from Florence Bernault.
2
David Henige, The Problem of Feedback in Oral Tradition: Four Examples from the
Fante Coastlands, The Journal of African History 14 (1973), 223-35; Terence O.
Ranger, The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa, in: Eric Hobsbawm, and Ter-
ence O. Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983), 211-62.
48 John M. Cinnamon
in order to take advantage of opportunities of British Colonialism. In partic-
ular, he cites the ways printed sources, especially the Bible, but also the
Quran, colonial sources, publications, and later scholarly works, have all
found their way back into oral accounts. Henige also suggests that pre-colo-
nial oral traditions also would have been continually reworked; present
practices suggest considerable adaptability and flexibility in the past.
In a grad school seminar in African Historiography in 1986, Robert
Harms and the late Leonard Thompson assigned Heniges Oral Historiog-
raphy, which provides a more general, methodological discussion of feed-
back in oral traditions. I later drew on these insights in my own dissertation
fieldwork on the historical anthropology of northeastern Gabon. In Oral
Historiography, Henige raises a number of crucial points. For example, he
asks, what does one do if in reply to a question an informant pulls out a
book including the Bible, local histories, papers, government documents,
newspaper clippings, or even academic publications?
3
He also argues that
much testimony obtained from informants is really feedback, sometimes the
result of missionary or colonial administrator writings, sometimes the result
of a fieldworkers visit, just as the historian himself is likely to be the
source for further feedback.
4
Finally, he argues: Uncontaminated oral tra-
dition simply does not exist anymore.
5
Some scholars might object to the
term uncontaminated, as it implies an older, golden age of pure, stable,
unadulterated orality. But this is not really Heniges point. He concludes
that oral traditions are dynamic over time and again suggests that pre-colo-
nial traditions were surely reworked as well, in part as a political tool by the
powerful.
6
Here, I consider the role of feedback in creating and recreating the ethno-
graphic terrains or fields where anthropologists and oral historians do
fieldwork. In part, this is a response to what I see as ahistorical anthropo-
logical critiques of ethnographic fields as sites of power dominated by west-
ern fieldworkers. Below, I examine several examples of the ethnographic
genealogy that have shaped both my fieldwork and the field as I encoun-
tered it. The first is the ethnography of controversial but influential French
missionary ethnographer, Henri Trilles. Trilles served in Gabon at the turn
3
David Henige, Oral Historiography (London, 1982), 57.
4
David Henige, Oral Historiography, 82.
5
David Henige, Oral Historiography, 85.
6
Jan Vansina draws directly on Heniges concept of feedback, citing not only written
sources, but also archaeological sites, which can also filter back into oral traditions. For
Vansina, flows of oral information are rarely unfiltered. As he puts it: Feedback and
contamination are the norm. (Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History [Madison, 1985],
156-59.)
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 49
of the twentieth century, wrote prolifically, and, in spite of his controversial
views, continues to influence the Gabonese ethnographic field today. The
second turns to a number of ethnographic encounters with nonacademic
Gabonese fieldworkers interested in the history, culture, and politics of
northeastern Gabon. I also detect signs of Trilless influence in their narra-
tives about Fang culture and history. Together, these ethnographers signifi-
cantly shaped the field before I ever ventured into it;their ethnography
has thus profoundly marked my own.
In the case of Gabonese fieldwork, colonial, missionary, and insider
fieldworkers have often exercised stronger influence in shaping the field
than the handful of professional anthropologists who have worked in north-
ern Gabon since Georges Balandier arrived in the late 1940s. In my own
ethnographic work among Fang-speakers in Gabon and Cameroon, I have
come to recognize a fluid and cumulative process of exchange, multiple
conceptions of identity and history of Fang-ness that have become sedi-
mented in the printed ethnographies, the spoken word, and the field. Fang
versions have been recorded and molded to fit into European categories and
later reappropriated and reworked to correspond to changing Fang needs.
The writings of George Balandier, James Fernandez, Pierre Alexandre,
Philippe Laburthe-Tolra and others have reflected and contributed to this
process,
7
but non-professional influences both precede and run deeper than
those of relatively recent professional anthropologists.
Without denying the relative privilege or hegemonic intentions of West-
ern researchers, I suggest that these cases illustrate the complex imbrica-
tions of oral and written traditions that inform the ethnographic imagination
in (and of) Gabon. As I see it, all of us, in spite of our distinct agendas, have
carried out fieldwork as a means of gaining and producing cultural knowl-
edge. Like knowledge producers elsewhere, we, too, are bricoleurs in that
we weave together already intertwined strands of Biblical, European, and
Fang knowledge to produce a seamless tapestry of cultural representation.
In spite of my own location as a Euro-American university-trained
researcher, I could not discount the ethnographic voices of these immediate
and more distant predecessors even if I wanted to. It is, after all, these voic-
7
See, for example, Georges Balandier, Sociologie Actuelle de lAfrique Noire:
Dynamique Sociale en Afrique Centrale (Paris, 1982 [1955]); James W. Fernandez,
Bwiti: An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa (Princeton, 1982); Pierre
Alexandre, Protohistoire du groupe betibulufang: essai de synthse provisoire, Cahier
dEtudes Africaines 5 (1965), 503-60; Philippe Laburthe-Tolra, Les seigneurs de la fort
(Paris, 1981).
50 John M. Cinnamon
es that have largely composed the ethnographic terrain in which I have
worked.
II
In recent decades anthropologys hallmark methodology fieldwork or par-
ticipant-observation has undergone a withering critique from within the
discipline. Beginning in the 1980s, critiques tended to cluster around a set
of related concerns, including ethnographic fieldwork (the process) as a
hegemonic means of producing knowledge, and ethnographic writing (the
product) as a hegemonic form of cultural representation. As fieldworkers
and as writers, ethnographers are trapped in their own cultural perspectives
and in relations of power with the tribes they seek to describe.
8
These
conditions limit and distort both understanding and the rhetorical devices
used to claim ethnographic authority and authenticity. At best, the knowl-
edge produced by fieldwork is partial and incomplete; at worst, ethnograph-
ic research has been used as a tool of colonial domination and disposses-
sion. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith puts it: The ethnographic gaze of anthro-
pology has collected, classified and represented other cultures to the extent
that anthropologists are often the academics popularly perceived by the
indigenous world as the epitome of all that is bad with academics. Haunani
Kay Trask has accused anthropologists of being takers and users who
exploit the hospitality and generosity of native people.
9
In the 1980s and 1990s, solutions to the crisis of ethnographic represen-
tation included deconstruction and reflexivity. Deconstructionists focused
on ethnographic texts in order to analyze the rhetorical processes by which
anthropologists establish ethnographic authority.
10
Reflexive ethnographers
and vulnerable observers
11
wrote themselves into their ethnographies in
an effort to reveal the processes by which ethnographic knowledge is gener-
ated. Aside from a rearguard defense by embattled empiricists,
12
there were
also those who cautioned against the merry deconstruction of text after
8
James A. Boon, Other Tribes, Other Scribes: Symbolic Anthropology in the Compara-
tive Study of Cultures, Histories, Religions, and Texts (Cambridge, 1982).
9
Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples
(London, 1999), 66-67.
10
James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Litera-
ture, and Art (Cambridge MA, 1988).
11
Ruth Behar, The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart (Boston,
1996).
12
One of my grad school professors referred to himself without irony as a scientific
instrument.
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 51
text
13
and the self-reflexive turn. Renato Rosaldo complained about
essays laced with trendy amalgams of continental philosophy and autobio-
graphical snippets. Rosaldo also bemoaned the tendency in present-day
reflexivity for the self-absorbed Self to lose sight altogether of the cultur-
ally different Other.
14
Pierre Bourdieu strongly objected to the form of
reflexivity represented by the kind of self-fascinated observation of the
observers writings and feelings that ha[d] recently become fashionable
among some American anthropologists, including Rosaldo. Having
exhausted the charms of fieldwork, [they turned] to talking about them-
selves rather than about their object of research.
15
Already by 1990, histo-
rians Leroy Vail and Landeg White were ready to move on: By now ()
we feel that [anthropologists] self-criticism has largely been heard and had
its impact, and we have no desire to continue flogging a dead horse of past
anthropological arrogance.
16
Rather than dead horse flogging, the goal here
is to trace the complex histories of fieldwork interactions and exchanges
that shape the ethnographic encounter and the field itself. As Benot de
lEstoile puts it: [Anthropologists] are rarely the first to write about the
peoples they study. Exploration, military campaign and travel narratives,
missionary writings, administrative and medical statistics comprise a terrain
of knowledge, discourses, and practices from which (and often against
which) anthropology emerges.
17
A third critique of fieldwork argues that particular fields can no longer
be treated as self-contained and integrated complex wholes. Gupta and
Ferguson, for example, underline the the lack of fit between the problems
raised by a mobile, changing, globalizing world, on the one hand, and the
resources provided by a method originally developed for studying suppos-
edly small-scale societies, on the other. They call for anthropology to give
up its old ideas of territorially fixed communities and stable, localized cul-
tures, and to apprehend an interconnected world in which people, objects,
and ideas are rapidly shifting and refuse to stay in place.
18
George Marcus
13
Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford, 1988), 69.
14
Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston, 1989),
7.
15
Pierre Bourdieu, and Loc J.D. Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chica-
go, 1992), 72.
16
Leroy Vail, and Landeg White, Power and the Praise Poem: Southern African Voices
in History (Charlottesville VA, 1991), 1.
17
Benot de lEstoile, Empires, Nations, and Natives: Anthropology and State-Making
(Durham NC, 2005), 12.
18
Akhil Gupta, and James Ferguson, Discipline and Practice: The Field as Site,
Method, and Location in Anthropology, in: Akhil Gupta, and James Ferguson (eds.),
Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science (Berkeley,
1997), 3-4.
52 John M. Cinnamon
has traced the contours of an emerging, mobile, multi-sited ethnography
that moves from the single sites and local situations of conventional ethno-
graphic research designs to examine the circulation of cultural meanings,
objects, and identities in diffuse time-space.
19
Such multi-sited ethnogra-
phies seek to displace the typical, exoticized, colonial and post colonial
field sites in which fieldworkers have previously worked, while following
the itineraries of people, goods, and ideas through their increasingly mobile
peregrinations.
20
In an influential volume published in the late 1990s, Gupta and Ferguson
called for the decentering and defetishizing of the very concept of the
field, while proposing methodological and epistemological strategies that
foreground questions of location, intervention, and the construction of situ-
ated knowledge. In particular they pointed to anthropologys uncritical
mapping of difference onto exotic sites and complicity in the reproduc-
tion of global hierarchies and inequalities. In their effort to relocate the
field, they explored several forms of heterodoxy in fieldwork, including
insider ethnography or the use in ethnography of observations derived
from the experience of growing up in a culture.
21
The point is well taken,
but this critique, located squarely within the Western academy, is perhaps
overstated when applied to the Gabonese field. Admittedly, professional
European anthropologists such as Georges Balandier, James Fernandez,
Pierre Alexandre, Philippe Laburthe-Tolra, and Jane Guyer have exercised
much more explicit influence in French and American anthropology, but, as
argued here, insider fieldworkers (and their colonial predecessors) have
played a preeminent role in shaping the field itself in Gabonese ethnogra-
phy.
When it comes to fields and fieldwork, Pierre Bourdieus richly ambigu-
ous concept of field is useful. According to Bourdieu, a field is an arena,
market, or socially structured space that imposes specific regulative princi-
ples on all agents who enter it. One the one hand, a field consists of a set of
objective, historical relations between positions anchored in certain forms of
power (or capital).
22
These relations of power are reducible neither to
the intention of individual agents nor even to direct interactions between
agents. Thus, the entire history of a field is present in each moment. This
19
George E. Marcus, Ethnography through Thick and Thin (Princeton, 1998), 79.
20
See Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization
(Minneapolis, 1996).
21
Gupta, and Ferguson, Discipline and Practice, 4-5, 14, 30.
22
Bourdieu, and Wacquant, An Invitation, 16.
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 53
history is both material operating in institutions and administrative organi-
zations and embodied in the dispositions [or habitus] of agents who run
these institutions.
23
On the other hand, a field is always the site of strug-
gles and resistance in which individuals seek to maintain or alter the distrib-
ution of the forms of capital specific to it.
24
These struggles, in turn, give
the field a historical dynamism and malleability that entails a measure of
indeterminacy.
25
Agents thus struggle to define hierarchy and authority in
the field of power. As examples of power relations that emerge in specific
fields, Bourdieu enumerates cultural authority, scientific authority, sacerdo-
tal authority, to which we might add ethnographic authority.
26
Fields and
field sites are both structured and structuring, determining and indetermi-
nate. Finally, it is useful to recall that fields are distinct, yet also linked and
overlapping. Anthropological fieldworkers operate in two linked fields: 1)
field sites, where we struggle with research subjects during the ethnographic
encounter, and 2) academic fields, where we vie with our colleagues over
the forms of capital specific to universities and professional organizations.
While much of the cultural critique literature emphasizes the power of acad-
emic fields in determining the dynamics of ethnographic field sites, the pre-
sent paper focuses on ways in which ethnographic fields are marked as well
by their own historical dynamisms.
My focus here is not so much on the power struggles and inequalities
that characterize relations between ethnographers and their informants
though these are both complex and significant. As Rijk van Dijk and Peter
Pels, for example, argue: Ethnographic dialogue is always contextualized
by a dialectics of power relations that conditions and inhibits it.
27
Rather, I
am concerned with the legacies of previous ethnographers and how these
become sedimented and anchored over time to such a degree that they struc-
ture the field before more recent ethnographers ever arrive.
28
23
Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge MA, 1991), 230, 247.
24
John B. Thompson, Editors Introduction, in: Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Sym-
bolic Power (Cambridge MA, 1991), 14.
25
Bourdieu, and Wacquant, An Invitation, 17.
26
Cf. Clifford, The Predicament of Culture.
27
Rijk van Dijk and Peter Pels, Contested Authorities and the Politics of Perception:
Deconstructing the Study of Religion in Africa, in: Richard Werbner, and Terence O.
Ranger (eds.), Postcolonial Identities in Africa (London, 1996), 245.
28
Obvious cases of anthropological anxieties of influence include Annette Weiners work
on the Trobriand Islands or Sharon Hutchinsons on the Nuer; Annette B. Weiner,
Women of Value, Men of Renown: New Perspectives in Trobriand Exchange (Austin,
1976); Sharon E. Hutchinson, Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War, and the State
(Berkeley, 1996).
54 John M. Cinnamon
In a historical ethnography of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (RLI) of
colonial Northern Rhodesia, Lyn Schumaker argues that along with every-
day practices of colonization (e.g., evangelization, collecting taxes, building
roads and towns, recruiting labor), missionaries and administrators had
determined the basic landmarks on the ethnographic map well before pro-
fessional anthropologists arrived. () Thus anthropologists had to work
within fields already partly defined by those who had preceded them, while
seeking to distinguish themselves from their amateur predecessors.
29
More-
over, Schumaker demonstrates the roles played by African research assis-
tants, who mediated access to the field and who, in turn, reappropriated,
digested, and transformed fieldwork practices, as well as ways of talking
and writing about culture and society for their own purposes.
30
Schumakers approach underlines the crucial influence of explorer-, mis-
sionary-, administrator-, and insider-ethnographers in shaping fieldwork.
Fieldworkers in colonial French Equatorial Africa lacked the formal institu-
tional culture of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, and my focus is not on
African research assistants per se. Nonetheless, by 1914 for French Equator-
ial Africa, the colonial administrator Bruel composed a bibliography that
included several thousand sources.
31
Some of these writings surely filtered
back into the hands of mission-trained Gabonese intellectuals. They also
informed a variety of Europeans in the field who would have passed on
29
Lyn Schumaker, Constructing Racial Landscapes: Africans, Administrators, and
Anthropologists in Northern Rhodesia, in: Peter Pels, and Oscar Salemink (eds.), Colo-
nial Subjects: Essays on the Practical History of Anthropology (Ann Arbor, 1999), 326;
Schumaker, Africanizing Anthropology: Fieldwork, Networks, and the Making of Cultur-
al Knowledge in Central Africa (Durham NC, 2001), 255.
30
Schumaker, Africanizing Anthropology, 17. Schumaker does not ignore what Pels and
Salemink have called a history of global inequality, perpetuated by the marginal power
relations between a universal anthropological subject and local co-producers, but
attempts to account for pervasive practices of negotiation and re-appropriation that con-
stituted the field; Peter Pels, and Oscar Salemink, Introduction, in: Peter Pels, and
Oscar Salemink (eds.), Colonial Subjects: Essays on the Practical History of Anthropology
(Ann Arbor, 1999), 3. As Schumaker puts it, insider ethnographers and African research
assistants did not possess the administrative or academic/professional power of their
employers, and they related to anthropologists in a larger context of European dominance
and African subjugation, which affected the behavior of both researchers and assistants.
But in the field, they often had greater power than the anthropologists to gain access to
various aspects of African society and determine the kind of information collected, while
as interpreters of culture their influence pervaded every aspect of the RLIs work, from
the anthropologists language learning to the framing of survey questions and the analysis
of results. The anthropologists depended upon and acknowledged the assistants power in
this sphere; Schumaker, Africanizing Anthropology, 248.
31
Georges Bruel, Bibliographie de lAfrique Equatoriale Franaise (Paris, 1914).
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 55
these ideas, both explicitly and practically, in their dealings with Africans.
Pels and Salemink make a similar but more critical point for colonial
anthropology.
32
They argue for the necessity of incorporating what they call
the prterrain (the agendas and relationships of power that precede and
shape the constitution of the field) into the analysis of ethnography.
33
They
also propose the treatment of academic anthropology as only a specific
instance of a much broader field of ethnographic practice.
34
My purpose here is neither to minimize professional anthropology nor to
meditate on its alleged will to power. I do, however, seek to broaden the
genealogy of ethnographic practice and representation in Gabonese field-
work. In order to examine this complex process, I turn briefly to the case of
French missionary ethnographer, Henri Trilles, who has exercised profound
influence on the Gabonese ethnographic imagination.
III
Trilles lived in Gabon in three extended stays between 1893 and 1907,
including several trips among Fang speakers in the interior, and has left an
indelible if controversial mark on the Gabonese ethnographic field. His pro-
32
Pels, and Salemink, Introduction, 21.
33
Pels and Salemink also draw here on Condominass discussion of the prterrain as the
local colonial milieu from which the academic ethnographer departed and to which he
returned; Peter Pels, and Oscar Salemink Introduction: Five Theses on Ethnography as
Colonial Practice, History and Anthropology 8 (1994), 14-15. See Georges Condomi-
nas, Ethics and Comfort: An Enthnographers View of His Profession, Distinguished
Lecture, American Anthropological Association, Annual Report, 1972 (Washington DC,
1973).
34
As in so much recent critical anthropology, Pels and Salemink point to Malinowskis
efforts to professionalize ethnography by portraying colonial administrators and mis-
sionaries as inept practical men, or as Clifford (1988) puts it, men on the spot; Pels
and Salamink, Introduction, 7; see also Geertz, Works and Lives; George W. Stocking,
The Ethnographers Magic and Other Essays in the History of Anthropology (Madison,
1992); Gupta, and Ferguson, Discipline and Practice. Bronislaw Malinowskis claims
to ethnographic authority (the ethnographers magic) may indeed be overstated, but so
too is the critique. In a 1998 review of what he calls the misrepresentation of anthropol-
ogy, Herbert Lewis makes the following rebuttal: The followers of Foucault, Edward
Said, and Johannes Fabian have managed to do to anthropology what Said says Western-
ers have done to the Orient or to the Other: invent something that never existed in order
to dominate it. Their version of anthropology their invented anthropology has served
to otherize and marginalize anthropologists and anthropological knowledge. (I might
say that it had disempowered anthropology, but since when did it have power [pace Fabi-
an 1983]?); Herbert Lewis, The Misrepresentation of Anthropology and Its Conse-
quences, American Anthropologist 100 (1998), 726.
56 John M. Cinnamon
lific writings combined ethnographic and geographic description, mission-
ary anecdote, extensive use (cited and plagiarized) of published sources, as
well as highly speculative representations of Fang, and later, pygmies.
35
Already during his lifetime, Trilles gained renown for unreliable scholar-
ship, plagiarism, shameless invention of data, and fantastic flights of
fancy.
36
More recently, his pygmy publications from the 1930s have been
condemned as outright forgeries by Jan Vansina and Serge Bahuchet.
37
His
ambiguous legacy has frequently been received with silence, scorn, and dis-
missal. Nonetheless, his Egyptian origins thesis and speculations about
long-distance migrations continue to influence European and African schol-
arship and Fang oral traditions. Gabonese intellectuals, in particular, have
enthusiastically, if selectively, embraced the idea of Nilotic origins. As
Berger put it in a 1977 biographical note: In spite of the years of silence
that have passed, the name of Pre Trilles has not been forgotten and young
Gabonese scholars look for his work.
38
Most influential have been Trilles speculations on Fang exceptionalism,
gastronomy, and origins. In Chez les Fang, Trilles wrote simply, the Fang
belong incontestably to the Bantu race, but also, the Fang is the least
Bantu of all the Bantus.
39
Already in 1898, Trilles portrayed the Fang as a
tribe of migrating cannibals that had swept across Africa from Upper Egypt
(or the Upper Nile) and was eating its way through the Gabonese rain
forest.
40
In sensationalizing Fang cannibalism, Trilles marched in an already
35
Henri Trilles, Chez les Fang: leurs murs, leur langue, leur religion, Les Missions
Catholiques 30 (1898), published in multiple installments; Henri Trilles, Dans les riv-
ires de Monda (Gabon) (Lille, 1900); Henri Trilles, Chez les Fang, ou Quinze annes
de sjour au Congo franais (Lille, 1912); Henri Trilles, Le totmisme chez les Fn
(Mnster, 1912); Henri Trilles, Mille lieues dans linconnu en pleine fort quatoriale
chez les Fang anthropophages (Paris, 1931); Henri Trilles, Les Pygmes de la fort
quatoriale, cours profess lInstitut catholique de Paris (Paris, 1932).
36
Fellow Spiritan Maurice Briault was particularly critical of Trilles and his ethnographic
distortions and exaggerations: R.P. Briault, Notes sur le P. Trilles. Cas du Pre Trilles et
de son ouvrage chez les pygmes, Congrgation du Saint Esprit, Archives Gnrales
(Chevilly-Larue, n.d.), 631.A 2D12. 1 3; see John M. Cinnamon, Missionary Exper-
tise, Social Science, and the Uses of Ethnographic Knowledge in Colonial Gabon, His-
tory in Africa 33 (2006), 422-23.
37
Jan Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests: Toward a History of the Political Tradition in
Equatorial Africa (Madison, 1990), 17; Serge Bahuchet, Linvention des Pygmes,
Cahier dtudes Africaines 129 (1993), 171. See also Kurt Piskaty, Ist das Pygmen-
werk von Henri Trilles ein zuverlssige Quelle? Anthropos 52 (1957), 33-48.
38
Augustin Berger, Henri Trilles (1866-1949), in: Hommes et Destins (Dictionnaire
biographique dOutre-Mer) volume 2 (Paris, 1977), 730.
39
Trilles, Chez les Fang, 14.
40
Trilles, Chez les Fang. Florence Bernault traces the persistant myth of Fang inva-
sions in colonial discourse, citing Balandiers early discussion of colonized Fang as
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 57
well-trodden field inscribed at least since Du Chaillus highly influential
publications of the 1860s.
41
Du Chaillu, while speculating that the Fang
extended far into the equatorial African interior, had not introduced the
Egyptian origins thesis. Later European and African scholars have nonethe-
less continued to embrace or debate the problem of Fang (Bti-Bulu) origins
and long-distance migrations in ways that suggest how Trilles has shaped
the contours of the Gabonese field.
42
Trilless clear statement of the Egyptian origin thesis has enjoyed
immense popularity among Gabonese and Cameroonian intellectuals, and
unemployed conquerers (conqurants en disponibilit). She also evokes the postcolo-
nial sense of Fang as losers in the modern state; Bernault, Dvoreurs de la nation: le
mythe des invasions fang au Gabon, in: Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Odile Goerg,
Issiaka Mande, and Faranirina Rajaonah (eds.), Etre tranger et migrant en Afrique au
XXe sicle: Enjeux identitaires et modes dinsertion. Volume I: Politiques migratoires et
constructions des identits (Paris, 2003), 169-187.
41
Paul Belloni du Chaillu, Explorations & Adventures in Equatorial Africa (London,
1861). I do not have space here for an extended discussion of cannibalism, which oper-
ates in multiple ways in colonial, anthropological, and African discourses. For a discus-
sion of Du Chaillus emphasis on Fang cannibalism and his probable influence on Trilles,
see John M. Cinnamon, Colonial Anthropologies and the Primordial Imagination in
Equatorial Africa, in: Helen Tilley (ed.), Africa, European Imperialism and the Order-
ing of Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge
(Manchester, 2007), 225-51. Laburthe-Tolra maintains that Beti, Bulu, and Fang warriors
roasted and ate certain organs of a vanquished enemy while displaying the head, sexual
organs, and sometimes the skin as trophies. The southern Fang, he writes, ate their
prisoners; this is probably even the reason that they had few slaves.; Seigneurs de la
fort, 340. Gabonese historian, Nicolas Mtgu-NNah, on the other hand has argued
that cannibalism among the Fang was not widespread in the nineteenth century; Mtgu
NNah, Lumire sur points dombre: contribution la connaissance de la socit
gabonaise (Langres, 1984). At the same time, coastal middlemen spread rumors the peo-
ples in the interior practiced cannibalism, in part, to discourage Europeans from bypass-
ing them and entering into direct trade relations with inland peoples. In addition, as Jean-
Franois Bayart, Peter Geschiere and others have emphasized, eating is a powerful
metaphor in African discourses of sorcery, ritual killings, wealth accumulation, and
politics.
42
For example, Philippe Ndong Ndoutoume, Le Mvett: Epope fang (Paris, 1970);
Philippe Ndong Ndoutoume, Le Mvett: Livre II (Paris, 1975); Nicolas Mtgu NNah,
Le Gabon de 1854 1886: Prsence Franaise et peuples autochtones, Thse de
Troisime Cycle, University of Paris 1 (Sorbonne, 1974); Marc Ropivia, Les Fang dans
les Grands Lacs et la Valle du Nil: Esquisse dune Gographie Historique Partir du
Mvett, Prsence Africaine 120 (1981), 46-58; Marc Ropivia, Mvett et Bantuistique: la
mtallurgie du cuivre come critre de Bantuit et son incidence sur les hypothses migra-
toires connues, in: Thophile Obenga (ed.), Les peuples bantu: migrations, expansion et
identit culturelle, Tome II (Paris, 1985), 317-35; Jean-Emile Mbot, Ebughi Bifia
Dmonter les expressions: Enonciation et situations sociales chez les Fang du Gabon
(Paris, 1975); Jean-Marie Aubame, Les Beti du Gabon et dailleurs: Tome 1, Sites, par-
cours et structures (Paris, 2002).
58 John M. Cinnamon
has filtered into contemporary oral traditions. Even the great Senegalese
scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop, who argued eloquently for the Egyptian origins
of African (and European) civilization, cited Trilles as a source of
evidence.
43
In the 1990s, Trilles (via Diop) continued to influence Gabonese
students in the 1990s at the Centre Cheikh Anta Diop at Omar Bongo Uni-
versity in Libreville.
44
Below, I provide an example of how Diop and Trilles
together have come to shape Gabonese oral traditions and the field itself.
I have written elsewhere on the impact of Trilles as a missionary ethnog-
rapher, his claims of ethnographic expertise, and his improbable but surpris-
ingly prominent role in the genealogy of Fang ethnography,
45
and so do not
belabor these points here. Instead, I underline the selective appropriation of
Trilless ethnography within Gabon. If Gabonese scholars have ignored or
disputed the idea of Fang cannibalism, they have also paid scant attention to
Trilles most voluminous and scholarly work, Le Totmisme chez les Fang,
published in 1912.
46
Although Trilles sought to situate his contribution by
citing many of the leading European scholars on the then lively field of
totemic studies,
47
no subsequent scholars have systematically evaluated
Trilless argument that integral totemism existed among the Fang.
48
43
Cheikh Anta Diop, Nations ngres et culture: De lantiquit ngre gyptienne aux
problmes culturels de lAfrique Noire aujourdhui (Paris, 1999 [1954]), p. 392; Cheikh
Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality (Chicago, 1974), 200. In
fact, Diop cites Trilless conclusion that the Fang had some contact with Christian
Ethiopia in their ancient migration.
44
The Centre Cheikh Anta Diop was founded by a Gabonese philosopher, Grgoire Biyo-
go, who himself cites Trilles in a brief discussion of genetic kinship between Fang and
ancient Egyptians: Grgoire Biyogo, Aux sources gyptiennes du savoir. Tome 1.
Gnalogie et enjeux de la pense de Cheikh Anta Diop (Yaound, 2000), 191n.
45
Cinnamon, Missionary Expertise, 413-32; John Cinnamon, Colonial Anthropolo-
gies, 225-51.
46
Trilles, Le totmisme (1912); see also Henri Trilles, Le totmisme (1914); John Cin-
namon, Of Fetishism and Totemism: Missionary Ethnology and Academic Social Sci-
ence in Early 20th-Century Gabon, in: David Maxwell, and Patrick Harries (eds.), The
Secular in the Spiritual: Missionaries and Knowledge about Africa (Grand Rapids MI,
forthcoming).
47
Trilles cites, for example, McLennan, Robertson Smith, Lang, Frazer, Van Gennep,
influential missionary anthropologist, Wilhelm Schmidt, and (in passing) Durkheim.
48
German ethnographer Gnter Tessmann, who had also studied the Fang of southern
Cameroon and Rio Muni, was highly critical of Trilless writings. In particular, he
accused Trilles of presenting a completely false idea of the religious culture of the
Pahouins; see Gnter Tessmann, Die Pangwe: Vlkerkundliche Monographie eines
westafrikanischen Negerstammes (Berlin, 1913) cited in Philippe Laburthe-Tolra, and
Christiane Falgayrettes-Leveau, Fang. (G. Tessmanm, Les Pahouins, Extraits) (Paris,
1991), 172. Without attempting a systematic evaluation of Fang totemism, Alexandre and
Binet refer several times in passing to Trilless writing on the subject. In a brief biblio-
graphic entry they refer to Le Totmisme as follows: This is the magnum opus of Father
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 59
IV
Already by the 1940s, Fang-speakers themselves had come to sound more
like Trilles. They had appropriated and incorporated migration and its corol-
lary spatially distant origins as a matter of ethnic identity and pride.
When I began dissertation fieldwork in the late 1980s, I recorded versions
of some of these stories that drew on Biblical, European, and Fang knowl-
edge that had passed back and forth over the years between oral and written
traditions. In this section, I turn to a number of fieldwork encounters with
knowledgeable elders and non-academic Gabonese fieldworkers. These
fieldworkers, predominantly Fang-speakers from the northeastern Ogoou-
Ivindo province were strongly, if selectively, marked by Trilles, or at least
by the discourses that informed his writings. They have generally adopted
Nilotic origins and long-distance migrations, ignored cannibalism and
totemism, and added a strong emphasis on clan genealogies and narratives
of the exploits of clan founders and prominent ancestors.
Many of the Gabonese fieldworkers I encountered were intellectuals in
the formal, traditional sense, that is, engaged in socially recognized organi-
zational, directive, educative, or expressive activities as teachers, artists,
political leaders, and bureaucrats. Some of the most knowledgeable and
articulate of the village elders I met had worked as catechists or evangelists.
During both the colonial and post-colonial periods, many village-based
fieldworkers were also peasant intellectuals in that they earned their liv-
ing through agriculture and exercised leadership, organization, and direction
in local, but not necessarily anticolonial political movements.
49
Most field-
work undertaken by Gabonese, with the exception of that done by post-
independence, university-trained students and academics, has been infor-
mal, motivated by the need to record and valorize past-ness, to demonstrate
connections to prominent ancestors, and to assert social bonds between
extant social groups (e.g., clans or meyo). All of these fieldworkers,
whether or not they have sought to parlay their ethnography into political
capital, have served to heighten historical consciousness and the ethno-
graphic imagination.
Trilles. As in all the works by this author, one finds beside keen and exact observations,
conclusions that are sometimes risky and unexpected gaps, deriving perhaps from a cer-
tain professional deformation. In spite of which Father Trilles remains the grand authority
on the Fang; Pierre Alexandre and Jacques Binet, Le group dit Pahouin [Fang Boulou
Beti] [Paris, 1958], 93.
49
Steven Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals: Anthropology and History in Tanzania (Madi-
son, 1990), 17-18.
60 John M. Cinnamon
The most salient period in the reformulation of historical consciousness
came during the clan reunification (elar meyo) movement that spread south
from Cameroon in the 1940s and 1950s.
50
Following decades of colonial
violence, depopulation, economic stagnation, and the great depression of the
1930s, this was a period of great historical and genealogical creativity that
also overlapped with a political reawakening after the Second World War.
Among Ogoou-Ivindo Fang speakers, canton chief Menie Fabien, who
served from 1952 till his death in 1982, played a central role in the recom-
position and fixing of oral traditions and ethnographic knowledge. Through
his efforts to consolidate and legitimize his position as ayo president and
chief, Menie brought together elders and synthesized various clan legends.
Now deceased for the most part, the elders I sought out during my own
fieldwork had been three or four decades younger during the colonial-era
clan reunification movement and would have honed their own knowledge of
history at that time. Thus, the oral and written traditions I recorded in the
late 1980s and early 1990s bear the indelible imprint of this earlier re-imagi-
nation of identity and history.
In this section, I trace my own fieldwork itinerary via conversations with
a retired diplomat and a former deputy in the national assembly to the
archives of canton chief Menie, and from there to interactions with village
elders. Many of these elders were literate in French or Fang and drew on
both oral and written ethnographic traditions to forge their own syntheses.
Whether literate or not, elders had access to written traditions, which had
circulated in oral form through Gabonese villages at least since the colonial
period. In various ways, they had encountered the French colonial army and
colonial wage labor, mission schooling, the colonial administrative hierar-
chy, and colonial and postcolonial political life, both local and national.
They were consulted by other fieldworkers in search of oral traditions,
underlining the dialectic of knowledge production in the villages of north-
eastern Gabon. These elders both influenced and were influenced by field-
workers, shaping in turn the ethnographic terrain I encountered. Both vil-
lagers and fieldworkers thus exercised crucial impact on my own ethno-
graphic imagination providing the already cooked raw materials of my own
field research.
While undertaking dissertation fieldwork in the late 1980s, I alternated
between the villages of Ogoou-Ivindo province, where I recorded oral tra-
50
James W. Fernandez, The Affirmation of Things Past: Alar Ayong and Bwiti as
Movements of Protest in Central and Northern Gabon, in: Robert Rotberg, and Ali
Mazrui (eds.), Protest and Power in Black Africa (New York, 1970), 427-57.
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 61
ditions and genealogies, and Libreville, the capital, where I undertook
library and archival work. In October 1988, during a Libreville interlude, I
met frequently the then recently retired diplomat Abeigne-Nze Jean-Paul,
who had consulted provincial archives and undertaken fieldwork during
vacations and while assigned to the Ivindo prefecture in the 1970s. He had
written a manuscript history of his clan based on meetings with now
deceased elders from his village, Simintang (literally land of the
whites).
51
He dictated the manuscript to me in French, and I wrote swiftly
in a notebook to get it all down. Abeigne-Nze began his text by reading the
following paradoxical claim: Our entire history is oral literature. It is not
written. Of course, as argued here, even the oral texts that Abeigne-Nze
recorded during his own fieldwork were already the products of an ongoing
conversation between the oral and the written.
The cyclical successions of speaking and writing, in which written texts
are also reinserted into the oral, suggests that contemporary oral traditions
are the products of multiple exchanges between the written and the spoken
word. In each successive act of transmission, the speaker or writer may
draw on other sources of knowledge and experience to re-synthesize repre-
sentations of the past. The field of oral history, is thus, in Bourdieus sense,
both structured and indeterminate. The question remains as to what insights
these representations offer into possible pasts. A first step in attempting to
answer this question is to contextualize these representations in their own
ethnographic present, hence, in the conditions of their own production.
One afternoon in October 1988, Abeigne-Nze took me to visit a friend of
his, Nze Thomas-Dydyme, also from northeastern Gabon. Nze Thomas-
Dydyme had served in the National Assembly in the early 1960s and later as
political prisoner in one-party Gabon. In 1990 he would serve briefly as
Minister of Tourism in the multi-party transitional government formed in
the wake of Gabons national conference. The afternoon I met him, we
spoke about the history of the Ogoou-Ivindo Fang. This meeting would
substantially orient the subsequent direction of my own fieldwork. Nze
Thomas-Dydyme urged me to consult both elders and the papers of canton
chief Menie. Although Nze Thomas-Dydyme did not tell me, it turns out
that both he and Menie were cited as sources in colonial administrator
Hubert Deschampss influential 1962 book on Oral Traditions in Gabon.
52
Once again, here is the juxtaposition of written and oral representations of
past-ness.
51
Jean-Paul Abeigne-Nze, Histoire des Esobam (Esakougne) de Simintang, (unpub-
lished typescript, 1988).
52
Hubert Deschamps, Traditions orales et archives au Gabon (Paris, 1962).
62 John M. Cinnamon
V
When I returned to Makokou, I began to consult the elders Nze Thomas-
Dydyme had told me to visit. I also borrowed Menies papers from his son
and began to recopy them. I hoped that this rich body of materials would
contain useful and fairly transparent social memories of pre-colonial identi-
ties and practices. Many of the historical accounts, including Menies, were
organized into two main sections. Each section contained extensive
genealogies that explained connections between different social groups or
clans. The first section was broader and seemed to show Biblical inspira-
tion, as well as that of Trilles, although some Fang intellectuals argued that
the similarities stemmed from common Jewish and Fang histories. The sec-
ond section focused on the origins and genealogies of particular clans and
the relations between clans, especially those Menie Fabien sought to lead. I
look briefly at each section.
The first section of Menies narratives asserted a wider pan-ethnic histo-
ry that claimed common descent of the founding ancestors of the main
Pahouin (or Beti-Fang-Bulu) dialectal groups in Southern Cameroon,
Northern Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. Reminiscent of Trilles, this section
claimed Egyptian origins as well as descent from a legendary ancestor, Afri-
Kara (or Africa). Menies handwritten versions were similar to versions I
recorded in interviews. The following excerpt is from a recorded interview
with a village elder that harkens back both to Menie and to Trilles:
The Fang people came from Egypt. Before they settled in Egypt, they came
from Mesopotamia. This is why the Fang man is a black Jew; he possessed
the same habits as the Jews. In Mesopotamia, the Fang were very imposing.
() All the Fang, from the Bulu, the Yewondo, and the Ntumu. () They
fought wars until they arrived in Egypt, where they remained for a long time.
From Egypt, they passed through the savanna, where they encountered anoth-
er people, the Hausa. They fought wars against each other. The Fang had to
continue onward until they arrived at Adzombogha [a mythical tree that
blocked the migration path]. After that they left the savanna and entered into
the forest.
53
This terse origin statement asserts Nilotic, Jewish, and even Mesopotamian
origins, attesting to the powerful flexibility of the genealogical idiom. It
also underlines the connections between the main currently recognized
53
Interview with Nang-Nkweign Marcel, Agnang, 29-30 November 1988. Nang was a
catechist and village chief who had worked in wage labor for years and served as vice-
president of the Departmental Assembly in Ovan.
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 63
Bti-Bulu-Fang subgroups, their warlike past, and memories of migra-
tions from the savanna to the forest via Adzombogha. Fernandez encoun-
tered similar stories in northern Gabon in the late 1950s. He attributed these
to the pervasive influence of a Bulu-language publication, The Voyage of
the Children of Afri-Kara (Dulu bon be Afri-Kara).
54
His queries about
Fang history had often sent literate villagers scrambling for dog-eared
copies of this authoritative text.
55
So wide was the circulation of this ver-
sion of the Pahouin past, Fernandez notes, and so well did it fill the need
for a past, that it was often difficult to obtain any other versions.
56
Part of
the passage cited above, the magical tree Adzombogha, had already been
cited by Largeau in 1901.
57
This suggests that the speaker, Nang Marcel,
was drawing on several sources, oral and written, to forge his own coherent
version of the past. Nangs own knowledge derived from his life experience
as a catechist, by which he read and explained the Bible in village chapels.
He also said that he had read The Voyage of the Children of Afri-Kara.
Nang passed on his synthesized knowledge to other fieldworkers as well.
58
The second section of the narrative, in both oral versions and Menies
papers, contains the origin story of three related clans that form the core of
the larger Yemveng tribe. These clans claimed descent from three broth-
ers: B, Fal, and Nang-Isie. B had fathered the Yeb, Fal had fathered the
Ibifal, and Nang-Isie had fathered a series of related clans commonly desig-
nated as Isindux.
59
The following story, summarized here, dramatizes the
54
Ondoua Engutu, Dulu bon be Afri-Kara (Ebolowa, 1954).
55
In Ogoou-Ivindo, most copies had disappeared although some elders referred to this
text. In brief visits to Woleu-Ntem province, elders did trot out this influential text on two
occasions.
56
Fernandez, Bwiti, 64.
57
Vincent Largeau, Lencyclopdie pahouine (Paris, 1901), 27.
58
Nang-Nkweign was among those elders consulted by history graduate student Nkala
Simon, for example. Nkala subscribes to the same general view of Fang migrations as
Trilles and Nang: Coming from the northeast of Africa, these populations had crossed
the Sanaga [a River in Cameroon] to end up definitively in west central Equatorial Africa.
Throughout their migration, thanks to a system of legal, friendly, or brutal occupation,
they pushed progressively toward the west certain of the tribes that had preceded them in
their migration before attaining the lands that neighbored the sea. (Nkala Simon, Con-
tribution lhistoire des Fang Nzaman dans lOgoou-Ivindo du sicle dernier nos
jours, Mmoire de matrise, University of Omar Bongo [1987], 23). Directionality in
migration narratives exemplifies what Elizabeth Tonkin calls emplotment and can serve
as an important unifying device (it is Jlaos destiny to reach the sea) (Elizabeth
Tonkin, Narrating our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History [Cambridge,
1992], 30.)
59
For a more in depth discussion of the Ngina-Ngugume/Nang-Isie legend, see John M.
Cinnamon, The Long March of the Fang: Anthropology and History in Equatorial
Africa, PhD dissertation, Yale University (1998), chapter 7.
64 John M. Cinnamon
connection between the three brothers. A version of this narrative was first
told to me in Libreville by Nze Thomas-Dydyme, who had undoubtedly
learned it directly or indirectly via Menie:
A man named Ngina-Ngugume had lost his only son in a feud. To avenge
his sons death, he needed lances, so he went to visit a skilled smith, Nang-
Isie. Nang-Isie had been ostracized by his two brothers for having murdered
his own wife. The two brothers had forbidden him to eat food prepared by a
woman. Ngina-Ngugume arrived, prepared an elaborate meal, and invited
Nang-Isie to come live with him in order to replace his fallen son. When they
arrived in Ngina-Ngugumes village, Nang-Isie forged the lances and then
gave Ngina-Ngugume the successful battle strategy by which he was able to
avenge his sons death. In most versions, Nang overcame initial resentment
from Ngina-Ngugumes sons, took the lead in a successful raid on the rivals
village, and himself slew the rival. Upon their return from battle, Ngina-
Ngugume called his people together. He changed the name of Nang-Isie to
Akame-Ngina (from the verb ekm, to defend); thus Nang-Isie became the
defender of Ngina. The name change also signaled that Akame-Ngina had
become Ngina-Ngugumes adoptive son.
60
Ngina-Ngugume then gave him
the wives of his dead son. With these wives, Akame-Ngina bore the children
who founded a related group of clans that today whose members live in Min-
voul, Makokou, Ndjol, southern Cameroon and other regions.
This story claims a historical and genealogical connection between three
clans (or clusters of clans) present in Ogoou-Ivindo province: Yeb, Ibifal,
and Isindux. It reminds listeners that B, Fale, and Nang-Isie (alias Akam
Ngina) come from common seed and can rely on one another in times of
need, while also suggesting the crucial importance of affinal relations.
61
The
story intimates processes of social composition in the pre-colonial period. In
this story, a local big-man (kukume) turns to Nang-Isie, a murderer who
has partially lost his social identity. But Nang-Isie also embodies the ambi-
guity of smiths. As Eugenia Herbert puts it for smiths more generally,
Nang-Isie is a polluted outsider, but also culture hero, who becomes at
60
Most Fang names include the individuals given name followed by his or her paters
name (e.g., Ngina son of Ngugume, Akame son of Ngina).
61
Igor Kopytoff makes the important point that clients and others who had moved away
did not necessarily rupture ties with those they had left behind. Strategically, he notes,
the relation was held in () reserve out of which it could be resurrected when circum-
stances demanded it; Igor Kopytoff, The Internal African Frontier: The Making of
Political Culture, in: Igor Kopytoff (ed.), The African Frontier: The Reproduction of
Traditional African Societies (Bloomington, 1987), 19. And, as Luc de Heusch reminds
us, kings (or in this case a warrior-smith/apical ancestor) frequently arrive from outside
and legitimate their presence by marrying locally.
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 65
least on a symbolic level the king himself or in this case a clan
founder.
62
Most of the elders to whom Nze Thomas directed me were able to recite
versions of this narrative. Yeb, Ibifal, and Isindux clan elders claimed
descent from the three brothers and recognized a historical or genealogical
connection between them. For example, Ibifal elder, Bifele Alphonse, said:
Were tied to the Isindux by the Ngina-Ngugume affair. () But we had
no tie to them in the beginning. Okwale Fabien, an Isindux elder, said:
The Yeb came to deliver us. (). That is why we say that B, Fale, and
Nang-Isie are one clan (yo).
63
The widespread consensus about the Ngina Ngugume legend might
appear to support its historical plausibility Moreover, almost all other war
narratives I recorded in Gabon spoke of imported muzzle-loading trade guns
rather than forged lances, which suggests the relative oldness of the Ngina-
Ngugume legend. Yet other interpretations are surely possible.
64
Although
elements surely borrow from older traditions, the modern composition and
dissemination of the story dates from the clan reunification movement that
reached the Ogoou-Ivindo in the 1940s and that continued to inform my
own fieldwork four decades later. Menie Fabien, the entrepreneurial canton
chief whose papers I consulted, played a central role in the popularization of
this story. Menie was a shrewd and ambitious cultural broker who had
served for sixteen years in the French army, rising to the rank of sergent-
chef. When he returned home in 1945, he immediately began to organize
the clan reunification movement in Makokou. He consulted knowledgeable
elders, but also drew on other sources of historical knowledge in order to
forge new versions of history and genealogical connection.
In 1947, Menie was elected by his yo brothers as President of the
Yemveng Tribe. The Yemveng are what Fernandez has called a matrix
clan
65
that combined a number of other clans, including the Yeb, the Isin-
dux, and the Ibifal, as well as Menies Isinzui clan. As clan president, Menie
62
Eugenia Herbert, Iron, Gender, and Power: Rituals of Transformation in African Soci-
eties (Bloomington IN, 1993), 12.
63
Interview with Bifele-Bi-Yigha Alphonse, Mayiga, 13 October 1990; interview with
Okpale-Ngare Fabien, Makokou, 11 April 1990.
64
I thank HA editor, Jan Jansen, for his suggestion that this legend merits much more sus-
tained analysis, which I plan to carry out subsequently. My main point here is to point to
recent historical processes of production and reconfiguration during the colonial clan
reunification movement and to illustrate how Menies initiative in having the legend
recited and written helped to establish it much more firmly in a late colonial historical
imagination, thereby reshaping the field.
65
Fernandez, Bwiti, 81n.
66 John M. Cinnamon
gained privileged access to elders, support for his own political ambitions,
and the ability to reappropriate history to reflect and shape emerging cultur-
al and political identities. In a very real sense, Menie conducted his own
fieldwork, using it to piece together and then disseminate his own synthesis
of what he called the genealogy of the Yemveng Tribe (endan ayo
Yemveng).
Historian Florence Bernault has written of the challenges, both from
above and below, faced by colonial chiefs in French Equatorial Africa. The
chiefs, [often] poorly rooted locally (), had to serve as intermediaries with
the Africans, without being able to capture too many personal benefits at the
expense of colonial power.
66
Menie was a skillful broker who knew how to
achieve results for colonial administrators.
67
At the same time, he sought to
use clan idioms, genealogies, and oral traditions to build a large following,
realize his local political ambitions, organize and mobilize residents in his
canton, and modernize his comparatively isolated region. In part, the lasting
success of these particular clan histories is due to Menies skill and energy,
and his long experience in the French army bureaucracy. As Nze Thomas
told me, Menie was intelligent and politically astute. He knew both tradition
and the west. Above all, he was flexible and open. His genius rested in his
ability to combine both European knowledge and older processes of what
Guyer and Eno-Belinga have called the social composition of
knowledge.
68
Menie used fieldwork to compose genealogical and oral tra-
ditions as he sought to mobilize the energies of a large network of people; in
so doing, he helped to re-imagine and extend that very network. His
archives indicate that at one point Menie even sought to subsume all extant
Fang clans in Ogoou-Ivindo under a single, composed unit or matrix-
clan. This supra-clan was the Yemveng, of which Menie himself was
president. His clan or tribe presidency, his fieldwork, and administrative
goals were thus mutually reinforcing. Like other colonial authorities, Menie
undertook fieldwork to help consolidate a traditional social order to
anchor his own authority, to maintain a colonial hierarchy, and to modern-
ize his relatively isolated region.
69
Finally, in a region where literacy was
66
Florence Bernault, Dmocraties ambigus en Afrique Centrale, Congo-Brazzaville,
Gabon: 19401965 (Paris, 1996), 81.
67
In this sense, Menie, as a chief who served Europeans in the colonial period, was an
intellectual (Feierman 1990, 123). Like other colonial intellectuals, Menie enjoyed a mea-
sure of autonomy through the clan reunification movement.
68
One might also speak of the social composition of knowledge through various sorts
of fieldwork.
69
At the same time, like government-appointed chiefs in French West Africa, Menie was
politically conservative and rallied to the colonial government and later to Gabons first
president, Lon MBa. Once it became clear that MBa had won the backing of the colo-
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 67
still rare, Menie had students such as Nze Thomas record Yemveng oral tra-
ditions and genealogies in writing. In so doing, he substantially reconfig-
ured the ethnographic terrain in Ogoou-Ivindo.
But not everyone agreed with Menies composed version. Two Isindux
elders stated flatly that the Yemveng were a recent invention. Anyuzoghe
Frdrique argued: The large Yemveng tribe did not exist before the clan
reunification movement. () Within Yemveng, they took all the tribes of
sindux, bfl, Yeb, and regrouped them into one family. He also denied
the story of Ngina Ngugume: No, that doesnt exist in our place. When
there was the grouping of the meyo, each group added to its history in
order that we regroup. This last statement gets at the crucial link between
social composition and the production of historical and genealogical knowl-
edge. Ndeghe Norbert, a former deputy, said that the work of Menie Fabien
was a work of consultation, a rapprochement de lhistoire, that accompa-
nied the gathering of all these tribes. The Ngina Ngugume legend was a
tradition that we found during the Alar Meyo (clan reunification). Anyu-
zoghe added: It did not exist. . . . Our clan reunification was composed.
70
In Minvoul, Yeb, and Isindux elders I consulted recognized the links
between their respective clans, but had never heard of the legend. This may
indicate that they lived beyond the field in which this particular composition
of historical knowledge circulated.
Does all this mean, however, that the revised oral traditions generated
during the clan reunification movement erect an opaque screen that conceals
and distorts more distant historical processes? Are these traditions above all
the product of an ambitious canton chiefs need for a genealogical and
mythical charter to uphold his claims of authority? They provide insights
into at least two vital historical processes: 1) the construction of social iden-
tity, and 2) how narrational models promoted alliance formation between
social groups in the past. These are only partial, refracted historical narra-
tives, and the versions I have cited do exclude many voices. Like most polit-
ical narratives, which underline mens agency, the Ngina-Ngungume legend
silences (or even kills) the historical voices of women. Nonetheless, as
reflections of both historical consciousness and social alliances, the oral tra-
ditions discussed here surely contributed to the field I encountered in north-
nial administration, Menie supported him in spite of the widespread local popularity of
MBas rival, Jean-Hilaire Aubame. Elizabeth Schmidt notes that in French West Africa,
with the exception of Guine where the canton chieftaincy was abolished in 1957, colo-
nial chiefs wielded immense power in favor of the colonial administration. (Elizabeth
Schmidt, Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946-1958 [Athens OH, 2007], 170).
70
Interview with Anyuzoghe-Nno Frdrique, and Ndeghe-Nno Norbert, Makokou, 20
December 1988.
68 John M. Cinnamon
eastern Gabon. They also suggest that feedback from written traditions
operates in tandem with that of older oral traditions recomposed to suit
the needs of the present. Meanwhile, a preoccupation with narrating Fang
origins (that dates at least back to Trilles) continues. Oral and written
sources continue to interpenetrate one another.
VI
When I briefly returned to Ogoou-Ivindo in 1998 after a seven-year hiatus,
I spent an afternoon with Jean-Paul Abeigne-Nze, the retired diplomat and
informal ethnographer I with whom I had worked a decade earlier. Later he
wrote to me asking for copies of a recorded interview with an elder who had
since died as well as a copy of my own PhD thesis, which I brought to him
on a return visit. This suggests to me that parts of my own historical ethnog-
raphy may re-enter the field as oral tradition, but not necessarily in the ways
I might intend. In the meantime, Abeigne-Nze had taken up the role of
knowledgeable elder. It was to him that the current generation of historians
and anthropologists now turned in quest of the oral representations of equa-
torial African pasts. In summer 2002, I spent two days with him in his vil-
lage, Simintang. He wanted to write a history of the settlement of the Fang
country, especially of the region that corresponds to my own field. He had
recorded oral histories of each village of clans and previous villages. He
saw this as part of a larger history of how Fang-, Kota-, and Kwele-speakers
had come to the region and how European penetration had taken place. I
was in awe and somewhat envious of his detailed knowledge of village his-
tory, but he also asked about some of the interviews I had conducted in the
late-1980s with elders who have since passed on.
Abeigne-Nze was more concerned with the details of regional and local
history than with Egyptian origins and long-distance migrations. He
nonetheless situated his regional history in this larger narrative, drawing on
both written and oral traditions. In a 1973 written discussion of Fang migra-
tions, he cited colonial administrator Emile Gentil: According to Emile
Gentil, their migrations would have been determined by those of the Fulbe,
the Bayas, and the Yanghrs. In the same discussion he also noted the
impact of the oral traditions: [C]ertain authors, in conformity with the oral
tradition still in force (toujours en vigueur) have admitted that the Fang
took their first origins from the desert zones of Arabia, whence they were
expelled by conquering Arabs. He continues: The legend attributes also
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 69
the name of Afri-Kara to their ancestor who, due to the Arab push and
aggression, had to flee with his subjects to other places. It seems that he fol-
lowed the direction of the setting sun.
71
Here, Abeigne drew first on colo-
nial ethnography, then on the oral tradition still in force (but nonetheless
influenced by colonial ethnography), and finally to Afri-Kara (or Africa),
the founding ancestor from Ondoua Engutus Bulu language account, cited
above. Abeigne was nonetheless careful to qualify his assertions with condi-
tional language: According to. . ., the legend attributes . . ., it seems
that . . . . In the version of Esakougne history dictated to me in fall 1988,
he had said: The Nile is spoken of (On parle du Nil) Egypt, Ethiopia,
the Great Lakes. . . . After enumerating the main Fang sub-groups
(Ewondo, Bulu, Ntumu, etc.), he made his geographical references more
assertively: We left the Nile in the direction of the southwest. We followed
the setting sun.
72
In another mimeographed history on the region, Aboundhome-Ekoga
responded to Trilless old question Whence come the Fang? by trac-
ing their proximate origins to the savanna of central Cameroon:
Research undertaken about 1913 gave them as a zone of habitation the region
of Gaoundr (Cameroon). If this hypothesis is retained, one can admit that
their migration began about 1830 at the time of the Fulani conquest of Soko-
to, directed by SENKENE Musulmy Ousmann, dated from 1810, at his
apogee. The Hausa, in other words, the Gabonawa, Katsenaw, etc. etc, were
defeated and expelled. The invasion took the route toward the east via the
Benue toward the plateaus of the Adamawa. Constrained by the Fulani to the
north, and by the Baya to the East, the Fang began to move toward the south-
west, crossing a deserted zone.
73
71
Jean-Paul Abeigne-Nze, Monographie de Makokou Sous-Prfecture du Gabon
(unpublished typescript, 1973).
72
Jean-Paul Abeigne-Nze, Histoire des Esobam.
73
Aboubakar Aboundhoume-Ekoga, Chronique historique de lOgoou-Ivindo (mimeo-
graphed text, 1984). Here, of course, Aboundhoume rejoins the final stages of the Egypt-
ian origins thesis and unified Beti-Bulu-Fang migration narratives in which Fang would
have been chased from the savanna into the forest by Fulani, Hausa, or Arabs. He and
others also speculate that these Fang migrations were occasioned by the Jihad of Usman
dan Fodio (c. 1757-1817) in the early nineteenth century. While northern A 70 (Beti-
Bulu-Fang) speakers were surely impacted by slave raiding and political turbulence, the
rise of Usman dan Fodio is far too late to explain the presence of A 70 speakers in the
rain forest. Aboundhoumes interpretation also suffers from a too unified sense of Beti-
Bulu-Fang identity and history. While there is indeed considerable unity across this cul-
tural-linguistic region, there is also much historical diversity. As suggested throughout
this article, the sense of broader cultural unity is also a factor of the kinds of feedback
processes examined here. Laburthe-Tolra has attempted to reconstruct the crossing of the
Sanaga by A 70-speakers, but concludes that there are no Fang traditions of direct clashes
70 John M. Cinnamon
On the one hand, the use of multiple sources and conditional phrases under-
lines the search by Abeigne and Aboundhome-Ekoga for historical truth. As
historian Gregory Maddox has put it regarding Tanzanian popular historian,
Ernest Kongola: Kongolas work is a search for truth, but I dont think he
would appreciate his search being labeled as different from that of the west-
ern trained scholars [including Maddox himself] who have worked in the
region.
74
On the other hand, Abeignes references to written and oral tradi-
tions indicate that previous ethnographers had shaped his field at the same
time that he was shaping the field entered by the students and scholars who
consulted him. In addition, the directionality of long-distance migrations
enables both speakers and listeners to make a connection between the point
of origin (Mesopotamia, Arabia, the Nile, the savannas of Adamawa) and
present-day geography, nationality, and ethnic identity. In her discussion of
migration/emergence narratives as told by a Jlao elder of Liberia, Elizabeth
Tonkin analyzed an analogous plot device (How we came to the sea). In
the Jlao case, according to Tonkin, reaching the sea partly answered the
more important question: How did we become who we are?
75
Because of
the structured indeterminacy of Gabonese fields, how the Fang became who
they are has continued to occupy succeeding generations of Fang historical
ethnographers, who have returned to dialectically constituted colonial, mis-
sionary, and village sources. They thus extend the feedback cycles indenti-
fied elsewhere and more generally by Henige.
VII
However much power and privilege academic anthropologists wish to imag-
ine for ourselves, we must also recognize that missionaries, African intellec-
tuals, and other nonacademic ethnographers have exercised substantial
with recognizable savanna populations: Vute, Mbum, or Fulb; Laburthe-Tolra,
Seigneurs de la fort, 98. Laburthe-Tolra also argues that A 70-speakers have lived for a
very long time south of the Sanaga and north of the Ntem Rivers (Laburthe-Tolra,
Seigneurs de la fort, 100); see also Laburthe-Tolra, Essai de synthse sur les popula-
tions dites beti de la rgion de Minlaba (sud du Nyong), in: Claude Tardits (ed.),
Contribution de la recherche thnologique lhistoire du Cameroun (Paris, 1981), 533-
46.
74
Gregory H. Maddox, Life Maps: Ernest Kongolas Journey, paper presented at the
African Studies Association Annual Meeting (29 October 1 November 1998); Gregory
H. Maddox with Ernest M. Kongola, Practicing History in Central Tanzania: Writing,
Memory, and Performance (Portsmouth NH, 2006).
75
Tonkin, Narrating Our Pasts, 29-31.
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 71
influence on our fields. Here, I have argued for recognition of the formative
role played by the writings of Reverend-Father Trilles in the Gabonese
ethnographic imagination, especially oral traditions of origin and migration.
Both European and African scholars, including myself, grapple not only
with the legacy of Trilles, but also insider ethnography and ethnohistory.
Even if we ignore or dismiss Trilless writings, his influence makes itself
felt in the complex cycles of knowledge transfer between oral and written
traditions. I do not, of course, wish to argue that our own ethnographic
encounters are somehow not a product of academic debates and politics in
our home countries or face-to-face power relations between university-
trained researchers and economically impoverished villagers. There are,
however, other dynamics that shape our fieldwork. Both historical and local
traditions continue to produce our field encounter. I conclude with three
brief fieldwork vignettes to illustrate my point.
First, in 1998, I had the privilege of presenting the results of my field-
work in Ebolowa, Cameroon, at a conference on the Bantu Peoples of
Cameroon. Although unknown in the field, I was invited, along with two
senior European anthropologists and a number of scholars from Bantu-
speaking Africa, to add prestige and scholarly insight to an ideologically
charged colloquium attached to a National Festival of Arts and Culture. One
man in attendance at my presentation listened attentively and later asked for
a copy of the longer paper, which he read with great interest. My contention
had been that Fang history could best be approached as the product of
more local and regional processes of social composition that occurred in the
equatorial rain forest rather than as the outcome of far-flung migrations
from the Upper Nile. My interlocutor, however, enthusiastically embraced
exactly the interpretation I had argued against in the paper, blithely using
my data to confirm his own reading. So much for my initial attempt to use
my ethnographic authority to offer an alternative reading of the Adzom-
bogha legend and to topple Trilles and the ever-popular Egyptian origins
hypothesis.
Second, I cite a summer 2002 encounter at a roadside bar and fish grill in
Libreville that illustrates how much influence Trilles, Cheikh Anta Diop,
and Gabonese intellectuals have had in shaping the Gabonese field. I had
been talking about conservation issues with a Gabonese NGO trainee who
had studied both linguistics and forest management. A Gabonese journalist I
had known as a student two decades previously happened by and joined, or
rather took over, the conversation. Talk between the two quickly turned to
whether or not Fang is a Bantu language and, if so, whether the Fang are a
72 John M. Cinnamon
Bantu people, a debate rehearsed a century ago by Trilles. The journalist
responded that he had met Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, that Diop had mas-
tered all the scientific disciplines, and that the Fang and Fulani had come
from different regions of the Nile Valley. Cheikh Anta Diop, he said,
traced all the migratory pathways to show how they migrated from Egypt.
To support his claims further, the journalist cited an anthropologist, not
Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard, or even Balandier or Fernandez, but none
other than Reverend Father Trilles. The Mvet epic, he continued,
retraces the epic migration; the frescoes of the Mvet were found in a pyra-
mid fresco by Reverend Father Trilles. The Mvet comes from Egypt. ()
The Fang came from Egypt between the sixteenth and seventeenth cen-
turies. More important than the fact that Trilles never set foot in Egypt is
the ongoing influence he exercises on the ethnographic imagination in
Gabon. The fact that he rejoins Diop, a giant in the Pan-Africanist historical
imagination, enhances his prestige.
This second vignette might be seen as an impromptu case of what Mary
Louise Pratt and others have called auto-ethnography, by which colonial
and post-colonial subjects represent themselves using the colonizers own
terms. Pels and Salemink have argued for a critical view of auto-ethnogra-
phy, which they see largely as a self-objectifying, derivative discourse.
76
It
may be useful, however, to recall Feiermans point that while colonial
rulers may have introduced the terms of political debate, () they could
never determine where the debate would end.
77
An analogous argument
could be made that colonial fieldworkers introduced terms of ethnography
and oral history, but could not definitively shape the contours of these
fields. Once again, these fields of knowledge production remain both struc-
tured and indeterminate.
As a final example, I return to Abeigne-Nze, the retired diplomat and
ethnographer from Simintang, who seemed implicitly to have grasped Feier-
mans argument. When I visited in summer 2002, he reminded me, diplo-
matically, of where I stood in his field. He said: Monsieur John, you leave,
I remain. () My grandson will be fifteen. I want to build a house for him
here. When I asked him whether he thought Fang-speakers living two cen-
turies ago would have reclaimed their identity as they did today, he respond-
ed in a way that showed keen understanding of the politics of ethnographic
representations: Cultural identity, he said, had always existed. Each peo-
ple had its own culture. If Fang today didnt claim their identity, they
wouldnt have a history. If it is reclaimed today, he continued, it is in the
76
Pels, and Salemink, Introduction: Five Theses; Pels, and Salemink, Introduction.
77
Feierman, Peasant Intellectuals, 124.
Ethnographic and Historical Fields of Knowledge in Gabon 73
face of colonialism and slavery. To reclaim our identity is to cast off these
things. () We form a block. We have always been here.
This last statement recalls Bourdieus understanding of fields as sites
structured by layered histories of power relations that are nonetheless open
to negotiation and indeterminacy. Abeinge-Nzes statement, We have
always been here, even if made rhetorically vis--vis an outside ethnogra-
pher, makes a very different claim from Trilless and others Egyptian ori-
gins thesis. As Peter Geschiere has recently argued, with explicit reference
to Gabonese Fang-speakers northern Beti cousins, remote origins and long-
distance migrations may actually constitute a liability in neoliberal, multi-
party Cameroon where being sons of the soil or seigneurs de la fort
legitimizes access to state power and resources while excluding fellow
Cameroonians.
78
Such claims to autochthony emerge through struggles over
basic economic, political, and human rights, not only in Cameroon but also
across Africa and Europe (not to mention the Americas); they are part of the
global condition and contribute to the restructuring of historical conscious-
ness. The feedback continues.
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