April 21-27, 2000
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Zehfuss: early 20th-century West-African French war encounters transformed relations

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Before West Africans served in France during World War I, the French generally regarded them as "savages," and West Africans typically thought of the French as invincible colonists in uniform.

The wartime contact between these two populations had a major impact on their perspectives, as well as their cultures, said French department graduate student Nicole Zehfuss, who has just completed her dissertation on "The Force of Culture: Transforming Relations between France and West Africa, 1914-1939."

Their contact "caused both sides to reevaluate colonization," she said. "The French realized that Africans had culture -- music, dance, art -- that shouldn't be ignored." And West Africans realized that the French who colonized their country weren't invulnerable.

"Fighting alongside Frenchmen in the trenches, [Africans] realized that [the French] weren't all in perfect health, and they weren't all brave," said Zehfuss, who got interested in Africa as an undergraduate taking classes with French professor Kandioura Drame.

"This undermined the power of the French colonial system. There were revolts as the [African] soldiers were being repatriated," she said. "They would be gathered in the camps, possibly quarantined for health reasons, and they'd want to leave or ask for their pensions."

As for the French, they were fascinated initially by the "primitiveness" of African culture, she said. "In 1931 there was a colonial exposition in Paris, complete with natives living in pretend villages transformed to fit French sensibilities," she said.

But the French eventually co-opted West-African art forms, incorporating masks into sculpture, for instance, or playing old French songs with an African-American-influenced jazz beat. "It became another form of colonization," Zehfuss said.

The French army taught West Africans a pidgin French that many found insulting, she said. Some soldiers studied French in the home of Lucie Cousturier, a woman who lived near one of the camps, and they later wrote her letters describing their experiences.

"There's a story about a group of soldiers, West African and French, who were in a wine cellar celebrating a battle victory, Zehfuss said. "The Africans were relaxed and took off their shirts. The French loosened their top buttons.

"Then they were attacked by a much larger group of Germans, and the Africans charged out, yelling and screaming," causing the Germans to retreat, terrified by their own racist stereotypes, she said.

By analyzing such tales, "we can gain a better understanding of the colonial period and start to make the story less one-sided," she said. "It's usually told from the French or the West-African perspective. I wanted to have the voices speak together."


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