Zehfuss: early 20th-century
West-African French war encounters transformed relations
By Nancy Hurrelbrinck
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.
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."
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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,² 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,
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."