A research visit to Benin

In this post, Prof Tony Chafer reports on his recent research trip in Benin and some of the challenges and opportunities available there for scholars working on French West Africa.

Having worked on decolonisation in former French West Africa for many years, Alex Keese and I wondered why no one, in the many studies we have read, has used the Benin archives. We knew of academics who had used the Senegal national archives, those of Mali, Mauritania and – to a lesser extent – Côte d’Ivoire, but no one, it seemed, had used the Benin archives. Yet Dahomey (modern Benin) had once been described as the Latin quarter of Africa, because of the number of French-educated Africans trained there, and graduates from its schools were to be found working for the colonial administration throughout French West Africa. The territory’s importance for any study of decolonisation in West Africa was thus beyond doubt.

Initial prospects for the visit did not look good. There was no sign of the national archives on the internet and it was only when I stumbled across a local press article on the web, reporting on the events that had been organised that week to mark the centenary of the creation of the archives, that I was reassured that they actually existed. The article even gave the name of the director, whose email address was easy to find on the internet as it was an unusual name. Unfortunately, the email bounced back. However, a further email to the chef du service de communication, who was also named in the article, yielded a response within the hour. We were welcome to visit and they had a number of series that would be of interest.


The visa necessitated a visit to an industrial estate in north London. But it was worth the journey just to meet the consul himself, who had been in the post since the country gained its independence in 1960. He was quite a character and had many stories to tell; I could have spent much of the day listening to them if I had not had further appointments to get to. In all the years he had been consul, he assured me, I was the first person he had come across to go to Benin for historical research. The prospects for doing some original research were by now looking much better.

I arrived in Benin three weeks later to discover a country that, compared to other countries in the region that I have visited, seemed on the surface to be noticeably poorer. Many unpaved roads in the country’s capital city, Cotonou, motor bikes rather than cars for taxis, petrol sold from bottles at roadside stalls rather than at petrol stations, were just some of the striking first impressions.

We arrived at the archives the next day and were welcomed warmly. There were more staff than readers in the airy reading room and we were immediately provided with detailed répertoires for the colonial period. Ordering files was straightforward and they arrived promptly. Here, clearly, was an unmined source for the colonial historian. We were interested in the period of transition from the colonial to the post-colonial period, so we mainly wanted to see political files – ‘political’ in the broadest sense, so including police, justice, labour and internal security files – from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. Unfortunately, there was virtually nothing in the archives for this period. The untapped mine of information covered the colonial period from the mid-1890s to the early 1950s, but then largely dried up.


Clearly, we needed to look elsewhere. We thought that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs might be a useful source of documentation on continuities in the relationship between the newly-independent Dahomey and the former colonial power, France. The chef du service de communication also helpfully suggested that the archives of the Assemblée Nationale might be a useful source. So we tried the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while she phoned her colleague at the National Assembly. At the Ministry the reply was: we have nothing before 1994-5. Apparently no one had ever requested documents for this period! The chef du service de communication at the National Archives told us that the staff there were relatively new, so offered to phone her colleague, who had been there for many years but had recently been transferred to another service, to see if he knew anything about the missing archives. He didn’t. It seems that the ministry has changed buildings at least once since independence, so we speculated that perhaps the archives had been left behind in a previous building. They are now looking for the missing thirty-five years. At the National Assembly the story was uncannily similar: the staff there had not seen any archives from before the mid-1990s. Documents on the first thirty-five years of Benin’s national history are hard to come by, it seems, at least in Benin itself. We have contacted but not yet heard from the Préfecture in Porto Novo and are still waiting to find out if the Présidence has any archives for the period.

So, if you are thinking of doing research on the colonial period in French West Africa, the Benin national archives are a great untapped resource – up to the mid-1950s. The staff are helpful and the working conditions are good. With the national archives of Senegal, which have been the staple for historians working on French colonialism in West Africa for many years, currently closed sine die, the Benin archives could provide a useful alternative resource.


Study day report: “The power of language in post-colonial Africa”

On Wednesday 11 March 2015, the Francophone Africa, Languages Across Borders, and International Development Studies and Security Issues research clusters in the Centre for European and International Studies Research (CEISR) at the University of Portsmouth jointly organised a study day focusing on “the power of language in post-colonial Africa”. The aim of this interdisciplinary event was to bring together African and European writers and scholars to explore the uses, misuses and challenges facing the former colonisers’ languages at a local, regional and national level in Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone sub-saharan Africa.

The event began with a brief introduction, where the conference organisers, Olivia Rutazibwa (International Relations/ EU Studies), Mario Saraceni (Languages/ Linguistics) and Joanna Warson (History/ Area Studies), explained their research background and interest in the conference theme. The first panel concentrated on Anglophone and Lusophone Africa, with papers from Tope Omoniyi (Roehampton) and Margaret Clarke (Portsmouth). In his paper, Prof Omoniyi, a sociolinguist, considered the relationship between public health and language, focusing especially on the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In particular, Prof Omoniyi emphasised the persistent gap between policies that assert the importance of making multilingual resources on public health available and the reality on the ground. The geographical focus shifted for Dr Clarke’s paper, which explored the adoption, adaption and evolution of the Portuguese language in Angola and Mozambique in the post-independence era.

After a short break for tea and some delicious homemade cake, we resumed proceedings with a panel on Francophone Africa. Brenda Garvey (Chester) explored the development of urban Wolof in Senegal, addressing the ways in which this language borrows and mixes with the language of the former colonising power (France). In Garvey’s view, this linguistic hybridity and flexibility, alongside urban Wolof’s conviviality and colloquialism, makes it possible for people who are not ethnically Wolof to use and identity themselves with urban Wolof. Based on his own experiences as a writer, Felwine Sarr (Université Gaston-Berger, Saint-Louis, Senegal), who is also an economist, analysed ‘Writing as an idiomatic construction of singularity’. In this paper, Prof Sarr argued that the foreignness and strangeness of languages makes them all equal. Thus, according to Prof Sarr, we are all exiles in language.

Study day photoOlivia Rutazibwa leads the roundtable discussion with our speakers (left to right): Brenda Garvey, Felwine Sarr, Tope Omoniyi and Margaret Clarke.

We would like to thank everyone who participated in this study half day for their excellent papers and interventions, which prompted though-provoking debates, especially about the role of local and European languages in shaping identity, policy and continued efforts towards decolonisation in sub-Saharan Africa. We would also like to thank the Centre of European and International Studies Research and the School of Languages and Area Studies for generously supporting this event.


This study day was attended by students from across the School of Languages and Area Studies. Here, some of the students who attended share their thoughts on the event.

Megan Ison (BA (Hons) French Studies, Year 1): As a language student, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the importance of language in post-colonial Africa, and the presentations have taught me that language is about far more than syntax and grammar. I particularly enjoyed learning about the power of minority languages, which is something that I have never appreciated before. For example, I valued Tope Omoniyi’s account of how communities in Africa were able to educate each other through song in their native language about how to prevent Ebola, in ways that Western propaganda failed. Thank you very much for organising such a thought-provoking afternoon!

Nicola McKay (BA (Hons) International Relations and Languages, Year 4): I found the study half day on ‘the power of language in post-colonial Africa’ very interesting and thought-provoking as it gave me a chance to learn more on topics that my course doesn’t necessarily cover, such as Lusophone Africa and the use of Wolof in urban Dakar. I also found it a great opportunity to speak to academics from outside the University as well as mixing with other like-minded students.

Lianne Walters (BA (Hons) Applied Languages: French and Mandarin, Year 3): Attending the half day seminar about ‘the Power of Language in post-colonial Africa’ was an absolute delight. All the presentations given were not only engaging but inspirational, motivating participants to let their minds wander and explore the colonialist issues faced by Africa’s nations and its people. We were encouraged to question whether today’s Africa truly is post-colonial as it is so commonly understood to be. Despite identifying the problematic position of the former colonisers’ languages in African culture, in both domestic and global arenas, some papers also discussed less negative aspects of the use of of European languages in Africa. Brenda Garvey, for example, interestingly addressed the pluralism and fluidity of urban Wolof, which allows its speakers to self-identify according to the linguistic markers that exist in the language. I personally benefitted greatly from what Prof Tope Omoniyi shared about the importance of naming rituals in reference to how the Ebola virus came to be termed. I also very much enjoyed Dr. Felwine Sarr’s persuasive exposition of idiomatic singularity and the risk of captivity, uniformity, and imposed inferiority that comes with use of a language. My most heartfelt thanks goes to all the brilliant speakers at the workshop, and the University of Portsmouth for hosting the event with a provision of great homemade cakes, tea and coffee!