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date: 06 May 2021

Education and Politics in Colonial French West Africalocked

  • Kelly Duke BryantKelly Duke BryantHistory, Rowan University


Education was profoundly political in colonial French West Africa (1895–1960), a federation that included the modern-day countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Benin (formerly Dahomey), Côte d’Ivoire, and Niger. It shaped political discourse across the federation as officials, educators, missionaries, African families, and African students weighed in on the type of education they thought best. Dissatisfaction with education policies or with the quality of schools encouraged Africans to become politically active, and the practical skills they learned in school along with the status gained through school attendance prepared young people to agitate for colonial reform and ultimately for independence.

Colonial officials engaged in a back and forth with the Catholic missionary orders that provided public schooling in much of the region, especially as they sought to balance early 20th-century metropolitan demands for secularization with the colonies’ need for reliable and inexpensive schools. In the second half of the 19th century, administrators attempted to undermine Qur’an schools through regulation and surveillance, hoping that this would result in increased attendance in French schools. In doing so, they competed directly with popular Islamic leaders and the interests of the Muslim community, which had the unintended effect of involving African Muslims in colonial politics in new ways. Officials also attempted to “adapt” colonial school curricula to the local realities of African communities, usually by decreasing academic content and focusing instead on vocational and agricultural training. Yet over several decades, they encountered significant resistance from urban educated elites and rural farmers alike, all of whom pushed in one way or another for schooling that would allow for social mobility and, ultimately, claims for equality with the French. Finally, education played a crucial role in formal politics in the region, preparing Africans for political candidacy and leadership, mobilizing the voting public, and helping to determine access to voting rights after African subjects became citizens in 1946. Education and politics were thus inextricably linked in colonial French West Africa.

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