Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

The Languages of Childhood: The Discursive Construction of Childhood and Colonial Policy in French West Africa

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

The Languages of Childhood: The Discursive Construction of Childhood and Colonial Policy in French West Africa

Article excerpt

In spite of the deceptive familiarity of the terrain, childhood, that stage of life that we are all supposed to experience, resists easy definition. (1) Our fascination with childhood experiences has created an international boom in autobiographies and children's literature, as well as in self-help manuals and in discourses, programs and policies concerning child abuse and child crime. (2) The images of children as "victims," "rebels" or "the hope of the future" that appear and reappear in these discourses suggest that we actually construct childhood as an object of concern, and that these constructions are products of a particular period and a particular cultural framework. These "languages of childhood," however, are usually foreign to children and to childhood taken as a phenomenological experience, for they are produced by adults attempting to understand their own or others' childhood. The difficulties involved in attempting to understand children and their history have also become a source of debate about the social sciences as disciplines. As Mary Galbraith writes:

   [W]hat is really called into question by childhood studies, what is
   raised to visibility that was previously taken for granted as given,
   is the meaning of adulthood in relation to childhood. The crisis of
   legitimacy in all areas of authority in the last half of the
   twentieth century is particularly urgent with respect to the
   category adults. In fact, it may be that it is only by consciously
   reentering a childhood perspective on adulthood that we can find
   our way through some of the most difficult moral and intellectual
   challenges of our era. (3)

In undertaking an exploration of key questions in the history of childhood in French West Africa, with a special focus on Upper Volta, I hope to address the issues Galbraith raises in a double movement. Although we cannot speak for children, it is possible to enter their world as visitors. A brief discussion of Mossi children's games and their own views about their social roles is included in order to nuance the discussion of adult discourses about childhood that in fact reflected assumptions and policies related to adults in colonial West Africa. Moreover, gender roles are particularly important, just as they were during the colonial period. French colonizers' attempts to regulate indigenous sexualities through education and medical care were directly related to attempts to control childbirth and childcare in the colonies in order to swell the ranks of taxpayers and workers.


The ambivalence with which adults regard children can be explained in many ways. Although we might examine the psychological issues behind this ambivalence, the most obvious reason for it seems to be the power differential. Adults control children, or try to; ordinarily, adult society legitimates such control in spite of obvious cases of child abuse or neglect. Adult control of children thus needs no justification. This explains why African children were central to many of the discourses of French colonialism: all Africans were re-defined as children to justify the mission civilisatrice (the French equivalent of "the white man's burden"). William Cohen has noted that it was common for the French colonizer to describe Africans as "peuples enfants" [infant peoples]. (4) Moreover, the France of the Third Republic consistently defined itself in terms of its mastery of physical and technological problems. "A conflation of civilization with mastery was thus a defining and permanent characteristic of French rhetoric." (5)

The very pervasiveness of this theme of mastery may blind observers to other, related discourses of childhood that were common during the colonial period. If all Africans were recast as children, then the task of defining the category to which the younger members of the community belonged must have seemed less important. Raymond Gervais has argued for this reason that the difficulties that we encounter in establishing the lines of demarcation between childhood and adulthood during the colonial period do not originate in the cultural dissonance between African and European definitions of childhood, but in the simple neglect of such distinctions. …

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