“Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added to you”
– Kwame Nkrumah, First President of Ghana
Sekou the Bridge-Burner of West Africa
If you read Sekou Touré’s Wikipedia page, you might read that the first president of Guinea made a number of friends among other West Africa’s other first presidents. After a little digging, you’ll find that these friendships can be traced back to the Pan-African Movement which sought to unify African nations in the post-World War II era. The biggest leader of said movement is arguably President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, the first African country to gain independence after World War II in 1957. As I traveled across Francophone West Africa, I repeatedly saw his name on monuments and street signs (yes, they are they do exist, even if no one refers to them), yet I had never heard of the guy before. President Nkrumah grew himself into a “cult of personality” and was swept off world’s stage by 1966. He was promptly called to by his friend Sekou to be co-president of Guinea before passing away a decade later, unwanted in his home country. If this story seems all a bit far off and unrelated to those of us in the West, let me put into a picture:
During my time studying in Kankan, Guinea this summer, I was told the French built this bridge over the River Milo in Kankan in 1956. I thought it surprising how long it has lasted and how good it looks. What was more surprising to hear was that there is no other bridge passable by car for the whole length of the river, a couple hundred miles. Two years after the bridge’s construction, the French allowed their colonies to hold referenda for independence or to remain part of the newly-formed “French Community.” Guinea was the only one to actually obtain it. While the other countries followed two years later, Guinea and Touré would forever distinguish themselves from their neighbors. But the story didn’t start there.
Back to Dakar: The Hub of Francophone West Africa
I began my return to Africa on the Island de Gorée this past May (2013), an island full of symbolism off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. The red bricks brought from France brought to mind the blood of soon-to-become slaves beaten by fellow Africans under the watchful eyes of their French, Portuguese, or English supervisors. The black rock is the only native soil on the island, yet my ferry ride to the island is the only place I went this summer where white tourists constituted a majority. Most of them come to see where slaves were shipped off west and tour the quaint colonial streets. A few hundred steps away House of Slaves is a large red building that once housed the only Ecole Normale in French West Africa from Dakar east all the way to Chad before World War II. Ecole Normale translates best into Teacher’s Training College, though I also heard it described as a lycée, or high school.
According to my tour guide, this Teachers Training College trained most of the first presidents of Francophone West Africa, including Leopold Senghor of Senegal, Modibo Keita of Mali, Hamani Diori of Niger, and Sekou Touré of Guinea. This fact speaks volumes to the lack of education in the French colonies. As for the individuals, I thought nothing of the inclusion of Touré until a month or so later, when I met a man in Kankan, Guinea who claimed his father knew Sekou Touré.
The man informed me, “Sekou Touré, oh no, he didn’t even go to William Ponty, he dropped out of school after the first year of Middle School and became a union activist in Guinea.” The man went on to say that his father had been a regional governor in the French colonial administration and fought in World War II, but fled to Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire upon Touré’s arrival in power. The man had only returned in recent years to take care of his sister, as the family still doesn’t feel safe in their home country and home region over 50 years later. I wondered to myself, “How could one man be so influential and yet his name is hardly mentioned anywhere in his own country and region (Touré was from Faranah, the other large city besides Kankan Upper Guinea)?”
While other presidents associated with William Ponty stayed long in their offices, none stayed as long as Touré, who ruled until his death in 1984. Touré’s friendship with Mali’s Keita vanished, Nkrumah died early, and Touré effectively alienated himself off from the rest of the world after making friends with John F. Kennedy and winning a Lenin Medal. This isolation meant that Touré’s nearly 30 years of Marxist-Nationalist governance put his tropical country into a developmental deep-freeze. It’s no wonder another bridge was never built.
What did this mean to today’s Guinea?
During Touré’s rule, Western organizations, both secular and religious, were kicked out except for those with connections to Touré’s family. While this changed after his death, many Westerners still avoid Guinea. The Peace Corps has evacuated Guinea multiple times in the last 10 years, whereas its neighbors have rarely been evacuated. As historic Manding music became famous through Mali’s ties to American and Cuban jazz musicians like DeeDee Bridgewater, the more historic Manding griots (traditional musicians) from Guinea remain unknown to much of the world. While the rest of Francophone Africa uses the West African and Central African Francs, Guinea has its own Francs. The first two francs run on average 500 to 1 US Dollar and fluctuates with the Euro. The Guinean Franc runs around 7000 to 1 US Dollar.
The bridge in Kankan remains, but new settlements across the river would feel so ostracized from city politics that a future University Kankan professor would lead a gang organized into committees that successfully blocked Touré’s successor from crossing the river in a cross-country trip and ensured that no woman from Kankan Kura (New Kankan) would be courted by an outsider. These actions continued through the 1990s, only recently softening as the city’s expansion demanded it.
What does this tell us?
After hearing the story of Touré, no wonder that Guinea, sitting on the Atlantic, seemed to me far behind land-locked neighbors such as Burkina Faso and Mali. Such stories do not show up on macro-level metrics such as the UN’s Human Development Index, where Guinea ranks 178, slightly above Mali and Burkina Faso at 182 and 183. Niger is dead last at 187.
“They’re all poor,” you might retort, “only war-torn and new states such as Somalia and South Sudan could compete such poverty.” Indeed they are, and those other countries have not been ranked in recent years. But poverty, as I was told by a number of West Africans this summer, is more a state of mind than a state of being. It is also relative and personal. I’ve run into poor and wealthy people in large cities and tiny villages throughout the world, all relative to the local economy and its standard of living. And you can know it without being a statistician or economist.
What interests me far more than “How many people in X country live on less than $1 a day” are the personal stories that shape regions and countries. These stories undergird the present-day outlook of a given place, whether a village or a continent. It ought to make us wonder what stories we are creating and what kingdom we are seeking to inhabit. Kwame Nkrumah sought first the political kingdom, but Ghana grew into its own decades after leaving him in the dust. The spectre of Sekou Touré, while far less visible than Nkrumah, still lingers over Guinea.