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Environment, Religion, and Social Change in French West Africa, 1850–1960

Wallace Teska is a 6th year Ph.D. candidate in African History, studying the development of state and non-state law in a transnational region spanning present-day Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Mali. As a 2023-24 Mellon Foundation Dissertation Fellow, he will be in residence at the Stanford Humanities Center, working on his dissertation, “Paths to Justice: Environment, Religion, and Social Change in French West Africa, 1850–1960.”

Congratulations on your fellowship. Please tell us about your project.

My project began with a contemporary observation. Before I began my Ph.D. at Stanford, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Benin, West Africa. I came to Benin straight off a job at an international law firm in New York, and questions about law were very much on my mind. To my surprise at the time, my friends and neighbors in Benin seldom thought about law as something dominated by state institutions. Marriages, divorces, inheritances, and child custody disputes often existed entirely outside the “formal” court system.

Most scholarship treats “informal” legal adjudication in modern-day Africa as a direct product of the postcolonial state’s purported weakness. I always thought there had to be a longer historical genealogy at play. My dissertation seeks to understand the development of this present-day trend, simultaneously proposing a new way for understanding the relationship between environmental, religious, and legal change in Africa and beyond. While most scholars tend to examine these three topics in isolation, I argue that in my area of study, the Ivorian-Guinean forest zone, they are co-constituted. I call this dynamic assemblage a “legal ecosystem.” In the absence of a strong central state, I suggest, West Africans have forged their own paths to justice. To do so, they drew on and negotiated diverse ideas about proper social practice and religious belief, themselves frequently inspired by the natural environment. French colonialism, of course, complicated these paths to justice. As capitalist incursions spurred deforestation, Ivorians and Guineans pioneered new religious-judicial reasoning to suit their needs and aspirations in a changing world. In turn, these new paths to justice transformed the forest’s physical landscape.

How has environmental change shaped the social history of West Africa?

Western Côte d’Ivoire is today the most prolific cocoa-producing region on earth. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was hardly any plantation agriculture to speak of. The boom in cocoa production over the past century has all but obliterated the once-extensive coastal tropical rainforest. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that less than ten percent of the forest’s “original growth” (a somewhat problematic term) still stands. 

Despite plenty of work outlining the progressive destruction of the Upper Guinean Forest, few scholars have questioned how this environmental catastrophe has shaped daily life across the region. Precolonial indigenous forms of commerce, religion, and law all drew inspiration from the forest. Forest groves, for instance, provided the setting for initiation societies, which often claimed interstitial roles in mediating the human and the divine. Demand for caffeinated kola nuts from savanna regions bordering the forest also generated the innovation of unique forms of Islamic law as Muslim traders bartered slaves, gold, and salt for forest products. My dissertation asks what happened to these precolonial ways of being in the world as the forest progressively disappeared. Doing so, I illustrate how environmental destruction has shaped local legal and religious thought over the past two centuries.

Historically, what has been the relationship between religion and West African legal practice?

A lot of ink has been spilled in recent decades developing the concept of “legal pluralism,” or the idea that multiple forms and philosophies of adjudication can exist alongside one another in any one society. Colonial West Africa was about as legally pluralistic a place as possibly imaginable. Although most historians of the region focus exclusively on the legal institutions of the colonial state (a product of our bias for state archives), many forms of law existed beyond state venues. In the Ivorian-Guinean forest zone, these included religious mediators like indigenous diviners, Islamic judges, and Christian missionaries as well as colonial venues at the margins of the formal legal order.

In the chapter I am currently working on, for example, I show how enslaved Ivorian women in the first decades of colonial rule negotiated their freedom by presenting claims against their enslavers in multiple legal venues. Most slaveholders in this region were Muslim, and they claimed rights over their slaves under local interpretations of Islamic law. But many enslaved women chose instead to present their requests for liberation to technically unsanctioned French military tribunals, which were more sympathetic to their plight (at least in theory). Enslaved people and their captors, thus, drew on divergent ideas about proper “rights in persons”—a concept developed in this context by anthropologists of African slavery Igor Kopytoff and Suzanne Miers—to advocate for their best interests at a historical moment marked by unprecedented social upheaval. This often involved thinking strategically across religious traditions about the benefits and limitations of their associated legal practices.

Your analysis focuses on a set of “revealing crises.” What do you mean by this term? 

This is a framework I first proposed for writing social histories of law in colonial Africa in a 2022 article in The Journal of African History. The idea comes from the work of Megan Vaughan, a historian of Southern Africa. In Vaughan’s monumental 1987 book, The Story of an African Famine, she suggests that imposed crises reveal tensions internal to any given society. In Vaughan’s case, she shows how famine revealed contestations over matrilineal descent in Malawian communities increasingly impacted by colonial migratory labor regimes and, thus, dependent on men’s work. My scholarship builds on Vaughan’s insights, demonstrating how different types of crisis can unveil varied forms of social conflict, often along lines of gender, generation, and status.

My dissertation examines a series of these revealing crises in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, including the imposition of French colonial rule; the slow and inchoate end of slavery; the destruction of the coastal rainforest; the imposition of colonial forced and migratory labor; the introduction of European medico-legal science as an alternative to indigenous forms of legal investigation; and the circulation of novel variations of Christian and Islamic doctrine. While these may not constitute “crises”  in the same manner as a natural disaster, the conflicts and contestations they produced—resolved in state and non-state legal venues—similarly reveal a great deal about changes within West African societies. Looking at these moments of crisis also prompts us to think about how ordinary people have shifted their interactions with diverse legal bodies over time in response to social change. This helps us better understand the development of the contemporary legal landscape.

Could you tell us a bit more about your archival sites and sources? 

I conducted over two years of fieldwork and archival research in West Africa and Europe, supported by, among others, a Fulbright-IIE U.S. Student Research Grant, a Fulbright-Hays DDRA Fellowship, a WARA Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, and a CAORC Multi-Country Research Fellowship. Most of my project draws on records held by the national archives of Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, and Senegal. I also consulted a handful of missionary archives in Italy and colonial and military records in France.

Working with archives in Africa can be quite a challenge. Budget crises have made it difficult for local archivists to maintain these collections, despite their best efforts. In Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, the majority of the national archives are still uncatalogued. I spent over six months sifting through a warehouse attached to the presidential mansion in Abidjan tracking down colonial court records. Some regional archives are in even more dire straits. Many local archives burned to the ground during the Ivorian Civil Wars (2002–2011). While those that survived sometimes have dedicated staff of trained archivists, they simply do not have the resources to adequately preserve the documents. When I visited the judicial archives in Daloa in spring 2022, for example, I found tens of thousands of court records piled in a series of storage rooms, caked in thick red dust. It was certainly an uphill battle working through those records, but archival research is ultimately all about the thrill of discovery!

I also draw on non-state archives in my dissertation. Thanks to Islamic Studies scholar Moussa Konaté’s fantastic preliminary indexing effort of a handful of Arabic-language manuscript collections in northern Côte d’Ivoire, I was able to travel and consult some of those documents. These privately-held archives contain many genres of Islamic text: everything from jurisprudence (fiqh) to Qur’anic exegesis (tafsīr) and mystical texts (taṣawwuf). I also conducted several dozen oral history interviews. Of course, these sources come with their own unique challenges and limitations. Ultimately, my method involves reading Arabic documents and oral histories against colonial records, revealing the contours of social life at the local level.