Francophone culture

New cultures mean more than funny clothes, and I still find it fascinating to watch elements of francophone culture at work. Of course, as you live somewhere more permanently you lose the sense of surprise at seeing many things. But every now and again your curiosity shoots back up when you find something you realise back home would be very bizarre.

I recently joined the managing committee of my church in Abidjan. This Sunday I witnessed a fascinating scene – a good hour of the monthly meeting was spent going through the PV (Proces Verbal i.e. the minutes) of the previous meeting. I’ve been on various leadership committees and formal meeting settings back in the UK but I’ve never seen the previous meeting’s minutes given any more than a cursory nod of approval. Here the entire thing was rewritten to the embarrassment of the secretary. There were fierce debates about the correct verbs, tenses and sentence-structures to employ.

The irony is that our recurrent problem is that the work in question (agreed in the meeting) doesn’t get done. This though is of far lesser concern than the fact that the PV is written in perfect French. We’re not talking about ignoramuses. The principal discussion was between a leading medical doctor and a senior lawyer. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the equivalent scene in the Anglophone world – the only question would be: ‘Did what we agreed should be done, get done’.

Part of this is the strange nature of the French language. I was once told that very few French people could write a page of A4 without at least one grammatical mistake. It’s surely a major fault in a language when it can’t be used easily by ordinary educated speakers (I realise I risk you all pointing out hundreds of grammatical mistakes in this blog post!). Many French people have books on how to write every type of formal letter under the sun in the correct way. When Ivorians ask me the correct form for a formal letter in English, I usually say – ‘decide what you want to say and then say it, don’t worry too much about form, because you’re reader probably won’t’.

A related matter came up on a recent training session I attended (for film-making). Most of the training session consisted of definitions. I’ve come across this a lot in francophone teaching; the teacher asks ‘what is the definition of X?’ You make the mistake of thinking the teacher wants you to explain what X is. No. What they want is for you to give the official textbook definition. If you don’t recite the correct sentence you’re as good as wrong, whether you’ve understood the concept or not!

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7 Responses to Francophone culture

  1. JF says:

    Very funny post yet spot on! If you ever attend any seminary organized by the administration (I am sure you already did) you will find that half of the time is first lost in pointless speeches in which the main goal is to fawn over “authorities” who are almost always not even present in the room. Then at the end of the day you have at least 1 or 2 hours completely lost for this non-sense PV rereading. And of course as you said, nothing of what is written in the report will get done. But then nobody cares as long as the per-diems are paid!

    Another commentary about your post. I do not think you can call it francophone culture. I have never noticed this kind of thing in France. Obviously you still have the endless meetings and corporate bullshit but still it is not as nonsensical.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your response. Regarding the per-diems, you’re unfortunately close to the truth. As for ‘francophone culture’, I confess to being in the difficult position of having lived in Anglophone Europe and Francophone Africa, so I do sometimes find it tough working out what is ‘francophone’ and what is ‘African’ (and of course what is simply ‘Ivorian’), when it comes to my cultural experiences.

  2. eric says:

    Great post. I think any North American or Brit who’s spent significant time in Francophone Africa will have countless stories like this. What it brought to mind for me was the way children learn their “lessons” in Ivorian schools. Often this entails memorizing entire paragraphs of French text at a time and being able to recite or write them down (in immaculate handwriting, of course), without any need to understand the meaning of the words. Often the kids don’t even speak French well enough to have a clue as to what the text is about.

    Like JF above, I wonder how much of this is francophone culture and how much is Francophone-African culture. It always struck me as more likely the latter, as the kind of thing that results when a culture is forced to adopt foreign norms and institutions rather than developing such institutions themselves as a means to an end.

    I haven’t spent much time in France, so I don’t know how much of this is specific to the “francophone” part of the equation, but I’d venture to guess that it has mostly to do with the mismatch of French and Africans cultures (and I say African instead of Ivorian because I’ve observed the same thing throughout francophone Africa).

    It would be great to see a study comparing church meetings between, say, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, to get a better sense of how much of these this is peculiar to the French influence (and also what characterizes the British influence).

    • admin says:

      Again, I plead ignorance, about much of life in France, but I think there are some indications of the French contribution to this;
      i) the obsession with the proper use of the language a la Academie.
      ii) the importance of paperwork – the fact that in France you can be stopped and asked to show your car papers or even stopped in the street and asked to show your identity papers.
      iii) the importance of the civil service and hierarchy – a businessman I know who works in both Ghana and Ivory Coast told me it was easy getting to see a government minister in Ghana, whereas in Ivory Coast they had an almost monarchical position in unreachable grandeur. The concept of the ‘elite’ and the ‘cadres’, while it exists in Anglophone culture (cfa. Oxbridge elite), my perception is that it is far weaker.
      iv) concepts like the ‘Ordre de mission’ whereby in places like Congo-Brazzaville, even civilians have to travel outside main cities with a stamped piece of paper saying where they are going and what they are doing, a legacy I understand of the French colonial state.
      v) the overall stronger sense of a police state (where even the firefighters are members of the armed forces).

  3. eric says:

    I agree with all these observations, but I still don’t think you’re making much of a case that it’s the francophone part that leads to these things rather than something particular to the francophone-African experience. When you compare Ghana to Cote d’Ivoire, or all the anglophone countries in Africa to all the francophone countries, the language is not the only variable that differentiates them. The French colonists had entirely different ideas about the proper relationship between colonist and colonizer, completely different structures of administration, a different kind of cultural interaction with their colonial subjects than did their British counterparts.

    This is just one person’s anecdotal opinion, so take it or leave it, but my impression has always been that people in francophone African countries often have a kind of cultural inferiority complex with respect to France that you don’t find (or is less pronounced) in anglophone African countries with respect to the UK. And I think you can trace a lot of this attitude to the different colonial and post-colonial experiences of those countries. To generalize, Britain built stronger institutions and, in a sense, kept their colonies at arm’s length whereas France considered their colonies as part of the larger France. Houphouet-Boigny sat in the French parliament. Senghor prided himself on being a member of the Adademie Francaise.

    So yes, all the things you cite are common (and irritating) features of the francophone-African state and certainly have a connection to the fact of having been colonized by France, but I think there’s more to the story. Francophone-African countries seem to have a preoccupation with doing things in the “correct” French way that has no anglophone-African equivalent. It’s not just that they inherited some practices that are culturally French, it’s that they continue to be more vested in the legacy French institutions (language, government, etc.), more obsessed with satisfying some imagined French standard of language or bureaucratic competence.

    Just my two cents.

    • admin says:

      Very well put. I only want to add a couple of points/anecdotes. One is that a former UK diplomat to Ghana told me that when the government there approach any problem, there is still quite a sense of ‘What would the British do?’

      Overall though what you say is correct I think – I’m always stunned by the amount of interest Ivorians take (or perhaps are forced to take) in things like the French local elections. You can’t imagine a similar scenario in Kenya and Zambia. Perhaps some of the explanation is in language – when looking for developed country experience in the same language group, Anglophone African countries have a lot more choice (UK, USA, Canada, Australia).

      Finally, perhaps the ex-French colonies suffer because France itself has yet to let go of its colonial hangovers – e.g. military bases in Africa, and a refusal to accept that it is no longer the centre of the world. I think you can see this in the difference between watching the BBC and France 24. The former gives more coverage to UK affairs/the UK government than perhaps a neutral channel would, but it’s nothing compared to F24, which gives us very much Paris as the centre of the world.

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