interview

Amadou Bouta-Guèye, interview by James A. Jones
(Thiès, 20 June 1992)

Notes © 2000 by Jim Jones, Ph.D.

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Amadou Bouta-Guèye was born in 1920 and worked for the Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger for most of his adult life. During the 1947-1948 railroad strike, he was still in school, but he lived near the union headquarters in Dakar and knew some of the leaders. I received his name from Ousman Sembene, and went to visit him at his home in Thiès on 20 June 1992. I was able to talk to his wife first, and then to him in their living room. In each case, no one else was present in the room, but various family members passed through the room frequently while we talked. Most of the first part of these notes contains information provided by Mme. Guèye. She was clearly uncomfortable speaking in front of a tape recorder, so I talked to her and then afterwards wrote down my notes.

Madame Iyesa Fatama Guèye was born in Louga and arrived in Thiès in 1950. She worked for the railroad from 1957 to 1982 as a secretary in the accounting department at the railroad headquarters in Thiès. Prior to that, she directed the library at the American Cultural Center in Thiès (defunct by 1992). She told me that there were a fair number of women who worked for the railroad as secretaries, stenographers and typists - all office workers. When I suggested that some women worked in the hotels and restaurants operated by the railroad, she agreed and mentioned the buvette (snack bar) at the Thiès workshops.

When I asked why the reputation of the railroad declined so dramatically between 1947 and 1992, she was reluctant to answer. She said that the answer was complicated, but thought that one part of the answer was the devaluation of education. A "C.A.P." diploma used to assure a certain level of competence, but that was no longer the case. I pointed out that people behave differently in the trains nowadays - for example, they spit in the train. She blamed that on uncivilized people who take the train. When I asked her what part the railroad played in the interaction between French and African culture, she told me to wait and let her husband answer that one because "he knows the railroad better than I." Finally, she told me that her husband was a graduate of the École Pinet-Laprade (technical school in Dakar) and that he worked in the railroad shops at Thiès as a menusier (woodworker). After that, he arrived and she left the room.

Tape recording begins

Guèye: The history of the Chemins de Fer is not "facile" (easy or simple). I'm not speaking of the history of the railroad, but rather that of union movements. There is no specific viewpoint of cheminots, but there is a "démarche particulière chez les cheminots" (an "attitude" or "viewpoint" peculiar to railroad workers). Their epoch was significant for everyone in our generation. The 1938 strike produced deaths. The 1947 strike lasted five months and ten days, making it the longest in the world at that time.

Guèye continued: Its importance, in my opinion, comes from two things. First, it took place right after the war, when there were a large number of social problems. Our society already had well-formed ideas about democracy. Our generation, right after the war, considered it necessary to move ahead. At that time, unions were already "trés advancé" (well developed) in Senegal. But the union leaders were veterans of the 1914-18 war. I served in the 1939-40 war. You see how the ages were different? Our generation wanted to change direction in order to advance. But we never expected such a struggle.

Guèye (continued): During the war, there was a newspaper called "Jeunes et Democratie" which was started to denounce injustice. "Tout l'encadrement" (all the leaders) were deported to Niger, Haute Volta or Mali - that's how Ibrahima Sarr was sent to Mali.

Jones: Was it the Vichy government who did that?

Guèye: The French administration ...

Jones: ... who were Vichy at the time? [NOTE: I was trying to establish when this happened; early or late in the war. Later, I learned that this took place under the Vichy administration.]

Guèye changed the subject: When did we start union activity and why did we want to start union activity? Without a doubt, the railroad was significant. The bulk of the cheminots had a "diplôme technique" that they received after following undergoing "encadrement technique ouvrier" (program of technical instruction).

Jones: Like you, for example. (Guèye nodded and smiled.)

Guèye: They also thought about advancement. They were the ones who got rid of François Gning. Ibrahima Sarr, who was at Kayes at the time, came to Thiès to take over. The movement snowballed. It incited people in Ivory Coast and in "Kangasso." (?) Young people like us joined the movement (Guèye named names, but most weren't clear on the tape): D'Anguisson in Ivory Coast; Sedelherbe in Dahomey and Edo (Koffi); Modibo Keita in Mali; Adama Diop in Guinea. We were able to organize 25,000 men. The Senegalese workers set up an team with Sarr as the leader, Aena, Abdoulaye Ba, Ousman N'Gom ... more names ... and myself. This group was established with the main purpose to establish justice ... (unintelligible).

Jones: You're referring to which year?

Guèye: 1947, right after the war. (We paused to drink Coca-colas and he toasted the success of my project.) The movement was not "banal." It was led by graduates of the most important technical schools.

Jones: Like Pinet-Laprade?

Guèye: Yes, Pinet-Laprade, where I graduated. Ponty. Terrasson de Fougères in Bamako. In Ivory Coast, Dabou? (unintelligible). We discovered that it was a real workers' movement. We wanted to end injustice. (Guèye said something about symbols and martyrs, but it was unclear on the tape.) We thought that we might have to go on strike because at the time, all of our fathers were in the cadre local sécondaire. We arrived with our diplomas and started out earning at least three times more. So we started the strike in order that the old ones, by the time they reached a certain age, would be able to enter the cadre. The strike was an act of solidarity.

At the beginning of the strike, we had no resources. We presented our grievances to the Direction just like a real union. The French authorities played their game, and all the railroads in AOF were closed because after that (the French response in the summer of 1947), we toured the AOF to consult the railroad workers of the Federation. They accepted our ideas and we discovered that the majority supported us. That's how it started.

[Guèye changed the subject] You asked, what means did we use? The people weren't prepared - they lived from day to day. But our resources, in my opinion, were of two types: our solidarity and our "foi" (faith). The first is traditional for all cheminots in the world, like all miners - the solidarity. Nowadays, it doesn't really exist. But we had a unanimity in all of the African sectors surrounding us. No one was opposed - not marabouts, not other workers, and not even all of the French functionaires at the SNCF (French National Railroad Company).

Thanks to God, we received most of our demands. Our strike was the prelude, in part, to everything that the French understood as advancement. The French drew some lessons from this strike and advanced. The land (Africa) reached maturity. Sekou Touré in Guniea, (unintelligible) who led the union of African doctors, (Gaston) Fianka, ... (other names) ... that led to the creation of cadres ... (not clear on the tape).

Jones: How did people here (in Thiès) perceive the fact that the workers on the Chemin de Fer Abidjan-Niger went back to work before everyone else did?

Guèye: "Attention! Il faut nuancé!" (Be careful! You must be precise.) The majority of the cheminots on the Chemin de Fer Abidjan-Niger continued to strike. Don't forget that right after the strike, the people who fought for independence in the RDA (Rassemblement Démocratique Africain) were all those who had been on our side. The alternative approach (anti-federalism) was born (in Ivory Coast). I don't know if that explains the problems at the Chemin de Fer Abidjan-Niger. I can't really say, but it is a coincidence. (He gave me a sly, conspiratorial look.)

Jones: I'll attribute it to a personal opinion.

Guèye: You can figure it out. In any case, it's important not to confuse the 1947-1948 strike with the 1938 strike, which was of a different order. I was interviewed on this subject at the 100th anniversary of the Chemins de Fer. (The subject of the interview was Ousman Sembene's book.) His book is a novel ...

Jones: In fact, he mixed the two strikes together.

Guèye: You understand. In 1937, he was in France. In 1939, there was the war, and he didn't get back until much later. He wasn't present to witness the strike. On the other hand, his experience as a docker in the CGT (Confédération Général du Travail) helped him to understand the spirit of the workers. The CGT helped us. They sent us 500,000 francs. The gesture was more important than the amount. After the strike, 80% of the auxiliaires were integrated into the cadre.

Guèye continued: As for me - excuse me for speaking of this - I returned from the war. The strike was in full swing. I observed a division between the strikers and the members of the cadre général. They were housed, had families ... I was single. Now imagine a worker who was my father's age accepting to lose his salary, which was a lot higher, for a period of months. They had responsibilities, children, housing. The administration kicked them out of their houses to demoralize them.

Jones: Does that explain the existence of the SLCA (Syndicat Libre des Cheminots Africains)?

Guèye: That was a consequence. When they returned to their jobs (as strikebreakers) they organized at the request of the French.

Jones: Under the leadership of François Gning?

Guèye: Yes ... to produce a balance (against the SCA--the union that went on strike). The policy of balance encouraged the formation of a rival syndicat (union) and cooperative association. But never doubt that the day after they returned to work, we made a call for unity. I don't know if you've seen the text?

Jones: I believe it was at the end of February, following the telegram by Fily Dabo Sissoko (African representative to the legislature from Soudan).

Guèye: Yes! Now remember that when the Minister of Overseas France came to AOF, they held a strike "d'avertissement" (warning) of several days.

Jones: This was in 1947 ...

Guèye: Thus, they'd already demonstrated their determination to the French. But France maintained its position, so they (the railroad workers) launched their strike with the means at their disposal. One must admit that there was a lack of understanding. I was (unintelligible), Senghor and Lamine Guèye were in the same party. The strike began apolitical, but finished ... (pause to search for words).

Jones: ... with relations to all the political parties?

Guèye: Correct.

Jones: Can we say that the strike resulted in a division among the railroad workers or their unions?

Guèye: No. "Si on avait une fracture, et non pas une fissure, on nous n'aurait pas donné la totalité de nos revendications." (JJNOTE: In other words, there was disagreement, but never a total break.) They tried, but failed, so the only solution was to join together and enter into discussions. But they tried every possibility that existed in law and politics, but once they realized that it was no use, they changed.

Jones: For example, they (the administration) tried to arrest Ibrahima Sarr.

Guèye: In reality, here's what happened. Sarr wasn't arrested. I'll explain - I was present. I was from Dakar and was responsible for the area of technical diplomas. Sarr stayed at his house only one day because he didn't want to be taken into custody. The Governor General wanted to intimidate him, but didn't really want to arrest him. (NOTE: This is supported by the police reports on his activities. They knew where to find him if they wanted to arrest him.) They wanted to psychologically make the masses retreat from the SCA because the Syndicat Libre (SLCA) existed. In order to do that, they authorized the SLCA and its cooperative.

Guèye continued: They threatened Sarr; they fought the good fight. (He told the story of Sarr's court appearance.) Bouta Guèye accompanied Sarr to court. Apparently, a notice in the newspaper Paris-Dakar was supposed to serve as a summons for Sarr to appear before the court. Sarr failed to show on the court date, but Guèye was there (in court) and went to fetch him from work. Sarr arrived before the close of the court session and told the judge that he didn't read Paris-Dakar. The whole business was an act of intimidation by the administration.

Jones: You knew Sarr well, it seems.

Guèye: He was a personal friend. Maybe that's too strong, but our relations were excellent. We lived next door to each other. My wife made food for him. As far as the movement was concerned, we were united for a very long time. He was closer to me than many of the other strike leaders. I was like his little brother.

Guèye changed the subject: All right. Now I'm ready to talk about the strike of 1938, or any questions you'd like to ask related to your thesis. What would you like to know?

Jones: First, François Gning--what was he like?

Guèye: François Gning was born in Gabon. He fought in World War I like my father. He was naturalized as a French citizen. He was polite, upright - not reserved, but he had a certain timidity. I can't really reproach him for very much. At the time, we reproached him for selling out the union. At the time, his generation was content to follow higher authority. But they were the generation that raised us to take charge of the revolution.

Jones: Okay, so in some respects, Gning was from the preceeding generation and you and Sarr were the next generation.

Guèye: You could say that.

Jones: Okay, that explains a lot. I've never seen his age, but he (Gning) always appears as a collaborator.

Guèye: It was normal that the men of a certain age, who'd had the same experiences, would stick together. Now, the response of others - they had human problems that motivated them to regenerate the cadres. It's always that way. We were just lucky that no one got hurt.

Jones: Okay, that's helpful. The other question is a bit bigger. You've already described the strike of 1947-48 as the moment when the railroad's reputation was at its peak. Nowadays, the reputation is much lower than before.

Guèye: That's understandable.

Jones: I'd like to know what caused the decline.

Guèye: The new generation doesn't have the same preoccupations. Our generation was the generation of independence. We fought for liberty because we were under the colonial regime. We were probably more politically motivated. I don't know ... or I shouldn't say ... but are the worries of each generation conditioned by the period? Your generation is very intelligent and you have access to things that we never had. That allows you to grasp things very quickly. I believe that our experience allows us to counterbalance (that quickness). I'm not sure, but that's what it looks like from my perspective.

Guèye continued: The other element has to do with education of children ... your question is really interesting. Earlier, our parents didn't have the means to educate us. Our generation tried to do everything for our children. They've got toys, leisure, etc. Is it possible that this ease is an element in the change in attitude you've noticed?

Jones: It looks very possible to me.

Guèye: Everything teaches something. The TV, the radio, what does it teach?

Jones: That's complicated ...

Guèye: I don't try to understand it; I just suggest the elements.

Jones: So you're suggesting that self-discipline is the product of the individual struggle against opposition. That's a good answer. (NOTE: In other words, he thought that the young generation is spoiled and doesn't appreciate the railroad.

Jones (realizing that we were getting off the track): You said that you wanted to add something about the 1938 strike?

Guèye: It is important to disassociate the 1938 strike from the 1947-1948 strike. The 1938 strike had very different goals. I only learned this later, because I didn't get out of school until 1940. But since I chanced to become a railroad worker, I had to become something of an historian as well, and to learn whatever I could from the past. I learned a lot of things. I had to be careful how I presented them in order to prevent confusion. As usual, there are things that I won't spell out, but I'll give you the elements. (NOTE: His wife interrupted to say that she was going to see a friend who had just returned from Mecca. Bouta Guèye invoted me to stay for lunch, but I declined gracefully. We discussed other ideas about the railroad, and it seemed as if he talked to Paul Pheffer in the 1970s. There is a long passage complimenting my questions ... finally, we got back to the subject.) Guèye: People thought that the 1938 strike was a strike by railroad workers. Actually, the railroad workers were used by French officials in their fight over who would be the director of the railroad. At the same time, the Frenchmen who were here - who came from the Navy and the Army, who were demobilized and assigned to the railroad - they had no special training. The cadre had an agreement, but in the end, the ex-servicemen became the bosses.

In 1938, Giran was sent by the Popular Front government (to serve as the railroad director). When he arrived, I was still at school, he had to deal with the (problem created by the) graduates of the École Pinet-Laprade who were better trained than the ex-servicemen. He tried to retire the military to make room for the new graduates. The Europeans reacted by waiting until he (Giran) was on vacation. They wanted to create a strike that would be interpreted as Giran's fault.

They got a man named Cherif? Diop who was an officier auxilliaire, not too bright, but he was tight with the bosses ... (unintelligible) At the time, there was no union ... (something about dividing the functionaires and the auxiliaires ... conclusion was that the Europeans used the strike to get at Giran.)

[Material omitted on who benefitted from the strike, since it was not clear on the tape.]

Guèye: At the moment of the strike, Giran was on vacation and his assistant Lescanne was there. The Europeans got Galandou Diouf (Senegalese legislator who opposed the Popular Front) to send a telegram to M. LAPROND? asking that Giran not return.

Jones: So there was a problem between Socialists and anti-Socialists?

Guèye: No, no, no. Everyone who was here had a common interest. They all came out of the army to the railroad and went directly to the cadre superieur; they never went to the petit cadre. They were threatened by the graduates of the technical schools, so they wanted to remove a director who was progressive. By chance, he was socialist. [NOTE: From other research, I learned that it was the European railroad workers in the cadre who felt threatened by the Afrian technical school graduates, and the director who allowed them to advance.]

Jones: But didn't people blame the Socialists for letting Africans into the cadre?

Guèye: No. The Popular Front started back in 1936.

Jones: When did Africans start to get positions in the cadre?

Guèye: I couldn't say, but it was well before 1936. It was during the 1920s. It was a question of Europeans who wanted to protect their own benefits. On the other hand, there were politicians like Galandou (Diouf) who honestly believed they were defending legitimate interests. In any case, Giran didn't return, and they sent Cuneo instead (to take over as the railroad director).

Guèye continued: Therefore, be careful when you read Sembene's book. The day that everyone returned to work, he was in France. He's my nephew - he was born in Casamance. One of my cousins went down there - he's Sembene's father. He came to Dakar, but in 1937, he took the ship - so-called "Espanol" - to France. In 1938, he wasn't even 17 years old yet. He was a docker ...

Jones: ... he told me that he lived across from the union hall in Dakar.

Guèye: He was next door. I lived on the opposite corner at the rue Raffenel.

Jones: All of this suggests another question. Do you have enough time (to answer it)? I read Ibra Der Thiam's thesis on the 1938 strike. I noticed the names of the soldiers were mostly Soudanese while the dead were Senegalese. What were the relations between these two groups? Was there tension?

Guèye: That's understandable. First, there was a lot of controversy about how many died and who they were. The number of deaths made the strike important enough to serve the European ends (to discredit Giran).

Jones: Then the last thing - was there a Senegalese side and a Soudanese side?

Guèye: The French, like all colonizers, took soldiers from among the population. But (for example) if I was Canadian, I'd have trouble to shoot at Canadians ... (tape ran out. The main idea was that the French stationed Soudanese soldiers in Senegal, so it was logical to have Soudanese soldiers fire on Senegalese strikers.)