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Photo Essay: Finding a place for historical nostalgia in Postcolonial Anthropology

by Yatou Sallah

I have long been intrigued by the anthropological framing of Africans in the context of postcolonialism. As scholars and theorists in the field attempt to uncover the remnants of the horrendous control and exploitation of beings, bodies and resources, they paint communities in the Global South as figures who are and ought to be making their way out from underneath the heavy rubble of colonialism. Studying Anthropology at the VU and reading texts by Ferguson, Fanon, Chakrabarty, and those alike, students are taught to see through the narrative that the structures of colonialism have been dismantled. Instead we are trained to devise reparative strategies for understanding the long-lasting effects of imperialism on emerging identities, migratory patterns, educational systems, political systems, as well as in the framing of national cultural heritage. Engaging in this project of reparation through my education at the VU has filled me with a great deal of power and purpose. However, when the holidays come around and I return home to The Gambia, or visit my parents currently based in Guinea-Conakry, I am stumped in understanding how this theoretical project fits within the thick air of historical nostalgia that floats over West Africa. 

“Nostalgia…works as a mode of social memory by emphasizing distance and disjuncture, utilizing these diacritics of modernity as a means of critically framing the present.” Engaging Colonial Nostalgia, William Cunningham Bissell

Nostalgia is a resource, a way of knowing that molds over time and space and is pivotal in understanding the way by which we perceive the current reality in relation to the past. We must recognize the diversity of reflections of colonialism in West Africa and how it informs a community’s present circumstance and their aspirations for the future. At the same time, I would argue that modern development rhetoric has stripped Africa of its access to nostalgia; western development pronounces that forward is the only direction to look and this is surely a mindset embodied by many in the region. Why look back to a past, peppered with inequality and conflict, when we can look forward to growth and development?

Growing up in The Gambia, I admittedly experienced a kind of nostalgia of British rule. As a child in the 2000’s, my father walked me through the decrepit capital of Banjul using round words to describe the way the sunlight reflected off the clean white paint of the colonial offices in the 1940’s. He spoke fondly of how he and his friends filled their nostrils with fresh air from the young rows of Acacia trees planted around British protectorate schools. How do I come to terms with my father’s nostalgia within a broader postcolonialist thought as well as modern development rhetoric?

This collection of images is a meditation on the notion of historical nostalgia in the West-African context. The six images are composed of street photography from my recent visit to Guinea-Conakry superimposed with textured beach sands. Vivid city artifacts– bodies, infrastructure, sound– narrate the evolution of Guinea and a broader West Africa as communities have been pushed and pulled by the forces of a multifaceted colonization, Islamization and modernization. My walks through Conakry shed light on the simultaneity of a French colonial nostalgia on the city’s loose grid design and modernists architecture, an Islamic imperial nostalgia embedded in the towering mosques, and a Fouta Djallon Kingdom nostalgia as passersby speak the Fula language.

Walking the streets of Conakry, I am faced with complex questions; where do people access their experiences of nostalgia? How is their urban environment designed in a way that secures these experiences? How do these experiences challenge or support the project of contemporary development?

Creating this photo series aided in answering my questions as it sheds light on a developing Conakry and its ability to morph through the variety of nostalgic influences. Residents of the city actively secure nostalgia through a range of ways that are rooted in a deep desire to remember and grow from a mosaic of the past. William Cunningham Bissell, explores the evolution of the social sciences engagement with nostalgia—from social disease to cultural practice. He describes the modern value of historical nostalgia as “testimony to the experience of social and economic dislocation”. Such a perspective is indispensable for ethnography and these testimonies are crucial to analyze contemporary perceptions of a reality forever related to the past. Perhaps, we are not to feel uncomfortable with these sources of nostalgia, nor should we aim to place value judgments on the kinds of nostalgia informants might experience. Instead anthropological practitioners are in the privileged position to employ these sentimental forms of knowledge to reach a greater understanding of the complexity of our present and future reality. Furthermore, this perspective is not only crucial for examining complex political histories but also for research in our fast paced, globalized world. I suggest we keep our eyes peeled for the insights of a variety of past social experiences, using nostalgia to learn about how sentiments about pre-pandemic or pre-climate crisis globality will shape the future.

Yatou Sallah is a Gambian-American student of Cultural Anthropology, living and creating in Amsterdam.


  1. Freek Colombijn Freek Colombijn

    Hello Yatou,
    Thank you for this very interesting piece and also for the very special way of presenting six images (or perhaps better: presenting six very special images). I am intrigued by (and have studied) a similar colonial nostalgia in contemprary Indonesia, also referring to the work of Bissell. Why on earth would somebody feel nostalgic about a colonial time during which one was oppressed by a European colonizer? I found various answers: people seem to pick from the past what suits them best in the present reframing old colonial meanings. But the answer is not fully satisfactory to me and I am still puzzled.

    • Yatou Sallah Yatou Sallah


      I think it could be a form of survival or a coping mechanism– almost a way of accepting that the future that one imagined while they were resisting colonial regimes, is in reality, not all that free and doesn’t smell as sweet as they thought it would (especially as people are experiencing neocolonialism). I feel that it says more about the present than the past. This is especially interesting because as I shared this topic with people in Gambia, they firmly deny this nostalgia… it may be identifiable if you look for it in their speech but if confronted they would completely deny feeling any kind of nostalgia to colonial times. So I wonder to what extent this nostalgia is really an animalistic, unconscious part of surviving the present. I am curious, how do you supposed people in Indonesia respond if confronted with this idea of nostalgia?


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