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West Africa, 1902: A Clash of Cultures

In honor of National Volunteer Week, please enjoy this illuminating post by National Museum of African Art branch library volunteer, Judy Schaefer. Judy is one of many hard working volunteers at the Smithsonian Libraries and we appreciate each and every one!

In 1902, Commander Eugène Lenfant traveled from Paris to Lake Chad in a mere 75 days.  He was looking for a cheap, fast, and humane way to supply the French Sudan—”Afrique française” on the map—and he found one by ascending the Niger, Benue, Kebi, and Chari rivers all the way to the lake.


Lenfant’s account of his journey, ʺLa grande route du Chad, Mission de la Société géographique,ʺ appears in the October 15, 1904, issue of  Le Tour du monde, an illustrated weekly of travel and exploration published in Paris between 1860 and 1914.  Its well-written and informative articles by various European explorers, travelers, colonial officials, and military officers told of exotic cultures in fabulous landscapes and, as exploration yielded to colonization in Africa, Asia, and North and South America, of history in the making.  Parisians began to dream of their own foreign adventures, and so the tourist industry was born.  Beginning in the 1890s, detailed travel information such as train and boat schedules with prices and advice on what gear to take along appeared in each issue.

First, Lenfant had a barge built, in France, to his specifications: steel plated and capable of being disassembled into 60 kilogram sections in case a stretch of river proved unnavigable and the boat had to be carried. That’s Lenfant’s son standing on the bow of the Benoît-Garnier.


A modern map of this region would show countries—Cameroon, Chad, and Nigeria. The map above, created under Lenfant’s direction, shows the locations of indigenous empires and kingdoms—Kanem, Bornu, Baguirmi, Mandara—and ethnic groups—Moundang, Mousgou, Fulbe, Kotoko, Arab, Kanouri, and Bandu. The small inset map dispenses with all that.

On this journey, Lenfant was witness to, and participant in, a three-level clash of cultures: animist, Muslim, and European.  At the bottom of the  heap were the peoples of the Benue, Mayo Kebi, and Chari river basins—mostly Moundang and Mousgoum, animist farmers.  They mainly wanted to be left alone.

Goro, the Moundang chief of Biparé (Cameroon), center above, spent a few months in prison at the German post in Garoua; he was known as a “troublemaker.” Here, he is returning home by river, courtesy of Lenfant (left) and company. He looks glum because he, a mountain chief, has never before seen the river and thinks he is being taken to a new place of captivity.


The Moundang developed an interesting architecture. Here, the interior of Gonthiomé's palace, or compound. The domed structures are granaries, which open at the top; the forked poles leaning against them are ladders. The granaries form part of the defensive wall surrounding the entire compound.


Gonthiomé (“the sun king”), the wealthy and influential Moundang king of Léré (Chad). He had a hundred wives, mostly slaves stolen from a neighboring ruler. Lenfant reports that he kept a few favorites for his immediate royal family and used the rest to barter for luxury clothing.
King Gonthiomé’s wives singing softly, some humming, with the harmonic effect of a distant carillon, says Lenfant. “The sound seems to float above a refrain sung by the old woman playing the tam-tam. “ Notice the third woman from the right—she is cupping her ear, a device known to singers everywhere to better hear and control tone and resonance.


Here, a traditional Mousgoum house (Chad, Cameroon). These unusual bee-hive shaped structures—true domes—were made entirely of mud.

The Kotoko people, who lived near Fort Lamy, adjacent to Lake Chad, had already solved one culture clash.  Animist by tradition, most had converted to Islam by the 19th century and been absorbed by the adjacent Fulbe culture of Bornem and Kanu.

Kotoko women at the market at Fort Lamy, a French stronghold near Lake Chad.

Lenfant tells us that Kotoko men plied the lake in large boats made of planks sewn together with twine.   About the women he says little, so we are forced to study the photograph for information.  The woman in the center seems to be posing, on request, for the camera; why was she chosen?  For her jewelry?  Her hairstyle?  Her simple beauty?  Surely the other women see the camera and the man behind it.  Can you guess their reaction?

The Fulbe people, Islamic herders and traders, skilled horsemen and thoroughly militarized, lived west of Lake Chad, in Bornu (Nigeria), and in Mandara, south of Bornu (Cameroon).

Here is Guerbaï, the Fulbe sultan of Kukawa, in procession, accompanied by Lenfant (left). Kukawa (in Bornu), once a great trading center for goods and slaves, fell victim to internal wars and colonization by Europeans, who had mostly ended the slave trade and, as a result, the region’s prosperity.
A Fulbe warrior wearing a much embellished iron helmet (the plates visible just above his right ear) and iron chest armor (plates visible just beneath his right forearm) beneath his robe; the horse wears quilted armor. The object topping his helmet might have been intended to hold feathers. Use a magnifying glass to see the fascinating details of this man’s outfit.


The Fulbe had long raided animist villages to capture men, women, and children for the highly profitable trans-Saharan slave trade.  As an old Moundang farmer told Lenfant, “[they] came on in wild hordes. They wore hideous masks, animal skins, and iron helmets to scare their prey.”  As the slave trade gradually wound down, the Fulbe sought not bodies but souls, forcing animists to convert to Islam.

Then came the Europeans, who were less interested in bodies and souls than in land and resources.  Lenfant returned to France confident that, thanks to his efforts, his country’s African takings would be more secure than ever.

Why read Le Tour du monde now?  The pictures alone (including all of the images here, though there are 140 of them in “La grande route du Chadʺ) are valuable resources for historians, anthropologists, and art historians, but nonspecialists who are curious about Africa’s past will appreciate them, too.  In addition, readers of French will enjoy engrossing narratives, often filled with danger and unimaginable feats of endurance and always enhanced with historical information, cultural details, and a feeling for the varied landscapes and their associated human economies. Lenfant’s article is a fine example of the wealth of information presented in the pages of Le Tour du monde. 

The Warren M. Robbins Library, at the National Museum of African Art, has an almost complete run of Le Tour du monde.  You can also see all issues online at ; (search for “le tour du monde charton”).   The library also has a more complete version of this article, a book published in 1905 under the same title.  It contains additional information along with a preface, an introduction, an author’s note, a record of meteorological observations for each day of the journey, and a fold-out colored map.  DT546.42 .l45 1905.

By Judy Schaefer, Volunteer, Warren M. Robbins Library, National Museum of African Art.

One Comment

  1. South Africa News Online

    I must say that your information about the clash of culture is really interesting and unique for me. And I am pleased to read your article. I will surely try to explore more about this topic.

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