Imperialism in North Africa: Autobiography, Fadhma Amrouche
Fadhma Amrouche was the illegitimate daughter of an impoverished, illiterate Berber peasant woman. Born a Muslim, she was converted to Christianity by Catholic missionaries, produced one of the first autobiographies ever written by an Algerian woman, became a naturalized French citizen, and raised two children who became well-known French literati—Taos Marie-Louise Amrouche, a poet and novelist, and Jean Amrouche, also a poet. The remarkable life odyssey of Fadhma Amrouche mirrors many of the realities—as well as contradictions—of colonialism as lived, particularly for women.
She was born in a remote village in the rugged mountains of Kabylia in 1882, under less than auspicious circumstances. When the villagers discovered that Fadhma’s mother, Aïni, was pregnant out of wedlock, they attempted to kill her as an adulteress. But plucky Aïni placed herself under the protection of the local French colonial magistrate, thus saving Fadhma’s life. After the child’s birth, her mother—a Muslim—took her to a Catholic convent so that her daughter would have a better life. When that did not work out satisfactorily, her mother entrusted her to the care of secular missionaries in a distant girls’ boarding school. Fadhma spent ten years at the school under the care of Madame Malaval, who, like Hubertine Auclert, tirelessly promoted indigenous girls’ education. After colonial administrators closed the school, Fadhma found work at another Catholic mission, where she met her husband, Belkacem, also a Berber and a convert to Catholicism. Fadhma and the family—she bore eight children—moved to Tunisia in the years before World War I. In 1946, her son Jean, by then a recognized poet in France, asked Fadhma to write her memoirs, which, however, were not published until after her death in 1967 as Histoire de ma vie (My Life Story, 1968). She was also known for her musical talents as a singer and also as a repository of Kabyle oral traditions—songs, poetry, legends, and lore.
This excerpt is from Fadhma’s recollections of the happy days that she spent as a young girl at the orphanage and school run by Madame Malaval.
Source: Amrouche, Fadhma. My Life Story: The Autobiography of a Berber Woman. Translated and with an introduction by Dorothy S. Blair. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
This source is a part of the North African Women and the French Empire, 1850-2000 teaching module.
The orphanage of Taddert-ou-Fella, which owes its name to the nearby village, was founded between 1882 and 1884. At this same time, the first schools in Greater Kabylia were opened, one in Beni-Yenni, with M. Verdy in charge, one in Tamazirth, under M. Gorde, and one in Tizi-Rached under M. Maille.
M. and Mme Malaval ran the Fort-National school. The then Administrator, M. Sabatier, wanted to start a school for girls and Mme Malaval agreed to take charge of this.
He summoned all the kaïds, cavalrymen and rural police in his area and asked them to ride through the douars (villages) and collect as many girls as possible. The kaïds and the horsemen set off, with the rural police, who set the example by bringing their own daughters. There were girls of all ages: some already adolescents and some still toddlers. Soon the premises at the Fort were inadequate, so the commune built the school at Taddert-ou-Fella.
There was a turning on the road to Mekla, just over a mile from Fort-National; above this turning there was a stretch of ground in the shape of a basin, surrounded by hills and with streams running down to the right and left, bounded to the south by the road and to the north by a hill, on the top of which stood a mined house. The Kabyle village was perched on the hillside about half a mile further on.
In 1890 a sign could still be seen at the side of the road, on which was written, Orphanage of Taddert-ou-Fella. No admission without authorization. Since then, the post on which this notice was fixed has fallen down and it has never been replaced.
When I arrived at the school I was still very young and I cannot remember much of my first two years there. I was very impressed when I was taken to the headmistress. My mother had first gone to see the Adminstrator to put me in his care. This wasn’t M. Sabatier, who had been elected Deputy, but his successor, M. Demonque. The commune was still responsible for the school expenses. I saw a tall woman, dressed all in black; she seemed terribly sad to me. She had recently lost her only son from typhoid and her husband had died some little time before. They came from Aveyron where they had been ruined when phylloxera destroyed all the vines. Since the death of her husband and son, Mme Malaval had devoted herself wholeheartedly to her school.
I can remember an immense room with a wooden roof where you could see the beams, like in a stable; there were wide, high windows on three sides and the headmistress’s quarters were built up against the fourth side. This room contained three rows of beds made of three planks on trestles; there were two grey blankets for sleeping, no pillow or sheets either.
When I arrived the dormitory was full. There were some really big girls who were put in charge of the smaller ones. My memories are vague up to 1888. In October of that year, I was put up into the big girls’ class: there were four of us little ones: Alice, Inès, Blanche and myself, Marguerite. We had all been given French names, as there were too many Fadhmas, Tassâdits and Dabhias. Up till then I had been in Mlle Soulé’s class where we had learnt such pretty songs like ‘The Bengali’ and ‘Dame Tartine’. After M. Sabatier left, the Kaïds and the local police stopped their propaganda. The big girls, who were really too old for school, went home to get married and were never replaced. Soon the dormitory was too big and had to be divided into two, with one part to be used as a refectory and classroom. In fact, some classrooms which had been built on the hill when the school had its maximum complement, later had to be closed. In any case, it was not very convenient in the cold weather to have to climb up and down the steep paths to go to lessons or meals.
I shall say nothing of all the girls who passed through the school while I was there, for I have little to tell. I lived for years among them, without feeling affection or dislike for any of them: we did our lessons, we ate, we slept. As far as the food was concerned, it was the same as in all poor boarding-schools: black coffee for breakfast, with a piece of bread; for our midday meal, lentils full of grit, haricot beans, rice or split peas, with very little in the way of green vegetables, except for the wild salads that we picked when we went for walks in the fields. Later, however, I can remember winter evenings, by the fire in the semi-darkness, and the big girls who knew wonderful tales: we huddled round these story-tellers after our evening soup, until the teacher came to send us to bed.
There were also games that we played, running around wildly to get warm, while we sang ‘Auprès de ma blonde’, and ‘Anne of Brittany in her clogs’. And there were walks when we had been good: every afternoon, if it was fine, we went as far as ‘the red turning’ until it was time for lessons to begin again.