Cherished Souvenirs

By Jessica B. Harris

Published on May 25, 2010

I 've been collecting vintage postcards of Africa since 1972, when I made my first trip to Dakar, Senegal, as a doctoral student. Many of the thousand or so cards in my collection date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries and show sepia-toned or tinted photographs of market scenes in what were then European colonies. Having written about African foodways and culture for many years, I find myself drawn to these images again and again. In them, I see more than familiar African foodstuffs—sugarcane and yams in a market in Dahomey (now Benin), fish for sale in Senegal, spices and olives being peddled in Algeria. I also see hints of a material world long gone: tin milk pails and ladles hanging in a North African market stall, the distinctive West African head wrap worn by a fishmonger, a wooden box labeled "Liverpool," its contents lost to time, just visible in the corner of a photo of a produce market. Many of the photographs depicted in the postcards were taken by ethnographers like the Frenchman Edmond Fortier and were collected by European colonists, who sent them home to astonish their friends. In their eyes, these were images of "exotic" Africa. To me, they are pictures of abundance and industry; they are the faces of my African ancestors captured for eternity in the dignity of their work.

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