Ethnicity and the Making of History in Northern Ghana

Article excerpt

ANTHROPOLOGY AND SOCIOLOGY Carola Lentz. Ethnicity and the Making of History in Northern Ghana. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. xi + 346 pp. Photographs. Maps. Tables. Notes. Glossary. Bibliography. Index. $65.00. Cloth.

The construction of ethnicity and identity in African societies has sustained scholarly attention since the 1960s; in their probing, historians of southern and central Africa developed "the thesis that 'tribes' were colonial constructs which were not rooted in a timeless past" (Carola Lentz and Paul Nugent, eds., Ethnicity in Ghana: The Limits of Invention [Palgrave Macmillan, 2000], 5). Employing an impressive range of sources, including oral interviews, colonial ethnographies, clan histories, archival material, and other secondary literature produced by local intellectuals, Carola Lentz moves beyond this narrow and "one-sided" view of the construction of ethnicity to foreground the ways in which multiple actors (mainly colonial officials, missionaries, chiefs, labor migrants, and educated elites), with their diverse interests, worked hand-in-hand to invent or redefine indigenous ethnic categories and commonalities in Nandom, and in the northern Ghana Lawra district as a whole.

Recognizing that the complex relationship between "ethnicity and alternative bases of commonality" (4) can be understood only from a historical perspective, Lentz provides a social and political history of northwestern Ghana that is not just about the invention of ethnic categories and their interconnectedness with pre-existing modes of social positioning and belonging, but also about the very nature of the encounter between Africans and Europeans, in this case, the Dagara and British colonial officials. In analyzing the complex sociopolitical organization of precolonial Dagara, Lentz argues that even though precolonial northwestern Ghana lacked centralized political structures and was not "inhabited by distinct 'tribes,'" notions of ethnicity and a sense of belonging to distinct ethnic groups existed, which labor migrants used and continue to use to establish social networks away from home - in southern Ghana (1). In essence, labor migrants utilized "indigenous principles of organization" (patricians, earth shrines, and neighborliness) to create "new idioms of solidarity" (150), many of which conveyed ethnic overtones, to emphasize ties transcending patricians and village boundaries.

In this historical context, Lentz traces the history of chieftaincy in the Lawra district, emphasizing that chieftaincy in the colonial era gradually transformed "native states" to conform to the British model: small, territorial states and kingdoms. Chiefs were to serve as intermediaries between their subjects and the colonial administration. …