Life/history: Personal Narratives of Development Amongst NGO Workers and Activists in Ghana

By Yarrow, Thomas | Africa, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Life/history: Personal Narratives of Development Amongst NGO Workers and Activists in Ghana

Yarrow, Thomas, Africa


Widespread assumptions about the extractive and self-serving nature of African elites have resulted in the relative neglect of questions concerning their personal ethics and morality. Using life-history interviews undertaken with a range of Ghanaian development workers, this article explores some of the different personal aspirations, ideologies and beliefs that such narratives express. The self-identification of many of those interviewed as 'activists' is examined in terms of the related concepts of 'ideology', 'commitment' and 'sacrifice'. Much recent work within history and anthropology uses the 'life-history' as a way of introducing 'agency' that is purported to be missing in accounts focusing on larger social abstractions. Yet it is the very opposition between abstractions such as 'history' and 'society' and their own more 'personal' lives that such narratives themselves enact. The article thus interrogates the various ways in which development workers variously imagine their lives in relation to broader social and historical processes.


Les idees repandues sur la nature extractive et interessee des elites africaines ont conduit a un desinteret relatif des questions concernant leur ethique personnelle et leur moralite. A travers des entretiens de recits de vie menes aupres d'un eventail d'agents de developpement ghaneens, cet article explore les differentes aspirations personnelles, ideologies et croyances qu'expriment ces recits. Il examine l'etiquette d'activiste que se donne un grand nombre de personnes interrogees, en termes de concepts lies d'<>, d'<> et de <>. Beaucoup de travaux recents menes en histoire et en anthropologie utilisent le <> comme moyen d'introduire l'<> qui est censee manquer dans les recits centres sur des abstractions sociales plus larges. C'est pourtant l'opposition meme entre des abstractions (comme l'<> et la <>) et leur propre existence plus personnelle que ces recits interpretent eux-memes. L'article interroge ainsi les differentes manieres dont les agents de developpement imaginent leur existence par rapport a des processus sociaux et historiques plus larges.


The 2003 annual board meeting of one of the largest Ghanaian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) was held in a newly built hotel in Kumasi, where over an elaborate buffet I sat with a number of the board members. Most had known one another for a number of decades, their friendships originating at university and in the social activism of their youth. Prompted by a throwaway comment about the excessive lavishness of the hotel, the group started to reflect on the changes that have taken place in the country since the early 1980s when the organization was set up: 'We've really been through a lot in this country', one remarked, a reference to the political upheavals of the past two decades. Others in the group warmed to the theme, reminiscing about the days when they started out: 'We used to travel on the back of shea nut trucks just to get around,' recalled one; 'we'd be queuing up just to catch a ride on an articulator--there weren't even trotros back then!' (1) Another recollected how he used to take his typewriter around with him: 'It wasn't like this,' he pronounced, casting his eyes around the grand hotel dining room, 'we've come a long way.'

Throughout the conversation, the maturity of Ghana, the nation, resonated with talk about their own coming of age, the very existence of the hotel seemingly concretizing the political and economic progress of the country, just as their presence within it demonstrated their success as individuals. The hotel thus stood as a demonstration of both personal and national development. Yet the progress of their lives and of the nation were not seen as simple synonyms.

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Life/history: Personal Narratives of Development Amongst NGO Workers and Activists in Ghana


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