Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa

Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa

Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa

Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa

Synopsis

Focusing on an area of the savannah in northern Ghana and southwestern Burkina Faso, Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa explores how rural populations have secured, contested, and negotiated access to land and how they have organized their communities despite being constantly on the move as farmers or migrant laborers. Carola Lentz seeks to understand how those who claim native status hold sway over others who are perceived to have come later. As conflicts over land, agriculture, and labor have multiplied in Africa, Lentz shows how politics and power play decisive roles in determining access to scarce resources and in changing notions of who belongs and who is a stranger.

Excerpt

Parts of this book were written, or rather rewritten, after I had become increasingly critical of earlier drafts, during a sabbatical year at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University in 2008−9. While struggling to reconceptualize the book’s central narrative, and how I could make the very rich, but also overly complex and local material from remote corners of Ghana and Burkina Faso more interesting for a broader readership, I often interrupted desk work with a stretch of jogging along the Charles River that traverses Cambridge. Many times had I run past a memorial stone at Sir Richard’s Landing and in passing glanced at its inscription, until one day it dawned on me that this stone had everything to do with the stories of African “first-comers” and founders of settlements over which I was musing. The stone had been placed on Cambridge lands by inhabitants of the neighboring city of Watertown, and its inscription read:

Here at this river’s edge, the settlers of Watertown led by Sir Richard Saltonstall
landed July 30, 1630. Here, Reverend George Phillips’ protest in 1632 against taxation
without representation struck the first note of civil liberty heard in this wilderness.
All of the territory from Sparks Street to Mount Auburn bridge, originally a part of
Watertown, was annexed to Cambridge in 1754. Erected by the Historical Society of
Watertown, 1948.

Here, carved in stone, was an American version of a first-comer narrative, invoking arguments to boost territorial claims and assertions of property that resonated very much with my West African interlocutors’ contentions. The amateur historians of Watertown wanted to remind all passersby that their ancestors, and not the later Cambridgean occupants, had been the very first persons to discover and set foot on this land. Of course, they failed to mention any Indian inhabitants who might have happened to live in the area prior to Sir Richard’s landing—a typical strategy of firstcomer narratives that implicitly define who belongs to the potential claimants while completely silencing the claims of others. As if this were not enough, the authors of the inscription added that discovery and occupation were followed by an important political act, namely taming the “wilderness” and thus taking a leading role in preparing the road to American democracy. Almost two hundred years had passed since the land originally owned by Watertownians had been “annexed” by Cambridge—a turn of phrase that insinuates an illegitimate act—and yet some Watertown patriots felt impelled to set the historical record right by erecting a commemorative stone that memorialized their moral right as first-comers to the territory they later lost.

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