Ethnicity and the Making of History in Northern Ghana

Ethnicity and the Making of History in Northern Ghana

Ethnicity and the Making of History in Northern Ghana

Ethnicity and the Making of History in Northern Ghana

Synopsis

Drawing on two decades of research this social and political history of North-Western Ghana traces the creation of new ethnic and territorial boundaries, categories and forms of self-understanding, and represents a major contribution to debates on ethnicity, colonialism and the ‘production of history’. It explores the creation and redefinition of ethnic distinctions and commonalities by African and European actors, showing that ethnicity’s power derives from a contradiction: while ethnic identities purport to be non-negotiable, creating permanent bonds, stability and security, the boundaries of the communities created and the associated traits and practices are malleable and adaptable to specific interests and contexts.

Excerpt

‘The loyalties of the people are still extremely local’, wrote Lawra-Tumu District Commissioner Mead in 1947 in support of a chief’s demand for political independence from a neighbouring chiefdom, and strongly recommended that British administrative reforms draw on this ‘local patriotism … rather than suppress it’. Like his predecessors, however, Mead harboured no doubts that beyond their attachments to kin, village and chiefdom, the Africans living under his administration also belonged to ‘tribes’ which, though these had not (yet) developed into self-conscious political communities, were clearly identifiable by historical roots, language and ‘custom’. The British anthropologist Jack Goody, on the other hand, who began research in Lawra District during the early 1950s, was convinced that North-West Ghana was inhabited by congeries of peoples who had linguistically and culturally so much in common that such ethnic boundaries could not be drawn unequivocally. Goody insisted that ethnonyms such as ‘Sisala’, ‘Dagarti’ and ‘Lobi’ or ‘Lobi-Dagarti’ were colonial constructions and that the indigenous population employed a small-scale, context-dependent, flexible system of referents for themselves and their neighbours, evincing no ‘consciousness of unity sufficient to give rise to … tribal name[s]’ (1956: 20).

Some forty years later, Peter Dery, Archbishop of Tamale and the first ordained Dagara priest, drew a very different picture of his home region’s history and culture. Calling for ethnic unity and the preservation of the ‘uniqueness of Dagara culture’, he insisted that the Dagara, despite their many dialectal and cultural variations, were ‘originally one single group of people of common origin with one common language’, who had, in their quest for autonomy and dignity, broken away from the Dagomba kingdom. Although not everyone in the North-West shares Dery’s political and cultural views or his broad definition of Dagara ethnicity, all would agree that ethnic categories and a sense of belonging to an ethnic group are part and parcel of local reality.

These quotations reflect the far-reaching political, social and cultural transformations that have taken place since the end of the nineteenth century in North-Western Ghana, a region which in the pre-colonial period was neither politically centralised nor inhabited by distinct ‘tribes’. One of . . .

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