Tonghaab. the History of a West African God

Article excerpt

Tonghaab. The History of a West African God. By Jean Allman and John Parker. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005. Pp. xi, 300; 39 figures, 4 maps. $65.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

In this book, Jean Allman and John Parker offer readers a close and penetrating historical study of a "traditional" religion, with its practices and beliefs, associated with the central iconic figure Tongnaab. The study consists of an introduction and six chapters plus maps and numerous photographs. The authors make fruitful and informed use of a range of sources: oral histories, interviews, published and unpublished colonial ethnographic accounts, colonial administrative reports, newspaper articles, photographic collections, and the local/regional landscape geography of ritual/religious networks.

The authors clearly demonstrate that Tongnaab was a complex cultural and historical formation. Tongnaab is the name given to a god and ancestor shrine of the Tallensi people who live in the Tong Hills of modern northern Ghana. Precise information about the god/shrine and its broader hinterland dates from or refers to the eighteenth century, at which time it was an influential presence in the Middle Volta basin. Since that time Tongnaab has undergone several mutations as a sacral and institutional figuration as well as a pilgrimage site. Its history has been local, regional, and national, and, as the authors point out, is now global. Thus the authors successfully challenge standard ethnographic accounts and stereotyped representations of the Tallensi as a people outside of history, on the one hand, and as a people who epitomize "statelessness" and were/are organized according to the localized dynamics of ahistorical kinship and clanship structures, on the other. Late nineteenth-century colonial observers made a misleading conceptual distinction between the centralized Muslim kingdoms of the Middle Volta basin and the mass of so-called "stateless" peoples who were to be found in the same region. In Chapter 6 the authors spell out the instrumental role of a colonial anthropologist, Meyers Fortes, in the making of colonial Taleland as a place without a history and the Tallensi as a people outside of history. The authors successfully contest the colonial stereotype of the Tallensi and Tale society by demonstrating that they were products of the same historical forces that shaped the emergence of neighboring states. The Tong Hills became a place of relative security for migrants, refugees, agricultural colonizers who were fleeing zones of state-formation and merchant capital accumulation. …