Loma Political Culture: A Phenomenology of Structural Form

By Hojbjerg, Christian K. | Africa, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Loma Political Culture: A Phenomenology of Structural Form


Hojbjerg, Christian K., Africa


This article discusses the implications of a particular model of political culture in Upper Guinea forest societies for the understanding of Loma political and religious organisation. The theory in question focuses on the semantics of territory and matrilateral kinship in the forging of dynamic and multi-ethnic forest societies, especially among the Kpelle (Murphy and Bledsoe, 1987). The model has achieved considerable success among students of this geographical region and now seems to have become received wisdom. Such theoretical success is to a large extent justified when one considers the fruitful insights of recent regional studies. The idea of the ideological significance of affinal exchange in structuring Upper Guinea forest societies has also proved helpful in my own study of Loma religion and politics. However, unless one chooses to ignore a considerable amount of empirical evidence, it appears necessary to revise existing theory, which I find inadequate to explain the full complexity of Loma political culture. The following is not intended to be a rejection of the theory of matrilateral cross-cousin marriage as a cultural model, which is critical to the shaping and sense-making of much social interaction. Rather, it builds upon and seeks to complement the holistic endeavour of that theory.

The Loma living in the border region of northern Liberia and south-east Guinea share a number of ecological, social and cultural features with neighbouring people, such as swidden agriculture, matrilateral cross-cousin marriage, secret societies and, in the past, frequent warfare. Most scholars also seem to agree that the Upper Guinea forest region represents a politically ambiguous environment (d'Azevedo, 1962; Horton, 1972; Kopytoff, 1987; Person, 1971). There are few and no lasting examples of state formation or confederacies in this region, which, historically, is characterised by the presence of numerous and often multi-ethnic small chiefdoms with fragmented governments based on principles of kinship and territory. In addition to the Loma (Beavogui, 1991; Maasing, 1978-79; Person, 1968) this dynamic and unstable political organisation has also been observed among the Kissi (Paulme, 1960), the Kpelle (Bellman, 1984; Fulton, 1972; Murphy and Bledsoe, 1987), the Gola (d'Azevedo, 1959), the Mende (Little, 1965, 1966) and the Temne (Dorjahn, 1960) as well as the Maninka living on the savanna north of the forest region (Hopkins, 1971). This situation has not, however, prevented anthropologists and historians from developing different analytical models in order to come to terms with or to make sense of the heterogeneous character of regional political culture.(1) Models of the distribution of power in Upper Guinea forest societies range from early emphasis on the political superiority of secret societies in relation to chiefly institutions (Westermann, 1921; Butt-Thompson, 1929) to a functionalist equilibrium model of checks and balances between sacred and secular institutions (Fulton, 1972; Little, 1965, 1966) and recently to a theory of Upper Guinea forest societies as entities ordered especially by the principle of matrilateral alliance (Bellman, 1984: 21-4; Currens, 1972; Fairhead and Leach, 1996: 151-2; Leopold, 1991; Murphy and Bledsoe, 1987; Richards, 1996: 79).

The recent shift in analytical approach represents a number of advantages compared with earlier synchronic and more static studies. It allows a better understanding of the way in which dynamic and multi-ethnic societies perpetuate themselves through the strategic manipulation of particular historical events such as the order of arrival and marital exchange. Whichever event is chosen as pivotal, it is always cast in the idiom of affinal exchange, implying a perpetual hierarchical relationship between the descendants of wife-givers and wife-takers. Moreover, among the Kpelle and the Loma the politically superior wife-giving mothers' brothers are said to allocate ritual or mystical authority to the sisters' sons (Murphy and Bledsoe, 1987; Leopold, 1991). …

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