Crossing Boundaries, Debating African Studies

Crossing Boundaries, Debating African Studies

(Paper presented at the Fifth Annual Penn African Studies Workshop, October 17, 1997)


Sara Berry

Johns Hopkins University

[Copyright 1998, Sara Berry, All Rights Reserved. This work may be cited, for non-profit educational use only, by crediting the author and the exact URL of this document.]


Part of the intellectual richness of African studies lies in the wide variety of sources and methods used by scholars from different disciplines to document or represent issues and problems in the study of Africa. Boundaries are no exception, and I'd like to begin this discussion with a few vignettes which illustrate the way boundaries have been represented, or questioned, in familiar types of sources--namely, maps, ethnographic descriptions and anecdotes from fieldwork.

In 1993, Tom Bassett published a short article in Passages, describing and criticising a project in which the World Bank had been using aerial photographs to construct maps of cultivated fields in northern Cote d'Ivoire. Claiming that aerial photos provided accurate, politically neutral information on the boundaries of fields, the Bank was using them to draw outline maps which were then filled in with the names of the individuals who "owned" and "used" each field. Intended as a data base for identifying "legitimate" claims on arable land, which would help to promote increased productivity by clarifying and securing tenure rights, the maps misrepresented actual land tenure patterns--by ignoring the claims of all but one "owner" and one "user" per plot, treating ownership and use as the exclusive prerogatives of single individuals, and treating observed patterns of cultivation at a single point in time as evidence of discrete and permanent pieces of property. In the short-term, Bassett argues, the effect of these maps was to promote uncertainty and conflict over claims on land, thus undermining rather than increasing "tenure security."[1]

My second vignette is a passage, quoted in a recent article by Jane Guyer, from Laburthe-Tolra's ethnography of the Beti of southeastern Cameroon, which was published in 1977.

The Beti of the past enjoyed to the highest degree a genius for multiplicity and variety. "Mekyae, mekyae": "there are all sorts of..." This is the leitmotif that one hears no matter what the domain of culture about which one enquires. There are all sorts of lineages, all sorts of marriages, all sorts of chiefs and slaves, all sorts of marriages, all sorts of chiefs and slaves, all sorts of rituals and dances, all sorts of hunting and trapping, of machetes or cooking spoons....[2]

Finally, a brief anecdote from my own fieldwork. In 1993-94, I spent a total of eight months in Ghana attempting to learn something about changes in the way people have made and exercised claims on land in the Ashanti Region during the 20th century.

After hearing and reading a good deal about stool lands, I had an opportunity to discuss them with the head of the Lands Commission in Kumase, and asked whether the Commission had a map showing the boundaries of stool lands in the region. He replied that one was currently being prepared and conducted me to the Survey Department to inquire. I repeated my question to the head cartographer. "Yes," he said, "the World Bank is also interested in such a map. We are working on it." Well, I prompted, when was it likely to be ready? The cartographer looked mildly exasperated. "We have been working on it for five years," he said sternly. "It will take time...."

Demarcating boundaries: territory, institutions, ideas

These vignettes point to a series of tensions in recent scholarly and policy-oriented writing on Africa over the nature and significance of boundaries. For purposes of this essay, I will adopt a broad definition of boundaries, to include institutional and conceptual as well as territorial boundaries. Each is the focus of quite separate bodies of literature, of course, but for the moment I would like to consider themes and tensions which cut across them. In particular, I would suggest that students of Africa may be divided, roughy, into three groups: those who view boundaries as powerful and progressive--serving to define and advance ideas, activities and outcomes in many domains of social and intellectual life; those who see boundaries as powerful but oppressive, serving to limit, silence and exclude; and a third, recently expanding group who tend to portray boundaries as permeable, contested and not so powerful in shaping the course of events.

For many social scientists and policy-makers, clear and consistent boundaries are necessary (though rarely sufficient) conditions for social and intellectual progress. People who know who they are, and where they stand vis a vis the rights and obligations of others, will think more clearly and make better decisions--about the allocation of resources and the articulation and evaluation of ideas. A recent example, alluded to in Bassett's short article in Passages, is the outpouring of studies and policy debates over property rights in Africa, in which the World Bank and others have argued that clearly defined property rights and territorial boundaries are needed not only to bring about more productive patterns of resource use, but also to protect the environment and sustain production over time. "It is important," wrote several contributors to a recent World Bank report

to ensure that a property rights regime has clearly defined boundaries, and that to the extent possible, these boundaries are consistent with the natural boundaries of the ecological system. The reason for boundary congruency is to bring the area of decisionmaking into line with areas of ecological interaction.[3]

In the same collection, Elinor Ostrom argues that the "robust institutions" needed to manage complex resource systems so as to preserve biodiversity also begin with clearly defined boundaries.

Defining the boundaries of the resource and of those authorized to use it can be thought of as a "first step" in organizing for collective action. As long as the boundaries...remain uncertain, no one knows what they are managing or for whom.[4]

Ostrom goes on to argue that multiple institutions are needed to manage complex resource systems and that "local users" should be "included" in making policy decisions. But the "principles [of institutional design] can be taught as part of extension programs" aimed at preserving biodiversity[5]--just as the principles of decision-making analysis, which are predicated on the assumption of clear, unambiguous social options and conceptual boundaries, can be taught to scholars and practitioners, and used to predict social outcomes in any locality or historical context.

The significance of boundaries depends, of course, on how they're drawn and what goes on on either side of them. In this regard, it is interesting to note a recent sea-change in discussions sponsored or promoted by the World Bank on the sources of political and economic progress in Africa. In the 1980s, the Bank orchestrated an international "consensus"[6] that Africa was suffering from an agrarian crisis brought on by excessive and ill-judged government intervention in economic activity. In keeping with this analysis, most international organizations and donor governments made international lending to Africa conditional on African governments' willingness to devalue their currencies, deregulate foreign and domestic transactions, downsize their public sectors and transfer ownership of enterprises and assets to private hands. Agricultural and economic progress, it was argued, depended on moving people and activities across the boundary between the public and private sectors. By the end of the decade, this argument had been extended to political activity as well: democratization, like development, depended on "political liberalization" or getting the government out of politics.

In the 1990s, donor agencies and scholars who write for them have continued to advocate privatization in Africa, but the boundary has shifted. As agricultural production and commercial activity revived and expanded (arguably in response to good weather, formal sector layoffs and long-term urbanization, as much as to structural adjustment), policy makers shifted their attention to problems of environmental degradation. (Continued international pressure on African governments to place foreign debt repayment ahead of other economic priorities has stimulated efforts to develop tourism as a source of foreign exchange, and heightened commercial as well as official interest in promoting environmental conditions favorable to that industry.) Africa's "environmental crisis" has replaced the agrarian crisis on the frontline of international policy debate, and explanations of the crisis have shifted from the misdeeds of African governments to those of African farmers and workers. In another study sponsored by the World Bank, Cleaver and Schreiber argued that Africa was caught in a vicious "spiral" in which accelerated rates of population growth were placing unbearable strains on "traditional" technologies and institutions, leading to overgrazing, soil exhaustion, deforestation, and the decimation of biodiversity. To "reverse the spiral," they advocated a battery of government interventions--from expanded national parks and game preserves, "buffer zones," and bans on shifting cultivation, to taxes, subsidies and propaganda designed to "create demand" for smaller families and new agricultural technologies.[7] Having worked assiduously throughout the 1980s to move people, resources and economic decisions from the public to the private sector, the Bank was now arguing for bringing the state back in.

Analysts like Bassett would agree that territorial and institutional boundaries drawn by states or international agencies have a powerful impact on people's lives and livelihoods, but not always a beneficial one. Fixed territorial boundaries often operate to constrain people's movements, and restrict people's access to opportunities and resources.[8] Title deeds, fences, "buffer zones," district and national boundaries all represent (and help to enforce) the right of some individuals or groups to exclude others, not only from economic resources and opportunities, but often from legal protection, civil rights and political expression as well. When imposed suddenly or arbitrarily on landscapes previously traversed or exploited by people now excluded from them, territorial boundaries can become instruments of oppression and hardship--whether the imposers are European settlers protected by colonial rule, African herd owners who decide to fence open range, or governments who harrass or expel peaceful and productive residents on the grounds that they are "aliens" from neighboring countries.[9]

There is also a substantial literature tracing the oppressive consequences of institutional boundaries which, by drawing new or more rigid distinctions between members and non-members, have worked to exclude, silence or deprive those held to be "outsiders." Such boundaries operate at many levels of social interaction, from the household to the state. In a recent study, Sharon Hutchinson shows, for example, that by increasing the number of living children which a Nuer woman is expected to have borne in order to claim the full privileges of her conjugal status, Sudanese courts have simultaneously increased women's subordination to their husbands and agnates, and reduced the economic protections formerly associated with marriage.[10] Following the influential work of T.O. Ranger and Martin Chanock, others have argued that colonial inventions of tradition erected new or unprecedentedly high and fixed barriers to the claims which people could make on one another in the name of kinship or community.[11] And students of Africa are all too familiar with cases in which newly drawn or reified ethnic boundaries have threatened the lives and livelihoods of thousands of men, women and children caught on the "wrong" side of the ethnic fence.

Conceptual boundaries, too, may clarify issues and arguments, but can also serve to channel, limit or even silence intellectual inquiry. Timothy Mitchell's forceful polemic on development discourse which represents Egypt as a ribbon of fertile land along the Nile overburdened by an ever-expanding population, while ignoring the highly unequal distribution of income and wealth among that population, or the role of international forces including American military aid in reproducing those disparities, is an eloquent example.[12] Others include scholars with such different agendas as James Ferguson's "anti-politics machine," which argues that development discourse "silences" the politics of resource allocation and use, or Thomas McCaskie's critique of writers, from Rattray to Wilks, whose sympathetic portrayals of rank and authority in Asante blur, or obliterate, its fundamentally hegemonic character.[13]

Recently, a number of scholars and others writing on Africa have questioned all of the arguments I have outlined so far, arguing that rather than clarifying, rigid or determinative, many boundaries are permeable, contested and of limited influence. Such arguments have been made with respect to many different domains of social life and cultural expression. Conceptual boundaries, however clearly drawn, can always be questioned, and counter-discourses are often hard to silence. This is not, of course, a new idea, as may be illustrated by the following excerpt from Elizabeth Colson's monograph, Marriage and family among the Plateau Tonga, published in 1958.

One evening when I sat talking with Reuben and his two wives, the conversation turned to the ownership of crops.

Reuben says that if a woman gets grain from her own relatives and makes beer, her husband has no right to any of the money, but that if she uses his grain then if he wishes he may take a share of the proceeds. He may leave all the money with his wife for her to spend on clothes for herself or on other goods, but if he is not generous he will insist on a division.

At this point, the two wives speak up in chorus: "Divide the money! He will take most of it and give her only a little."

I ask him if a man may take maize from his wife's granary. He replies that this depends on circumstances. If the wife has been given the field by her relatives then she has the right to the maize in the granary.

His wives again cry him down, "Oh no...[h]er husband would still say that the seed and the oxen and plough were his. And he would claim all the maize...."

Again Reuben shifts his ground.... "If a poor man marries a woman whose family gives them a field and cattle to use in ploughing, then the woman will despise her husband and claim everything. If he says anything, she will tell him to get out ... so he will sit with his head bowed saying nothing. Oh our women are quick to despise us."

His wives comment that in their experience all this is extremely unlikely.[14]

Reuben's wives' outspoken scepticism is hardly exceptional. African scholarship and literature testify voluminously to rich repertoires of satirical and critical commentary. The power of conceptual boundaries drawn from western scientific thought has been challenged by voices ranging from David Livingstone's "Rain Doctor" or Steve Feierman's "peasant intellectuals" in Tanzania, to those of scholars, such as John Jantzen, Ivan Karp, Paulin Hountoundji or Valentin Mudimbe.[15] Students of oral and popular culture have, similarly, documented the endless inventiveness with which Africans in all walks of life have questioned authority--from the ironic celebrations of "praise songs,"[16] to those of everyday speech,[17] poets (Okigbo, Soyinka, Mpanje), political leaders (Cabral, um Nyobe), or the irrepressible Nigerian press.

Finally, of course, territorial boundaries themselves are notoriously porous and unstable. As Tanzanians who lived around Mt. Arusha, close to the active smuggling trade across the Kenyan border, told Tom Spear, "the mountain moves at night."[18] Boundaries between kin groups, communities or ethnic groups, though frighteningly powerful, at times, as instruments of exclusion or destruction, are also continually traversed and refigured--a fact well known (and exasperating) to colonial officials, if often ignored by the anthropologists and ecologists whom they commissioned to ferret out the permanent principles and structures hidden beneath the daily confusions of unfamiliar cultures. Describing the precolonial history of northeastern Zambia as "a chaotic tale of immigration and raids and disruption and intermingling of races," one well informed ecologist noted, in 1953, that systems of cultivation "are still changing...while curious hybrid agricultural systems ... have evolved in intermediate zones of contact between tribes of different cultures. A full state of equilibrium has yet to be attained and a straightforward classification of agricultural systems is consequently not easy to present."[19] Indeed, the history of state efforts to "capture" the peasantry in northern Zambia--where farmers spend part of the year in temporary settlements and villages frequently dissolve and scatter--is sometimes reminiscent of the croquet game in Lewis Carroll's Alice in wonderland, in which the mallets (flamingoes) peer into the players' faces and the balls (hedgehogs) uncurl and wander off just as they're about to be sent through a wicket.[20]

Whether we listed to pundits or poets, pore through colonial archives, or delve into recent scholarship which dwells on the multiplicity of voices and negotiability of meanings and relationships in African societies and cultures, it often appears that Africa and African studies are crisscrossed by "all sorts of" boundaries, all up for grabs.

Crossing boundaries: challenges and possibilities

If multiple voices and permeable, contested boundaries are facts of social and intellectual life, how do we take account of them, interpretively and analytically? Can we cross boundaries creatively, or learn by watching people do so? Can ambiguous and shifting boundaries serve as sources of intellectual or social advance, as well as confusion? Many think not. Arguments for clarifying property rights and territorial and/or institutional boundaries rest on the premise that contested, ambiguous or negotiable boundaries impede progress because they create confusion, making it difficult or impossible to chart effective courses of action--whether to expand production, conserve resources, improve living standards or protect human rights. As one economist commented, a few years ago, at a conference on prospects for development and democratization on the continent, African economies need increased capital flows from abroad, but foreign firms are reluctant to invest because "in Africa, everything's negotiable."

At the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum are writers who admire the fluidity and variety of practices and institutions in Africa, but stop short of drawing conclusions about the way flexibility and negotiation shape social processes. Critics of colonial regimes' "invention[s] of tradition" have argued, inter alia, that colonial administrators not only invented traditional norms and institutions to serve their own interests and preconceptions but, in doing so, froze or suppressed previously fluid, living traditions into rigid sets of rules and hierarchical systems for enforcing them.[21] Others have sought to incorporate the ambiguities of African life into their own methods of documentation and analysis. In Tears of the dead, for example, Richard Werbner describes in vivid detail incidents, narratives, life histories of members of one family in southwestern Zimbabwe whom he studied in 1959 and visited again 30 years later, but resolutely refrains from defining the family, let alone its place in Zimbabwean society or resemblance to other families, in Zimbabwe or elsewhere.[22] Jean-Francois Bayart's L'etat en Afrique tackles his subject through a kind of expository bricolage--continually juxtaposing arguments and cases with counter-examples--which serves to destabilize most accepted generalizations about African politics and political economies. A similar effect is achieved in Cohen and Atieno-Odhiambo's study of controversy and conflict surrounding the funeral of a prominent Kenyan lawyer: they describe the anomalies and ironies of the case, but make no attempt to resolve them or assess its significance. And Moore and Vaughan's detailed depiction of variety in the strategies Zambian men and women have used to negotiate of economic and environmental change suggests that "all sorts of" daily practices defy cliches of "social breakdown"--and most other generalizations about the directions of social change.[23]

Rather than simply admire, or lament, negotiability, some observers have focussed on actual processes of crossing or negotiating boundaries, asking what is involved, for whom, and with what effects? Such inquiries can, of course, lead to new forms of arbitrary or rigid boundary demarcation. Seeking to protect endangered environments, for example, governments and NGOs have drawn--and fenced--numerous boundaries both around areas to be protected, and through the local populations who inhabit them. In the Dzangha Sanga Game and Wildlife Preserve in CAR, for example, the World Wildlife Fund has divided local people into "indigenes" (considered part of the threatened ecology) and "immigrants," who are blamed for degrading it.[24] Another currently controversial "boundary" created in the process of trying to alleviate hunger and illness among people uprooted by violent conflict is the much-disputed distinction between "refugees" and "militants" in Rwanda, Uganda, Congo and Sudan.

But other studies of migrants and borders have pointed out that mobility can also be a form of resilience, and that boundaries themselves may be occasions of opportunity or social creativity. Journalists, relief workers and researchers have described the rapidity with which new buildings, enterprises, vocabularies and relationships spring up in areas newly settled or expanded by "refugees"--in eastern Zaire, for example, after the genocidal conflict in Rwanda in 1994, or in towns and villages in Guinea near the Liberian border. Studies of drought and famine also testify to the importance of mobility for survival and subsequent recovery: vide Alex de Waal's Famine that kills or Thomas Reardon et al.'s study of two Burkinabe villages during the drought of 1983-4.[25] Migration is a time-honored way of pursuing opportunity or escaping economic decline throughout the African continent, and migrants not only cross borders, but sometimes congregate there. In a recent dissertation, Donna Flynn describes the community which grew up along the border between western Nigeria and Benin during the Nigerian oil boom of the 1970s. and 1980s. Known simply as "border," the new society included people living within 10 km of the international boundary, whether or not they were connected by ties of kinship, language, occupation or area of origin. After Flynn had lived in Sabe for several months, she too was accepted as part of the community: customs officials who tried to stop her from crossing into Nigeria were told to "leave her alone. She's 'border'."[26]

If crossing territorial and social boundaries is not simply an act of desperation or subversion, but may also occasion social creativity, the same may be true of conceptual boundaries or the tendency, deeply ingrained in social scientific thinking, to argue from fixed frames of reference. At some level, all complex social and intellectual processes are fraught with tensions, ambiguities and possibilities for negotiation and multiple interpretation. Rather than write them off as self-evident obstacles to progress, progress, perhaps we should pay more attention to the possibility that "confusion"[27] is not necessarily counter-productive: that people may find satisfaction, prosperity, even security, in ambiguity and negotiation, and that it is not always necessary or even appropriate to imagine social processes in terms of decisive actions or trajectories between points of equilibrium. Thus, Asantehene Osei Bonsu punished a dismayed official who, on his own initiative, had settled a dispute which the king "meant that palaver to sleep a long time."[28]

If indecision was, for Osei Bonsu, a tactical weapon to be deployed in the pursuit and exercise of power, negotiability is not always instrumental: ambiguous meanings, flexible relationships and on-going negotiations may be part of the circumstances in which people find themselves, as well as forms of deliberate action. If, for example, the search for livelihood or wealth is itself fraught with ambiguity, people may neither adopt consistent strategies for getting ahead nor behave as if they were doing so. A particularly fine example is provided in Pauline Peters' subtle analysis of the lengthy, inconclusive process of "dividing the commons" in the rangelands of the Kgatleng District of southern Botswana. Boreholes were introduced to the Kgatleng in the 1930s, and livestock owners formed syndicates to drill and maintain them. As herds expanded, partly in response to the availability of permanent water supplies, syndicate members sought to limit access to their boreholes and surrounding pastures--to ensure adequate food and water for their own herds by excluding others'. But they also wanted to retain access to open rangelands, in case pastures (and animals) around a borehole were threatened by drought, fire, or simply the growth of the herds. In consequence, Peters shows, syndicate members as well as dependent relatives, smaller herd owners, laborers and others engaged in long, tense, inconclusive debates over the question of fencing. In the early 1990s, the Tribal Grazing Lands Policy, adopted by the government twenty years earlier to rationalize herd management by enclosing grazing lands, had yet to be implemented in the Kgatleng.[29]

My unsuccessful search, in Kumase, for a map of stool lands points to a similar history of on-going negotiation and inconclusive debate. When Britain annexed Asante at the turn of the century, except for an area immediately surrounding the Kumase fort which was appropriated by the Crown, most land was left in African hands. Hoping to avoid the disputes and disruptions which accompanied rising sales of land in the Gold Coast Colony, and to strengthen the economic position of the chiefs, the Asante administration insisted that land was vested permanently in the stools. Stools owned land, and could allocate it, sometimes indefinitely, to their own subjects or to strangers, but they could not alienate it. This rule, adopted first as expedient, later rationalized as timeless custom, insured that rights in land would remain closely tied to chieftaincy politics. To contain and eventually reduce the flood of disputes which followed their seizure of power, colonial administrators devoted a great deal of time and energy to the demarcation of stool boundaries.[30]

Officials usually visited areas of land in dispute, and recorded careful descriptions of the boundaries they established. From the early years of colonial rule in Asante, the Chief Commissioner's Boundary Book provides a cumulative record of their efforts to reduce "these more or less airy [ancestral] claims"[31] to sketch maps, landmarks and surveyors' coordinates. But the interpretation of the commissioners' boundaries with respect to actual claims to land was a subject of continual debate, not least among colonial officials themselves. In 1928, an exasperated Secretary for Native Affairs demanded the immediate creation of a land registry "conferring absolute title, guaranteed by the State.... It is absurd that each owner should not know and that others should not know what precisely is his holding."[32] A few weeks later, a Provincial Commissioner in Asante revealed, perhaps unwittingly, the impracticality of the Secretary's proposal. "To legislate regarding land tenure," he wrote, "will be a ticklish problem and I feel sure will meet with opposition...from the people...."[33] In fact, no land register was established, in 1928 or afterwards. Instead, a new administrative unit, the Lands Department (now Lands Commission), was charged with responsibility for keeping records of all formal leases issued on Crown and stool lands throughout the colony. The production of records from this archive is a social process, just like the production of historical records from other repositories, including the memories of scholars, witnesses and litigants.

That debate over land claims has continued, within the state as well as among its citizens, is also suggested by subsequent reversals of official decisions. In 1935, when the administration ceremoniously reinstated the Asantehene (his predecessor was deposed in 1896 and subsequently deported to the Seychelles, where he was held until 1924), they stipulated that the Kumase Town Lands were to remain the property of the Crown. Eight years later, however, the Crown relinquished its claims, and the Kumase Town Lands were formally handed over to the occupant of the Golden Stool to hold and administer "in trust" for the chiefs and people of Asante. Nkrumah thoroughly distrusted the Asante chiefs and politicians, whose National Liberation Movement mounted the most significant challenge to his own Convention People's Party's rise to power in the 1950s, and set out to discredit and disempower them as soon as the British departed. In 1958, after a commission of inquiry had probed the affairs of the Kumase State Council, the government stripped chiefs throughout Ghana of all but ceremonial functions, and repossessed the Kumase Town Lands. Outspoken Asantes, including a number of chiefs, were subsequently arrested and imprisoned. But Nkrumah was no more anxious than his colonial predecessors to roil the waters of land ownership too roughly. Passage of a new Administration of Lands Act was delayed until 1962 and, when finally enacted, it upheld the principle of stool ownership. A potentially explosive political confrontation was avoided--and land disputes continued. In 1973, the Akyeampong regime created a special Stool Lands Boundaries Settlement Commission, with jurisdiction equivalent to that of the High Courts, to resolve "outstanding" disputes. In 1993, the Commission had a full docket of cases, many of which had been pending for years, and the Lands Commission in Kumase had yet to produce a map.

If the principle of stool land ownership has survived the economic and political vicissitudes of colonial rule and independence in Ghana, what about the practice? In general, claims to land are based on historical precedents, which come in many shapes and sizes. Discussion of stools' claims to land turn inevitably to tales of migration and conquest, marriage and descent, kings and deities, chiefly or ancestral legacies, political alliances and commercial transactions. For any particular piece of land, there are likely to be many such stories and often many claimants as well, since chiefs do not leave land idle but give, lend, lease, mortgage or sell various rights of access and use to many different people. In Asante, it is fair to say, that claims to land are based on "all sorts of" history.

They are also made by all sorts of "historians." As I sat one day, observing proceedings in the Kumase High Court, a case was called which involved a dispute among several minor stools over a tract of land on the outskirts of Kumase. When a witness launched into a story about a deity whose shrine was captured in battle towards the end of the 17th century, his opponent's lawyer jumped to his feet to object. The defendant had not mentioned this detail in his pleadings, the lawyer complained, and anyway it was nothing but hearsay and should not be admitted as evidence in a court of law. "Of course," the judge responded, leaning forward in his chair and speaking slowly for emphasis, "all traditional history is hearsay. But it is permissible hearsay. It's a wonderful thing!" And he ordered the witness to proceed with his testimony.

The historical precedents on which land claims are based come from many sources--written and oral, recent and ancient, primary and secondary. Some sources are, of course, considered more reliable or authoritative than others. The National Archives of Ghana does an active business supplying authorized copies of records--many of them written by colonial officials--to citizens who are involved in land litigation or chieftaincy disputes, or who simply want to retain copies of potentially relevant documents in case of future need. Similarly, court transcripts, Lands Commission files, even published works by academics are regularly adduced in support of contested claims, and their relative merits are actively debated both in and out of court. In the case of oral evidence, witnesses' knowledge and credibility are also carefully assessed. Some people are, of course, considered more knowledgeable or reliable than others. But there are no canonical texts--or voices--whose versions are invariably accepted as definitive. Even the Asantehene, whose "restoration" to paramountcy in 1935 was intended, in part, to create an authoritative source of customary knowledge for the convenience of the colonial regime, is not considered infallible--a point well understood by the men who have occupied the Golden Stool since 1935, and proved themselves adept at the politics of historical production.[34]

Indeed, because historical narratives are integral to the pursuit of property and power, they figure widely in public discourse and private conversations, and are consequently subject to continual retelling and reinterpretation. Writing stories down does not "fix" their content, much less their significance: books and documents simply provide additional sources (and versions) for people to cite and debate. Even concerted efforts to constitute a definitive source of historical knowledge often tend to proliferate versions rather than consolidating them. Such has been the case with the "restored" Asante Confederacy, and it is likely that a register of titles or an official map of stool boundaries would work to the same effect. In such circumstances, people are more likely to be successful in asserting or defending claims to land if they participate (however unequally or informally) in the on-going production of history than if they rely entirely on a particular piece of documentary evidence. To achieve security of tenure in Asante, making history is, arguably, more important than demarcating boundaries.

In African studies, we dont cross boundaries just to get to the other side...

Territorial boundaries can always be crossed or contested and in Africa, as the foregoing examples remind us, they often are. Asante is hardly exceptional in this respect, although particular idioms and forms of contestation vary a great deal from one local or historical context to another. The same argument may be made with respect to institutional boundaries: the lines between lineages, communities, ethnic groups or administrative districts do not have to be fixed or unquestioned for people to work together or living conditions improved. Development and democratisation may be as much about renegotiating the boundaries between public and private domains, or state and civil society, as about moving activities and resources from one side to the other. Arguments which dwell on the absence in Africa of institutions found elsewhere tend to perpetuate the stereotype of African exceptionalism as a series of deficiencies or evolutionary lapses, rather than elucidate the distinctive dynamics of African social transformations. Africa challenges us to cross, or push back, our own conceptual boundaries--moving beyond the reinvention of typologies and imagined equilibria, to pay closer attention to processes of negotiation, struggle and (re-)interpretation through which people navigate, and debate, their own and others' experiences.

[1] Thomas Bassett, 1993. "Cartography, ideology and power: the World Bank in northern Cote d'Ivoire," Passages, 5:8-9.

[2] Quoted in Jane Guyer, 1995. "Traditions of invention in equatorial Africa," paper commissioned by the Joint Committee on African Studies, Social Science Research Council.

[3] S. Hanna, et al., 1995. "Property rights and the environment," in S. Hanna & M. Munasinghe, eds. Property rights and the environment: social and ecological issues (Washington, DC: World Bank), p. 20.

[4] E. Ostrom, 1995. "Designing complexity to govern complexity," in ibid: 35.

[5] Ibid: 43.

[6] See, e.g., Robert Berg & Jennifer Whitaker, 1986. A strategy for African development (Berkeley: University of California Press); also R.H. Green, 1993. "The IMF and the World Bank in Africa," in T. Callaghy & J. Ravenhill, eds. Hemmed in: responses to Africa's economic decline (New York: Columbia University Press).

[7] Kevin Cleaver and Gotz Schreiber, 1995. Reversing the spiral: the population-agriculture-environment nexus in Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank.

[8] The literature in this vein is vast, but see, e.g., A.I. Asiwaju, 1985. Partitioned Africans: ethnic relations across Africa's international boundaries, 1884-1984 (New York: St. Martins); Pauline Peters, 1994. Dividing the commons: politics, policy and culture in Botswana (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press); M.P.K. Sorrenson, 1967. Land reform in the Kikuyu country (Nairobi: Oxford University Press).

[9] Such uses of national boundaries are hardly unique to Africa: in the mid-1990s, the US Congress has enacted broad new restrictions on legal immigrants' access to social services and due process, not to mention those of undocumented aliens.

[10] Sharon Hutchinson, 1996. Nuer dilemmas: coping with money, war and the state (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press), ch. 4. In fairness, Hutchinson also points out that these changes in the institutional boundaries of conjugality have increased married women's freedom to earn and spend income independently of their husbands.

[11] T.O. Ranger, 1983. "The invention of tradition in colonial Africa," in E. Hobsbawm & T.O. Ranger, eds., The invention of tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); M. Chanock, 1985. Law, custom and social change in Zambia and Malawi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Ranger has recently revised his position, suggesting that many aspects of "invented tradition" were re-negotiated, under colonial rule and afterwards. Ranger, "The invention of tradition revisited: the case of colonial Africa," in Ranger & O. Vaughan, eds. Legitimacy and the state in twentieth-century Africa

[12] T. Mitchell, 1991. "America's Egypt: discourse of the development industry," Middle East Report, Mar-Apr:18-35.

[13] J. Ferguson, 1990. The anti-politics machine: "development," depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press); T. McCaskie, 1983. "R.S. Rattray and the construction of Asante history: an appraisal," History in Africa, 10:187-206, and "Empire State: Asante and the historians," Journal of African History, 33:467-76.

[14] E. Colson, 1958. Marriage and family among the Plateau Tonga. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 113-14.

[15] Livingstone's "debate" with an imaginary African ritual specialist over the respective roles of medicine and divinity in alleviating drought and disease has been widely reproduced. Reprinted in Richard Grinker & Christopher Steiner, eds., 1997. Perspectives on Africa (Oxford: Blackwell). See also John Janzen, 1982. Lemba, 1650-1930: a drum of affliction in Africa and the New World (New York: Garland); Steven Feierman, 1990. Peasant intellectuals: history and anthropology in Tanzania (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press); V.Y. Mudimbe, 1988. The invention of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).

[16] L. Vail & L. White, 1992. Power and the praise poem (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press); Kwesi Yankah, 1995. Speaking for the chief: okyeame and Akan royal oratory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) ; Karin Barber, 1991. 'I could speak until tomorrow': oriki, women and the past in a Yoruba town (Washington, DC: Smithsonian).

[17] Andrew Apter, 1992. Black kings and critics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); Achille Mbembe, 1992. "The banality of power and the aesthetics of vulgarity in the postcolony," Public Culture, 4, 2:1-30.

[18] T. Spear, personal communication.

[19] C. Trapnell, 1953. The soils, vegetation and agriculture of northeastern Rhodesia. Lusaka: Government Printer.

[20] The mobility of rural communities in northern Zambia, and the implications for agricultural policy, are discussed in Berry, 1993. No condition is permanent: the social dynamics of agrarian change in sub-Saharan Africa (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press). Compare Lewis Carroll, 1992. Alice's adventures in wonderland... (New York: Dell), pp. 121-2. First published in 1865.

[21] See, e.g., Ranger, 1983; Chanock, 1985, and 1991. "Paradigms, property and policies: a review of the customary law of land tenure," in K. Mann & R. Roberts, eds. Law in colonial Africa (Portsmouth, NH & London: Heinemann & James Currey).

[22] Richard Werbner, 1992. Tears of the dead: the social biography of an African family (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

[23] J-F. Bayart, 1989. L'etat en afrique: la politique du ventre (Paris: Fayard); D.W.Cohen & E.S. Atieno-Odhiambo, 1989. Burying SM (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann); R. Werbner, 1992; Henrietta Moore & Megan Vaughan, 1993. Cutting down trees: gender, nutrition and agricultural change in Northern Province, Zambia, 1890-1990. (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

[24] I am grateful to Tamara Giles-Vernick for information about this case.

[25] A. de Waal, 1989. Famine that kills (Oxford: Clarendon Press); T. Reardon, et al., 1988, "Coping with household level food insecurity in Burkina Faso," World Development, 16,4:1065-74.

[26] D. Flynn, 1996. "Controlled borders and contested boundaries: ideology, gender and trade along the Benin-Nigeria border," Northwestern University PhD.

[27] A terminology I've used, confusingly!, myself--e.g., in "Coping with confusion: African farmers' responses to instability," in T. Callaghy & J. Ravenhill, eds., 1993. Hemmed in: responses to Africa's economic decline (New York: Columbia).

[28] T.E. Bowdich, 1966. Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London: Frank Cass), pp. 123-4. First published in 1819.

[29] P. Peters, 1993, esp. ch. 7.

[30] Neither colonial nor customary courts were formally established in Asante until the 1920s, or later. Disputes involving Europeans, and those among Africans which were not settled informally by chiefs or elders, were adjudicated by colonial administrators, most of whom had no legal training. Circuit courts? As late as 1928, the Chief Commissioner of Asante presided over a trial in which a European doctor was accused and convicted of murdering his wife. National Archives of Ghana, Accra (hereinafter NAGA), ADM 12/5/116, Confidential Print, Governor Slater to Lord Passfield on admittance of lawyers to Ashanti, 18/9/29.

[31] National Archives of Ghana, Kumase (hereafter NAGK), File 684, Land dispute between Kumawu and Okwahu, 1908, Chief Commissioner of Ashanti to Colonial Secretary, Accra, 18/7/07.

[32] NAGA, ADM 11/1/1000, Proposed reforms in re land registration...., Secretary of Native Affairs, Memo on proposed reforms, 26/4/28.

[33] NAGK, File 316, Alienation of native lands-Ashanti, 1928, Commissioner of the Western Province to Chief Commissioner of Ashanti.

[34] This point will be developed in a forthcoming study


Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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