Archiving West African settlement history

27 July 2012

Anthropologists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and Goethe University Frankfurt have documented an extensive record of the settlement history of more than 200 villages in Burkina Faso and Ghana that had previously only been handed down in oral form. The researchers' findings have been presented to the National Archives of Burkina Faso where they represent an important contribution to the long-term preservation of this country's intangible cultural heritage.

"Unfortunately, we don't have any pictures of the handing-over ceremony," says Professor Dr. Carola Lentz regretfully. "Burkinabé newspapers are difficult when it comes to photos." She points to an article and a pixilated picture in which it is just possible to make out the outlines of two men. At the end of June, Dr. Richard Kuba of the Frobenius Institute at Frankfurt's Goethe University handed over documents on the settlement history of northwestern Ghana and southwestern Burkina Faso in six extensive volumes to the Burkina Faso National Archives in the capital Ouagadougou.

This is the first comprehensive collection of its kind for the region under study and represents a unique archive. "We aimed at creating a valuable resource by collecting this information in writing," says Lentz, while adding: "This is not knowledge that would have been lost without us."

Oral land register

Lentz, who moved from Goethe University Frankfurt to the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at JGU in 2002, supervised the settlement history project. It was conducted under the aegis of the Cultural Development and Language History in the West African Savannah Collaborative Research Center at Goethe University, financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Lentz, her project team, and several groups of students gaining their first field-research experience interviewed numerous people in the border lands of Burkino Faso and Ghana to find out more about local settlement history, land rights, and the regional political history. Previously, there were no written records dating to the pre-colonial era of the region; even current developments are sparsely recorded. Lentz and her team captured in writing what had been handed down over generations in oral form only and was continually "reinvented" and adapted to meet changing challenges.

Up until today, the villages have no land register. It may seem strange to Europeans, but this has long been the custom in African settlements. "The establishment of land rights through narratives about the migration of one's ancestors and the settlement history function as a type of oral land register," explains Lentz. The stories about the ancestors are used to define today's land rights and are passed on down through the generations.

Brave hunters and prosperous earth priests

The researchers listened to these stories in more than 200 villages. With help of translators and local research assistants, they recorded more than 800 interviews with village elders, earth priests, and village chiefs that were held in six different African languages, and translated into French and English. Lentz and her fellow researchers were warmly received by the locals. "People were enthusiastic and thought what we were doing was good and important," she recalls. "The interviews often turned into regular public meetings, with young people eagerly listening to the tales of the elders."

The figure of the hunter plays an important role in establishing land rights. The hunter is often at the start of all tradition, a dauntless cultural hero, who ventures into new areas, discovers fertile land, and thus becomes the first settler. He is believed to have received the right to the land from the local deity of the earth or wilderness, with whom he made a pact. The village earth priests, whose duty it is to sacrifice to the gods of the earth to promote fertility, claim their office by descent from these first settlers and thus have privileged property rights.

Conflict resolution using stories

Regardless of how simple the tales seem, reality is often more complicated. "Ask three different families and you will get three conflicting versions," says Lentz. Being first always plays a key role, and a connection to the original founders of the settlement is important when it comes to establishing one's rights.

But what precisely makes somebody the first-comer? Should it be the person who is the first to walk on the land, the first to fish, or the first to build a house? With so many points of view, it is unsurprising that there are often disputes about the exact boundaries between village territories and family land holdings and about the extent of the rights to land that a group holds. "The settlement narrative then comes into play, since in the end consensus needs to be established with the aid of good stories," states Lentz. Sometimes, however, land owners who lack the power to convert their version of the local history and current land rights into the dominant one will simply allow others to continue to work a piece of land even if they consider that these persons are its true owners.

Gold rush and bush trails

The project team's research not only revealed interesting aspects on the local history, it was also quite eventful. "Sometimes it was a real adventure to get to some of the villages," recalls Lentz with a smile; she often rode a motor bike on narrow trails through the bush. It could have been a little more comfortable on the return journey: "The translator was on the back with the recorder and tapes and chickens to the right and left." The latter were gifts from the village inhabitants.

Dr. Katja Werthmann, one of Lentz's assistants at the time, used the project to write her professorial dissertation, but she had to modify her intended topic in the wake of unexpected local developments. Gold was discovered in the villages in which she was conducting her research, and within two weeks, more than 10,000 gold prospectors arrived. In her professorial dissertation, she thus decided to concentrate on the gold rush and the question of how land rights and local identity would be redefined as a result. She has been appointed to a professorship in Leipzig and will be taking up her post in fall 2012.

6,000 pages on their way to Burkina Faso

The anthropologists conducted the interviews between 1997 and 2002. Ten years after completion of the project, the compilation of the collected information has been finalized and it will now be made available to researchers. "Scholars all too rarely focus on African oral history; and when they do, they generally only present their academic interpretations but not the researched material itself," asserts Lentz. "We have decided to make the original material available, not least because it is part of Burkina Faso's and Ghana's intangible cultural heritage," she says.

The researchers decided not to present their material in a digital format, primarily for legal reasons and to provide for data protection. Thus 6,000 printed pages with notes, transcripts, and translations have made their way to Burkina Faso, to the country's National Archives. Thus, a piece of oral history is now documented and will be preserved for future generations. Additional copies of the volumes will be archived in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Legon, the Africana Collection of the Melville Herskovits Library at Northwestern University in Evanston (USA), the library of the Frobenius Institute at Goethe University, and, of course, the library of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at JGU.

Even though the project has been completed, Lentz will continue her work on the subject. Right now she is completing a book entitled Mobility, Land and Belonging in West Africa. It will be published in spring 2013 by Indiana University Press. And will provide further testimony on the settlement history of West Africa.