Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa

Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa

by Carola Lentz


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Focusing on an area of the savannah in northern Ghana and southwestern Burkina Faso, Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa explores how rural populations have secured, contested, and negotiated access to land and how they have organized their communities despite being constantly on the move as farmers or migrant laborers. Carola Lentz seeks to understand how those who claim native status hold sway over others who are perceived to have come later. As conflicts over land, agriculture, and labor have multiplied in Africa, Lentz shows how politics and power play decisive roles in determining access to scarce resources and in changing notions of who belongs and who is a stranger.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253009579
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/26/2013
Pages: 348
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Carola Lentz is Professor of Social Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University.

Read an Excerpt

Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa

By Carola Lentz

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Carola Lentz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00957-9


Pushing Frontiers

The Social Organization of Mobility

"Mobility in its ubiquity is fundamental to any understanding of African social life," write Mirjam de Bruijn, Rijk van Dijk, and Dick Foeken in their introduction to a volume aptly entitled Mobile Africa. They prefer to speak of mobility rather than migration because, they argue, the latter usually implies notions of linear and unidirectional movement, a more or less definitive change of residence, and such dichotomies as home and abroad, the rural and the urban, and so forth. Ultimately, the term "migration" often carries with it an idea of rupture in society, while, in reality, in many African societies, "not being mobile may be the anomaly." As De Bruijn, van Dijk, and Foeken suggest, we should regard mobility, in its manifold forms, not as a result of "social disarray," but rather as integral, vital "part of life and of making a livelihood."

In a similar vein, Igor Kopytoff's earlier work presents a model of the "internal African frontier" that is premised on the assumption that African populations are continually on the move. Criticizing colonial (as well as postcolonial) stereotypes of Africa as "a continent mired in timeless immobility," Kopytoff argues that African societies were usually rather recent creations, forged by frontiersmen of various origins who met in open, less densely populated spaces between, or on the peripheries of, existing "metropolitan societies," as he calls established and often more hierarchically organized polities. Attracting followers from among kin, friends, clients, as well as occasionally slaves, and building on cultural traditions from their places of origin, the frontiersmen would construct new social orders "in the midst of an effective institutional vacuum." African histories, Kopytoff asserts, were "filled with the movement of the disgruntled, the victimized, the exiled, the refugees, the losers in internecine struggles, the adventurous, and the ambitious." In brief, Africa was a "frontier continent," characterized by population movements of various kinds and dimensions, ranging from long-distance displacements triggered by famines, civil wars, or other disasters to less dramatic mobility on a smaller scale due to family quarrels or lack of fertile farmland. It is for this reason that studying the internal dynamics and strategies of mobility as well as how the dynamics and strategies of different groups affect each other—the themes of this chapter—is so important.

One may question whether Kopytoff's model fits the entire continent and whether its assumption of a self-sustaining perpetual cycle of fission and fusion of "metropolitan" and "frontier" societies does not ignore long-term historical shifts in population densities and the availability of land as well as major political developments connected, for instance, to the slave trade. However, the model of the "interstitial frontier" and a focus on mobility certainly help to understand the social dynamics of the Black Volta region. This region's inhabitants indeed were, and still are, continually on the move. Partly, mobility was driven by the imperatives of an economy based on hunting and shifting cultivation, which made the continuous opening of fresh land a necessity. Partly, people moved in order to break away from pressing family conflicts or quarrels in the village, or to escape the expansionist desires of neighboring chiefdoms or the attacks of slave raiders. Further, some people were adventurous and keen to explore farther afield, to improve their livelihood as well as their social position, becoming household heads and leaders of new settlements. During the colonial period, movements were often motivated by the desire to cross the international border in order to escape the exigencies of forced labor, or punishments meted out by harsh chiefs. More recently, the need to deal with increasing land scarcity has become ever more pressing.

Forms and strategies of mobility in the Black Volta region, as in other parts of Africa, have been manifold, in precolonial times as well as today, ranging from long-distance journeys "without return" to circular migration and small-scale movements in the vicinity, when, for instance, farmers create new villages out of what were initially bush fields and thus gradually push the settlement frontier into the surrounding bush. Furthermore, these larger movements involving changes of residence have always been complemented by (sometimes preceded, and sometimes followed by) mobility on a smaller scale connected with visiting near and distant markets, marrying men or women from farther afield, pilgrimage to powerful shrines or healers, and so forth. What is fascinating, however, are the notable differences in the patterns of movement and strategies of migration between the various groups inhabiting the Black Volta region. From the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries onward, Dagara-speaking lineages were generally highly mobile and expansionist, while Sisala-speaking groups were far more sedentary. According to the latter's migration narratives, they seem to have moved over long distances due to traumatic disruptions, but once established in their new abode, they entrenched themselves without much interest in moving farther afield. Dagara-speaking groups, on the other hand, seem to have developed a pronounced ethos of frontiersmanship, and privilege mobility over sedentariness. One important reason for these different attitudes toward and patterns of mobility probably lies in the historical circumstances under which each group arrived in the region—the Sisala came first, which gave them the opportunity to chose the best ecological niches that allowed for more sedentary settlements, while many Dagara groups had to establish themselves in less favorable environments as well as continue to move into new areas.

In any case, the Black Volta region has witnessed, since the mid-eighteenth century and possibly even earlier, an impressive agricultural expansion of Dagara-speaking groups. Dagara frontiersmen occupied unpopulated bush as well as sparsely settled areas where Sisala-speaking groups, but also Phuo, Yeri, and Dyan, lived. In many cases, the expansion was peaceful and saw the linguistic and cultural assimilation of immigrants and previous inhabitants. However, there was also violence, and previous settlers were driven out by immigrating Dagara, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the incursions of Muslim slave raiders rendered large stretches of land in the Black Volta region insecure, and competition over land suitable for settlement thus intensified. Unlike the frontiersmen of expansionist centralized polities, the Dagara pioneers, belonging to a segmentary, stateless group, were not interested in establishing political control over the previous inhabitants of the territories into which they moved. They were, however, seeking to gain control over the land, materially and ritually. Following an initial phase of relatively peaceful cohabitation, this aim often involved the displacement of the previous inhabitants. In some cases, the latter were driven away under the threat of being killed; in other cases, they opted to move away "voluntarily" and sometimes even handed over the earth shrine—in which the communication with the spirits of the land crystallizes and which marks legitimate land ownership—to the Dagara immigrants. In any case, the Dagara's quest for land was more successful than the claims of these earlier inhabitants, at least until the early years of the twentieth century. And even after the circumstances of expansion changed during colonial times and the Dagara immigrants were no longer able to take control of earth shrines and thus establish themselves as full-fledged landowners, Dagara families continued, and still continue, to extend the area where they settled and farmed.

Though problematic, estimates of the size of language groups can give at least a rough idea of the demographic impact of Dagara expansion. Currently, there are well over 1 million Dagara speakers in Ghana and Burkina Faso, while the number of speakers of the various Sisala dialects is estimated at approximately 140,000, and that of Phuo and Dyan at roughly 14,000 each. Dagara settlements occupy an area of about 3,500 square kilometers in Burkina Faso and roughly the same area in Ghana. Differences in population densities, too, bear the mark of past and ongoing processes of expansion. In Ghana's Lawra District, which constitutes, so to speak, traditional Dagara heartland, population densities reach 93 persons per square kilometer, while they drop to 31 per square kilometer in Sisala West District, one of the zones into which Dagara migrants moved only more recently. In Burkina Faso's Ioba Province, where Dagara have settled since the eighteenth century, the average population density is 49 persons per square kilometer, while Sisili Province, Sisala-owned territory that currently attracts Dagara migrants, has only 21 inhabitants per square kilometer.

It would be misleading, however, to think of Dagara expansion in terms of a deliberate and collectively planned endeavor on the part of the ethnic group to conquer new territories. Dagara mobility was, and continues to be, made up of a myriad of piecemeal migrations of small groups of kin and allied patriclans. There was no overall ethno-political organization that could have mobilized large-scale collective action. And yet, the continuous colonization of new frontiers does seem to have been more than just the accidental by-product of the fission of domestic groups and individual mobility. Dagara migration-and-settlement narratives invariably emphasize the pioneer spirit of the ancestors and a more or less aggressively asserted feeling of superiority of the Dagara over the earlier inhabitants. There was a strongly developed sense of pushing the "frontier ... on the margin of the inhabited world," setting out from the "hinterland" and moving into "outlying areas which [were] both a source of danger and a coveted prize," as Ladis Kristof has characterized frontier processes. Furthermore, the Dagara frontiersmen aimed at securing larger territories not only for themselves and their immediate relatives, but for their entire patriclan. In this sense, the history of Dagara mobility can indeed be characterized as a history of expansion.

The success of expansionist stateless societies in Africa and elsewhere has been attributed to their effective sociopolitical and, by implication, military organization. Marshall Sahlins, for instance, considered the segmentary lineage system to be an "organization of predatory expansion." He attributed the "fantastic predatory encroachment" of societies like the Tiv or the Nuer on their neighbors to the ability of their flexible political system, based on the principle of "segmentary opposition," to make different lineage segments temporarily combine forces. However, as other authors have shown, the territorial expansion of segmentary societies was usually a gradual process that involved temporary skirmishes and raids along the settlement frontier, but no full-fledged wars. In the Black Volta region, small-scale armed conflicts between Dagara patriclans and settlements were as frequent as conflicts along ethnic boundaries on the frontiers, and violence was used only intermittently. However, the psychological and social effects of occasional strategic acts of violence on the population of a larger area should not be underestimated.

Some authors have explained expansionist movements by using a wave model of invasions and expulsions. According to this model, several societies move in the same direction, following each other, exerting pressure on the one in front while each is itself pushed by the one following. It is not only historians explaining early European history who use this kind of chain-reaction model of Völkerwanderungen; the population in the Black Volta region sometimes views its history in similar terms. The "wave" model is popular because it has the advantage of explaining a number of multifaceted phenomena within a single causal frame, but it does not do justice to the complexity of population movements and offers a rather mechanistic ex post facto rationalization.

We may still want to ask whether, in the case of the Dagara, "external" events—and if so, which ones—set the expansion in motion. Generally the motif of slave raiding or other violent conflicts as reasons for migration is much less prevalent in Dagara narratives than in stories told by Sisala and Phuo. Dagara accounts usually put more emphasis on the lack of cultivable land or on small-scale internal conflicts. However, the absence of contemporary and explicit sources does not allow a definite answer. In the settlement narratives that local Sisala and Dagara elders present today, episodes of violent expulsions, akin to the wave model, coexist with accounts of peaceful cohabitation of different groups or of the voluntary departure of the previous inhabitants. In order to understand these apparent contradictions, we need to know more about how the expansionist movement operated, how it was organized internally, and how the relations between Dagara immigrants and earlier inhabitants developed. Historical developments in the wider region may have propelled migration here and there, although they are rarely remembered, but they cannot account for the extraordinary strength of the Dagara expansion.

This chapter therefore examines the internal dynamics and strategies of territorial expansion, and the relationships between the Dagara frontiersmen and the Sisala first-comers whom they encountered in the areas east of the Black Volta. It focuses on the forces and factors that encouraged, or inhibited, mobility, and compares Dagara and Sisala cultural ideals as well as practices of migration and settlement. Why and how did they move, and how did they appropriate the unknown territories into which they moved? Under what conditions did the initially peaceful cohabitation of Dagara immigrants and earlier settlers turn into the forcible expulsion of the latter by the former? And how did Dagara strategies of mobility, and Sisala resistance to Dagara encroachment, change under colonial rule and after independence? After some general considerations on the expansion of segmentary societies and the challenges of the frontier, I explore these questions in three chronologically arranged case studies. The first traces the movements of a particular kin group and analyzes the long series of precolonial migrations of the Kusiele patriclan. The second focuses on the gradual colonization of a specific area, namely the region of Ouessa, by Dagara immigrants in the course of the nineteenth century. Finally, the third analyzes a case of recent and still ongoing peaceful immigration of Dagara hoe-farmers into Sisala territory, and looks at the making of a migrant community under conditions of restricted access to land. In all three cases, politics of memory are central to the creation of a sense of belonging and the construction of community in a context of mobility. The chapter therefore also examines how the expansion process is reflected in, and aided by, narratives of migration and settlement that propagate certain ideals of masculinity and frontier spirit, and that support the creation of new ties of neighborhood.

Pioneers and Followers: Coping with the Challenges of the Frontier

In the settlement process, Dagara and Sisala encountered similar challenges and had similar cultural ideals with respect to finding adequate solutions to these challenges. They shared the idea that first-comership entailed specific rights over the land (and its inhabitants); that attracting many followers to a newly founded settlement was desirable; and that settlements needed the spiritual protection of an earth shrine. However, depending on the different contexts in which their respective migrations took place, the strategies that the Dagara and Sisala actually employed on the settlement frontier differed. Most important, they valued (and continue to value today) mobility in different ways. Before turning to the common challenges of the frontier, therefore, a few remarks on their different attitudes toward mobility and sedentariness are in order. At this point, I limit myself to briefly sketching out a phenomenology of these different ideals; later, I discuss the different historical experiences that they embody.


Excerpted from Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa by Carola Lentz. Copyright © 2013 Carola Lentz. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Pushing Frontiers: The Social Organisation of Mobility
2. Staking Claims: Earth Shrines, Ritual Power and Property Rights
3. Setting Boundaries, Negotiating Entitlements: Contested Borders and ‘Bundles’ of Rights
4. Ethnicity, Autochthony and the Politics of Belonging
5. History vs. history: Contemporary Land Conflicts in a Context of Legal and Institutional Pluralism

What People are Saying About This

Roskilde University - Christian Lund

Important in the sense that it constitutes a detailed historical study of how complex narratives of belonging and notions of property interlock. . . . It is academic work of the first order.

Johns Hopkins University - Sara Berry

Illuminates the distinctive historical trajectory of land claims, authority, and belonging among the Dagara and Sisala peoples of the Black Volta region, and locates this specific case history within broader debates over transformation in access, use, and control over land in colonial and postcolonial Africa.

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