Tomato sellers at Techiman’s market who are being asked to participate in one of the focus groups. Photo courtesy Henrike Florusbosch

Chiefs and Griots Making Culture

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Henrike Florusbosch


The Politics and Economics of Local Heritage Initiatives in Mali and Ghana

This contribution outlines two community-based heritage initiatives in West Africa, one in Mali and one in Ghana. These initiatives—an association dedicated to cultural activities founded by young musicians/tourist workers, and a cultural community center spearheaded by the local council of chiefs—each in their own way creatively reimagine a subset of local practices as culture and try to involve other community members in its preservation and celebration as heritage. As two data points among a host of others making up the heritage boom in Africa and elsewhere, they serve to show some of the variety in terms of which social actors are claiming heritage and how they are making culture. Together, they show different local actors who emerge as key players in heritage projects in specific contexts and how their differences shape the concept of heritage.

Acheampong (front right) leads a focus group with members of Techiman’s religious communities, including shrine priests (pictured), Roman Catholic priests, Methodist ministers and imams from the Tijaniya, Al Sunna, and Ahmadiyya mosques. Photo courtesy Henrike Florusbosch

Acheampong (front right) leads a focus group with members of Techiman’s religious communities, including shrine priests (pictured), Roman Catholic priests, Methodist ministers and imams from the Tijaniya, Al Sunna, and Ahmadiyya mosques. Photo courtesy Henrike Florusbosch

The cultural heritage landscapes of both Mali and Ghana are rich and varied. Both countries, too, are closely identified with “culture” in popular imagination, although the 2012 Malian crisis has rapidly changed its image to one associated with political unrest and militant Islam. The mosques and mausoleums of Timbuktu, recognized by UNESCO for their “outstanding universal value” and associated with an idealized, tolerant African Islam, now remind us of the potentially divisive nature of heritage. Ghana’s heritage landscape also includes polyvalent symbols, with the country’s key UNESCO inscriptions, the forts and castles along the coast, being associated with the slave trade.

Culture at the Crossroads in Techiman, Ghana

The first case is a community-engaged cultural center project in the centrally located town of Techiman, Ghana. Originally conceived as a museum celebrating the Bono cultural heritage of the Techiman region, the idea was revived a few years later at the initiative of the Traditional Council of Chief in collaboration with Raymond Silverman, a visual culture historian (Silverman 2014a, 2014b). The project was reconceptualized as a community-oriented initiative, designed to include the full range of Techiman’s cultural heritage backgrounds, and renamed “Nkwantananso,” meaning Crossroads. Still, challenges remained regarding issues of authority and ownership. The Traditional Council of Chiefs was simultaneously sponsoring the project and trying to convince Techiman’s diverse population to take ownership of it.

My involvement in the project was to locate culture from an anthropological perspective, as part of a larger effort at community outreach surrounding cultural heritage, involving archaeologists, art historians, archivists and education specialists. My counterpart Barth Opoku Acheampong, then at the National Museum of Ghana in Accra, and I held a series of focus group discussions. Like the strategic use of the term “culture,” our choices as to which groups to invite for focus groups were strategic as well. We anchored our discussions to the physical space of the market and the more conceptual space of the religious sphere, and invited people associated with these specific domains. In so doing, we had a clear rationale for seeking out people who were not part of the chiefly hierarchy, and we attempted to convey that their ideas were equally valuable. Focusing on cultural practices from people’s daily lives in the market or as part of their religious community would also, we hoped, help us move away from the association of culture with “drumming and dancing,” and hence with the chiefs and the Bono ethnic group. Finally, our effort to engage representatives of the Christian churches and Muslim mosques was to counter-act the tendency to conflate culture with (only) traditional religion, and so to overcome an important potential criticism of Nkwantananso’s effort to preserve culture as promoting “heathenism.”

Focus group participants representing three taxi drivers’ groups listen to Acheampong explaining plans for Nkwantananso. Photo courtesy Henrike Florusbosch

Focus group participants representing three taxi drivers’ groups listen to Acheampong explaining plans for Nkwantananso. Photo courtesy Henrike Florusbosch

One of the challenges was to convince people they could make a worthwhile contribution to the discussion on culture. As one tomato seller observed, “why are you coming to us if you’re interested in culture? We sell tomatoes.” Despite attempts to move away from the immediate association with chiefs, a recurrent theme throughout the focus groups, still, was that culture belongs to the chiefs. In our focus group with taxi drivers, for example, a key way in which the participants saw their own relation with culture was through their connection with the chiefs. “We are an important part of culture in Techiman, because when the chiefs need to attend a durbar, they often hire a cab to take them there.” In the end, what was striking was the extent to which focus group participants started to take up the discourse on culture, using the English term, to conceptualize ideas about salient local practices as somehow standing out from other practices and meriting this new label.

Griots as Custodians of Culture in Kela, Mali

The second case involves the association LONTA founded in Kela, Mali, in early 2012. Despite its small size, Kela is relatively famous in Mali and the scholarly world as a center of oral tradition, particularly the traditions associated with the famed founder of the Mande Empire, Sunjata Keita. Kela is home to the griots, or bards, who have as their patrons the Keita family, who claim descent from Sunjata. Mali’s Mande region boasts two inscriptions on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and the physical sites associated with both of them—“the Manden Charter proclaimed at Kurukan Fuga” and “the septennial re-roofing ceremony of the Kama Blon”—are located within walking distance of Kela. Both sites are also associated with griots as key actors in the preservation of the orally transmitted knowledge that makes up the heart of these inscriptions, as is made clear in the supporting documents prepared for UNESCO. The UNESCO recognition in 2009, crowning a process of valorization of Mande authenticity by various entities, has undoubtedly increased the already considerable prestige of the sites locally as well as nationally and internationally.

Tomato sellers at Techiman’s market who are being asked to participate in one of the focus groups. Photo courtesy Henrike Florusbosch

Tomato sellers at Techiman’s market who are being asked to participate in one of the focus groups. Photo courtesy Henrike Florusbosch

LONTA’s founding documents state that its aim is “to promote culture and socio-economic development.” Opposing the rich cultural and artistic heritage of Mande to the poverty and poor infrastructure also characterizing the region, the organization is conceived specifically as an “organization for Mande culture and music,” with as its most immediate goal securing financing to build a “center for exchange and learning” focused on music and dance. LONTA’s founding president, Ibrahima Diabate, is a young cultural entrepreneur from Kela, whose other cultural and tourism-related initiatives include a campement touristique, which his current project is seeking to transform into a cultural center for the Kela community. The emphasis on exchange (of ideas, of cultural traditions) at the heart of the proposed center is clearly recognizable in his earlier initiatives such as the Kela Music Festival.

As a local cultural association, LONTA is a small and by no means unique entity in the larger Malian heritage landscape. The founding of LONTA constitutes a new chapter in a longer history of forming associations and NGOs in Kela and the Mande region. Yet what is interesting is that in Kela, because of the village’s demographic make-up, griots predominate. The fact that Kela is a village of griots, and hence a center of oral tradition and history, is highlighted in the founding document of LONTA, and a key aspect of Diabate’s self-presentation.

Making Culture in Heritage Projects

Nkwantananso and LONTA are both interesting examples of small-scale initiatives related to cultural heritage preservation. Neither of them depends on an outside audience for its success. Equally intriguing, both started out with the assumption of needing a place for culture, yet both currently carry out their envisioned activities outside the confines of a physical structure. When it comes to conceptualizing culture, it is clear that in both cases, music and dance are taken as a primary manifestation of culture, even if the Nkwantananso project also sought to disrupt this notion. With LONTA, the link between culture and musical tradition is made through the figure of the griot, whose role is to speak, sing and provide musical entertainment. If in both cases culture is closely identified with music and dance, then, in Kela, it is griots who do the singing and dancing, while in Techiman, these activities are done for —and less frequently by—the chiefs.

LONTA grew out of Ibrahima Diabate’s earlier projects in Kela, such as Campement Fama, which offers tourist accomodation in combination with cultural programming. Photo courtesy Nienke Muurling

LONTA grew out of Ibrahima Diabate’s earlier projects in Kela, such as Campement Fama, which offers tourist accomodation in combination with cultural programming. Photo courtesy Nienke Muurling

It is worth thinking about the difference between chiefs and griots as the perceived key actors in relation to cultural heritage. In the case of Techiman, chiefs’ relationship to culture is in line with their sociopolitical dominance in other domains as well. In the case of LONTA, the fact that griots claim a unique role in culture or heritage preservation can be understood as an extension of their traditional role. This is indeed how LONTA’s founder sees his role. Rather than cultural heritage traditions residing with patrons, as in the case of Techiman’s chiefs, it is considered to reside with the traditions’ artisan-class caretakers.

The observation about chiefs versus griots as central agents in heritagization processes does not extend to the Ghanaian and Malian heritage landscapes as a whole. In Ghana, where an important part of heritage has to do with the history of slavery, there is, naturally, no significant identification of heritage and chiefs at sites such as the UNESCO recognized coastal forts and castles. Likewise, many of Mali’s recognized world heritage has no particular relationship to griots or other artisan groups, even if some, such as the masonry craft tradition in the case of Djenne, do. The larger point, though, remains: If heritage is what people make of it, then how they take up global discourses and practices of heritagization is a topic worthy of further investigation.

Henrike Florusbosch is a sociocultural anthropologist who has carried out extensive fieldwork in Mali and has been involved with a cultural heritage initiative in Techiman, Ghana. She teaches classes on religion, gender and heritage at Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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