- Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana
In the over two decades of visits to Ghana and researching in the various colonial archives, Sandra Greene has finally come to terms with many of the questions that lingered in her mind as she observed the Anlo-Ewe society of southern Togo and southeastern Ghana. Greene’s previous book was on Gender, Ethnicity, and Social Changes on the Upper Slave Coast: A History of the Anlo-Ewe. But in Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter, she focused on the place of religion in Anlo-Ewe society. What is satisfying of this latter work is how the author pieced together historical information to make sense of the history of issues that could easily be left to the field of religious studies. For Greene, the question was not only about how the Anlo-Ewe interpreted their relations to the sacred landscape. The emphasis was on why specific changes in the interpretation of specific sacred sites occurred in the first place.
It must be pointed out, this early in the review, that the author did not intend Sacred Sites to be a standard historical narrative, structured to “document chapter by chapter successive sets of societal changes,” nor was it to be a comprehensive investigation about what Greene described as “the entire Anlo-Ewe landscape —of sites, sounds, images, peoples, places and spaces that were imbued with meaning and memory” (10). Rather, Anlo-Ewe relations to certain key locations once perceived to have great spiritual value were selected for the investigation. This approach of looking into a people’s explanation of their relations to nature, and most importantly of how meanings of place and space shifted over time, to reconstruct their history is similar to T. O. Ranger’s discussion in Voices from the Rocks: Nature, Culture and History in the Maptopos Hill. In that work, religious practices were given prominent place and the changes that occurred in historical associations were interpreted as linkages to a larger epistemological shift in how people came to understand themselves and their environment. In Sandra Greene’s Sacred Sites, multiple locations of significance to the Anlo-Ewe are identified and discussed. Particular attention is paid to the broader impact of German and British rule on the sacred landscape.
History and memory about the town of Notsie in south-central modern Togo is the subject of the first of this five-chapter book. Greene adumbrates the various local Notsie historic references that the Ewe-speaking peoples and even some of the non-Ewe neighbors held. Notsie was the common ancestral home for some. Archeological evidence pointed to the town as a center of commerce and of pottery production from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. Most importantly, Notsie was remembered as housing the shrine of a regional god, Mawu. Recent scholarship on Anlo-Ewe belief ascribed to Mawu attributes similar to the Christian supreme deity. For example, Professor Christian Gaba in his Scriptures of an African People: Ritual Utterances of the Anlo (1973) illustrated how supplication references to Mawu identified a supreme being in Anlo-Ewe traditions. In her “Notsie Narratives,” however, Greene argues that the concept of “supreme” that was traditionally associated with Mawu only referred to the shrine’s importance during a certain period in Anlo-Ewe history. This same distinction of being “supreme,” was shared with other shrines such as the god Se of the Ewe-speaking Agu. At another time, Dzingbe was held to be supreme, at least in the traditions of the people of Peki (14–18). Thus, Greene concludes that the contemporary memory that equated Mawu to the Christian supreme deity, and the appropriation of Notsie as an ancestral home to all Ewe-speaking peoples developed only since the mid-nineteenth century.
This transformation in Anlo-Ewe thought of Mawu and about Notsie began with contacts with the Christian missionaries of the Bremen Mission. From 1847 when they arrived at Peki till the end of WWI when British and...