Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa by Carola Lentz (review)
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Reviewed by
Carola Lentz, Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. 348 pp.

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In recent times, the nested issues of access to land, political authority, and collective identities have become increasingly contested in much of Africa. The tension that surrounds these issues is not surprising, as land-related matters are at the heart of property and power in most agrarian societies. Together, they generate a series of struggles around who should be entitled to own property where and how; over what should be seen as constituting legitimate claims; over which communities may make such claims; and over the mechanisms that define access to and control over land.

Carola Lentz’s impressive book, Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa, takes the long view on these issues. It examines how notions of property and belonging have evolved over the longue durée—since the late 18th century—among two communities in the Black Volta region in northwestern Ghana and south-western Burkina Faso. The book is the outcome of Lentz’s work in the region over the last two decades, and draws on nearly 200 interviews, conducted mainly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as non-narrative sources used to map migration and settlement.

As a result of the social and political tensions associated with these issues, they have become the subject of a huge and growing academic literature across the social sciences and humanities. Lentz’s main contributions to this extensive debate are to extend its historical perspective, and to situate the processes of claiming and contesting property and belonging in a context marked by spatial mobility—to analyze “the difficulties involved in delineating the boundaries of an immobile resource such as land in a context of mobility and multilocality” (146). How can territorial and social boundaries be effectively established across space and over [End Page 1325] time when individuals and communities are on the move, and in contexts where there is no (or only limited) presence of a superordinate political authority to impose rules?

The main argument of Land, Mobility, and Belonging in West Africa is that the processes of establishing control over land and people rest, just as they do anywhere, on a combination of coercion and consent, but that under conditions of mobility—because of the fluidity of political authority—persuasive narratives become particularly significant in justifying the links between people, property, and places. The narratives that have proven to be most powerful for these purposes, Lentz argues, are those that invoke first-coming, and the book examines how claims to first-coming have been constructed, accepted, and rejected under changing circumstances. Claims to recognition may be thought of as drawing on two ideal-typical legitimating devices: property through discovery and property through labor, narrative strategies typically associated with first-comers and late-comers, respectively. This is explored empirically through a study of how two communities, the first-coming Sisala and the late-coming Dagara, have justified presence, access, and control in relation to one another.

The book is organized into five chapters, each of which revolves around a theme while also pushing the chronological narrative forward. The first chapter examines spatial mobility and links the past to the present by analyzing how narratives of migration and settlement structure the politics of memory. The Sisala emphasis on long-term residential stability is contrasted to the frontier-mentality of the Dagara. Patterns of mobility have given rise to different grounds for legitimating territorial control. The second chapter turns to the challenges of creating social orders and sanctioning claims. Here, Lentz demonstrates how earth shrines and earth priests have been important institutions in bringing together the material and spiritual dimensions of land claims. Chapter 3 discusses the territorialization of property rights, and the challenges that arise from seeking to uphold such territorialization over time in contexts of competing notions of legitimate claims.

Competing claims concern not only territorial demarcation, but also the question of which community has the right to control the territory in question. Chapter 4 analyzes how property has been used to define the boundaries of belonging. Lentz interrogates how identity boundaries shifted from pre-colonial...