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  • Writing and Colonialism in Northern Ghana: The Encounter between the LoDagaa and the ‘World on Paper’
  • Gariba B. Abdul-Korah
Writing and Colonialism in Northern Ghana: The Encounter between the LoDagaa and the ‘World on Paper’. By Sean Hawkins. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Writing and Colonialism in Northern Ghana focuses on the “interconnectedness of writing and colonialism” among those whom the author terms the “LoDagaa” of the then Lawra District of Ghana. Deploying a wide range of insights from disciplines including history, colonial studies, anthropology, cultural studies and postcolonial studies, Hawkins examines the history and impact of the relationship between the “LoDagaa” and colonialism as understood through the medium of writing in eight well-crafted chapters (in four parts) each addressing a different aspect of the problem. The uniqueness of the book lies in its detail — the arguments that he brings to bear on his analysis. Unlike many other studies about colonialism and colonial exploitation in Africa, Writing and Colonialism is a tightly focused localized study that goes beyond broad generalizations to explore the cultural aspects of colonialism through “an important yet neglected aspect of colonialism” — writing (10). The author laments that it is unfortunate that “cultural contact” has been neglected “as a paradigm for understanding colonialism in Africa” (17).

Hawkins begins his discussion with a very dense “introduction” which attempts to explain his analytical framework and put the main themes of the book into a context under a single unifying theme - “the role of writing in the invention of a people…in their appropriation by their conquerors during the colonial period…” (5). In part one (1) the author discusses how the colonial state used writing to name, invent, appropriate, and rule the “LoDagaa”, and how these names affected their sense of identity. Emphasizing the role of writing as a weapon rather than a mere symbol, Hawkins argues that even though the physical conquest of the “LoDagaa” was important in the establishment of colonialism, it “tell us little about how colonial rule was both effected and experienced” (3) but through writing, the colonial state “create[d] an illusory sense of control” which had definite consequences on “the relationship between the LoDagaa and the external world” (14).

Part two (2) concerns the invention of chiefs by the colonial state and attempts by the clergy during the postcolonial period to legitimize the past about “LoDagaa” religiosity against what the early missionaries had said about these people. These twin developments, the author notes, led to the rewriting of the past to legitimize changes introduced by the colonial state, and catholic priests “to dehistoricize religious syncretism” (160) creating “neotraditionalism.” Part three (3) explores the ways in which changes that were wrought by the ‘world on paper’ — methods of settling disputes, responses to the tyranny of chiefs; missionary medicine and reactions to colonial money shaped the ways in which “LoDagaa” experienced cultural and social space, and argues that these changes “were experienced spatially rather than temporally” (166).

In Part four (4) Hawkins examines the most contentious and problematic issues in “LoDagaa” society —social relationships including marriage and conjugal payments, status of women in society, adultery, and the transformations that took place as a result of British colonization. Here, the author explores how “LoDagaa” women negotiated the complex socioeconomic and political forces of colonialism especially the collaboration between chiefs, elderly men, and the colonial state to control them. While recognizing the importance of patriarchy among the “LoDagaa”, the author argues that “LoDagaa” women were able to manipulate the system to their advantage even though the lack of attention given to them in the courts “ignored the agency they enjoyed outside the courts” (229). Hawkins’ study is therefore not only one of the few to provide insights into gender and generational relations in the district, but it also contributes to the attempts by social historians to historicize the process of how colonial patriarchy conspired with its African counterpart to oppress women and junior men.

Despite these strengths, the book has a number of problems. The first and most important is that the author relies extensively on the works and definitions of other Western scholars, especially Jack Goody, and by so doing, he ends...

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