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Africa Today 50.3 (2004) 142-144

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Berry, Sara, S. 2001. Chiefs Know Their Boundaries: Essays On Property, Power, and the Past In Asante, 1896-1996. Portsmouth, Oxford, Cape Town: Heinemann, James Currey, David Philip. 226 pp. $24.95.

The success of development in any country requires a clear understanding of the processes of social and cultural transformation and of variables that influence this transformation in the country. Though much information about the emergence and development of the modern state of Ghana is available, the cultural and social circumstances of the country's development are yet to be thoroughly understood. Sara Berry's recent book presents much-needed insights into the dynamics of social, economic and political change that have been associated with land-tenure issues among the Asante of Ghana since the late nineteenth century.

Drawing on data gathered in Ghana from 1993 to 1994 and from other valuable sources, Berry systematically traces the role of land claims and the exercise of such claims in the distribution of authority, wealth, and power in [End Page 142] rural and urban Asante. She identifies the meaning of property rights among the Asante, and shows the kinds of linkages that negotiations of these rights engendered between the modern state system and the development of Asante society. Her work reveals that among the Asante, land is owned and administered, not in relation to a set of rules and enforcement mechanisms, but as a social process by which core elements of culture, kinship, and other social relations are recalled, redefined, and reinforced. Chiefs and families use claims and the exercise of claims to this property to negotiate authority, wealth, and power through legal proceedings that involve the manipulation of oral and written accounts of history and customary practices.

Berry's work provides excellent details of the influence of the British colonial administration in the Gold Coast on the emergence and development of the Asante confederacy, the rise of social classes within the confederacy, and on relationships between Asante chiefs and their subjects. It informs, for example, that the administration actively supported the creation of the confederacy, the rise to power of chiefs, who were favorably disposed to British economic interests, and vested all lands in black stools, the symbol of Asante traditional authority. These were part of a strategy by which the administration sought to gain and control access to land, advance its economic interests, and to expand its power and jurisdiction among the Asante. Notwithstanding customary practices, legal and judicial systems that were established by the administration provide an alternative forum that is conveniently used by Asante chiefs and their subjects to contest and exercise land claims. The Asante people also use the forum to hold their chiefs accountable, and to check the use of power, authority and trust invested in them.

By defining the relationship between Ghana's institution of chieftaincy, property rights, and the expansion of Western European economic and political systems in Asante since the nineteenth century, Berry's work explains clearly how the authority and power of Asante chiefs and the chieftaincy institution at large have been directly linked to land administration and its associated wealth. The work offers a framework for understanding the rejuvenation of the institution of chieftaincy and the proliferation of chieftaincy and land disputes across Ghana following the country's adoption of a free-market economic dispensation in the 1980s and democratic governance in the 1990s. Thus, the prevalence of land-related conflict and the failure of government to successfully implement comprehensive land reforms in present-day Ghana, for example, can be accounted for in terms of the intrinsic relationship between land, kinship and other aspects of the social and cultural behavior of Ghanaians, in addition to the quest by some chiefs and citizens for wealth and power.

The book is an excellent example of research that draws on multiple sources of data and covers a wide range of issues that relate to political economy, history, customary practice, conflict resolution, globalization, and cultural resilience in Ghana. It provides information...


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