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Ghana Studies v.7 (2004) pp. 11-24. EARTH SHRINES AND THE POLITICS OF MEMORY IN DAGBON Wyatt MacGaffey Haverford College he national myth of Dagbon, in the Northern Region of Ghana, has been accepted as historically true not only by Dagombas but, almost without exception, by historians. A critique is overdue. I do not propose to tell the “true” history of Dagbon but to construct an alternative myth as a critical and heuristic device. The academic context for this critique is the gradual evolution of the approach historians of Africa have taken with regard to the origins and structures of African kingdoms. The essence of my critique will be to try to reintegrate politics with religion, and religion with politics. The national myth tells how Sitobu separated from the other sons of Na Gbewa, founders of the Moshe, Mamprusi and other kingdoms, and came to the vicinity of Diare in what is now western Dagbon. His son Na Nyagse was hoeing his field one day when an idea came to him. Abandoning his hoe in the field, where it still lies, he went out and slaughtered the tendaanas (“fetish priests”), the custodians of the Earth who were the only leaders of the indigenous people in their scattered villages. Na Nyagse replaced the tendaanas with his own relatives, and so created the kingdom of Dagbon with its capital at what is now the village of Dipali, near which are the ruins of an immense palace called Yenn’Dabari, “the ruins of Yendi.” Because the shrines of the Earth were still necessary to the well-being of the kingdom, a dual regime came into existence, with political power in the hands of the invaders, and spiritual power in those of the indigenous inhabitants, the Dagbon Sabla or Black Dagombas. This story of immigration, invasion, conquest and state-formation is similar to many told not only by other Mole-Dagbani speakers in northern Ghana but in Central Africa and elsewhere. In these stories, too, the outcome of the invasion is a division of labor between invader chief and the invaded priest, who legitimates the conquest by ritually installing the chief. During the colonial period, historians seized upon the stories, understanding the invaders as racially superior to “barbarous tribes” and T WYATT MACGAFFEY 12 therefore better able to construct “organized governments”—the terms are those of G. E. Ferguson, a Ghanaian whom the Gold Coast government sent to the Northern Territories in 1892 to arrange treaties with local chiefs. As R. S. Rattray (1932:xii) put it in 1930 “Upon these more or less autonomous people with their very primitive institutions descended small bands of strangers within comparatively recent historical times. They were better clothed, familiar with the idea of Kingship or chieftainship in our modern sense, in some cases conversant with the rudiments of Mohammedanism.” In the view of J. G. Frazer, discussing the Mossi, it was only “natural,” that the political head of the aborigines would be relegated to religious functions (quoted in Goody 1971:65). This understanding of pre-colonial history, setting up what Rattray himself called “a dual-mandate of warrior chiefs and tendaanas,” represents such conquests as precursors of the European occupation of Africa and an inevitable stage in social evolution. It has been incorporated in the modern ideology of Dagbon, for example in the work of Ibrahim Mahama, the leading political figure in the kingdom, who quotes Rattray and others of the period to this effect. It is now impossible to disentangle the kingdom as it was from the European invention of it. In the 1960’s and ‘70’s historians abandoned the racial component but continued to accept without much question indigenous stories of stateformation resulting from conquest. They also retained their predecessors emphasis on what McCaskie calls the motive of material self-interest on the part of state-builders, discounting culture, belief and religion. The resulting “barebones political history” favored elites and tended to take for granted as politically passive the societies that supported them (McCaskie 1995:469). In the modern history of Dagbon, by a kind of collusion between the Dagomba aristocracy and the practitioners of indirect rule, the kingdom has been represented as...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2333-7168
Print ISSN
1536-5514
Pages
pp. 11-24
Launched on MUSE
2019-10-31
Open Access
No
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