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Review of Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana


By James Gibbs

Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana by Sandra E. Greene. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indiana, 2002. 200pp. ISBN 025321521517X, £15.00 (pb).

A professor of African History at Cornell and a past president of the African Studies Association, Sandra E. Greene has spent some twenty-five years trying to find out how the people of Anloga, in the Volta region of Ghana, understood and understand ‘the physical and spiritual landscapes in which they lived’.

While her title suggests she is offering a wide-ranging study of a nation, Greene has, in fact, provided depth rather than breadth. Potential purchasers should be warned: Greene writes about a town situated between the Keta Lagoon and the sea. She makes excellent use of missionary and colonial records, of wide reading, of field notes collected over a long period, and of extended essays written by undergraduates in institutions of higher education in Ghana. The heart of her book is succinct, covering 137 pages. This is followed by evidence of serious scholarship: 34 pages of notes, a fifteen-page bibliography, and a ten-page index.

Trying to find out what people believe is very difficult, and when an historical dimension is given to this task, the detective work required is particularly complex. Difficulties increase when the written sources available are largely from colonial or missionary archives. However, by focusing on ‘sites’, on sacred spots, and on public demonstrations, whether at festivals or in protests, Greene has identified a means of beginning to define elusive attitudes.

Lest her approach should be oversimplified, she refers to Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic and through reference to that study reminds readers of the complexity of the academic tradition and community in which she exists. In writing about the Anlo Ewe, her tone is tentative and guarded. The following extract from her concluding chapter draws attention to the focus of her study of change in Anlo Ewe beliefs and illustrates the circumspect manner in which she presents  her findings. She writes:

‘…while some older beliefs and practices have been modified or abbreviated, others have undergone more profound change. Among many in Anlo, for example, the body is still understood to be subject to external spiritual intervention through sorcery. But belief in the ability of the spiritual aspects of the body to affect the self and others has virtually disappeared. Witchcraft accusations are virtually nonexistent in contemporary Anlo. Faith in the reality of reincarnation (where the spiritual content of the living body is understood in certain instances to be that which had previously occupied the body of a deceased relative) has become so uncommon that diviners complain bitterly about the lack of interest in their services.’

The repetition of ‘virtually’ reinforces a position, already established by ‘some’ and ‘more’ in the first sentence quoted. The reference to diviners provides a useful marker: the diviners complain, but they are still in business and their complaints should be assessed along with the complaints of others in similar positions.

The concentration on ‘sites’ may explain why Greene does not respond adequately to the work of a towering Anlo Ewe intellect, a writer whose work is familiar to many and who had an impact on Anloga. Greene refers only in passing to F. K. Fiawoo whose best-known play, The Fifth Landing Stage (published 1943 in English), abounds with references to Anlo history, beliefs and practices past and present. The opportunity to mine Fiawoo’s text, and indeed his life work as educationist, academic, politician and lodge member, is passed up, and with it the opportunity to move from vague generalisation to precise definition. In the bibliography Fiawoo’s major play is credited to his son, who shares an initial as well as a surname, D.K. Fiawoo.  This is a pity, but given her exhaustive research and the fascinating account Greene has produced, a minor blemish on a remarkable piece of work.


[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 65 (2003), pp. 74-75]

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