Contested identities: the history of ethnicity in northwestern Ghana

  • Carola Lentz


My case study of northwestern Ghana analyses how ethnic categories, boundaries and institutions were created and continually defined anew by colonial officials, missionaries, anthropologists, chiefs, migrant workers and educated elites in a region which in the pre-colonial period was neither politically centralised nor knew distinct ‘tribes’.1 The effectiveness of ethnic discourses is based on the fact that they transfer the emotional power of categories such as ‘family’, ‘village’ and ‘home’ on to larger communities. By claiming to be primordial and non-negotiable, because defined through birth, an ethnic identity creates bindedness, permanence and thus security. But it also excludes, producing need and insecurity. Yet the exact boundaries of this quasi-natural community, and the specific properties and practices with which an ethnic identity is connoted, are extraordinarily malleable according to interests and context, though certainly only within the framework of historically available ‘materials’. In the research underlying this chapter the concern above all is with the history of the different interpretations of ethnic boundaries and contents, and the political conflicts bound up with them. I am concentrating especially on the linkages of ethnic with other collective identities and the relations of tension between territorial and linguistic-cultural definitions of ethnic boundaries.2


Ethnic Identity Migrant Worker Gold Coast Ethnic Category Administrative Reform 
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© Carola Lentz 2000

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  • Carola Lentz

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