C. Lentz u.a.: Imagining Futures

Imagining Futures. Memory and Belonging in an African Family

Lentz, Carola; Lobnibe, Isidore
Anzahl Seiten
296 S.
$ 40.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Deborah James, Anthropology, London School of Economics

What does it mean to belong to a family? Do family habits and memories enrich or stultify? What happens when some relatives advance while others lag behind? This co-authored book provides answers to some of these questions. It also represents an original and innovative solution to many of the conundrums that have dogged anthropologists and historians for years. Anxieties about power imbalances, and ethical quandaries about the right to represent others are not easy to resolve. But this monograph, co-authored by Carola Lentz, Senior Professor of Anthropology at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, and Isidore Lobnibe, Professor of Anthropology at Western Oregon University, with the active collaboration of Stanislas Bemile, a scholar of information and communication science, is a step forward on the road to tackling these questions. It is the product of extensive collaboration – over several years and culminating in a joint fellowship at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2018–2019 – between these and other members of a large and extended family that has lived its life on either side of the border between Northern Ghana and Burkina Faso: a family to which Lobnibe and Bemile belong “by birth” and into which Lentz was adopted as “sister” during her post-doctoral study on labour migration and ethnicity in West Africa.

What many families have likely experienced – and what family members might be prompted to think back on at key moments like birthdays, weddings and funerals – is a seesawing between moments of harmonious togetherness and occasions when jealous rivalries and conflict prevail. This book documents how the descendants of Yob – the alleged (but not undisputed) founding ancestor – are no exception. But what makes them rather more unusual is the sheer reach of their extended kinship network. In 2016, no fewer than 500 of them came together for a “homecoming festival”, as the Introduction explains. This event sets the scene for the book’s investigation of how that family has changed – and how its members’ various ways of commemorating its history have transformed – over the course of a century.

A central concern in this family was how to preserve its unity “in the face of increasingly diverse lifestyles and levels of prosperity, resulting from different levels of access to schooling and diverse educational trajectories” (p. 144). Many important changes were wrought by colonial influences, including the increasing prevalence of world religions (primarily Christianity) and the provision of education. These enabled upward mobility for certain individuals or branches of the family. Retrospective stories tell about how different relatives contended to be the one who first converted to the new faiths to which other family members later adhered. In one case here, the ordination of a bishop left others hoping they would be able to live up to his reputation. Aspirations to education have seen individuals retrospectively framing their careers and family stories, narrating dramatic turning points and changes of fortune. Becoming literate enabled certain family members to push forward their memorialisation using written documents of various kinds. Different family branches made divergent decisions on who would be educated and who (often girls) held back to maintain the homestead. Memories are pervaded by notions of hard work and merit but also of good luck (and gratitude to other family members for support, including across the generations, and with a strong sense of the obligation to “pay back” for that support or help other relatives to become educated in turn). For those who turned out to be less fortunate, envy and competition are prevalent themes. Stan Bemile, the third collaborator on the project, felt obliged to honour his father’s efforts by succeeding, thus “showing” his father’s critics and defending his reputation (p. 157). Upward mobility often also involved leaving the village in search of wider opportunities, but new “family scripts” were being created to reconcile these ambitions with wider family unity: future-oriented yet still rooted in ancestral tradition and moral obligations to kin (p. 162). In some cases, to uphold family unity, but also in an unspoken fear that lack of acknowledgement could result in a curse or other forms of spiritual malaise, narratives suggest recognition of those who had not been educated. Their morals and homespun “wisdom” are honoured, and mere book learning is repudiated.

These upwardly mobile trajectories and aspirations to middle-class status threaten to take people away from the family, both geographically and emotionally. As chapter 7 shows, “urban nostalgia for ancestral traditions" can be the result. Seemingly backward-looking, such longings for heritage, the authors show, are “not necessarily opposed to modernity but coeval with it” (in the words of Boym, cited here on p 168). The home for which many migrants and immigrants express a longing can thus be prospective and future-oriented as much as, or more than, they are located in past experience. In such a case, the “home” associated with one’s family roots proves to be an entire district, even a country, rather than a village, and can be a “metaphor for having a place in the world, of belonging and being rooted” (p. 168). The experience of Paul Bemile, the family member who in 1995 was ordained by the Catholic Church as third bishop of the diocese of Wa, exemplifies this process. He spoke of the pain of having to leave his family in order to study elsewhere. When he eventually returned “home” this was to the area in general rather than the place of his family. Echoing a common trope when placing religious leaders, to phrase home in these broader terms was essential in order to transcend accusations of ethnic or family favouritism. This also enabled the bishop to plant Catholicism in local vernacular knowledge but only in its pure, blameless aspects. Thus, for example, he rejected family traditions viewed as regressive and unchristian, such as polygyny, FGM, and allegedly “wasteful” funerary practices. His own ways of remembering family history were mediated through biblical narratives of suffering, but these were merged with Dagara foundation myths. Attracting hundreds of kin, as mourners, from across the region, the funeral of Catherine Bemile, a prominent Christian and mother of Bishop Paul, illustrates in detail the competitive tournament of prestige that such occasions have become. Middle-class people who have long moved away from a village of their own or perhaps even their forebears’ origin will make sure to have their wishes to be buried “at home” respected by their offspring, however far afield they may currently be residing.

Chapter 9 gives a nuanced account of the possible segmentations that – perhaps inevitably – dog attempts to create and celebrate family unity. These go beyond emerging class distinctions attendant on divergent levels of education and professional attainment, to a possibly even more divisive factor: that of generation. Coming full circle from the homecoming festival of the Introduction, the chapter tells of a homecoming which the family’s youth tried to arrange but which ultimately failed. Co-ordinating much of it through social media, they also wanted to keep the elders on board but were unable to secure their agreement. The youths later turned passive and were unwilling to help organise any subsequent event. There were also many disagreements over what name to use, which was the founding ancestor to honour, which family branches merited inclusion, as well as over who had more and who fewer resources to commit to the enterprise. Committing to a single unitary founding ancestor and line of inheritance (necessary especially for those no longer in the village and unable to tap into oral traditions) simply created further divisions over which line to privilege and which to eclipse. The result of this initially energetic but later apathetic contribution to family memorialisation “is not a unified version but rather a collection of bits and pieces of information about the extended family’s past and present life”. By contrast, the authors write, “putting together an authoritative account of family history and documenting it in writing […] raises questions of authority, veracity and one-sidedness and remains a contested project”. It seems as though, by definition, there can never be a definitive version of such a diffuse and widespread phenomenon as a multi-generational family.

Chapter 10 concludes the book by reflecting on the divergent perspectives of the author/ collaborators. It reiterates the point that “not only our sources and knowledge on genealogy differed but also our individual perspectives on family history and understandings of what family actually meant – or for that matter should mean – were different” (p. 234). It emphasises that family, on the one hand, seems to have an “essence” but, on the other, is negotiable and porous. Even the positions taken by the collaborators, initially distinct, shifted over time. Of the three of them, one seemed to be the traditionalist, another the mythmaker, and a third a “constructivist” – but these positions morphed as the project progressed. The chapter explores how ancestral-oriented, pre-conversion forms of memorialising gave way to conversion narratives, and looks at how, over time, photos and other documents came to be used. Ultimately, the interweaving of Lentz’s and Lobnibe’s perspectives makes this an experiment that cannot be easily tied to strident denunciations of “colonialism” and of “cultural appropriation”.

The narrative arc and analysis of the book is helpfully buttressed and illuminated by cogent literatures on social mobility, memory, and family history: we are shown, for example, how “family time” intersects, but does not simply merge, with the objective time of historical events. Overall, the book is a grippingly personal, yet analytically cogent, biography of a unit whose existence is testified to by the affections, deliberations and practices of its members, yet is undermined as its membership becomes progressively larger and more diverse. It will fascinate – and prove instructive to – students of anthropology, history and social sciences more generally, in Africa and beyond.

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