Family History as Family Enterprise?
A Wissenschaftskolleg Focus Group’s Views of a West African Family
By Carola Lentz, Isidore Lobnibe, and Stanislas Meda
Family history as family enterprise: this is the title under which the journalist Manuela Lenzen recently published an article on research on family history being undertaken by our focus group at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin since September 2017. We are a group of three scholars: Isidore Lobnibe, a Ghanaian anthropologist, teaching at Western Oregon University, US; Stanislas Meda, a filmmaker, scholar of media studies and retired State Secretary of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Burkina Faso; and Carola Lentz, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Mainz, Germany. What is specific about our group? We are not only scholars working together, from our respective disciplinary backgrounds, on the history and present challenges of African families, but also members of the extended family whose politics of memory and belonging we study. Carola was adopted into the family back in 1987; Stan is Carola’s junior brother, and Isidore their nephew. At the Wissenschaftskolleg, Isidore and Carola are working on a joint book project with the working title Imagining Futures: Memory and Belonging in an African Family. Stan, for his part, is producing a film essay entitled Bio bir: Seed of the Future, using documentary footage on many family ceremonies that he and his media colleagues have filmed since the 1990s.
The extended family we are studying comprises some five hundred persons, depending on how one defines family membership, and belongs to the ethnic group of the Dagara. The family’s original homestead is located in Hamile, in North-Western Ghana, close to the border with Burkina Faso. About a century ago, the family had moved to Hamile from a nearby village in Burkina Faso, and most of its members were still farmers. Today, family members are dispersed throughout the major cities of Ghana, Burkina Faso and beyond, and they pursue a wide range of professions. What keeps the family together, and what role does the memory of family history play for cohesion and a sense of belonging? These questions are the centre of our work.
Living and working together as a focus group at the Wissenschaftskolleg for an entire year has provided us with a unique opportunity to meet as family members and scholars. It has allowed us to get to know each other much better than before and to exchange experiences and viewpoints. In this blog, we respond to questions posed to us by the journalist on the changing dynamics of the family with which were either raised or associated, giving some insight into our different starting points, elucidating our distinct perspectives on ‘family’ and reflecting on the way the family history echoes larger historical transformations in Ghana, Burkina Faso and beyond. Manuela Lenzen’s interview with us, which took place in the early phases of our work in Berlin, has allowed us to think through some of the implicit assumptions that we brought to our joint enterprise. This first blog presents excerpts from this interview. In a second blog contribution, we will report on how our original research projects and initial ideas have evolved in the course of the year at the Wissenschaftskolleg.
Manuela Lenzen: May I start with a very simple question. What is a family for you?
Isidore Lobnibe: I think I want you, Stan and Carola, to start. I am the youngest. I want them to speak first (laughter).
Stanislas Meda: Ok, thank you very much. For me, family is first of all a person, a person who will be a founder, and then many people come together with him, his sons, his grandchildren and then marriages. He will have a lot of people who are trying to have cohesion between them, so that they will work together, moving in the same way into the future. For me this is what I consider as the family.
Isidore: I would answer your question at two levels, as an anthropologist, but also as a member of the family, from the perspective of lived experience. In the anthropological sense, we can look at a family in terms of genealogical relations and affiliations. In our context, the family can be conceptualised in terms of a house, where you have people who are not necessarily related biologically, but for some reason can trace relations through a common ancestor or a mystical ancestor. Besides this anthropological perspective, I am also looking at family as a social reality or something that I experience as a member of the family. As a member of a family, you are constantly reminded of your position within a given family. This could be in terms of genealogy, gender or age group. Of course, you can use idioms of kinship, but all of this must be concretised when people meet in their daily interaction.
Carola Lentz: Everything has been said (laughter). I would just build on both ideas. One thing is clear: when we are talking about family here, we are talking of more than the nuclear family. We are talking of a larger extended family. We are thinking of the founder as someone who has not only had his own sons, but there are also the sons of his brothers and so forth, and then it becomes this extended family system whose members may not live together in one place. Creating an ancestor is part of creating cohesion among an increasingly socially diversified and geographically dispersed group of people.
My own interest in the family grew from biographical experiences. I was adopted into Stan and Isidore’s family in 1987, although such a thing traditionally does not quite exist in the Dagara context where we work. This happened in a period of my life when I discovered, or rather my mother disclosed to me, that my social father was not my biological father, which I hadn’t known. Cutting a long story short, it was that summer that I went to Africa and was adopted by Stan’s father, who said that he is now my African father. Two years earlier, I had one father only, thinking that it was a very simple family history, and now I ended up with three fathers. None of it was voluntary, and this is important for the concept of family. That is what distinguishes family from friendships. Family is something we do not choose. To a certain extent, we either choose to activate it or to sideline it or whatever. But the claim that goes with family is always that it is something more binding. And the binding can come from an idea of biology, of descent, but also an idea of spiritual connectedness or an idea that the ancestor put down some principle and that principle is sort of trickling down so that members of a family share a certain character or a personality. I think it is these two elements that Stan and Isidore have mentioned: it is the element of active doing, which includes some measure of choice, and it is the element of givenness, of belonging beyond negotiation.
Manuela: Is it always clear who belongs to which family, or can you belong to two families? Do you have to decide: “I am part of this house or part of that house”?
Isidore: I think that is part of the questions that we are trying to analyse. The fact that people have their lineages is very clear. People are able to trace their lineage from an ancestor they know. But, of course, they are also selecting key individuals for some pragmatic reasons. Only if the founders of certain lineages are perceived to be very influential do people willingly trace descent from them. Identifying the founder is part of the myth-making, of the memory-making of families.
Stan: It is a question of creating a memory. It may be Nada or Gerardo Baa-ire or Yob [some of the forefathers in Hamile], the most important thing is to bring out somebody who can be a point of reference, of connection for all these people who are now there and who will say: “Okay, we were there, we are now here, and these are our roots and we are moving towards a shared future.”
The larger story
Carola: Maybe I can just add an explanation. We are dealing with origins in a village that is at the border between Burkina Faso and Ghana. And the house where Yob, one of the ancestors, eventually settled is on what is now the Ghana side of the border. Before borders even existed, the Dagara farmers were quite mobile. Then came the colonial border, and the colonial regime and other factors made movement not impossible, but more difficult. And suddenly, so to speak, an international boundary was cutting through the extended family, and family members were developing their careers in two different political and administrative systems.
There was a second big change. Up until the 1930s, it was a subsistence farming economy. When people needed money to buy clothes or later to pay school fees for their children or to buy cows to pay the bride price for a wife, they would go on labour migration. The North of Ghana and the South of Burkina Faso became labour reserves. Who went, how long they went, depended on the young men’s position in the family. If you were the oldest son, you were probably demanded to take care of the farms back home. A younger son would become a labour migrant. But still, until the 1930s, it was more or less a peasant subsistence economy with labour migration complementing the family economy. From the 1930s onward it turned. There were several factors coming in. The first was the Catholic mission, the second was the advent of Western education. In any case, from the late 1940s, 1950s onwards, things started diversifying. And it cumulated. We are now in a situation, after 2000, where only a tiny part of the family is farming back home. The land reserves are not sufficient, the land is not fertile enough, it cannot raise the money you need for making a living. The majority of the family members are out, either as labour migrants, but now no longer temporarily, but permanently, coming home only for funerals and family celebrations. Then you have the more highly educated who are, since the 1960s, 1970s, working either as clergy or in the civil service like Stan or as intellectuals, professors like Isidore. All these changes form the background against which we need to understand how memory about the family is being made…
Manuela: One could expect that when life becomes less rural and more city-oriented, the development could go in the direction of the nuclear family. Is it going in this direction?
Isidore: I think it is going in that direction, but the connection is still there. For example, I have my nuclear family that was living with me in the US. Stan has his family living with him in Ouagadougou. For us, the elder generation, we still look back to the ancestral village, to the larger family. However, our children may not necessarily see that village as their family.
Manuela: What about the young people? In Europe normally they are not that interested in family life. Does your young generation identify themselves as being part of the house of Yob?
Isidore: That will depend on how you raise them. How they are socialised. In my case, I make sure I take my children to Ghana every summer or so, and I even have my two daughters who are in Ghana now.
Stan: It seems that at first we were a small group of peasants, but with the growth of the family we became very diverse, and this diversity results in a certain dispersal of the family. We have workers, clergy, civil servants, educationists… if we take all these trajectories, we can say that we are now all over the world. But being all over the world, how do we maintain the cohesion?! This question is part of our project here at the Wissenschaftskolleg. We have recently organised what we called a “Homecoming festival”, in Hamile. Maybe it was not yet very well organised. But I think that it can become one of the reasons that will bring everybody home, so that they will understand more about the memory of the family and know each other as members of the family. We will be coming back home no longer as we started, as peasants, but as a very mixed family with regard to religion or ethnic group. We may be using Dagara, English or French or another language, but we still continue to understand each other. And if we take all these new possibilities like Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, all these things are the new languages that our family will use to get together and to speak to each other.
Manuela: Will a family stick together only by being a family? I come from rural Germany, and I remember that some thirty years ago, when it was the time for harvesting, everyone had to come and help. In the evening everyone was sitting at a long table, eating… But it was only for harvesting. Normally there was the farmer with his nuclear family, and all the brothers and sisters and uncles and everyone had other jobs. But for harvesting, they had to come back to help. In your case, is there nothing else that makes family interesting for its members, apart from being family?
Carola: Again, we have to bring in a bit of context… and that is social security systems. Indeed, nuclear families have become more prominent in Germany over time, but even now, as family sociologists tell us, there is something like a multi-local extended family. It may be a nuclear family in one part of town, but the grandmother may be living just two blocks away and takes care of the children… Even in the so-called West, extended families and kinship systems are not completely dissolving, but take on new forms and functions. In the West African context, medical insurance, old age insurance, unemployment insurance are rudimentary if they exist at all; not everybody is covered by them. We still have some basic social security functions connected with the family. Thus, for many there is also a material interest in being part of a family. And there is nothing very romantic about that. Because the better-off are faced all the time with the expectations of the not-so-well-off, who invoke kinship relations and claim support.
The second aspect is, of course, the symbolic importance of belonging. At least in Ghana and in most parts of Burkina Faso, everybody who thinks that he is an accomplished man or woman expects a funeral in his home village, no matter whether he or she has lived all their life in town. And if you want to contest in the political arena in Ghana, as a candidate for parliament, you need to be a home boy or a home woman. You need to be somebody who has a village to point to. You need to belong to a certain family and that certain family needs to be connected with a certain place of origin.
Stan: The social system is very important. I cannot just say: “I can develop myself alone”; I need other people to develop myself. If you want to win in the political system, you have to first have a link in your family. And your family will create a network in the village. And the village will create a network with other villages, the district and even the region. If not, you may have the money, but you will never win. Just because you are not socially valuable, you are not important. And I think that this is one of the things, even the children today understand it. At funerals, for example, we don’t invite each other. You will come, because you are coming to sympathise with me. You are coming to help me in a certain sense, not only materially, but also mentally. I think this is even what may be interesting for other people in the book or the film that we are trying to make. The development of the family is not only a question of material wealth, but it is also that part of being… I am someone, because I know that people recognise me.
Isidore: I just want to talk about my own experience. My children are growing up in the United States. Some kids of my friends and colleagues, when they are grown, find that they have no sense of belonging in the United States. That is when they begin to look back to say: their Ghanaian home. I have friends whose children are now blaming their parents: “Why didn’t you insist that I speak my local language? Why didn’t you insist that I go home when I was a kid?” Some are even getting up on their own and going home to discover, even those who… as teenagers were not interested in their ancestral home.
How the focus group met
Manuela: What you are doing here: you are making memory… You are making the memory of this family. May I ask how this group came together?
Isidore: Let me start. I first met Carola in 1987, by which time I had just finished secondary school and visited an uncle, Sebastian, Stan’s elder brother, who was then a lecturer at the University of Ghana. So, I was there one evening, and he came with Carola and introduced her to all of us, and she explained that she was going up north to Hamile, to our place. So, that was my first contact. Then, in 1989, she brought many graduate students to the area, and they were put into various villages and families, and I was recruited to work for one of them. Then the following year, the second batch of students came, and I was again recruited to work for one of them. In the process, one day Carola invited me to help her to construct the family genealogy. So, together with her we asked my grandfathers. And she drew… That was the first time I saw a genealogy chart. Later I started working for her as field assistant. This is how I came into anthropology. So I had done extensive anthropological fieldwork before actually getting into formal anthropological study. I went to the US and studied anthropology; I did my masters and PhD at the University of Illinois and then took a job as an assistant professor at Western Oregon University.
Stan: I finished my film studies in Ouagadougou. Then I was in Paris for further studies in film. In 1989, my brother Sebastian made the connection finally. He came to Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, to teach Carola’s students. So he invited me to Berlin when I was in Paris. During that period we had a meeting with other Dagara in Koblenz, and it was there that I met Carola. She even did an interview with me, but I even forgot what I said… (laughing).
Carola: In 1987, I was offered a job at the Freie Universität Berlin under the condition that I start doing field work in Africa and take students to Africa. I decided to go to Ghana. One of the contacts my colleagues gave me was Sebastian. He had done his PhD in linguistics at Heidelberg and Saarbrücken. He had studied for fifteen years in Germany and just returned to Ghana in 1986. I contacted him, and in Ghana, he sent me to his parents in Hamile. And I went to meet his family in Hamile, and then Stan and Sebastian’s father said that when I go back to Accra I should tell them “your sister has come”. That is: he made me part of the family. Later I asked Sebastian whether he would be willing to teach my students and me the Dagara language. This is how it started, the connection with their family. And as I said: an “elective family” for me, because after that period I could have said “Ok, thank you very much, that was a kind experience and I’m now going somewhere else.” But anthropologists tend to become attached. Over the course of thirty years I had a number of different research topics. I worked on land rights and land conflicts, on national memory, on the history of the colonial regime in the area and on ethnicity and many other things. But all the material I had collected on our family thing was sort of remaining, and I thought that I should do something with that. Then the next thought was immediately: “This is nothing that I can do by myself.” After the death of his mother in 2010, Stan brought up the idea of writing the story of our mother, and I thought that that would be interesting. And I wanted to bring in Isidore, with whom I had worked before. And when both Stan and Isidore were willing, I wrote the application to the Wissenschaftskolleg, and it worked out. It is really an exciting experience!
Manuela: (Laughing) How does it feel for you to be the topic of your own research?
Isidore: I did not really anticipate that it was going to be such an exciting theme. But since arriving in Berlin, it has been an interesting discovery for me; I have been really fascinated by the narrative strategies that various family members and families are deploying. And besides the congenial atmosphere in Wiko, it has been very interesting talking about this.
Manuela: You don’t have a problem with scientific objectivity if you do research on your own experiences as a family member?
Isidore: Not really, because for a social scientist the question of objectivity is debatable. I don’t have a problem with that. But definitely, we are going to reflect on our positionalities, our situatedness within the narrative and, of course, we have to be mindful of who our audiences are going to be.
Stan: I have always been puzzled by this question of the family, because I was away from my family at a very early age. I was in the boarding school in Ouagadougou. I was very worried about it at the time. And all these things made me to try to understand this question of mobility, why are we moving, and what can we get in this moving. For me, working on this project is not a question of working for the family. It is the question of working on issues of belonging, mobility and the future… Your [Isidore and Carola’s] object is the family history, but my object is the moving, the mobility… (laughing).
Manuela: What does your family think about the project?
Isidore: I just returned a couple of days ago from Ghana, where I went for Christmas, and what surprised me is how sensitised the larger family, both at the village level and in Accra, is to this project. They are aware that we are writing a book on the family history. And it seems to me that people are actively trying to be part of the narration, of the ultimate outcome of this project. People are eager to control and shape the outcome.
Please find another conversation with the Focus Group here.
Citation: Carola Lentz, Isidore Lobnibe, and Stanislas Meda, Family History as Family Enterprise? A Wissenschaftskolleg Focus Group’s Views of a West African Family, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.08.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/11214.