KNAW Visiting Professor Samuel Ntewusu: ‘Misunderstanding of the past leads to a misunderstanding of the present’

Samuel Ntewusu is KNAW Visiting Professor for 2016-2017. A Research Fellow at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Ntewusu is one of the coordinators of the ASCL research programme Society and Change in Northern Ghana: Dagomba, Gonja, and the Regional Perspective on Ghanaian History. The position as Visiting Professor allows him to organise an international conference and several workshops, and to travel to Leiden three times for the programme. The first visit in this framework was from April-June. Not his first visit to Leiden: Ntewusu holds a PhD in History from Leiden University.

Ntewusu looks inspired when talking about the research programme on Society and Change in Northern Ghana. ‘There are several gaps in the literature on the history of Northern Ghana’, he says, a few days before leaving Leiden for Ghana again. ‘When you look at the development of Ghana: the South has become rich, and the North has remained poor. Research usually follows that division and focuses on the South. We, in the field of African Studies, think that the North has been neglected for too long. Our object is to fill the gaps and to generate new knowledge on development issues which will be critical for policy making.’

A fight over authority

The North has seen lots of conflicts for a long time now. Ntewusu: ‘Policymakers think: let’s send in soldiers and solve this quickly. But they do not have real answers to the problems. Historians do! You see, there were two great political developments in the region’s history: colonization and decolonization. The area has been the target of the British, the French and the Germans. The Germans recognized the chiefs, although they were not supposed to have too much influence. The centre of authority was to be with the Germans, of course. After the First World War parts of the North became a mandated territory with the League of Nations in charge. After that the UN came in and the mandated territories became the Trust Territories. The real identity of the people in the territory, as far as modern political dispensation was and is concerned, was not well defined; Ghana gained independence and finally the area became part of Ghana.
The British gave authority to the chiefs, but also placed some local authority to chiefs elsewhere. The Nawuri, Nchumburu, the Kusasi, the Konkomba and the Basari were placed under the authority of the Dagomba or the Mamprusi or the Gonja. While they didn’t and still don’t want to belong to those authorities the traditional system put in place by the British and by modern day governments will still not recognize their independence! Wars are still being fought over these issues. Nowadays policymakers say: “it’s a fight over land”, but it’s really a fight over authority.’

History as a guide for policymakers

More recently, lots of funds have been directed to the North for development by the SADA (Savana Accelerated Development Authority). ‘Trees have been planted’, Ntewusu explains, ‘but the trees were burnt by fire. Guinea fowls  have been bred for meat purposes as part of the SADA programme but that didn’t work in this particular area. So the policymakers got it very wrong. I would have invested it all in shea butter, that’s a global product! Then you’re growing a global market.’
What Ntewusu is really trying to say is: the North wasn’t always poor. Before 1900 economic activity was centred in the North of the Gold Coast, in the town Salaga. With Timbuktu (which lies in today’s Mali) it was one of the main trading centres in West Africa. ‘Understanding the pre-colonial history of those towns will be a guide for policymakers’, Ntewusu stresses. ‘Misunderstanding of the past leads to a misunderstanding of present.’

The importance of shea and kola nuts

One of the main products in the past in Northern Ghana was shea butter. Kola nuts were also of importance. But the introduction of substitutes for shea and kola nuts made the North collapse. ‘For instance, we now have different cooking oils and body lotions which have replaced shea butter. We also have coffee now, tofees and chewing gums all replacing kola nuts. Modern belief systems have also displaced the ritual importance of kolanuts. But also in other ways the introduction of ‘new’ products led to big changes in the area, Ntewusu explains.
‘The locally brewed alcoholic beverage pito was replaced by beer. Donkeys and horses as local means of transportation were replaced by vehicles. The phenomenon of hosting people at your own home was replaced by hotels and bungalows. Wells that were used to sell water were replaced by the Ghana Water Company with laid out pipes. In all of these cases, money wasn’t flowing back into the local district any more, but the money went to the State. And the State does not re-invest it all in the area again. Because of all this, youth migrated to the south. And that’s where the money went too.’

International conference on Northern Ghana in Leiden

These are all rather controversial arguments, Ntewusu admits, but: ‘Isn’t that our job, to entamate discussion?’ To bring the discussion further, he will organize an international conference in December in Leiden on Ghana, where scholars from Africa, Europe and the USA are expected to share their thoughts. The focus of the conference will be on Identity, Development and Infrastructure in Ghana, with a special focus on the north of the country.

As a KNAW Visiting Professor (which he will be until April 2017), Ntewusu is supposed to share his experiences with Dutch researchers, which he already did and will be doing again in Leiden and in Utrecht, also for student audiences. He will also be writing a book on German colonialism in Ghana, together with ASCL researcher Jan-Bart Gewald, who is a Leiden Professor of the History of Southern Africa. And Ntewusu will be editing a book on the histories of Northern Ghana with Michel Doortmont, manager of the research project on Society and Change in Northern Ghana.

African and Dutch knowledge institutes working together

And so the research project has become a good example of how African and Dutch knowledge institutes are working together. The project also benefits the local community: it provides for training of PhD researchers and workshops are organized in Ghana, not only to train the PhD candidates but also to enable local people to speak about their experiences and memories.

Meanwhile, Ntewusu continues to do fieldwork in Ghana. ‘That’s where I get my facts. Here in the Netherlands, I find the flair to do the writing.’

Read Samuel Ntewusu’s latest Working Papers:
Gyama Bugibugi (German gunpowder): A history of German presence in Nawuriland, Ghana 
Between two worlds : a biography of Honorable chief Nana Obimpe of Ghana

Fenneken Veldkamp