The Land As Being and Cosmos: The Institution of the Earth Cult Among the Sisala of Northwestern Ghana (European University Studies, Series 19, Anth)
$ 51.80 (new)
Paperback (243 pages)
Peter Lang Pub Inc
Reader ReviewsReasoned, detailed account of a small 'stateless' society
The Sisala and their neighbors the Dagara and Lobi share many orientations, one of the chief being their decentralized polities: their governing bodies are local, they have no conception or notion of kingship. Before there were any national governments (the Sisala region currently straddles northwestern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso) there were not even any 'chiefs': the local Earth Priest in tandem with the local village council did whatever governing was needed. This book outlines in nearly exquisite detail the spiritual, social, economic and political underpinnings of this society, and how the Earth Priest and the religion he represents interfaces with it.
All things considered, there's really not much to get picky about as regards this book. It gets annoying when you forget the meaning of a Sisala word and there is neither a glossary nor an index to hunt for it. So by all means, write down these words and their definition as you read - otherwise things will tend to get more than a little fuzzy around the edges as you try to slog your way through. Being the published version of his doctoral dissertation, it should not be expected that there be an index and glossary contained here. I myself still wish it had one or the other.
There are times when you wish Tengan would quote directly from his informants rather than just write about what they are saying - such distillations are always somewhat suspect, even when coming from the most evenhanded of writers. It's a bit hard for me to trust that nothing is being lost in translation. There's not much here that even slightly resembles poetry, and that's rather sad. You get a well-exposed skeleton and enough sinew that one can sense the culture asserting itself; what you don't get is all of its flow, and hardly any of its flavor. But once again I forget that this is a dissertation. I would suggest reading any or all of Malidoma or Sobonfu Some's books - though they are neighboring Dagara rather than Sisala, their perspective will provide plenty of the kind of juice missing from Tengan's account.
On the other hand, there is a fountainhead of information presented here, rendered in an organized and non-chauvinistic manner. For instance, the passage when he makes comparisons with other African cultures, showing how differing climates may influence given ethnic groups' spiritual relationship to the land - his ruminations are handled very well, and never overdone. Tengan keeps track of context and does not overvalue generalities at the expense of perceived, individual variants.
In general, his explanations play themselves out quite well, without the excess jargon and/or mental constipation one almost comes to expect from such a detailed tract.
One cautionary note: unless you are already well versed in anthropological theory and its history, it might prove wise to skip the section on anthro-historical approaches to cosmology. Other than this section's introduction and where he is writing about Claude Levi-Strauss, it's pretty hard to follow, and I believe poorly digested/written.
But pretty much everything else, even the "slower" sections, is very worthwhile. Throughout the text there are ample insights and well-gauged comparisons to whet the appetite for further study. In most of the sections, the way he builds up and paces the discussion is highly skilled.
And the chapter on the "individual" in Sisala society - especially the section where he's talking about the different parts of the soul and so forth - is much clearer than what Ephirim-Donkor was able to do regarding the Akan peoples immediately to the south geographically. To borrow a metaphor from a song written by one lovely American singer (Joan Baez), it's like comparing diamonds to rust.