An “undesirable” politics in Bawku: containing civilizing controversies on a West African frontier (1920-1958)

The twin ravages of 19th century slave-raiding and 20th century colonial rule left their mark on northern Ghana and south-eastern Burkina Faso, characterizing the region as one of historical movement, instability and underdevelopment. With the abolishment of the Atlantic slave trade the region came under the yolk of European colonialism, quickly becoming an important source of labour for both French and British colonial economies. This out-migration of male labour – now institutionalized and increasingly routed toward the gold mines and cocoa plantations to the south – affected the household economies from which these labourers migrated. Kinship relations, domestic production, marriage agreements, as well as practices tied to them – such as circumcision – were transformed as a result of this increasing exploitation. Viewed by administrators of indirect rule as integral to African ‘community’ and the broader political and economic stability of the colonies, female circumcision and the gendered, patriarchal relations in which it is bound, were to be contained and veiled from metropolitan interest. This metropolitan interest, of which the “female circumcision controversy” of Kenya, East Africa, is indicative, was to be avoided in West Africa. And, as archival records aptly demonstrate, much effort was devoted to ensuring that such a controversy did not gain ground in the Ashanti hinterlands of West Africa; under the fragile guise of indirect rule “tradition” was to be a tool for economic exploitation, not an argument for civilizing mission.

This paper will address the ways in which colonial concerns of gender and political economy intersect to guide policies and interventions regarding female circumcision in West Africa. Taking cue from the works of Janice Boddy, Lynn Thomas and Liselott Dellenborg (among others) my study will move beyond the rather neat geographic and temporal periodization of the ‘female circumcision controversy’ in East Africa (1928-1931) to explore why gendered practices – particularly that of female circumcision – came to be seen as integral to political economic stability within this region of labour migration and indirect rule.  Methodologically, my paper will employ colonial archives from British and French West Africa, focusing specifically on correspondence from the Gold Coast and Upper Volta. I will also use the private papers of administrators, missionaries (Pères Blancs) and medical doctors active within this Anglo-French sphere of interest. Additionally, my study seeks to question the role of Rattray – the first government-commissioned anthropologist in the region – in shaping how administrators viewed these practices. In what ways did colonizers see the gendered practice of circumcision as a defence against the ravages of capitalist modernity, or ‘detribalization’ and it’s accompanying “gender chaos”, to quote Jean Allman. Moreover, in what ways did the colonized along this frontier region adapt and transform these practices in the face of colonial attempts to classify, contain and straightjacket ‘tradition’ for political economic ends? Rather than focus on the voices clamouring within both metropole and colony for legislation and eradication, this project will endeavour to explain ‘why’ these voices fell on deaf ears in West Africa, and how this colonial project of ‘non-intervention’ may have worked to complicate longer histories of African-led abandonment efforts.

Jessica V. Cammaert is Ph.D Candidate in the Department of History of Queen’s University (Ontario). Her research interests are sub-saharian Africa, political economy, development theory and pratice of World History, gender and sexuality.