Fokus Gruppe: Familiengeschichte und sozialer Wander in Westafrika

Issue 13 / March 2018

The House of Yob

Family History as a Family Enterprise

a portrait of Carola Lentz, Isidore Lobnibe, Stanislas Meda Bemile by Manuela Lenzen

The family’s namesake has faded from memory, his date of birth unknown, and no one is certain as to when exactly he died, though probably in 1943. The only certain thing is that Yob, like his father, was a farmer – and that his name, which means “the wanderer,” wasn’t all that apt. He was one of the first in his clan to settle in Ouessa and then in Hamile on the present-day border between Ghana and Burkina Faso, where he then stayed put. Yob yir – the House of Yob is the present-day name of this Northern Ghanaian extended family with some five hundred members, depending on how you count. Only a few of them still live in the family’s ancestral homeland; most of them have moved to other regions of Ghana or Africa, or work in Europe or the United States. And three of these family members are currently doing research at Berlin’s Wissenschaftskolleg: Stanislas Meda Bemile, who was formerly Burkina Faso’s secretary general at the Ministry of Culture, Art and Tourism; his adopted sister Carola Lentz, who is an anthropologist at the University of Mainz; and their nephew Isidore Lobnibe, who is a professor of anthropology at Western Oregon University in America. Together they have formed the Focus Group Family History and Social Change in West Africa, and in so doing they have undertaken a daring experiment. Taking as their time frame the colonial era through to the post-colonial period and up to the present day, they are attempting to reconstruct just how the economic, social and religious upheavals during these years impacted the cohesion and collective memory of a typical West African family, namely their own.

The origins of this unusual trio dates back to the 1980s. Carola Lentz, who heads the Focus Group, had just taken a position in social anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin. “Shortly after assuming the post,” explains the anthropologist, “there came instructions that I should accompany students on a fieldwork trip to Africa. My colleagues and I actually sat down with a map of the continent. My French wasn’t very good, Sierra Leone was too exceptional, Nigeria too big, Gambia too small, why not Ghana?” There had been much anthropological research carried on in this part of West Africa in the 1950s and 1960s but afterward very little. So the nod went to Ghana. And it was love at first sight for Lentz – both for its land and people. “The Ghanaians were fantastic!” she effuses.

She made contact with the house of Yob through Sebastian, a grandson of the lineage’s founding father, who himself had studied linguistics in Heidelberg and Saarbrücken and had just returned to Ghana after fifteen years in Germany. Carola Lentz states: “When my first visit to the family was coming to an end it was Anselmy – one of Yob’s sons and the father of Sebastian – who gave me a message for Sebastian whom I would meet in the capital city of Accra. The message consisted of a single sentence, in a language that I didn’t comprehend and only later learned. I read the sentence back to Sebastian. Despite my funny accent, he understood at once: his sister had arrived. I had become a member of Yob yir, the house of Yob.” Sebastian would later sojourn in Berlin to instruct students in his language of Dagara and help to find families who would take in university students. “Adoption in the Yob family and among their relatives became very fashionable,” Lentz recalls. “Their neighbors began to tease: Do you have such a small family that you need to add whites to it?”

Isidore Lobnibe had just finished school when he became an assistant to Carola Lentz in her research on labor migration, ethnic identities and land rights. Anthropology fascinated him, and after receiving a degree in history he went on to the University of Illinois and obtained a doctorate in socio-cultural anthropology with a dissertation on Dagara migrants in Southern Ghana. The invitation to Berlin appealed to him, since now, twenty years later, he would be able to undertake research on his own family in concert with Carola Lentz. He says that he is “mostly interested in the various narrative strategies of the family members.”

Stanislas Meda Bemile studied film in Ouagadougou and Paris, taught communication and marketing, was mayor of his hometown of Ouessa and state secretary in the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism in Burkina Faso. He was working on a biography of his deceased mother when his older sister asked if he would like to take part in a research project at the Wissenschaftskolleg on the history of his family and its practices of remembering. “I immediately thought that we should not only do a book on the family’s memories but also a film,” Stan recalls, and political developments accommodated his plans: “In October 2014 there was an uprising in Burkina Faso, the government was toppled and the mayors dismissed. Then the new government recruited me for the post of secretary general. I resigned shortly before I left for Berlin – and so I had time for this project.”

Now the three relatives are here at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin’s Grunewald, sitting around a table in one of the institute’s large offices, a table big enough to spread their papers out on it and evaluate the interviews done with family members and discuss the final form they should like to give their family’s complex life. On a large whiteboard they have been attempting to decrypt the structure of their highly complex family tree. In several places the dotted lines disappear into nothing – or rather into the whiteboard’s edge – before all the names and relationships can be plotted. Lentz explains: “We have here only the descendants of Yob and one of his wives and the descendants of Gerardo, Isidore’s grandfather, who was related to Yob through a not entirely traceable line.”

Even at the level of this basic groundwork the researchers now find themselves entangled in the very process they have set out to investigate, for their family’s practices of remembering are presently in transition. Their conception of being members of the “House of Yob” is itself a relatively recent phenomenon. “When I first arrived there in the 1980s the name stood simply for a certain lineage,” says Lentz. “Then sometime in the 1990s you saw on the wall: Welcome to Yob Family!” The name had grown more inclusive. “So I thought why not use it for our undertaking, it sounds so good.” But then Lentz was compelled to ascertain that not all members of the “Yob” family felt that Yob had been the family’s founding father. There were other candidates for that honor, for instance Gerardo, who together with his lineage was also an early settler in the ancestral homeland, or perhaps Gerardo’s father.

“In order to establish a family line,” explains Stanislas Meda Bemile, “you don’t have to be rich or charismatic, you don’t even need lots of children, it’s instead a matter of luck who in retrospect will be regarded as the founding father of that line.” Lentz adds: “A family or house is a constructivist notion defined by the descendants. It is through their stories that a family creates a myth – though not in the sense that it is untrue but as history which supports the cohesion of a socially diverse family whose many members are dispersed across many regions.”
And the cultivation of such a myth is right in step with the times. “For the past twenty or thirty years there has been this certain trend, which originated in Southern Ghana, the trend of writing the biography of one’s father and one’s family,” explains Lentz, and a trend which also existed in nineteenth-century Germany: “Back then they began setting up family foundations to take care of those who were down on their luck – and part of that was defining who was and who wasn’t a member of the family, a definition which was based on generous and sometimes less generous criteria. In Ghana’s family foundations on the coast, chosen as the familial line’s founding father was usually the most educated ancestor that one could recall. We see something similar now in Northern Ghana but it has only just started. It’s an exciting moment because we can see how the family’s memory of itself is presently in the making.”
It is indeed in the making in a dynamic way, for the Focus Group obviously makes contributions to that which it is researching. “Of course they all know that we are writing a book about the family,” says Stanislas Meda Bemile with a smile. “Many wish to put their two cents in, and quite a few want to monitor it and see what we are writing about them. I do a lot of thinking about precisely what the book will mean to the family. We might be able to bring them all together; they could better acquaint themselves with the family’s memories and gain a greater understanding of who they are. Perhaps it will strengthen our family bonds.”

The conditions upon which strong extended-family bonds are predicated have radically changed since the late nineteenth century. Before the onset of colonial rule the family members lived on this or that side of the border which now separates Burkina Faso and Ghana with that ruler-straight precision known only to artificially drawn boundaries. The peasants cleared and worked the land, their sons remained on the ancestral farm or established themselves a few kilometers distant, perhaps with another brother or an uncle, to cultivate the land for their own families. In 1898 then came Great Britain’s colonization of Ghana and French colonial rule in present-day Burkina Faso. These European powers laid down the border between the two regions, but it was only after 1910 and particularly after the First World War that the border was demarcated and enforced to the extent that it impacted the local population’s migratory movements. When the first children started to be sent to schools in the late 1930s, those children who lived in what later became Burkina Faso learnt French, whereas those schooling in what later became Ghana were taught the English language. And since some farmers of the house of Yob returned to live on the “French” side of the border, members of the same family were raised in different educational systems.

Up until the 1950s it was agriculture which defined people’s lives; only the younger sons in a family worked in the goldmines or cocoa plantations in the South – and this on a seasonal basis. But by the 1950s and 1960s ever fewer members of a family were able to live off the land, and farming no longer sufficed in funding people’s lives. Today those who “keep the home fires burning” are a bare minority of the population. “Many have low-skill jobs such as caretakers and watchmen,” says Isidore Lobnibe. “But since the 1970s there has been an increasing number of well-educated family members – clerics, officials and intellectuals.”    

Perhaps even more important for the family’s cohesion than the name is their land in the “home” village in Ghana. “For one thing, when all else fails, the land constitutes a kind of fallback position, at least the rural part of the family won’t let you go hungry. This is important in a state where the social-insurance system isn’t as fully developed as ours,” says Lentz. Even more important is the symbolic aspect of belonging since it is the family’s land ownership which defines who one is: “To become anything you must be affiliated with a certain family, be able to point to some land, or at least to a traditional district of the town where you can trace your family back to the town’s original founders. You’re not a complete person if you don’t have that type of basis.” This still holds true today and beyond the country’s borders, a fact which is confirmed by Lobnibe: “I’m a university professor and define myself as an intellectual, but I still have to nurse my family ties. As a family member you are constantly being reminded of what your position as husband, son or father is.”

Hasn’t the worldwide trend toward smaller families eroded the house of Yob’s cohesiveness? “Yes and no – I live with my nuclear family in the United States but every summer I visit Ghana with my children,” says Isidore Lobnibe, who in any event meets up with family members in Ghana on important occasions, mostly funerals. “I know children who complain to their parents that they didn’t teach them the local language, that they didn’t take them to Ghana when they were small, they are looking for their roots.” But social media helps keep the lines of communication open. “The children stay in contact through their smartphones. I use Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to maintain the family connection,” says Stanislas Meda Bemile.
It was not just the scope of the research project which induced Carola Lentz to seek comrades-in-arms in her own adoptive African family: “There are all kinds of moral questions that I alone am not qualified to answer. What are those family secrets which should not be revealed to the public? What about anonymization? What stories do we choose to tell and from precisely whose perspective? Who are the black sheep in the family who would best not be brought to light?” Is there not some problem with objectivity when the researchers are also the subject of their own analysis? “No,” says Isidore Lobnibe, “we give a great deal of thought to our methods, our opinions, and the narrative that we chart, and we are very conscious of just who our audience is.”

It was after reconstructing the genealogical relationships that the Focus Group then sought out work of other scholars by which they could orient themselves. “We went looking for useful narrative concepts and theories – do we want to do something like the Buddenbrooks or something more experimental?” says Lentz, who along with her colleagues eventually ascertained that there were only very few scholarly monographs on the history of African families: “And in all the world you won’t find a serious scholarly study where family members are on an equal footing as researchers and authors.”

The exact form which the research findings will take has still not been determined. The audio files of the numerous interviews which they have conducted and the video tapes of the family ceremonies they collected will be made available in a kind of family archive where family members can augment them with their own stories. By the summer the Focus Group researchers would like to have produced a film, a book (at least in its advanced stages) and an article on this family enterprise of family history. “But we can make our lives easier,” says Lentz, “by conceiving the entire thing as a work in progress and for some time. After all, it’s a pioneering work.”


Images:© Maurice Weiss