Martin Anbegwon Atuire


Bleeding Palimpsests: Heritage Tourism and the Commodification of Indigenous Memory in Northern Ghana. 

A dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Colorado Boulder, in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Ethnic Studies, 2020 (Review by Franz Kröger).

Immediately after Ghana’s independence (1957), a Pan-African movement emerged and the new government under Kwame Nkrumah invited several famous African Americans (including the human rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.) to Ghana. Although the movement lost importance in later years among Nkrumah’s followers as well as members of his government, it was later revived by J.J. Rawlings in a slightly different form. The movement’s focus since then has been on “heritage tourism”. African Americans were encouraged to come to Ghana, follow the traces of the transatlantic slave trade and also explore their own history. These tours often included visits to the dungeons of the coastal castles, depictions of the torments of the captive slaves and, later, surveying remnants of the slave wars and the slave trade in Salaga, Pikworo and Gwollu.
This is the focus of Atuire’s criticism. He does concede that “well-intentioned” heritage tourism can provide a source of government revenue for Ghana and also an opportunity to improve relations between Ghana and the Diaspora through fruitful dialogues.
However, he regrets relations between Africans (Ghanaians) and the Diaspora having been reduced only to the transatlantic slave trade and the victimisation of Africans. Moreover, this view does not do justice to the people of northern Ghana who were regarded by both the British colonists and the post-colonial governments as people of the “hinterland” and of no great concern to Ghana’s history. The memory of the slave wars that remains in the minds of the Grusi peoples of northern Ghana and the Bulsa refers only to the late years of the 19th century. By this time the slave trade had long been banned by the British (beginning in 1807) and other Western nations. Heritage tourism tries to fit these later episodes of slavery into the scheme of the transatlantic slave trade. Although it is implied by the organizers of heritage tourism that these sites and events have a strong connection to the transatlantic slave trade, in reality, they do not.
Atuire’s criticism is also directed at other phenomena that heritage tourism is focussed on. The affected peoples are almost only seen as victims and the agony of their treatment in captivity is extensively highlighted. The resistance of the people under attack or the captives finds little place here. With reference to the Bulsa, Atuire rightly understands resistance to mean not only the three pitched battles that took place in Bulsaland (2 at Sandema, 1 at Kanjaga) but also defensive measures, such as the extension of the Bulsa homestead into a defensible, castle-like complex, the relocation of the homestead to rocky areas where the attackers’ cavalry could not manoeuvre, the creation of caves for escape and so on. Also, the fate of the traumatised Northerners left behind after the attacks doesn’t seem to be considered in heritage tourism.
Atuire’s dissertation, written with great personal commitment, not only offers criticism of heritage tourism but also contains sketches of personalities within Bulsa society that are worth reading, especially in the fifth chapter (p. 109-141). This section shows Bulsa people in everyday life situations, thus “challeng[ing] destructive stereotypes of people from Northern Ghana” and countering “the silence of official narration for the Bulsa space, culture and epistemology to emerge”.


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