by Alesia Ofori Dedaa
A common assumption about land inheritance and ownership in Sub-Saharan Africa is that it is either matrilineal or patrilineal. However, land ownership is complex and highly political. My family have had to negotiate these complexities in our quest to access, own and keep land in our small world. Land titling used to be informal, but as population increases, it has become complex to negotiate this informality especially in rural communities. In this narrative article, I show how “messy” land systems have become, suggesting possible solutions to it for development practitioners.
My grandmother was the only child of her mother and the only next of kin when my great grandmother passed away. My great grandmother was from a royal family and married a man from another royal family. Thus, she had access to lands both from her family and husband’s, even though she was the ninth of her siblings and the third wife of her husband. No formal title was required; people knew it belonged to Nkrumah and that was sufficient. As she aged, she forgot where most of the lands were. Those she remembered, she passed over to her only daughter, my grandmother.
Land wasn’t the only thing that was abundant when my grandmother was young. Gold too. In one of her villages, Esaase, children did not just enjoy playing in the rain for the fun of it. If you were lucky, you could find a gold nugget. This was a common event. Though it was relatively abundant, it was a highly valued commodity. Grandmother inherited one of the many lands in Esaase, and as she and my grandfather got older, decided to give the land to my uncle, Kofi, who is the only son of my grandparents. But he found farming on that rugged terrain stressful.
The “gold people” started prospecting around Esaase and its environs in 1993. When they arrived, they spoke to some Chiefs and expressed interest in most of the cocoa farms and land in the area. Now it so happened that grandmother’s land had some gold beneath it. One particular Chief informed her: “Abena, the “gold people will reach your land very soon”. In the beginning, she was hesitant. Her family in the village told her, “Abena, whether you give it out or not, they are going to mine”. The mining company had acquired “below-ground rights” whilst my grandmother theoretically had “above-ground rights”. Rather than bequeathing to her children a farm with no soil underneath, she thought it better to fulfil the wishes of the mining company and perhaps earn some compensation. Nobody knew how much the farmers would be paid. Some said the compensation would be based on the number of cocoa and cocoa seedlings plus the current value of the land in the village. Some farmers had already had their land ploughed. My auntie Yaayaa too. She didn’t disclose how much she got. But she has a big grocery shop now. Others were unlucky. They are yet to be compensated.
The mining company have not reached grandmother’s land as I write. But as a teenager, I remember my grandparents being expectant of when the “gold people” will approach the farm on the hill. She will make plans for what she will do with the money. Paying my secondary school fees was one of the goals. In addition, she felt Uncle Kofi’s rejection of the farm meant nobody would be interested. She will pass comments like “if the only man in the family doesn’t like it, who else will want it? Mind you, I come from a matrilineal family. For more than a decade, I think I got tired of hearing this comment repeatedly. Sometimes, grandma will nudge my grandpa to go talk to the Chief to relieve them of their anxiety.
I got to know this Chief last year when my mother decided we needed to get “a land of our own in our village”. I got the opportunity to visit Grandmother’s cocoa farm. It was an arduous journey. Mum thought it best if we made some early land investment – a flat terrain one of course. Maybe in future “the gold people” might want to buy it for a higher value. The Chief was our main point of contact. Grandmother said the Chief is related to our family. He is Mum’s uncle. I still can’t figure out this familial connection. Let’s call him Chief Asomasi.
Nana Asomasi has a “land team” composed of his nephew and a village attendant. Once, he confides in us and tells us of his numerous land deals because we are “family”. “You are not the only people I sell land to – You, the gold people, this NGO from abroad etc. these lands are hot cakes”! He remarked. My mother pays, even though she expected that her “uncle” could give this land for free. I advised my mother that we get the paperwork on this land as soon as possible. Later, we finalised the registration with the Land Commission in the regional capital.
Six months later, Asomasi dies. Sad story! He murdered his girlfriend on a cocoa farm. He fled and committed suicide later. A week before his death, he calls my mother about a good land deal. “This is just 2000GHS” (approximately 300£), he claimed. My mother declined the offer. Not long after his death, close family members of Asomasi contacted my mother. The land he sold was land used by some family members for shared cropping. The delegate of the family tells my mother; “this is not the only family land he sold, as we are speaking, all our lands are in the hands of strangers we do not know. At least, you are the only extended family person we know. Can you give us something to compensate the rest of the family? Else, you will have to provide legal documents showing your ownership of the land”. This is how my mother saved herself from further litigation. She produced her documents. They understood and left her alone.
Land titling in Esaase is still informal, just like the days of my great grandmother. Unfortunately, Asomasi negotiated various land deals with the mining company before his death. Whilst the mining company may have legal documentation, none of the poor farmers have anything to prove. People are anxious. Nobody knows whose land will be next affected when the “gold people” are ready to mine on their new frontiers. My grandmother is anxious now. She was hoping to use that money to begin a big inheritance for her grandchildren. Asomasi hanged not only himself, he hanged the dreams and hopes of the people. These dreams are now dangling on a weak branch.
This is a story of dispossession and speaks volume about internal dispossession not imposed by government authorities but individuals within communities. This is where I think “development” has been slow in catching up. I define development on my own personal terms – as both internal and external process geared towards making everyday living better for commuities. In this scenario, processes that will lead to better land governance and ownership for poor farmers and households in my village. As these events unfolded in the life of my family, I got the opportunity to pursue a PhD at the University of Leeds in the School of Politics and International Studies. I was motivated during this period to study how village politics unfold in other places outside my village. These micro-politics are often the mundane and ignored social relations within small communities and neighbourhoods that influence development in a way that is less explicit. Land tenure and the politics associated with it is complex and messy. Yet modern development is yet to catch up with these nuances. How do you negotiate development with local elites like Asomasi, whose personal interests always comes first in negotiating land deals with mining companies? For development practitioners to make progress in making impact, it requires patience. Patience to understand community dynamics and how that will shape proposed interventions. This understanding underpins my PhD research. I am conducting research into how politics around mining shape water governance in mining villages. However, I understand that to be able to pull out these nuanced politics, I need to immerse myself into the context. Hence, I adopt ethnographic methodologies to be able to do this successfully. Trust me, when I consider the politics in my grandmother’s village, I do not expect a foreigner to walk in and instantly have the answers. But with a thorough understanding of the local context, collaboration with local actors who can let you in and find solutions with them, development can make progress.
Alesia Ofori Dedaa is a PhD student at the University of Leeds researching into how mining shape water use and governance in Ghanaian villages. She is an alumni of the MasterCard Foundation Scholarship at the University of British Columbia-Canada. When away from her “PhDuties”, She enjoys spending time with her extended family listening to all the political gossips from their village. This is what stimulated her interest in development and political ecology. She is greatly inspired by three women in her life; her grandmother (Dedaa), mother (Janet) and PhD supervisor (Anna). She is a Future World Bank President (according to her Twitter account).