Campus & Community

The importance of the quotidian:

7 min read

Social historian finds the enduring in the everyday

Emmanuel Akyeampong: “Ordinary people generally leave no trace in the historical record. So one of the things I’ve done is to find traces of ordinary people’s lives in other areas – in music, art, fiction, and comic opera.” Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell

As a social historian, Emmanuel Akyeampong focuses on those aspects of life that often escape the attention of scholars who chronicle the large-scale events that shape a nation’s political destiny.

A member of Ashanti, the West African kingdom that is now part of the modern country of Ghana, Akyeampong has devoted his scholarly career to studying unremarkable but pervasive features of his country’s history and culture, a focus that has often led to illuminating insights.

“What I’ve always sought to do is to take the things of everyday life, mundane things, and see them in a new light, in terms of power and economics, and in this way to rescue them from the margins,” Akyeampong said.

Last year, Akyeampong was promoted to a full professorship in the Department of History. This year he was appointed chair of the Committee on African Studies.

“Emmanuel brings a wealth of perspectives to bear on African history, and the results are truly illuminating,” said William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “He is masterful at synthesizing the social, cultural, political, spiritual, and ecological in rich and complicated analyses of health and disease, the role of alcohol, the slave trade, and issues of sexuality. As a colleague and now as chair of the Committee on African Studies, Emmanuel combines creative scholarship, sensitive classroom presence, and effective leadership.”

In his first book, Akyeampong has taken a long and careful look at an aspect of Ghanaian culture that might seem on the surface to have little to recommend it as a scholarly topic – the consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, under Akyeampong’s scrutiny, this subject turns out to reveal much about Ghanaian society and the history of colonial interactions.

The book, “Drink, Power and Cultural Change: A Social History of Alcohol in Ghana, c. 1800 to Recent Times” (1996), uses alcohol as a lens to rewrite the past 200 years of Ghanaian history.

Traditionally, alcohol is looked upon as having spiritual power because of its ability to cause intoxication. Because of this power, its use was always carefully controlled. Women and children, for example, were strictly forbidden from imbibing the beer and palm wine that were brewed for special uses.

One of those uses was communication with the dead, who, along with the unborn, are considered an integral part of African society. By pouring alcohol on the ground in the form of a libation, Ghanaians communicated with the dead and informed them of events in the world of the living.

Alcohol also played an important part in marriage. During the ceremony, witnesses passed around the marriage cup, and those who partook of this ritual drink were summoned as mediators if disputes arose in the marriage later on. Gifts of alcohol were also exchanged during property transactions.

When the Gold Coast (renamed Ghana after independence) came under British colonial rule in the late 19th century, conflicts arose as a result of contrary attitudes toward the use of alcohol. The British encouraged the consumption of alcohol because it brought in tax revenue. But this policy conflicted with the British desire to maintain law and order. Finding a balance between these two objectives became an ongoing problem during the colonial period.

In tracing social changes in Ghana through the lens of alcohol use, Akyeampong employs documentation of a different nature than that usually employed by scholars of Western history. This is because the ordinary Africans he studies have left little in the way of written materials.

“Ordinary people generally leave no trace in the historical record,” Akyeampong said. “So one of the things I’ve done is to find traces of ordinary people’s lives in other areas – in music, art, fiction, and comic opera.”

His second book again looks at the social lives of ordinary Ghanaians, although for this study Akyeampong chose to study a people with whose culture and lifestyle he was personally unfamiliar, the coastal Anlo-Ewe.

“The Ashanti are forest people,” he said. “In fact, one of the titles of the king of the Ashanti is Kurotwiamansa, which means leopard, the king of the forest. I began to wonder, what would it be like to look at a non-land-based people, who draw their livelihood from bodies of water?”

The result was “Between the Sea and the Lagoon: An Eco-Social History of the Anlo of Southeastern Ghana, 1850 to Recent Times” (2001), based on a combination of fieldwork and archival research.

One thing Akyeampong found initially perplexing was that the Anlo-Ewe, unlike most people who make their living from the sea, seemed also to have an attachment to the land. He found the key to this anomaly when he discovered that they originally had been an agrarian people who had migrated to their present coastal location in the 17th century.

Their agrarian traditions have not entirely died out. In addition to fishing, the Anlo-Ewe are the country’s largest producers of shallots, using intensive growing methods to coax bumper harvests from their small, sandy plots.

To understand the Anlo-Ewe’s adaptation to a water-based lifestyle, as well as their cognitive and spiritual adjustment to the coastal accretion and erosion they have experienced at various times in their history, Akyeampong created his own theoretical approach, which he calls eco-social history. This approach reflects his utilitarian attitude regarding the place of theory in historical research.

“I tell my students, theories are like buses. You stay on them only if they get you where you are going.”

Akyeampong’s current project involves the study of various diseases and how they relate to patterns of urbanism.

“Towns have always been perilous places to live,” he said. “When you put people in towns, they become a target for disease, mostly because there’s no need for intermediate hosts. Mortality from disease was so high that until the 19th century the population of towns could not grow through natural increase, only through immigration.”

Akyeampong is studying patterns of urban settlement and the spread of diseases such as plague, small pox, influenza, tuberculosis, STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), HIV, alcoholism, and drug addiction in order to see how they affect different types of towns – ports, administrative capitals, frontier towns, mining towns, commercial towns, etc.

In another ongoing project, Akyeampong is collaborating with two other scholars to edit a history of the Ashanti dictated in the early 20th century by the Ashanti king, Prempeh I, who had been exiled to the Seychelles by the British. A visionary leader who urged his subjects to acquire Western knowledge despite the hardships he suffered at the hands of the British government, Prempeh I has been called both the last traditional and the first modern king of the Ashanti.

Akyeampong said that in view of the poverty, epidemic diseases, and political turmoil now afflicting many African countries, this is a challenging time to become chair of the Committee on African studies. But on the flip side he sees something of a renaissance taking place in Africa in the spheres of religion and the arts.

“Wonderful things are happening, and the question is, how can we harness that energy and use it to help solve some of the problems?”

Akyeampong said that he hopes to put together an interfaculty research initiative that would combine work in economics, government, environmental science, health, and the humanities.

“I believe that we can create a partnership bringing together all these disciplines and inform it with an understanding of day-to-day life that can only come from the humanities.”