In my most recent book, Our Own Way in This Part of the World: Biography of an African Community, Culture, and Nation, I used the optics provided by one Kofi Dↄnkↄ and his community-cum-nation to challenge standard accounts of Ghana’s modern history and to reimagine the histories, politics, and cultures of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa. I had set out to narrate the story of this healer, blacksmith, farmer, drummer, and family head during shifting periods of the “colonial” and “postcolonial” world, but through the lens and interlaced evolution of kin, community, and culture. Kofi Dↄnkↄ was versatile, operating fluidly as custodian and interpreter of shared values, facilitator of spiritual renewal, promoter of social cohesion, settler of disputes, and assessor and planner of the community’s growth. But he was also a marginal peasant farmer whose fortune and misfortune rode the tides of the cocoa boom, an everyday person who offered us a multiangled window into the social lives and networks of rural dwellers, and an intellectual who articulated a profound understanding of disease and therapeutics to those in West Africa and the African diaspora as well as to a group of notable scholars.
Location and an integral cultural heritage stand out among several factors that shaped the life of Kofi Dɔnkɔ and his polity—a region that fell under the Asante empire and then the British empire, forming a dual colonialism. Situated in the crossroad polity of Takyiman, between the northern and southern halves of the nation, he and his polity’s positionality invite scholars to think of interior Africa—rather than solely its coastal littoral—as a gateway for cultural contact and the making of intra-African histories, and as a counterpoint to evangelical perspectives. Indeed, it is precisely Kofi Dↄnkↄ’s deep devotion to his craft, his culture, his community that framed his life and that makes him a significant figure in African and world history. Through this figure, Ghana appears less a nation-state defined by homogeneity and a citizenry of “one nation” than it is a geography populated by kin, strangers, and antagonists, all of whom are connected to communities and locations and to internal and external diasporic formations. Rather than solely consider how Kofi Dɔnkɔ’s life story maps onto major themes in twentieth-century Ghana/Africa/world, I was careful to specify what Kofi Dɔnkɔ and his community’s lived experiences and ideas revealed about colonial rule, missionary religions, diseases, political independence, decolonization, global war, and human culture.
Through an approach I call communography, in that my concern is not with the individual life story but rather with the thousands of kin, community members, and strangers who knew, interacted with, and lived during historic moments Kofi Dɔnkɔ shared. I choose to tell this story through the evocative and varied moments in which humans live, rather than through the predictable and artificial plots historians devise. Of primary importance was interweaving Dᴐnkᴐ’s life and community with the tripartite history of the Gold Coast/Ghana and broader patterns in world history. Shaped by historical forces from the colonial cocoa boom to decolonization and political and religious parochialism, the story of Dᴐnkᴐ’s community provides a non-national, decolonized example of social organization structured around spiritual forces and humanistic values that serves as a powerful alternative to nationalist statemen and as an important reminder that scholars take their cues from the lived experiences and ideas of the people they study.
As a study that began at a ground zero, in terms of published materials, I spent a decade making my way through missionary, imperial, multinational, hospital, regional, and national archives in Ghana, looking for bits and pieces of Kofi Dↄnkↄ and his world. My guide, at least conceptually, was Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Healers. Armah’s historical fiction explored the fall of the Asante empire, under whose immediate hegemony Kofi Dↄnkↄ and Takyiman, and the emergence of British rule over the tripartite colony. Evocatively, in the mouth of Armah’s main character who chooses to become a healer, the author asked:
What really is a healer’s work? You may say it’s seeing. And hearing. Knowing… Men walk through the forest. They see leaves, trees, insects, sometimes a small animal, perhaps a snake. They see many things. But they see little. They hear many forest sounds. But they hear little … A healer sees differently. He hears differently… Yes, he hears and sees more.” Armah’s expectation that “healer must first have a healer’s nature,” and that “the healing work that cures a whole people is the highest work, far higher than the cure of single individuals,” aminated the book.
Though there were no models for the study I envisioned, I drew much inspiration from T. C. McCaskie’s Asante Identities: History and Modernity in an African Village, 1850-1950.
McCaskie’s microhistory of the Asante village of Adeɛbeba, between 1850 to 1950, narrative in rich details the ordinary lives of African men and women in a period of social change, led as they were by a remarkable woman named Amma Kyirimaa. More than Kofi Dↄnkↄ’s counterpart, Kyirimaa was also a healer and custodian for Adeɛbeba’s Taa Kwabena Bena, an ↄbosom (spiritual force) that paralleled his Asubↄnten Kwabena in Takyiman. As I have tried to do with Kofi Dↄnkↄ, McCaskie details the larger implications of Adeɛbeba for the understanding of Asante culture and identities against the backdrop of colonial rule and modernity. More important, McCaskie and I both place African voices at the center of their histories.
Knowing that Kofi Dↄnkↄ lived in a part of Africa, in a part of the world, I found it fruitful to draw on comparative studies, if only to sharpen my own, and found Karen E. Flint’s Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange, and Competition in South Africa, 1820-1948, and Abena Dove Osseo-Asare’s Bitter Roots: The Search for Healing Plants in Africa well-crafted sounding boards. Like me, Flint focused on the nineteenth and twentieth century but in southern Africa, historicizing the interaction between indigenous and biomedicine and how so-called “traditional” healers in Natal, South Africa, transformed themselves from politically powerful men and women who challenged colonial rule and law into successful entrepreneurs who competed for turf and patients with white biomedical workers. Kofi Dↄnkↄ was a master herbalist (ↄdunsinni) and so Osseo-Asare’s examination of the transformation of healing plants in Ghana, Madagascar, and South Africa into pharmaceuticals as well as how African scientists and healers, rural communities, and drug companies develop drugs from medicinal plants since the late nineteenth century provided necessary global context for Kofi Dↄnkↄ’s healing work. And it was precisely through healing, through training other healers, through nurturing scholars with his intellectual that this local figure became regional, national, and then global.