Mainz anthropologist Carola Lentz received the 2014 Melville J. Herskovits Award for her book "Land, Mobility, and Belonging in the West African Savanna," published by Indiana University Press in 2013. The most important international African Studies book prize is named after the founder of interdisciplinary African Studies in the USA and has been awarded every year since 1965 by the African Studies Association (ASA) for the best English-language scholarly work on Africa. In its laudation, the jury praised Lentz's book as "a finely wrought and beautifully argued account" of the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial appropriation of land by immigrating agriculturalists in northern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso. More than 100 publications were nominated for the prize this year, the 50th time the award has been presented. Books by European authors have rarely won to date and Carola Lentz is the first German academic to receive the Herskovits Award.
Carola Lentz has been a professor at the Department of Anthropology and African Studies of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) since 2002, a member of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities since June 2014, and is currently president of the German Anthropological Association. To collect the material for the book honored by the ASA, Lentz undertook extensive field research starting in the mid-1990s, initially as part of the Collaborative Research Center "West African Savanna" at Goethe University Frankfurt and then as member of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Mainz University. The research team collected more than 700 oral histories, narrated by Dagara and Sisala villagers, about migration, settlement history, land claims, and property conflicts in more than 200 settlements. Lentz's book analyzes the narratives and rituals that the mobile Dagara immigrants used to legitimize their new property claims, and explores how they interacted with Sisala "first-comers". The book illustrates how property claims epitomized in the form of earth shrines have been transferred and passed down in various political contexts over the past 150 years, and which role violence and the subsequent colonial suppression of violence played in the appropriation of land. It examines how settlement narratives establish property claims and land boundaries in a situation in which written contracts and land registers are absent. Finally, the book shows the crucial importance, to this very day, of controversies about how the original ownership of a piece of land was established. It is no longer possible to acquire such an "allodial title", but powerful property rights are seen as an essential prerequisite for becoming a fully legitimized member of the local community. Thus, immigrant settlers often remain "strangers" even if their forebears have lived in the same area for several generations.
"I am thrilled at receiving the Herskovits Award," says Lentz. "With some interruptions, I have spent more than 15 years working on this book project and struggled with the vast number of conflicting settlement narratives. I did not merely want to produce a case study, but develop a theoretical argument that would deal with a more generalized theme, namely that of how property rights are negotiated when no centralized state is in place to codify them. It is extremely satisfying to have all the work I put in honored in this way by the award."
Professor Dr. Carola Lentz (photo/©: Thomas Hartmann, JGU)