Volume 11, Issue 1
Fall 2009

Benjamin Lawrence. Locality, Mobility, and “Nation”: Periurban Colonialism in Togo’s Eweland 1900-1960. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007.

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Locality, Mobility, and “Nation” contains an introduction and six chapters, with each chapter representing a story the author identified while undertaking archival research in Togo, Benin, Ghana, France and Switzerland from early 1999 through mid-2005, and for which he then sought oral information from witnesses to substantiate and develop. Chapter one examines the emergence of the periurban realm, the rural zone within the orbit of a major urban center or market town. The remaining chapters are case studies of local conflict, often representative of broader mobilizations from the 1920s to Togo’s independence from France in 1960, but with a focus on the interwar years. Chapter two examines a dispute over a town’s leadership and chieftancy. Chapter three explores a 1933 revolt by market women in Togo’s capital, Lomé. The use of vodou by men and women as a means to reclaim political authority is the subject of chapter four. The activities of the German Togo-Bund, a protonationalist group, are detailed in chapter five. Chapter six offers a synthesis of the previous chapters and delves into local perceptions of the development of print journalism in Togo since the 1930s and is followed by a brief epilogue.

Lawrence conducted over 150 oral interviews to gain a greater understanding of Togolese nationalism. The author argues that studies of colonialism and nationalism have focused too much on the activities of the state, chiefs, urban dwellers, males, and the elite while undervaluing the importance of farmers, market women, and other rural-dwelling populations, especially those in the periurban realm. Lawrence succeeds in highlighting how ordinary people, including women, who lived outside of Lomé engaged with colonial officials, mobilized against unwelcome colonial initiatives including the deposing of certain chiefs and changes in taxation, and, when necessary, made use of a rather porous border with the Gold Coast’s (present day Ghana’s) Ewelands.

Lawrence demonstrates rural people’s perceptions of French rule and the continuity of the nationalist struggle from the pre- to post-WWII period. By examining the social and political history of the decades which led up to Togo’s independence, Lawrence uses his focus on the periurban to describe a more nuanced evolution of the nationalist struggle. In doing so, he arrives at a less glorified picture of the rule of Togo’s Ewe nationalist leader and first president Sylvanus Olympio. Lawrence believes that the assassinated Olympio was less visionary and more opportunistic than generally portrayed, in part because he is so often contrasted with his successor, Togo’s, and Africa’s, longest-ruling dictator, Gnassingbé Eyadéma.

Whereas the author’s concern about studies which present an artificial urban-rural dichotomy is well-founded and his efforts to enhance understanding of those living in communities not entirely urban or rural well executed, he perhaps overstates the extent to which his study, by focusing on the periurban, represents something entirely new or serves as a model for the study of colonial Africa. The author does not consistently and meaningfully meet his stated objective of “incorporating spatial theory into the social history of the anticolonial struggle” (p. 9) or his goal of “mapping the extent of involvement of the many constituencies in Eweland in the nationalist enterprise” (p. 180).

Nonetheless, Locality, Mobility, and “Nation” constitutes a considerable contribution to the history of the Ewe people and understanding French West Africa under colonialism. It represents the first detailed history of French rule of Togoland available in English. Lawrence’s well-researched and documented study includes excellent maps, historical photos which are crisp and clear, important original interview material, and over 100 pages of extensive notes, bibliography and index. Locality, Mobility, and “Nation” will appeal to graduate students and experts with interest in the Ewe and Togo, as well as those with interests in African history and nationalist movements more generally.

Heidi G. Frontani
Elon University