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The Community Concept in the Study and Government of African and Afro-American Societies

Author(s): Jean L. Comhaire

Source: Primitive Man, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Jul., 1952), pp. 41-48
Published by: The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3316318
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of the
Catholic Anthropological
Vol. 25

Washington17, D. C., July,1952

No. 3



Seton Hall University

The field of political organizationseems to be one of those
whereNew World and Old World anthropologists
can mostfruitfully exchange their ideas. Africa, in particular,offersan extraordinarilywide range of political variation2 and, in spite of
a few authoritativemonographs3 and of one excellentcollective
1 Revisionof a paper deliveredat the 50thannualmeetingof the American Anthropological
Association,Chicago,1951. It is based on fieldwork
by the authorin the Belgian Congo, 1943-45;in Nigeria,1948; in Haiti,
1937-41,1949,and 1951.
2 Much moreso than America:Lowie, R. H., "Some
Aspectsof Political
Organizationamong the AmericanAborigines,"in Journalof the Royal
3Such as, Herskovits,M. J., Dahomey, 2 vols., New York, 1938; Le
Herisse,A., L'ancien royaumedu Dahomey,Paris, 1911; Labouret,H., Les
tribusdu Rameau Lobi, Tray. Mem. Inst. Ethno. No. 15, Paris, 1931;
Pages, R. P., Au Ruanda, sur les bordsdu lac Kivu (Congo Belge), BrusLondon, 1929;
sels, 1933; Rattray,R. S., AshantiLaw and Constitution,
Roscoe, J., The Baganda, London,1911; Schapera,I., The PoliticalAnnals


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publication,4little systematicefforthas been displayed toward

drawing from isolated studies conclusions of general value,
beyond the point that the traditionalpictureof Africangovernment is over-simplified.
have been left
European anthropologists
almost alone to work in the Africanfield,till only a few years
ago, and their cautious attitude appears at firstglance to be
justifiedby the necessityof collectingmore information.Work
in otherfields,such as kinship,whichis the presentfad of British
however,must inevitablybe done in accordance
with some assumptionsregardingthe political institutionswith
which the othersare interrelated. Thus, it became the accepted
practice to divide all Africanpolitical systemsinto two categories, accordingto the alleged presenceor absence of an organized
body of government,or state. It is only recentlythat an attemptwas made at improvingthe traditionalclassification,and it
is significantthat this was done by an American-trained
who distinguishespolitical systemsaccordingto the agenciesand
methodsused for sanctioningtheirrules.5 In such a classification,the Tallensi tribeof the Gold Coast stands at the bottomof
the list, because not even associations are knownto exist there
and to be differentiated
fromthe lineage groups.
One troublewith a classificationof this kind is that it is based
on the assumption that nothing escaped the attention of the
workerin the field. To say that associationsare unknownto the
Tallensi, really amounts to saying that our only authorityon
this tribehas failedto mentionthem. On the otherhand,we are
also told about the Tallensi that two types of chiefscan be distinguishedamong them,the junior one being known locally as
" custodian of the earth," and that "both rule communities."
This sounds like a safer startingpointthan the absence of menof a Tswana Tribe,Cape Town,1947; Talbot,P. A., The Peoples of SouthernNigeria,4 vols.,London, 1926.
4 Fortes,M. and Evans-Pritchard,
E. E. AfricanPolitical Systems,London, 1940.
in West Africa,"in Africa,21:261-78,
5 Brown,P., "Patternsof Authority
6 Fortes, M., The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi,London,
1945,p. 182.

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tion of associations,thoughwe would still want to know more

about these chiefsthan being told that "no political power as
we understandit " exists amongthe Tallensi.
The divisionof powerbetweentwo typesof chiefs,extendedto
the lowest possible level, exists outsidethe Gold Coast. Among
the Kundu, or Mongo tribeof the CentralCongo,such divisionis
general.In the particularcase of the Bankutshusub-tribeof the
Oshwe region,it exists in each one of nine independentpolitical
systems which are distributedover an area of 10,000 square
miles, with a population of only 35,000 inhabitantsin all (average per unit, less than 4,000). Each unit has a central and
authorityconsistingof a seniorchief,and each
village has a highlyrespectedlocal authority,that of the " master of the earth," around whom all life in the communitycenters.7 There are, moreover, inter-tribalrelationships which
extend to the villages of Batwa pygmies on one hand, every
pygmy village being the collective slave of a Kundu village,8
while most units, on the otherhand, claim that the neighboring
unit located south of them also is a collectiveslave. Significant
remarkshave been made by a Britishcolonial officer
a thirdAfricanarea, the Tanganyika Territory,wherethe native
political structurehas been inquiredinto recently,in view of the
failure of the celebrated" indirectrule" policy. It was found,
for example,that in the tribal unit of the Wanyakyusa, twelve
independentchiefshad been recognizedfora total populationof
a quarter of a million (average, 20,000). These chiefs,once
granted the full support of the colonial authorities,had made
themselvesunpopularformany reasons,one of thembeinghasty
codificationof customsand issuance of writtenlaws. The British
are now administeringthe countrywith the help of Europeanmade councils,a systemwhich gives more prominencethan beforeto the village chiefs.9

7First observedby Maes, J., Notes sur les populationsdes bassinsdu

Kasai, de la Lukenie et du Lac Leopold II, Brussels,1924.

8sDe Langhe,A., and Comhaire,J.,"De Batwa van het GewestOshwe,"
in Zaire, 1:1145-47,1947.
9 Kingdon,Z. E., "The Initiationof a Systemof Local Government

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The fact that such observationsweremade by a colonial officer

leads us to the general remarkthat, in addition to fieldwork,
thereis a need formakinguse of the largelyuntappedsource of
reanthropologicalmaterialthat consistsof colonial government
ports. These reportsofteninclude considerationson the native
authoritiesof high value to anthropologists. A comparisonof
resultsobtained amongsimilarsocieties,by government
of isolated native political units. By way of example, let us
mentionthat the British who, in the early twenties,claimed to
have foundin "indirectrule" a trulyscientificmethodof government,recognizedin Nigeria 640 so-called "native authorities,"in
a populationof 22 million (average, 34,000),10while the colonial
organizationin French West Africa gave prominenceto 48,000
village chiefs (average, 320), ratherthan to 2,200 senior chiefs
(average, 7,250).11 As there has been, forthe last thirtyyears,
much greaterpeace and satisfactionamong the rural population
administeredby the Frenchthan therehas been in Britishterritories,there is at least a chance that the French were rightin
theirselectionof the type of chiefthat shouldserveas the corner
stoneof theirsystemof native administration.A Frenchcolonial
governoronce stated that the authorityof the village chiefhas a
sacred character,derivedfromthe custodyof the village grounds,
and that this character is lacking in the senior chief, whose
authorityis a matterof conquestand of forceas alien as that of
the colonial poweritself.12 The new Britishpolicy,styled"local
tends to put the village chiefin a similarsituation
to that which he holds in French territories.Going back to the
Tanganyika example,this is justifiedin a practicalway by stating that "the basis of local authorityin.a Bantu communityis
not the power to dispensejustice and mete out punishment,but
AfricanRural Councilsin the RungweDistrictof Tanganyika,"in Journal
of AfricanAdministration,
10Perham,M., Native Administration
in Nigeria,London, 1937.
in FrenchWestAfrica,Lon1 Delavignette,R., Freedomand Authority
don, 1950.
Delavignette,R., op. cit.,p. 75.

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lies in a traditionalheritageand in the powerto allocate land." 1

What remainsto be seen is how such power of allocatingland
comes to the village chief. No one who knows Africancircumstances would say that this is a merelypolitical problem. The
beliefthat poweris not just a matterof politicsor economicsbut
rather a social phenomenonmay need demonstrationin our
sophisticatedwesternworld,14 but it can be taken for granted
in African societies. The village chief cannot possibly be distinguishedfromthe tribal chief on the groundthat he received
his power fromthe latter one. The Americanconcept of communitymay provide the answer. Its most commonacceptance
today is that of "the maximal group of persons who normally
reside togetherin face-to-faceassociation" and such a group,in
contemporaryAmerica,is rarely foundto exceed 1,000 to 1,200
people, even in individual instances.'" There is no doubt that
communityfeelingsare strong in Africa. Though the word is
seldom used by British anthropologists,
and never in its American scholarlysense, what it means lies behind such remarksas
the following,namely, that indirectrule actually narrowedthe
circle of activitiesof the Kede chiefsof CentralNigeria,by substitutinga definiteconstitutionimposed by the British-who,
incidentally,themselvesnever accepted a constitution-to provide the all-roundguidance and protectionthat the people previously expected fromtheir chiefsin true communityfashion."6
The African village is a communityAmericanosensu, and the
superiorityof the "master of the earth" over the senior chiefs
can apparentlybe explainedby the factthat he benefitsfromthe
intensityof communityspiritthat prevails around him.
This capacity of the village communityto produce its leader
may be linkedto the amazing capacity to producechiefsthat has
been ascribedto Africaas a whole. Leaders come to the foreby
13Kingdon,Z. E., op. cit.

14Bierstedt,R., "An Analysisof Social Power,"in AmericanSociological

Review, 15: 720-38,1950.

15Murdock, G. P., "Feasibility and Implementationof Comparative
CommunityResearch,with Special Referenceto the Human Relations
Area Files, in AmericanSociologicalReview,15: 713-20,1950.
Nadel, F., in Fortes and Evans-Pritchard,
op. cit.

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informalways that Europeans are unable to understandeven

among groupsof migrantlaborersgoingon the move all overthe
continentbeforeharvesttime. The capacity of solvingits problem of leadership spontaneouslyseems to be the outstanding
characteristicof the Africanilliteratecommunity. Its reaction
to writtenlaws made by senior chiefsor by colonial authorities
may well stem out of an unconsciousfeelingthat a basic factor
of theirancestrallife is threatenedby the advent of a technique
making effectivecontrolthroughsecondarycontacts easier than
under original native circumstances. In European-made urban
centers,on the other hand, the breakdown of communitylife
observed in developing
may go far to explain the difficulties
native leadership.
As to rural areas, an Afro-Americanexample of this cultural
trait may be foundin Haiti. To speak of the national government of Haiti would be a task beyond the scope of this study,
and I do not intendto show here how the subject has been mishandled by observersof doubtfulanthropologicalauthority: I
am referring
to the Haitian systemof local government,
and which
remarkablefor its stability and smooth functioning,
has neverbeen subject to a systematicinquiry. Government-appointed commandantsall over the Republic are in chargeof 551
"sections," with an average population of 5,800 souls each.'"
This, accordingto the writtenlaw, is as small a unit as is recand it is worthmentioning
ognized by the national government,
that the Belgians,in the trustterritoryof Ruanda-Urundi,which
is twice the size of Haiti, have recognizedtwice that number
(exactly, 1,118) of "hill chiefs,"with an average population of
3,500 foreach hill."'
But how does a Haitian sectionwork? It is the law of Haiti
that the commandantexercisesonly strictlydefinedpowers of
police, and that he may request the help of not more than two
assistants,withno particularterritorialjurisdiction. A different
17Republique d'Haiti, Recensementde la Republique d'Haiti, Premier
de la population,Port au Prince,1951.
18 Comhaire,
in Zaire 5:1047J.,"Situationgeneraledu Ruanda-Urundi,"
54, 1951.

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picture is obtained when travellingacross the countryand observingthe commandantsat work in such places as the Marbial
valley, wherefourof themare in chargeof a populationof 30,000
(average, 7,500). The commandant,thougha peasant himself,is
conscious that his appointmentwas made by some remote
authorityforeignto the local population. So when, on every
Friday morning,he starts preparinghis report for the police
in town, all necessaryprecautionsare taken to secure the
approval of the communitiesall around. Their representatives
are there,usually two dozen of them (average, circa 310), sitting beside him underthe thatchedroofthat constituteshis office.
They tell him about all events,and more than one judicial case
is settled betweenthem, informally,in a pleasant mannerthat
the Haitian law ignoresbut which has been recognizedas legal
in FrenchAfricanterritories.The main sourceof trouble,under
such happy circumstances,is the existence of writtenpapers
which persons of bad faith sometimesuse against the illiterate
and community-minded
peasants, especially in the matter of
land tenure."9
This subject, as all anthropologicalsubjects,certainlyrequires
more researchthan has gone into this study. Neverthelessthere
seem to be valid reasons fortaking the communityconceptinto
account,when tryingto analyze the structureof powerin Africa
and in Afro-Americansocieties. Let us, however,beware of the
exaggerationthat Africanpolitical units mightbe nothingmore
than communities,and that they could, as such, be contrasted
societies of the so-called civilized
with the "government-run"
peoples. The senior chiefs,so far as I can see, are regularheads
of government. Their authorityexists,thoughit is weaker and
moreremoteso long as the intensecommunityspirit,whichis the
soul of village life and the strengthof the "masterof the earth,"
with by the technologicalcapacity of maintainis not interfered
secondary contacts through the medium of the
19Comhaire-Sylvain, S., Land Tenure in the Marbial Region of Haiti,
in Acculturation in the Americas, Selected Papers of the XXIXth International Congress of Americanists,Chicago, 1952, pp. 180-84.

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I have limitedmy hypothesisto fieldswhichI know fromfirsthand observation. Certain remarks which others have made
about AmericanIndians lead me to suspect that this may be a
more widespreadphenomenon. It is said, forinstance,regarding
NorthwestCoast societythat "the strictlypolitical powersof a
chief were disproportionatelysmall when compared with his
social eminence."20 Even in contemporaryAmerican society,
communityinfluencehas been foundto be relatedto the extentof
controlof local activitiesby higherauthorities.21
Lowie, R. H., PrimitiveSociety,New York,1920,p. 383.
21White, J. E., "Theory and Method for Research in Community

Leadership," in American Sociological Review, 15:50-60, 1950.

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