Ewe and Fon - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. There is virtually no formal hierarchy in many Ewe groups, except for the difference between slaves and their owners in times past. Even this crucial difference is now subject to ritual, during which some Ewe worship the spirits of their ancestors' slaves, thereby turning the tables on their past position of superiority. In Anlo there is some prestige in "royal" lineages, but there is no real class system other than that brought into existence by the capitalist economy, which now touches all Ewe and Fon to some extent, and especially those who live in towns and cities. In the Kingdom of Dahomey, the royal lineages were effectively an elite who did not labor. Both Ewe and Fon had domestic slaves, who often married nonslaves and had children with them. The children in some communities were a sort of in-between class; in other localities, they were free. In any case, after two or three generations, they were no longer tied to a slave class.

Political Organization. Although the Anlo polity was called a "state" at various periods, Green (1981, 1995) maintains it was not a true state but rather an attempt at centralization. The organizing principles were religious and clan-based rather than political or military in the strict sense. The Anlo did not have expansionist ambitions to compare with those of their Asante neighbors, who often ruled over them, or those of their Fon neighbors to the east, who maintained a royal city and a standing army. As early as the seventeenth century in the Volta region, elders were at the head of lineages, wards (lineage residential units), and villages. The awoamefia (political and spiritual leader, or chief priest) resided in Anloga. At the turn of the twentieth century, Ewe polities were divided into about 120 independent divisions. Each division had a number of villages, with a subchief in each one, and its own capital, with a paramount chief and military commander-inchief. Succession was patrilineal. Today political organization in villages may be quite egalitarian, although chiefs and elders (both male and female) do have more decision-making authority than younger adults. Fon villages had village autonomy before they were consolidated into a kingdom in the seventeenth century, and thus each village chief was a "king" ( toxosu ) to whom the heads of each compound answered. The Kingdom of Dahomey forced these chiefs to swear loyalty to the ruler or be sacrificed (some were sold into slavery). Sibs in Fon villages have considerable political influence, as do clans in Anlo and lineages and religious societies in other Ewe regions; the chief is hardly all-powerful.

Social Control. Although during the colonial period chiefs had considerable control (and still do as far as administrative decisions are concerned), authority is widely distributed in villages and regions. Whereas all Ewe and Fon are nominally under the jurisdiction of British- and French-inspired legal systems, the laws of the ancestors and the moral frameworks of Vodu worship tend to have just as much, if not more, authority than official law in many communities. Even in colonial and precolonial periods, the office of chief and the ranks of the elders were usually filled with men (and some women) who were linked to religious orders.

Individual behavior for many is constantly interpreted and adjusted through the lenses of Afa (or Fa) divination, which includes the "laws of destiny," or the "law-deity who brought me here" ( esesidomeda ). Thus, supernatural sanctions are more powerful than state legal systems for numerous Ewe and Fon. In the Kingdom of Dahomey, kings were tyrannical according to numerous sources; village chiefs, in keeping with earlier practices, were not. Decisions of village chiefs had to be reported to the king, however, so that final control was in his hands. The king's tribunal of chiefs was expected to judge harshly so that the king himself could demonstrate clemency by lightening the sentence. During the colonial period, there was great tension between certain Ewe Vodu orders and colonial administrators who claimed the Vodu "courts" were presuming to take the place of official courts. Numerous shrines were thus destroyed by German and British authorities. Vodu worshipers often did not consider the powers of the colonial governments to be legitimate.

Conflict. Conflict in villages is typically brought to a group of "judges," including the chief, Vodu priests, and both male and female elders. The entire village has the right to attend, and whoever wishes to speak may do so. Often divorce cases, theft, assault, and instances of injury through witchcraft do not go before official courts of law. Even cases that do go before official courts of law, including murder, may be rejudged by Vodu priests and communities because the conflict at the source of the crime is not thought to be merely personal. All conflict is a reflection of the social body in its relationship to the rest of the cosmos (see "Social Control").


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