Symposium #152: “Fire and the Genus Homo”

The 152nd Wenner-Gren Symposium, “Fire and the Genus Homo” has just recently wrapped in Sintra, Portugal. As always, you can expect a Current Anthropology special issue forthcoming, containing the meeting’s papers and available to all 100% Open-Access.

FRONT ROW: Laurie Obbink, Sarah Hlubik, Meg Thibodeau, Vera Aldeias, Carolina Mallol, Ran Barkai, Xing Gao MIDDLE ROW: Nira Alperson-Afil, Leslie Aiello, Simon Holdaway, Amanda Henry, Michael Chazan, Jill Pruetz, Paul Goldberg TOP ROW: John Gowlett, Richard Wrangham, Harold Dibble, Randall White, Dennis Sandgathe, Francesco Berna, Fatima Pinto

 

Organizers’ Statement

 

“Fire and the Genus Homo

Francesco Berna (Simon Fraser University)

Dennis Sandgathe (Simon Fraser University)

We have come to recognize that the nature of human adaptations must be viewed in the context of bio-cultural evolution. For the last 2.5 million years, at least, hominins have evolved both biologically and culturally with these two facets irretrievably entangled. Fire use must be seen as one of the most important of the technological components of this interplay: it has very likely had major effects on our biological evolution, which in turn likely led to other major technological changes, such as the development of clothing and artificial shelter and changes in hominin diet. In fact, the biology, micro-environment, and behavior of modern humans are deeply entangled with fire-use to the point that the survival of our species has come to essentially depend on it.

 

While there has always been general interest among anthropologists and archaeologists in the role fire played in human evolution, in the last 10 years new hypotheses and archaeological finds in Africa and Eurasia have sparked a renewed interest in trying to further our understanding. In the 1980s and 1990s the focus of this kind of research was more on trying to recognize the oldest evidence for hominin use of fire.  Recent interest has shifted to the questions about how and when fire use became an established and integral part of all hominin cultures. The first evidence for hominin use of fire does not necessarily mark the point at which hominins learned how to make it and it became inextricably part of hominin technological repertoires. Recent discoveries suggest that the history of hominin use of fire is more complex than previously hypothesized and that anthropologists and archaeologists should be more critical of potential evidence of hominin use of fire.

 

Based on current bio-anthropological, phylogenetic, and/or archaeological data we believe we could identify four general models for the role played by the use of fire in the evolution of the Genus Homo. These are alternative views on the timing and nature of the adoption of fire use:

  1. Homo erectus was fully adapted to a cooked food diet and had controlled use of fire by or shortly after two million years ago (the “cooking hypothesis”).
  2. Gradual or intermittent use of fire began during the Early Stone Age (i.e., by groups of Homo erectus and early H. heidelbergensis).
  3. Hominins (H. heidelbergensis?) used it first and used it in the process of colonizing higher latitude regions of Europe and Asia at the end of the Lower Pleistocene or during the early Middle Pleistocene.
  4. Humans had complete control of fire only with the appearance of H. sapiens at the onset of the Late Stone Age/Upper Palaeolithic.

 

Thus, work on the evidence of early fire use is clearly necessary to help answer the fundamental anthropological question: “How did humans become human?” This symposium is designed to bring together scholars who are conducting leading research on the origin of the controlled use of fire and its cultural and biological significance to the genus Homo.

 

Researchers have begun to collect, review and employ new types of archaeological and biological data and have started to pose new questions about the role of fire in human evolution. There is also a notable increase in the number of researchers who are focused specifically on questions of prehistoric fire use. In past decades most analysis of Palaeolithic fire residues was simply one of many issues individual archaeologists might address in the course of interpreting a site. This was typically done in isolation from data from other sites and from other researchers who may have an interest in the topic, and it was not often directed towards bigger questions of prehistoric fire use.

 

While access to new data is an important part of the process of assessing the relative merits of these different models, the goal of the symposium is not just to discuss data collection techniques or the interpretation of individual archaeological sites. Rather, the aim is to collectively review the old and the newer data, revise methodological approaches, discuss integrated, up-to-date scenarios for hominin development of fire technology, and develop a theoretical and methodological framework for future research. The objectives of the symposium include:

 

  • Discussing best possible approaches to select and integrate data collection: what types of data are particularly important for understanding prehistoric fire use and what is the importance of disseminating these data? Should (and can) certain standards of data collection be established? Are there other types of data that we should be collecting?

 

  • Developing a common understanding of what is meant by the terms ‘occasional,’ ‘habitual,’ and ‘controlled’ use of fire. These terms have become rather entrenched in the literature, but their actual meaning remains ambiguous: different researchers may have slightly different intentions with their use and different understandings of their implications.

 

  • Developing anthropological and archaeological methodological criteria by which researchers could identify when humans started to use fire occasionally or habitually, and when they developed the technology to create it. These issues have implications for the development of hominin migration/distributions, diet, bio-cultural evolution, and the onset of ‘modern behavior.’

 

  • Examining the role that cooking may have played in the bio-cultural evolution of the Genus Homo.

 

  • Addressing questions about the function of fire in pre-modern human adaptations (e.g., specific fire applications, degree of reliance); the role of fire in Late Pleistocene adaptations (Neanderthals and early Anatomically Modern Humans); and the role of fire in the emergence of modern behavior.

Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Suvanthee Gunasekera

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the final post of a series meeting this year’s cohort (here’s the first and second) we meet Suvanthee Gunasekera. A native of Sri Lanka, Gunasekera pursued her undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Colombo and will begin work on a doctorate in Biological Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champlain.

Although we never see them with the naked eye, microorganisms play an important role in shaping human biology. My fascination with human evolution and variation was ignited during my undergraduate studies in Zoology at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. I was intrigued by the role of microorganisms in the development of human physiology, and by how the immune system detects and responds to infectious agents.

An interest in the interactions between humans and pathogens was the stimulus to undertake an epidemiological study to detect Human papillomavirus (HPV) in oral and pharyngeal cancer patients where the results of the study suggested HPV as a strong aetiological agent in developing oral and pharyngeal cancer in Sri Lanka. This aroused my curiosity of how infectious agents cause cancers, how such pathogens are transmitted and why they are expressed so variably in infected humans. The project also prompted me to try understand the biological differences in human populations and to investigate the manner in which they have evolutionarily diverged at the level of the immune response.

Soon, it came to my realization that the field of Biological Anthropology would best suit my research goals. Now, it is my desire to be one of the few fortunate individuals studying host-pathogen interactions to better understand human evolution and to produce basic research that can be applied not just to Biological Anthropology/Human Evolutionary Biology, but can also be useful in the development of products and strategies to reduce the global burden of infectious disease. With a particular emphasis on questions relating to human immune system diversification and co-evolution with pathogens, I will conduct research that combines immunologic, genetic, cell biology and bioinformatic techniques to better understanding human evolution. I believe that examining how past pathogen outbreaks and life experience affect present day immune function variation in humans will not only enlighten the study of human evolution, but also help deepen the connection between Anthropology and fields concerned with modern day disease challenges in humans.

NYAS @ WGF, October 26th: “Persistence between the Longue Durée and the Short Purée: Archaeological Perspectives on Colonialism and Indigeneity in New England”

The second installment of this season’s New York Academy of Sciences Anthropology Section Lecture Series will take place this coming Monday, October 26th, at our offices. We welcome Stephen W. Stillman, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Historical Archaeology Graduate Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, along with discussant Bradley Phillippi, Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University.

An anthropological understanding of colonialism and indigeneity in the Americas requires confronting several important questions about the connections between time, materiality, place, and people. How do archaeologists and other anthropologists measure culture change and continuity and at what scale, and why is the question framed in that way? How do people engage their pasts to live through their present and anticipate their future, and why has that been harder to visualize for archaeologists than for cultural anthropologists? What are the implications of these concepts and interpretations on pressing political and heritage issues today? This presentation will explore some potential answers to these questions, using an example of a collaborative archaeological project since 2003 between the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, a Native American community in Connecticut that has occupied its reservation lands since 1683. I argue that a notion of “persistence” may provide some relief to these questions (or more appropriately perhaps, dilemmas), not only as both an interpretive and a lived practice that resolves some tensions of the “longue durée” of indigenous history and the “short purée” of colonialism, but also as a perspective growing out of on-the-ground community engagement with indigenous communities today.

As always, the 7:00 PM lecture will be preceded by a reception at 6:00 PM. Registration with NYAS is not required.

Meet Our 2015 Wadsworth International Fellows: Elif Irem Az

The Wadsworth International Fellowship provides the opportunity for students in countries where anthropological education is underrepresented to receive world-class training at a university abroad. In the second of a series of posts introducing this year’s new cohort of fellows (here’s the first), we meet Elif Irem Az of Turkey, whose work concerns militarism, gender and violence and will be studying for a doctorate at Columbia University.

During my undergraduate studies in Political Science and International Relations at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, my compulsory courses largely focused on quantitative research methods and grand theoretical narratives, which usually disregard the experience and subjectivity of both the subjects of the study and the researcher. As a result of my disappointment towards the mainstream research practice within political science as well as of my active involvement with the feminist movement(s) in Turkey, in the later stages of my undergraduate education, I gravitated towards sociocultural anthropology, a discipline which takes into account the significance of self-reflexivity and textuality.

I enrolled in the Master of Arts program in Cultural Studies at Sabancı University in the fall of 2012 with a full scholarship and teaching assistantship, and received my master’s degree in September 2014. Owing to my experience at Sabancı University, teaching is of great value to my academic life.

My master’s thesis entitled Military Masculinities in the Making: Professional Military Education in Contemporary Turkey was on military masculinities and professional military education in contemporary Turkey, and I have ongoing interests in militaries, militarism, gender and violence.

The connections between the body/self and labor in Turkey are central to my current research interests. In my doctoral work, I plan to focus on the intersections of the ongoing rural transformation in Aegean Turkey, national and international agricultural regulations of the neoliberal era, public discourses and policies on coal mining, and mineworkers’ understandings of the body as the self and as labor, and of life and death. Finally, I hope the interplay between fieldwork, ethnographic writing and fiction to be a fundamental concern of my research and writing.

White Activists in Indigenous Australia: Discussion on Anti-Racism, Solidarity and Humanism

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Robert Samet and “Engaging Journalism”

Robert Samet is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Union College. In 2008 while a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Writing Crime: Journalism, Insecurity, and Narratives of Violence in Caracas, Venezuela,’ supervised by Dr. Sylvia Junko Yanagisako. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant.

One year ago Venezuela was at a crossroads. The death of President Hugo Chávez altered the country’s political landscape and there were questions about what the future held. Today it is in crisis. Soaring inflation, plummeting oil prices, and scarcity of goods have helped fuel frustration and political unrest. No one feels the current predicament more than Venezuelan journalists. My dissertation research (2007-2009) examined the press and the politics of urban violence in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas. It used crime reporting as a window onto the dynamics of political engagement among journalists, editors, and media owners. I applied for the Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant to conduct a series of follow-up workshops during the summer of 2014 about the promises and perils of engaged journalism in these times of political uncertainty.

As I prepared for the workshops, it became apparent that the environment for journalism in Caracas had changed dramatically since my last visit in 2013. Political polarization is nothing new in Venezuela; however, there was a heightened sense of professional precariousness among journalists working in both the public and the private sectors. There were good reasons for this. Over the past two years, government proxies bought out many prominent opposition news outlets. This accompanied a wave of firings and retirements, which have shaken the profession. When I began research on journalism in Caracas in 2006, it was arguably the most robust, open, diverse, and politically dynamic media environment in the world. Although reports that “press freedom” is dead in Venezuela are premature, there is no doubt that the space for journalistic engagement has constricted considerably. This should be cause for concern not just for the opposition but for the government as well. Auto-critique was essential to the success of the Bolivarian Revolution, and its gradual disappearance is foreboding.

What kinds of journalistic engagement are possible under the current conditions? Workshop participants discussed a number of different definitions and strategies for engagement, which I highlight here.

 

I. Definitions of Engagement

Over the course of the workshops, journalists offered three different definitions of engagement: engagement as confrontation, engagement as collaboration, and engagement as solidarity. By far the most common definition was engagement as confrontation. Journalists saw themselves as advocates for ordinary citizens against the wrongdoings of powerful persons and institutions. In this capacity, it was essential for journalists to engage publicly with the problems facing the country. However, this particular mode of engagement was becoming increasingly fraught. Consequently, journalists had begun thinking about engagement as collaboration with audiences and their peers.  This took the shape of online forums and reciprocal strategies with other journalists. Finally, some workshop participants argued that professional solidarity was a third way to think about engagement. Journalist unions were crucial to the continued protection of the profession and could offer a mode of engagement that sought to preserve the integrity of their work.

 

II. Outlets for Engagement

1)     Denunciation: In the past, the practice of denunciation was the principal means by which Venezuelan journalists attempted to exercise influence over the political arena. Among crime journalists, denunciations took the form of victims’ testimonies against police corruption, gang violence, and government neglect. It was widely agreed that editors, pressured from above, had begun cracking down on this practice. Although journalists believed that denunciation remained one of their most powerful tools for political engagement, they agreed that it had become necessary to reserve it for only the most extraordinary cases. Whereas before it was common to publish denunciations that were not backed by strong investigation, such testimonies now demanded hard factual evidence. Some even said that this was an improvement over past practices in which the press used victims to launch ad hominem attacks. 

2)     Online engagement: Although Venezuelan journalists have been using social media for as long as their peers in North America (especially Twitter and Facebook), the current situation has amplified the importance of online communities as sites of journalistic engagement. Workshop participants identified three main developments. The first was the rise of peer-to-peer engagements with readers. More than ever, journalists found themselves responding directly to comments and queries from audiences. The second was the incorporation of citizen journalism into the practice of professional reporting. Reporters said that readers and viewers were important sources of information with whom they increasingly collaborated. Third and finally, there was a boom in for-profit online news outlets. Journalists had some hope that these new outlets might at least temporarily make up for some of the license that they had lost in other spheres.

3)     Professional Organization: Within the newsrooms, unions and professional associations were a critical tool of empowerment. In particular, the workers’ unions played a strong role in protecting journalists and fostering professional solidarity. Although reporters were openly divided on the prospects for activism on the part of these unions, it was clear that they were an important locus for journalistic engagement.

4)     Collaboration: Finally, a group of crime reporters argued that collaboration between reporters was also a form of engagement that was too often overlooked or demeaned as “pack journalism.” Among crime reporters, journalists from competing news outlets worked together to cover stories and often shared information. Responding to my own writings on this subject, they pointed out that working in teams allowed them to be more thorough in their investigations, to engage more thoroughly with the victims of crime, and to cover a much larger swath of material than would otherwise be possible.

 

In addition to debates about journalistic engagement, the workshops also provided an opportunity for the participants to offer comments and critique on the research that I conducted with the help of the Wenner-Gren Foundation (2008-2009). Two of my current chapters were translated and circulated in advance. They provided a platform for a grounded conversation about what has changed and what remains the same in the field. The Wenner-Gren Engaged Anthropology Grant afforded the rare opportunity for research participants to offer feedback on the framing and execution of the book manuscript in progress.

 

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Socializando “Guerrilla Marketing” in Colombia

 

Alex Fattal is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. In 2009, while a Ph.D. student at Harvard, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Guerrilla Marketing: Information Warfare and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels,’ supervised by Dr. Kimberly Susan Theidon. Last year, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant, enabling him to return to his fieldsite in Bogota and share his research with the community that hosted him. 

Over the course of late July and early August 2014, I traveled to four cities in Colombia to share the findings from my dissertation research, Guerrilla Marketing: Information War and the Demobilization of FARC Rebels with Colombian scholars and policy-makers. That research was funded in part by the Wenner-Gren Foundation’s Dissertation Fieldwork Grant.

I presented my conclusions in a political context in which peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reached an advanced stage. Provisional agreements have been signed for three of the five agenda items. This made my research into the individual demobilization of FARC combatants all the more germane to my audience. I shared my work at four different universities: La Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, ICESI Universidad in Cali, la Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, and the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. The audiences were very engaged in my presentations, often asking lively questions about Colombia’s much-anticipated “post-conflict” future.

Much of the discussion that my presentations generated spun around the implications of my research for the current peace process in Colombia, and how representational practices are playing a crucial role in the political struggle to support or undermine the peace process. Although it is an ongoing story, one of the primary conclusions from the discussion was that the Santos Administration needs to do a better job of communicating the progress that is being made in the negotiations, rather than assuming a reactive posture to those who have cast aspersions on the process and doomed it to failure.

I also extended my engagement with Colombian audiences, as planned, with a few regional and national media outlets. In addition to the presentations I gave interviews to campus media groups, and local and national media outlets such as El Universal and Semana. I only hope that I was as articulate as I implored the government to be. I advocated for a radical reorientation of the current model of demobilization in anticipation of the collective demobilization to come. (I have crystallized my policy recommendations in a paper I put together with Colombian colleagues here).

My thesis research also included a documentary film project that is in the middle of production. I shared a very rough cut of that visual ethnography in each of the four cities. The film, Dreams from the Concrete Mountain, enters into the psychological worlds of former combatants who have been both perpetrators and victims of the country’s ongoing civil war. The film project centers on a series of interviews with former insurgents inside of a truck that I have transformed into a camera obscura. That space becomes an intimate place for recounting life trajectories entangled with the social problems that are the root causes of the conflict, and the armed confrontations that are its most visible symptoms. Audiences were intrigued by the filming technique and impressed the direct style of narration, stories they might have heard before but through the words and framings of experts and others who speak as surrogates for ex-combatants. The dialogue that emerged around the film gave me a series of ideas as I continue to shoot and edit this project, and injected me with enthusiasm that the project is fulfilling its main goals: to humanize and complicate the figure of the former guerrilla fighter.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for enabling me to share (or socializer, one of my favorite Spanish words) with Colombian scholars, students, and policy makers. I would like to acknowledge the help and support of my hosts at the Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad ICESI, Universidad del Norte, and Universidad de los Andes, more specifically the colleagues that helped make it happen: Jonathan Echeverri (Antioquia), Inge Valencia (ICESI), Diana Rico (Norte), and Pablo Jaramillo and Monica Espinosa (Andes).

Engaged Anthropology Grant: ‘Medicine, Morality and the Market: A Workshop’

Denielle Elliott is a member of the Health & Society faculty in the Department of Social Science at York University. In 2008, while at the University of British Columbia, she received a Post-Ph.D. Research Grant to  aidresearch on ‘Safari Research and Field Science: The Spatial Politics of HIV Vaccine Clinical Trials in Kenya’. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to follow up her research by returning to her fieldsite and conducting a multidisciplinary two-day workshop in Kisumu, Kenya to discuss the ways in which medicine, morality and market values are entwined.

This collaborative workshop between Maseno University’s Department of Anthropology and myself aimed to offer an opportunity for local Kenyan scholars to discuss the ways in which medical research is conducted in East Africa. The Kisumu region in the province of Nyanza in Kenya was called a “laboratory” by Dutch NGO Wemos, reflecting the amount of medical research being conducted in the area by foreign organizations like Liverpool University, the Wellcome Trust, the CDC, the US Army’s Walter Reed Project, among others. This massive assemblage of research in the area has multiple, sometimes contradictory, effects on local communities and organizations providing care and health services to Kenyans.

Our collaborative workshop offered a space for creative, productive, and engaging conversations about medicine, the global flow of capital, and local unintended effects of medicine and the market on values, culture, and morality. More importantly, participants in the workshop felt comfortable talking openly and critically about both the positive and negative consequences of medical research in western Kenya.

The workshop was held at Maseno University’s City Campus, in Kisumu, Nyanza, Kenya December 9   and 10 2014. We had papers delivered by 12 participants (faculty and graduate students from East Africa), 35 people in attendance, and the keynote was given by Professor Omar Egesah from Moi University in Eldoret.

Dr. Omar Egesah’s keynote discussed the politics of global aid and humanitarianism, and highlighted  local tensions in the ways in which aid and global health research are rolled out in East Africa. They keynote offered many questions for debate and discussion during the questions period. The themes he raised – inequities, ethics, and local governing structures – were revisited throughout the workshop in both discussions and the papers being delivered. In many ways, the workshop worked towards decolonizing medical research in Kenya by shifting the power relations in who gets to define local health and research priorities.

Introducing SAPIENS: A New Voice for Anthropology

Leslie Aiello, Wenner-Gren Foundation

Anthropology has a long tradition of public engagement. From Franz Boas’ battles over concepts of race, to Margaret Mead’s revelations about sexuality, to Ruth Benedict’s illuminations of national character, anthropologists have sought to use their insights to shape public conversations.

Yet, in the last generation, anthropologists have increasingly struggled to find ways to connect with the public at large. Although there have been important efforts by a range of scholars in recent years, as a field we have fallen far short of our potential. Anthropological research has arguably never been more relevant to the world we live in. War, climate change, health, economic disparity, forensics, identity, race, digital media, consumption, language loss, our origins as a species—these are just some of the themes that anthropologists tackle every day. The public, however, doesn’t learn about these issues from the scholars who study them most closely. Instead, the gap between anthropology and the public has been selectively filled by the popular media.

A number of factors have led to anthropologists’ limited engagement with the public. Too often, public engagement unfolds through single efforts by scholars working in isolation—an op-ed here, a TED talk there. There has been a noticeable lack of resources committed to public dialogue about anthropology, and this work has not always been valued by the discipline’s institutions. Anthropology, on the whole, has not gracefully entered the 21st century media landscape.

We hope this is about to change.

In January 2016, the Wenner-Gren Foundation will launch SAPIENS, an editorially independent online publication dedicated to popularizing anthropological research to a broad, public audience. The publication’s goals are to serve as an authoritative source of information about anthropological research, make anthropology more accessible to the general public, and demonstrate anthropology’s relevance to everyday life. Through news coverage, features, commentaries, reviews, and more, SAPIENS provides a public platform for anthropological research as well as for anthropological insights into current events.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation has undertaken this effort to celebrate its 75th year of supporting anthropology worldwide. Substantial resources have been invested in the publication, which will become a key part of the foundation’s ongoing investment in the field. Just as the foundation’s Current Anthropology has become a premier journal for academic dialogue, we hope that SAPIENS will become the nexus for anthropology in the public sphere.

SAPIENS will publish content that provides smart and surprising insights into human culture, language, biology, and history. We’ll skip the dry and stuffy for witty and fun, fresh and incisive, authentic and down-to-earth. Our aim is to deepen our readers’ understanding of the human experience through exciting, novel, thought-provoking, and unconventional ideas that are grounded in anthropological research, theories, and thinking.

Will you join us?

We need your help in spreading the word of the site’s launch to your colleagues, friends, and family. We also hope you will consider writing for us. We want to ensure the site reflects the ideas, views, and work of the entire field—we need your voice to be heard.

Please visit us at: www.sapiens.org.

Engaged Anthropology Grant: Strengthening female political leadership and orphan interventions through community-based research

Break time with queen mothers of Manya Krobo Traditional Area during the Community Engagement Workshop (June 2013)

Bright Drah is an independent scholar based in Alberta, Canada. In 2008, while a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, he received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Crisis Fostering in an Age of HIV/AIDS: Experiences of Queen Mothers of Manya Krobo, Ghana,’ supervised by Dr. Daniel W. Sellen. In 2013, he received the Engaged Anthropology Grant

The Community Engagement Project (the Project) is in follow up to my 2008-2010 Dissertation Fieldwork on orphan foster care by queen mothers (traditional female leaders) in the Manya Krobo Traditional Area (MKTA) of Ghana. After disseminating the preliminary findings of the fieldwork in 2009, ‘orphan stakeholders’ (queen mothers, government officials, NGO executives, community leaders, health, education and social workers and journalists) requested that actions be taken to address the challenges identified by the study, especially to empower queen mothers and improve the wellbeing of orphans. They suggested that the empowerment process be facilitated by a “neutral person”, other than queen mothers or chiefs.

Queen mothers’ are responsible for the wellbeing of their citizens, including orphans. Their work is conducted through the 371-member pseudo-formal Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Association (MKQMA). Unfortunately, the members do not make the decisions that govern the MKQMA; they cannot independently elect their leaders and the leaders are not directly accountable to the members. Rather, the paramount chief (Konor) and leader of the traditional authority has the final authority in appointing leaders.

Consequently, queen mothers are unable to challenge their leaders on issues such as abuse of power. In essence, they are frustrated by this sense of powerlessness. They assert that the  governance structure is “unfair”, however, any attempt to change the status quo is misconstrued as disobedience to the traditional authority. The situation is exacerbated by mutual distrust and infighting among the members and apathy towards the MKQMA. A strong MKQMA is critical because it enhances the position of queen mothers as leaders and advocates. It is also a channel for soliciting and distributing kin- and non-kin support to queen mothers and orphans.

In May-June 2013, I facilitated four workshops in MKTA to help empower the MKQMA. The objectives of the workshops were to increase dialogue between chiefs and queen mothers, promote queen mothers’ participation in MKQMA and increase the MKQMA engagement with the citizens.

Increased dialogue within the traditional authority, and increased community participation in local politics, could enhance political leadership and create opportunities to improve wellbeing.

Forty representatives from organizations that participated in the fieldwork attended the workshops. Of these representatives, 25 were from MQKMA and 15 represented government and non- government/community-based organizations. Chiefs were informed, but not invited to the workshops because queen mothers felt the chiefs may intimidate them and takeover the process. The Konor gave his approval for the workshop and agreed to implement the workshop recommendations.

I divided the participants into four groups. Using the processes of brainstorming, free-listing, consensus building and priority setting, each group identified and prioritized the leadership challenges facing the MKQMA and recommended remedial actions. The results from each group were presented to the other groups for further discussion and re-prioritization. The fourth workshop focused on helping participants to learn about the use of projective techniques to discuss sensitive topics with children.

The participants identified challenges relating to governance, membership, leader-member relationships and MKQMA-community collaborations. They recommended that the MKQMA must focus on enhancing its leadership and promoting the wellbeing of queen mothers, including re-establishing their welfare scheme. They contended that achieving these goals will enable queen mothers to address the needs of orphans. They recognized the importance of the traditional political authority and recommended that they develop innovative ways to continually engage chiefs and build stronger partnerships. They, however, recommended the separation of the governance of MKQMA (a ‘formal’ organization) from the governance of queen mother (a traditional political institution). Separating the two institutions would mean that the MKQMA will no longer be under the direct control of chiefs. This will allow queen mothers to make their own decisions. Specifically, they will determine the criteria for leadership and membership and establish the responsibilities and benefits of membership.

Participants also recommended that MKQMA be governed by a written constitution and decisions be based on consensus. They also stressed the importance of two-way accountability, where members treat leaders with respect and support them to implement programs, and the leaders are directly accountable to the members. They listed the qualities of a good leader as transparent, respectful, humble and tolerant. They preferred leadership that is committed to improving the wellbeing of queen mothers, values the freedom of expression, sets high moral standards and actively engages queen mothers and stakeholders.

Overall, the Project provided a ‘non-customary’ approach to empowering female leaders and engaging with their citizens to consultatively develop strategies to empower queen mothers. It enabled queen mothers, who belonged to different factions and have not worked together in a long time, to brainstorm and reach consensus on how to provide efficient and effective leadership to their communities.

The participants were very satisfied with the workshop; they will participate again in similar workshops and will apply the workshop approach to their work. The queen mothers said they have been encouraged by the workshop and that encouragement will help to build their self-efficacy, self-image and self-awareness. They stated that the lessons learned from the workshop and the implementation of the recommendations will help them to transform the MKQMA from a male-controlled group to an association owned and managed by queen mothers for the benefits of their citizens.

The inclusion of stakeholders other than queen mothers is significant. It allowed the queen mothers to focus on the issues affecting MKTA instead of their personal interests. It also created opportunities for partnerships between MKQMA and other groups to share expertise and best practices to improve wellbeing in MKTA. This was demonstrated when social workers and community leaders volunteered to help queen mothers write the MKQMA constitution and establish a welfare scheme.