- Prof Tim Insoll and Mr Ben Baluri Saibu at Manchester Museum in October 2013
Transcript of a filmed conversation between Mr Ben Baluri Saibu from Koma Land Ghana and Prof Tim Insoll of the University of Manchester concerning the terracotta figurines from Koma Land that are on display at Manchester Museum. The exhibition about the figurines opened in October and will close early in May 2014. The film of the interview lasts about 6 minutes and will be shown together with an interview with Prof Ben Kankpeyeng of the University of Ghana in the third floor exhibition gallery at Manchester Museum.
TI: It’s my great pleasure to introduce Mr Ben Baluri Saibu, who is a native of Yikpabongo where the work has been going on. A distinguished gentleman, he is also a practising lawyer and he is a former member of parliament – the Ghanaian parliament… So you’re actually from Yikpabongo?
BBS: Yes, I was born and bred in Yikpabongo.
BBS: Except for when I went to school I’ve always been Yikpabongo.
TI: And that means you’ve known about the figurines all through your life?
BBS: Oh yes, at birth.
Ti: At birth.
TI: … well all your life in Yikpabongo, you’ve obviously see the other side of the coin, the other side of the situation, where these were being stolen, weren’t they? The figurines to supply the international art market. I know this is something you feel very angry and passionate about.
BBS: Yes, yes.
TI: How did you stop it? How did the community stop people exploiting your resources?
BBS: You see as I was saying, we grew up with these things, we used to play with them. No, the girls when they went to the bush or they were going to the riverside to fetch water, if they found one pregnant woman they would put it on their back and be playing like our mothers do in Africa.
TI (laughing): Like how they tie the baby on?
BBS: Yes. When we went, when we went out hunting or as shepherds, we found them. They were commonplace. When they were doing compound farming, they gathered then together. That’s why you have some of them being well broken pieces that were just thrown there anyhow and erm, and those that were exceptionally intriguing, we asked questions certainly as kids. But you know, there were limits, say “Oh no please don’t go beyond bounds” particularly if the shrine was your father’s. Don’t dare (?) ask deep questions about it.
TI: What about if people were actually selling them?
BBS: Yes, until, until, until around 1979 I don’t know what happened. Some people must have come in there and they must have seen them somewhere and they must have realised that they have value.
Piece of pot left behind by looters
TI: I was told in your village it stopped but in the surrounding area, the 1990s were particularly bad for looting. Is that correct?
BBS: Yes, the problem because, er, no, much more serious because when Professor Anquandah published their first monograph – I think it was published in Rotterdam, eh?
TI: That’s correct.
BBS: So many people had access to that monograph and the information was now wide so people started sending their syndicates using the boys in the villages to buy. I would be sleeping in the village. In the night they would be in street, erm, selling with the zebra people and that kind of thing. So I actually had to, I had to make it, take stout measures. I even got some of the elders prosecuted…
TI: I think it’s important to also note that these boys from your village … they doing… they were paid very little money. It’s the international market where the big money is being made. So essentially they are exploiting both the people, the environment and the cultural resources of your area.
BBS: Certainly, certainly… they were given just pittances in English money wouldn’t you say?
TI: How much would you suggest?
BBS: One time I went to them and I saw a big one and I asked my brother to keep so that next I would send it to the museum when I went back the other time… 50 cedis
Ghanaian One cedi coin courtesy of Keith Sugden, Curator of Numismatics, Manchester Museum
Ghanaian cedi (pronounced see-dee) coin showing cowry shell
TI: Ghanaian cedis
BBS: Fifty Ghanaian cedis I think. This was around I think in 19… 2001 or so.
TI: Yes very small money.
BBS: Yes, very small.
So I can, I can, I can assure the world, the archaeological world that today, even though we haven’t stopped what, the public education, it is going down where…
TI: So the looting is declining?
BBS: Yes! Now that the field students go from year to year, they go…
TI: Do you think it is also helpful they were put on the Red List of antiquities that can’t be sold? Was that helpful?
BBS: Yes, well, I tell them. I tell them, even if you were zebra and he comes to buy it from you, even if he is taking it out abroad. The Police will arrest him and bring him back. And if he is brought back he will point you out.
BBS: And you will be arrested.
TI: Very good. So I think you have to be congratulated for what you have done to protect and promote the heritage in the region but finally, what I would like to ask you is what development would you like to see in Yikpabongo that this material is presented? How can the community benefit from the figurines directly?
BBS: Yes, we already far, we already produce our own food. If there is rain we can have bread. If there is we have jam, we have beans, we have ground nuts. We have a few animals to sell but the most important thing, because of the inaccessibility of the area we have been late in receiving, is formal education.
BBS: You can imagine that whole Overseas Valley even though people went to school long before I went. I am the first graduate. I have been the first lawyer.
BBS: Yes, the privation affects all of us in that valley, so if you asked me, the good Lord what to give to you, something good for your people, what would you ask God to give you? It would be education.
BBS: Of course, we have it late and now that the university is coming there it is an opportunity for us. It will attract the children, it will not run away. If we have, what, good class room, if we have, what, a good museum where these things are kept…
TI: In the context of the exhibition, I think it’s useful to for us to hear something about that. So you’re planning a small exhibition in Yikpabongo that tourists and locals can both use?
BBS: Yes, yes. In the first place the people themselves will realise that if these things were not important people wouldn’t fight to get them permanently displayed somewhere and however small it is people will be coming from other places to see what is happening. Certainly ideas change when you meet others. Now that the Legon students go and their lecturers go, when then the children pass the secondary school they get admission. Ben and colleagues they are there so I’ve been telling the people, let us protect them. Legon will come. When the children qualify for the secondary school, they are… their entry in the university is guaranteed, and they have been seeing it. Destroy the mounds and destroy your children’s work… future education. So my paramount thing is that whatever steps can be done … so that we also have, what, reliable educational facilities.
BBS: Yes, sure, yes, yes.
TI: And I believe that the exhibition is actually going to transfer ultimately, in the end, to Yikpabongo, so you’ll display there the exhibition that we can see here?
BBS: Yes, yes.
TI: That will go there.
TI: And be nicely looked after?
TI: Very good.
TI: Well, it’s been a great pleasure talking to you.
BBS: It’s been my pleasure.
Mr Saibu addressing the audience at the opening of the Fragmentary Ancestors exhibition
You can read a review of the exhibition in the Journal of Museum Ethnography:-
Pole, L. (2014). Fragmentary Ancestors: Figurines from Koma Land, Ghana (Manchester Museum, University of Manchester). Journal of Museum Ethnography 27, 168-174.