An excerpt from Professor James Denbow's book about the archaeology, ethnography and prehistory of West-Central Africa
As an archaeologist working for decades in remote parts of central and southern Africa, my work often brings surprises– not only from the past represented by dusty artifacts, but from my interactions with the people I encounter as well. I share below a personal excerpt about such an encounter from a forthcoming book to be published by Cambridge University Press.
An icon encountered along a footpath that combines both Christian and traditional imagery (see Denbow 1999)
“Objects often inscribe cultural meaning onto local places, things, and landscapes. On the crest of the hill that overlooks Loango Bay to the south and the archaeological site of Tchissanga to the north, an oil company had erected a rusting iron tower to transmit radio signals from its workers in the field to their headquarters in Pointe Noire. When I passed the tower for the first time, I was surprised to see next to it an unusual "fetish" that consisted of a pole topped by a wooden platform holding a piece of broken mirror and several water-worn, white quartzite cobbles. Affixed to a wooden plaque on the side of the pole was a picture of a Mercedes-Benz neatly torn from a magazine. Nearby, the whitewashed lid of a paint-can dangled from a piece of electrical cable attached with a strip of red cloth to another pole. Two paint-spattered gloves stuck onto a bush at its base completed the contraption. My first thought was that the fetish had been constructed to protest the seeming omnipotence of multi-national corporations and their minions who rarely stopped to visit with local people as they sped through the area in their air-conditioned 4x4s. That thought was quickly replaced by another: perhaps this fetish had been built to harness in some way the power of these foreign companies, turning it to local use. It wasn’t until a year later that I accidentally stumbled on the fetish’s origin and purpose.
Our archaeological camp, a rough three-room wooden shed with a wide veranda, had been built for us on the beach below Tchissanga by Conoco in 1988. Fishermen from a village on the heights above beached their dugouts nearby. The fishermen sometimes remained on the ocean for several days at a time, "camping out" in their small canoes and warding off the cold by huddling over wood fires they built on a bed of earth in their vessels. In the evenings, we would often see their fires reflected off the low clouds far out to sea. Over the course of our project, I came to know many of them, including one roguish old man named Bernard who was particularly talkative and friendly. The Congolese crew quickly nicknamed him "Dracula" behind his back because of his blackened and broken set of saw-like front teeth.
The archaeological crew and a signboard erected to protect the site from destruction by eucalyptus plantations (see Denbow 2012)
One afternoon while visiting with Bernard as he hammered yet another tin patch onto the side of his weather-beaten canoe, I brought up the fetish near the radio tower.
"I wonder who built that?" I asked idly.
"Why, I did," he said with some pride. "The oil company pays me to look after the tower and make sure no one vandalizes it. I can't be there all the time, so I built the fetish to keep vandals away. I haven't had any problems."
Denbow, J. forthcoming. Provisional title: The Archaeology, Ethnography, and Prehistory of West-Central Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Denbow, J. 2012. Pride, Prejudice, Plunder and Preservation: Archaeology and the Re-envisioning of Ethnogenesis on the Loango coast of the Republic of Congo. Antiquity 86: 383-408.
Denbow, J. 1999. Heart and Soul: Glimpses of Ideology and Cosmology in the Iconography of Tombstones from the Loango Coast Of Central Africa. Journal of American Folklore 112 (445): 404-23.