Celebrating the life and achievements of Philip F. W. Bartle (1943-2015)

Philip BartlePhil Bartle, who died on November 6, 2015 after a prolonged period of poor health, wrote an impressive but little known sociological dissertation, an ethnography about the Kwahu town of Obo. He first came to Ghana in 1965 as a Canadian (CUSO) volunteer to teach economics and mathematics at St Peter’s Secondary School in Kwahu-Nkwatia. It was during this period that he ‘fell in love’ with the Kwahu people and their culture (or Kwawu, as Phil preferred to call them). Coincidence brought him into contact with the chief of Obo – a delightful story which he describes on his website ‘Akan Studies’. That meeting started a friendship and would lead to his fieldwork in Obo a few years later. His first view of the town reads like the opening sentence of an anthropological classic: “A few kilometers to the west we rounded a curve and I saw the most incredible town I had yet seen in Ghana, three, four and five storied buildings, a clean and neat atmosphere, the smell of money.”

In 1971 he returned to Ghana as a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Ghana, Legon. Phil had a talent for languages and making friends. He learned Twi very well and was warmly welcomed by the new Obo chief, who adopted him as his son and promised his full support during his research. He joined the chief’s musicians as a horn blower and reaped wide applause wherever the chief made his appearance with this oburoni in his cortege. With much enthusiasm he conducted the research for his dissertation, which contained the findings of a sociological survey (as demanded by his department) but also rich ethnographic and historical material.

During this same period, I was doing my anthropological fieldwork about family life and sexual relationships (under the pseudonym of Wolf Bleek) in the nearby town of Kwahu Tafo. I met Phil a few times, both in Kwahu and at Legon where he taught undergraduates. Phil’s dissertation was completed and defended in 1978. It was the first study of a Ghanaian community in which migration was the focus. Obo was undoubtedly the best place for such a study. Kwahu people – and the Obo people in particular – could be found all over the country, mostly as traders. The people of Obo engaged in what Phil called “cyclical migration.” The migrants remained attached to their hometown and kept visiting the town for funerals and festivities. Many also returned for good in old age to spend the last years of their life farming and residing as respected elders and family heads. A successful elder built a beautiful house in his hometown and was eventually buried there. Obo, with its impressive buildings, was the most conspicuous example of Kwahu migratory culture. In his conclusion Phil wrote:

The most interesting discovery resulting from an ethnographic approach to the study of migration is what migration is not, rather than what it is. This study confirms the hypothesis that migration is not merely the geographic relocation of a certain number of individuals from one society to another. It also confirms that host and donor locations, including urban and rural ones, should not necessarily be understood as separate social entities, although they may display differing characteristics. A total interpenetrating, dispersed community comprising people located in the donor location plus people located in numerous host locations, all identifying in varying degrees with the hometown, is seen as the total social system within which migrants move about (p. 402).

… the stages of an individual’s life course are closely related to his economic pursuits, which largely prescribe his migrant locations and affect his social and political status. Kinship residence beginning with life with mother tends to proceed from matrilineal, through consanguineal or patrilateral, followed by independent conjugal, then to matrilineal again. Rural-urban differences, therefore, are not merely an indication of social change but should be seen as an aggregation of individual life cycles (p.408).

Twenty to thirty years later, migration became a hot research topic for demographers, economists and anthropologists. Migration had become a transnational phenomenon by that time, but many of the characteristics observed by Phil Bartle remained. There is still lively contact between Ghanaian migrants and their relatives at home. Funerals, festivals, building houses, fostering children, care for the elderly, and many other older practices continue to play a role in migration. Strangely enough, however, Phil Bartle’s seminal study is practically unknown to later migration researchers. It has not been forgotten; it simply never reached them. His work was mainly read and used by his fellow Kwahu researchers: Stephan Miescher, who studied the ‘making of men’ in another Kwahu town, Abetifi, in the 1990s, and myself. The dissertation was never published and was only available in three or four libraries. Only two articles based on his dissertation were published in an international journal. Google Scholar – though far from exhaustive – tells me that his dissertation was quoted only 24 times (18 times by the same person!). His Obo study is nearly absent in the wave of publications about Ghanaian migration, and entirely missing in a position paper that aims to give an overview of Ghana migration studies (Awumbila et al. 2008).

Between 1975 and 1979, Phil was a senior lecturer at Cape Coast University while writing his dissertation. In 1980 he acquired a fellowship at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands. In that period, he wrote six papers, one of which was published in the Journal of Religion in Africa and one in a book on migration (see the list below). The four other manuscripts remained hidden in the library of the Leiden institute. I do not know what happened; he must either have been disillusioned by the lackluster response to his Kwahu ethnographic work or for personal reasons chose another direction in his career. He worked in Asia and Africa as an aid worker with a focus on community participation and when his health deteriorated he became an enthusiastic WikiEducator, a voluntary teacher on the internet advising and teaching people in matters of development.

Phil did not forget Kwahu, however. Over the years he had his own website called ‘Akan Studies’, which contains a wealth of ethnographic and historical information, larded with personal observations and anecdotes. The website is available in English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese: http://cec.vcn.bc.ca/rdi/index.htm. With the help of his family, Stephan Miescher and Jos Damen, librarian of the African Studies Centre, I have been able to trace all (or most?) of Phil’s writings and place them on this website, as well as on the websites of the Institute of African Studies in Legon (http://ias.ug.edu.gh/) and the library of the African Studies Centre in Leiden (http://www.ascleiden.nl/content/library). I hope that his pioneering vision on migration will finally get the recognition it deserves.

Sjaak van der Geest

University of Amsterdam


Additional Reflections

Lynne Brydon

I got to know Phil in Cape Coast in the very early ’70s–I was a VSO in 71/72 and then went back to do fieldwork in Amedzofe (V/R) in 1973–and kept up with Phil over the next years after I finished the PhD and went to work in Liverpool University.  Phil came to stay a couple of times in Liverpool, and it was during those years that he gave me his papers, published and unpublished.  I suppose the last time I saw him was in the 80s, and I don’t think I saw him again after that.  We exchanged greetings and Christmas cards after that.  I moved to Birmingham (UK) in 1996  and didn’t have much contact with him.
I remember him as very kind, supportive and genial… and with an amazing grasp of Twi and cultural knowledge, too.



Awumbila, M. et al.

2008      Migration country paper (Ghana). Legon: Centre for Migration Studies University of Ghana.


All publications by Phil Bartle on Kwawu/Kwahu, Ghana

1971      African rural urban migration: A decision making perspective. M.A. thesis, University of British Columbia. [174 pp]

1973      Kwawu migration: A demonstration model. Manpower and Unemployment Research in Africa 6 (11): 28-43. [derived from Bartle 1971: 124-144]

1978      Conjugal relations, migration and fertility in an Akan community, Obo, Ghana.In: C. Oppong, S. Adaba, M. Bakombo Priso and J. Mogey (eds), Marriage, fertility and parenthood in West Africa. Volume 2. Australian National University Press, pp. 521-532.

1978      Forty days: The Akan calendar. Africa 48 (1): 80-84.

1978      Urban migration and rural identity: An ethnography of a Kwawu community, Obo, Ghana. Doctoral dissertation, University of Ghana. [500 pp]

1979      Inequality and cyclical migration: Changing patterns in transitional society (corrected copy). Cape Coast: University of Cape Coast, Department of Sociology.

1979      Kwawu 1874-1888; The Independent years; The Swiss Contribution to British Colonialism in Kwawu. Seminar Paper. Department of History. University of Cape Coast, Ghana. Unpublished.

1980      Cyclical migration and the extended community: A West African example. Unpublished manuscript.

1980      (with V.N.P. Sinha) Ethnic heterogeneity and the migration factor in Ghana. Leiden: Afrika-Studiecentrum.

1980      Matriliny is alive and well, and living in Ghana. Leiden: Afrika-Studiecentrum.

1980      Modernisation and the decline in women’s status: Covert gynocracy in an Akan community. Unpublished manuscript.

1980      The universe has three souls: A few notes on learning Akan culture. Leiden: Afrika-Studiecentrum.

1980      Who looks after the rural children of West African urban migrants? Some notes on households and the non-family in a dispersed matrilineal society. Leiden: Afrika-Studiecentrum.

1981      Cyclical migration and the extended family: A West African example. In: R.B. Mandal (ed), Frontiers in Migration Analysis. Concept Publishing Company. New Delhi, pp. 105-140.

1982      Cultural and ethnic variation in the Northern Region, Ghana. NORRIP Sectoral Report. Northern Region Rural Integrated Project. Government of Ghana. Canadian International Development Agency. June, Tamale. [not about Kwahu].

1983      The universe has three Souls: Notes on translating Akan culture. Journal of Religion in Africa 14 (2): 85-114. [NB. Printing mistake Table 3], see http://cec.vcn.bc.ca/rdi/kw-3so.htm

n.d.         Akan studies. Studies among the Akan people of West Africa. Community, society, history, culture; with special focus on the Kwawu. Website. http://cec.vcn.bc.ca/rdi/index.htm