Before I flew out to Ghana, the most I knew about Africa came from what I had previously read and watched. Americans tend to talk about Africa in generalizations, in guilt-gilded absolutes. It’s this massive continent whose sociopolitical complexities are largely excluded from the general world history that students are taught in schools. African history is an elective, not a requirement. So going into this, I wanted to know more, I wanted to know which things I had learned were actually wrong, and I wanted to have experiences that weren’t from a book.
Rather, thinking about Africans as consumers–not just producers or laborers–disrupts narratives of the global economy. And, in the absence of any significant system of domestic production, the history of African consumer culture forces us to pay more attention to systems of distribution – in the Ghanaian case, market trading and the network of intermediaries who distributed goods and facilitated exchange throughout the region. In exploring these questions we should be careful not to assume that seemingly “global” movements were adoptions without local roots or motivations. Likewise, we cannot ignore either the politics of the state or the social and cultural politics of gender, race, and generation. Consumer culture in 20th century Ghana was certainly influenced by both forms of politics. But it also shaped those politics in profound ways.