Q&A With Environmental Humanities Student Tony Yeboah

June 17, 2024

Tony Yeboah is a graduating PhD candidate studying the relationships between colonialism, urban planning, and community-making in West Africa. He previously studied and worked at the University of Cape Coast, and will begin a tenure-track assistant professor of African Art and Africana Studies at Tulane University this Fall.


What is your research about?

My work focuses on town planning in Kumase, a city in Ghana commonly nicknamed as the “Garden City of West Africa.” This description is believed to have come from Queen Elizabeth II, who was impressed with the layout of the city when she visited in 1961.


However, “Garden City of West Africa” is equally misleading because it is believed to have been invented in Europe and it creates an impression of colonial, top-down planning that overlooks how local residents actually cared about nature and designed their communities around the natural environment. My research pushes back against these ideas by highlighting the West African agents, identities, and creativity that underlie the autochthonous planning in Kumase. I try to make the case that this notion of the “garden city” had existed with the people of Kumase for several centuries before it was invented in Europe. By reexamining these colonial, European concepts of urban planning, my work gives West Africa the credit it deserves.


What inspired your interest?

That’s a great question. My interest is really connected to my childhood habit of asking questions about the different structures I would see in Kumase and neighboring towns. I would always ask my parents and community members about the differences between residential structures, temples, and palaces, for instance. My Master’s research was about architecture and, when I came to Yale, my plan was to do something similarly related. Later on, though, my interest expanded into asking broader questions about the built environment.


Kumase itself was the capital of Asante, one of the biggest West African empires in the 19th century. And this Asante ethnic group is one of the most researched groups on the African continent, but nobody has really paid attention to the built environment. This knowledge gap and my deep connections to the city as someone born and raised here inspire me to tell the story of how it was thoughtfully planned, particularly under local authority.


What are some instances of local planning in Kumase?

The notion of a “garden city”—the urban plan in which satellite communities were surrounded by greenbelts—is believed to have been invented in 1898, or the early 20th century. But Kumase was founded in 1650, and so the concept had clearly been in existence when the local people were designing their communities.


Kumase’s founders were thinking about their environment and what suited it. They were thinking about their socio-cultural practices, their belief systems, and how both of them would shape the settlement design. They had so much respect for the natural entities within the landscape. Even in the local imaginary today, residents believe that spirits inhabit the districts, and construction projects cannot disturb the natural surroundings. As a result, you see the active integration between the natural and built environments. At its earliest, respect for nature was also a form of veneration for the gods and ancestors.


In marked contrast to European cities like London—in which concrete structures were a demonstration of power—Kumase was designed around the natural environment. Prior to cutting down large trees, for instance, locals would perform rituals to receive consent from the gods. This would help the supernatural force that inhabited the space to occupy another one before the construction could begin. This deep respect for nature was a kind of ethic that local residents would live by.


How have the Environmental Humanities impacted your research and your thinking?

When I started this work, I really didn’t think I was engaged with questions about the environment. But I started attending events organized by the Environmental Humanities, and I started seeing important connections. I started reimagining the way I see my scholarship at the intersection of the environment and urban history.


My work is also partly about environmental justice because Kumase was burned by the British colonial government in 1874. In other words, colonialism’s havoc has been inscribed upon the city itself. There is no way you can recover what has been lost.


There is a conscious effort by the Kumase people to reclaim its title as the “Garden City of West Africa,” and many have realized that our kind of modern lifestyle is simply not sustainable. We have to go back to an age when we integrated so well with the natural environment, several decades of destruction makes it easier said than done. I can cultivate an artificial forest or purchase a Tesla, but there’s no way you can reverse all of the damage done.


Though fully restoring our former relationship with nature may be impossible, I do think that there are creative ways that we can keep those past memories alive. This is where scholars and professors in the Environmental Humanities become really critical: they can think about ways that other regions could similarly reimagine their environment, find inspiration from that research, and use it to inspire new theories about a place itself.


Any post-graduate plans?

I’m starting as an assistant professor of African Art and Africana Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. I am really sprinting to finish the dissertation because the job starts in July. I’m due to defend in June, and then I’ll be heading south!


Anything else?

I can’t overstate the usefulness of the Environmental Humanities events. These spaces really help us hone our craft and prepare us for the job market. As a student, you spend almost all your time reading and preparing for comprehensive exams and things like that. Ultimately, you might not have time to engage in other activities that equally help you develop your skills as a scholar. If there’s something I would tell my colleagues still starting out with their coursework, it would be to give time to events like workshops because those spaces are important for our professional development.