1960–1963: SOCIAL CHANGE IN GHANA
When Bernard and I had set our sights on obtaining academic posts in the USA, we realised that an essential prerequisite would be to have the magic letters ‘PhD’ attached to our names.
Once I had decided to do fieldwork leading to a doctorate, Paul Baxter assisted me in finding a research location and topic. At first I contemplated making enquiries in the north of Ghana, because this was where the classic studies had been carried out – Meyer Fortes on the Tallensi, and Jack Goody on the LoWilli and the LoDagaa – and the peoples of northern Ghana fitted the remote and romantic mould of so many ethnographic studies with which I was familiar. However, distance (350 miles) from the university, ruled out the north. I then considered doing a study of attitudes to development in Accra, the sprawling capital city of Ghana, only eight miles away, but Paul Baxter, ever practical, pointed out that for my first research, an urban study, especially one so unfocused, would pose formidable methodological and theoretical problems. He also said that it would be much easier for me to do my fieldwork in a non-urban area, and suggested that I look at the hill towns on the Akwapim ridge, an easy hour’s drive from Legon. None of these small towns had been the focus of systematic enquiries, and ‘virgin territory’ is a strong attraction for any ethnographer.
Paul Baxter. University of Ghana, 1960
Accordingly I decided on a more manageable study, of social change, and drove to Akwapim, intending to look at several small hilltop towns before choosing a specific location. The first town that I visited was Larteh (population 6000) where I was ‘captured’ by the chief, Nana Asiedu Agyemfra IV usually referred to as Nana, the title for a Ghanaian chief. Nana and Mr EO Anno-Nyako, the headmaster of the Presbyterian Middle School, both insisted that I do my study in their town. On that day I met the town elders in the traditional style, in the first of countless such ceremonial greetings that I experienced in Larteh. They were seated in a circle, and first I walked around in a clockwise direction, shaking each man’s hand, then returned to my seat and each man in turn rose and greeted me. Then
Nana Asiedu Agyemfra and entourage, Larteh, 1962 (on the day of Queen Elizabeth's visit)
I presented the customary gift of a bottle of schnapps. During my time working in Larteh, I presented innumerable bottles of schnapps: when I brought visitors to greet Nana; when I went to the Akonedi shrine; at an outdooring (a ceremony held on the eighth day after an infant’s birth); to celebrate the completion of a house; the arrival of important visitors … I was expected to bring the original Dutch Henkes schnapps – the locally produced (and much cheaper) brand was not acceptable on important occasions.
Having ignored my declaration that I was merely searching for a suitable research site, Nana announced that I was going to do a study of Larteh and that I must be helped. He found me a house to live in; and assigned to me an orphaned schoolboy, Samuel Abrakwa, who proved to be of great assistance to me, in many ways, in return for my paying for his schooling and acting in loco parentis. I was both bemused and relieved by the end of that first day. Larterians, as the people of Larteh are called, are proud of their distinctive heritage, and were pleased when I told them that I hoped to write a book about their town. Because of their local pride, and their desire to be put on the map and immortalised in a book, I was made welcome and I received almost universal help. Nana, his principal wife Auntie Bea, and their children, adopted me and were most supportive.
Larteh is widely known as the home of one of Ghana’s most important healing shrines, Akonedi. In my book I emphasise the spirit of cultural accommodation in Larteh. This was exemplified by the co-existence (mostly harmonious, with merely occasional murmurings) of the Akonedi shrine and the Christian churches. Larteh has for long also been a main Christian centre: from 1880 to 1940 its Presbyterian church had the largest Christian congregation in what was then called Gold Coast.
Congregants at the entrance of the Presbyterian Chursh, Larteh.Photo: Alfredo Varela, The World and I, December 1989.
The priestess at Akonedi and her priests were initially suspicious of me, and I also had some problems with Mr Mensah-Dapaa, a Ghanaian pharmacist who was studying the shrine, and who at first saw me as an unwelcome rival. However we soon established boundaries of where I could make enquiries, and I also told him that I would show him drafts before I published anything. With the aid of Nana Topra (of whom more below) and of a helpful priest, the shrine accepted me and even permitted me to attend the pre-dawn seances, when the priestesses would be possessed.
Mr Mensah-Dapaa was interested in the connections between traditional and western medicine. ‘Ethno-medicine’ and ‘ethnopharmacy’ are reputable and established sub-disciplines, many of whose practitioners engage in the search for elusive ‘new’ medicines. So far the results have mostly been disappointing, with no dramatic cancer – or other – cures having been discovered.
Nearly all African governments have put some resources into research into ‘traditional remedies’. There have been important discoveries of indigenous medicines, many of which have been exploited commercially by multinational pharmaceutical companies. This has led to an acrimonious debate about ‘intellectual property’ rights. For example, the Bushmen – this term now seems to be preferred over San – of the Northern Cape in South Africa are waging a bitter fight for recognition of their rights to hoodia (Asclepiadaceae sp.), a plant traditionally used to stave off hunger, now sought after as a dieting supplement. (In late 2004, five hundred sangomas, traditional African healers, marched in Cape Town, protesting at the South African government’s prescribing antiretroviral medications to people with HIV/Aids, and demanding that traditional medicines be used – despite there being no evidence that these are effective.)
Bernard and I became friendly with Nana Topra Amoah IV, a flamboyant, sociable extrovert, the sister of the main priestess at Larteh and one of the few female sub-chiefs, or Ankobeahene. Nana Topra, who had only a Standard Two education (a fact constantly and contemptuously mentioned by her better-educated detractors) was one of the most powerful women in Akwapim. She owned a gramophone record shop, had great style and dressed splendidly. In preparation for Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1962, Nana Topra visited London to check out the latest fashions, returning with an extensive new wardrobe. We invited Nana Topra to Bernard’s birthday party at Legon, where she held her own among the academic guests. On leaving, one of her entourage handed Bernard a small package, ‘with Nana’s compliments’. When Bernard opened his gift after the party, he found it was a gold Rolex watch. Nana Topra, with her (literally) champagne lifestyle, could not last long in the increasingly austere Ghana, and later moved to London with her doctor husband.
Larteh is divided into two sections, with a long history of rivalry. I first rented a house in Kubease, in ‘Upper Larteh’, then moved the following year to Ahenease, in ‘Lower Larteh’. I lived comfortably, with water and (later) electricity in my commodious, solidly built homes. Accounts of fieldwork are replete with tales of acute discomfort, intrusive people, malaria, leaking tents and battles with tropical insects and pests. Malinowski’s classic account, Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935), contains a famous photograph of ‘The Ethnographer’s Tent on the Beach of N’Agasi’. And E-P, in The Nuer (1940), writes: ‘My carriers dropped tent and stores in the centre of a treeless plain, near some homesteads … It was twelve days before a youth persuaded his kinsmen to carry my goods to the edge of the forest where they lived.’ I was more fortunate than he had been.
Abrakwa stayed with me, doing small chores around the house after school. His favourite task was washing the car on Saturday mornings, and Leslie Rubin was once much amused to hear me admonish him, saying, ‘If you are not more careful, I shan’t let you clean the car.’
On one occasion I had a visit from a remarkable pair – jolly, English, middle-aged twin brothers, both entomologists – on an insect-collecting expedition. They were searching for rare beetles, but none of the local adults could help them. Then Abrakwa, who had been listening to the conversation, offered to guide them, and that evening he and his young friends showed the twins where to find both the rare beetles and also other insects, more than they had hoped for. This was one of my first lessons showing that the range of ‘indigenous knowledge’ is distributed unevenly, according, in part, to age and gender. In our later enquiries in Kenya, Bernard and I often turned to small boys for help in specialised domains, such as finding edible wild fruits.
St Clair Drake facilitated my research by allocating my teaching to three days, Monday to Wednesday, and on Wednesday afternoon I would drive to Larteh, spending Thursday to Saturday doing my study. On the days when I was at Larteh, my colleague Peter Omari looked after the Social Administration students. I conducted old-fashioned ethnographic enquiries, guided by the writings of Raymond Firth and John Beattie, who had written cogently on social change. I looked explicitly at innovations, including the widely different effects of Christianity, education and cocoa production, and of connections between Larteh and the wider world.
What I did was common anthropological practice at that time, but would not be acceptable today, when anthropologists tend to make much more specialised enquiries. I chose a ‘people’ – in my case a small town – and made enquiries into nearly all aspects of their lives: political, economic, social and religious. I conducted interviews, both individual and group, with important and also with ‘ordinary’ people. I observed what I could, and Nana’s son Francis, then a young lieutenant in the army, arranged for me to fly over Larteh in a Ghanaian Air Force aircraft, taking photographs, which added a new perspective. I attended whatever public events I was permitted to, most Larterians being welcoming. They took pride in their culture, and in their distinctiveness, for they spoke a Guan language, unusual in that area of Twi-speakers. (Twi is the most widely spoken language in Ghana.) In addition, a high proportion of Larterians, especially the younger people, spoke good English.
Mostly, I enjoyed the fieldwork, but, like many other anthropologists, I needed a break from time to time, from the strain of trying to understand another culture. As I had, in England, escaped from my fen country farm work to my friends in Granchester, so in Ghana I sometimes escaped to spend the evening with Dr Oku Ampofo, who lived with his wife Rosina at Mampong, ten miles away. Oku, who had studied medicine at Edinburgh in the late 1930s, was not only a dedicated and wise doctor, but also an expert sculptor: one of his large pieces, Peace, was acquired by the United Nations, and stands outside the UN offices in New York. Oku and Rosina provided an evening of good Ghanaian food, classical music, and above all, stimulating conversation.
An advantage of my method of fieldwork was that I could present my findings at departmental seminars, getting insightful and helpful criticism and comments from both faculty colleagues and senior
An aerial view of Larteh from the south-east
students, many of whom came from communities that were similar, in broad respects, to Larteh. I was greatly helped by Kwame Arhin, then a postgraduate student, who later became director of the Institute of Africa Studies at Legon, and by Eugene Ohene Walker. Mr Walker was an ideal main informant: knowledgeable, balanced, curious, supportive, kind – I could not have wished for a better guide and friend. Dressed in his customary cloth and sandals, he would often come to my house at 6 a.m. (an acceptable calling hour in Ghana), knocking on the door and calling ‘Ko-ko, ko-ko, Mr David,’ always with a list of carefully written questions, suggestions and comments. We even seriously recounted and analysed our respective dreams.
Mr Walker had been educated up to the old Standard Seven, and spoke excellent English; had he had more education, he could have been an outstanding university professor: wise, meticulous, analytical, and respectful though critical of his culture. Many anthropologists find, or more often are adopted by, informants like Mr Walker, who are to some extent outsiders in their own society. Once, when we were discussing the importance of ‘home-towns’, I told Mr Walker that I had no feelings of attachment to my hometown of Durban, given the horrors of apartheid. He chided me gently, insisting that I should always remember and be proud of my hometown, no matter what was happening there. (See Casagrande, 1960, for an exploration of ‘the significant relationship between anthropologists and key informants’.) In December 2004, when I was in London, I visited Mr Walker’s niece Augusta, whom I had last seen forty years previously when she was a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl in Larteh. Augusta, part of the huge Ghanaian diaspora, is now working as a health visitor in Greenwich. She and her three daughters – who had tracked me down on the Internet – gave me a royal welcome, treating me like a long-lost uncle.
Mr Walker. Larteh, September 1972
During fieldwork I not only learnt much about Larteh, but also discovered more about myself and my humanity. I realised that often the ways of the Larterians were superior to ours. For example both local churches and the Traditional Akwapim Council have managed to limit expenditure on funerals, so that Larterians are not saddled with huge funeral debts, as happens elsewhere in Ghana, and indeed in many other parts of Africa, including South Africa. Larteh funerals combine mourning and sociability to an impressive degree; they make allowances for quarrels about inheritance: some Larterians are wealthy, from cocoa or other enterprises, so that the disposition of an estate is a matter of great interest, often combined with tension. For a period of two or three days after the death, mourners have a licence to exchange insults and express their anger, without punishment – normally a public expression of anger results in the offender paying a fine of cash or a goat, so great is the emphasis on harmony.
When someone died, the Presbyterian church bell would ring, and I would ask Mr Walker, or Abrakwa, for whom the bell was tolling. Then I would walk to the family home, to offer condolences and to make an offering of cash – I would whisper to Abrakwa, ‘How much should I give?’, and he always knew the appropriate amount, which depended on age and status of the deceased, as well as on any special links which I might have had with the family. When I entered the courtyard of a home holding a funeral, one of the women, if she knew me, would stop her wailing, greet me, give me a seat, tell a small boy to ‘get a cold beer for Mr David’, then resume her wailing. This does not mean that the mourning was insincere or affected, it is just a more stylish manner of managing death.
My fieldwork did not conform to the usual pattern. First, rather than spending at least a year in continuous residence, I was constantly, over a three year period, in and out, alternating periods teaching at the university with spells at Larteh. I had to mark off my two worlds because at the university I was required to be decisive, even authoritarian at times, whereas at Larteh my role was the opposite: I had to be pliant, passive, easy-going, a follower rather than a leader. To avoid confusion of the two roles, and to lessen strain on myself, I (and Bernard as well, for the year he spent in Ghana) liked to spend Sunday afternoons, on return from Larteh, at Labadi, where the problems of both my worlds dissolved under the effective therapy of a lovely tropical beach.
Secondly, I was made to feel welcome, even integrated into the community. For example, in the course of my enquiries, I had a succession of visitors, each one having to be formally presented to Nana and the elders; eventually I was made akyeame (linguist) for the visitors. I was also given a choice plot of land, with glorious views over the plains, so that I could build a house and live at Larteh permanently, a not-unattractive prospect. This was a signal
DWB, Nana Topra and Mr Larbi. Larteh, 1962
honour, as strangers were seldom given land. I was humbled, and more eager than ever to write as accurate a record of Larteh as I could. I used to pour a libation at my plot, from time to time, asking for the ancestors’ blessings, in words like these:
Oh, God, come to drink;
Mother Earth, come to drink;
Ancestors and departed spirits, come to drink;
Assembled guests and travellers in lorries, come to drink.
This simple ceremony usually took place soon after dawn, when I would pour a little schnapps on the ground, asking for protection, and the small group of elders, including Nana, would join in as a chorus. I invariably found these ceremonies moving, and could almost ‘sense the ancestors crowding round’, as a Ghanaian anthropologist wrote. Then we would each drink a little of the neat schnapps; in the early morning, before breakfast, the fiery liquid gave a delicious jolt. (Some Christian groups in Ghana recently claimed that libations were ‘pagan’ and unChristian, but most Ghanaians see no contradiction.)
Sometimes the children, who saw few white people, would run after me crying ‘Obroni, obroni’ (white man). As often as not an elder would rebuke them and say, ‘He is not an obroni, he is Mister Brokensha.’ Then the children, next time they met me, would chant ‘Brockshaw, Brockshaw’, with many giggles.
Bernard and I gave tribute to the elders each year, for several years, and we considered building a simple house on my plot, thinking that we might make annual visits to Larteh; but, with our commitments in California, we eventually realised that this was impracticable. I did feel at home in Larteh though. During one long vacation, after an uninterrupted period of nearly a month at Larteh, I went into Accra for shopping at Kingsway, the large departmental store where I felt very much a stranger. The white ladies with their painted faces looked grotesque, after the lovely, homely wrinkled old ladies that I had become accustomed to in Larteh; and nearly all the white customers seemed so cross, angry about trivia – not finding their favourite brand of toothpaste, no bacon on the shelves, the wrong sort of stationery …
Anthropologists of my generation have been criticised on many counts: we have been accused of ‘treating people as objects’ and exploiting them for our own gain; of imposing our own inappropriate western values; of being unable to understand a different culture because we were (mostly) white male westerners; of collaborating with colonial or post-colonial governments. My conscience is clear, and I am happy when, as has happened several times, my friends in Larteh say to me, ‘Mister David, you tried!’ (This may sound patronising, but in fact it is high praise, it implies that I tried and that I succeeded, in writing a good account of Larteh.)
Fieldwork entails long-term obligations and friendships and over thirty years after I had left Ghana, I received a letter from my special friend, Nana’s daughter Jessie Agyemfra, who wrote that she sometimes met people who had read my Larteh book, and ‘when I tell them that you are my brother, they tell me I have a wonderful brother. You see, you need not die before certain things are told about you (and then) you may not hear them … Baale Paa, Well done!’ Even allowing for the polite and flattering Ghanaian turn of phrase, I was delighted.
When I was making enquiries about the agricultural system at Larteh, I invited some of our Sociology students to help me, as research assistants. When I explained that this would entail getting up at dawn and following the farmers to their fields to observe all their activities, they were unenthusiastic. Then Bill Northrup, a young American student spending a ‘Junior year abroad’ at the University of Ghana, asked me if he could help me during the university vacation. At first I was doubtful, because Bill had no knowledge of the local language, but I agreed to give him a try, and he proved to be very effective. He enjoyed getting up at dawn and accompanying a farmer to his field; most farmers had a little English, and Bill meticulously noted down their actions, and explanations, in a record that proved most useful to me.
After his three weeks as a research assistant, I offered to pay Bill, who was shocked at the suggestion, saying that he had gained valuable insights, and could not accept money. I had been given a grant from the university for research assistance, but, as is common in bureaucracies, it was a cumbersome procedure to return such funds. So Bill and I came to an agreement: we would use the money for an essay competition for the Middle School children at Larteh, and take the twenty-five ‘winners’ to Accra and to the seaside.
We hired Sea Never Dry, a Larteh-based bus, and set off with the excited children, nearly all of whom had never visited either Accra or the coast, although both were only thirty miles away. We made four stops, the first being at the University of Ghana, where Máire Cruise O’Brien had arranged for us to see the huge kitchens, capable of producing hundreds of meals: this impressed the children even more than did the university library, for they were of course used only to their mothers’ very basic stoves. Next was the international airport, where an obliging Ghana Airways pilot showed us the interior of his aircraft, including the pilot’s cabin. Then we drove around Accra, pointing out the main buildings, including Parliament, Black Star Square and the Law Courts. This was followed by a stop at a Ga coastal village, where we were lucky to coincide with fishermen bringing in their catch. Like all whom we encountered that day, the fishermen were amused and intrigued by our party of eager schoolchildren, and they obligingly answered questions. Our last stop was at Tema harbour, where the crew of a Russian trawler showed us their ship. Bill (who could not accompany us on this expedition) and I were pleased with the result of our reallocation of research funds, and the children were thrilled by all their new experiences.
My days at Legon were always crowded. If people wished to see me, I would suggest that they drive to Larteh (only an hour) where we could have a leisurely talk. Visitors were easy to entertain there: I simply told Auntie Cissie, my ‘cateress’, how many guests I would have for lunch or dinner, and she would prepare a tasty ground-nut stew, or my favourite, nkuntumire (cocoyam leaves and dried fish) or some other Ghanaian delicacy.
Visitors to newly-independent Ghana included many anthropologists, several of whom visited me at Larteh. Social anthropologists, unless on the curmudgeonly end of the spectrum, love to visit each other’s fieldwork locations, and, in turn, to be visited.
E-P, Paul Baxter, St Clair Drake, Raymond Smith, Wilton Dillon, Aidan Southall, Robert Armstrong, Charles Frantz, John Middleton and Audrey Richards, as well as numerous other academics, all came to Larteh, while I was living there. John Middleton even asked me, a few years later, if I ‘minded’ him doing studies in the same area; he chose the neighbouring town of Akropong and I was touched by his requesting permission to enter ‘my’ territory. In fact, I was delighted that John did research in Akwapim, and I learnt much from his study. I would walk around the town with my anthropologist visitors, who invariably asked questions, making me realise that I had never thought of that – often something staring me in the face.
Audrey Richards stayed for five days, and was of immense help, going through my notes, making tactful suggestions on methods, on new observations, on different approaches. She encouraged and helped Agnes Klingshirn, a German postgraduate student, who was staying with me, working on her own dissertation, ‘Child Development in Larteh’. Agnes, as a woman, had much closer relationships with the women in Larteh than I could ever have hoped to, and her observations and insights were extremely helpful to me. She later wrote her doctoral dissertation on ‘Women in Larteh’.
When E-P came to Larteh, in the course of a conversation I mentioned that I was worried because I had not read Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist who was then much in vogue – despite his writing in the most convoluted, opaque style imaginable. ‘I would not bother, David,’ replied E-P, ‘that would only cloud your judgment.’ Later, I passed on this excellent advice to my own students, encouraging them to maximise the great advantage, in fieldwork, of being on the spot, and being able to observe, listen and gather first-hand evidence. Reading can come later.
My visitors were not all academics; I entertained a series of diplomats and Development Aid officials, partly in order to show them ‘the real Africa’ – at least a more real slice of life than they saw from their air-conditioned offices in Accra. On one memorable occasion, the Sudanese Ambassador arrived, followed by a servant carrying a case of whisky for me. I remonstrated mildly, but Abdillahi insisted that I accept it. I needed little persuasion, Scotch was an expensive treat.
During his year at Legon, Bernard was a frequent visitor to Larteh, always making shrewd observations, asking pertinent questions, and becoming friendly with the chief. Once, when Nana Agyemfra wished to visit his people living in the west of Ghana, Bernard drove him, in his little Volkswagen. Nana sat in the front, and in the back were the mankrado (mayor) and another elderly man from Nana’s retinue, plus Nana’s ‘Soul’, a small boy without whom the chief could not travel. Bernard was both exhausted and exhilarated when he returned, after a long day, filled with endless ceremonial greetings and speeches. Although the migrants had lived for years away from home, they kept close ties with Larteh, and Nana’s visit served to strengthen these ties.
Another memorable visitor was Ursula Vaughan-Williams, the widow of the composer, who wished to visit the famous Akonedi shrine. But, as I had anticipated, the shrine priestess could not function cross-culturally: in answer to the priestess’s questions Ursula told her, in a specially arranged pre-dawn consultation, that she had no children, but that this was not a major concern; that she had enough money for her needs; and that no-one wished her harm. Since these were three of the most common complaints of women who consulted the shrine priestess, she was baffled by Ursula. Despite this failure in generating personal problems, Ursula was thrilled by her dramatic experience, walking through the silent streets at 5 a.m., and participating in the mysterious and riveting ceremonies.
Afro-American visitors to Ghana had a keen interest in ‘traditional’ culture, and soon ‘discovered’ the shrine of Akonedi. They persuaded the priestess to visit the USA, where she established several satellite shrines, in Philadelphia, New York and Washington DC. From what little information I have on these American shrines, I gather that they were not very successful, probably because the priestess was operating – as she had with Ursula Vaughan-Williams – outside her own culture.
I had applied, with E-P’s support, to do my dissertation at Oxford. Fortunately, with my second year as a colonial cadet, I had kept the required two years (six terms) residence at Wadham College. I wrote to Maurice Bowra, warden of the college, and received this charming reply:
My dear Brokensha,
When the University Registry has accepted your application, you will receive an account from the Bursary … I will assume that Professor Evans-Pritchard will deal with the matter at the proper time. We shall, of course, be glad for you to do whatever you like.
I treasure this letter, which intrigued Bernard and other graduate students at American universities who faced formidable obstacles and had to take many required courses: all I had to do was to write a dissertation.
I was also fortunate in my adviser: E-P appointed Paul Baxter. Although Paul and I had been contemporaries as students, he was several years ahead of me academically, having completed a good deal of fieldwork, and having had considerable teaching experience. Together with the late AAY Kyerematen (Director of the Kumasi Museum, and an expert on Ashanti regalia), I was the first of many doctoral students whom Paul supervised. He left Ghana in 1961, after my first two years there, but continued to advise me in regular (often weekly) air letters from Britain. Paul, always encouraging, was critical of shoddy thinking or writing; he not only responded promptly to my queries, but also spontaneously sent me references and notes, comparative ethnographies – anything that might be helpful to me. Like many of Paul’s students, I later used him as a model, aspiring to his high standards when I supervised my own postgraduate students. Many years later, I was able to show my appreciation of Paul by editing a Festschrift for him (Brokensha, 1984).
Like many doctoral students, I had the usual last-minute rush to finish my dissertation in time: it was due in Oxford by mid-June 1963. Despite working for forty hours at a stretch, through the night, and having relays of university clerks helping me with the typing, and the duplication of the required three copies, I was not in time for the post. Dorothy Hodgkin, the Nobel prize-winning chemist, had been visiting her husband, Thomas, who was Director of African Studies at Legon. She was flying to London the next day and came to my rescue, offering to hand-carry the three heavy copies to Oxford, her home university. Truly distinguished scholars are often the most thoughtful and helpful to younger colleagues.
The examiners, Evans-Pritchard and Kenneth Kirkwood, approved my dissertation, but noted the large number of typographical errors, an average of one per page. These errors, the result of my frantic, last-minute, rush, had to be corrected before the dissertation could be accepted and a copy deposited in the Bodleian Library. Kwame Arhin, then completing his studies at Oxford, generously offered to correct, by hand, all three copies, a procedure which would never have been allowed at any American university.
A revised version of my dissertation was published, with more help from Paul Baxter, entitled Social Change at Larteh, Ghana (Brokensha, 1966). After its publication, I was amazed – and, of course, delighted – when the book received over twenty reviews, mostly favourable. Two unusual features were noted: first, this was one of the first studies of a small African town, and second, my main theme, that major changes did not necessarily result in conflict and trauma – the Larterians had shown a great capacity for accommodating changes, incorporating the new into the old. I hope that part of this coverage was due to my scholarship, but it undoubtedly also arose because of the topic itself. My lack of theoretical sophistication was often noted – [he is] ‘unconcerned with any explicit theoretical framework’ … ‘trop descriptive au lecteur français’ – criticisms that recurred, with justification, throughout my career: I am better at good description than keen analysis.
While engaged in my fieldwork in Larteh, I had occasion to visit the other hilltop towns, scattered along the Akwapim hills, that make up the state of Akwapim. I edited the Akwapim Handbook (Brokensha, 1972), being constantly surprised by the extent and variety of the written records: the bibliography eventually included three hundred and thirty items. As an essential first step, I addressed the Akwapim Traditional Council in 1962, obtaining the blessing of the Omanhene (paramount chief), Nana Kwame Fori II, who later wrote a foreword to the book, saying that he was ‘proud of the several writers who are natives of Akwapim … I hope our own youngmen [sic] will … become familiar with our rich heritage. To the contributors, I say Ayikoo, you have done well.’
One of the many interesting stories of Akwapim is that of the opera, Susu Biribi, first produced in 1944, and revived during my stay. Written by a local Presbyterian minister, Rev Danso, its Twi lyrics portray the idyllic early life, before ‘cocoa spoilt things’ – with the scramble for land, the appearance of greed, an increase in crime, and the abandon ment of old customs. The opera is melodic and dramatic, an effective commentary on social change.
When I revisited Ghana in 1968, I had notified Abrakwa, my ‘adopted son’, of the date of my arrival, but telling him that it was not necessary for him to meet me at the airport. Fortunately, he ignored my advice, and I spotted his smiling face as soon as I arrived. Because of the late hour, I was unable to exchange my currency, and I had to rely on Abrakwa, who promptly took charge, ushering me to a tro-tro (communal taxi) and taking me to his ‘Auntie’, who made up a bed for me in her modest home. Abrakwa told me that he was proud that for once he could help me; reciprocity is always good.
When Abrakwa started to tell me what had happened to him in the few years since we had last met, I wrote down what he said, and, with few additions, Kofi in Search of a Job was published in a journal (Brokensha, 1969a). Abrakwa/Kofi tells of his attempts to find work, as an animal (‘grass-cutter’) trapper, a footballer, a border guard (he was too short), and as a steward for the difficult Sierra Leonian wife of a Ghanaian naval officer. He details all the strategies he used to find employment, the help of friends and family members, and the anxiety over obtaining clothes and food. The tale of his frustrations was exemplary of the millions of African school-leavers.
Abrakwa, having failed to find work in Ghana, migrated to neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire, where his knowledge of French helped him get a job. After many years of sporadic correspondence, and sending occasional gifts – Oxfam clothing was always welcome – and money, I regret that I lost touch with him.
At Larteh, in 1968, I found Nana Agyemfra holding his informal court. He greeted me, then asked me to sit down while he concluded the hearing. I was both pleased and embarrassed when one of the elders produced a well-worn copy of my Larteh book (Brokensha, 1966) and announced, ‘Look, here it is, on page 143 …’ quoting what I had written. It would have been hopeless to say to the elders that I had merely written down what they had told me: for them, the printed words were like a sacred text. Other anthropologists have reported this sort of experience, emphasising the consequent great need for us to ‘get it right’
Nana Asiedu Agyemfra, Larteh, September, 1972
Nana Asiedu Agyemfra and his ‘soul’ at his Golden Jubilee. Larteh, 1988 Photo: Alfredo Varela, The World & I, December 1989
On this 1968 visit, Auntie Bea, Nana’s chief wife, had a party for me, encouraging me to invite my friends. Leslie Rubin, who was travelling with me, was there, as was Abrakwa and his inseparable friend, Mensah, both now grown into pleasant young men. I was happy to welcome the ebullient Jimmy Moxon, a DC for this area in the late colonial period of the Gold Coast, when he had become friendly with Nana Agyemfra. When Jimmy retired, he built a house at Aburi, ten miles away from Larteh, and settled there. Elsie Fraser-Munn, then teaching music at the University of Ghana, came with her friend from schooldays in England, Miriam Brown-Arkah. They sat on a bench, drinking Coca-Cola and smiling benignly. Elsie, or ‘Madam Munn’ as she was called in Ghana, was an unforgettable person, who made great contributions to music in central Africa (see Jack, 2005). Elsie’s daughter and son-in-law, Elspeth and David Jack, among my closest friends in the Cape, figure in later chapters. Auntie Bea and her many helpers saw that we had plenty of good Ghanaian food, and that there was a ‘bar inexhaustible’.
In 1987 and 1988 I again went to Ghana, directing a study of resettlement necessitated by widespread onchocerciasis (river blindness) in West Africa, which gave me a chance to visit Larteh, where I was welcomed effusively. I am not, I hope, boasting when I say this: it was always a humbling experience, to meet such disinterested affection. I was glad to note that the old, rich ceremonies of funerals, outdooring, and arbitration in disputes were still observed. The national political upheavals and economic depressions had intensified the diaspora, with literally millions of Ghanaians, including scores of Larterians, living abroad, and contributing, in their remittances, a sizeable proportion of the Ghanaian economy.
During my 1987 visit to Ghana, Auntie Bea met me in Accra, and arranged for a taxi to take us to Larteh. She explained that the taxi driver was ‘Francis’ wife’s sister’s husband’s brother’, Francis being her eldest son, and because of this connection the driver charged me a lower fare.
My last visit to Ghana, in 1988, coincided with the Golden Jubilee of Nana Agyemfra, who had been ‘enstooled’ (installed as chief) in 1938. Alfredo Varela, a postgraduate student from the University of California, Santa Barbara, was then in Larteh, investigating the local markets. He had asked me if he could do his fieldwork in Larteh. I had no objection, in fact I welcomed his request, and gave him my field notes and also introductions to the ‘big men’ of Larteh. (‘Big man’ is a widely used West African term for anyone having power and prestige. Men considered of no account are referred to as ‘small boys’.) The Jubilee took place between Christmas and New Year, a popular time for people to visit their hometowns. Thousands of visitors came for the celebrations, many from abroad, the guest of honour being Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, the ‘Chairman of the Provisional National Defence Council’ or head of state. Elaborate ceremonies took place over several days, with much feasting, dancing, drumming, libations and Christian prayers, presentation
DWB with Jessie Agyemfra during his last visit to Larteh in 1988
of gifts, traditional homage to Nana, and formal receptions. The culmination was a grand durbar, when we all donned national costume (the splendid Ghanaian kente cloth). There was a carnival atmosphere for several days, with 2500 commemorative T-shirts being printed for the occasion.
Nana’s extended family, including Vicky I and Vicky II, had come to Larteh for the Golden Jubilee. I never discovered why two of Nana and Auntie Bea’s eleven children had the same name, Victoria. Vicky I lived in London, and Vicky II in Toronto, where she worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. A few years earlier the sisters had bought their father an air ticket to visit London, where, he told me, ‘my subjects were so happy to see me’.
During this visit I had occasion to go to Accra, and I proposed to take the bus, Sea Never Dry. Vicky II was horrified at this suggestion, saying, ‘David, surely your life is worth more than $25?’ – the price of hiring a reliable taxi for my sole use for the day. She was right, for the bus was old and unsafe, and accidents were common. By hiring a vehicle, I had the advantage not only of safety, but also of a driver to take me on my various errands in Accra.
I was glad to see other members of Nana’s family: David (named after me) was now a smart young man, and Francis, whom I had last seen as a newly-commissioned second lieutenant in the Ghana Army, was an impressive senior colonel, recently returned from United Nations peacekeeping duties in Sierra Leone. It was Francis who had arranged for Jerry Rawlings to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations. Francis and his wife Perpetua took me for drinks at the Accra Polo Club (where a colonial atmosphere prevailed), then to dinner in an excellent small restaurant, run by a lady from Larteh.
That was my last visit to Larteh, although I still correspond with my friends there. My time in Ghana – especially in Larteh – not only informed me, but also greatly expanded my self-awareness.
1960s & 1970s: MEXICAN-AMERICAN FARM WORKERS IN CALIFORNIA
When I was directing the Peace Corps training programme at UCB in the summer of 1964, preparing young men and women to teach in Ghana, I realised that nearly all the trainees came from urban or suburban backgrounds, whereas they would all be living in small towns when they went to Ghana. I arranged for them to spend four days, in small groups, in different Californian small towns, mainly in California’s Central Valley. The trainees made a survey of the community, along pre-arranged lines. It was a successful experiment, both in introducing the trainees to the complexities of small communities, and also in showing them ‘the other America’. Most of them had not directly encountered, in such dramatic fashion, the extremes of wealth and the racial discrimination that they saw. This exercise introduced me to Patterson, California.
I was anxious to ensure that no harm came to the trainees, so I drove around to check up on them, and arrived one warm Sunday afternoon at the small town of Patterson (population 3000), where I met another fateful ‘turning point’. The bank manager, Charles Lewis and his wife, Hope, were giving a reception for the four trainees: this reception altered the course of my life. Hope suddenly said to me, ‘You don’t need to go to Africa to do your research, you should come here and study us’, explaining that Patterson was divided into two distinct communities, the ‘Anglos’ in the affluent part of town, and the Mexican-Americans who lived literally ‘across the tracks’, on the other side of the railway line. (The word ‘Anglo’ includes all those who would, in colonial contexts, have been referred to as ‘Europeans’. I will use the terms ‘Anglo’ and ‘Mexican’ not in any pejorative sense, but merely as a shorthand.)
With the encouragement of David Apter and Seymour Martin Lipset, I started a study which I privately called ‘Apartheid in the Valley’. I was struck by the similarities with South Africa, with the Mexican-American and Mexican farm labourers being physically – though not legally – segregated; their working and living conditions on the Anglo-owned farms in some cases were even worse than the conditions of many farm labourers in South Africa.
I spent long weekends in Patterson, which was only two hours’ drive from the Bay Area, but which seemed, sociologically, much further away. I later gave a report on my fieldwork to a seminar at the UCB Institute of International Studies (IIS) and I was gratified when Marty Lipset, introducing me, said that while most of the other IIS members went all over the world to make their studies, ‘David, who has been here only a couple of years, has discovered such riches in our own backyard.’
Patterson provided an invaluable experience for me, as a newcomer to the US, introducing me to basic American institutions like the high school, the churches, baseball, the corner café and the local newspaper. I returned to Patterson from time to time over the next ten years, mostly for short periods. I published only two articles about Patterson (one co-authored with my UCSB colleague, Manuel Carlos), but my time there enriched my life and broadened my understanding of American society and politics.
I had originally hoped to make a comparative study of Patterson and of Bonnievale, a small town two hundred and fifty miles east of Cape Town. When Bernard and I visited Cape Town in the 1960s, I asked HW van der Merwe, the Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, if he could recommend a small town in the Cape with a sociological profile and agricultural character similar to that of Patterson. He suggested Bonnievale, where we were warmly welcomed, especially by his brother, and by the Jonker family, and encouraged to make the study. In the event, we decided to do joint research in Kenya instead, which proved to be most rewarding.
From September 1965 until May 1966, I was able to spend about a quarter of my time at Patterson. I followed the pattern that I had established at Larteh in Ghana, driving to Patterson from UCB for three or four day stays, mostly as long weekends. During this time I rented a room in the home of the town librarian. When I questioned her about the number of Mexicans who used the public library, she bristled and said, ‘They are welcome to come, but very few bother.’ But the neat, quiet library was a forbidding place for the Mexican children, and my landlady, kind as she was to me, presented a formidable figure as guardian of this very Anglo institution. ( Robert Roberts in his account of growing up in the early twentieth century in Manchester recounts the difficulty he had in using the public library, because of his poor background – Roberts, 1971: 245.)
I soon recognised that it would be prudent for me to study the dominant group, the Anglos, first – because once I became involved with the subordinate group, the Mexicans, I could easily be perceived as a suspect figure, a ‘communist agitator’. In a way similar to the whites in South Africa, the Anglos regarded themselves as the central actors, and saw nothing unusual in my paying particular attention to them. I concentrated on gaining an overview of the town, and on meeting as many Anglos as possible. I was received, with few exceptions, with courtesy and helpfulness; the fact that I was a stranger – a South African, with a ‘British’ accent – helped in that I could ask naive questions without causing offence.
In the spring of 1968, with the encouragement of my colleagues at UCSB, I took a quarter’s sabbatical leave, staying – as the only resident – at the Del Puerto Hotel, a large 1920s building in the centre of town, and continuing my enquiries. My most rewarding stay was when I spent eight weeks in Patterson in the summer of 1969, this time staying on ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, most of the time with the hospitable Familia Garza. I made two other brief visits, in 1973 and 1975.
Patterson lies in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, the southern part of California’s Central Valley, one of the nation’s great agricultural regions. In 1844 Rancho del Puerto was established as the first Mexican land grant in the area, but the early farms were soon taken over by Anglos. From the 1860s there was some settlement, mainly of sheep and cattle farmers, some of whose descendants today own large farms, and are ‘leaders of society’. The City of Patterson was founded in 1909, and the first lift irrigation system in the world was introduced soon after. Plots of 160 acres were made available on easy terms ($1.25 an acre), marking the beginning of agriculture in the valley; fruit and nut orchards were established in the 1920s.
The town (a more accurate term than the grandiose ‘city’) is bisected by Route 33, which runs north–south through the Central Valley. On the west side of Route 33 are several hundred neat homes, most of
DWB with Sr and Sra Garza. Patterson, 1980
which are in good order, with attractive gardens. The population of the west side was almost entirely Anglo. On the east side – across the railway tracks – was a very different picture, of small, crowded houses, many of which were dilapidated or deteriorating (using the official census terms). Some of this housing was provided by the county, specifically for the migrant farm workers who came to Patterson from about April to November. Single migrants were generally housed in contractors’ camps, while families were put in rudimentary living quarters, mostly with shared communal toilet and ablution facilities. Over the years that I visited the area, these conditions did gradually improve.
Many of the early California settlers came from Portugal, mostly from the Azores, after one of the periodic earthquakes in the early twentieth century. (American visitors to the Azores are likely to be asked if they know X who lives in Crow’s Landing, a small town not far from Patterson, and the centre of Portuguese immigration.) Although the present day ‘Portuguese’ have mostly done well economically, they are still somewhat marginal within the Anglo community: the wife of a prominent grower once told me that she was uneasy about the relationship between her daughter and a Portuguese boy, both outstanding seniors at Patterson High School. She claimed it was because his family was Catholic.
Even within the Anglo community there were stark divisions: for example, the very pleasant homes in the ‘best’ part of the town, in the north, cost about $80 000, whereas the much more modest houses in the south-east section seldom exceeded $8000. The respective families were acutely aware of the class differences, which were reflected in the church membership. Most of the elite (Protestants) attended the Presbyterian Church; those of Swedish descent favoured the Lutheran Church, and the smaller churches – Assemblies of God, Pentecostal and Church of Christ – attracted the ‘Okies’. This was a derogatory term in general use, referring to the descendants of the 1930s migrants from Oklahoma (and other ‘dust bowl’ states), immortalised in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
Other ‘poor whites’, who were often – understandably – the most virulently racist were included in this pejorative term. The large Catholic church was anomalous, including both some of the leading Italian growers, as well as most of the Mexicans, but a Spanish language mass created a sort of segregation. (I attended services both in English and in Spanish, the latter being livelier, and friendlier.) An increasing number of Mexicans belonged to the Mexican Baptist Church, reflecting a general trend among previously Catholic Latin-Americans who were now joining a variety of Protestant churches – mostly evangelical.
One specialised and exotic sub-group consisted of Basque shepherds, mostly from the province of Vizcaya (Biscaya) near Bilbao, in Spain. In 1964, a few of these hardy men still came each year for the summers, leading isolated lives with their flocks of sheep in the hills, and living in caravans. Some settled in Patterson, and neighbouring towns, their descendants becoming prominent citizens. Bernard and I liked to stop at Los Banos, halfway between Santa Barbara and Patterson, for a meal at the local Basque family restaurant, where the food was superior, and where Ueskera, the Basque language, was still spoken.
Walking around the town on Sunday mornings, I noticed a distinct gradation in the age and cost of the automobiles parked outside the nine churches. I asked the pastors and priests if their congregations were involved in any activities to help Mexican farm workers: a defensive Presbyterian minister told me, ‘We opened the door … but nothing happened, no-one came.’ Among these men of the cloth there was a general unease about the condition of the farm workers, but a reluctance to get involved, and also an ignorance of where to start. I should not be too critical, for it is difficult to know where to start – good intentions are not enough.
One common attitude of most Anglos was typified by an Italian immigrant, who had arrived with nothing in 1922, started a small bakery, and in 1946 established Patterson Frozen Foods, the town’s largest employer. He had done extremely well, and told me, ‘I worked hard, I made it; why can’t these people do the same?’ – forgetting how conditions have changed. I discussed the high cost of funerals with the local undertaker, a prosperous businessman and a leading citizen; when I mentioned that many Mexicans spent at least $5000 on a funeral (a very large sum in the mid-1960s), he replied defensively, ‘But, Dave, these people want to honour their dead, I merely provide a service.’
The residents across the tracks were virtually all ‘Mexican’. This term includes Mexican-Americans as well as legal and illegal migrants. The term ‘Mexican-American’ refers to those of Mexican descent who are either permanent residents – holders of green cards, most of whom had entered the US in the 1960s – or US citizens.
Started in 1942 as a wartime measure, the Bracero (manual labourer) programme allowed a stipulated number of Mexicans to enter the US for summer farm work; these migrant workers were required to return to Mexico when the harvest was over. Nearly all the growers fully supported this programme, which provided them with an inexpensive and docile labour force for the months of the year when they needed the labour. ‘Everyone likes it, Dave,’ I was told, ‘It suits us, sure, but the workers like it too – they make good money, better than they could in Mexico, then they can return to their homes and their families and lead better lives.’ The Bracero programme was terminated in 1964, under pressure from civil rights protesters, concerned at the wretched housing and poor health of the migrants. (But, as I write, there is discussion in the US of renewing an official migrant system.) Migrant labour has been exploited in many countries, over many periods, the migrants usually being powerless, excluded from the mainstream economy, and denied basic human rights. Mexicans remain the main source of Californian farm labour, as they have been since World War 1. Other groups – Chinese, Japanese, ‘Okies’ – mostly managed to move out of farm labour in one generation.
Bracero living quarters. Photo: The Smithsonian Institute
A farm worker with a short-handled hoe. Photo: The Smithsonian Institute
Like the Anglo population, the Mexicans were divided by subtle class and regional factors, which included conservatives and radicals; legal and illegal migrants; those from Texas, and the rest; those from different provinces of Mexico. Migrants from Texas came for the summer harvest work, often in large family groups, driving in a pick-up truck, and bringing basic items such as their television sets and sewing machines. They found family accommodation, of varying quality, at ‘the camp’. Some families worked each year for the same employer, whom they would telephone to confirm the availability of work, and to announce the date of their arrival. Most families returned to Texas at the end of the harvest, but a few had settled permanently in Patterson. They came because the pay was better, even at the 1964 prevailing minimum wage of just over $1.00 an hour.
The older Mexicans were generally more conservative, both in family attitudes (especially regarding the role of women, and the importance of family honour), and politically, preferring to accept rather than to protest. In fact, the whole town was distinctly conservative, a sharp change for me, after the turmoil of anti-Vietnam protests at UCB and UCSB in the 1960s. There was, as I soon realised when I lived among the Mexicans, a pervasive parochial atmosphere. For example, although San Francisco was only one and a half hour’s drive away, few Mexicans had ever been there. Very few students in Patterson showed any interest in wider political events, and those who did raise their voices in protest were much criticised by their own communities, whether Anglo or Mexican. One young Anglo, the son of a prominent businessman was disinherited by his father for engaging in radical protest. The leaders of the few active Mexican political groups were often the subject of bitter back-biting and unfounded slurs.
When I first visited, the population of the town was just over 3000, a quarter of whom lived in what was referred to as ‘the camp’ – the east side of the town. The superintendent of county housing reminded me of his South African counterpart – he spoke no Spanish, despite having been in his position for nearly twenty years, was basically a decent though unimaginative person, and held deeply-felt negative stereotypical views of the Mexicans. And the housing itself was reminiscent of the worst type of ‘native location’ in southern Africa.
The superintendent provided one example of the prevailing cultural misunderstanding in complaining to me that the Mexicans had no sense of hygiene, dropping the used toilet paper on the floor, instead of flushing it. But this is common practice in Mexico, where the old sewerage systems cannot cope with paper, which is more often newspaper than regular toilet paper, and waste paper baskets are regularly placed in toilets. In her book, A Change of Tongue (2003: 358), South African writer Antjie Krog describes a similar situation in the Free State town of Kroonstad, where ‘Oom Pieta’ tells her: ‘If you want to win the Nobel Prize, develop an easily degradable newspaper … that will dissolve easily enough not to clog a sewage system. The single greatest obstacle to the development of sewage technology in developing countries is the absence and expense of toilet paper.’
There were few amenities in ‘the camp’: no parks or recreational facilities, no postal delivery. However there was a clinic, and school buses did take children to the schools – across the tracks – and migrant ministry workers arrived to help each summer.
Proposals to provide more housing were usually defeated; many Anglos feared that this would result in an increase in the number of Mexican permanent residents, who would be a financial burden on the town. Similarly, the school’s bond application, proposed in the early 1970s, when funds were urgently needed, was not approved, apparently because voters feared that improved school facilities would only attract more Mexicans to the town. The realistic Town Clerk deplored this attitude, pointing out that seventy per cent of the five hundred workers at Patterson Frozen Foods lived in nearby Modesto, or in other towns, because of the housing shortage in Patterson. Had they lived in the town, Patterson would have benefited from what they would have spent locally.
I often heard Anglos complaining that ‘these people’ (the Mexicans) ‘go on welfare in the winter and we have to pay for them.’ In fact, many of the year-round residents were too proud to accept welfare, and went to great lengths to earn whatever they could. The Anglo farmers, called ‘growers’, often lived on their farms, in sprawling ranch houses complete with swimming pool, one or two even having their own airstrip. I was constantly surprised to note the paucity of reading matter. Most growers, and nearly all their wives, were college or university graduates, yet I saw few books, and the only magazines would typically be Readers Digest, Sports Illustrated and Woman and Home.
As well as the town itself, I took as my main study area the whole Patterson school district (total population about 6000). This included the two small satellite settlements of Westley and Grayson (with a combined population of 800, mainly Mexican farm labourers) and the surrounding area, in extent about 300 square miles. All of this was on the ‘West Side’, that is the area to the west of the San Joaquin River, and all of it was part of Stanislaus County, the county seat being Modesto.
The agricultural lands in the San Joaquin Valley were flat and almost entirely devoid of any bird life. In the springtime the flowering orchards made a pretty sight, with apricot and peach trees in full blossom. There were pleasing prospects – to the west were the Diablo Mountains and to the east could be seen the foothills of the Sierras. There was a remote ‘pioneer’s home’, nestling in the western foothills, which I enjoyed visiting; it was like stepping back into the nineteenth century. It also reminded me of my visits to South African farmers who had the same pride in the achievements of their pioneer ancestors.
Patterson had its own newspaper, the weekly Patterson Irrigator, which was heavily influenced by its main advertisers, who provided much of its revenue. The advertisers were mainly large local firms (the Ford motor dealership, John Deere tractors, the town undertaker) whose conservative owners were key men (there were few women) in the local power structure. Ron Swift, the editor, personally had liberal views, and was sympathetic to the aspirations of the Mexicans. He had to tread carefully, so as not to antagonise the advertisers, but he recognised that the Mexicans were part of Patterson, and increased the coverage of Mexican events such as weddings and births. Patterson was, as I soon learnt, very much a ‘red’ town, with ultra-conservative overtones. (The US media, in assessing the way states are likely to vote, refer to Republican strongholds as ‘red’, and to those with Democratic majorities as ‘blue’. I suspect that President George W Bush is still very popular in Patterson even today.)
The growers saw themselves as rugged individualists who were in charge of their own destiny, and with their cowboy hats and expensive leather boots they certainly looked the part. I soon recognised the major, if behind the scenes, role of the masters of agri-business. The 1960s, when I started my enquiries, were the years before the fresh food boom; most produce was canned, processed or frozen. The directors of the processing and canning plants decided what crops the growers would plant, and when the planting and the harvesting of crops would take place.
Those who owned the expensive harvesting machinery allocated their machines to the different farms on the most cost-effective basis, and the growers were at the mercy of the ‘faceless financial giant’ that controls California agriculture. As early as 1939 Senator La Folette chaired a committee on agriculture in California, concluding that ‘the pattern of rural social relationships was dictated by forces outside agriculture proper.’
The growers often told me that, apart from a few fields of beets, they received no crop subsidies. This may have been strictly true, but they never mentioned the heavily subsidised irrigation water on which all their operations depended. They were quick to criticise farm workers, often unjustly, as ‘welfare cheats’, but they were reluctant to recognise that they were themselves major beneficiaries of federal funds. In theory only farms limited to 160 acres should have received subsidised irrigation, but as agriculture became more intensive and more specialised, larger acreages were needed, and growers circumvented the rule either by putting parts of their farm in the names of family members, or by leasing land. Land was leased on a share basis, the landowner usually taking one third of the crop – this was very similar to the abusua system which I had studied among cocoa farmers in Ghana. Valley crops, except for small acreages of beets, were not directly subsidised. There were three main categories of crops: row crops, including beans, peas, tomatoes, peppers and melons; trees, including apricots, walnuts, almonds and peaches; and alfalfa (lucerne), which could yield six or seven crops each year.
In 1960, the first mechanical tomato-harvesting machines were introduced. They cost $60 000, and employed a crew of eighteen (mostly women) instead of the sixty or seventy workers who would have done the work by hand. A few years later, an improved machine, costing $110 000, employed a crew of four or five – it was estimated that the cost of this machine would be recovered in two seasons. Machines were used on row crops, but also to harvest apricots, mainly for the third picking. While most growers welcomed the benefits of mechanisation, others were aware of the social impact on the farm workers. Apart from its effects on farm labour, farm mechanisation also hastened the demise of the family farm, and helped the inexorable rise of vertically integrated agri-business in California. (Not long ago I spoke to a wine grower of Bonnievale who lamented the need for mechanisation, caused, he said, by the habits of the coloured farm workers, who could not be relied on to work the long hours needed to harvest the grapes.)
The University of California has always been heavily involved with Californian agriculture. The campuses at Berkeley and Davis both have outstanding departments of agriculture, the Giannini Centre at Berkeley being one of the leading agricultural research institutions in the US. In addition, the university has close links with the Californian Extension Service, established to help Californian farmers. Nearly all the efforts of the university are aimed at crop production and protection. For example, it was the University of California at Davis which was mainly responsible for the Blackwelder tomato-harvesting machine and also for developing the almost cubic tomatoes, designed to be suitable for mechanical harvesting. Unfortunately the ‘improved’ tomatoes lack taste. The university has little interest in farm workers: during my studies, UC Davis employed one sociologist, Isao Fujimoto, who was in a lonely and vulnerable position. I attended a conference at UC Davis where he and I were the only voices speaking for the farm worker: everyone else was primarily concerned to improve productivity, and paid little attention to human factors. (I was later at a conference organised by the California State Employment Agency on problems of farm labour, attended by all stakeholders – all, that is, except farm labourers or Mexicans.) UC Berkeley had one distinguished economist, Paul Shuster Taylor, who made important and sympathetic studies of farm labour in California, but after his retirement he was not replaced.
The facts of migrant labour are ‘rediscovered’ every few years, there being no fewer than forty-six US reports in the period from 1930 to 1950, including twenty from federal and state agencies, with others from growers, labour, churches and private welfare agencies. Many appeals have been made to America’s conscience, but migratory labour remains a feature of the Californian rural landscape. In 1968 farm labour in the Patterson area peaked from 4000 in April to 9350 in September, two thirds of the labour force being seasonal.
Farmers in the USA have felt paranoid and antagonistic towards farm workers’ unions ever since the late nineteenth century. They succeeded in having agriculture excluded from the provisions of the 1935 Wagner Act, which regulated trade unions in other industries. Their opposition was based on the importance of food for the nation and on the perishability of their product; they claimed that strikes at harvest time would be disastrous for the national economy. Yet farm workers have been unionised in Hawaii since 1946, and receive an adequate minimum wage ($3.50 per hour in 1968), medical scheme membership, paid holidays, sick pay, and, most important, the right to collective bargaining. What made this possible was the isolation of Hawaii, farm workers being difficult to replace. Regarding the perishability argument, those in favour of unions point out that canneries have been unionised for many years and have nonetheless operated smoothly.
The farm workers were wooed both by the powerful Teamsters Union, and also by the charismatic Cesar Chavez, head of UFWOC, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. Not all farm workers are enthusiastic about unions, some fearing retaliation by their employers. A Mexican nurse told me that she dared not express any sympathy for unions, lest it jeopardise her husband’s job in the fields; others are against the unions because they mistrust the leaders. Farm workers are the lowest paid in the labour force, have the fewest benefits, and are subject to many dangers – they account for only seven per cent of all workers, but suffer twenty-five per cent of all industrial accidents – so their opposition to farm unions surprised me: figures fluctuated, but at any one time, fewer than one third of all farm workers had joined unions.
PATTERSON HIGH SCHOOL
When I arrived in Patterson in 1965 for my first period of research, I quickly realised that the high school was a key feature of the district. By then it was integrated, in that students included a significant number of Mexicans. It was clearly a major socialising institution for both Anglos and Mexicans. Unlike my American anthropological colleagues, I had had no personal experience of an American high school so I set out to repair this deficiency. The principal kindly allowed me to interview all the Mexicans in the junior and senior classes; in return he asked me to give some talks ‘about Africa’ to these classes.
In the whole Patterson United School Districts, only five of the one hundred and twenty teachers were Spanish-speaking (including two Cubans), so there were few role models for the Mexicans. Forty per cent of all Mexican students (twenty-five per cent at the high school and seven and a half per cent of the senior classes) were not fluent in English. Not surprisingly, there was a high drop-out rate, and in a later year, 1973, only a quarter of the one hundred and twenty graduating seniors were Mexicans, although by then they comprised half the student body.
I read essays by pupils on what they did in the summer holidays and was struck by the stark contrasts: the Anglo students talked of trips to Europe with their parents, and of visiting friends and relatives all over the United States, horse-riding, canoeing, swimming, sailing, hiking and other recreational activities. For many of the Mexicans, summer was a time of work: ‘I worked with my uncle in the fields in Texas’, wrote one boy. Many Mexicans had never seen the sea nor had they eaten in a restaurant.
Most Anglo senior students owned, or had access to, a car. It was not unusual for a wealthy grower to give his son or daughter a new motor car as a sixteenth birthday present. Cars represented not only prestige and status, but also they provided the ability to participate in after-school activity, including sport and clubs such as the FFA (Future Farmers of America – this federally funded programme allowed youngsters to gain experience and confidence, and gave them a good start if they wished to become farmers).
Cars were the central feature of a Saturday evening ritual, when young men, many of them high school students, slowly drove their cars, usually packed with admiring friends, round and round Del Puerto Plaza, in the town centre. Both the drivers and their cars were subjected to intense scrutiny, being seen as an ensemble. I was reminded of Godfrey Lienhardt’s description (1961) of young Dinka men parading with their oxen, while the girls commented on both the boys and their oxen: Godfrey thought that a plain boy with a remarkably beautiful ox might be more attractive to the girls than a handsome boy who was accompanied by an ordinary sort of ox. Perhaps this applied to the boys with the cars too.
Football (American football) was, of course, a major activity, though in 1965 very few Mexicans participated. Some did not have the time and most lacked transport; a few were dissuaded by their mothers who feared injuries; still others may have been put off by the coaches, who hardly went out of their way to welcome them.
Mexican students were easily distinguished from the Anglos not only because most of them had a slightly darker skin colour, but also because of their grooming and dressing habits. The Mexicans, particularly the boys, took better care of their hair and their dress than did their Anglo contemporaries, who tended to adopt a very casual style. (This is similar to the difference between white and black students at the University of Cape Town today, where the former, especially the young men, are generally quite sloppy in appearance, whereas the latter tend to dress neatly. Another similarity is that in the periods between classes little intermingling happens between the two groups, both in Patterson and at UCT.)
In my, admittedly biased, judgement the Mexicans, both boys and girls, were often more attractive than the Anglos, yet in 1969 a very pretty Mexican girl, who stood for Homecoming Queen, was vetoed by the football team. However in 1972 a minor victory occurred when Mexican Alice Rubia was voted as ‘Apricot Queen’ for the year.
At this time the administration at the University of California was trying to recruit more ‘minority’ students – this term referring to African-Americans and, in California, to Hispanics particularly. Many parents, both Anglo and Mexican, had negative stereotypes of UC students, regarding them as hippies with bare torsos and bare feet, who were involved in sex and drugs, and used vulgar language. Anglo parents might have been more worried by the revolutionary threats, whereas Mexican mothers were horrified by the lack of modesty, as frequently shown on the TV news when pictures of protesting students were seen on their screens. Both kinds of reaction were understandable.
I first met Leonard Reza when he was an eighteen-year-old senior at Patterson High School. He was interested in my research, and often accompanied me, helping me by interpreting when I had difficulty in understanding rapid conversations. Leonard, a bright lad, told me that it was difficult for him to study because his friends would come to his home and say, ‘Hey, come out with us for some fun; we’ve got a six pack [of beer].’ Leonard found the peer pressure difficult to resist. He had a good school record which would gain him admittance to UCSB and I persuaded him to come to the university for an interview. He met my Mexican-American colleague, Manuel Carlos, and also a group of Chicanos (as Mexican-Americans were beginning to be called) who were already enrolled at UCSB. We all encouraged Leonard, who seemed keen to come to our university, and he gained provisional admission, but in September 1969, when the school year started, he did not appear. My friends in Patterson told me that he had – presumably again under peer pressure – volunteered to join the army. (With his acceptance by UCSB, Leonard would have been exempt from the draft.) After basic training he was sent to Vietnam, where, a few months later, he was killed in action. When his coffin came home for burial his mother wept bitterly when she was not allowed to see her son. But there was a good reason for this: his injuries had been so extensive that he was not recognisable.
PATTERSON AND THE GLOBAL COMMUNITY
When I began working in anthropology, most studies made were of ‘bounded’ communities, with little reference to the outside world. Even then, however, some anthropologists, including Monica Wilson, insisted that it was essential to take into consideration the effects of Christianity, schools, new crops, labour migration and other new social factors. When I studied social change at Larteh in Ghana in the early 1960s, I was well aware of the importance of links with the wider world and I explicitly addressed this. So I was prepared to look at Patterson in a global context, but I did not initially appreciate just how complicated that would be.
Looking back, more than forty years after I first set foot in Patterson, I realise that I was being unrealistically ambitious in making inquiries in so many avenues. For example, I looked at the different levels of government – the City of Patterson, Stanislaus County, the State of California and the Federal Government – all of which had some impact on what happened to the Mexican farm workers in Patterson. But it was difficult to ascertain precisely what those impacts were.
I drove to the neighbouring towns to see how they compared to Patterson, especially in the relations between Anglos and Mexicans, and in the provisions made for migrant farm workers. Of the six towns that I visited, Patterson was probably the most liberal, in that some changes were taking place there. I frequently visited the county seat, Modesto, and interviewed a range of county officials, most of whom received me cordially.
The time that I spent in Patterson, from the mid-1960s to the mid1970s, coincided with President Lyndon Johnson’s ‘ War on Poverty’, which had far-reaching results in Patterson. In 1964 Johnson said, ‘There are millions of Americans – one fifth of our people – who have not shared in the abundance which has been granted to most of us, and on whom the gates of opportunity have been closed.’ This led to the passing of the Economic Opportunity Act, designed to eliminate poverty. The emphasis was on Community Action Agencies which were to involve ‘maximum feasible participation’ – about which I wrote an article (Brokensha, 1974). The programme had many problems, some of which concerned the relations with ‘City Hall’ – the established local city, county and state government bodies. Another problem was the lack of cohesion in the supposed ‘communities’: for example in Stanislaus County the poor included significant numbers not only of Mexicans but also of ‘Okies’ and African-Americans, all of whom concentrated their efforts on improvements for their own people.
Numerous agencies, both public and private, came into existence expressly to help the poor, and were often directly aimed at farm workers. I needed to become familiar with the structure, aims and effectiveness of these new agencies. Those involved in the various programmes included a small number of radical activists who caused alarm among the dominant conservative community. (For a devastating critique of the war on poverty, I recommend Tom Wolfe’s satirical piece, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers, which brilliantly captures the spirit of those times.) Despite the lack of clear goals, the difficulty of retaining effective and acceptable senior staff, problems in appointing representatives of the poor, the vagueness of the definition of jobs for community organisers, and the sheer magnitude of the problem of poverty, much was achieved. Whether all the millions of dollars were spent effectively is another question altogether.
One major bonus for me was that I was introduced to several bright, dedicated young men and women who had moved into the valley, attached to one of the most effective agencies, the California Rural Legal Assistance programme (CRLA). Financed by federal funds, this programme brought young, often newly-graduated lawyers, into the valley, specifically to see that the growers’ and contractors’ obligations to their farm workers were enforced, and that the workers received the benefits to which they were entitled. These lawyers became involved in conditions in the field, such as the provision of toilets and cold drinking water, pay, health, education, hire purchase agreements (which often involved Mexican purchasers being cheated) and other consumer fraud. The lawyers, and workers in the other new agencies, realised that commitment, ingenuity and creativity were the prime ingredients for an effective outreach programme. As well as being interested in what the CRLA lawyers were achieving, I valued their stimulating, iconoclastic and lively company, frequently joining them for supper (usually pasta and red wine) in the evening. These were heady times, when we thought that the country had a bright future.
The various outreach programmes included ‘Head Start’ for pre-school children; a summer school for Mexican children, with bilingual teachers’ aides. (In an ironic twist, some Anglos complained that they were being discriminated against because, lacking Spanish, they were not eligible for these jobs. This is similar to the position in contemporary South Africa where white job-seekers are often disadvantaged.) There was also a ‘mini-corps’, a sort of domestic Peace Corps, which helped to motivate Mexican-American children, and a mobile dental clinic – which reported that only three per cent of migrant children had ever had any dental treatment. The federal programmes included the important AFDC – Assistance to Families with Dependent Children – whose grants formed a significant addition to the income of many Patterson families.
A co-operative society was set up to help Mexicans buy small farms – from forty to one hundred acres in size – which could be planted with trees to provide an income. The programme director, David Talamante, was determined and charismatic, so much so that some of the Mexicans turned against him claiming – quite unjustifiably I believe – that ‘David was just in this for his own ends’.
I realised that I would have to learn some Spanish before I started inquiries among the Mexicans. Luis, a young UCSB Mexican-American student, became my encouraging tutor, so that I had at least a basic command of the language. I also decided that I should focus particularly on two areas, agriculture (especially farm labour) and Anglo-Mexican relations at the high school. In all my enquiries the people, both Anglo and Mexican were open, friendly and hospitable. By contrast, during the limited time I spent at Bonnievale, in South Africa, I encountered several whites who were defensive and unfriendly, and many coloured workers who were scared and evasive.
It is usual to check archival sources before starting fieldwork: in the mid-1960s this was a fairly easy task because literature on Chicanos in California was limited. Forty years on the position has completely changed, so that I doubt if any one individual could possibly read all that is now available. Some anthropologists are highly specialised, focusing on a very specific line of inquiry; by contrast, others – including myself – are dilettantish and spread their net ever wider. I constantly had to restrict my reading to that which was strictly relevant to my study. Even so there seemed no end to what I had to read, and I spent many evenings in the UCSB library looking at references on labour relations, international migration, labour migrants in South Africa, Mexican history, and agriculture in California.
There were very few sociological studies of farm labour in California. The anthropologist Walter Goldschmidt, who later made significant contributions to East African ethnography, wrote As You Sow (1940). Carey McWilliams’ two books – Factories in the Fields: the story of migratory farm labour in California (1939) and Ill fares the Land (1942) – were both important contributions. These writers were shocked by the conditions that they saw on Californian farms, and were critical of the growers, who promptly denounced the writers as communists. The 1930s had been a turbulent time in the fields of California: between 1933 and 1939 there were a hundred and eighty agricultural strikes, each one involving an average of eight hundred farm workers.
I collected a mass of quantitative information, gathering data and statistics on agriculture – production, crops, farm size, labour – as well as on migration, pay, benefits, child labour, education, health, welfare, crime: all was grist to my mill, even if the relevance of the information was not always clear.
I interviewed the town clerk, the police chief, city councillors, teachers and administrators at the high school, church ministers, and county and state officials. For agriculture, I interviewed growers and, where possible their wives, contractors, farm labourers and providers of ancillary services in the town. I had only one difficult interview, with the owner of Patterson Frozen Foods who was very much on the defensive and resentful of my questions. I also saw the agricultural extension officer, the supervisor of the irrigation district, and the town librarian. Throughout my enquiries I gained a mass of useful information from a banker friend who had a keen and probing mind, and, like the best anthropological informants, could stand outside and analyse the community. (He reminded me of Mr Eugene Ohene Walker, my main informant at Larteh.) When working with Mexicans, I interviewed Sam Cuellar, a member of the city council, and José Santana, who stood for the council but who was not elected – I think because he was young, Texan, had long hair, and radical views.
When I was working in the fields I briefly used a tape recorder, for the first and last time in my fieldwork career. I was staying at the home of the family Garza who were immensely hospitable, but it was always noisy, with constant television and radio, and a lot of traffic. So I accepted an offer from a kind Anglo woman to use a room in her home for working on my notes. I dictated my frank impressions, not all of which were favourable to the Anglos and then I was shocked to find that someone had been playing my tapes. I was pretty sure that it was the fifteen-year-old schoolgirl daughter of the household but I said nothing and simply abandoned the practice. It would have been embarrassing for me if the contents of my indiscreet tapes had become public.
Although seldom explicitly recommended in fieldwork manuals, simply ‘hanging out’ is a good way of getting to know any community.
Throughout my stays in Patterson (except for the summer of 1969, when I lived, and ate my meals, with the Garza family) I took all my meals out. I would go for an early breakfast at the popular Mil’s Drive-in café on Route 33, where I would meet the leading townsmen, usually poring over the green (sports) pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. For my evening meal I could go to Wally’s Aloha, the Paradise or the Vegas Cafe, the cuisine and the clientele differing at each place. On Sundays I liked to drive (twenty miles) to Gustine, and sit in the town plaza, listening to the mariachi band, and drinking a Dos Equis beer.
I joined in group outings: Chuck, my bank manager friend, invited me to accompany him and two hundred and fifty others, nearly all men, to my first baseball game at Oakland. And Eulogio Garza persuaded me to come with him and his friends to a bowling alley in Modesto. Both occasions provided good insights as well as congenial company. One Sunday I went with the Garzas to the County Agricultural Fair at Modesto, where we saw a large group of Anglos from Patterson. We were all small – including myself – and the
Anglos, I distinctly remember, all seemed to be big, strong, blonde, loud and confident. They did not notice us, but we (or was this my imagination?) instinctively shrank away.
I was allowed, even encouraged, to attend many meetings of different community organisations, including those of the Board of the high school, and, most important for me, of the Voluntary Fire Service. Patterson, like countless other American small towns, has no formal fire brigade, but it does have a fire engine, with fire protection being provided by volunteers, of whom thirty were regulars and thirty reserves. The monthly meetings were not only convivial but also valuable in indicating social status in the town: membership of the Voluntary Fire Service was highly prized. All the volunteers were men, and all were Anglos.
DWB, Eulogio Garza, at his wedding, and a bridesmaid. Patterson 1972. A mariachi band is playing in the background.
I accepted invitations to give talks to local groups including the Rotary Club, the Lions, and the American Association of University Women. Most of my talks were about Africa, the topic which my listeners preferred, rather than hearing me analyse their own community.
A memorable and important part of my study was participant observation, a commonly used method in anthropological fieldwork. Given the importance of agriculture and of agricultural labour, my obvious course was to participate in seasonal farm labour. My banker friend arranged for me to spend a few days at a farm contractor’s camp – having assured the suspicious contractor that I was not a spy, and that I would cause no trouble. The contractors were responsible for recruitment, transportation, housing, wages, tools, field toilets and other ancillary requirements. They were notorious for their exploitative practices and, as I soon learnt, for the minimal housing that they provided. My camp consisted of three sheds which had been converted into dormitories, with rudimentary showers and toilets without seats. (I had never got accustomed to communal toilets when I was in the army, and I still found them difficult.) The beds were arranged in blocks of four, two up and two down, an arrangement similar to our prisoner of war camp in Dresden but the facilities in California were vastly inferior and the general appearance was depressing and dirty.
My fellow workers were a very mixed lot including blacks, Hispanics, old winos – a cross-section of America’s underclass. I kept my head down and had no trouble from my new mates, some of whom told dreary tales of prison life, their limited travels and their marital upsets. I saw no need to dissemble; conversation was limited, and if I were asked directly what I did, I would mutter that I was a teacher, in a tone that discouraged further questioning. My new pals probably thought that I was down on my luck, and desperate to earn some money. I found the sleeping arrangements a severe trial, being relieved when Pancho, the young cook, took pity on me, after the first night, and offered me a bed in his caravan.
I was part of the contractors’ task force for two weeks, when I would get up at 5.30 a.m., and be sent out, as part of a gang, to do various tasks, including hoeing, weeding, stacking branches, and whatever else needed doing On my first day of weeding a field of tomatoes, my co-workers laughed, then told me that I was pulling up the tomato plants and leaving the weeds in the field. The foreman, who was friendly and helpful, showed me how to weed properly, and helped me finish my row. Lunch, brought out to the fields at noon, consisted of five enchiladas – three chicken and two bean. They were tasty but I could manage only two. After our half-hour lunch break we worked another two hours until 2:30 p.m. when we finished for the day, because by then it was really hot in the fields.
The next day I was given a short-handled (fourteen inch) hoe, which has since been banned in California. Some growers said that ‘it weeds better’, and even claimed that the workers liked it, but that was not my experience: it was back-breaking work and at the end of the morning I was working on my hands and knees. I had originally contemplated spending most of the summer doing participant observation in the fields, but I was too exhausted at the end of the day to make notes, or even to contemplate what I had learnt. The work was hard and it was extremely hot in the fields, with temperatures up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
I spent a week picking apricots, an important experience for me because of the significance of apricots in the economy of Patterson, ‘The Apricot Capital of the World’. On my first day I was given a metal bucket, with a strap to put around my neck, and a ten foot ladder. My fellow pickers and I were then addressed by the foreman and also by the Anglo grower, both of whom impressed on us that we must pick only the ripe apricots. (I had met this employer socially but he did not recognise me. I made sure that my sombrero was pulled down over my face and in any case I soon realised that to the employer, I was invisible – ‘my hand was anonymous’.) Arriving in the orchard, I carefully set up my ladder, making sure that I did not trap my fingers, clambered up, only to find that the nearest apricots were just outside my reach. On the second attempt I was close enough to start picking the fruit. I started by selectively choosing the ripe apricots, picking them one by one, and carefully putting them in the bucket around my neck. I was reminded of a scene from Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride, where happy peasants, perched on ladders, carefully pick fruit, one at a time, in just the same way as I was doing. I had to move my ladder several times to gain access to enough fruit to fill my bucket.
When I descended I was taken in hand by a middle-aged Mexican, who had already filled three buckets. ‘Listen, amigo,’ he said, ‘you have to learn. You put your bucket near the fruit and you use both hands (demonstrating with a sweeping gesture) and you simply pull all the fruit within reach into your bucket’. I said, ‘But the patron told us that we must only pick the ripe fruit’. ‘Fuck the patron,’ said my new friend, ‘we must earn some money: you put the unripe fruit at the bottom of the bucket and no-one will notice.’ Two or three pickings take place on apricot orchards, and the unripe fruit should have been left for the next picking. It may have been my strict Methodist grandfather, but I could never bring myself to pick really unripe apricots.
Maureen Kearns, a UCSB anthropology graduate student, accompanied me that particular summer, also staying with the Garzas. She spoke Spanish fluently, was young, had an easy social manner, and – an important factor – was female, and so she gained much valuable information that would have been difficult, even impossible, for me to learn. She was great company and we worked together, picking apricots, earning $18 between us on our first day. Although we filled forty-two boxes of apricots, we did not earn more than the basic $1.35 per hour wage. Our gang included some workers who liked ladder work, and who followed the fruit, working their way north through California, Oregon and finally, Washington State. The highest paid worker, one of these ‘fruit tramps’, received $44 for his day’s work, averaging $2.75 per hour. Despite those exhausting hot hours in the orchards, apricots remain my favourite fruit: there is nothing better than a fresh, perfectly ripe apricot.
I worked for different employers and contractors, most of whom treated us fairly, but one Mexican contractor (whom I learnt later was a notorious exploiter) tried to cheat several of us on our pay. I kept a note of my hours and boxes of fruit filled, but many workers were illiterate and they would have been easy to deceive. At the other end of the scale, one employer actually worked with us, trimming his trees, paying us $2.10 per hour (50 per cent more than the minimum wage) and even offering us iced beer at the end of our work.
Sometimes we heard anxious cries of ‘Migra! Migra!’ (immigration officials) and the illegal Mexican migrants would scatter, desperately trying to hide. In the summer of 1968 no fewer than 38 000 illegal migrants were arrested in California, sometimes with low-flying aircraft directing the ground crew.
My experience in the fields confirmed my impressions of conditions of work: by law contractors were obliged to provide cold drinking water, with individual throwaway paper cups, as well as field toilets, which were particularly necessary for the women workers. A few of the more liberal growers did ensure that their contractors followed the law, but many were happy to leave all such arrangements to the contractors, who often cut corners. Aerial spraying of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides, particularly on orchard crops, was then common, and I had heard growers assert that the spraying had no harmful effects. One day, when I was picking apricots the trees were sprayed, and I became ill, with nausea and a severe headache. My one day of picking peaches resulted in skin irritation caused by the fuzz. The irritation was severe enough for me to see a doctor, who confirmed that he often had to deal with the harmful results of aerial spraying.
Perhaps this is a romantic notion, but I do believe that my hours in the fields, working with the migrant labourers, provided better insights than interviews and reports could have given me: my toil and sweat were rewarded. Some years later I corresponded with John Coleman, president of the prestigious Quaker establishment, Haverford College in Pennsylvania, who had taken time off to work as a manual worker, graphically describing his experiences in his book Blue-Collar Journal. Coleman told me that his visits to ‘the other world’ had been invaluable. I have at times wondered whether universities should follow the Cuban model, and send professors for a spell in the cane fields, or their equivalent.
I wanted to speak to the trade union officials at UFWOC, so I sought the help of Martina Zuñiga a lively, outspoken and radical young woman. The Garzas tried to discourage me, both because they distrusted the union and also because Martina defied all the attributes of a modest, quiet, polite young Mexicana. ‘Watch out,’ said Paula Garza, the elder daughter, ‘Martina will ruin your reputation.’ However, I persuaded them that it was necessary for my study, so Martina, Maureen and I drove to Livingston, forty miles to the south, where we met two union organisers, Aggie Rose, of Portuguese background, and Juan Perez. They cross-examined us critically about our inquiries, eventually saying, ‘We have no time to talk more now, but if you like you can meet us tomorrow, when we picket Gallo, we will have plenty of time to talk then.’ Gallo was one of the biggest wine producers in the world, with huge vineyards and wineries; we had often served Gallo Hearty Red Burgundy at our UCSB student parties. I soon learnt that Gallo also had one of the worst records for housing and treatment of their workers, which was why they were being picketed by the union.
This was a classic moment of truth for me as an anthropologist: we are told that we should be objective observers, not taking sides, yet here I was being invited to publicly ally myself with what was seen by the growers as a revolutionary cause, led by Cesar Chavez, a ‘dangerous communist’. I did not hesitate to picket Gallo, partly because I had already got what information I needed from the growers, so that if I alienated them by supporting the union, I would not lose much. I also realised that my solidarity in joining the picket line was an ideal opportunity for finding out more about the union. But my main reason was because I sympathised with the aims of UFWOC, who were trying to improve conditions of work and get a decent basic wage for the farm workers.
On the Sunday evening before the picketing, I accompanied the Garza family to mass, where Father Mac, the parish priest, announced that Cesar Chavez would be visiting Livingston that week and that he, Father Mac, would be saying masses in Livingston. At the end the service some growers in the congregation avoided Father Mac, who told me later that evening (when I joined him for a whisky nightcap) that he had been warned by the chairman of the Parish Council, an influential Italian-American grower, that if he wanted the proposed parish hall to be completed, he should ‘cut down on [his] radical politicking’. Father Mac was a good and caring parish priest, but he had to be careful about his personal liberal views when with his wealthy, conservative parishioners. (However, the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Stockton, of which Patterson was a part, was outspoken in defence of the rights of Mexican farm workers.)
The next day Maureen and I were up at 5.30 a.m., and found a note from Paula stuck to the refrigerator door – our usual location for communication, when everyone in the household kept different hours. It said: DAVE, in case you get arrested tomorrow who do we notify? I was immensely touched, and I wrote down for her the telephone number of Mike Reiss, one of my lawyer pals at CRLA. Paula’s concern was not misplaced: there was an ugly mood in the valley that summer, with tensions running high between the UFWOC and the growers.
Thus heartened, we set out to join the picket line at one of Gallo’s vineyards, where we were given red flags with the black UFWOC emblem and joined a group of about twenty pickets, mostly Mexicans, but including two other Anglos (they were students). It was a lucky day for us because Cesar Chavez joined us and stayed with us for several hours. He was unassuming but confident, reminding me of Julius Nyerere in 1956. He had the same easy manner with everyone, greeting us all individually, giving autographs to the children, posing for the press: ‘Hey Cesar, shake hands again … that’s a good shot.’ He was interested in what I was doing, wishing me well and I was proud to be addressed by him as hermano (brother).
We were joined briefly by a bizarre surrealist group, Teatro Campesino, touring players who were Mexican, black (including one African from Mali), Anglo, and even one Japanese. After their agit-pop anti-grower performance, we dispersed to do our picketing, with Cesar Chavez walking round to encourage each of the six groups. At noon we had an half-hour break for lunch, a simple meal which had been donated by a few (surprisingly sympathetic) local businesses. We waved our banderas (our flags) and called to the workers and tractor drivers, urging them, with little success, to join us. Gallo security guards and Californian policemen came round from time to time, looking, I thought, like fraternity boys – smug, bland, a little overweight. Although there was tension, there was no
Huelga! Strike! Livingston, California, 1969
aggression, no violence. At 3 p.m. Father Martin, a parish priest from Stockton, said mass in the shade of the trees, using a half bottle of Gallo cocktail sherry for communion wine. Afterwards we continued picketing, and Cesar Chavez joined us again. He was interviewed by a reporter from Channel Five, the local TV station, when I was standing next to him, so I appeared on the evening TV News – causing both congratulation and criticism when I returned to Patterson.
Some of Gallo’s housing was even worse than the old location in Bulawayo, which was by far the worst housing in that town. The toilets at Gallo were broken down and everything was in a disgraceful condition. This camp was later pulled down after the union obtained a court order. For some years after my brief picketing, a state-wide boycott (in which Bernard and I joined) against Gallo products continued, with some success, particularly in the more liberal locations like the Bay Area (San Francisco, and Berkeley) and the universities.
I encountered more ethical problems during my fieldwork in the valley than I had done in Ghana or than I did later when Bernard and I were doing research in Kenya. When I started in Patterson I was a permanent resident of the United States, later becoming a US citizen. This meant that I had to accept more responsibility and it was difficult not to become involved. (See Becker et al, 2005 for an examination of the ethical complexities of doing anthropological fieldwork ‘at home’ in South Africa.) I was frequently asked whether my study would help anybody; some people also expected that I would be committed to la causa1 The ‘cause’ of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America and la raza2.Although la raza means ‘the human race’, in California the term became synonymous with ‘the Mexican-American community’, particularly in its more radical aspects. I was asked to advise on legal rights, to help people seek redress on various irregular procedures, and to assist them gain admission to college. Once, driving to Modesto, I picked up a young hitch-hiker, Jesus, who told me that although he was an epileptic, he had a doctor’s certificate stating that he was entitled to have a driving licence. Jesus had had problems with the licensing officer in Modesto and he asked me if I would come with him to help him plead his case. I showed my visiting card, which contained the magic word Professor, and Jesus got his licence.
I continued to see many parallels with South Africa as well as many contrasts. For example a boy from Grayson, the poorest Mexican settlement, was given a scholarship to Harvard University. It was true that he stayed only a year, finding the institution too alien and the pressures too great. He then enrolled in a local community college, where he felt more comfortable. But at that time, in the 1960s, it would have been difficult for a young coloured boy from Bonnievale to gain entrance to a top university. South African farmers had told me that they did not need to provide toilets in their fields – ‘these people just go into the bush, you know’. Also, at that time the iniquitous ‘tot system’ was in force in South Africa, and farm labourers were given wine as a daily allowance; this degrading custom of course only encouraged the prevalent alcoholism among the coloured farm workers. Some farmers and and even some officials in both California or South Africa were deliberately cruel, but most of them had little idea of the cultural background of their workers, nor of the difficulties that they faced on a daily basis, and remained at best patronising and unimaginative.2
Many anthropologists have described how their experiences in the field have affected them. We undertake fieldwork with the main intentions of understanding another society, another culture, and of writing up our findings to share with others. On the journey, however, many unexpected happenings can occur. In some senses my Californian fieldwork was a failure in that it did not result in a major publication, yet I derived many benefits. First I gained insights into two important areas of American life, about which I had had only hazy ideas. These were both ‘other Americas’, first the Republican heartland, and second the Mexican-American community.
When I first saw Patterson in 1964 I had lived in the United States for only one year so I was by no means familiar with the country. I had spent my first year at the University of California at Berkeley, a liberal enclave and a leading university, hardly typical of the US. I do not think that I had met a single Mexican-American during that year and I knew very little about ‘red’ America. When I had given talks to various groups, and at schools and colleges, I had briefly met people who expressed conservative views and fears, but I had no real understanding of where they came from, nor who they were.
Another major benefit for me was the range of people whom I met, many becoming good friends. First in importance was the Garza family, not only for their kindness and hospitality when I stayed with them, nor for Sra Garza’s chiles rellenos (stuffed peppers), and her corn tortillas (freshly made, daily), but also for the insights that I gained, on a daily basis, of what it is like to be a hard-working, ambitious Mexican-American family in a town such as Patterson. Sr Garza worked at a pipe-laying company – a nearly year-round job – as did his older son Andres. Paula, the elder daughter, had a position in an office and the younger daughter, Gerry, was a teacher’s aide, working with small children. The younger son, Eulogio, also had an off-farm job. Yet, although no-one in the family worked as a farm labourer, they were surrounded by people who did, and through them I met many residents of the camp.
With five incomes in the family, the Garzas had been able to buy a pleasant house. Contrary to the degrading stereotypes held by so many of the Anglos, it was a well-ordered household, whose members led disciplined lives. Sra Garza saw that everyone – including me – had their meals ready on time, even if it meant, as it often did, that she was up at 4 a.m., and she often worked late in the kitchen as well. The family members who worked were valued employees because of their efficiency and reliability. Neither of the parents spoke English but the four children were fluent, with conversation (and television and radio programmes) shifting easily between English, Spanish, and ‘Spanglish’.
The Garzas refused to accept any payment for my rent, making it clear that they had accepted me as a friend of Hope Lewis (the banker’s wife who had persuaded me to start my study), and as a temporary member of the family and that payment was out of the question. I tried to be reciprocal but it was difficult to find something acceptable: the parents were not inclined to eat out at restaurants. We had a few successful outings: once I took them to San Francisco to see a popular musical which they did enjoy. I had hoped to take them afterwards to Fisherman’s Wharf for a nice meal, but we ended up quite happily eating hamburgers and drinking Coca-Cola in a cafeteria. One Sunday I drove them to Carmel, an exclusive coastal town, where Sra Garza commented, without a trace of envy, on the mansions of los ricos.
On another occasion I persuaded Paula to visit Bernard and me in Santa Barbara (they had met Bernard several times when he visited me at Patterson). This required elaborate precautions because it was out of the question for Paula to stay with us, or for her to travel alone. Fortunately she had a good friend, Maria, who was happy to drive her to Santa Barbara, where we booked them into a motel near our home. We lived on the Riviera in Santa Barbara where the houses had large gardens and there was little noise. When we were in the living room, admiring the view over the Pacific Ocean, Paula asked us, ‘How can you stand living here, it is so quiet?’ (Many years later, after we had moved to Cape Town, we were told that many students found it difficult to use the UCT library because it was so quiet. When you have been used all your life to noise and bustle, its absence could well make you feel uneasy.)
Paula, like Mr Walker in Ghana, was someone partly outside her own society: she was proud of her Mexican heritage and culture, but she was also critical of her people who, she thought, could do more for themselves. She was my best informant: when I was away from Patterson, Paula wrote frequent, detailed accounts of what was happening in the lives of people whom I knew, and generally in Patterson. She was a keen and analytical observer, and was genuinely interested in my study. Not completing my research, or rather not publishing it, left me with a guilty feeling that I had let down Paula and others who had helped me. My Oxford mentor E-P had told me that anthropological field workers had an obligation to ‘their people’: ‘You have taken up the time of these people, David, and they have been kind to you, you now owe it to them to publish their story.’
The non-completion of my study was due partly to my losing my way in the complexity of the investigation. Another important factor was that my time as chairman of the Department of Anthropology at UCSB (1969–70) was harrowing – I wanted to go away and to lick my wounds. I found the solution by going to Kenya, where Bernard and I were able to do joint research, rewarding for us both.
In 1973 I spent a few days in Patterson, trying to investigate and estimate what changes had been made over the previous decade, and finding many improvements.
Housing was certainly better: most of the dilapidated houses had been demolished, and many Mexicans had been able to build decent self-help housing. All the accommodation in the camp had indoor facilities, and there was a mail delivery, although few
Paul, Sr Garza (back to camera), DWB, Paula Garza and Jil. Patterson, 1973
households took advantage of it. There was a noticeable increase in the proportion of Mexicans employed – in the police force, in all official agencies, and in private businesses. Health facilities, especially for migrants, had improved, and a flourishing ‘well baby’ clinic was held regularly. In the schools more attention was being paid to Mexican students, who were achieving better results, and more were attending the junior colleges.
Among the Mexican workers there seemed to be clearer goals and a better idea of the need for a united front. One of the most dramatic changes was the decline in seasonal workers, their numbers having decreased by more than half. Among the Anglos there had been a gradual, albeit sometimes reluctant, acceptance that the town had a substantial number of Mexican permanent year-round residents, who had certain rights and were not simply summer transients – although there were still several thousand migrant workers whose conditions of housing and work left much to be desired. More Mexicans had joined the middle-class, a number having crossed the tracks and bought nice homes in the Anglo part of the town.
The other Mexicans regarded those who had crossed the tracks with a mixture of pride in what they had achieved and, sometimes, a resentment because of their good fortune. This is a universal phenomenon which the anthropologist George Foster called ‘the image of limited good’. Mexican peasants, Foster claimed, were inclined to blame their failures on the success of others, believing that those who succeeded had done so at the expense of those left behind – that ‘good’ in whatever form – wealth, health, jobs, opportunities – was limited. The achievers were in a difficult situation, which has been described all over the world: they were living in two cultures and had to be very careful not to appear to forget or neglect their native language and world. Charles Erasmus, my UCSB colleague, and others have refined Foster’s theory, which still holds good for many communities all over the world.
I am left with many unresolved questions. I have no doubt that the Mexicans, particularly the migrant farm workers, were poor, they lacked opportunities and they were exploited and discriminated against. One Mexican said, ‘If there is a wall, it takes two to build it,’ meaning that the Mexicans themselves contributed to their misfortunes by not being more positive and not taking advantage of what opportunities existed.
I have made several comparisons between farm workers in Patterson and in South Africa, and I have also compared the attitudes of the two dominant groups towards the subordinate ones. I need to make it clear that I am not in any way defending apartheid, merely trying to point out that certain features of this policy are found in California, and, indeed, in many other countries in the world. It would, I think, be easier to compile a list of those countries where discrimination is absent, than where it is present, albeit in not such a virulent form as in apartheid South Africa.
All but the most systematic and best-organised anthropologists collect what I call ‘leftovers’ – bits and pieces of information, impressions, all sorts of field notes of interviews with all sorts of people. Many of those interviewed relate information, or supposed information, often on quite irrelevant topics. I append some of these here, to indicate both my moods and my too-wide interests …
- Rural poverty. Why is it that this dominates what I see in the valley, and the growers and the officials fail to see it at all?
- An Anglo grower. ‘We work so hard for so little, we pay high taxes and the Mexicans do not pay taxes, nor do they work hard and many are on welfare.’
- It seems that domestic assaults are common; the police chief told me that few charges are made, and that witnesses are hard to find.
- The vice-principal of the high school, leaving after two and a half years in Patterson, told me that he and his wife had been lonely here: ‘We were only invited once to a local home’ (that is to a non-teacher’s home). He ascribed this to the low standard of education and to cultural insecurity.
• The nurse at Westley: ‘The Spanish Apostolic church members do not wash their hair, so the children have a major problem with head lice.’
• Same nurse: ‘Mexican boys are uncircumcised and their mothers do not teach them basic hygiene, do not show them how to keep their penises clean, so they often get infection.’
• On 4 April 1968, I stopped at a bar for a cool drink, and heard the news on TV of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Two white men, drinking beer at the bar, cheered.
• Air-conditioning in a tractor cab is NOT a luxury.
• A television programme has been proclaiming ‘Summertime is fun time’ – but not for Mexican kids.
• The Superintendent of Irrigation employs twelve men, (no Mexicans) on a year-round basis, at $450/month. This is a sought-after job.
• A sheriff in a neighbouring town, when I asked if any African-Americans lived there, said, frankly, ‘NO, if we see any blacks in town, we advise them to get out before sunset.’
• When running round the high school track for exercise, I heard two teenagers say, ‘Gee, look at that old timer running.’ It took me a while to realise that they were referring to me – I was forty-five years old at the time.
Paul,"Look at that old-timer".... DWB at Santa Barbara 1970
1970s: SOCIAL AND ECOLOGICAL CHANGE IN KENYA
THE SPECIAL RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME
The 1969 protests at UCSB had left me bruised, despite my sympathy for the students’ views on the Vietnam War, and I even considered trying another career. But I then decided, with Bernard’s blessing, to take some time off, in West or East Africa. I declined various offers, including one as head of a university department, preferring to do practical work in Kenya for the Mbeere Special Rural Development Programme (SRDP).
The SRDP had been set up ‘to increase rural incomes and employment opportunities’. It operated in six different locations, selected to represent the social and ecological variety of Kenya. At my request, I was appointed as Area Evaluator in Mbeere (population 65 000) which was a quiet backwater in Kenya’s Eastern Province, officially described as a ‘medium potential area’. The SRDP’s emphasis in Mbeere was on the development of roads, water and agriculture.
Although my time in Mbeere was personally rewarding, the evaluation was not as successful as expected, for a number of reasons: the established government departments were suspicious of an innovative and – to them – threatening programme; there was also a serious conflict between politicians and administrators, as I illustrate below; the University of Nairobi, to which I was attached, did not enjoy good relations with the government; finally and most importantly, there had been no prior consultation with local people. The new projects often had unforeseen consequences, for example the network of rural roads allowed many trees in previously inaccessible areas to be cut down to make charcoal – charcoal was the ‘poor man’s cash crop’. Tobacco curing also required large quantities of wood, further increasing deforestation.
Bernard was able to take leave from UCSB and joined me for most of my fifteen months in Mbeere. During his stay he started exploring the research possibilities of this area. Mbeere Division is pie-shaped, with the tip lying on the fertile lower slopes of Kirinyaga ( Mount Kenya), then there is a larger slice of medium-potential land, with the lower semi-arid low-potential third section reaching down to the Tana River. Much later, in 1974, we obtained funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to look at the changes in the incidence and uses of vegetation, with Bernard, as a geographer and self-taught botanist, enquiring into the physical aspects, and me examining the social changes. In 1977 we were given a second NSF grant, to complete the research. As well as these two long periods, we made several shorter visits in the 1980s, describing and analysing the changes that had occurred in the interim.
I relate here one episode from my early SRDP days, concerning the uneasy relationship between politicians and administrators in Kenya, when I unwittingly was drawn into their rivalry.
The Honourable Kamwithi Munyi, one of the two members of parliament for Mbeere, was a flamboyant assistant minister who had received some education in the USSR. Not that this did him much good in staunchly anti-communist Kenya: an unfortunate
Broken tap – wasting water. Kiritiri, 1971
Rhodesian student had been jailed for owning a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Mr Munyi showed some interest in the SRDP, clearly envisaging it as a vehicle for his own advancement.
One Sunday afternoon Mr Munyi arrived at our house with a large entourage, and over the next few hours a succession of his supporters arrived, on foot and in cars. Without asking our permission he took over the house as a political meeting place. We could not afford to antagonise such an important man, and retreated to a back room.
We were alarmed, because we knew that he was holding illegal meetings – he should have obtained prior permission from the DC to meet with more than five of his constituents. There was much tension between locally-elected representatives, like Mr Munyi, and the government-appointed administrators. I had been uneasy about Mr Munyi’s frequent visits, recognising that he was trying to manipulate us. We realised that we could not be seen as taking sides in this conflict, so I started keeping a diary of events, to show how Mr Munyi was forcing us into what could be seen as a compromising
DWB and headmaster at Kyeniri Primary School. Evurore location, 1974
position. I had also kept the assistant district officer, Mr Onyango, well informed. He was a Luo, from Western Kenya, so, in the eyes of the Mbeere people, he and I were both ‘foreigners’.
Before leaving our house, Mr Munyi asked me to accompany him, the following week, on a tour of SRDP projects. I declined as tactfully as I could, knowing that this would antagonise the powerful Provincial Commissioner who would have assumed that I had joined Mr Munyi’s camp. A day or two later the daily newspaper, The Standard, carried a small paragraph: ‘The Honourable Kamwithi Munyi will be touring SRDP projects, accompanied by KANU (Kenya African National Union, the ruling political party) local officials and Professor Broksha [sic], the area evaluator.’
On 20 January 1971 three policemen drove up to our house and handed me a letter from the DC at Embu, ordering me: ‘Come at once to the PC’s office in Embu and bring with you any personal effects which you may have.’ That last phrase was ominous: only the previous week the British assistant manager of a luxury hotel in Mombasa had been summarily deported because he could not find accommodation for an assistant minister (the hotel being fully booked). The policemen were accommodating, allowing Bernard and me to drive separately in our Land Rover to Embu, where I waited in an outer office for an hour. Having learnt that visits to all government offices tended to include long delays, I always took something to read; this time it was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, The Gulag Archipelago.
Although I was anxious, I had no real fear. After reading about the Russian gulag, I told myself that I had nothing like that to face. Nevertheless, deportation would have been a major disappointment, and I was wondering how Bernard would cope – what would happen to the SRDP evaluation, what would become of all our dependants: our housekeeper Njue, all the schoolboys and schoolgirls who were helping us in our enquiries, even our two cats?
I was shown into a conference room, where the provincial team was assembled, with several senior army and police officers: this was serious business. I stood awkwardly for a while and then asked the PC, Mr Muhihu, if I might sit down. Tea was brought, and the old tea lady, who had probably served the PC’s colonial predecessors, to my embarrassment served me first. The PC gave me a stern lecture, reminding me that I had been appointed to help with rural development, and should not be getting involved in local politics: he obviously thought that I was in cahoots with Mr Munyi. After his harangue, the PC allowed me to talk: I said that Bernard and I were guests in his country and it was simple courtesy to welcome an important government minister; after all, I explained, it would have been very rude to have turned him away. I then produced the little exercise book with my handwritten diary, which was read and passed around the group.
Eventually the PC told me that he had intended to send me to the Canadian [sic] High Commissioner, with instructions that I be deported. Mr Muhihu added, ‘Professor, I believe you; you have an honest face’ (that last phrase became one of our household staples, Bernard managing to use it whenever possible). ‘I am sorry,’ he continued, ‘that you have been troubled. You may go back to your work, and you must let me know if you have any more difficulties from these people.’ Then, strangest of all his comments, he said, ‘You must take care when you are in the bush, they are wild people there.’
Mr Muhihu, DC (right) Siakago, 1971,
The Hon Kamwithi Munyi
When I left the meeting, the PC’s assistant, whom I knew quite well, told me that this was the first time he had heard the PC make an apology. On reflection, I consider that I had been well treated: in many countries a foreigner caught, as I was, between two powerful opponents might have fared much worse. I was much more anxious four years later when I was arrested in Santa Barbara. The PC did have reasonable grounds for arresting me, after the Hon Kamwithi Munyi’s provocative behaviour. One unfortunate result of this episode was that Mr Munyi arranged to have Mr Onyango – whom he disliked because Onyango was a Luo, and was incorruptible, and impervious to threats and bluster – transferred to another district. I did not see either man again.
Mbeere is a division of Embu district, in Eastern Province. Siakago, the divisional centre, is a hundred miles north-east of Nairobi. Going to Mbeere proved to be a good choice, both for my period in the SRDP and later in our joint research. In many ways Mbeere served as a microcosm of developing countries all over the world, in that it was poor and marginal. It was marginal physically, most of it being semi-arid, with poor soils, and it was also marginal economically, in that it had benefited little from development efforts. Like so many others, the Mbeere people were facing the increasing problem of a rapidly-growing population pressing on scarce resources, particularly on the vegetation. Communications were poor and the people were, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz graphically wrote, (in describing a small town in Indonesia) ‘a social miscreation … a “permanently transitional” society. Both tradition and modernity seemed to be receding at an increasing rate, leaving only the relics of the first and the shadow of the second … the past seemed further back and the future further ahead’ (Geertz, 1963: 152).
Despite its remote nature and its poverty, Mbeere had a rich traditional culture. Bernard and I recorded much of the vast indigenous knowledge of vegetation and we noted the impressive oral culture, evidenced by a wealth of riddles, folk-tales, oral traditions and public oratory. The area reminded me of Handeni in Tanzania in its sociological and physical attributes and also because of its scattered population patterns. Another common feature was the absence of traditional chiefs: a ‘chief’ was simply an appointed government official.
During the colonial period (which in this instance lasted from about 1900 till 1963) the division had been neglected. There had been a few missionaries, the Anglicans entering in 1912 and the Catholics in 1943, but schools and clinics were few. The colonial officials treated Mbeere mainly as a labour reserve: neither its land nor its natural resources were attractive to settlers, miners or other outside exploiters. In 1940, after one of the recurrent droughts, the District Commissioner even suggested that the people ‘be moved, lock stock and barrel’, to a more fruitful land; the Mbeere declined. Bernard and I established ourselves at ‘the Ena house’, a sturdy stone house, built in 1952 as the residence for the manager of the local British American Tobacco Company. Bernard identified the stone as tufa, described in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a soft and easily cut stone, with many uses, notably to line the Aqua Appia underground aqueduct, built in 316 BC to supply water to Rome’. Our Nairobi horticulturalist friend Peter Greensmith told us how he had driven to this house in the 1950s, in the midst of the Mau Mau insurgency, arriving at night and admiring the brilliant chandeliers and the guests in full evening dress: a very colonial scene in the middle of the bush. The house had been neglected for many years, but with the help of Njue, a quiet, competent local man whom we had engaged as cook-butler-housekeeper-watchman, we cleaned and scrubbed and soon had an ideal base for fieldwork. Once again it was a far cry from Malinowski’s ethnographer’s tent, and it suited our purposes admirably. The house was a quarter of a mile from the
The Ena house
Ena River, a perennial stream which provided our water. With the help of the district water engineer, I resuscitated the pump, giving us the luxury of a water supply in the house.
Siakago High School (Siakago HS), a good government school for boys, was a mile away from the Ena house. Although it was located in the Mbeere Division, only a quarter of the boys were from Mbeere – an indication of the area’s relative educational backwardness. At this time Kenya had ten ‘top schools’, most of which had formerly catered for the children of Europeans. There was a middle range of government-supported schools, like Siakago HS, and finally there were the Harambee (self-help) schools, which received inadequate government support, and from which very few students passed the crucial Form IV.
One of our first visitors was a smiling sixteen-year-old boy from Siakago HS, neatly dressed in his blue school uniform. He greeted us: ‘Hello, I am Anastasio. Please tell me who you are and what you are doing here.’ Although his home was nearby he was a boarder – as were all the schoolboys. When we told Anastasio about our work he immediately offered to help us, thus starting what would prove to be a significant part of our fieldwork methodology – engaging local schoolboys and schoolgirls to help us with our enquiries. Anastasio himself was an invaluable informant, being knowledgeable about both the physical and the social environment, and he was also boundlessly curious.
Our four-wheel-drive Land Rover was essential: even after the extensive development programme the roads could still be tricky during the rainy season. We liked to visit our destinations on the weekly market day when we could be certain of meeting government officials as well as our own research assistants. Also African markets are fun, and we enjoyed sauntering around the colourful stands. The biggest market was held on Tuesdays at Ishiara, not far from the Meru border, where we would find an amazing variety of both manufactured goods and local crafts. The Tharaka people who lived not far away were renowned for their fine basket work. We saw bows and arrows, knives and spears, leather honey barrels, pottery, gourds, home-made furniture, cattle tethers made from sisal twine, and a variety of imported cloth. There was always at least one herbalist who had remedies for all illnesses, as well as for ‘heart confusion’.
At Kiritiri to the south, we often saw, at the Friday market, some mentally unstable men, including several who had served with the King’s African Rifles. One of these men, noticing that the car of the Provincial Commissioner (making one of his rare visits) was unattended, got in and drove around the market waving in a pompous and unmistakable imitation of the PC – who was not amused. Another man liked to shoulder a wooden rifle and march around in a military fashion shouting, ‘Get out of my bloody way, you silly bugger,’ and other robust English expressions culled from his army days.
Kerie was our most remote market, reached by a hair-raising road which passed through heavily infested tsetse fly belts; we had either to close all the windows and endure the heat, or to leave them open and swat at the tsetse flies, usually in vain, for the duration of the journey. This area near the Tana River was, in 1970, home to an estimated 1500 elephants, and large herds of buffalo, as well
LEFT: Anastasio Njeru, DWB, Bernard, Njue (our cook) and Joseph Ngare. Ena house, 1974 ABOVE: Phides Mburi, one of the schoolgirls who helped us. Nguthi location, 1977
as rhino, lion, leopard, honey badger, bush pig, baboon, antelope and porcupine. The bird life was also tremendously varied and we always had our binoculars and bird book to hand. By the time of our last visit, in 1988, the game had nearly all disappeared.
Our young research assistants helped us to select appropriate research locations, and we would drive to these areas, and walk around for a few hours. Although we set out with specific objectives, we usually made exciting new discoveries relevant to our research. We could nearly always find a small duka (shop) which sold a welcome ginger beer, neither Bernard nor I having acquired a taste for the ubiquitous Coca-Cola. In one remote location, we were surprised to see another vehicle and were appalled when we realised that it had brought two employees from Nestlé. A bright, articulate urban woman, dressed like a nurse, was extolling the benefits of Nestlé’s infant formula to a group of poor women. At this time there was a worldwide campaign against such promotion by Nestlé because the women would almost certainly not be able to boil the water before mixing it with the infant formula and because they were likely to dilute the mixture because it was so expensive. The slogan ‘Nestlé kills babies’ may have been melodramatic but there was some truth in it. (Some time later a Catholic sister who ran a well-organised hospital in Western Kenya told us that she was grateful for Nestlé donations of infant formula, which she used for the many orphans whom she cared for. But this was a special case and the Sister could be relied on to follow the directions for use.)
Embu was the provincial and district capital, and also the location of the biggest market, where we could buy huge avocados and other delicacies, and where the local butcher used to keep his fillet steak for us: it was too soft for local tastes so we were able to buy what for us was a luxury, at a low price.
Visits to Embu always entailed meetings, often frustrating, with district government officials, It was not that the officials were discourteous or hostile, but simply that bureaucracy creaked so much that it was very difficult to get anything done; usually the officials shared our frustration. After a difficult morning in Embu, we often enjoyed a light lunch at the Izaak Walton Inn, a famous colonial hotel with a lovely and serene garden where we could enjoy our tea and watch the sunbirds. (The hotel was situated next to the Kavingaci River, well known for trout-fishing, hence the name.)
On those days when we did not drive out, because of heavy rain or pressing desk obligations, we liked to go for a walk in the cool, late afternoons, sometimes accompanied by Anastasio if he were free, often on our own. We always saw at least one new phenomenon, a new species of bird, or tree; even a new sort of dung beetle, or butterfly; the sudden flowering of the flame lily (Gloriosa superba) after the rains; a combination of crops; or a new type of hut – the surrounding paths, fields and woodlands were full of wonders, when we learnt to look properly. It was like a child’s world, always expanding, full of wonderful surprises.
Nearly all anthropologists have had relations, mostly cordial but sometimes antagonistic, with local missionaries. The missionaries would often have lived in an area for long periods, speak the vernacular, and have an extensive knowledge of the people. Sometimes their help is handsomely acknowledged in the ethnographic monographs, at other times there is a mere footnote. We were fully aware of our debt to the Italian missionaries, from the Consolata Mission and from the Salesian (Don Bosco) Mission – they were all kind and hospitable to us.
After we left in 1971, the Ena house was taken over by Siakago HS to accommodate its teachers, and when we returned in 1974, we were lucky enough to be able to occupy the old house of the Salesian Fathers at Siakago. This was a brick house, with the walls crumbling in a few places, but with running water, electricity and a wide verandah. On clear days it had a splendid view of Kirinyaga. The (African) bishop of the diocese had declared that this old house was not suitable for the missionaries and had built them a nondescript – and far hotter – modern home. Because of the heat, Bernard and I used to leave the bedroom door open at night, but we were troubled by the numerous bats which deposited their droppings on us. To solve this problem, Bernard bought some cattle tethers at Ishiara market, cut them into three yard lengths, and placed them at five inch intervals in the doorway. He reckoned, correctly, that the ropes would interfere with the bats’ radar, and we were never troubled again.
Our Catholic Mission House, Siakago, June 1977.
As already mentioned, we engaged a series of schoolboys and schoolgirls from the local high schools to help us in our research enquiries. Sometimes they came with us on our walks, and often they made enquiries on their own. This was useful because we had a large area to cover, with the three distinct ecological zones. We gave them detailed question-guides, telling them to ask their
‘grands’ (elders) when they did not know the answers. We met regularly, to collect and discuss their reports, and also, most important to them, to pay them. It was an effective system, and also helped us in establishing a network of relationships with them and their families.
We employed our young helpers in their school holidays, when they were free, and were only too pleased to work. What we paid them was a significant contribution to their school fees,
a major source of worry for most of their parents. (Once I gave a lift to a middle-aged man who, after the usual bland greetings, told me – in Swahili – that he did have one big concern, shida ya fisi – a problem with hyenas. I was puzzled because there were no hyenas in this area. Eventually I realised that he was referring to fees, school fees being indeed a major worry for almost all parents.)
Cattle tethers. Ishiara market 1977. Photo: B.Riley, the World and I. 1987
After some trial and error, we found that Form III and Form IV pupils were the best research assistants. We asked them to write on specific topics, and to complete questionnaires, in English. (We knew little kiMbeere, the local vernacular, and the students were not all conversant with Swahili, so English seemed the best choice.) The senior pupils in Forms V and VI were inclined to be arrogant and to consider themselves above some of the mundane tasks we asked them to do, and the younger ones lacked the linguistic competence. But those in the middle range were excellent, sharing our excitement in recording their own Mbeere culture. We encouraged them to take pride in their impressive indigenous knowledge, particularly of the wide range of vegetation. We helped the many schoolboys and schoolgirls who assisted us in our enquiries; for them it was a liberating and widening experience and it encouraged them to have a keener consciousness of Mbeere and a greater pride in their cultural heritage.
‘What is the name of this plant?’ Bernard and our schoolboy assistants, and children. Kiritiri, 1974
Most of our young informants could recognise about two hundred species of tree, as well as having a wide knowledge of their properties and uses. Bernard and I were constantly impressed by the children’s close and detailed acquaintance with their environment, although this was hardly surprising since they lived in a marginal area, and it was a matter of survival for them to understand their surroundings. Also, much of their material culture was derived from vegetation: on our first arrival in 1970 some older people still dressed in skins, and most of the houses were built of mud and poles with a grass thatch – corrugated iron roofs were only just becoming common.
In addition to viewing Mbeere from the ground, we arranged to fly over our area for one and a half hours, which provided us with a useful photographic record – I had flown over Larteh in Ghana and had found it a helpful corroborative exercise.
We also consulted archives, the carefully preserved records of the Embu Local District Council being especially valuable, including colonial records going back to the 1920s, with a treasure trove of reports by DCs and other officials. The Embu archives present a detailed picture of colonial Mbeere, with the gradual but inexorable increase in officials who count, pay, collect money, inspect, arrest, advise, exhort, explain, enforce new regulations, write reports and draw regular wages. Some traditional institutions – such as bridewealth, or diet – are modified, others – taking of the oath, age grades (groups of co-initiates), sacred groves, female circumcision – virtually disappear, and some practices – subsistence farming, child care – have changed little.
We had less occasion to consult the National Archives, but in 1976 we had to get permission from the Chief Archivist before being allowed to do research in Kenya. The archivist was courteous, but he asked tough questions, mainly about what Kenya would get out of our research: Kenya had hosted many foreign researchers, and questions were being raised about their value to the nation. We explained that we hoped that our publications would add to the store of knowledge about the country. The archivist was particularly interested when Bernard told him that he was depositing a copy of each of his Kenyan photographic slides of the vegetation of Mbeere at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Botany.
Bernard and I were full of zeal about indigenous knowledge in Mbeere, and we several times invited university researchers to leave their computers in Nairobi and come to the field and discover reality. Sadly, hardly any expressed any interest, a notable exception being John Kokwaro, Professor of Botany at the University of Nairobi. John needed no converting, having made an extensive study of the indigenous knowledge of vegetation shown by his own people, the Luo of Western Kenya. We told our friend, sub-chief Emmanuel, that we would be bringing Professor Kokwaro to meet him. When John arrived, dressed in informal field clothing and driving an old Land Rover, sub-chief Emmanuel Njeru took me aside and asked me anxiously if he was a real professor.
Tom, a young American Peace Corps volunteer, who was teaching biology at Siakago HS, became interested in our enquiries. Instead of teaching about the properties of apples and pears, with which his students were not familiar, Tom took the boys outside, and examined the trees, about which the boys, as Tom soon discovered, knew a great deal. The boys were excited, Tom was pleased with his demonstration of practical biology, but when the senior biology teacher heard about the innovation, she reprimanded Tom, telling him that ‘those trees are not on the Cambridge’ – the Cambridge School Certificate examination, which the boys were due to take. This reminded us of Andy Taylor’s wildly successful ‘New Nations’ text books in West Africa, which I have described above.
Tom, returning from a weekend away, was walking along the road, hoping to get a lift back to Siakago HS. It was a particularly hot day, and he had removed his shirt. He flagged down an approaching car, which, unfortunately for him, contained the Hon Mr Kamwithi Munyi who was the chairman of the school’s Board of Governors. Mr Munyi was furious to see a teacher from his school so casually dressed: Tom was sent away.
BRIEF LIVES Anastasio Njeru
Of all our schoolboy helpers, Anastasio was the one we saw most frequently, especially in the crucial days when we were settling in, trying to navigate the tricky waters of an alien culture. We saw much of him, in part because his home was near ours, but mainly because of his great interest in our work and of his pride in Mbeere culture.
When we first met Anastasio he was enrolled at Siakago HS. Realising that he would do better at one of the top schools, we were able to arrange (through some complicated negotiations) for him to go to Kangaru High School at Embu, one of the top ten high schools in Kenya. The school had better facilities, more qualified teachers and was generally well run. Anastasio benefited from this new environment and on leaving school he was able to get a good job with one of the many parastatal organisations in Nairobi.
DWB with Anastasio Njeru’s father and brother. Ena, 1974
On one of our walks, Anastasio suddenly darted off the path when he saw a group approaching us. On rejoining us he explained that one of the women was the wife of his brother’s wife’s father; because of this rather remote relationship, Anastasio was obliged to avoid the woman. Like all students of anthropology, I was familiar, from ethnographic accounts, with this custom, which is supposedly based on fear of incest. I knew about the similar Zulu custom of hlonipha, but this was my first experience of the avoidance prohibition in practice and such first experiences are always a thrill. Anastasio told us that the prohibition could be broken on payment of a small fee; this was an innovation, introduced in response to the circumstances of modern life.
Once, when we were going to Nairobi airport to meet a friend, Anastasio asked if he could accompany us, as he had never seen the capital city. It was a joy to see Nairobi through the eyes of this bright and eager seventeen-year-old boy. We stopped for coffee at the Hilton Hotel where Anastasio was excited to have his first ascent in a lift. When the waiter brought the bill for our coffee, Anastasio glanced at it and was horrified: he told the waiter that his uncle, who grew coffee, received less per kilo of coffee than the Hilton Hotel charged for one cup; Anastasio clearly regarded this as gross over-charging.
The sophisticated waiter was patronising to Anastasio, regarding him as a country bumpkin, but at Nairobi airport, in those relaxed pre-9/11 times, a friendly Kenya Airways pilot invited Anastasio to look around the aircraft, explaining the controls in the cabin. Anastasio was intrigued, and asked many questions.
We often stopped to greet Anastasio’s parents. His father spoke tolerable Swahili though his mother was familiar only with kiMbeere, the local vernacular. We learnt much about the problems of agriculture in a marginal area from Anastasio’s father, who was both hard-working and intelligent. After one successful harvest, he made an unusual trip, taking his wife to Mombasa to see the ocean. Anastasio, who by this time was working in Nairobi, made the travel arrangements, seeing his parents off on the train from Nairobi to Mombasa. They were both thrilled with the journey, and with their first glimpse of the sea.
Anastasio had an endless curiosity about life in Russia, the USA, and South Africa, asking such questions as ‘Do black and white people travel on separate roads in South Africa?’, ‘Do girls smoke bhangi (cannabis) in the USA?’, ‘Do all the Russian ladies work?’ Anastasio loved to travel, and asked if he could accompany me on a visit to neighbouring Tharaka, where we stayed with the American anthropologist Richard Lowenthal and his family. While Richard and I were talking, Anastasio was engaged in a lively conversation with young Walter, the four-year-old son of the Lowenthals. Later Anastasio told me that he had never previously bothered with uncircumcised boys, and he was amazed how bright and intelligent Walter was. This visit was an eye-opener in another way for Anastasio, in that the Tharaka people were even less touched by the outside world than were the Mbeere, a fact that gave Anastasio some satisfaction.
Anastasio Njeru’s wedding. Ena, 1977. Photo: B Riley, The World & I, December 1989
On one of our later visits, Anastasio – by happy coincidence – was due to marry his girlfriend in an elaborate wedding ceremony. He invited me to be a groomsman, first anxiously asking whether I had a suit – never having seen me wearing a suit and tie before. After the nuptial mass at the Catholic church in Siakago, the reception was held in a pleasant woodland glade. Wedding guests included sophisticated urbanites sipping wine and chatting (in English) about recent trips to London or New York, as well as simple peasants and their wives – and all appearing to feel at ease.
Anastasio later wrote to us that working for us was one of the happiest periods of his entire life.
Although Nthia came from Mbeere, he was already enrolled at Kangaru High School, at Embu, when we met him at the school. We explained our research to the headmaster, who allowed us to interview the approximately thirty Mbeere boys in Forms III and IV.
DWB as groomsman. Note our (decorated) Peugeot 404.
We immediately recognised that Nthia had potential, simply from his bright and intelligent gaze. When we asked the boys to write short essays, Nthia was head and shoulders above the others. During this and all our subsequent visits to Mbeere, we invited him to work for us in his vacations, and came to rely on his eagerness to help and his unfailing insights and keen analysis. When he later enrolled at the University of Nairobi, where he completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in geography, he again made himself available to help us. Nthia was given a scholarship to study for his PhD (in Anthropology) in the USA and I arranged for him to study with me at UCSB, where he settled down well, becoming popular both with his peers and with the faculty.
All anthropologists come to depend on one or two informants during their fieldwork: Mr Walker greatly facilitated my inquiries at Larteh in Ghana. For our Kenyan fieldwork there is no doubt that in their different ways Anastasio and Nthia were both invaluable. Nthia’s doctoral dissertation was based on fieldwork amongst Turkana pastoralists in Northern Kenya. This is unusual as most Africans from agricultural societies tend to be either scornful of, or afraid of, the pastoral peoples, and most such studies would have been done by outsiders, including British, Europeans, Americans and Japanese. Bernard and I much admired Nthia for tackling this difficult task.
On his return from the USA to Kenya, Nthia was appointed to the staff of the Department of Sociology at the University of Nairobi. Like most African universities, Nairobi had no Department of Anthropology, a legacy from the discipline having been termed, by the influential French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, ‘the handmaiden of colonialism’. So anthropologists took refuge in departments of sociology, meeting varying degrees of hospitality. It was suggested to me that when working in Africa, I should call myself a sociologist, to avoid any possible opprobrium, but I declined to hide my true discipline, in the same way that I had refused to deny my South African identity. On hearing of Bernard’s death in 2004, Nthia wrote:
I remembered how I first met the two of you in 1972 and how caring Bernard was when we stayed in Siakago, and also in America, and then I shed tears. Agnes my wife really felt it and she sobbed uncontrollably as she remembered Bernard taking a photograph of our son Mwaniki when he was a baby.
Nthia Njeru at the University of Nairobi, 1990
Nthia is presently Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Nairobi; he followed my path in being interested in development anthropology, and he is often engaged in advising international development agencies in Kenya.
Sebastian, a tall, good-looking and confident young man, had a neat little hut near the Catholic mission at Siakago. He helped us in our fieldwork and his mother was most knowledgeable about wild foods and famine stand-bys. When Sebastian completed Form IV, he told us that he was applying for training as a physiotherapist, whereupon Bernard asked him what he knew about the subject, which turned out to be very little. Bernard then patiently explained the etymology of the word, both parts of it coming from the Greek: physio from phasis (nature), and therapy meaning ‘treatment intended to heal’. Bernard also explained what physiotherapists do. A few months later Sebastian told us about his interview in Nairobi, where he had been asked (a) what does physiotherapy mean? and (b) what do physiotherapists do? After his good coaching, Sebastian sailed through the interview, answering the questions so confidently that he was offered one of fifteen positions, out of a hundred who had been interviewed.
One other factor was involved in Sebastian’s success: government posts were dominated by the Kikuyu, Kenya’s biggest and most powerful ethnic group, but, following criticism, the government had promised to be more inclusive. Sebastian, coming from a small and non-threatening group, the Mbeere, was an ideal candidate. We used jokingly to refer to the Mbeere having the ‘Avis syndrome’: We Are Number Two, We Try Harder was the slogan of this popular car rental company. There was some evidence that the members of ‘number one’ – the more prosperous and more visible ethnic groups – were inclined to be complacent, certainly this was true of the students whom we met at the high schools. The Mbeere, coming from poorer homes, and having no laurels to rest on, did indeed try harder, having for years been under the shadow of their more numerous, more powerful and better-educated neighbours, the Embu, the Kamba, and, especially, the Kikuyu.
Some years later we again met Sebastian, who had clearly fulfilled his early promise. He was by then a qualified physiotherapist, married with a small child, and living in a neat homestead, which included an impressive ‘Ali Baba’ water tank collecting water from the corrugated iron roof. (These tanks, designed to store water from a roof, were effective and easy to construct, made of local flexible branches which were woven into a large cone, over which a light coat of cement was poured.)
None of our helpers came from ‘rich’ homes, but Beatrice, always quietly self-possessed, was from one of the poorest of all. With all her handicaps, it was a wonder to us that she managed so successfully, both in her academic progress, and also in her balanced and mature personality. Early one morning, when Beatrice was an infant, her elder brother was carrying her, warming himself by the fire, when he saw their mother, returning with a bunch of ripe bananas. In his haste to reach the bananas – they were always hungry – the brother dropped his sister into the fire, where she was badly burnt, and given up for dead. Her mother pulled her through, only for Beatrice to face more problems – of thieves taking all their belongings, an absent father, a seriously ill mother. Despite all, Beatrice triumphed and was able to continue to Form VI. Her reports for us were models of clarity, order and insight. Describing her family, Beatrice wrote: ‘My mother told me that my father had a very nice karithi (the simple G-string, made of fibre, that men used to wear). This karithi made my mother fall in love with my father.’
Henry lived in a remote area, on a rough track which tested even our sturdy Land Rover. Although this was one of the poorest areas, Henry’s family always offered us a small gift when we visited – two eggs, a few boiled sweet potatoes, a papaya. On one visit, when we came to collect Henry’s questionnaires and to pay him, he told us how pleased he was to see us because he had not eaten for a day or two, and now he could buy some food. His sister, with whom he was staying, was away visiting relatives; we pointed to a sack of millet in his hut and asked him why he could not eat that. Henry said that as a circumcised male it was impossible for him to grind grain: that was a job for women or uncircumcised boys.
Like all our protégés, Henry was faced with the cruel problem of where to find work after completing Form IV: very few pupils went on to the higher forms. Henry was unusual in having a good knowledge of French and he responded enthusiastically when we suggested that he consider going into the hotel business. In addition to his linguistic skills, he had an easy charm and a good nature, which, we thought, would fit him well for this. On our next visit to Nairobi we stopped at the Utalii Hotel, a hotel training school run with Swiss aid. The director of the school thought that Henry would be a good candidate and invited him for an interview. But when we told Henry that his initial training would include being a waiter and scrubbing pots in the kitchen, he reluctantly said that he could not possibly do that. He explained that he was the first in his family to go beyond primary school, that the family had high hopes for him and that serving beer in a bar was just not on. We could not persuade Henry to undertake the menial duties.
Henry Nthiga. Gangara location, 1974
When we moved into the Ena house we inherited the temporary Kikuyu gardener Moses. The Kikuyu are generally perceived as being highly intelligent, aggressive and resourceful; Moses did not fit this stereotype, being timid, nervous, not very bright, and paranoid, seeing enemies everywhere. We continued to employ him, finding a variety of odd jobs until there was no more for him to do and we told him that we could no longer use his services. The next day I looked up from my desk and I saw Moses standing outside, with a discarded blue duster on his head, rain and tears trickling down his sad face. Of course we could not turn him away, and, after many discussions we decided that we would help him to be ‘born again’ into the local clan so that he would be given some land of his own. This was a complicated procedure which again I had read about but in which I had never participated.
We gave the clan elders presents – a goat, tea leaves (to make tea for those Christians who did not drink beer), ten pounds of sugar (to make muratina, the local beer), ten loaves of bread, a dozen Elliott’s scones. Our housekeeper Njue, saying that he did not trust Moses’ judgement, insisted on our making a special trip to Kiritiri market to buy the goat. Then we had to collect Amos the health inspector, and bring him to certify that the meat of the slaughtered goat was fit for consumption. Despite an initial complicated clan dispute, the elders did eventually, after much discussion, agree to accept Moses into the clan and gave him a small piece of land, with me being regarded as Moses ‘elder brother’.
The next step was to arrange for Moses to plant tobacco, the best cash crop in this area. Despite our having shown him how to dig contours on his land, Moses and his wife made the contours run against the slope instead of with it. He also used one third of the recommended amount of fertiliser, saying that he did not want me to spend all that amount of money. The result was that the fertiliser had almost no effect. We were rewarded by the insights that this enterprise gave us into the business of farming, and the organisation of Mbeere clans. We also had the satisfaction of seeing Moses and his small family eventually established in modest but secure conditions. Moses later became a deacon in an independent church, and showered us with extravagant blessings whenever he saw us.
This likeable, slight Kikuyu, deserved the title of ‘fundi’ if anyone did, possessing a remarkable gift for working with all sorts of machinery. He was employed at Siakago HS as general maintenance man and mechanic, his main duties being to keep the electricity and water supplies in good order. He was most obliging, coming after work to help us with problems concerning our vehicles, and also with the paraffin-burning refrigerator, the water pump or any other problem. He would work methodically, often well after darkness had fallen. At first we would suggest that he go home and return the next day, but he told us that he had been trained by an Italian farmer who had insisted that any problem must be fixed, if at all possible, on the same day – and he found this to be a good rule.
Fundi Nyaggah had little formal education, writing his name only with difficulty, but he was a natural mechanic. I can see him now, leaving our house at 9 or 10 p.m., happily clasping the bottle of Tusker beer we had given him (as well as some cash), and singing softly as he walked home.
On one of our later visits, we asked about Nyaggah, and were told that a new directive had declared that most government jobs – including that of school maintenance man – were to be filled by persons who had at least Form IV education. This was an attempt to address the growing problem of unemployed school-leavers, but the effect on the school was disastrous. We called to see Nyaggah’s replacement, a nicely spoken young man, neatly dressed in white shirt and white shorts (in contrast to Nyaggah’s oil-stained dungarees), busy filling in forms in his office, deploring the sorry state of the books: ‘Mr Nyaggah kept terrible records,’ he said. But, while he was catching up with the paperwork, one after another of the school machines failed, and the new headmaster realised how serious the situation was when the new man could not repair the headmaster’s private car. Eventually an exemption was made, and Mr Nyaggah returned to the school, and soon all was again in good working order.
Father Romano, who hailed from the Dolomite region of northern Italy, came to Kenya as a Consolata missionary in the late 1930s. When World War 2 broke out he was interned and sent to South Africa for the duration. After the war he returned to Kenya, and when we arrived in 1970 he was the headmaster of Siakago HS. One Friday, we left him a note, inviting him to join us at 5 p.m., when school was over, for a ‘TGIF’. Fr Romano arrived punctually, clutching our note, and asking what ‘TGIF’ was. We explained the American ritual of having a Thank God it’s Friday drink, and it became his custom to join us on Friday evenings. He would arrive with a list of questions, mostly on English usage, phrases taken from the boys’ essays. He also stored up general questions to test Bernard’s encyclopaedic knowledge. Having spent so many years in Mbeere, Fr Romano could always be relied on to give us the background on all the local notables. He took a keen interest in our study, and was helpful in advising us on which boys to select as our research assistants.
Mr Jaggi was an Indian man who ran the Siakago shop and post office, with a cheerful African lady called Dorothy acting as postmistress. He also had a small ‘taxi’, his main source of revenue, which he drove into Embu and back two or three times a day, a round trip of twenty-two miles. His wife and children lived in Nairobi, but his mother (who spoke Hindi and a demotic Swahili) spent long periods with him.
Mr Jaggi was dedicated to business, and to getting a good education for his children: indeed, the last time we saw him, he told us that his eldest boy was at school in London, staying with Mr Jaggi’s brother. He did many favours for us, often buying items for us in Embu, to save us a trip, and we reciprocated by taking messages and goods to his family when we drove into Nairobi. Commerce in rural areas was supposed to be restricted to African traders, but the local people seemed to be pleased to have efficient and reasonable and reliable service from Mr Jaggi, and no-one complained about his presence.
Sub-chief Emmanuel Njeru
Emmanuel, a jolly, bustling man, with a large family and a neat homestead, complete with an avenue of Grevillea robusta trees, adopted us on our first meeting. He was a government-appointed sub-chief, in charge of a sub-location, Mbeere Division then being divided into four locations and twenty sub-locations.
Emmanuel was one of those unusual informants who welcomes researchers because he has been trying in his own way to analyse his society. Reading Emmanuel’s correspondence files gave me a good idea of the wide range of matters that he dealt with. These included reporting crimes; collecting an annual radio licence; granting a permit to collect money for a self-help project; a notice of a vaccination campaign; a permit for an old hunter to possess a bow and arrow; a request from the Department of Social Welfare for information about blind, deaf and disabled people; an announcement of the dates of the cotton-buying markets; a reminder from the DO about tax collection; the authority to clear a site for a new market; a notice from the DC regarding a forthcoming meeting. The range of requests and orders reminded me, inevitably, of what I had dealt with in my colonial administrative days in Tanganyika.
Once, on our way to visit Emmanuel, we saw two of his daughters in a biblical pose, sitting on raised platforms above the ripening millet, with their age-old weapons, catapults, ready to scare away the seed-eating birds. At first I was struck by the contrast with their father’s way of life, and then I reminded myself that even in biblical times rural people were affected, although certainly to a lesser extent, by the web of bureaucracy.
Next door to us lived Mambora, an old headman who was seldom sober, and claimed to be the original owner of the British American Tobacco Company compound where our Ena house was situated. Local people feared him both because of his supposed supernatural powers, and also because of his troublesome sons, one of whom was in prison for murder, while the others just hung about, looking for trouble.
We managed to keep an uneasy peace with Mambora himself, partly because he needed us – we could take him to Embu, or do small errands for him in Nairobi. But his sons were tough and hostile. Returning late one Sunday afternoon, we found a small crowd of young men, headed by ‘Mambora’s thugs’ (Bernard’s phrase); they were near our house, having treed a genet cat, and were trying to shoot it with their bows and arrows, claiming that it had been killing their chickens. They were not impressed when we told them that genets were a protected species, but we did manage to persuade them to desist, and to leave.
Sub-chief Emmanuel Njeru, with his mother and one of his sons.
Other incidents almost certainly involved Mambora’s thugs: laundry was stolen from the line; and once a dead dog was flung over the hedge into our front garden. Then a much more serious incident occurred, which I describe below in the section dealing with circumcision.
INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE OF THE MBEERE
Of growing significance, for both Bernard and me, was the study of the richness and variety of indigenous knowledge (IK) of vegetation. All of us who have studied IK like to tell tales of instances where IK is superior to conventional ‘Western’ knowledge. Our own favourite story concerns Melia volkensii (mukau), one of the most popular trees in Mbeere; the wood makes strong, straight poles for hut construction, goats like to eat the fruits, and the tree provides welcome shade. We had often seen groves of mukau, obviously planted by the local people. But when we spoke to a senior forester (a British survivor from the colonial period) we were told, scornfully, that this tree was simply too difficult to germinate. After this encounter, Bernard and I spoke to an old man, overlooking his grove of neat rows of mukau. We asked about the germination of these trees, and the grizzled elder took another pinch of snuff and told us that he was really surprised that we did not know what every kavici (uncircumcised ‘small boy’) knew: you followed the goats around and picked out the mukau seeds from their droppings. The action of the enzymes when the goats were digesting the seeds made them ready for planting. The forester was sceptical (and angry) when we told him.
We much admired the skill and detailed knowledge which enabled the Mbeere to make such efficient use of their vegetation, especially for such construction as woven granaries, and for house construction generally. But we recognised that some of the old uses were far inferior to recent innovations. This was forcefully brought home to us when we asked an old lady to demonstrate us how she used to make ‘soap’. She gathered the roots and stems of Cucurbitaceae sp., which were then beaten, rubbed and filtered on to wet clothes, producing a very thin lather. It was a tedious and laborious process, at the end of which the old lady said, ‘Now you see why I prefer to use Omo.’
When we started on our research, in 1974, Bernard immediately set about making a detailed ethno-botanical study, greatly aided by the enthusiastic help and encouragement of John Kokwaro, Professor of Botany at the University of Nairobi. John not only provided Bernard with plant presses and with instructions about field collecting, but also allowed us to use his well-equipped laboratory for identification of plant specimens. When we were in Nairobi, we nearly always included a visit to John’s lab, where his assistant, Simon Mathenge, was knowledgeable and patient. In time, Bernard became a competent self-taught botanist, although some of the older professional botanists, especially the British, were reluctant to recognise his expertise. When we eventually published the results of our enquiries, Bernard insisted that the plants be listed by their vernacular names, as a tribute to the Mbeere: an index provided the conventional botanical identification.
During our stays in Kenya we made many excursions, some within a day’s drive, others much further afield. We were determined to reach the summit of Kiang’ombe, the highest hill (5700 feet) in Mbeere – partly because ‘it was there’, and partly because Bernard surmised that there would be interesting relict flora at the top. We needed permission from the Forest Guard because the hill was a Forest Reserve. When we explained our purpose, permission was readily given and the guard volunteered to accompany us. On our first attempt the winding path proved too much for Bernard, the sharp curves affecting his balance. But sub-chief Emmanuel insisted that Bernard should reach the top ‘even if we have to carry you’, so we made another attempt, following an easier path, and this time we reached the summit.
On this second attempt we were accompanied by my two young great-nephews, who were visiting us from Scotland. It was rewarding: apart from experiencing sweeping views of nearly all of Mbeere division, we found, to Bernard’s excitement, Ensete ventricosum, the wild progenitor of cultivated plantains and bananas. Emmanuel told us that the seeds of this plant used to be collected for ceremonial decoration. We saw, or heard, signs of leopard, colobus monkey, bush pig, duiker, baboon, porcupine and other animals; we glimpsed the purple-crested Turaco high in the canopy, and we also saw, growing in its wild state, miraa (Catha edulis), the mild narcotic which is so popular in Somalia, where it is known as khat. Most of our party eagerly munched on the miraa leaves; we tried it too, but it had no noticeable effect. Lorry drivers use the drug to combat fatigue on long journeys.
Another popular local destination was the Tana River, the southern boundary of our research area. The government of Kenya, funded by the World Bank, had built a series of dams on this river, one of which, Kindaruma, we liked to visit. One of the attractions was a swimming pool, built for the expatriate contractors and still kept in perfect order, although it was hardly ever used. Once we even brought two of the jolly American Catholic sisters, who were teaching at Siakago Girls’ High School, for a picnic at the dam. To our surprise they brought their swimming costumes and they also enjoyed the pool. While we were eating our picnic lunch by the pool we saw a procession of birds, attracted by the water, and by a dripping tap: red-cheeked cordon bleu, waxbills, fire finches, and below in the Tana River (among the crocodiles and the hippo) were herons, storks, hamerkops (Scopus umbretta) and darters. On our return drive we stopped to help the driver of a stranded vehicle; the grateful driver, an engineer from the dam, proudly showed us around the engine room, normally strictly off-limits. On these remote country roads it would have been unthinkable to pass a stranded vehicle without offering assistance.
My Cambridge friend, Julius Lister, who was at the British High Commission in Nairobi in the late 1970s, came to visit us in Mbeere, with his wife Kim and their three teenage sons, Martin, Adam and Ralph. We took the family to the Tana River to show them the dams, the game and the birds. While enjoying our picnic lunch on the banks of the river we saw elephant, crocodiles, hippos and many riverine birds.
With our happy memories of our 1949 canoe journey down the Rhine, Julius and I discussed the possibility of making another grand canoe trip, down the Tana River all the way to the coast, over three hundred and fifty miles distant. We thought that we might be able to replicate our journey, this time taking the three boys with us. We enquired seriously into this project but eventually abandoned it – under pressure from Kim, who was concerned about the safety of her sons because of the real hazards, including crocodiles and hippo, and bilharzia. In addition, we could not get adequate information about the state of the river, nor about what rapids we would have to circumvent. Some years later I read, wistfully, about a successful passage of the Tana River by two intrepid young men, who did, however, have a full back-up crew to follow them. After reading the report of their journey and all that it entailed, I realised that we had done the right thing in giving up our idea.
Further afield were attractive destinations on the lower slopes of Kirinyaga. The Outspan Hotel, near Nyeri, was famous because in 1952 Princess Elizabeth had been at their Treetops Lodge when she heard that her father, King George VI, had died and that she would now be queen. This elegant hotel offered low off-season rates to local residents; Bernard and I enjoyed a couple of weekends in one of their luxury cottages, revelling in deep hot baths, afternoon tea on the terrace with a new range of mountain birds to observe, a Manhattan cocktail before dinner and a delicious five-course dinner, including wine, before retiring to read by our fireplace in the cottage. What bliss.
Simpler accommodation was available at ‘The Castle’, a forest rest house. To reach it we drove through neat tea and coffee estates, noticing how well-dressed and healthy everybody looked, and how much better-built the houses were than those in Mbeere. On one Sunday, we had stopped the car for Bernard to investigate a new plant; sitting in the driving seat I saw, in the rear-view mirror, a group of young men running towards us shouting and brandishing their machetes. I told Bernard to get in the car and drove off hurriedly; we were not sure whether they wanted a lift, were tipsily merry or whether they were indeed threatening. But there had been some ‘nasty incidents’ in this area; we dared not take chances.
Kenya is renowned for its national parks, the nearest to us being Meru, just a few hours’ drive away. This park had the added attraction of having relatively few visitors – most having been scared off by recent raids by armed Shifta bandits from Somalia. Few visitors meant that the game was relatively tame and therefore easy to see, and the bird life was also abundant. We always stayed at a ‘self service banda’, a simple rest house provided with the basic necessities, including a wood-burning stove and a hot-water boiler. We sometimes visited the expensive luxury lodge to enjoy afternoon tea, or a cold beer, while we watched the animals at the waterhole specially built for lodge visitors, but we much preferred our own simple accommodation, really ‘in the bush’.
During our years in Mbeere we had many occasions to visit Nairobi, usually a two hour drive along fairly good roads, but in the wet season it could take longer. If possible we liked to do the return journey in a day; it would be a long day but we were happier in our remote country home than in the big city. We would set off at 5 a.m.,
before dawn, often seeing nocturnal animals such as the ratel (honey badger) on the road, and on a few exciting occasions we glimpsed a leopard padding along. After breakfast on the terrace of the Norfolk Hotel we would go about our errands, Bernard concentrating on the shopping and I on the government officers whom I needed to visit.
Bernard would have a long shopping list, beginning with essential spare parts for our appliances and machinery, all of which could be found at the shops along River Road where a group of enterprising Indian traders could be relied on. The list would also include stationery, books, cat food, lamp mantles, film, and miscellaneous orders from our growing number of household dependants. After I had visited as many government offices as I could – long waits were often involved – Bernard and I would meet for coffee and samoosas (a triangular fried pastry containing spiced vegetables or meat) at the Blue Kat Cafe opposite Mwindi Mbingu Street market, where we could make our final purchases of fruit and vegetables. We always tried to leave Nairobi before 4 p.m. so that we could escape the heavy commuter traffic and be home by 6 p.m. – in time to enjoy our sundowners on our own little terrace looking out over Mount Kenya.
One particular morning we set out early after heavy rains, and discovered that a bridge was axle-deep in water. I drove cautiously, but the engine stalled in the middle of the bridge and our Peugeot 303 started sliding ominously towards the edge, where there was a six foot drop. Fortunately we had given Mr Jaggi a lift and he quickly jumped out, opened the bonnet and dried the distributor. Once we got the engine going again, he and Bernard pushed the car away from the edge. I eventually managed to start the engine again, but it was a narrow escape. The exertion resulted in Bernard’s injuring his back, and having to stay in bed in Nairobi for a week. We rented a furnished flat and made the most of our enforced stay, during the first night of which a record seven inches of rain fell in Nairobi. Inevitably, the poorer shacks in the low-lying areas were swept away, leaving many people homeless.
Sometimes, either by choice or necessity, we did spend a few days in Nairobi, being fortunate in having hospitable friends where we could enjoy real comfort. It was a special pleasure to stay at Wasaa, the home of Peter Greensmith. He had visited Nairobi briefly when he was serving in the Royal Navy during World War 2 and had been favourably impressed. After the war Peter moved to Nairobi as the city horticulturalist, and became well known for promoting many bougainvillea varieties. In retirement he lived in Langata, eight miles out of Nairobi, on his sixty acre estate, Wasaa, with its grand gardens. Wasaa was located next to the Nairobi National Park, and the gardens were often invaded by giraffe, which liked the roses, and by various antelope which tackled anything. We spent many relaxing weekends at Wasaa, a 1930-ish style English country house, revelling in the comfort, the quiet and the beauty of Peter’s marvellous gardens.
In his 1938 book, Facing Mount Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta (who had been a postgraduate student of Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics) strongly supported clitoridectomy (‘female circumcision’), claiming that it was an essential part of Kikuyu culture. Yet thirty-five years later at a public meeting in Embu, we heard Kenyatta, then President of Kenya, telling the crowd that female circumcision was an outmoded custom and should not be continued. The early Christian missionaries among the Kikuyu were horrified by clitoridectomy, forbidding their adherents to practise it: the conflicts that this caused are a feature of several Kenyan novels. Barnabas, one of our research assistants, told us how his father had refused to have his daughters circumcised in 1950, resulting in the whole family being ostracised by their neighbours.
For the Kikuyu, and the related groups, including Mbeere, male circumcision is still obligatory; though a few parents did choose to have their sons operated on in hospital rather than by a traditional ‘doctor’. (A Japanese doctor who had been posted to Embu Hospital told us wryly that he had had no idea that one of his regular duties would be to circumcise boys.)
In 1970 I attended, with Jack and Phyllis Glazier, (American anthropologists who were working in Mbeere when I arrived, and who were kind and helpful to me) an irua (male initiation) ceremony, an all-night occasion. Our research assistant Sebastian had described it: ‘the ladies ensured that their breasts banged rhythmically … they danced so soothingly and attractively to attract the boys … then they danced nose to nose with a humming voice. Rain was no hindrance to dancing, they needed no sheltering whenever there was a downpour. The gentleman raised the girl up in the air and shook her vigorously and rhythmically, followed by the clapping of hands. Towards the closedown of the dance, the dancers knelt and danced silently in that position.’
When we asked old people to tell us about their young days, and how life then compared with their present lives, many old ladies fondly recalled the irua dances: ‘I danced all night, with flowers in my hair, and the young men admired me,’ said one old crone. But the few ceremonies that we witnessed were pale shadows of what Sebastian described, and of what the old ladies remembered. A group of elders were happily getting tipsy but the dancing left much to be desired.
I had a dramatic confrontation with an involuntary circumcision. Samuel, the cotton instructor, our neighbour at the Ena house, was a Luo – the Luo being a group from western Kenya that does not practise circumcision. He came to see me early one morning, very agitated, saying, ‘Mr David, a most unfortunate thing has happened.’ His sixteen-year-old son Patrick had been guarding the growing crops when he was attacked by four men (Mambora’s thugs) and forcibly and brutally circumcised. I drove Samuel and Patrick at great speed to Embu. Before we could get Patrick to hospital we had to report to the police, where filling in the forms seemed to take forever – finding carbon paper, the right forms and a pen all took time. I was trying to conceal my distress because Patrick urgently needed medical attention and stitches. When we eventually reached the hospital, the doctor attended quickly and competently to Patrick’s wound.
Then we returned to the police station so that Samuel and Patrick could lay a charge against the assailants. The female inspector asked me why we were making such a fuss: ‘After all, all boys get circumcised.’ Before I could reply, a policeman, a Luo, drew me aside and cautioned me not to get too involved. When the inspector said she had no transport, I offered to take two detectives to Ena to make enquiries. They did this in a half-hearted fashion, aided by Mr Onyango, the DO, but not surprisingly no one would speak out against Mambora’s gang.
Patrick’s wound did heal, and he returned to school, but then I learnt that the matter was more complicated than had appeared at first. Samuel had a wife at his home in western Kenya, but he had married a local girl as well. He had promised her family that his sons would be circumcised. Not only had he not had the circumcision done, but neither had he paid the stipulated bridewealth, and in addition he was arrogant – or so I was told. Once again what seemed to be a simple matter proved to be far more complex. I wondered when I would ever learn this simple message.
During our various stays in Mbeere, we had many visitors, usually arranging to take some local leave so that we could show them other parts of Kenya. Especially rewarding were visits from other anthropologists, including our old friend and colleague Ted Scudder, whose questions were always helpful, making us ask ourselves why we ‘had not thought of that’. We identified several new birds with Ted, who was a renowned bird watcher. We were also able to meet with no fewer than seven of my postgraduate anthropology students from UCSB, all engaged in fieldwork in Kenya; once again there were reciprocal advantages in the questions that were asked.
Dora Seu, a Chinese-American, and my colleague at the Institute of International Studies at Berkeley, was one of our first visitors, in 1970, and her questions were illuminating. Walking around the homesteads, Dora would ask such questions as: Why do they not have fish ponds? Do they preserve any food? Could they grow a greater variety of crops in their home gardens? Dora was familiar with the frugal agricultural practices of her Chinese ancestors, whom poverty had forced to be extremely industrious and resourceful. We made a memorable trip with her to Uganda in 1970, when Idi Amin was still president.
In 1971, my godson, Adam Lister, a pupil at the Dragon School in Oxford, was about to go, during his school holidays, to Indonesia, where his father was in the British Embassy. Ever resourceful, Adam, then aged eleven, looked at his school atlas, noticed that Kenya was more or less halfway to Indonesia, and told his parents that he would be coming to stay with us. When his mother suggested that he asked our permission first, Adam indignantly replied, ‘What is the use of a godfather if you can’t go and stay with him?’
Soon after Adam’s arrival, Bernard and I had to be away for a few hours. Being concerned about Adam, we arranged with Joseph, a local seventeen-year-old, to keep an eye on Adam. We need nothave worried, for on our return we found that Adam, with all his British prep-school confidence, had organised a gang of local boys to go fishing with him.
DWB and his godson Adam Lister. Nanyuki, Kenya, 1971
Another rewarding visitor, in 1976, was Dr Maitai, a Kenyan pharmacologist who had spent seven years studying in New Zealand. He was particularly interested in indigenous knowledge of medicines, although he was quite sceptical about some of the extravagant claims that were being made about their efficacy.
In 1977, when we were living at the Catholic Mission at Siakago, we were called to the recently-installed telephone, to speak to a BBC representative who asked if we would help a television crew to film a segment for a new series on African agriculture. ‘What are the farmers doing now?’ she asked. We told her truthfully that they were drinking beer and getting ready for the circumcision ceremonies: this was August when there had been a good harvest and there were no agricultural activities. Undeterred, the BBC crew of three arrived and we persuaded two of the local old men to demonstrate how they would cultivate their fields. The men thought it was ridiculous to be doing this in August, but they went along with the play-acting after payment had been settled upon. Bernard and I were interviewed, and, despite the subterfuge, a good segment was made – according to my Scottish niece, Deirdre, who viewed the programme – thanks to the skills of the crew and the co-operation of the old men.
My Scottish great-nephews, Philip (aged fourteen) and Steven (eleven) also came out for a holiday. The two lads were due to arrive in August 1978 – a critical time in Kenya’s history, shortly after the death of President Kenyatta, when civil turmoil seemed likely. We made elaborate alternative plans, in case we could not get to the airport to meet the boys, telling them how to contact friends of ours in Nairobi, who would look after them. In the event, all was peaceful. Steven was interested in birds, so we gave him binoculars and a bird book, suggesting that he aim to see two hundred species during his three week visit. We had visited various ecological zones, all rich in bird life, and Steven achieved his target, seeing his two hundredth bird at Nairobi airport as he was about to depart.
In 1980, we invited Colin Ainley, son of John Ainley, my agricultural colleague in the Colonial Service, to visit us in Kenya at a time when we were involved in a survey of rural roads in Western Kenya. Colin spent his twenty-first birthday on a day-long excursion with Peter Greensmith and us, driving to the Rift Valley and visiting Olorgesailie, the famous fossil site of the Leakeys.
PROBLEMS OF FIELDWORK
One of the main problems in any ethnographic fieldwork is the ethical and moral one of the relation between the fieldworker and the local people. This topic has been exhaustively investigated and discussed, the most notable recent contribution being Rob Borofsky’s book (2005) on the Yanomami of Venezuela.
Bernard and I lived in Mbeere, asking questions, interrupting routines, taking the time of people, and hoping in the end to write a good and accurate account of what we found. But what do the people get out of it? There is never a clear reciprocity. Our main contributions to the people seem to me to have been, firstly, putting Mbeere on the map (which was something that Professor Evans-Pritchard had emphasised when I was doing my first fieldwork in Ghana); and, secondly, helping many of the schoolboys and schoolgirls to complete their education, so that they would find satisfactory employment. We have had, even until recently, numerous appeals for financial help to continue with education, or to help a relative with school fees, or to pay hospital expenses or to build a house. One such appeal poignantly ended, ‘I remain sir, intently waiting for your decent reply.’ A decent reply is not always possible, but Bernard and I did what we could.
When we drove around the division, we frequently encountered people desperately asking for lifts. On some roads, only a few vehicles would pass in a day, ours might even be the only one. We never satisfactorily solved the problem; we disliked driving by and leaving the pathetic roadside figures covered in a cloud of red dust, but we were reluctant to stop for everybody, for several reasons. First, local perceptions of the capacity of our vehicle did not correspond with ours; very often we would stop to give a lift to two people and half-a-dozen others would materialise out of the bush and happily clamber aboard, resenting our attempts to persuade them that the vehicle was overloaded. When we asked the owners of the few other private vehicles in Mbeere what they did, we were always told that they gave lifts only to those whom they knew or who had asked beforehand. But even this did not ease our feelings of guilt if we simply drove by.
Once we were established, we had to get used to a series of callers, at all hours of the day and night, each with their own request – for money, for intervention in a dispute, for a lift to market, for employment. One man, who lived near us, came one evening in distress, to ask if we would take his seven-year-old daughter to the clinic at Siakago, four miles away. He told us that the girl had been bitten by a snake when fetching water at a stream; we drove her to the clinic where the Italian sister examined her and told us that she had most probably been pricked by a sharp stick. Whatever the truth of the matter, her father, convinced that we had saved his daughter’s life, remained for ever grateful, for months afterwards offering us a few eggs, a bunch of fresh corn or simply many Mungu akusaidia’s (God bless you).
Another, very different, problem affected me much more keenly in the relatively few periods when I was on my own, without Bernard’s supporting company. At such times I would have many ups and downs, wondering what exactly I was doing, whether it was worthwhile and generally having grave doubts. This is not unusual among fieldworkers. Bernard, eminently practical, could always jolly me out of such depressive moods and encourage me to get on with whatever task was at hand.
Some anthropologists have encountered serious health problems while in the field, particularly when working in humid tropical locations. Both Bernard and I had bouts of malaria and we also had several infestations of intestinal parasites, for which the good Consolata Sisters would prescribe pills and a diet of black tea and rice for two or three days, which always did the trick. (Few of the Italian sisters spoke more than a very rudimentary English, but they were fluent in both kiMbeere, and in Swahili, so we would converse in the latter language.) We took regular shots of gamma globulin as a precaution against hepatitis.
My only serious injury occurred in a freak accident, when I was in the shower at a newly-built house in Western Kenya. As I was trying to increase the flow of cold water, the tap came off in my hand, leaving a jet of very hot water coming from the shower, and trapping me inside. No one heard my calls for help, so I made a dash for the door with my back to the shower, which gave me second-degree burns on my buttocks. Once again Catholic sisters came to my rescue: my host drove me to the nearest hospital where Sister Hyacinth attended to my painful burns, and I soon recovered.
One Sunday, Father Vincent, the genial senior missionary, told me cheerfully that I was to give a sermon at mass that evening. Shocked, I asked what I was to talk on. ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘I just want the boys to hear a native English speaker.’ The gospel for that day concerned the miracle of the loaves and the fishes and I managed to relate that to Mbeere indigenous knowledge and to our research, to good effect, according to Fr Vincent. A few years later I co-edited one of the first books on this important topic (Brokensha, Warren & Werner, 1980).
The periods that we spent in Kenya were rewarding and enriching for both Bernard and me, both in relation to the results of our enquiries, and also for our teaching. We gathered valuable material on social and ecological change, which we used in our respective UCSB teaching courses, particularly in our joint course on environmental problems of the Third World. We also published, jointly, a two volume book on our research, The Mbeere in Kenya (Riley & Brokensha, 1988), as well as several articles.
1977–1995: THE INSTITUTE FOR DEVELOPMENT ANTHROPOLOGY
I was initially attracted to anthropology by the promise of its being of practical use in helping to solve social problems. I later became involved in development anthropology – as a result of my South African background, and my colonial experience: the diversity of cultures, the poverty, and the glaring inequality all suggested to me that social anthropology had a major role to play in tackling social problems.
I was one of the first anthropologists to offer a postgraduate seminar on ‘Development Anthropology’ which I presented regularly at UCSB. At first regarded with suspicion by the more conservative anthropologists (not at UCSB, where I had good support), this course is now a basic feature of most graduate departments of anthropology, at least in the United States.
After World War 2, huge sums were spent on ‘development’ for the poorer countries of the ‘Third World’. Initially virtually all development was planned – by the United States, European nations and Russia – with emphasis on large projects, and heavy reliance on western technology and science: little attention was paid to the people who were assumed to be the beneficiaries. By the mid 1970s, it was becoming clear that the ‘trickle-down’ theory was not valid, that aid was not reaching the poor – in fact, the gap between rich and poor was widening. New approaches were called for. This provided an opportunity for development anthropology, which stressed the need to look first at the social and cultural institutions of the local societies, and to consider the effects of their involvement in regional and global systems.
Michael Horowitz, DWB and Ted Scudder. The birth of IDA. Tucson, Arizona, 1976
Some anthropologists claim that all development is irrevocably tainted because it furthers western, capitalist or state expansion, and that it is bound to harm the interests of local people, and therefore we, as a profession, should have nothing to do with it. My view is that poor people want development, in the sense of better health, schools, housing and economic opportunities, but frequently quite inappropriate or even harmful forms of development are thrust upon them. As anthropologists, we have insights into the beliefs and cultures of local peoples, and we surely have a part to play, and a responsibility, in making development more effective, and closer to the real needs of the people, particularly the ‘poorest of the poor’.
Another major influence on me was the Institute for Development Anthropology (IDA), of which I was a director for twenty years, together with Michael Horowitz and Ted Scudder.
I first met Scudder in the early 1960s, through our mutual interest in problems of resettlement at the Volta Dam in Ghana. Ted was at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, a two hour drive from Santa Barbara. We established a routine of meeting two or three times each year, taking it in turn to select a suitable location for a day-long hike in one of the many mountainous areas of southern California. During our walks we discussed a wide range of both professional and personal concerns; we also took the opportunity to do some bird-watching, Ted being a knowledgeable ornithologist.
I met Michael Horowitz, who was teaching at the State University of New York, Binghamton, through our shared interest in development anthropology; I had admired his lucid articles, his commitment, and his effective presentations for some years. Michael had done extensive fieldwork on pastoral peoples, was fluent in French, and also had the advantage of having worked – as the first regional social scientist in West Africa – with the United States Agency for International Development ( USAID), the chief development assistance institution of the US government.
When we established IDA in 1976, the Zeitgeist was in our favour, because there was then a general admission that more than twenty-five years of top-down development, concentrating on large projects, had produced few benefits, especially for the poor. IDA was a not-for-profit organisation, aiming at the promotion of participatory and sustainable development with opportunities for all, for low-income populations. This ideal goal has proved elusive over the years, but we still believe that it is attainable. Our most successful period was during the 1980s and early 1990s, when IDA contracts involved a large number of anthropologists, working on development projects and in policy-oriented research relating to IDA goals. Among our aims were the participation of local people in both policies and projects, an enormously complex undertaking; the training of Third World anthropologists so that they could play important roles in development; the active involvement of anthropologists before, during and after the implementation of any project; and the inclusion of anthropologists in local and governmental policy-making.
From the beginning, IDA emphasised participatory natural resource management (NRM), which included agriculture, livestock, forestry, fisheries, wildlife, and water. The dominant model of state-based NRM was custodial, and had largely excluded or ignored rural communities. By the 1970s, participation by local people began to be recognised as a way of increasing equity, and also improving the efficiency of NRM. At the same time, foresters and other sectoral specialists realised that they were handicapped by knowing so little about communities. Indeed, many of their assumptions about the rural or urban people, particularly the poor, were false. Poor people were often viewed as passive and ignorant victims, who needed to be helped by outside assistance, whereas – as anthropologists have shown in studies all over the world – such societies have a variety of coping strategies and impressive indigenous knowledge systems – which need to be taken into account if development is to be effective.
At IDA we sought to expand the participation of the supposed beneficiaries of First World intervention. Ted Scudder, who specialised in problems of resettlement caused by the construction of dams, is now recognised as the leading authority in this area. He estimates that at least forty million people have been resettled worldwide as a result of the construction of large dams; he further states that ‘resettlement impoverishes the majority of those involved’, which is why anthropologists need to advise on the adjustments that have to be made (Scudder, 2005: 22). Scudder has developed a comparative theory of resettlement, showing that all resettled populations pass through four distinct phases. He has also shown, in several publications, that the authorities can best help by using the skills and knowledge of the settlers as a base for any development, rather than imposing interventions from outside.
Michael Horowitz was critical of most pastoralist interventions, which were usually based on inappropriate western models, emphasising either dairy or beef production. At this time there was much discussion about desertification in the Sahel, with the pastoralists often being blamed. (‘Blaming the victim’ is a recognised informal syndrome in development discourse.) This attitude was encouraged by an influential and devastatingly misleading article, The Tragedy of the Commons, by my UCSB biologist colleague, Garrett Hardin, who claimed that uncontrolled use of common resources was bound to fail, because each individual actor would seek his own advantage. The implication clearly was that it was up the state, or some other controlling agency, to take charge and to direct the pastoralists (Hardin, 1968; see also Hardin, 1998, for a partial retraction of his earlier views). A popular remedy was to propose group ranches, which always failed, because they took no account of the indigenous knowledge the nomadic pastoralists had of their arid or semi-arid environment. In order to survive, pastoralists have accumulated impressive detailed knowledge of grasses and pasture, water sources, micro-climates and soil types. Anthropologists have described these systems, with admiration for the scope of what pastoralists know, and how they juggle many factors in order to ensure that they and their herds stay alive. For example, different strategies apply to different animals – cattle, sheep, goats, camels, donkeys – and the wide social network of kin is used effectively. Horowitz’s spirited and entirely valid criticism of one proposed, costly and quite inappropriate Texas-style ranch in Mali resulted in his being ‘PNGed’ – declared persona non grata by the Mission Director of USAID in that country.
WHAT DID WE DO?
The IDA engaged in a variety of activities, all of which were concerned with the application of anthropological knowledge and methods to development policies and projects. Ideally, an analysis should involve fieldwork in the actual location of the proposed project before any action is taken. But in many cases we were only able to glance at documents or to make a short trip to the field. Ideally, again, a preliminary analysis should be followed up by a careful monitoring of the project while it is being implemented, and by a detailed evaluation on completion, assessing how successful the project has been in reaching the stipulated aims. This ideal form of involvement was seldom realised.
In the 1970s, USAID, recognising that the old approaches were not working, established ‘New Directions’ in foreign aid, stating that the rural poor should be the principal beneficiaries. This led to the introduction of ‘social soundness analysis’ (SSA), which meant that before any project could be approved the probable social consequences had to be examined – in the same way that the predicted environmental effects had to be considered. (The World Bank introduced the ‘McNamara Doctrine’ at about the same time, with aims similar to SSA.) This provided us with a welcome opportunity to analyse proposed plans and suggest changes, taking into account local social institutions.
If done properly, SSA should challenge and clarify the implicit assumptions of development officials regarding the likely effects of the proposed interventions, especially on the poorer, the marginalised, and women. It uses knowledge of the local society, as well as comparative perspectives, to make changes that will render the project more effective and more acceptable to the people involved.
Planned interventions are assessed in terms of their supposed ‘cultural fit’. Just over four hundred years ago Francis Bacon wrote in his Essays, Civil and Moral, ‘… those things that have long gone together are as it were confederate within themselves: whereas new things piece not so well … they trouble by their inconformity’ (Chapter 24). The idea of ‘fitting’ is well established, but that does not mean that it is universally recognised. While SSA was a formal requirement at USAID, and later at other donor agencies, it was frequently resented by the old guard – mainly economists and planners – who used different criteria, and who regarded it as a troublesome obstacle to their work.
After several years of SSA, USAID commissioned a thorough analysis, finding that projects based on systematic SSA had achieved twice the Internal Rate of Return (IRR) of projects that had not had adequate SSA ( Kottak, 1991: 431–464). The IRR was a magic catch phrase, then much in vogue, and a yardstick by which to judge all programmes. I have problems with IRR, because of its emphasis on measurable economic factors, and its difficulty in accounting for vaguer but no less significant ‘quality of life’ measures.
We welcomed opportunities to participate in workshops and conferences, where we were able to discuss the myriad social aspects of development with other stakeholders, particularly with officials from the major agencies, and also with host country government officials – all of whom we tried to convert to our way of thinking. In addition, we promoted development anthropology among our students, having significant numbers of graduates who specialised in this topic. Through IDA our students gained valuable hands-on experience in the field.
We had to be careful not to engage in a sort of ‘Liberation Anthropology’, similar to the then popular ‘Liberation Theology’, which had been adopted by many priests working in Latin America. Had we done so we would have antagonised the agencies and also lost our credibility as impartial observers. But this did not mean that we had to be silent when confronted with gross inequalities and injustices. On occasion, IDA was asked specifically to take sides, for example Scudder was engaged by the Navajo nation to present its case in a land dispute with the Hopi in the state of Arizona. In another instance, Horowitz wrote a well-documented article criticising the inhumane treatment of the darker inhabitants of Mauritania by their dominant lighter-skinned compatriots.
THREE CASE STUDIES Manantali Dam and the Senegal River basin
to right), 2 Senegalese elders, Ted Scudder,
Michael Horowitz , a Tijani Marabu (religious
leader), Muneera Salem-Murdock. taken between
Podor and Madam, Senegal, 1986.
Michael Horowitz, Ted Scudder and Muneera Salem-Murdock, together with a number of American and African colleagues, made significant contributions to the study of the Senegal River basin in the 1980s and early 1990s. IDA was originally asked – at a very late stage – to comment on resettlement resulting from the construction of the Manantali Dam on the River Senegal. We were nevertheless able to extend enquiries, with two significant results. First, IDA encouraged the establishment of an International Senegal River Authority, which included the neighbouring states of Mauritania and Mali; this undoubtedly decreased the chances of later friction over water rights. In addition, planning, implementation and management involved some (though never enough) participation of the local people. Second, the emphasis had been mainly on hydroelectricity and irrigation, for rice production. IDA, after undertaking extensive research from 1988 to 1992, persuaded the governments and the donors to think more of a multi-purpose dam, paying attention to the nearly one million people who lived downstream. For nearly a thousand years, the farmers, fishermen and herdsmen had made intensive and ingenious use of the periodic floods, achieving a good living for themselves. This would all have been threatened had the flow been stopped, as had been planned. Instead, controlled flows continued, enabling the downstream folk to survive.
Onchocerciasis (river blindness) in West Africa
In one of our biggest projects (in financial terms), USAID contracted IDA in 1988 to make enquiries and recommendations regarding the resettlement of people in eleven West African states, following the eradication of the black fly which causes onchocerciasis. (In the early 1960s, I had seen, in Northern Ghana, lines of blind men,
Cameron Miller, 1st Engineer, DWB, crew member and Ted Scudder on Lake Volta steamer. March 1988
linked by sticks they held, being guided by a small boy; this remains in my memory as one of the most poignant sights I have ever seen.) Under the direction of Ted Scudder and Della McMillan, extensive studies were made, in all cases involving local social and natural scientists. One of the main achievements was to persuade donors and governments to think of diversification in planning, that is, to integrate the range of local economic activities – off-farm work, markets, livestock – rather than promoting a single crop, without reference to local needs. IDA was also able to show that governments had to take a longer-term view, because initial difficulties always resulted in production being disappointing in the first few years.
While Michael Horowitz concentrated on pastoralists in West Africa, and Ted Scudder on resettlement, my own emphasis was on fuelwood, which I arrived at by serendipity. During our Mbeere studies in Kenya in the 1970s, the women complained that ‘the woodlands were further away’ and they were having increasing difficulty in collecting fuelwood. At the same time we also noticed
DWB, Bernard, foresters and villagers. Karnataka, India, 1987
a dramatic increase in charcoal production: we would see stacks of charcoal along the roadsides, waiting for collection. When we wrote a paper on fuelwood problems for USAID in 1978, we became instant pioneers, identifying the scope and management and use of wood and other forest products.
In 1984, Garry Thomas and I directed, for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, a three week workshop in Malawi for twenty-five mid-level forestry officials, from eleven East and Central African countries. (We were assisted by Bernard, Peter Little and two FAO officials.) We aimed to show that foresters needed to see forests as part of a complex social and ecological whole, and not consider only the trees. We stressed the wealth of indigenous knowledge of vegetation, the desirability of allowing local people into forests to collect minor forest products, the advantages of indigenous species, the problems of communal wood-lots, the need for diversification, and the problems of charcoal production. Through discussions, role playing and field trips, we succeeded in expanding the horizons of these forest officers.
When working with an agency such as USAID, the World Bank, or the United Nations Development Programme, we needed to understand the culture of that institution, to be aware of the constraints they worked under. I am critical of the way in which donor officials frequently misunderstood or ignored the potential contribution that anthropology could make to development. Equally, I am critical of those anthropologists who wrote reports as though they were living in a dream world where everything that should happen would happen. I encountered a few anthropologists who claimed that they would need at least a full year in the field (this being the rule for normal ethnographic fieldwork) before they could give a considered judgement. No agencies were able to wait such a long time. Such consultants were not taken seriously, and they undermined our efforts to promote effective collaboration with the agencies.
We learnt to make the best use of what came to be called ‘ Rapid Rural Appraisal’, developing techniques for presenting a valid SSA within a short time, often no longer than a few weeks. By intensive preparation and concentrating in the field only on the proposed project, limiting the study of marginal factors, much could be achieved – although some anthropologists (mostly those who have remained in their academic cloisters) remain unconvinced about such methods.
In 1977 I reviewed two proposed development plans of the Government of Kenya, one in Tharaka Division in Eastern Kenya, the other in Kwale district, on the coast. After examining the relevant literature, I spent ten days in the field in each case and wrote a summary of the social organisation and social institutions, indicating how these would affect the plan. In the second instance, I was accompanied by a Kenyan anthropologist, Abdulla Bujra, which was a great advantage: he had a good knowledge of coastal culture, and as a Muslim he could relate easily to the local people. Later, officials, both Kenyan and expatriate, told us that our analyses had facilitated their planning, and helped them avoid simple errors. Examples of successful SSA abound. Fortunately, at times agencies do finance longer-term studies (such as those on the Senegal River basin, mentioned above), which yield more helpful and reliable results.
The USAID Mission Directors were powerful figures. In a poor country, such as Niger or Mali, he (or occasionally ‘she’) wielded more influence than did the ambassador, simply because he was in control of large amounts of money. A Mission director was judged in Washington DC – so it was alleged – more by how much money was moved than by what was actually achieved. This certainly seemed to be the case in some instances where the Mission director was at best indifferent, at worst hostile, to any intervention by IDA or other tiresome social analysts, who were likely to slow up the process of distributing funds. Mission directors seldom had prior experience of Third World countries; certainly not much contact with the poor of such countries.
Michael Cernea, a Romanian, was the first sociologist to be appointed to the World Bank, in 1974. Until his retirement, Michael worked effectively to persuade his colleagues of the value of social science to the Bank. Although his achievements were remarkable, there is still much to be done in making the World Bank more focused on the needs of poor people. Cernea firmly believed the words of the title of his edited book, Putting People First. After taking part in a World Bank task force seeking to integrate the social and economic dimensions of development, Michael Horowitz (1996: 4) pointed out that ‘merely the presence of anthropologists and other social scientists is hardly a sufficient condition to assure poverty reduction, equity, sustainability and social justice.’
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) consists of fifteen well-funded and well-staffed centres located throughout the world, including centres for wheat in India, maize in Mexico, rice in the Philippines, potatoes in Peru, and insect research in Kenya. These centres are exactly the sort of institution that could benefit from the input of anthropologists, but regrettably very few social scientists have been involved. Rather the research has been dominated by agronomists. Because the research was aimed at poor farmers in the Third World, scientific knowledge was not enough – the centres would have been much more effective had the scientists worked hand in hand with anthropologists who were familiar with the knowledge, beliefs, and practices of local farmers. There were a few successes: one of our graduate students, Tom Conelly, was attached to ICIPE ( International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology), located in Western Kenya. When Bernard and I visited him in 1984, Tom told us how his suggestions had initially been met with scepticism, the regular scientists being very dubious as to what he could contribute. Eventually he encouraged them to develop integrated pest-management techniques, using pest-resistant varieties (many identified by local farmers), with encouraging results: crop yields improved, and farmers were more cooperative.
SOME PROBLEMS Community
There is a widespread naive assumption that Third World peoples live in clearly defined communities, with acknowledged leaders, and a community of interests among all members: such assumptions are flawed. What frequently happens with development projects is that self-appointed and self-serving men (seldom women) emerge and capture the project, making sure that most benefits go to themselves, their families and their entourage, and the truly poor end up worse off than ever. In this connection, development practitioners write ironically of ‘ the Matthew principle’: Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath (Matt. 25: 29). Marginal people – poor women, refugees, nomadic pastoralists and others – are often both misunderstood and neglected in development efforts. In many cases the donors, including both the big bilateral and unilateral agencies and also some of the leading western NGOs, ignore this distortion of development, being content as long as money is being spent. Some commentators, like the late Ryszard Kapu´sci´nski, saw this problem as an inevitable creaming off, which the donors feel they have to live with in order to get the remainder filtering through to the poor.
It is a commonplace that corruption is endemic in development; but the World Bank has only belatedly addressed this problem, under the presidency (1995–2005) of James D Wolfensohn. The Bank, according to Wolfensohn, is ‘determined to root out fraud and corruption’ and has pursued allegations, as well as promoting good governance and transparency, but there is still a long way to go. Recently, ‘the World Bank called corruption “the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development” and particularly harmful to the poor, and has even developed a special anti-corruption unit’ ( Bahre, 2005: 107). When anthropologists have been whistle-blowers, their actions have seldom been acclaimed or rewarded: on the contrary they are seen as an embarrassment and an obstacle to the completion of proposed developments. There is, unfortunately, a frequent lack of transparency and accountability in development circles.
As Robert Chambers (1997; 2005) has trenchantly pointed out, the current power and incentive structures of development professionalism, particularly in the major agencies, but also in some NGOs, constitute the major obstacles to pro-poor, participatory development.
There is a range of other problems – ethical, bureaucratic, political, economic – which I do not attempt to describe here.
Despite heroic efforts by Michael Horowitz to keep IDA going, we had to shut down in 2005, partly because of a very different development climate in recent years. However, we have left a legacy; also, IDA donated its considerable library (nearly 40 000 items, mainly of ‘grey’ or ‘fugitive’ literature), to Binghamton University, which is cataloguing the collection.
There have been some changes in development practice, many of them beneficial, but equally there is a long road to travel. Officials in the major agencies are more aware than before of the potential contributions of development anthropology, even though some are not entirely convinced and merely pay lip-service. There is less talk of the old stereotypes of ‘destructive pastoralists’ and ‘ignorant peasants’; there is more awareness of the wealth of indigenous knowledge; there is less tendency to impose top-down development without any consideration of those at the bottom. (Although I emphasise the significance of indigenous knowledge, I never suggest that it is a substitute for other approaches: the best development projects would be based on a combination of western and local knowledge.)
For many years though, I felt like one of the early Basel Missionaries at Larteh, Ghana, who in 1860 wrote despairingly in his journal: ‘How long, O Lord, will the heathens’ ears be closed?’ I was a secular missionary, preaching the gospel of Indigenous Knowledge, and of participatory development, to the captains of development at the World Bank, to other donors and to African officials too. Their ears, at first, remained obstinately closed, but slowly the message is getting through.
It is impossible to gauge precisely what contribution IDA made to these welcome changes, but I have no doubt that it has been an important one. Through its studies and reports in several fields – the environment, markets, gender roles, equality, participation, conflict resolution, human rights, social forestry – IDA increased awareness of the social factors involved in any planned changes. It helped in the training of hundreds of anthropologists, both in the US, and importantly, in developing countries. Anthropologists have become more sophisticated and more aware of what their role should be when they become involved in development interventions. Overall it is a complex, ever-changing picture but there are grounds, I think, for moderate optimism.
Ted Scudder, acknowledging the Malinowski Award from the American Anthropological Association, and the Lucy Mair Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute. Tucson, Arizona, April 1996