Slippery fish, material words: the substance of subsistence in coastal Sierra Leone

Diggins, Jennifer (2014) Slippery fish, material words: the substance of subsistence in coastal Sierra Leone. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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This thesis is based on eighteen months’ fieldwork in Tissana: a bustling multi-ethnic fishing town on Sierra Leone’s southern coast. It tells the story of the successive waves of young migrants who, for several decades, have been arriving on the coast from rural areas seeking an alternative to the indentured labour conditions of a farming economy still shaped by the legacy of domestic slavery. Set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing post­‐war economy, and in an ecological context in which fish stocks are in treacherous decline, I explore the intersection between people’s everyday struggles for economic survival and their taken-for-granted knowledge of the substance of the world within which those fragile livelihoods play out.

In a region in which we have come to correlate ‘memory’ with the collective scars of slavery and civil war, Tissana’s older residents look back with nostalgia and remember the youthful energy, conspicuous consumption and seemingly easy ‘freedom’ of their town’s early boom years. In some respects, the pattern is familiar from accounts of resource rushes all across Africa: the convergence of large numbers of young strangers in an unfamiliar landscape far from the authority of village elders opened up a space in which a new kind of moral economy emerged. However, within just a few decades of its initial boom, the fluidity of Sierra Leone’s fishing economy is already under intense pressure. Fish stocks have suffered a noticeable decline and, as catches become smaller and more erratic, people find themselves drawn once more into networks of dependency and reciprocity that offer their only viable hope of material security. A constant tension animating everyday life in Tissana is how people are able to work, through the strategic deployment of material gifts, to nurture the relationships that they rely upon for their subsistence, whilst simultaneously attempting to protect themselves from becoming entangled in other, less appealing social bonds.

At its core, then, this is a work about the materiality of human relationships; of social bonds formed and lived under conditions of such stark economic uncertainty that, very often, ‘love’ and ‘livelihoods’ are difficult to disaggregate — and even more difficult to trust. Here relationships often have a peculiarly fleshy, ethnographically observable aspect. One can go a long way towards mapping the town’s fluctuating networks of friendship, love, debt, and obligation simply by watching the gifts of fish exchanging hands on the wharf.

The town also raises a quite particular set of problems for an anthropologist interested in the materiality of social life. I explore how the lived experience of poverty, and the anxiety of stretched livelihoods are entangled with quotidian discussions of blessings, swears, initiation societies, and ‘fetish’ medicines: elements of social life that we might intuitively gloss as ‘ritual’, but that are, in fact, integral to the everyday economic order. Here, my work builds on a long literature in Sierra Leonean ethnography. Anthropologists working in this region have often revealed how their interlocutors do not draw any sharp distinction between ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’ elements of the physical environment and the agencies that inhabit it (Ferme 2001; Tonkin 1979; Bellman 1984). My contribution to this literature is to explore how such apparently abstruse questions of im/materiality become relevant in people’s lives through economic practice: through the everyday decisions people make, and the work they invest, in fishing, trading, and gift-exchange.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Global Studies > Anthropology
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DT History of Africa > DT0470 West Africa. West Coast > DT0491 British West Africa > DT0516 Sierra Leone
H Social Sciences > HB Economic theory. Demography > HB0848 Demography. Population. Vital events
S Agriculture > SH Aquaculture. Fisheries. Angling
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 28 Nov 2014 16:04
Last Modified: 25 May 2016 14:17

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