The Return

In the wake of my bout of sickness earlier in the year, the prospect of returning to Ghana was, at the very least, a daunting one. A stint in hospital and the effects of an ongoing, low-level infection had left me depleted physically and emotionally; the last thing I felt like doing was returning. Healthier and bored with having my project on hold, by May I was looking forward to getting back to Kpetoe, back to the workshop and on with research. I had effected a return both physically and mentally to a more productive space. Having been back in Ghana for a fortnight, I have begun reflecting upon the contours of my journeys over the past five or so months, journeys, intellectual, emotional and physical, that have taken me from that point to this. This post will pick out some of the ways that journeying, travel and movement have structured this experience and can be linked back to my informant’s conceptions of travelling and moving and the analysis of movement in (Anlo) Ewe contexts put forward by Kathryn Linn Geurts in her ethnography Culture and the Senses- Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community.

In her study of the sensory order at play among the Anlo-Ewe, whose homelands centre upon the Volta Region’s coastal towns of Anloga and Keta, Geurts argues the importance of bodily movement, mobility and migration in the formation of an Anlo sense of self and being-in-the-world. Through an analysis of the Anlo foundational story- a tale of persecution and migration from the ancestral and spiritual heart of Notsie to what are now the eastern reaches of Ghana’s coastal region- Geurts makes a play at relating his iconic myth of migration to the lived experience of being Anlo-Ewe. With an Anlo diaspora spreading along the West African coast as far as Nigeria in search of rich fishing grounds (see A. Klein, 1998, Fishing Without Formality: an economic anthropology of the Ewe on the Lagos-Badagry Seabeach, Nigeria) and Ewe-speaking people being found throughout Ghana (with markedly high numbers of Ewe-speakers being found in civil-service posts (Geurts; p. 123)), Geurts’ point that migration, whether as an escape from persecution or in search of work, is a key aspect of Anlo being is well founded. My neighbours and colleagues in Kpetoe bear this out as a broader trend pertaining across Ewe-speaking groups beyond solely the Anlo. Weavers, my neighbours and their families all engage, to varying degrees, in complex trajectories of movement and migration for education and work. Training at the Polytechnic in Ho, the teacher-training college in Hohoe, attending university at Cape Coast, moving to Accra and the Central Region for work, applying for graduate studies in the United States, travelling to Europe for business and asking a constant stream of curious questions about what I know of life elsewhere, all of these journeys can be seen as engaging in processes of becoming something, developing skills and moving beyond home. Keeping this in mind whilst maintaining that a distinction exists between the Anlo-Ewe and Ewe-speaking people from further north (including Kpetoe), I would suggest that notions and experiences of mobility are equally important across Ewe-speaking peoples to a sense of being and becoming a person. Indeed, a modified form of the Anlo migration story, telling of an exodus from Notsie before coming to rest in the area around what is now Ho, pertains as much among inland Ewe-speakers as it does on the coast (Geurts; p.116)

Beyond noting the facts of Ewe migration and its possible relation in Ewe conceptions of identity to the founding myth, Geurts also relates her argument to what she distinguishes as characteristically Anlo forms of bodily comportment and sensory attention. Highlighting that the name Anlo originates from nlo, the word which describes the movement made by the migrants from Notsie who, exhausted from their long journey, fell upon the ground at Anloga and curled their bodies inwards into the foetal position. Thus, Anlo references the curling up of the body as an expression of exhaustion after a long journey (Geurts; p 116), placing the bodily experience of travel, exhaustion and recuperation at the heart of what it means to be (Anlo) Ewe. This notion of rest and recovery is evident in my colleagues’ attitudes to work; they hold the work of weaving to be an arduous and exhausting one requiring a strong body and evenings and Sundays, wherever possible, are reserved for less demanding pursuits, giving their bodies the time and space to recover and rest. During the day, especially when it is particularly hot or humid, my colleagues will move their stool form the loom and lie upon it with their legs balanced on the cross-bar, or take one of the long benches that sit along the walls of the workshop and close their eyes for a short nap. Upon hearing that I was ill, had travelled to Accra for treatment and would go home to find out what was wrong and recuperate, my closest colleagues saw the journey and the period of rest as absolutely necessary and cautioned me to take the time to recover before returning to work. My health and the integrity of my body- my being in some fundamental sense- rested upon a series of journeys and a period where I could (literally and metaphorically) lie down and recover.

In her analysis, Geurts highlights that as a corollary to the curling up of nlo- the period of recovery, of turning inwards, after a long journey (or a period of exhausting work) comes a paradoxical symbolic joy at arriving (Geurts; p. 119). From my experience of journeying and turning inwards, curling up and recovering, I would add to this that with a movement inwards must come a counter movement outward, a journey from the interior space of recovery back to the demands of work and the world. Telling my colleagues that I was going home to recover it was always expected that I would return. Even in the moments when I was least sure and most fearful about going back to Kpetoe I would get regular texts messages asking about my health, wishing me a speedy recovery and asking when I would be back in the workshop. These two movements- one away from the world and into an interior space, the other towards the world and all its demands- ideally exist in balance with each other, with time spent at rest facilitating work and vice-versa. Over the course of a day there is a flow between work at the loom and periods spent eating, chatting and carrying out other errands, with none of my colleagues, however skilled or sought after, spending all day, every day working.

This feeling for and attention to balance is treated by Geurts in its somatic expression through bodily comportment. Emphasising the high value her informants placed upon being able to move in a balanced fashion, and detailing the processes of childhood socialisation which enculturate balance “…as one of the ultimate symbols for being human.” (Geurts; p. 105) Geurts’ analysis brought to mind two journeys that have been unfolding in the workshop since my arrival last September. The process of my apprenticeship, focussed as it is upon the skilful and balanced connection between body and tools, has been paralleled by the development of Francis’s baby boy, Etonam. Over nine months my attention to (if not skill at controlling) my balance and posture at the loom has been a marker of my coming-into-being in the workshop and the craft. In the same period, Etonam has been growing from a baby unable to hold himself into a small boy with the proprioceptive skills to walk, his development of balance actively encouraged by his father walking him around the workshop being held under the arms and emblematic of the broader processes of socialisation which will make him a person in the Ewe way.

In all of this, a kind of messy meditation on the multiple and overlapping meanings of movement and journeying, Geurts’ work and my own reflections on field experience have thrown up some interesting thoughts on how movement and travel relate to the formation and becoming of selves, be they Ewe, vocational, bodily or whatever else, that I will try and unpick further over the last half of fieldwork. Indeed, the notion of journeying and moving, tied up as it is with the connection between motion and the body, seems to be an apt image to describe something of what apprenticeship and learning-to-be-in-the-field is; a moving towards skill and understanding in which I still have a long way to go.

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Food, Farming and the Security of Place.

Back in London, with some time and space for reflection, I’ve begun to think quite carefully about the relationships between the craft-specific work of weaving and the more generalised tasks of living and being in Kpetoe. Walden Bello’s insightful analysis of the food crisis of 2006 to 2008 in the run up to the ongoing global financial crisis in his book ‘The Food Wars’ has pushed me to critically engage with the role of food, farming and access to land in the lives of my colleagues. Via a series of case studies Bello examines the far-reaching effects of neoliberal doctrine, realised through World Bank, structural adjustment, IMF and WTO policies over the past three decades, on the food sovereignty of the global South. Highlighting the pivotal role of the peasantry and small-hold farmers in meeting the food needs of local, national and global populations, Bello charts the unprecedented attack small-scale farmers have sustained through decades of blind-adherence to neoliberalising ideology. What emerges is a picture of dispossession, increasing food insecurity and not only poverty but an absolute escalation in inequalities world-wide wrought by the interests of agribusinesses and their lobbies in the corridors of power (notably in the US and the EU). Bello’s rallying cry is that faced with the seemingly insoluble problems of environmental degradation and intractable economic downturn which are bound up with dominant political, economic and agricultural regimes, land reform and policies which support labour intensive yet locally accountable peasant farming and food production offer some kind of solution.
As neither an economist, political scientist nor any kind of expert in food I read the book with a sort of interested ignorance. What was striking was the way in which Bello’s conception of the position and role of the peasantry, mainly in the global South but also that which exists increasingly at the periphery in the most developed countries, chimed with my understanding of the function and place of small-holdings in the lives of the weavers I know in Kpetoe. Having escaped the large-scale drought and resulting hunger which has ravaged the Sahelian countries in recent years, notably its northern neighbour Burkina Faso, many Ghanaians nonetheless have living memory of famine (my friend and colleague Gabriel, who is only a few years older than me remembers going hungry as a child in 1993 when failing rains resulted in starvation across the country). Furthermore, whilst you don’t hear of hunger killing people in Ghana, my experience and a brief review of googled WHO country reports suggests that malnutrition, particularly in childhood and at least in part attributable to poverty and the relative expense of fresh vegetables, continues to be a significant issue, with increasing levels of obesity and diabetes being tentatively linked to a carbohydrate and fat laden diet which is rich in calories and staves off hunger whilst offering poor levels of overall nutrition. What is more, in reference to the physical and bodily demands of the craft which requires hours of physical exertion each day (opening and closing stiff heddles with your feet and legs, throwing the shuttle and beating the weft threads with both arms, balancing upon a stool in the confined space of the loom and shifting the heavy sledges weighted down with concrete blocks which hold the warp in tension) the weavers often make reference to the ‘strength’ they derive from meals of the cassava, yam and maize based staples banku, fufu, kenkey and akple. I would often be encouraged to eat sizeable portions of these foods, with care for my wellbeing being expressed in terms of having enough to eat so that I could ‘grow big’ and my parents at home would know I was being looked after. Coupled with my own struggles to find a balanced diet (including trips to Accra to buy hard to find dairy products and fresh meat and vegetables and asking friends and family to bring and send food from home), all of this has helped me develop a keen appreciation and bodily understanding of the role eating and access to enough and the right kinds of food has on ones sense of self and security in a rural West African setting.
Primary amongst these insights which developed over my time in the field is a sense that precisely because the experience of hunger is present, in both chronic, ongoing forms and strongly as a memory of lived suffering in the recent past, food is not only highly valued but access to enough to eat is treated as a crucial form of security in its own right. With many of the men I work with having access to small plots of land on which they grow yams, cassava, maize, pineapples and palm for palm oil production, a system of what Bryceson refers to as “subsistence fallback” in Bello’s work appears to be at play. Bryceson defines this mode of production in the following terms-

“The term ‘subsistence fallback’ refers to the act of producing basic food and non-food for direct consumption and its enabling conditions of production, i.e., access to land and family labor. The existence of subsistence fallback lends partial autonomy to peasants, provides insurance against risk, and facilitates physical survival. Its value to peasants cannot be overestimated. Even when peasants’ command over land or labor is considerably diminished, recourse to their subsistence fallback can give them a negotiating strength and ‘staying power’ that is not fully evident amongst fully landless, proletarianized rural populations.” (Bryceson in Bello, p. 47)

Often on a Sunday afternoon, after church, Francis, a good friend and a weaver in his early thirties with a wife and an enchanting little boy called Etonam (meaning ‘with God’s grace’ in Ewe), would go to tend his plot of land. As the rainy season drew to a close at the end of last year, and the work of harvesting got underway, Francis spoke of the intermittent rains which had fallen in November and the impact this had had on his crop. Moving in November from Ho- where the rain seemed to fall heavily every afternoon- to Kpetoe, I had noticed that the Agotime area and the surrounding district of Adaklu Anyigbe seemed dryer, more arid. Francis bore this out, saying the premature end of the rainy season had destroyed part of his maize crop, some of which had died in the field before it could be harvested. He explained that this shortfall meant he would have to buy bags of grain at inflated prices to keep in store to feed his family over the coming months. The money for this would come from income generated by his weaving and his wife’s petty trading at the market in the village and although no one would not go hungry- Etonam is a well-fed, strong looking toddler- having to buy maize, when ordinarily he could meet part of their needs with his own crop, ate into their valuable cash-income and eroded the buffering effect his small-holding had on the impact of high and variable food prices. Later, in January, after the main harvest was over and the sky was grey with the smoke of fallow fields being burnt back in preparation for the new season, Francis went back to his farm to collect any ears of corn he might have missed before, fearing that if he left it too late a neighbouring fire might torch the last of his crop. He came back pleased with the bags he had filled and offering once again to take me to his farm come the new season.
Thinking about Francis, his family and the situation they find themselves in (which is, I think,roughly comparable with that of many of the weavers I have worked with), from an outside perspective I have often wondered how it is that they are able to pay rent, bills and feed themselves on the money which is to be made from weaving. The craft is incredibly labour intensive and although Francis is rarely without a commission, the price of materials is significant and if a customer doesn’t pay on time work can quickly grind to a halt as the flow of capital dries up. My assumption that it must be impossible to make ends meet on the income of a weaver came laden with the assumption that they must meet all their needs from that income, entering fully into the logic of a cash-driven economy. As a city dweller quite divorced from an appreciation of the land and the possible security it might offer, it didn’t occur to me for quite some time that having access to a small-holding would go some way to meeting food needs, freeing up the limited cash-income for other expenses and offering something of a buffer against inflation in the cost of basic foodstuffs. My almost complete blindness to the crucial importance of this peasant form of subsistence says a lot more about my own prejudices and orientation towards life and living than it does about Francis or my other colleagues; my positioning within a capitalist logic of consumption and ready access to cash has meant that until recently I have been incapable of conceiving how anyone could survive in another way.
A consideration of the importance of land in the life strategies of the weavers also sheds some light on another issue; many of the young men I work with express the intense desire to leave Kpetoe, to escape the limited opportunities of a rural community where the only livelihoods to be made (except if you have the good fortune to land a civil servant job in the police, a government school or at the Customs and Excise Protection Service which are stationed in the town) are in kente weaving and farming. Everyone bemoans the difficulty of life as a weaver, Francis says he wants to educate his son so he doesn’t have to weave and Gabriel often probes me about life in London- what work can be found there? What opportunities does a big city offer? However, speaking with Gabriel about why he stays in Kpetoe it becomes immediately evident that however frustrated he may feel there he also feels strongly fixed in place, attached to the town and his life there. Asking why he doesn’t move to Accra, he says that he could not practise his craft in the capital, that the work is the work of the Agotime community and he would not be part of the necessary support networks and systems of patronage if he moved away. This is all true and makes complete sense but I think that also further than this, moves to urban centres may be dreamed of and imaginatively desired but deliberately not realised because such upheavals would entail the loss of access to the land which in the absence of regular and sufficient cash incomes proves vital in meeting the surplus basic needs of many rural Ghanaians. Knowing that un- and underemployment amongst an increasingly young population is a pressing issue not just across the country but throughout the continent, I would hazard a guess that many of the young men I have worked with appreciate the limited security available in being able to feed themselves and have a sense that when money is tight their land can absorb some of the costs of keeping going. When faced with uncertainty this, at least, is something.

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a broken field.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here and an awful lot feels as if it has changed in the three months which have passed. I’ve had to go back to London and return, family and a close friend have visited Kpetoe and seen Ghana for the first time, I’ve watched my partner weaken to a malarial fever and (thankfully) recover and he’s had to do the same for me, coming to round after round of hospital appointments as I try to work out why I’m sick so much of the time. This period has ended in a hospital ward in Accra, hooked up to IV antibiotics and facing the prospect of returning home once more to get well and give some kind of shape to the tumult of the past months and the uncertainty of those to come. The too-ings and fro-ings, the backward and forward, from London, to Accra, to Ho, to Kpetoe and back again, out of necessity, for much needed breaks, to meet people and to make and keep medical appointments- all this has profoundly challenged my fundamental sense of what fieldwork and the field should and can be.

In the timetable stipulated by SOAS (and, somewhat cynically, dictated in large part by the funding bodies…) a doctoral thesis is written upon the basis of one years continuous, active research; as an anthropologist this is meant to equate to 12 months uninterrupted in the field. With quite considerable naïveté, I envisaged flying from London in September to spend an unbroken year in Kpetoe, working day after day, week after week alongside the weavers as the seasons unfolded, the cycles, patterns and practices which marked their craft becoming clear to me as I synergistically became part of life in a community of makers. Upon reflection, at the outset my approach to the whole project verged between idealism and sheer arrogance. I feared homesickness and yet was unable to take any proper account of the almost paralysing loneliness which would engulf me at times. I knew to seek medical advice before travelling, to take malaria prophylaxis and to avoid tap water but had no conception of the physical toll subsisting on a meagre diet almost entirely of starch and fat and living in sanitary conditions so many degrees divorced from the comfort into which I simply have had the good fortune to be born into would take upon a body which thus far has served me well. None of the vagaries of sickness and sadness were accounted for in the time-table I drew up last Spring and the lassitude which has threatened to overcome me in the past months was unimaginable. From where I sit now, it feels like I can only have both underestimated the challenges of living in rural West Africa and overestimated my reserves of resilience and capacity to cope. I feel I began fieldwork thoroughly underprepared and although I may be speaking to soon and from a low ebb, I doubt if I had known the extent of the difficulties I would face I would have started the project so willingly. I must however qualify all this by saying that the relationships I have with the weavers in the shed are something of a sanctuary; time with both Francis’ and Brights’, Gabriel, Kwaku, Olu, Felice, Koenya, Francis’ little boy Etonam and at the loom is a welcome escape from the feeling that my body is betraying me and my (general and continuing, if slowly lessening) social ineptitude and conspicuousness marks me out uncomfortably. Facing hospitalisation in Accra and the uncertainty of a crisis I texted Francis to apologise for my prolonged absence and to say I’d be back as soon as I could. His reply was warm, encouraging me to take my time and soothing my growing sense of guilt at having perhaps appeared to have abandoned those who had brought me here without proper explanation. So it’s not that these relationships have fragmented, but rather that the field of wellbeing and resilience through which I forged them has broken and now threatens to destabilise me and possibly my place in Kpetoe. Without my health or self-confidence the work of living in a remote Voltarian village feels too great. Without this everyday labour the tasks of research, however rewarding in their own right, cannot be accomplished.

Amy Pollard (Anthropology Matters, Vol. 11, No, 2, 2009) speaks frankly to these difficulties in a way I’ve seldom seen before and reading her article felt like reaching out and getting reassurance from someone who had been here before and survived. Considering the impact of the challenges which I have contended with and will no doubt continue to face, on my capacity to work on, engage with and reflect critically upon the project I am struck by how little of these experiences find their way into ethnographic writing. The pain and discomfort which must characterise at least some part of most researchers field experience is often silenced, excised. Glimpses might slip past an even tone of competence now and again but rarely is the unravelling (bodily, mentally or socially) of a researcher brought fully to light. Without wanting to make my own difficulties the centre of ethnographic attention and glory in self-absorbtion I can’t help but wonder what is achieved when we silence those fears and that pain which we do experience in the course of our fieldwork. To my mind it doesn’t make us any more competent as anthropologists, it just makes for disingenuous work which denies the basic fact that our discipline exists in the fields between and around subjects, in those intersubjective spaces where feelings of ill-health, loss and anger (but also equally of wellbeing, affection and closeness) can crucially shape the relationships which make meaning and knowledge possible.

For this reason I am going to frame these past months of sickness and dislocation not in terms of broken relationships or lost opportunities, but as a slightly broken or perhaps just fractured field whereby the grounds of wellbeing (in my terms robust emotional and physical health and a sense of belonging in time and space) upon which my ethnographic work is premised became unstuck. Time and some care is needed to set things back in alignment, to render these fractures stable and eventually to allow work to continue on a more solid and productive footing. I cannot continue in Kpetoe or in Ghana feeling ill and vulnerable and I must return to London to regroup. But this doesn’t mean I have to disavow the experience and excise it from my writing; this break, this fracture is as much a part of my being here as that which I have learnt of weaving. It has informed my working relationships and insights over the past couple of months and is tied inextricably to both. Aside from this, if nothing else, it has helped me see wellbeing fully as a fluid field, rather than a given object, which must be continually reworked and re-calibrated, in sometimes overwhelmingly hostile contexts, if it is to survive and function. I have struggled to keep myself well in Kpetoe and this serves to deepen my respect for and sharpen my attention towards my weaving colleagues who manage (and sometimes thrive) in conditions which are truly challenging. I want to know how they do it and in time I hope I will.

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the precariat?

Embarking on my Ph.D. project this time last year the notion of precarity- primarily defined in my terms as those labour and social relations borne of neoliberal, globalised political economies which strip workers, citizens, subjects of their sense of a secure or predictable existence- loomed large and vivid in my imagination. I projected into the future, seeing the weavers I would be working with as living precarious lives, hand-to-mouth existences in which survival was almost entirely dependent either upon ones capacity to work, or should you be unable to support yourself directly (as a child or an elderly or disabled person), your ability to develop and draw on strong social networks of mutual support. My thinking on the issue was largely concerned with how people cope in the absence of government instituted social security nets and I spent long hours pondering how skilled craftspeople who are rendered unable to work due to ageing, illness or disability secure their wellbeing and that of their families. I was (and still am to an important extent) concerned with the strategies which craftspeople devise and employ in order to not only survive but anchor themselves when they are living under conditions of considerable economic vulnerability. In the field these themes have undoubtedly retained their crucial importance in the way which I frame my work and no account of the weavers with whom I work can capture the richness of their lives without taking into account the creativity and sheer hard graft which they put into the fundamental work of keeping life going. Keeping this in mind, however, a bit of distance from my own situation and life in London has forced me to begin a critical evaluation of what exactly I meant when I thought of precarity and who may fall into this possible precariat. Reflecting upon the issue from my position in the field, I feel as if my preoccupation with a precariat in my anthropological work was considerably influenced by the degree to which I felt precarity defined my own position as a young person in Cameron’s post-crisis Britain.

In the summer after I finished my undergraduate degree I worked in a frozen yoghurt shop in Covent Garden for £6 an hour; after tax I was taking home £4.80. I had a zero hours contract and every week I waited for my supervisor to post the rota so as to know whether I would get enough work. A thirty five hour week (always worked over a weekend and rotad in such a way as to make it very difficult to either get a second job or have any kind of life) brought in less than £170 and even with money left over from my student loan, a university hardship grant and my parents help paying the rent living in London became incredibly expensive and hard work. At the time I didn’t know what I was going to “do” after university; I had applied for Masters and Ph.D. courses but, without the means to pay the fees or support myself through postgraduate study, I was waiting to hear if I had been awarded funding and feeling pretty certain that I wouldn’t get any. I had seen friends who had graduated the year before struggle desperately to find work and the graduates of 2011 were cheerfully informed they were entering the job market at the worst possible moment in history and that they should revise their expectations accordingly. My despair at the general situation was compounded when before (luckily!!) landing the job in the frozen yoghurt shop I had struggled through the application process for Job Seekers Allowance and multiple interviews at the Job Centre to be told that not only was I not eligible for the paltry £50.95 benefit but that (more shockingly) I would not be helped in finding work because I was not a claimant. Having spent three years and racked up almost thirty thousand pounds in debt on my education I felt completely uncertain about my future and a kind of hopelessness began to set in; I imagined a future in which I would be forced to move back to my parents home and rely indefinitely upon their support whilst I scraped by on the minimum wage.

My situation was in no way exceptional and I make no claims to having experienced any real hardship; indeed I was exceptionally lucky to be given the opportunity to go back to university at the end of that summer. However, in retrospect, I can see that the experience, alongside the overriding sense that so many many people of my generation are finding themselves seemingly perpetually trapped in similarly uncertain and frustrating situations, had quite a profound impact upon the way I consider the relationship between work, skills and opportunity in contemporary Britain. Over the past year, as the Government has continued to pursue an ideologically driven policy of devastating public sector funding cuts, which even the IMF have had to admit is damaging the UK economy and which will ultimately leave the country spending proportionally less on public services than the United States (see Aditya Chakrabortty’s insightful analysis here- ), it has become impossible to ignore the way in which the vulnerable who had been sheltered from at least some of the worst excesses of poverty by our social security systems and national health service, however threadbare and dysfunctional, are being pushed into positions of extreme and systemically induced precarity. The piecemeal privatisation of health services, the continued and aggressive implementation of workfare programmes by incentivised private companies such as A4e, the cutting of funding for domestic violence and rape crisis services…the list could go on and on; all measures which push those in the most precarious positions that little bit closer to the edge of a livable and dignified existence. Done in the context of widespread and sustained tax avoidance, both corporate and private, this government’s policies of austerity take on the appearance of a concerted attack on the living standards of the poorest members of society.

None of this is any news to anybody and my purpose here is not really to highlight the already flagrant abuse of power being perpetrated by Cameron, Osborne and their cronies, however repulsive and shocking I find their obvious and unbridled disdain for the working classes. Rather, reflecting upon what I see going on at home in the context of life in Kpetoe has forced me to radically reconfigure my definition of precarity and precarious life. Writing upon the places and spaces of precarity in the context of human geography Waite makes the important point that although precarity is a term, if not reserved for, then most often associated with the working poor of the most developed nations, in countries of the global south the condition of precarity has become so routinised and widespread as to constitute an unremarked upon and little considered norm (Waite, 2009, p. 419). In this sense, what we are coming to terms with as we move further and further from the Keynesian post-war social contract towards a Brave New Globalised World are a set of conditions which the poor throughout Africa, South and Central America, Asia have always had to contend with. In this sense we could reasonably say that precarity is nothing new, with its emergence of a precariat in Europe and North America marking only another stage in the development of neoliberal, globalised economies. What is remarkable, however, is that having long lived under a system which institutes not only their poverty but also their heightened vulnerability to the vagaries of changing markets, politics and (perhaps more pressingly should they farm) the weather, the weavers I work with have developed strategies, complex ways of working and being, which go some way to shielding them from the very worst sufferings associated with precarious life. They work long and hard, putting in up to ten hours a day at their looms and then more time tending their farms, selling at market and driving cabs, all the while keeping on top of the often arduous routine and mundane work of simply living. Their families rely upon them, there is no government instituted safety net and, with drought and famine within recent living memory, the premium placed upon feeding and caring for your family is extraordinarily high. In this way it would seem to me that patterns of work, diversification of labour activities and strong and complex networks of mutual assistance and support are developed which, to some extent at least, take the sharpest edges off of a precarious existence. I suppose an important part of my work here is to look closely at how these strategies work and to consider if they do in fact go any significant way to safeguarding the weavers’ wellbeing in a precarious environment, or if their vulnerability is just shifted elsewhere, postponed or whatever. What I find fascinating, however, is that out of conditions which I had preconceived of as being extremely precarious and vulnerable, the people I work with seem to create value and wellbeing, building their working and social lives in ways which not only merely satisfy their basic material needs, but make time for laughter and talk and generosity. There is a wealth in the way in which they work and live which I have never found at home and which has forced me to reconsider what precarity might actually be and whether the term is applicable here. I don’t really know where I stand on this issue yet and I am not trying to say that life for the weavers is somehow easier than it was for me last summer. What I do think is that the fear, anxiety and uncertainty which I feel characterise the experience of the young and precarious in the UK does not translate closely to the experience of the weavers here; their life feels much more secure, even if in its material conditions it’s poorer.

-Thank you to Jamie for reminding me of these issues and sending me such interesting stuff!

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making the move

I’ve decided the moment has come to make the move from Ho to Kpetoe. When I first arrived here, the gap between the life I’ve always known in London and what I could expect in the village felt enormous in almost every way. Going from being surrounded by people I know intimately to a place where I am not only a complete stranger, but a really conspicuous one at that, was the most frightening prospect. Coupled with the fact that I am the child of a city which offers anonymity and a kind of hedonistic pleasure side by side- so much of what I love in being at home comes from exploring places to eat, drink, dance, shop, fulfilling my desire to consume- going to live in a tiny village where most people don’t have plumbing never mind the capacity to indulge in that species of conspicuous consumption seemed alien and like a massive sacrifice. At the same time, my image of an anthropologist was premised upon a life lived with informants, sharing the stuff of daily life, both good and bad. To stay in Ho, a city which if hardly metropolitan offers far more amenities than anywhere else in the region, felt like a cop-out and left me with quite a bit of guilt. Speaking with my supervisor at the start of September about my dilemma and how hard it felt for me to move to Kpetoe, he reassured me that it was early days and that I could work in the village and live in town. He emphasised that doing what I felt comfortable with was the most important thing but that if I gave myself time, greater comfort and security may come to be found in the company of my colleagues and their families. At this point, I may feel able to forego the small conveniences of city life- a more regular electrical supply, running water, more shops and a bigger market and a couple and restaurants and bars to go to in the evening- for the companionship of living alongside the weavers. I replied saying that this moment probably would come, but writing those words I felt as if I would never really be ready for the move.

 

I am now. Over the past weeks, the time I spend in the weaving shed has gone from feeling like a necessary, if not always enjoyable, day job to something which offers me fulfilment and friendship. There have been no defining moments in the evolution of my engagement with the weavers and their work, but the process of going every day, gradually meeting their children and families, feeling myself progressing in the learning of the craft and generally growing comfortable in their company and them in mine, left me questioning how important it really was for me to stay in Ho. Last Monday I asked Francis about the availability of accommodation near the shed; he mentioned the house which the Peace Corps volunteers had lived in over the road and advised me to phone Prosper, a weaver I had met when I first arrived who is away studying at the Polytechnic in Ho, to help me organise a meeting with the chief Togbe Nene to get permission to move in. I called Prosper and arranged to meet him the next morning in Kpetoe. On the Tuesday I anxiously worked at my loom whilst Prosper and Gabriel organised the meeting, enrolling the help of Joshua, the weaving centre’s chairman, and collecting two bottles of Castle Bridge Gin to take as offerings to Nene. In the early afternoon we all set off down the road, the sun blazing, to meet the chief. Bright and Francis reassured me as I left, telling me there was nothing to worry about and that with God’s will we would be successful at the palace. I was not so sure. Arriving outside the chief’s courtyard, the men went in ahead of me, heads bowed deferentially, as I followed hesitantly behind. Nene was sat sifting through piles of paper; he didn’t look up and a man at his side motioned for me to sit down. Prosper, Gabriel, Joshua and Eric, who had also come along, went to fetch plastic chairs which they arranged to the right of Nene. Before sitting down they bowed down before him and then sat around , eyes downcast, whilst Joshua briefly explained the purpose of our visit in Ewe and the chief responded at length, all the while sorting through his papers which blew about the courtyard as Prosper and Gabriel jumped up to fetch rocks to weigh them down. Eventually he turned to me and asked me what I wanted from him; I said that I felt the time had come to move closer to my work and I would like to find out about accommodation in the village. What followed was a long monologue about his role as the custodian of Ewe kente, the importance of verifying my findings at the shed with him so as to ensure only a ‘true’ account of the craft was shared with the world and his duty to ensure that nothing of the village’s cultural heritage is ‘taken’ away, be that important cloth or prized knowledge. Nene had hosted Malika Kraemer, a researcher from SOAS who had completed her thesis in the art history department on Ewe kente some years ago; he asked me to pass on her contact details (which I don’t have…) so that he could make corrections to her work. He told me not to listen to everything I might hear in the shed, for many there he said had not received proper instruction, but had just learnt from their families in the village and thus were not qualified to speak of Ewe kente. I sat and listened and made the right sounds whilst feeling increasingly uncomfortable and uncertain about the direction the conversation was going in. Whilst I accept that I am not the expert, merely an apprentice in both weaving and life here, the notion that everything I write would have to be checked and approved by someone else felt like an unwelcome intrusion which could very well compromise my sense of integrity. What is more, I feel that if my writing is indebted to anyone, it is to those men in the shed who have so generously and patiently shared of their time and expertise, offering help and friendship more freely than I could ever have hoped. To be told that among them there are those who have no right to speak of the craft and that I should ignore what they say and how they work felt like being asked in some way to betray them, a request which I am simply unable to follow. As the meeting drew to a close and we left quietly, having said our thankyous and shook the chief’s hand, I left feeling unsettled and less than sure about where me and my work stood in relation to Nene and his vision of Kpetoe and its weavers.

 

Outside the palace I turned to Prosper and asked him how he though the meeting had gone, half expecting this quite serious young man to reply gravely that he was really not sure if I would be able to move to the village. Instead, a broad smile beamed back and he proclaimed we had been successful in our mission. I explained that, being completely unfamiliar with the form and protocol of such meetings, I had found it really very difficult to read Nene and discern whether he was receptive to my work and request for accommodation. Prosper replied that of course I would be provided the house which had been used by the Peace Corps volunteers and that the meeting had been a complete success. It is at moments like this, when I am so unsure that I am completely unable to read the basic social cues which seem self-evident to my interlocutors, when I am reminded how little I really understand, how much of a foreigner I am and how far I really have travelled from my own comfortable and comprehensible world. It can feel quite frightening and undoubtedly forces me to rely on my friends and colleagues as guides to this other place, but I suppose that in this reliance and my acceptance that I can’t do this alone, I am building the bonds which make life here liveable and meaningful. Indeed, I can’t imagine making this move without the support of Gabriel, Francis and all the others in the shed. I need them and I want to be in Kpetoe so as to share in their lives more fully.

 

The rest of the week passed uneventfully and this Monday, having not heard anything more from Nene about the house or possible dates for moving in, I called Prosper. He advised me to ask Gabriel if Nene was around, and if possible, to go back to see him. Gabriel made enquiries and on Tuesday we walked backed to the chief’s compound. Receiving us in his living room, with the TV blaring some Pentecostalist convention being filmed in Nigeria, Nene was warmer than he’d been the week before. He’d travelled to Takoradi in the week to see his sons new born baby daughter and he spoke about the child and her parents with warmth and happiness. I asked about the house and he said if I were to see it and was happy to buy the necessary furnishings (a mattress, fridge, cooker and chairs) I could move in whenever was most convenient. When I asked how much he would need in rent, he laughed and turned to one of his men and repeated my question with obvious amusement. No rent would be necessary, the house was for visitors, for volunteers; the Peace Corps would not be sending another volunteer for some time, so I was free to use the house as I needed. With this, Gabriel and I, with another of the weaving committee’s chairmen headed off to look at the place. It is small and basic, but with running water and electricity, it will make a comfortable home. All I need to do now is to negotiate the tricky business of not only buying what I need for the house (which in itself feels unreasonably grown up- I have never had to or even thought of buying a fridge before…), but transporting it all from Ho to Kpetoe. This may prove to be the trickiest part of the entire move…

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the pains (and pleasures) of weaving

Having finished my first cloth, a woman’s one in pink, blue and purple rayon, the past two weeks have been occupied with buying and preparing the cotton yarn for a new piece. A greater challenge due to the softness of the material and its tendency to tear during weaving, this cotton piece is the next step in my apprenticeship. The process of picking colours, washing, starching and dying the cotton, spinning it onto large and small bobbins and laying out the warp threads, before painstakingly fixing them in the heddles and through the beater is a time consuming one, especially for a beginner reliant on the help and guidance of my colleagues. At each stage I invariably come across a step which I can’t complete alone and I have to rely upon Gabriel, Francis or one of the others to come to my rescue. They are all incredibly generous with their time and very patient in the face of my ineptitude, always keeping an eye out to see if I’m struggling, giving me the time and space to try and find a solution of my own before skilfully intervening at the point when I am feeling frustrated and close to defeat. Throughout, however, hours and days can pass without much tangible development in the actual work of weaving; a step like starching requires a full free couple of hours with dedicated help, a charcoal hearth and good weather. Considering the ways in which these men balance the labour intensive work of weaving with their obligations to family farms and trading, alongside the routine and often tiring work of keeping life ticking over (I find keeping myself clean and fed here an almost full time occupation…), finding a spare moment to help me can take a while. I have found that between times, waiting for someone to finish their work so they can show me the next stage, have become fairly productive moments both in terms of the learning process, allowing me space in which to consider and reflect upon what I’m doing, and the opportunity these gaps offer to ask questions and engage in conversation.

In his research with Glaswegian stone masons, Tom Yarrow questioned the paradigmatic approach to apprenticeship and skilled yearning with its focus upon engagement as the crucial model of craft-learning by suggesting that engagement can only exist in a dialectic relation with disengagement. Yarrow highlighted the tea and cigarette breaks, the tangential chatter of the workshop and time away from the task immediately at hand as key moments which, whilst punctuating engaged practice, facilitate the periods of concentration in which the tangible and “real” progress cutting stone is made. I would agree completely with this analysis; in the gaps between “doing”, very important work is done. The cognitive and bodily processing of new movements, ideas, ways of working plays out during moments of disengagement and the vital work of building and renegotiating relationships happens in the between. Greetings, chats about the weekend, asking after the health of friends, children and colleagues, inviting each other to share food and the almost continual volley of jokes and laughter all make up the very fabric of life in the shed and happen in the moments between “work”. In this way, the workshop seems an intensely social space, which is as much concerned with reiterating and reworking the shifting relationships of the men, women and children who work there, pass through there and are variously bound to the place, as it is with producing cloth. In developing the capacity to sit and talk, move about, eat and drink in the space without feeling a pressure to be “doing” anything obviously productive, at first I felt as if I was probably wasting time. Gradually, I’m beginning to appreciate these moments as an integral part of the rhythm of life here, as important, if not more, than the times when I am busy making.

Whatever appreciation I am developing for the sociality of between-moments, the increasing back, neck and shoulder pain which comes with working the more demanding cotton yarn is not a welcome development. When I had not long started in September, Francis asked me if my back was paining me. I assured him that I was fine; the work was not too hard and I was strong enough to throw the shuttle and use the beater. Now that I’m working with cotton, the effort involved in opening and closing the heddles and beating the fabric is noticeably greater and within an hour of starting work yesterday my back was sore and I could feel a headache tightening its grip round my temples. I left early, retreating home to bed with Francis advising me to work slowly for now and take “medicine” for the pain which he (and everyone else) is well familiar with. More energy and stamina is needed to work the cotton and Bright and Francis from the other side of the shed jokingly told me that my lunches  of yam, spaghetti and tomato stew were not “strong” enough and that I would need to start eating banku, fufu and akple if I wanted to complete my work. Jokes and culinary advice aside, the pain associated with the craft is quite considerable and a feature of the work which each weaver must accustom their body to. Soumhya Venkatesan’s work with women weavers in India highlights the ways in which bodily discomfort and the strange shapes and movements ones body must make in the process of crafting a cloth become an integral part of the weaver’s habitus, to the extent that using ergonomic equipment which alleviates the pain is felt as “wrong” and rejected. I am very interested in exploring this dimension of craft practice and examining the ways in which pain and the bodily sensations of strength, weakness and movement are incorporated into the weavers experience and conception of the work. In the meantime, I will just have to see how training my own “soft” body to withstand the pain goes…

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unpacking development…?

There was an editorial in the Daily Graphic on Monday extolling the virtues of apprenticeship in the drive for national ‘development’; with my project part funded by the London International Development Centre, a multidisciplinary foundation which draws on the expertise and supports the research of the Bloomsbury Colleges, the piece pushed me to think critically about my own position on development and consider where (or perhaps more pressingly, whether) my own work fits into some kind of development discourse.

I have to admit upfront that I have an instinctive wariness about the notion of development. I find the implications of the word itself distasteful and I have an extreme tendency to view state funded development initiatives (D.F.I.D., USAID, GIZ, AFD…) with cynicism, seeing their work as overwhelmingly guided by domestic political imperatives rather than attention to need on the ground. When it comes to NGOs and development projects my sense is that not only is there very little accountability and a tendency towards short-termism, but that all too often the projects which find funding are predominantly those which can be sold to donors on a kind of feel-good basis (sponsor a child to go to school, buy a family a goat for Christmas…that sort of thing…) Things which are less appealing, less cuddly and which require sustained and profound support (like major infrastructural investments- roads, sewage and power systems- and the development of robust and effective health and education systems) seem to get left by the way-side. From a broader perspective, my feeling is that the popular image of Africa projected by development discourses is both overwhelmingly negative and inaccurate, as if everyone exists in a kind of homogenous and pervasive poverty and suffering, with no account taken of the complex and nuanced life worlds which make life livable (or not as the case may be…) On top of this, I have no training in development- what I know comes through the lens of anthropology and my limited personal experience. I’m not sure if all of this means I’m the least qualified person to speak or a good person to cast a critical eye over the ways in which the ideas, practices and rhetoric of development relate to the lives and work of the weavers. What I do know is that, having not given the issue much thought in planning the project and preparing for fieldwork, it’s become something that I can’t ignore.

 

Not only am I routinely perceived as the agent of some kind of development project, but the rhetoric of development permeates the very practice of day-to-day living. The ways in which politics and religion are perceived and spoken of are entwined with the pursuit of ‘development’ (be it economic, social, spiritual or whatever) and with the upcoming election, I have the sense that this way of speaking and thinking is reaching a fever pitch, with candidates and parties setting out their development policies and achievements and being judged on their actual or probable success. Disillusionment with politicians is often voiced in terms of their failure to bring real and tangible development to a specific community, with a degree of apathy among the weavers resulting from their sense that the government has failed to deliver progress in Kpetoe. Indeed, many live without electricity (all along the road from Ho to Kpetoe are combative hand painted signs declaring “NO LIGHT NO VOTE”…) or access to running water and adequate sanitation, with the recent deadly cholera epidemics throughout Ghana and the rest of West Africa only serving to highlight the ways in which the basic material needs of many people are not being fully met. In these terms, the weavers implicit understandings of development encompass the provision of infrastructure and an attendant improvement in their standard of living.

 

However, the notion of development and progress is not solely based on material facts; it also takes a considerable part of its value from the ways in which it is bound up with a moral economy whereby good and evil are measured according to the attainment of development. In this way politicians who fail to deliver are quite naturally seen as morally bankrupt. However, this moral dimension takes on a more insidious and at first, surprising, edge when Ghanaians themselves explain the failure of development, and the way in which so many continue to live without basic amenities, as resulting from their own “laziness and greed”. Hearing this kind of self-blame from a civil servant, I was completely shocked and argued that how could that be true when there were much broader structural inequalities at work which prevented provision of running water and electricity for all. His response was that if it had been managed in Europe, North America, Japan, elsewhere wherever, then why not here, with the reason being that there must be some kind of intrinsic failure on the part of Ghanaians themselves. On reflection, this conversation was really telling in the ways which it sought to explain the failure of development in terms of good and evil, and in doing so illuminated for me a connection which is often obscured between the perception of moral values and their basis in material. Hearing someone tell me that the reason why Ghanaians continue to live without water and electricity is because many are too lazy and greedy, as if massive infrastructural failings could be pinned on the flaws in individual peoples personalities, brought home to me the profound basis a lot of developmental discourse here has in both neo-liberal doctrines of personal responsibility and Pentecostalist visions of good and evil, sinners and those who repent. In this sense, talk of ‘development’ is a kind of condensed short-hand for a complex knot of political, religious and economic ideas.

 

Really however, whatever the anthropological value of unpicking the ideological uses of the term “development” in a Ghanaian context or an Ewe context or whatever, my visceral and human response to hearing such self-flagellation- to Ghanaians blaming each other for poverty- is one of deep sadness and anger. How did we reach the point where the poor solely blame themselves for their suffering?

 

 

 

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