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Prose and Economic Development in an African Village

Paul Clough spent many years studying the economic situation of the Marmara village, in Hausaland, northern Nigeria. His work there began in 1977-1979, then was followed by stints in 1985, 1996, and 1998. In Morality and Economic Growth in Rural West Africa: Indigenous Accumulation in Hausaland, his book based on that fieldwork, the author explores the economic growth and accumulation of this non-capitalistic, polygynous society through boom and bust periods. Following is the author’s reflection on his book, fieldwork, and forged relationships.

 

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What drew you to the field of African studies? Specifically, what drew you to Hausaland in Nigeria?

 

 

All of this happened by accident when I was very young. I wanted to be a volunteer, to work in the field of development. Since the Peace Corps in early 1970 would not send me to Latin America (perhaps because I had no Spanish), I managed through other channels to find a teaching post in northern Nigeria. I arrived at Kano Airport in late 1970, when I was only twenty-two, knowing next to nothing about Africa or Hausaland.

 

But I fell in love immediately.

 

I landed with something — with what I can only call the ‘undertow of emotion and playfulness and friendly feeling’ — that for me is the essence of Africans. It has never left me. It makes me think now, that in some strange way, part of the book, a thread, was pre-written! During the course of six years teaching social science to Nigerians who were hardly younger than myself, I moved into an increasingly Marxist view of the obstacles to economic development. Toward the end of that period, my first reason for going into a Hausa village was to find a research topic that would enable me to make a contribution to a Marxist theory of economic underdevelopment.

 

My second reason for beginning research in a Hausa village was very personal. For six years I had been living in and among urban Nigerians and I wanted to actually live in one of the thousands of villages I saw spread out beyond the road I took every morning from my earthen compound in a Hausa city to the university outside the city. It was just that: I felt I would never know Africa until I had lived in a village.

 

 

What was a significant difference between your earlier and later periods of fieldwork?

 

Two things. First, the longer I lived in my village, the more complex I found the reality of Hausa country people. Secondly, I like to say that the period of writing up – far away from Africa – was for me a part of fieldwork. It was only then that I engaged in what I call ‘the effort to recall to mind’. That process of remembering was vital in sorting out what was more from less significant in my fieldwork. And in the process, I found myself increasingly unhappy with conventional Marxist accounts of underdevelopment in Africa.

 

 

What aspect of writing this work did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?

 

The longer I immersed myself in my field notes, the more I departed from my original desire to find a process of exploitation going on in the village, and the more I was drawn to work out for myself ‘fundamental principles of Hausa rural economy’. This was madly ambitious. But I felt increasingly that my Hausa villagers somehow made their economic reality, they were not passive victims of some heavily structured global determination.

 

Most rewarding was grappling with all of the numbers that I had collected in two years of fieldwork – numbers which related to a only about a hundred families living in my village, and to three grain traders in a chain moving upward and outward from the village to distant regions of Hausaland. For me it was terribly difficult (I am not naturally good with numbers, to say the least). But at those moments when I was able to ‘discover’ for myself for the first time the many inter-connections between time and work and money prices and money incomes, I experienced a terrific sense of confirmation of the patterns that I had intuitively felt existed. And a huge sense of the underlying rationality of Hausa rural economic arrangements.

 

 

Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?

 

I hope so. I hope that many scholars will find controversial my overall theory, that Hausa villagers are very money-minded and part of old and highly ramified markets without their metamorphosing into a capitalist economic system. Rather, they constitute a complex and hybrid reality of their own that is guided by the morality and desirability of polygynous marriage.

 

 

If you weren’t an anthropologist, what would you have done instead?

 

I would like to say a composer or a poet. But in the absence of that sort of creativity, something more humdrum, more academic – an historian. I work with a strong sense that cultural patterns have very old elements in them. And the story-like quality of some historical writing is much like ethnography – as Evans-Pritchard pointed out decades ago.

 

 

What is one facet of Nigerian life that is a significant area of study today?

 

Everyone is appalled by the waves of violence sweeping the north of the country and the sense of breakdown in its state institutions. But my own work points to a different reality: at the level of the village, across whole regions, Nigerian people continue to build a firmer, more enduring reality based on old principles of trade and agriculture. I hope and believe that this reality – those sets of rural economic relationships – point to a very interesting future which is, I like to say, neither capitalist nor statist as we understand capitalism or state control in the West.

 

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Paul Clough is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Malta. His D.Phil. from Oxford University was runner-up for the Audrey Richards Prize in 1996, awarded by the International African Institute every two years for the best thesis in any branch of African studies.