Davidson, Joanna. (2016). Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment, and Development in West Africa. Oxford University Press. (249 pp.)
Reviewed by Mark Dailey
Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT
In Sacred Rice: An Ethnography of Identity, Environment, and Development in West Africa, anthropologist Joanna Davidson presents a nuanced and in many ways classically holistic ethnography of rice production and the way this key crop ripples meaningfully through all aspects of West African Jola society. Rice is much more than a major food crop for the Jola of Guinea-Bissau: it is also the key idiom and central metaphor through which they express and negotiate household, community, gender, ritual, religious, political and economic relationships. This reality, which Davidson compellingly explores in thematically focused chapters, is all the more compelling given its contemporary unraveling due to climate change. Rice is central to Jola agriculture and identity, yet declining rainfall in the region is increasingly rendering adequate rice production impossible. Davidson’s book therefore revolves around two key questions: How does the centrality of rice production mediate social reality among the Jola; and in Davidson’s words, “what happens when this changes? How does something so totalizing unravel and disentangle itself from spheres of social, cosmological, moral, economic, political, and familial life?” (8) She draws equally on theoretical literature and on details of villagers’ lives to address these questions, and in so doing presents a rich ethnographic portrait of agricultural and social transition.
The book’s initial chapters frame these questions in some detail, convincingly emphasizing both the “sacralization” of rice and its material centrality. Chapter One provides a useful and interesting overview of the history of rice, drawing attention to the underappreciated endemic diversity present in West African varieties. The following chapters serially explore the role of rice in mediating dimensions of social life: we learn how rice production is gendered, how rice becomes a ritual ingredient of cosmological significance at spirit shrines, how its productive requirements filter through family and community relationships, and how the very bases of knowledge and morality cannot be construed without rice. Her treatment of rice’s mediating centrality of all things social is anthropologically familiar, recalling, for instance, Herskovitz’s “East African cattle complex” and Evans-Pritchard’s study of witchcraft among the Azande. Unlike these foundational studies, though, her portrait captures motion and transformation: by drawing upon fieldwork in 2001-2002 and a return visit in 2010, she shows us Jola lives in transition, struggling with outmigration, changing family norms, and even the key moral values that tell them “who they are.” We richly sense what is happening and become acquainted with significant trends, but like Davidson and the Jola themselves, we cannot see with certainty what the future will bring. (Although she acknowledges global trends of deruralization and agricultural modernization, a richer comparative basis would have been welcome.)
As an anthropologist, Davidson does several things very well, eschewing convenient tropes and easy essentialisms at every turn. Her constructivist caveats about African environmental studies, gender, the basis of knowledge, and the concept of “sacred,” for instance, subtly but critically remind us to avoid thinking through easily derived categories. The wealth of community-level data makes this possible, and pleasurable: she weaves together the lives of key informants with her own experiences in compelling ways. Her authorial presence is ample enough to humanize and ground her ethnography in rich and instructive stories, but they do not overtake the wealth of empirical data and theoretical contextualization that provide the book’s broadest foundation. We meet and hear the stories of real Jola individuals, and watch as their lives are clearly contextualized within macro-level data on climate, economics, demography, and national politics. The perceived value of “hard work” begins to unravel in the face of diminishing agricultural returns; families slowly turn to institutional educational opportunities versus subsistence production-oriented lives; and parental authority negotiates the new realities of unwed daughters returning pregnant from city schools.
One shortcoming of the book is more likely due to an editorial miscasting than to any deficiency by the author. The book is part of Oxford University Press’s “Issues of Globalization: Case Studies in Contemporary Anthropology” series, but there is precious little globalization here—and in fact, there needn’t be. As anthropologist Ted Lewellen has pointed out, globalization too often becomes a totalizing perspective, the default analytical frame of reference, when the phenomena we seek to explain are often best addressed by local, regional, and national levels of analysis—with globalization simply offering another level of context. And so it is with Davidson’s exploration of Jola lives. Given the theoretical contexts the author offers throughout the book (Chapter Four on the role of secrecy among the Jola, and between Jola and outsiders, is as fascinating as it is theoretically rich!), the paucity of scholarly attention to globalization studies is noticeable. Her book feels shoe-horned into Oxford’s series on globalization studies.
Nonetheless, Joanna Davidson’s scholarly presentation of the interesting, holistic, and changing world of Guinea-Bissau’s rice-farming Jola is impressive ethnographic work, and useful for environmental anthropologists, development experts, agricultural and social policy makers, agricultural and food historians, and both undergraduate and graduate audiences. For anyone interested in the multiple and inextricable ways that social lives and material production are mutually embedded, in fact, this book provides clear evidence, good story-telling, and a case-study that continues to unfold.