Volume 8, Issue 1
Fall 2004

The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone. Mariane Ferme. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 287 pp.

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The title of this work is attractive because it draws attention to a state where civil violence is generally perceived as endemic. Sierra Leone was introduced to the American public through coverage of the civil conflict that took place there in the early 1990s. The images of conflict stirred the imagination of not only the public but academics as well. In light of this, understanding of the root causes of civil-ethnic conflict became a very pertinent area of study. This work, judging by the title, appeared to be a relevant contribution to the understanding of civil-ethnic conflict. However, what the author presents is a ubiquitous theory that encompasses a variety of Mende cultural practices. Within this theory, the explication of civil-ethnic violence is a corollary explanation in line with the various other Mende practices captioned by the individual chapters. Indeed, the explanation of violence does not even receive a separate chapter. The reader must rely on an inferential and, hence, incomplete understanding of civil-ethnic violence in Sierra Leone.

The need to draw inferences almost certainly stems from the author's assumption about readers' knowledge of Sierra Leonean history. In this sense, readers must understand that the focus of the book is on the Mende ethnic group. Knowledgeable readers will be aware of the differences between rural and urban Sierra Leone and the historical development of this difference. Readers' understanding would benefit significantly through the inclusion of maps or a chapter that provides a historical background.

However, a careful reading of the work will allow the reader to grasp the underlying theoretical explanation of which violence is one corollary. The theory is that violence in this part of Sierra Leone stems from two sources. Source one is path-dependence or an accumulation of historical violence that leads to the development of what might be termed “a low trust” or “cautious” society. It is very important to clarify an assumption that often causes confusion here. The necessity of interdependence is assumed to preclude the utility of violent behavior.

The author refutes this assumption by noting that interdependence and civil conflict occur together in Mende society. One source of civil-conflict is found to lie in the Mende's animistic belief system. In the animistic belief system of the Mende , spirits of well-being and evil are acknowledged to play a role in the mundane happenings of life. One goal of the anthropologist is to illustrate the veracity of cultural practices as perceived through the subject culture. Thus, a sudden reversion to violence, even within the context of interdependence, is understandable in light of the animistic Mende belief system. However, the role of the animistic belief system is supplanted by a hermeneutic explanation involving Mende interpretation of modernity. In this sense, the Mende interpretation is not a belief system but a discourse in modernity. The author uses the example of diamonds in the Western context. Diamonds have no intrinsic value; instead, their value has been infused by promotion in the Western world.

The means of survival within the context of violence is ambiguity. Thus, in sharp contrast to Western ideals, ambiguity is considered the proper, if necessary, mode of discourse. “Great value is attached to verbal artistry that couches meanings in puns, riddles, and cautionary tales and to unusual powers of understanding that enable people to both produce and unmask highly ambiguous meanings" (p. 7). One point that is well illustrated by the author is the depth of ambiguity in the Mende culture. This depth allows ambiguity to take a variety of functions of which the limitation of political power through uncertainty figures prominently. The utility of ambiguity is important in understanding the potentiality of democratization in such societies. In the absence of widespread norms of trust and transparency, ambiguity becomes a necessary means of discourse.

However, the author excels in presenting a vivid description of Mende cultural practices despite the paucity of explanation on the role of violence. Indeed, it seems as noted earlier, that violence is only one corollary aspect within the larger theory of ambiguity. Each chapter in the work provides a vivid illustration of a particular facet of Mende life. The first chapter, “Immaterial Practices” is best tied to the explanation of civil conflict. For example, the author makes the implicit argument that the effects of the recent civil conflict are superficial; they are what we view at the surface. In the history of Sierra Leone, other shifts have occurred. For example, Migdal (1988) has argued that the colonial structure imposed by the British at the end of the 19 th century is a principal determinant of the weakened Sierra Leonean state. The British actually strengthened the role of tribal chiefs in the countryside, which weakened the social control element of the modern Sierra Leonean state. The following chapters are steeped in ethnographic analysis and present a vivid picture of the Mende .

One important contribution that the author makes in the chapters covering the cultural practices of the Mende is transitive nature of gender. Again the author refutes assumptions about the permanence of certain relations. The author states, “Thus all meanings, including gendered ones, cannot be fixed but depend on the political and historical circumstances in which they are activated” (p. 18). The best example of this is the relationship of slavery to spousal role. The author argues that slavery has shaped the institution of marriage within the context of dependency. The implementation of structural adjustment programs, like slavery, also contributes to the continuation of dependency within marriage. The role of dependence is implied to be a ubiquitous element in Mende life. The author noted that in Mende ways, everybody is considered dependent within a hierarchal scheme or that “everybody is under someone's patronage or ‘for somebody" (p. 84).

Chapter 4, “The House of Impermanence and the Politics of Mobility,” examines household patterns particular to the Mende such as the ‘Big House.' Chapter 5 reveals again the connection to both dependence and uncertainty in the author's account of ‘big people' ( kpako ). Interspersed between the chapters are rich ethnographic descriptions of Mende life involving the weaving of cloth and hair platting, kola nuts, and clay and palm oil. All of these aspects on the surface appear mundane but the author interprets the meanings that these practices hold for the Mende .

Overall, this work is a contribution to the understanding of Mende cultural practices. However, the title is serendipitous in that it leads the reader into believing that this is a work about the origins of ethnic conflict in Sierra Leone. Instead, what readers find is a theory about the role of the ambiguity in a society characterized by a history of conflict. If one follows this, then one must rely on inference in order to connect the theory with other practices noted in the chapters that follow the introduction. What the author does well is to break ranks with male-oriented ethnographic analysis by providing a focus on the female gender. In this manner, the accounts of females become integral to the work and are interwoven throughout the various chapters. A future edition might benefit from the addition of an introductory chapter outlining Sierra Leonean history as well as maps. This is particularly important to those readers who may not have a substantive background in West Africa.

J. David Granger
Georgetown University