Encountering anthropology

06 Oct 2017

There’s a lot to be said for taking it easy beneath the palm trees

My first assignment in Africa, many decades ago, turned into a three-year course in social anthropology, writes Menakhem Ben-Yami. My teachers and examiners were the local people (fishermen, government officers, merchants, fish processors, and some others), and I had to pass many, almost daily exams. I went there as a fishing technologist and master fisherman with terms of reference of introducing improved technology, training fishery apprentices, skippering a government boat, etc.

"You think that you’re going to Africa to catch fish, but don’t be surprised, if you find yourself hunting crocodiles," someone with experience told me before I had even left Israel.

Well, I never came near a crocodile, but I soon found myself negotiating local small-scale fishermen’s debts consolidation, and working with and for them to organise a credit scheme and mutual guaranty groups. Not because those were my professional duties and certainly not my fields of knowledge, but because that was what was needed. So, how could I handle all this without any formal education? Well, I came from an Israeli kibbutz, which was handling all of the above.

Some years later, while working at the FAO headquarters, I read a report by a German anthropologist who had been dispatched to some archipelago to help to prepare an artisanal fishery development project. To the horror of the powers-in-charge, he wrote that what was needed in the islands was to drill for clean water and to build school classes.

“That’s not what you were sent for,” the managers told him.

But he was adamant that this was what the fishing communities were asking for, and that they were right.

“We can fish all the fish we need, thank you,” they told him. “But the children get swollen bellies from the water they drink, and they take their school classes under the palm trees".

A long time ago, I read an excellent book written almost 50 years ago by Shepard-Forman, entitled The Raft Fishermen - Tradition and Change in the Brazilian Peasant Economy, (Indiana University Press, 1970).

Forman spent something like a year among Northeast Brazilian fishermen, sailing in janghadas (sort of rafts, something like the Indian kattumaram, rigged with colourful sails), and made a PhD thesis of it. They'd take their janghadas out in the morning with the seaward breeze, and bring them back in the afternoon with the shoreward breeze with a few or more fish. I’d been there later and saw myself – quite a view, as like a flock of giant butterflies they were coming in through the foaming surf. Forman found out why the janghada fishermen turned down well-paid jobs on board motorised boats with ice-boxes on board. Those boats, introduced by some development project, could stay at sea for some days. The fishermen tried for a while, though, but soon returned to their raft sailing.

The entrepreneurs, the development and government’s agents, and everybody who was not fisherman, told Forman that fishermen were a lazy, conservative lot that wouldn’t pick up a progressive opportunity. However, after some time, Forman, the anthropologist, found out that the higher earnings on the motor boats couldn’t compensate for the loss of other values dear to the fishermen, such as time to attend to their coconut trees, leisure time each evening, and nights with their ladies. Those guys had their priorities in order. Like in a plenty of other cases, however, the project people never asked for anthropologists' opinion.

Back in the 1970s, while working at the FAO fisheries department, I believe that I was the first officer to employ anthropologists for reconnaissance before introducing a project. They mostly did a good job at pointing out futility of some, and expedience of other project ideas.

Later, while travelling in a South American country with a young anthropologist, we found out why local fishermen shrugged off convenient bank loans, provided by an external bi-lateral institution. The staff of the local bank through which the funds had been channelled reported that the fishermen were too dumb, stupid, and backward to enjoy modern financing methods.

In fact, however, the bank staff demanded a percentage of the loans, which were too high to make financing attractive to the fishermen, who were no dumb at all, but rather were smart enough to avoid such traps. Incidentally, in this particular case, with the help of the donor's own personnel, we found a way out by by-passing the local bank, and having the project financed directly from abroad, and the fishermen granted loans directly from the project, managed by foreign, well-paid and honest staff.

Such experiences brought me to believe that anthropology may and should be employed also as an applied science, in spite of much of the anthropological stuff that to me was esoteric and of little help to a field activist, or, as some call them, agents-of-change.

Eventually, I found that there are tasks you need a sociologist for, and tasks for an anthropologist. A sociologist would go to a community and produce a report on the local means of production, the number and character of the local households, how they make their living and who and how many of the people work, how much do they make, etc. A good one would also investigate and describe in socio-economic terms intra-community stratification – the haves and the have-nots, their inter-relations, and produce also plenty of useful statistical, averaging figures.

A socio-anthropologist would go to a community and investigate why things are as they are, describe the local social norms, and cultural characteristics that are important to know before you go there with any human-engineering notions.

Typically, fishery management is human engineering, as one cannot manage fish in the sea. All one can manage is fishing people. For references, read J. Russ McGoodwin's classic book Crisis in the World Fisheries. Just the title is a misnomer: should be Crisis in the World Fisheries Management.

One could wonder how little the basics of small-scale fishermen's lives have changed with time. Well, maybe in terms of technology and marketing systems things have progressed, but one would need a socio-anthropologist to find out and understand who has benefitted and in what way – and who was the loser, and why.