Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 437-439
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Given the recent (and not so recent) history of Sierra Leone, it is more than fitting that anthropologists working in the region should reflect on the ways in which our discipline can help us further our understanding of how Sierra Leoneans relate to the categories of conflict and violence. In doing so in a scholarly forum, however, the author's task is doubled, as such works will contribute not only to our understanding of the topic at hand, but also further our understanding of the concepts, theories, and methods of anthropology. After reading Mariane C. Ferme's book there remains little doubt in my mind that her work among the Mende succeeds in all these tasks.
The first contribution of this book might not be the most readily noticed by readers—for it is methodological—but it certainly won't go unnoticed by anthropologists studying conflict and violence. Ferme's use of material culture as a primary source of data represents a significant improvement from traditional studies of martial technology, and allows truly original insights. Indeed, the author uses that very word—insight—to characterize the fruits of her dealings with Mende material culture, whose study provide her with "clues" pointing to the wider socio-cultural order. This approach, of course, opens the door to a very broad definition of what objects are relevant to our understanding of Mende conflict, mediation, and violence. But the author uses this broad definition [End Page 437] in a creative and fruitful manner. She seldom mentions the objects used to perpetrate violence, as was generally expected of earlier studies and, I might add, the reader does not miss such a description. Instead, the author treats us to a remarkable discussion of the Mende relationship with the materiality of the landscape (Chapter One), hunting and fishing implements (Chapter Two), housing (Chapter Four), and the body (Chapter Five). These chapters are interspersed with three interludes that deal, respectively, with the social and cultural use of kola nuts, cotton clothes, and palm oil. It would be impossible, in a review of this scope, to do justice to the ethnographic richness of all these discussions. Suffice it to say for the moment that in dealing with all these dimensions of material culture, the author is able to interweave gender, economic, political, and symbolic analyses in ways that capture the permeability of all these spheres. For instance, the author's discussion of the kola nut (interlude 2) ties together the ritual importance of kola in peace and war, its economic value, and the politics of its circulation at the regional, local, and family levels.
The author's focus on peacetime material culture in a study dealing with the Mende's experience of conflict and violence is explained in the following way:
"What I explore here, then, are the ordinary conflicts that may erupt in times of peace. In doing so, I hope not only to paint a portrait of a society on the brink of violence, and to explore some of the factors that may have led it to this point, but also to show wherein lie the strengths that support hope for a better future in the Sierra Leonean postcolonial state." (p.1)
For Ferme, such hope may be grounded in the Mende cultural logic itself. While the use of the concept of cultural logic can potentially lead to an overly culturalist view of socio-political action, the depth and complexity of the author's ethnographic material allows her to steer clear of that obstacle. In fact, it is in the very contradictions and ambiguities contained in the data that Ferme detects the symbolic spaces in which the Mende negotiate power and manage conflicts. Mende prize and cultivate the ambiguities not simply the consequences. Truth and power find their most potent expression when they lie beneath "multiple layers of often conflicting meaning"...