- An Ethnography of Hunger: politics, subsistence, and the un-predictable grace of the sun by Kristin D. Phillips
Hunger persists as a predicament at the centre of global development efforts, making it the subject of much academic and non-academic attention. An Ethnography of Hunger therefore does well to stand out in offering a distinctive contribution here. Critiquing tendencies to flatten experiences of hunger in rural Africa, Kristin Phillips offers an engaging monograph built on the simple premise that ‘people live with hunger far more than they die from hunger’ (p. 5). She unpacks hunger’s presence as an everyday, even banal, aspect of life, patterning the ways in which people engage with each other and institutions. This is founded on material drawn from her long-term ethnographic engagement with Singida – a poor, marginal region in Tanzania’s semi-arid interior – spanning the period 2004 to 2014. The result is a perceptive, empirically rich analysis anchored in the idea of ‘subsistence citizenship’ – how the cyclical struggle for subsistence comes to shape political subjectivities and the way people engage with contemporary democratic forms.
Structurally, the book is divided into three parts, each comprising two chapters. Part I offers readers an orientation to the social and material landscape of rural Singida, including a historical view of the shifting conditions of authority, citizenship and livelihood precarity. In Part II, Chapter 3 springs off the conceptual repertoires provided by Amartya Sen and Arjun Appadurai to explore the way in which social and moral value are embedded in food and its exchange. Tracing the ‘social life of grain’ (p. 90), Phillips depicts the ‘art’ (p. 9) of securing subsistence needs that involves working to define food into different kinds of moral relations with others. An illustration here is the way food as aid becomes ‘re-embedded in social entitlement relationships, commodity exchanges, or affiliative practices [as patronage or gifts]’ (p. 100) as it travels from international procurement down to its end recipients. In Chapter 4 we then follow how acute food shortages during 2005–06 precipitated contestations over the terrain of hunger between citizens and the state, describing their relative manoeuvrings to raise and evade the moral and political obligations it confers. Moving into the third part, Chapter 5 digs further into the increasingly onerous demands for ‘contributions’ of cash and labour for community development projects in the era of liberalization and participatory development. In the harsh conditions of the mid-2000s, such development contributions paradoxically came to threaten subsistence, and Chapter 6 elucidates the unfolding political upheaval that followed. This culminated in 2010 as constituents of Singida East abandoned the ruling party in favour of the opposition Member of Parliament (MP) Tundu Lissu, who had campaigned on a platform promising to abolish these contribution demands.
The idea of subsistence citizenship is developed throughout the book as a lens through which we can comprehend this political upheaval. A particularly insight-ful aspect of the analysis is the appreciation given to the way in which Singidans have honed a political subjectivity of code switching and code mixing between idioms of patronage and rights. Phillips adeptly conveys the sense of ambiguity, even riskiness, in making asocial rights-based claims for state resources in a context where political paternalism and a moral economy of patronage hold sway. Doing so could endanger long-nurtured clientelistic relations with those in positions of power as the most assured means to secure some share of the state’s resources when hunger looms. Therefore, rather than considering these as oppositional forms of claim making, Singidans pragmatically mix and switch [End Page 986] between claims of rights and patronage in their bid to ‘navigate the conditions of rural life’ (p. 152). Indeed, Phillips highlights how these modes of engagement with democratic forms have a distinct temporality too: ‘As the food supply has its seasons in so much of rural Africa, so too does citizenship’ (p. 180).