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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 4 (1997)

The Broken Hoe: Cultural Reconfiguration in Biase Southeast Nigeria. by Iyam, David Uru. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 238 pages, 7 Figs, 12 Tables, 28 plates.

Reviewed by Eric J. Arnould, Associate Professor of Marketing, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida

The Broken Hoe is an ethnographic text that readers will find interesting from a variety of viewpoints. The book is framed as a contribution to the anthropology of development but features a number of other intriguing dimensions. Among others, the book joins the small, but growing number of ethnographic studies produced by members of the culture described in the text, in this case, the Biase of Southeastern Nigeria.

The Broken Hoe consists of nine chapters, Issues in Rural Development, The Biase of Southeastern Nigeria, Use of Environmental Resources, Managing the Environment, The Economy, Biase Social Organization and the Reconstruction of Gender Roles, Rural Politics in a State Polity, Ideology, and Implications for Anthropology. Those chapters devoted to environmental and development issues usefully lay out distinctive features and difficulties associated with development in the swampy high-rainfall environment of the Cross River area. The author joins his voice to those increasing numbers of anthropologists and development specialists who call for development from below. His distinctive contribution in this regard is to move beyond the pious, and essentially romantic arguments of those who unduly lionize small-scale rural cultures by pointing to specific aspects of Biase social organization that work either in favor of (strong age-grade and women s associations, for example) or against (disrupted authority relations between village and lineage elders and the population, men s restricted economic roles, and ethnic minority status, for example) community-based development initiatives.

The chapter entitled Managing the Environment disappoints because it actually deals with farming systems rather than environmental issues. Curiously, more about the environment is included in the chapter on The Economy. Nevertheless, Iyam lays out Biase agricultural strategies in some descriptive detail. He convincingly argues in favor of the economic rationality of the often maligned fragmentation of land holdings because of the high localized risks of farming in this environment.

The chapters on The Economy and Gender Roles detail in a workmanlike fashion the essential elements of Biase economy, but also point out the structural weaknesses in the economy that constrain rural development. The discussion of market tactics and strategy is intriguing in the way the description resonates with work as diverse as Sidney Mintz s discussion of Penny Capitalism in Haiti and Gracia Clark s work on market women in Kumasi. I would have liked to know more. The author weaves a story that links micro- and macrolevels together, showing for example, how further improvements in rural productivity would be economically pointless without improvements in dilapidated regional transportation infrastructure. The problem of economic marginalization is intensified by the fact that women, who handle the marketing, lack access to canoes controlled by men, as well as time resources. Anthropologists interested in fisheries would probably have liked a more in-depth treatment of this important pole of Biase economy, one dominated by men, but one apparently in recession.

The author also shows how changes in the regional economy inevitably marginalize Biase women farmers. The reader is impressed by the sensitivity with which a male author writes of the lop-sided economic burden placed on Biase women, who are responsible not only for the bulk of horticultural production, but also entrepreneurial market-based activities. Nonetheless, the author also explains men s limited economic contribution in terms of the collapse of certain religious beliefs and political practices that bred patriarchal authority, and to the ongoing need for self-protection within Biase villages.

The discussion of Rural Politics in a State Polity is most interesting. It is written to minimize potential retaliation from the Nigerian state for a too-pointed critique of its corruption and utter ineptitude (my words, not the author s), while clearly indicating the feeling of neglect and marginalization experienced by Nigerian minority groups. But the author does not spare his fellow Biase from criticism either, showing how changes in the macro social context have both undermined traditional bases for political action and rendered them inappropriate to meeting contemporary political challenges within the national political arena.

I found the discussion of ideology simultaneously rewarding and annoying in its straightforward discussion of the pragmatic role played by magical beliefs in social and economic life. The interpretation is Malinowskian. For example, the author shows how Biase beliefs create a context, a vehicle for action, and a behavioral template from which poverty or pragmatic necessity provokes systematic departures. Yet I regret the absence of any sense of embodiment in ritual practice or personal existential engagement with the deities and other forces that inhabit the Biase cosmology in the mode of an ethnographer like Paul Stoller. One feels that the author has gone too far in his otherwise admirable desire to de-exoticize the Biase Other, and has rather deracinated the people. The author seems to take for granted some aspects of Biase belief and practice that a non-native ethnographer might well have explored more fully. Or perhaps he is just being discreet.

The final chapter, Implications for Anthropology, summarizes the author s arguments in favor of locally informed development policy. And rather than couch his arguments in generalities, he grounds his proposals for Biase development soundly in the social organizational and environmental realities experienced by this population. Iyam s suggestion that the Biase would be content to experience modernity in meaningful but sustainable bits (p. 214) rings true to this context, as does his contention that development projects designed around communal organizational principles that have ceased to exist (p. 216) are not an uncommon cause of project failure. The key to success, he argues, is strengthening local managerial capacity among the Biase by focusing on age grade, lineage, and women s associations. I would have liked the author to revisit some of the ecological themes discussed in earlier chapters in more detail in the concluding chapter.

The Broken Hoe is not an exercise in postmodern ethnography as advocated by some American ethnographic theorists writing in the 1980s. From a literary point of view, this is a straightforward realist ethnography told from an authoritative authorial position. It favors a descriptive over an analytical mode. But the I was there stance of modernist EuroAmerican authors is here replaced by an implicit claim to native cultural authority. At the same time, the author makes extremely intriguing use of the first person plural pronoun, alternating with third person description. The first person plural often stands in as the voice of custom or tradition as these terms would have been used by ethnographers of the older British school. The author is always modest in his claims for the role of custom in Biase social life, and uses the first person plural primarily in an empathetic mode. All in all, it is a useful read and a welcome contribution to the slim ethnographic record pertaining to small population groups of the Niger delta region.