Let’s ditch this ‘nostalgia for mud’

While subsistence life is hopelessly romanticised in the West, it is the city that has become a symbol of hope for millions of Ghanaians.

Rob Harris

Topics World

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‘My mother still sleeps in a mud house, drinks from polluted streams and walks for long distances carrying heavy loads of cocoa… This is not because it is idyllic to do so, and neither is it because it is part of her culture; it is because she has no choice!’

DeRoy Kwesi Andrew doesn’t mince his words when describing his mother’s life in the rural village of Achimfo in western Ghana. For Andrew, the life of a subsistence farmer is one ‘filled with toil’ and he despairs that his mother has nothing to show for it after 70 years of backbreaking work.

Conversely, in the West we have become accustomed to a romanticised view of subsistence life. You can see it on posters and in magazine ads showing smiling Fairtrade farmers. On television, there are the cultural investigations of Bruce Parry in the BBC2 TV show Tribe, and celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s promotion of ‘sustainable’ living at River Cottage in rural Dorset. For holidays abroad, ‘tasteless’ 5-star resorts are apparently ‘out’, while ecotourism is ‘in’. Western holidaymakers are actually chosing to stay in mud hut hotels emulating the poor excuse for housing that Andrew’s mother longs to escape. For those who feel pangs of eco-guilt when thinking of the industrialised world’s destructive impact on the natural environment, there are now various carbon offsetting schemes – including ones that ensure Third World subsistence farmers don’t upgrade their primitive tools to more modern alternatives lest they pollute the environment. Or you can petition your council to bring back primitive modes of transport, as the group in France that proposed the school bus should be replaced with the horse and cart did (1).

In all these ways the West has succumbed to what the French call nostalgie de la boue – ‘nostalgia for mud’ – a wish to return to our humble beginnings. While idealising rural life and the ‘quiet simplicity’ of living off the land may seem harmless enough taken on its own, it has imparted a warped vision of what we think the poor want for themselves. And with this vision informing a political climate where Western governments, multilateral organisations like the World Bank and NGOs are more likely to influence policy than the sovereign governments of the developing countries themselves (2), the perpetuation of such myths begins to take on a much more sinister edge.

Environmental crusaders like green journalist George Monbiot see only joy in poverty. As he puts it: ‘In southern Ethiopia, for example, the poorest half of the poorest nation on earth, the streets and fields crackle with laughter. In homes constructed from packing cases and palm leaves, people engage more freely, smile more often, express more affection than we do, behind our double glazing, surrounded by remote controls.’ (3) And yet his (not so unique) expression of nostalgie de la boue makes no mention of the actual aspirations of the ‘happy’ peasants he is so envious of.

Do the fields of Andrew’s home village ‘crackle with laughter’ non-stop? From his description of how his mother’s mud hut was recently washed away in heavy flooding, it seems highly unlikely. ‘She told me she felt helpless as she sat by the roadside all night watching her home being gradually washed away by the approaching water.’ What of insurance? There is none. Emergency services? Andrew tells me ‘the only small clinic with one community health nurse has become like an international hospital’. So what of the rebuilding effort? He explains that everyone simply had to get on with it and rebuild the mud huts from scratch ‘as if they were living in medieval times’. No expert construction workers here!

In fact, Andrew was arrested by forest guards while attempting to fell a tree for timber, within his family plot, all because he hadn’t first sought a special license – something which he blames on the ‘green nonsense’ that is being foisted upon the Ghanaian authorities by Western interventionist busybodies. After all, as he exasperatingly says, ‘what [is] a subsistence farmer…expected to do if he can’t even subsist off his own land?’. What greens miss as they try and draw our attention to the destructive power of modern living (even if it is just about cutting down a tree to build a house), is that it is actually nature that is the fiercest and most unforgiving force, and which subsistence life offers little protection from.

The exposure to nature is only one of the many cruelties of subsistence life. With no hope of gathering any savings, and thus no investments, the farmer is left with only the most basic tools available for the job. This results in what Andrew says are ‘low yields, low productivity and paltry incomes’; in short, stagnation – just enough to survive on, but never enough to improve one’s lot. And what do our Western romanticists have to say about this? Andrew spits vitriol at the NGOs who ‘idolise the use of the donkey, stick, cutlass and hoe for ploughing, planting, weeding and harvesting as the “most appropriate” farm implements that will “sustain” the sanctity of the environment’. You only need take a brief look at the Oxfam Unwrapped online shop to see their idea of ‘appropriate technology’ for farmers – a set of replacement farm tools here, some seeds there – ne’er a tractor in sight. None of this assistance is able to transform the lives of farmers so they are able to escape subsistence, but merely propagates the myth that mere survival is the sum of their ambitions.

Nevertheless, for those whom Andrew calls the ‘energetic youth’ there is an alternative to the drudgery of the countryside: the city. ‘I am better off in all facets of life compared to my peers left behind in the village’ says Andrew, having moved to Ghana’s capital Accra as a teenager. He is now married with a baby, with a solid roof over his head (which he is ambitiously expanding so his mother can one day move in) and earning the equivalent of three pounds a day as a basic teacher while studying part-time at a local university. ‘I enjoy many of the benefits of modernity’, he explains. ‘Quality education for my son, hi-tech hospitals, good roads, potable water, telecommunication, good housing, modern electronic gadgets…and so forth’; all of which are a scarcity for those making a living off the land.

This is not to say that the urban areas of developing countries are paved in gold – far from it. The shanty towns to which many migrants move can be wretched places filled with poverty, but they offer something the countryside contains very little of – hope. As Andrew puts it, ‘Neither [my house] nor my dreams of travelling to Europe would ever have happened if I had stayed in my home village, uneducated and working as a subsistence farmer’.

However prevalent the anti-modern sentiment in the West, it is one struggling fruitlessly against an aspiration-fuelled wave of global urbanisation with its sights set firmly at modernity. Already, as 2008 approaches, half the world’s population are living in towns and cities; by 2050 it is likely to be three-quarters (4), with 95 per cent of this growth occurring in Africa and Asia. While it would be naïve to suggest that urbanisation automatically leads to modernity and wealth, as long as the West drags its heels, with its quixotic interventions idealising subsistence life, progress will remain slow. Andrew expresses the frustration felt by many Ghanaians when he says, ‘our people and government have become merely the passive, obedient pupils to be preached to. That is not what we need! Gives us the chance for material and economic prosperity on our own terms and we shall deal decisively with these things ourselves.’

We’ve been here before of course, and here’s just one tiny example: in George Orwell’s 1937 study of working class life in a northern British mining town, The Road to Wigan Pier, he dispelled the bourgeois myth that the working classes didn’t like to wash. In fact, he found it was a question of opportunity rather than inclination; the working classes had little access or free time for bathing, while doing more gruelling work than their middle-class counterparts (5). Similarly, for millions of Ghanaians eking out a grim existence with hoe and cutlass, they live lives they would never have chosen for themselves. Unfortunately, as in Orwell’s time, many privileged observers mistake this lack of opportunity for inclination and have manufactured their own myth, projecting their own frustrations with modern living onto the poor and coming to the dangerous conclusion that this ‘way of life’ should be protected.

Living off the land with little hope of any improvement for either yourselves or your children is an existence that should be locked away in the annals of history, along with slavery and feudalism. So let’s dispel the fairy tale of the idyllic life of subsistence farming once and for all. For those Westerners who can’t, Andrew has a simple tip: ‘Let’s swap lives’.

Rob Harris works for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and is a research volunteer and writer for the education charity WORLDwrite and Chew on it productions.

WORLDwrite’s latest film, I’m a Subsistence Farmer, Get Me Out of Here!, premieres on 16 December 2007 at the Rich Mix Cinema, London. Buy tickets here and view the trailer here.

Previously on spiked

De Roy Kwesi Andrew asked why so many Britons are down on development and, in an interview with Brendan O’Neill, told Bob Geldof ‘You are not our messiah’. Sadhavi Sharma argued that gift aid at Christmas only reinforced Third World poverty. Ceri Dingle gave a Battle Talk on ‘corruptababble’ and asked whether the film Bamako truly represented the authentic voice of Africans. Phil Cunliffe reviewed the WORLDwrite film Fair Trade: The Bitter Aftertaste and Nathalie Rothschild reviewed A Letter to Geldof. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

(1) Horses pitched as alternative transport for France, Yahoo News, 21 November 2007

(2) See, for example, WORLDwrite’s films Keeping Africa Small or Damned by Debt Relief

(3) What do we really want?, George Monbiot, 27 August 2002

(4) UN Population Fund

(5) The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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