Ron Roizen, Contemporary Drug Problems 16:111-115, 1989.

Books: review/commentary

For Prayer and Profit: The Ritual, Economic, and Social Importance of Beer in Gwembe District, Zambia, 1950-1982, by Elizabeth Colson and Thayer Scudder
(Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1988), vi+147 pp., $32.50.

Alcohol: Another Trap for Africa, by Vanna Beckman (Orebro, Sweden: Libris Publishing, 1988), 171 pp., 100 Swedish kroner.

This review is available in Belorussian here.

Both books reviewed here examine, lament, and attempt to understand the rapid rise of alcohol consumption in Africa in the recent past; they are interesting for both their similarities and their differences. For Prayer and Profit provides a detailed and richly empirical study of three decades of social change in a single region of Zambia, using beer both as a case study in social change and as a kind of cipher for understanding processes of change more generally.  Prayer is the work of two seasoned and distinguished anthropologists who draw upon their career-long studies of Gwembe's Tonga-speaking culture.  Another Trap, in contrast, is the work of an observant Swedish journalist bent on illuminating something of the character and scope of the emergent alcohol problem in a wide area of Africa, including Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, south Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere.  Trap's early chapters amount to a freehand alcological travel log drawn from personal observation, local informants, and ethnographic literature, offering brief and instructive cameos of different peoples and places.  Its closing chapters take a wider look at economic and structural sources of alcohol consumption's growth, including the consolidation of large beer-producing firms. Both books play their strengths well.

For Prayer and Profit is particularly good in illuminating the nuances, complexity, and inadvertency of change. The reader learns, for example, how the introduction of roads into Gwembe in the early 1950s opened the first shops in the district. Newly available shop goods prompted women to seek a source of cash with which to become consumers, giving rise to widespread brewing of beer for sale. As it happened, road construction crews had used 55-gallon oil drums to transport fuel. Once in the hands of this new corps of women brewers, these same drums provided ready means for greatly expanding sale-beer production capacity.

Beer also offers Colson and Scudder a wide perspective on a variety of dimensions and structural strains in social change.  We see beer change from the glue of gemeinschaft to a cash commodity, move from sacred to secular, from highly structured ritual use to leisure-time and egoistic use; we see the beer supply, at first confined by the limits of the local harvest and competing demands on grain, later made virtually unlimited by commercialization; we see the site of drinking moved from one's own homestead and fields to the public tavern.  Broader structural stresses are illuminated along the way.  The reader learns how the commodification of beer often strained traditional status relations. For example, younger men, having easier access to wage jobs, could host beer parties and thereby undercut the traditional deference owed more senior men. For their part, younger men suffered heightened anxiety about the witchcraft and sorcery that might be used against them in reprisal.

Trap offers anecdotal snapshots of alcohol's place in diverse cultural settings. It is a free-form work, often personal and uninhibited in its topic selection and narratives. Beckman slotted fully 29 short, vignette-like chapters into her monograph's brief 170 pages. One chapter presents an interview with a 37-year-old aged-looking Zambian man who describes the emergence and consequences of his dependence on Chibuku and Mosi; another tells the story of a successful tavern enterprise cooperatively founded and run by ten Utengule (Southern Tanzania) women and later expropriated by envious village men; another presents reports on the proportions of government revenues derived from alcohol sales in a number of African states, along with reasons why the social costs associated with alcohol may be less subject to governmental and popular attention; another summarizes alcohol's relation to traffic crashes and the social handling of crash events in Nigeria. Throughout, Beckman's book offers striking parallels and echoes of cultural phenomena described in Colson and Scudder's more detailed account of Gwembe.

Such convergence is both welcome and problematic. It is welcome to the extent that convergence suggests that both books have attended to broadly similar pathways and structural features of change, factors and phenomena often operating in much the same ways across much of Africa. In this light, Colson and Scudder's findings may be granted greater generalizability than the authors probably would have laid claim to. But convergence also raises questions about the explanatory status of (especially) Colson and Scudder's work. What, after all, is the explanatory power of a local and particular history of change if and when many other places-places with their own local and particular histories-have experienced broadly similar changes as well?  Have Colson and Scudder merely described the impedimenta of change and excluded mention of more powerful, as yet undetermined, underlying change-inducing forces?

In fact, Colson and Scudder are diffident about offering a theory or an explanation of the growth and change in beer drinking's cultural arena in Gwembe. They employ an interpretive perspective on change that is useful, illuminating, and appealing. "We think of societies," the authors write,

    as flexible organizations that are always forming and reforming because they are composed of thinking men and women who are bound neither by primordial institutions nor by primordial identities. They can change and become something else. Rules and acquired wisdom, the stuff of culture, are guides to action but do not dictate action. Instead, people make opportunistic choices, which they then try to justify. Sometimes this involves the revision of very basic assumptions, but more commonly people appeal to situational factors that particularize the choice to the here and now.  The assumptions that are most resistant to revision lie at a level of abstraction that ensures that those who hold them have considerable leeway in what they do when confronted with a choice (pp. 2-3).

Their focus on cultural change provides Colson and Scudder with a particularly propitious critical vantage point on a variety of contemporary hypotheses about drinking and culture. For the most part, however, their theoretical critique is negative rather than positive. They make fast work, for example, of explanatory perspectives based on child-rearing practices, cultural rigidity, and heredity. They toy ambivalently with the theory that the individual stress associated with rapid socioeconomic change itself explains the growth of beer consumption, and they seem to place broad importance on the notion that alcohol's increased availability occasioned much of the growth in consumption, to the extent that "those who had never had to learn when to stop drinking, because supplies quickly ran out, now face[d] abundance" (p. 5). Their narrative also repeatedly invokes the popular desire to appear sophisticated and urbane as a stimulating factor in the process of change. Yet somehow all this falls short of an explanation of how, after all, in Gwembe the cake of custom came to dissolve into a "rising tide of beer." The reader comes away knowing more about what happened than about why it happened and the social springs of change.

At least one broad hypothesis seems to me to be lurking in the wings of Colson and Scudder's account. They argue that traditional beer was a "key symbol" in traditional culture, "linking almost everything that Gwembe people thought important" (p. 65). Perhaps the new commodified beer offers an equally powerful counter-symbol to traditional cultural arrangements and understandings. That is to say, commodified beer may provide the culture of Gwembe with a symbolic device for exploring the boundaries of a new system of social arrangements and renegotiating the cultural conventions within it. The authors tell the story of M, who challenged whether S, his uncle, retained the right to share in the drinking of M's beer (a kinship right) when M had purchased that beer from S for cash in the first place. "If you drink with us," M objected, "then you have both our money and the beer" (p. 104).  Here, Colson and Scudder (echoing Maine) observe that "M was defining the relationship between customer and seller as a contractual relationship that temporarily overrode other relationships between the two" (p. 104).  The attraction and growth of beer drinking, then, derive from its providing a convenient, powerful medium for testing the boundaries of the secularism, the individualism, the hedonism, the commercialism, the universality, the egalitarianism, and the other dimensions of the new social conventions.  In this light, Colson and Scudder's account of beer and the crooked pathways of social change in Gwembe District is interpretable not only as an account of the complexities of change, but also as a deep source of why beer drinking has taken such a central and expanding role in change.

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