Accepted Paper:

Fleshy fish and hidden worlds: the tangible and the intangible in coastal Sierra Leone  


Jennifer Diggins (University of Sussex)

Paper short abstract:

Based on fieldwork in coastal Sierra Leone, this paper explores an apparent tension: as relationships with a clearly observable materiality are juxtaposed against the common belief that much of what matters is hidden from view.

Paper long abstract:

Based in a Sierra Leonean fishing town, it is perhaps unsurprising that I, like all my neighbours, am rather interested in fish.

Within moments of returning to land, a successful fishing boat will already be surrounded by a crowd where - in a sometimes bewildering clamour of flirtation, cajoling and bullying - a tangled web of negotiations is played out between the fishermen, their customers, girlfriends, neighbours and debtors. From my own vantage point on the beach, watching fish as they slide along various convoluted channels of love and obligation, these slippery 'non-humans' sometimes appear to be the very substance of which human relationships are made.

Yet if this fleshy materiality of the social appears to offer Tissana as the perfect case for a "flattened" social field, the people I know here could hardly be clearer in their rejection of an ontology where, as Latour puts it, "the invisible is invisible. Period" (2005: 150). Here, as elsewhere on the Upper Guinea Coast, much of what matters does indeed reside in "other worlds", behind the tangible surfaces which Latour would recognise as "real" (ibid: 67). Persons move daily in and out of places to which access is differentially restricted: - whether that be fishing grounds or market places hidden beyond the horizon; gendered 'secret' society bushes; or the underground and underwater worlds of witches, ancestors and devils. The vital social interactions which take place these other worlds, however "real" they may be, are observable in Tissana only through the dense fields of rumour which circulate around them.

Panel P08
Exhuming the 'big picture', burying fish, cats and falcons: limits to the agency of non-human things