The Rise and Fall of an African Utopia: A Wealthy Theocracy in Comparative Perspective

The Rise and Fall of an African Utopia: A Wealthy Theocracy in Comparative Perspective

The Rise and Fall of an African Utopia: A Wealthy Theocracy in Comparative Perspective

The Rise and Fall of an African Utopia: A Wealthy Theocracy in Comparative Perspective


In 1947 a group of Yoruba-speaking fishermen who had been persecuted because of their religious beliefs founded their own community in order to worship in peace. Although located in an impoverished part of Nigeria, within a few years the village enjoyed remarkable economic success. This was partly because the fishermen held all goods in common, pooled the profits in the community treasury, and attempted to reduce the importance of the family and marriage. After about a generation the utopia began to fall apart. The early religious zeal faded, private enterprise replaced communalism, and the family became strong once more. In an attempt to explain the initial success and eventual decline of the utopia, the author compares it with neighbouring villages that embraced similar religious beliefs but did not enjoy the same economic success. He sets the problem firmly in a broad comparative framework and draws the implications for theories of development, especially Weber's Protestant ethic thesis.


This study is about a rare social phenomenon: a utopian community that was a magnificent success. Located in an isolated part of Nigeria, Olowo, as I call the village, was founded in 1947 by a group of fishermen who gathered together to live and worship in a manner that they believed to be ideal. For 20 years their achievements were astounding: with virtually no help from outsiders they established several industries and became perhaps the wealthiest small community in West Africa. After this period, however, there was a sudden decline: the community bond became frayed, the economy faltered, and people became lured by the outside world.

In order to understand Olowo's initial success and eventual decline, I have undertaken two types of comparison. One is with another village situated near Olowo, which I call Talika. This village shares many of Olowo's characteristics, but it has not been an economic success. the other comparison is drawn from existing studies of similar social movements in Africa, Melanesia, and North America. the merits of comparative studies have been debated ever since anthropology became a "scientific" discipline. My view is that in order to explain a particular case such as Olowo, and to develop anthropological theory, systematic comparison is essential. This study, thus, tries to go beyond the scope of the normal anthropological monograph, and I shall be pleased if it is received as an exercise in comparative sociology.

It is normal for the researcher to thank the people among whom he lives and studies. in my case my debt is much greater, for without the vision, will power, and dedication of the people of Olowo who sculptured a masterpiece out of a setting of poverty, the village itself would not have existed. By bringing the story of their success to a wider audience, I hope I have repaid them in some small way. Many individuals in both Olowo and Talika--natural anthropologists most of them--spent countless hours explaining the complexities (at least to me) of their communities. To them I owe a special thanks. I also wish to pay tribute to the warm-hearted man in whose house my wife and I lived, and to the leader of the village who granted me permission to conduct my study.

In preparing this manuscript I received conflicting advice from numerous anthropologists and sociologists about whether to write the data up in comparative perspective or to present a general ethnography. Part of the reason that I followed those who argued for comparison is my belief that the distinction between field workers and theoreticians is a harmful one; nobody is in a better position to inter . . .

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