Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

From Beer to Money: Labor Exchange and Commercialization in Eastern Uganda

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

From Beer to Money: Labor Exchange and Commercialization in Eastern Uganda

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper discusses how labor exchange and social ties among the Sabiny in eastern Uganda have changed with increased commercialization in the area. It explains the rationale for the original "beer party system" and how labor exchanges associated with this system have been transformed in the light of social change affecting the area. It also examines the new forms of social interaction and how they compare with the original beer party arrangements. It concludes by arguing that although the market economy has penetrated the area and the life of the Sabiny has changed in many important respects, the short-term interactions in the market have not obliterated the longer-term commitments to indigenous cultural values and vice versa. This continues to be important for the rural inhabitants of this part of Uganda.


The aim of this article is to discuss the dynamics of the social relationships among African peasantries through describing the changing process of labor exchange and social relations. Labor exchange as a source of social safety and good neighborliness in village life has been one of major topics in the study of 'moral economy' or 'economy of affection' of peasant societies. Peasants in rural Africa pool their labor when they need intensive work on their fields such as clearing, weeding, and harvesting. They gather people not only from their own family or kin-group but from their neighbors too. Such kinds of co-operative labor often take the form of 'exchange labor' based on various degree of reciprocity and this co-operation lays the foundation for their sense of neighborliness. [1] In many cases, as among the Sabiny of eastern Uganda--the focus of this article--it is common practice to boost this spirit of cooperation among workers by sharing meals and especially drinking beer after they have finished. [2]

Thus, as other ethnographical studies describe, locally brewed beer epitomizes the symbolic medium of social ties among many peasant societies in rural Africa. For example, in his study of the Iteso of Uganda, Karp describes how people drink beer together at various occasions of their social life such as rituals and mere gatherings. [3] Among the Iteso, he says, beer is a symbol of diffuse solidarity. The Iteso have a saying that neighbors are 'people with whom one shares beer' and 'the primary source of labor supply for large-scale tasks'. As in the case of the Iteso, many other African peasant societies combine labor exchanges with social events like the beer party. There are two aspects of the beer party system that are important here. First, people reinforce and renew their we-feeling by drinking together at the beer party, and second, people exchange their labor by the medium of beer.

In recent years, however, quite a few studies point out that farm labor tends to become more individualist and 'traditional' social networks based on long term reciprocity like 'beer party system' have declined the role as channels of access to labor. [4] According to Ponte, after the liberalization of economic markets and commercialization of rural life in Tanzania, people utilize hired labor based on short-term contracts instead of relying on indigenous social networks like the beer party. [5]

Like Ponte's study, most other studies begin from the premise that as the market economy penetrates rural Africa, channels of access to labor are disembedded from social context and individuated. This is a parallel to the classical view of modernization in the social sciences. For instance, Simmel says that personal face-to-face relationships decline and become anonymous once money mediates between people. [6] As Parry and Bloch summarize, that kind of view treats money as promoter of individualism and devastator of community solidarity. [7] In Sabiny society, there is a tendency for the beer party system to decline while other forms of labor exchange and wage labor are becoming more common. …

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