Academic journal article African Studies Review

"We Work Hard": Customary Imperatives of the Diola Work Regime in the Context of Environmental and Economic Change

Academic journal article African Studies Review

"We Work Hard": Customary Imperatives of the Diola Work Regime in the Context of Environmental and Economic Change

Article excerpt


Hard work is a core value among Diola rice cultivators in Guinea-Bissau. This essay explores Diola attitudes toward work in the context of recent changes in their natural and social environment. It asks why Diola maintain a particular work regime even when they admit that it is not actually working for them. The intrinsic characteristics of wet rice cultivation, the tightly woven web of social relations involved in Diola agricultural practices, and the religious ideals with which these practices are linked reinforce one another and serve as powerful drivers of continuity. But given the decreasing viability of wet rice cultivation in this region, Diola work is increasingly detached from the products it is meant to generate. Because Diola farmers remain committed to these work practices in the face of their acknowledged inability to meet subsistence needs, Diola work has become a "paradox of custom."


Diola villagers in northwestern Guinea-Bissau have long been recognized for their capacity to grow rice in their landscape of tangled mangroves and thick oil palm forests. Archaeological evidence suggests that Diola have been practicing their trademark wet rice cultivation techniques in this region for at least a thousand years (Linares 1981). Diola survival and success - despite periodic droughts and other environmental hazards, as well as myriad social and political upheavals - are a testament to both their complex and intricate system of agricultural knowledge (Carney 2001 ) and their commitment to hard work. But Diola villagers are on the frontlines of global climate change. Within the past thirty years declining rainfall, desertification, and widespread erosion in northern Guinea-Bissau have increasingly challenged Diola villagers' ability to provision themselves through the wet rice cultivation practices that have long defined them as a people. The effects of these ecological shifts are exacerbated by increased youth migration - and hence the loss of a vital source of agricultural labor - as well as national political instability, the increasing demands of a cash economy, and a decline in overall economic security.

By the time I arrived in northwest Guinea-Bissau in 2001, most of the Diola villagers' granaries were empty. Many residents regularly told me, "We used to be able to do this," referring to the complex technical, social, and ritual system through which Diola produce, consume, and revere rice. "Now we cannot." But despite their own acknowledgment of profound transformations that impinge upon their ability to produce their staple crop, the vast majority of Diola villagers continue to expend most of their efforts working in the parched rice paddies and they discourage - and sometimes punish those who seek alternative productive activities. The question that motivates this essay is: why do Diola villagers in Guinea-Bissau uphold such strict adherence to their notion of work, even - or perhaps especially - when they become aware of ways to lessen the arduous nature of that work, or when they admit that their work is not actually working for them?

Although the topic of climate change is receiving intensified attention from scholars, policymakers, and journalists, relatively little is known about its impact on the cultures and consciousnesses of the agrarian populations most vulnerable to its effects. This article explores one such group's responses to the changes - environmental and other - that challenge its longstanding beliefs and practices. I explain why Diola see their agricultural work not simply as a means of sustenance, but also as integrally tied to their conceptions of personhood, social relations, ritual obligations, and collective cultural identity.

One of the central characteristics of Diola rice cultivation is the performance of arduous manual labor - "hard work." This article elucidates the significance of "hard work" as a cultural trait independent of actual productivity. …

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