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Singing on an empty belly

The Polish poet Wisława Szymborska once wrote about the monadic nature of material objects, about their impermeability and closedness:

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.”
“I don’t have a door,” says the stone.[1]

While we may and do question our ability to access other people’s thoughts and motivations, humans are not, in the end, such enclosed, impenetrable things as stones. We are not impermeable and internally consistent, even if the word “individual” sometimes appears to imply precisely that. Instead, humans are always to an extent open to the world around them and enmeshed with it.
However the extent to which people recognize their connection to others and to the world may of course vary across space and time. The Kuranko, key interlocutors in Michael Jackson’s essay on well-being in Sierra Leone, explicitly recognize and discuss the importance of others for their own existence as persons, for their survival and well-being. Always longing for companionship and social recognition, humans are never complete on their own, as the Kuranko have it. Of course, this ontological openness may make a person vulnerable to excessive requests from his or her kin, to attacks by witches and sorcery, to the judgement or gossip of others. Yet despite this vulnerability, openness is valued highly by the Kuranko and the worst lot one can suffer is a state of isolation, in which one passes through life alone, without friends or kin. Like all of us, though in their own particular way, Kuranko are compelled to manage the complex dynamics between being open to the world, with all the vulnerability this brings, and being isolated or closed off. While in some sense fundamentally open, not least to requests and expectations, Kuranko feel the need to fend off some intrusions and to express their individual wills. Many of them want more than what they have at any given moment; they want to be more and to make something of themselves, but this is difficult in times of scarcity, when means are limited and opportunities shut off. The condition of openness is the basis for an existential dilemma of well-being, which becomes a matter of finding a balance between doing justice to others and doing justice to oneself, or perhaps between what one owes to others and what one owes to oneself. Perhaps it is also a question of belonging without losing oneself.

The dilemma is made more visible when people struggle to achieve a better or at least a more bearable life, balancing their obligations to the group (whose support is often precious), and the feeling of strain in sharing their scarce resources or submitting their life-course to the plan laid out for them, with the importance of social harmony and custom always in mind. Acute for many Kuranko, this dilemma rings true for most of us and Jackson makes an attempt to say something about universal human existential issues using the Kuranko example. He sets himself the task of exploring well-being and related themes, believing that the answers to many of the questions insightfully raised by philosophers can be provided by the ethnographic method, and indeed that the latter might be one of the most instructive ways of exploring them. And yet one does sense that a potential danger lies in the power of western philosophical theories, often compelling in their internal coherence, in that once one knows them they may distort the quieter voice of ethnographic material and the less neat fabric of the everyday and somewhat contradictory story it tells. Jackson’s book comes close to this danger in several places, where the ideas of Sartre or Arendt seem to take centre-stage and guide the narrative that somehow touches upon the lives of people from Sierra Leone. In these, the reader cannot be certain of the relationship between the accounts and the ideas brought from a very different universe of thought.

For the most part, however, Jackson’s work reminds us that anthropology can ask large questions, and that it should. In fact, it has considerable experience in doing so, having not shied away from issues such as religion and morality. To the extent that it is interested in human lives, in how people shape them and live them out within specific environmental, historical and social circumstances, anthropology has always been interested in well-being, and ethnography has always given us insight into people’s ideas of the good life and living well. Yet not many ethnographers have taken up this question directly as their main focus. Jackson’s book, although less an ethnographic monograph or academic text than a long and nuanced essay, takes up the task. And it does so above all by telling stories, weaving together those that people tell, the stories they know and retell, or stories they share or make their own, with the stories of their circumstances, of their lives. The point stories make is often ambiguous, but this is their strength: rather than simplifying the links between the causes and effects, stories are comprised of multiple meanings. They have a capacity to teach people how to act in a complex world of changing circumstances, and as Arthur Frank (2010) pointed out, how to make our lives good. Perhaps this is what makes them so well suited for an exploration of well-being.

One of the stories goes as follows:

There was a man and a woman. They had a child. But the parents died when the child was very young, and the little girl was placed in the care of her mother’s co-wife. This woman would prepare rice and sauce and put it on the same platter. All her children would eat from the same plate. But one day the woman divided the food into two portions. One portion was for her own children. The other portion was for her late co-wife’s child. And then into this portion the woman put poison. When the child ate this food she began to foam at the mouth, and she soon died. But after she had passed away she sent a dream to her mother’s co-wife, saying that she knew about the poison, and how the woman killed her. The stepmother woke up in dismay, saying, ‘It wasn’t me, it wasn’t me. You must have eaten that poisoned food elsewhere.’ The child said, ‘All right, then; one day you will die and meet me here in lakira, and God will judge whose story is true.’ After that dream, the child disappeared. She disappeared from this life. (57)

It is hard to know if this means that a punishment will ensue or if the girl disappeared for good with a vain hope. The ending of the story tells of several possibilities and circumscribes an uncertain existence. This story was told to Jackson by Sira Marah, an eleven-year-old girl who wasn’t an orphan but whose father had left and whose mother was unable to take care of her. The night before she told the anthropologist one of her stories, she came to the spot where he was sitting with a few companions near a fire. Despite her slender physique, her voice was strong and beautiful, more noticeable than that of the two older girls who accompanied her. She had not eaten for two days but her voice was unwavering and her song compelling. It later transpired that Sira had composed the song herself, like many others, and also had a gift for divination and herbal medicine, making a living in this way. After her father left she could no longer afford school fees and stopped her education, so Jackson started wondering if he could help by paying her fees. In the end, he decided to do so, despite having doubts and realizing that Sira had found a way to live, making do with what she had – her gift. Sira’s story illustrates another aspect of well-being, central for many Kuranko: endurance and an ability to make do with what one faces in life – singing on an empty belly.

On the other hand, Sira and Jackson’s other interlocutors have a strong wish to improve their lot, to have more and to make more of their lives. Jackson emphasizes hope, which allows people to envision their lives as more than what they already are, with tomorrow always bringing new possibilities. Young Kuranko, as well as many other people of this country scarred by war, are often frustrated by a lack of possibilities, for work and for making a life of one’s own, and find themselves lacking stability, income, and therefore the possibility of starting a family, stuck instead in their present circumstances. Hope is an important element of well-being for these young people dealing with the harsh reality of everyday life, facing scarcity and poverty. But Jackson believes that regardless of their circumstances, humans are never satisfied and always feel some kind of lack or loss; he considers existential discontent to be a universal aspect of the human condition. Why is this so?

Contemporary work in the psychology of well-being, informed by neuroscience, may provide some answers to the question. The fact that memory is fragmentary and operates through reconstruction of events or images from the several small bits which were recorded is well known. What is less well known, according to Dan Gilbert, is that humans are very bad at remembering their own emotions. Rather than remembering a full range of emotions, one can barely recall a general feeling, without being able to relive it. With traumatic events, this has a protective function, but it also means that when one looks to the future, planning and striving for things, one tends to misremember the way things made one feel in the past and therefore make poor judgements about what will make one content in the future. This kind of research opens an array of interesting questions for anthropologists, on a rather different plane. For instance, it seems to open to discussion the importance and perception of the very future orientation in life, the tendency to look towards the future and expect it to be better than the past, depending on the sociocultural context.

It seems that the centrality of discontent can be overstated, and that it does not colour all human experience. Many of my long-lived informants in Japan had an air of quiet contentment about them. These men and women in their late eighties and nineties spoke of their small needs more than of their diminishing abilities and enjoyed little pleasures without grand expectations for the future. The future orientation that Jackson emphasises, the promise of a tomorrow that will be better than today, cannot readily form the basis for notions of well-being for all age groups, given that older people often have no reason to believe that the future will have much unexpected good in store for them. Even then, people probably hope for the best, even if that does not mean better. It seems to me that the tendency to want or to be more, to strive and to better one’s lot, need not have any intrinsic link to discontentment. In fact, constant striving can bring pleasure or quiet contentment, as it does for many older Japanese who embark on journeys of self-cultivation with energy and glee. An anthropology of well-being, or of the good life, should perhaps not restrict itself to focusing only on the ‘good’, but also on the ‘life’ part of the syntagm, and should not neglect age and the life-course. That these elements should figure so prominently in the imaginary and discourse of well-being in Sierra Leone is perhaps not a surprise given that this is a young nation with a predominantly young population.

Yearning for more or different things than one already has perhaps need not be inextricably tied to a feeling of discontentment. Perhaps the striving for more can bring contentment, but the inability to move forward and see beyond the obstacles one faces brings frustration of this impulse to strive to move ahead. Indeed, the aspiration of human beings to move not only forward but also upward seems widespread, raising a question for anthropologists about its form and importance in different places.

Other questions come to mind too; for instance, how does the way people understand themselves in relation to others influence their search for well-being? Jackson’s work indicates a link between these issues. Some groups of people, like the Kuranko, emphasize the importance of their relationships and are in some ways fundamentally open to others. At the same time, they insist that despite this openness they cannot tell what is in the mind of others, what their motivations are or how they feel. In contrast, people who tend to think that human beings are essentially separate and self-contained, as implied by the term individual, seem to talk more freely about the emotions and intentions of others. Perhaps those who believe that selves are fundamentally permeable and open are more concerned with demarcating the boundaries around the self, while those who consider it to be fundamentally separate emphasize creating bridges with others. How do these opposed ways of thinking about oneself in relation to others mesh with ideas of well-being and attempts to live well? The Kuranko example shows us that reconciling the demands set by others with our openness to them is one of the central balancing acts in attaining and maintaining well-being. The permeable boundaries of self need to be guarded, but not closed.

One of the achievements of this book is that it stirs up curiosity and even in its essayistic form instils confidence in the ethnographic method as being well suited to the task of investigating issues of well-being and the good life.


Frank, Arthur. 2010. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Szymborska, Wislawa (transl. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh). 1998. Poems New and Collected: 1957-1997. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Gilbert, Daniel. 2006. Stumbling on happiness. New York: Knopf.

  1. [1]Conversation with a Stone, By Wislawa Szymborska (1998:62).

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