This Journal article is part of Staff Publications
(2017) 'Potato rope families: sharing food and precarious kinship in a West African fishing town', Social Anthropology.
This article examines the considerable material work men and women in coastal Sierra Leone invest in the attempt to nurture the webs of relations which, they hope, will catch them when their catches fail. From the raw fish handed to a stranger on the wharf to the intimate sharing of cooked rice at home, huge volumes of food circulate through Tissana's gift economy each day, in patterns that map each person's evolving network of friendships and romances. These networks of relationships are sometimes referred to locally as ‘potato rope families’, referring to their fast-growing, ‘rhizomorphous’ forms. As the article progresses, I explore the ‘darker’ side of this flexible mode of reckoning social belonging. Huge anxiety is generated by the knowledge that, in the absence of gifts to hold them together, many of these intimate relations would atrophy and collapse as rapidly as they were formed. In other cases, a gift of rice is not only the substance of survival and kinship, but also a potent expression of power.