Jérôme Destombes

London School of Economics and Political Science



The opposite pictures of the comparative incidence of poor diet or undernourishment in Africa and South Asia illuminate the difficulties of researching the contemporary history of the nutritional facet of everyday poverty in the ‘historically’ hungry and poor continent. Our detailed historical knowledge of subsistence crises and conjunctural poverty in Africa contrasts sharply with the scant evidence available on mundane livelihood practices and self-reliance in normal times, either for want of primary sources or because of a presumption that African rural societies were in the grip of chronic hunger and absolute poverty without room for containing their prevalence. In other words, being too hungry to farm was an ordinary condition among the African rural poor.

This paper explores a selection of documentary evidence, survey data and oral life histories, which were collected during a multiple-round re-study of the responses of a West African savanna society to nutritional stress since the middle colonial period. The northernmost rural districts of Ghana have been portrayed as an exploited labour reservoir, a neglected agricultural margin, and a regional poverty trap with a history of perennial seasonal undernourishment and persistent deprivation. The first section explores colonial evidence of poor diet, undernourishment, and absolute poverty. The discovery of rural deprivation c. 1910-1960 did not deliver a picture of famished households: seasonal poor diet prevailed rather than undernourishment, and a variety of nutritional achievements was indicative of relative poverty rather than pervasive distress irrespective of ecological and social conditions. The second section consists of an anthropometric re-study of seasonal hunger c. 1960-2000 in a number of lineage groups occupying both highly populated watersheds and sparsely populated valleys. The changing nutritional facet of everyday poverty surfaces in three findings: a limited magnitude of seasonal weight losses, a social confinement of pre-harvest and post-harvest undernourishment, and an increasingly effective containment of nutritional stress by women. Therefore, the persistence of low living standards in north-eastern Ghana coexisted with significant nutritional gains in human welfare. The third section concludes by examining individual life histories collected among either undernourished participants or women who escaped undernourishment. They provide vivid evidence on household-level strategies of food and labour provisioning in a poor agrarian economy in which social and economic disenfranchisement, rather than undernourishment, caused absolute poverty throughout the period under scrutiny.

This contextualised historical re-study of a West African livelihood system unveils changing inter-generational experiences of nutritional stress and everyday poverty, which remain too often hidden by the veil of Africa’s continuing relative poverty as a region of the world economy.