Too much writing about Africa assumes a homogenous culture throughout the continent. One of the great merits of MacLean’s smart and insightful study of Akan villages on both sides of the Ghana–Côte d’Ivoire border is its convincing demonstration that significant differences exist in the practice of such quintessentially “African” cultural phenomena as the reciprocal exchange of gifts and favors between family and friends. She argues that although the two countries share an extremely similar precolonial history, differences between British and French colonialism, and in the countries’ paths since independence, have resulted in the development of very different informal institutions to deal with varying patterns of risk and uncertainty. MacLean makes great use of the wonderfully evocative quotations she derived from detailed surveys conducted in four villages during lengthy stays at each to build a nuanced theory of the interaction between informal cultural institutions and the process of formal state building. Contradicting much received wisdom, she shows that the central state has a powerful effect on rural Africa, even when it is weak and not particularly effective. MacLean’s book deserves a wide audience, both as a model of careful fieldwork and for its precise analysis of social relations in rural West Africa.
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