Each year, the Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) organizes trips to places connected to a particular theme (previous examples include environmental justice and energy infrastructure). These trips act as moving workshops where participants can discover and explore place-based themes—not as experts, but as co-investigators. A River and its Watershed, the place-based workshop in May of this year, was particularly ambitious. It was a trip during which we explored the environmental and cultural history of the Mississippi River and its watershed with a group from the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. We followed the course of the river by boat and bus from Prairie de Chien, Wisconsin to Saint Louis, Missouri. In Dubuque, we visited the Mississippi River Museum that documents the changing economic history of the river from its heyday as a conduit of commerce to today where the economic orientation of riverfront towns, except for tourism, point away from the river. In St. Louis, our visit to the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing showed how the river could act as a daunting boundary for slaves wishing to escape to freedom. These, and other stops, illustrate that the river over time has acted as a means for economic and cultural confluence—a point raised by Gregg Mitman, Professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies, on our way back–but also as a physical barrier enforcing social separation.
These rhythms of historic time are important, but so too are the day-to-day rhythms of social riverboat culture that were raised for me during the group’s reading of some of Mark Twain’s work at Riverview Park in Hannibal Missouri (organized by Assistant Professor of English, Joshua Calhoun). These are passages from a section of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi that I read to the group at Riverview Park:
After all these years, I can picture that old time to myself now, just us it was then: the white town drowsing in the sunshine of a summer’s morning; the streets empty, or pretty nearly so; one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores, with their splint-bottomed chairs tilted back against the wall, chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep….. a sow and a litter of pigs loafing along the sidewalk, doing a good business in watermelon rinds and seeds; two or three lonely little freight piles scattered about the “levee,” a pile of “skids” on the slope of the stone-paved wharf…”S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin!” and the scene changes! The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours out a human contribution and all in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys all go hurrying from many quarters to a common center, the wharf.
The rhythm of lived experience in Twain’s portrayal of river towns along the Mississippi River is striking. Town life is strongly tied to the arrival and departures of steamboats. While reading these passages, his portrayal resonated very strongly with me. The rhythms of historical and lived time show similarities to a different watery place in West Africa, a place where I have lived and worked—on and off—since 1987.
The Inland (or Inner) Niger Delta is a 20,000 km2 floodplain lying in the central part of the Republic of Mali. Like the Mississippi, the Niger River and its Inland Niger Delta have historically served as major areas of political and cultural confluence. In fact, the Inland Niger Delta is arguably one of the most important geographies of social and political confluence of precolonial Africa. Not only is it located between the forest and desert and therefore ideally placed for trade, but its waters have served as an important vehicle for trade. The Inland Niger Delta is known as the center of early forms of African urbanism. Djenné and Tombouctou are cities that developed as trade centers supported materially by local fisheries and rice agriculture, which also served to support a succession of precolonial Empires (13th through 19th centuries). In Tombouctou, the economic surplus generated supported world-renowned Islamic scholars, and the city was a major center for the generation of scientific knowledge. In short, the river’s confluence brought together peoples of a range of religions, ethnicities, and occupations.
However, despite being seen historically as a center of innovation and economic dynamism, the Inland Niger Delta is now viewed in Mali as an economic backwater. It is seen as an area with a splendid history and significant resource potential, but one that is mired by a deep-seated resistance to state authority—a backward-looking culture strongly shaped by the flattery and insults of griot castes and significant social conflict. While the reasons for the Delta’s decline in relative prosperity are different from those of the Mississippi riverfront in the United States, the sense of decline I feel walking along the St. Louis riverfront is similar to that walking in the city of Tenenkou or observing the movement of economic activity inland from Mopti’s port in the Delta.
Similar to the Mississippi of the past, the Niger River today is still far from controlled, despite dams in its upper reaches. The height of the river and its branches vary significantly across the year, and between years. The flood season lags the rainy season by several months, and enforces a strong seasonality to floodplain life. The levees, on which villages are located, become islands during the flood season. Diseases, particularly malaria, become more prevalent during the flood season when agricultural demands are at their highest. Rice, the major staple, is grown by Rimayɓe farmers with little flood control (apart from some temporary damming of natural channels to affect the timing of to ease entry of flood waters onto parts of the floodplain), while Bozo and Somono fisherfolk wait for the floods to ease and reveal concentrated fish populations in key parts of the floodplain. Livestock, the major store of wealth for the region, return with Fulɓe herders to the floodplain only during the dry season after flood retreat. This is a landscape of movement—moving water, moving fish populations, moving rice fields, moving cattle—made use of by mobile people: livestock herders, fisherfolk and rice cultivators.
For people of the Delta, the inter-annual fluctuations of the flood are major topics of conversation. At the beginning of the flood season each year, numerous marketplace conversations ensue as people seek to learn about flooding at specific locations. In this way, variations in flooding can be seen as reinforcing the connection between lived and historical time. Not that people necessarily remember the exact flood parameters of past years, but since the flood each year has significant effects on peoples’ welfare and livelihood practices, one could argue that flood variation serves as an important connector between lived time and historical experiences. While I haven’t lived along the Mississippi I did wonder, when I visited this summer, whether interannual flood variation in peoples’ experience has (due to our taming of the river and peoples’ changing dependence on the river), become coarser–less temporally fine-scaled—with a homogenous mass of normal years occasionally punctuated with “flood” years of variable severity.
There were other rhythms of social interaction that grabbed my imagination while reading Twain’s passage. Despite the Delta’s economic decline and the growing importance of roads along its edges, for transportation, something akin to a riverboat culture still thrives in the Delta. While transport by trucks utilizes dirt tracks on the exposed hardpan of the floodplain during the dry season, transport of products by boat in the Delta still remains very important. The movements of these boats through the Delta produce a rhythm of social interaction among boat workers, their regular passengers (merchants), and their in-town hosts and customers similar to those that I imagine Twain experienced.
As on Twain’s Mississippi, sleepy towns come alive in the Delta when the large boats arrive. There is a regularity to these visits since the boats follow circuits among major weekly markets. In both places towns come alive, not simply due to a break in the monotony of town life and the excitement about boats among children, but also because these boats bring cash. In the Delta, boats bring boat owners, workers and merchants, all with cash in places where cash is often lacking. In fact, one can think of larger boats as moving islands of the cash economy. Sightings of particular merchants on a boat headed to a particular market can elicit significant interest since the prices of commodities, such as livestock, change markedly with their presence. The arrival of these boats to town can elicit a frenzy of trading: requests for loans and commissions of goods to be transported elsewhere.
Children in the Niger Delta are intrigued by the mobility that boats allow, just like the boys in Twain’s account, and are fascinated by the lives lived by boatmen. The boats represent an escape from the sometimes uncomfortable social restrictions of village life. At the same time, as transporters of the cash economy, they provide opportunities to obtain and spend cash. The owners of the boats are generally from fishing ethnic groups—Bozo or Somono—descendants of the earliest occupants of the Delta. They are the river boat pilots. Boat workers themselves are often of mixed ethnicities (and often descendants of slaves such as the Rimayɓe or Ikelan, or from the lower castes), chosen for their strength. Being able to carry a 100 kilo sack of grain is the minimum requirement for working on the boats. Although the boatmen are a common sight, their dual unfamiliarity continues to contribute to their fame. Some boat workers become famous with children who know them by name, and can recount their acts of strength.
Strength proves to be very important during periods of low flood, when boats will run aground outside of the main river channel. I remember being a passenger on a boat in January 2003, and having to get in and out of the boat constantly during the night to push. At one point we were joined by several other boats. We all became stuck and it seemed hopeless. Out of the darkness, in chest-high water, came our heroine, a Bozo woman of immense strength who not only led in the pushing of the boat but also directed the men. Once our boat got through it became clear that, while some had not seen her before, all of the passengers had heard of this legendary woman.
The weekly circuits of boats on the Niger Delta lead to near constant movement. As is the custom throughout the region, boatmen and merchants have established hosts at each port, with broad sets of social contacts developing over time, leading to a different sociology of familiarity and mutual assistance. They create a sense of freedom and also familiarity. Such weekly patterns are not unique in the region but it is their connections to deeper historical time through the rhythms of river flooding where Mali’s riverboat culture shares much with Twain’s evocatively described Mississippi riverboat culture.
Featured Image: Niger Delta Landscape. Photograph by Matt Turner, 2014.
Matt Turner is a Center for Culture, History and Environment (CHE) faculty affiliate and professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin. He works primarily in Sahelian West Africa on environmental change and changing politics of resource access and use. Contact.