Excerpt from Glenn Davis Stone: Crop Mobs in Nigeria
From: Stone, Glenn Davis (1996) Settlement Ecology: The Social and Spatial Organization of Kofyar Agriculture. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, pp. 109-114.
(Posted with permission)
Organization of Agricultural Labor
Let us look at the frontier Kofyars' social mechanisms for providing labor, and at the Kofyars' reasons for mobilizing labor in these ways. I focus here on the three principal labor mobilization strategies that account for more than 98% of all farm work.
Household labor, in which family households work on their own fields, accounts for the bulk of Kofyar agricultural hours. Household fields include both those plots controlled by the household head and those held in usufruct by others in the household. Household labor is applied by individuals or groups usually numbering five or less. This type of labor is easily mobilized and highly flexible.
Mar muos, based on the homeland labor parties of the same name, are large neighborhood work groups, also known as festive labor parties (Erasmus 1956; Saul 1983). These gatherings typically involve 30--60 workers but may exceed 100. They are characterized by a spirit of friendly competition and an almost frenzied pace of work. All present are served millet beer after the work (fig. 7.3). Mar muos usually must be scheduled weeks in advance, and they require several days of brewing work by the women in the household.
Wuk exchange-labor groups, typically ranging from 5 to 20 in size, are between the more formal mar muos and small-scale, flexible household labor. Wuk are membership groups or voluntary associations whose participants take turns working on each other's fields. The workers are repaid with reciprocal labor (which is carefully noted) at later meetings of the group. Most households belong to a wuk with their neighbors, sending various household members to each labor event. Individuals also form wuk groups, usually along age and sex lines, that meet to work on individual plots.6
The labor budget recorded in the study sample comprised 74.5% household, 11.5% wuk, and 14.0% mar muos. Group labor is especially important during the rainy season; exactly one-third of the farm labor between mid April and mid October is mobilized by suprahousehold groups (fig. 7.1). But why is labor pooled in the first place?
There is first the fundamental question of whether labor exchange has an economic basis at all: where is the advantage in putting in n days on neighbors' farms so that n neighbors will put in a day on mine? In fact, the Kofyar would seem to suffer a net loss in field labor because of the time women have to spend on brewing beer for the group (M. P. Stone et al. 1995).
Part of the Kofyars' answer is that people work harder in work groups, especially in the festive atmosphere of the mar muos. There are ample inducements for hard work at the mar muos. The work may be preceded by the spectacle of a few young men making their way across the field, each hoeing a line of yam heaps at a frantic pace and occasionally stopping to shout energetically; this provides a model of industrious field work and also divides the field into sections for the other workers, who compete in teams. Sponsors sometimes hire drummers to encourage the workers to keep a fast pace (see fig. 3.3). The least subtle technique that I saw for boosting labor productivity was the masquerade character who attended a chief's mar muos for millet storing; the character carried a sorghum stalk, and part of his role was to whip anyone whose work pace was too slow.
A related issue is the quality of work, which is relatively high with the Kofyar (Netting et al. 1989:308). Complaints about the quality of work by festive groups are usually based on comparison with work done by households on their own fields (Erasmus 1956:456), or they concern extensive plots that do not require fine techniques (e.g., Saul 1983). For the most part, the Kofyar show a strong preference for festive or exchange labor over hired labor, which is expensive and requires constant monitoring. This is especially true of complex intercropping operations (such as making yam heaps in the sorghum field) that require particular skill and judgement, or the millet storing (described below), which would never be done with hired labor.
Simultaneous Labor Demands
Intensification theory stresses total labor demands, but in some ways the arrangement of labor demands through time is more important. In chapter 3 I discussed how farm operations that can be accomplished by low labor inputs over an extended time are said to have linear labor demands. Operations that require a large number of workers at once have simultaneous labor demands; this includes operations that simply require that a lot of work is accomplished in a short time (simple simultaneous), and those that require that different tasks are completed at the same time (complex simultaneous; see Wilk and Netting 1984; Jochim 1991). Barn raising and field burning are well-known examples of simultaneous labor demands that are usually handled with group labor.
The Kofyars' use of group and household work details to meet differing labor demands is seen most clearly in the harvesting and storing of millet. Millet is harvested in August. The work of cutting the grain heads, tying them into bundles, and carrying them back to the compound can be done piecemeal, and the job is done almost entirely by household labor, not larger work details (fig. 7.2). But the harvest is immediately followed by the lang maar storage operation, with its complex simultaneous labor demands. Grasses are gathered for ropes and thatching; ropes are braided to tie bundles of seed heads while thatch mats are woven; the bundles are heaved up to workers atop the small circular millet house (lu maar) to be arranged in a high conical pile. When the pile is complete, the thatching is secured around it and a small fire is started on the dirt floor of the millet house to begin drying the crop. Because most of these operations must be conducted simultaneously, mar muos are particularly adapted to this task and account for more than 72% of the work (fig. 7.4). Millet storage parties can put away millet for several households in one day, often beginning early in the morning and working into the late afternoon (fig. 7.5).
The only time a Kofyar asked me for help on his farm was when I stopped by to talk with a man who was alone in his courtyard, tying millet into bundles. This man was a member of the Protestant church, which forbade production and consumption of the muos (millet beer) that is the lifeblood of festive labor arrangements. Group labor has been greatly reduced (but not eliminated) among the Protestants, and he was faced with the problem of both throwing and catching the bundles---the epitome of complex simultaneous labor demands.
The mar muos system allows labor invested into millet cultivation to be withdrawn in the form of group labor. Millet is a particularly advantageous crop to grow; interplanting it with sorghum increases returns per unit of both labor and land, without a proportionate rise in labor demands during bottlenecks (Stone et al. 1990; Richards 1985; Norman et al. 1982). Its value is enhanced by its flexibility. It can be eaten, and is available long before other staples are harvested. It can be marketed, and is the Kofyar's second major cash crop after yams. It can also brewed into beer for sale, mar muos, or social occasions. "Banking" labor as millet allows the farmer to mitigate fluctuations in the availability of household labor. The Kofyars' intensive cultivation strategies are planned tightly enough that the loss of one adult to illness during a key part of the season may endanger an entire crop.