Book Review: MARIANE C. FERME. 2001: The Underneath of Things. Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone. California: University of California Press.


Mariane Ferme’s The Underneath of Things is a powerful ethnography of Kpuawala, a village in south-eastern Sierra Leone. The author provides deep insights into the everyday life of the village’s Mende-speaking population in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The monograph’s six main chapters cover an enormous variety of topics ranging from material culture, the meaning of landscape, history and immaterial practices via gender, kinship and age to politics, mobility, the body and power. Ferme skilfully places three short interludes in between the chapters in which she describes the history and usage of particular objects, thereby highlighting factors of Mende political economy through uncovering the underlying meanings behind the weaving of cotton cloth and hair, splitting kola nuts and the use of clay and palm oil.

Certeau, whom Ferme cites regularly, states that /”readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write”/ (Certeau 1984: 174) and Gaillard in his review of Ferme’s book highlights that her ethnography “is that rare anthropological text that invites the reader to travel” (Gaillard 2003: 137). Indeed, Ferme artfully creates pictures in front of the readers’ eyes, guiding them through the complex and multi-layered stories of day-to-day life and practice of the inhabitants of Kpuawala, painting them in all their unresolved ambiguity and linking them to present inscriptions of past history, violence, political economy, exploitation and materiality in Sierra Leone. Through describing stories and narrating facets of everyday life in minute detail and explaining the way these narratives are created, she uncovers what lies underneath and beyond the surface and shows clearly that “familiar reality masks different layers of meaning” (Ferme 2001: 32).

Ferme recounts history backwards, filling readers’ and respondents’ gaps in knowledge for example when explaining how Margarine, the “epitome of sophisticated European food in Sierra Leone” (194) is nothing but “imported, quintessentially British colonial food – originated in palm kernels exported from the West African coast and thus (…) returning in full circle to its source.” (ibid.). In chapter one, she highlights beautifully how the nature around Kpuawala slowly reclaims the unfinished technological and industrial efforts of colonialism and how this can be read as a metaphor for the failed efforts of integration and modernization and serves as a painful reminder of the violent and disruptive experiences of colonialism. At the same time, she shows that only an expert can read the signs of the past. For those who lack the knowledge to read them or do not know what they are looking for, the past remains obscure. This is a striking example of the ways in which different people may interpret the same setting or situation differently, depending on their knowledge, experience and expectations, as well as a hint at the particularity of anthropological research.

The author covers a vast range of topics, for example connecting artefacts and leftovers of the past with present-day reality and the strategic ways people inhabit a specific landscape. However, she does not claim to create a complete picture, but rather purposefully leaves the pieces side by side allowing the reader to fill in gaps and interpret structures. These individual pieces are expressive chapters on their own, but also create a sense of depth as a whole because what binds them together is Ferme’s way of doing ethnography. Through her long-term engagement with the people of Kpuawala and through careful participant observation, like peeling an onion, she takes the reader by the hand and leads him, layer by layer, deeper into the underlying meanings of everyday life in Kpuawala. Ferme herself has all the skills she attributes to Vandi, a Kpuawala elder and hunting expert, in “unravelling an apparently meaningless word to reveal its fragments of sense.” (Ferme 2001: 28). Through providing “strategic details” (ibid.) about the way for example women in Kpuawala braid their hair, treat and name their children and enter or leave buildings, she manages to tell the reader about their social reality, the way Luisa Schneider. Book Review. Mariane C. Ferme, 2001: The Underneath of Things. Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone. California: University of California Press. they construct and maintain relationships and deal with the complex and fragmented history of the country they inhabit. From Ferme we can learn that the work of an anthropologist has much to do with that of a hunter. Through “decoding (…) signs one could recognize only from one’s own participation in similar events” (ibid: 28) can one understand the meaning of actions and the cultural logic behind them. Consequently, her work is not only a book about concealment and about uncovering, and slowly and carefully unravelling what seems to be concealed, but also a reminder of the great advantages of ethnographic fieldwork.

There are, however, a few things Ferme does not do. Even though she conducted research in Kpuawala three times between 1984 and 1993, we do not know how she obtained the data she presents in her monograph. In addition, she does not contextualize her research area nor provide any in-depth history of the people she studies. I have to agree with the critique of others (Gaillard 2003; Lambert 2003; Silva 2002) in saying that although she provides a map of Kpuawala, from her accounts, the reader does not know where this village is, how and why she chose this setting for her research and what methods she used to respond to her research question. Ferme’s objective, as she states, is to “explore the links between a violent historical and political legacy and a cultural order of dissimulation in the Upper Guinea Coast of West Africa (…) as well as Liberia and parts of Guinea.” (Ferme 2001: 1). Through doing so, she aims to “analyse how strategies of concealment permeate multiple levels of discursive and spatial practice, from the realm of regional politics to the more mundane realms of domesticity and productive activities.” (ibid: 1f) Ferme provides the reader with an incredibly rich understanding of a particular setting, namely Kpuawala and the Mende in this area at a certain point in time. Throughout most of the book she does not show how ”unpredictable dynamics are set in motion at critical junctures in the making and unmaking of the social order” (Ferme 2001: 226), but loses this thread, as Lambert puts it, “in the wealth of ethnographic materials” (Lambert 2003: 1). When one unmasks her beautifully constructed sentences one is left with a carefully collected description of everyday material practices that do not manage to fulfil her claim to provide us with a deeper understanding of the complex events leading to the civil war in Sierra Leone. The historical elements she uses “for framing a narrative about Sierra Leone in the present by looking at the relationship between traces of historical memory and potentially occult economy within which the circulation of everyday objects take place” (Ferme 2001: 227) are situated in Sierra Leones colonial past. For me the promises of the title, the introduction and the conclusion are to be seen separate from the actual work, which is a beautiful but very specific ethnography of Kpuawala that focuses “on the production of meaning (semeiosis) as it emerges from the tension between surface phenomena and that, which is concealed beneath them.” (ibid: 2).

Even though Ferme, for the most part, does not link her data to the bigger picture of the history and reality of the region she studies, her work is far from being outdated. Lambert (2003: 1) draws attention to the fact that Ferme conducted research before a decade long civil war broke out in her research area and published her work after it concluded without adapting her work to a post-war environment. However, today, another 14 years later, her work is crucial in understanding the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Sierra Leone. The sickness is mainly transmitted through nursing the ailing and burial rituals. It can thus be categorized as a “[d]isease of social intimacy” (Richards et. al 2015:1). Ferme’s detailed descriptions of women’s mourning periods and their ceremonies is the only account of otherwise deeply secretive and hidden practices and these descriptions are a strong example of the strength of anthropology and the way in which detailed accounts of everyday life, gathered through long- Luisa Schneider. Book Review. Mariane C. Ferme, 2001: The Underneath of Things. Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone. California: University of California Press. term, in-depth, socio-culturally sensitive research are crucial in understanding bigger phenomena. What we can learn from Ferme is to go deeper, to look again and to uncover the hidden. She is right in reminding us that, following Bachelard, “the detail opens up a whole world.” (Ferme 2001: 156). Her work is a brilliant account of a specific people at a specific place in a specific moment in time. At the same time, her work reminds us that ethnographic works, even if they are older, can be of great relevance in the present and that accounts can be brilliant and thoughtprovoking even if they do not fulfil what they claimed to set out to do.


Certeau, M. 1984: The practice of everyday Life. Translated by Rendall, S. Berkeley ; London: University of California Press.

Ferme, M. C. 2001: The Underneath of Things : Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gaillard 2003: Closer to the Ground. Book Review of Mariane C. Ferme`s The Underneath of Things. In: Current Anthropology, Vol. 44, No. 1 (February 2003), pp. 144-146 Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Stable URL: Accessed: 16/10/2015 12:04

James, Wendy 2003: The Ceremonial Animal. A New Portrait of Anthropology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lambert, M., C. 2003: Review of Ferme, M., C. The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone. H-Africa H-Net Reviews. Online: Accessed: 12/10/2015

Richards P. et al. 2015: Social Pathways for Ebola Virus Disease in Rural Sierra Leone, and Some Implications for Containment. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 9(4): e0003567. doi:10.1371/ journal.pntd.0003567

Silva, S. 2002: Review of Ferme, M., C. The Underneath of Things: Violence, History, and the Everyday in Sierra Leone.In: American Ethnologist, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Aug., 2002), pp. 759- 761 Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL: Accessed: 16-10-2015 16:09 UTC. Accessed: 15/10/2015.