The Dizzying Reality of Global Commodity Chains

Although I was devoted to the task of election monitoring while in Cote d’Ivoire, I still payed close attention to aspects of Ivorian life that could inform or shed light onto my research half a world away.

With this in mind, I perused the aisles of the supermarket in Soubré, a small town in the province of Bas-Sassandra, where I spent the bulk of my time while in-country. Though I ought to be nonplussed by such things at this point, I was taken aback to find a large display in the store devoted to Turkish biscuits and candies. I was used to seeing them in shops in Istanbul and never expected them to turn up south of the Sahara.

Next to the Turkish treats above are stacks of Dutch shortbread cookies. Other places in the shop I found wine from Moldova (we have it in Kyrgyzstan too!), juices and dates from the Gulf states, as well as various and sundry things from around Africa and southern Europe.

In addition the surprises that turned up in the shop, I went to the open air market in Soubré, which felt a lot like Central Asian bazaars. My election observation partner who is from Comoros, a tiny archipelago state in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar, came with me. I saw some cloth decorated with an intricate and beautiful African motif print and asked her if she liked it. She answered that she loved it, which is why she bought some yards of it in the Comoros and had a dress made from it the year before. The were also also countless stalls selling electronic accessories from China, including a multi-plug adapter that I use in my apartment in Bishkek.

There have been several in-depth anthropological studies of commodity chains. (I am indebted to my fellow anthro-friend CB‘s facebook inquiry from a few months ago for bringing these examples to mind.) Some noteworthy ones for those of you who have the time, and are near a good library or healthy bank account: Shea Butter Republic by Brenda Chalfin, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore Bestor, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon.

Lastly, I will point you to The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe. This gives me a good excuse to post a lovely picture of cocoa pods luxuriously ripening on the tree in a multi-use forest just outside of Soubré. Each one was bigger than my head.

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