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Review of Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa


By James Gibbs

Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. Órla Ryan. Zed Books, London and New York, 2011. Pp. 182. ISBN. 978 1 84813 005 0 (pb). £12.99.

I am familiar with the term ‘banana republic’, and with chocolate eggs, chocolate pennies, chocolate bunnies and chocolate-cream soldiers, but a ‘chocolate nation’, or chocolate republic, is new to me. However, during the opening weeks of 2011, as Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara engaged in a bizarre pas de deux  in Cote d’Ivoire while cocoa famers  burnt part of their harvest in front of the  EU offices in  Abidjan, the world watched a chocolate nation in melt-down.

The protagonists were new to many, but readers of Órla Ryan’s book followed the ‘story’ from a better-informed perspective. Significantly Gbagbo and Outtara are introduced in ‘Cocoa wars’, the second chapter of her study, sub-titled ‘Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa’, and reappear in Chapter Four, her account of the ‘disappearance’ of agronomist and crusading journalist Guy André.

The events played out in Côte d’Ivoire following the disputed election of November 2010 clearly provided an appropriate background to the publication of Chocolate Nations.  However, on opening Ryan’s book, it is not immediately apparent precisely how it should be catalogued. Is it history, politics or agriculture, campaigning tract or academic study?  The information available about publication is unexpected and not entirely consistent: in the front matter, Chocolate Nations is described as being published by Zed Books ‘in association with the International African Institute, the Royal African Society and the Social Science Research Council’. Those familiar with fiercely-independent Zed Books (a co-operative!) may be surprised to find it ‘in association with’ the International African Institute (long associated with Barbara Pym though I am sure her ghost no longer haunts the offices), the venerable, somewhat establishment-orientated Royal African Society, and the Brooklyn-based SSRC.  If the relationship was not already difficult enough to disentangle, the IAI website adds to the confusion by describing the book as ‘Published for the IAI by Zed Books’!  A solution of sorts is offered at the back of the printed edition where Chocolate Nations is listed among the titles in the ‘African Arguments’ series. Apparently, African Arguments are ‘concise, engaging books that address the key issues facing Africa today. Topical and thought-provoking, accessible but in depth, they provide essential reading for anyone interested in getting to the heart of both why contemporary Africa is the way it is and how it is changing.’ The editors of this welcome series, into which Ryan’s book fits very well, are Alex de Waal and Richard Dowden, and the editorial board includes other names that resonate, including Emmanuel Akyeampong, Akwe Amosu, Breyten Breytenbach and Robert Molteno.  Darfur, AIDS, and the Lord’s Resistance Army appear in the titles of published or forthcoming titles.

The series helps to ‘place’ both the book and Órla Ryan, who is described as having been with Reuters in Ghana and as working for the Financial Times in London. Her background leaves a decisive mark on Chocolate Nations that is written with the immediacy of good journalism, offers vivid sketches and builds chapters on  telling anecdotes.  At its best, the book recalls the accessible and authoritative labours of Adam Hoschild that magnificently bridge the divide between mass communications and history, and, incidentally, provide a template for African Arguments.

Ryan’s eight chapters justify her potentially melodramatic sub- title as she gets behind reports of child labour on cocoa farms, investigates attempts to provide Fairtrade Chocolate, and, as anticipated, looks into what happened to Guy André. She also tells lesser-known stories, including that of Steve Wallace, the Omanhene label and the production, against massive odds, of gourmet chocolate in Ghana.

While Reuter’s correspondent in West Africa, Ryan read widely and travelled extensively, but there are a few moments when she doesn’t quite hit the right note. For example, by referring to  the University of Ghana at Accra, rather than Legon, she  suggests a certain distance from the academic, and this is underlined for me  by the  absence of ‘WACRI’,  the West African Cocoa Research Institute, from the Index. Didn’t she feel she had to visit Tafo? There are also occasions when her manner of describing a source, for example as ‘an NGO worker‘(55),  fails to indicate how much weight she thinks should be given to it. NGO workers are a varied bunch.

For those hoping for firm guidance through the moral maze of cocoa production and chocolate consumption, Ryan scorns easy answers. This is a nuanced account, and some will expect more direction than is provided in the closing sentences that advise: ‘By all means buy Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Cadbury or Mars. But look behind the marketing. And don’t forget to read the small print.’

Reviewed by: James Gibbs, Senior Visiting Research Fellow, University of the West of England, Bristol.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 71-72]

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