In previous posts, we saw how underdevelopment and poverty are longstanding and more common features of human life on earth than development and riches. We also saw that some societies jumped ahead of others and became fabulously rich in a few short years. In this post, we look at why some societies do not embrace the change that leads to riches, and end up stagnating in poverty and backwardness.

In my ancestral home of Eke, a town a few dozen miles east of the River Niger in Nigeria, not very long ago, if you suggested a seemingly simple change like allowing denizens to marry someone from a nearby  town where the Eke ancestors had forbidden marriage, they would look at you as if you are cuckoo. If you repeat the suggestion, they tell you, “Okwa ome n’ ani.” It’s the law and custom, and you violate it at your peril. And if you insist on a “rational” reason why you should not marry someone from there, they say that they are our brothers and sisters (even though an Eke man can marry an Eke woman), and cite chapter and verse on instances where people have foolishly violated this taboo and come to ruin.

ani amankwo
The traditional shrine of Eke, known as Ani Amankwo

A number of years ago, my uncle met a woman he wanted to marry in London, England. She is originally from the forbidden town of Nsude, and my uncle came home to Eke to ask the elders for their blessing. Of course they said no. You may picture these elders as illiterate graybeards clad in ratty traditional cloth thrown over the shoulder toga-like, men who enjoyed their snuff while sneezing copiously, and who drank palm wine at village gatherings from calabash cups. But no they were not: they were well-educated professional men. In fact, one of them, the family patriarch, was an internationally respected jurist who spent most of his time in The Hague. He censured my uncle for daring to suggest such a thing: “Okwa ome n’ani.”

If a simple change like this is difficult, imagine how people will resist the sort of sweeping changes to life, beliefs, and work habits that completely overhauling a society’s economic and social behavior will demand? “The tradition of all the dead generations,” Marx wrote about 19th century France, “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Thus human change is haunted by powerful ghosts of the past.

My ancestral home is no longer a traditional community, but it is not far removed from the customs and habits of precolonial tribal life—only three or four generations or a century separate today from the days before the British arrived. It is still difficult to make changes that can have economic impact. Vestiges of traditional behaviors remain there and in many other parts of Nigeria. For example, some still believe that visiting a juju priest—or if strongly Christian, praying and fasting—is a better guarantor of business success than a feasibility study (which most don’t know about). A distant relative might show up at your door without warning, and stay at your home for years without contributing anything to your household income. Many people still expect a successful relative to take care of them if they are less fortunate. Blood ties trump merit and many expect a “brother” in a position of power to give them jobs or work regardless of whether they are the best person for that position. If you live abroad, relatives expect financial support, and some may even think they don’t have to fend for themselves because they have someone living in a rich country.

By the way, expecting support is not just an African thing. Traditional and poor societies around the world tend to practice similar behaviors—where they are small scale, friction and conflict are the order of the day, some form of primitive cooperative socialism holds sway, and everyone expects help from others as a matter of duty. A university professor of mine who had immigrated to Canada from China in the days when China was poor, before it became the economic powerhouse that it is today, used to tell the class how he stopped communicating with folks back home because they kept demanding money.

But this is not the biggest problem that hinders small-scale traditional societies throughout history. The violence of endemic raiding and warfare is.  There is a popular modern myth that fragmented tribal societies lived or live in harmony with nature, and in idyllic peace with one another. Perhaps they did live in harmony with nature—though I personally doubt it—but peace? No, the evidence does not support it. The record is clear from the traditional band and tribal societies that have been extensively studied—from the Yanomamo of the Amazon Basin, to the Highlanders of New Guinea, to the Igbos of Nigeria—that raiding and warfare were often regular practice until powerful invaders came from outside and forced everyone to live in peace.

Even today, if some television documentaries are to be believed, raiding still goes on in the Amazon (The Tribe in the Picture; and First Contact: Lost tribe of the Amazon); and in Nigeria, the so-called Fulani herdsmen massacres seem to me to be evidence of resurrected pre-colonial raiding practices. And lest anyone think such tribal conflict is restricted to the benighted “Third World,” the ancient Roman historian Tacitus tells us in The Agricola that ancient Britain was in his time populated by warring tribes who had so much animus between them that they were unable to unite against a common enemy.

My maternal grandmother, who knew what life was like before the Brits showed up to colonize South-East Nigeria, used to tell me stories of her childhood: “A nokete n’ime uchichi, oso e su, balam!” Suddenly, in the middle of the night, bam! Everyone would break into blind panic-stricken running in the belief that head-hunting raiders from a hostile village were in town. My great-grandfather, my father used to proudly tell me, was an ace head-hunter himself, a warrior of renown—he was said to have in his home a number of human skulls from his various “ogu Abiriba” (ferocious battles), skulls which he used to drink palm wine.

My grandmother, who would not have understood our need to tell the right kind of pious political fibs, used to say she was very happy that the colonialists showed up to put an end to such fear and uncertainty. This sentiment is not unique to my grandmother as Jared Diamond reports in The World Until Yesterday: “When tribal warfare is finally ended by forceful intervention by colonial governments, tribespeople regularly comment on the resulting improved quality of life that they hadn’t been able to create for themselves…” And in anthropologist Mary Smith’s biography of Baba of Karo, an aged Hausa woman in the North of Nigeria who lived in precolonial days and witnessed the arrival of the British, Baba recollects that the Hausa in Karo were happy the Brits were coming because “they would stop wars and would repair the world”.

In such regions of war and raiding, the exchange of knowledge and ideas that leads to progress is often difficult because everyone is afraid of their neighbors and avoids them as much as possible. In many traditional societies, people know almost nothing about their neighbors thirty miles down the bush path. They often fear them as dangerous cannibals or head hunters, or have a long-standing enmity with them.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker explains the importance of decreased violence in The Better Angels of our Nature:  “Daily existence is very different if you always have to worry about being abducted, raped, or killed, and it’s hard to develop sophisticated arts, learning, or commerce if the institutions that support them are looted and burned as quickly as they are built.”



War Before Civilization: the myth of the peaceful savage. Lawrence H. Keeley, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Noble Savages: My life among two dangerous tribes—the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists. Napoleon A. Chagnon. Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Among the Ibos of Nigeria: An account of the curious & interesting habits, customs, & beliefs of a little known African people by one who has for many years lived amongst them on close & intimate terms. G.T. Basden, 1921.

The World Until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies. Jared Diamond. Viking, 2012

Baba of Karo: A woman of the Moslem Hausa. Mary Smith, Faber 1954.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined. Steven Pinker, Viking 2011

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