Now when you want to publish an article, you write it, you put it on your website and within days hundreds if not thousands of people have read it. Sometimes someone will approach you and ask if they can publish it in the old-fashioned way, in a journal, and you’ll say “Why not?” In the old days, you would write your paper, send it to a journal, wait for six months, then at long last you would receive a letter telling you about hundreds of changes readers who have no clue about what you are writing about expect you to make, and finally, another six months later your article would be published and you could expect that dozens or people would read it over a considerable number of years.
This story is about the old days of the printed article.
In the 1980s I worked for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. I wrote three lengthy reports for the FAO. They published two (*) and turned down one. The story is about the turned down one.
I worked on a fisheries project in Bénin, formerly known as Dahomey, in West Africa. Someone had done a preliminary investigation. He had gone to the beach in remote coastal villages and seen men sitting there. He had asked the first man why he was not fishing and that man had replied that he was not fishing because he was ill. He had gone to the second man, who had told him the same story: that he was ill. Then to the third, and so on. So he wrote in his preliminary report that the beach was littered with slackers and that it would be a smart idea indeed to teach them how to fish. Hence my presence.
When I went to these villages the first thing I did was what I had learned at school: I wrote a questionnaire to be presented to every hut about who was living there, what were the ages and occupations. I had “statisticians” go to beach villages and submit the questionnaire. Once the data collected I started analyzing them. I built what is called “age pyramids”: you put each individual in an age bucket, men on one side and women on the other of a vertical axis. It’s called a pyramid because as you put the kids at the bottom – and there are many – and the old people at the top – and there are very few – it looks very much like a pyramid. But then I was in for a surprise: the women’s side looked like a pyramid all right but the men’s side was hollow: there were no men between the ages of 20 and 40, or I should say, apart from the dozen sitting on the beach.
So I went to the women instead and asked “Where are the boys?” And they replied: “Oh! They’re in Gabon, in Liberia, in the Congo!” “All right, and what are they doing there?” said I. “Well, they’re fishing” said they. – “And why aren’t they fishing here?” – “Because there’s no fish!”
So I said to my bosses in Rome “I need to go see these guys where they really are.” First they sent me to the Congo. On my second day in Pointe-Noire a fisherman approached me: “There’s a woman who wishes to speak to you.” I said fine and she came to see me and she said with much modesty “I think you knew my brother.” And I asked who he was and she gave me his name and I replied “Oh yes, I knew who he was: he drowned, he died in our project in Bénin and I was really mad when that happened.” She added “I know that and that’s why I wanted to see you.” We were several thousands miles away from where the accident had taken place and she had made my day in many more than one way: if anyone would have asked me now “Do you still believe these people migrate?” I knew exactly what to tell.
I went to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Togo in addition to Bénin. I wrote up my report about fishermen’s migrations in West Africa but the FAO wouldn’t publish it. I said “But you’ve published the other two about the social organization of fishing villages and self-subsistence in fishing communities, why not this one?” – “Because it’s controversial” was the answer. I said “Fine, can I use it the way I see fit?” They said yes, so I had it published in a maritime anthropology journal (**).
But this is not the end of my story. A few years ago I came across a page-length recommended reading list that the fisheries division of the FAO had put together. My two FAO publications were not part of that list but – yes, of course you’ve guessed it – the turned down report was gloriously there!
(*) The Influence of Socio-Economic and Cultural Structures on Small-Scale Coastal Fisheries Development in Bénin, IDAF/WP4, F.A.O., 1985: 42 pp.
Non-Monetary Distribution of Fish as Food in Béninois Small-Scale Fishing Villages and its Importance for Self-Consumption, PMB/WP4, F.A.O., 1985: 26 pp.
(**) “Going out or staying home: Seasonal movements and migration strategies among Xwla and Anlo-Ewe fishermen”. Maritime Anthropological Studies, 1, 2, 1988: 129-155.