We think of our societies as static, terrestrial roots. Being sons of the soil, of the fatherland or motherland, are reigning metaphors. They underlie ideas of race, community, culture and nation. We are invested in fixed origins.

This idea is both misleading and exhausted. If language frames what is natural, our metaphors need an update. A spider’s web gives a better image of how, as social beings, we converge, unfold and heal.

To illustrate, let us look at the story of the Anansi spider.

African, Caribbean folklore

In 1928, American anthropologists Melville and Frances Herskovits arrived in Suriname, a Dutch colony on the rim of the Caribbean. The Herskovits, studying popular folklore, gravitated to capital Paramaribo’s “yards”.

Migrants in a yard in Paramaribo, Suriname. Photo credit: Leiden University / KITLV Shelf Mark / Image Code 8859

Yards were proletarian zones outside of European scrutiny. At the city’s interstices, they comprised simple cabins and open communal space. The colonial underclass – Afro-Surinamese, Javanese, Chinese and Hindostani – were found there. For Dutch officials, Paramaribo’s yards were rowdy and unsanitary: a moral and health hazard. Yet the Herskovits saw a creative ferment in them.

The Hindostani, or indentured Indians, arrived in Suriname after 1873 and slavery’s abolition. Docile labour was necessary, to keep Caribbean sugar plantations, central to European wealth from the 1600s, profitable. Of a larger subcontinental migration to the region, the Hindostani fell under Dutch jurisdiction. Other Indians went to nearby British Guiana and Trinidad, or French Martinique.

The Hindostani were to reside near Dutch plantations they worked on, but were soon present in Paramaribo’s yards. The Herskovits saw them there, alongside African, indigenous and Asian people. Yards hosted an expressive amalgam, from their traditions, of diviners, healers and ceremonial dance.

This interlacing of gossip, song and ritual included Anansi storytelling. In West Africa, the Anansi spider has long been figured in oral tales. Through slavery, and the journey between the Gold Coast and New World, this crawler became part of Caribbean folklore.


The Anansi is seen as ingenious: cunning and a bit of a trickster. In one version, the spider, through subterfuge, gets the sky god to part with his stories. The Anansi then shares them with everyone, democratising what was private property. In other renderings, on both Atlantic coasts, the spider outwits larger beings, dissembling to achieve its goal.

On Caribbean plantations, the school of life was in stories. Strategic indirection, vis-à-vis colonial masters, was needed to survive. Work slowdowns, staged confusion and food theft preserved strength and showed resilience. In this milieu, the Anansi story provided workers with instruction and catharsis.

Woven strands

The web motif informs Hazel Carby’s recent memoir, Imperial Intimacies, on her Jamaican and British family. It suggests movement and narrative as kinds of connective tissue. The migration of bodies and stories we tell are woven strands:

“The architecture of this tale has the tensile strength of a spider’s web spun across the Atlantic: spinnerets draw threads from archives, histories and memories, joining the movement of men from Britain during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the flood of volunteers that left the Caribbean to travel to Britain during the Second World War; the radial fibres that hold rural England and rural Jamaica in tension link the Atlantic port cities of Bristol and Kingston. Orphan threads have been left broken because I do not know how they should connect. Though I am unable to make these repairs the web weathers and holds.”

A spider’s labyrinth, in this way, resembles our world: one that is partial and fraying, that requires constant mending and yet has, out of this incompletion and fragility, an overall architecture.

Here, the web ensnares our fiction of society as a pure pedigree. The Anansi arachnid, for post-slavery communities, signals convergence in movement, but also, crucially, what is undone and divided. The severing of African ties via the Middle Passage, the ceaseless demand to clear and harvest unfamiliar land. In the Caribbean, unlike the West, the conceit of primordial wholeness was impossible.

What makes the Anansi relevant is that it permeated beyond Afro-Caribbean groups. The story was absorbed by adjacent others. Crucial here, in the West Indies, were spaces of meshing, like yards and steamships.

Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman, for instance, tracks the indentured who moved back and forth between Guiana or Trinidad and India. Their journeys were suffused by physical danger, familial stress, and money woes. On these difficult, lengthy oceanic passages, Indians told “nansi tales”.

Nansi tales were picked up through brown and black proximity: on plantations, in créole towns, in Paramaribo’s yards. From such places, the Anansi trafficked between the Caribbean and South Asia, when Indians returned home. Moving athwart, spider-like, the Anansi story took a roundabout route from Africa to Asia via the West Indies.

This non-linear movement shows how culture, a latticework, is diffuse and leaky. Some things stick – the Anansi’s travel through disparate societies – and others pass through.

Society’s web

Thus to a second illumination afforded by the Anansi. The spider’s web is incomplete – its constituent parts have uneven integrity. Parts get broken by insects, damaged by rain and weakened by the wind. Its geometric components never achieve wholeness, as in imagined unity. The filaments that comprise its netting remain provisional, though still supple and supportive.

As Carby says, webs can be broken or disconnected, yet still weather and hold. No form – be it a spider’s web or person’s body or social network – is finished. Our go-to metaphor of roots implies primary ancestry. It invites us to extrude differences, in the service of future completion. Yet the web’s layout, and our social arrangements, are not determined a priori. Many shapes are possible.

One term for this is incipience. For Adrienne Rich, in a poem of that title, the spider manifests what, at every moment, is possible:

“to know the composing of the thread
inside the spider’s body|
first atoms of the web
that will hang visible tomorrow”

Like spider snares or star constellations, we exist in unsettled adjacency. Humans are akin to webs or galaxies: matter coexisting in irresolution. Our stories are yet to be told from connections not yet made.

Webs of care

This brings us to the third part of this story, around the labour of connective care. The metaphor of roots invites a native-alien distinction. In India, America, and Europe, others are conceived of as infestations: as menaces to uproot.

The spider image illustrates how absurd this way of thinking is. Webs are always, somewhere in their physical structure, fraying or damaged. A spider’s tracery may be full of holes yet still serve as a place to rest, feed and thrive.

An Indian man on a street in Paramaribo, Suriname. Photo credit: Leiden University / KITLV Shelf Mark / Image Code 8855

The banal but necessary work of life – nourishing, upholding, repairing, patching – is the spider’s lot. And it is also that of many people who comprise an unseen infrastructure of support. Across many societies, it is distant migrants who clean, cook, and care. Their efforts are rewarded with neglect and even abuse.

As we have seen, the state, during the pandemic, is mostly secondary to our well-being. What matters more are grids of kin, friends, and strangers. We exist in the crisscrossing of migrants and (often female) dependencies. Authorities tear and tangle – yet depend upon – these webs. They harass foreigners and underpay women, without whom society would collapse.

Our stories – our relations, too – are passing forms in a larger design. A web will split and dissolve. A person gets ill and vanishes. Our societies fragment and disperse. Yet we still respond and recuperate to stitch something new.

The spider constantly moves around and mends the form which supports it. For us, mending is both the manual activity of weaving fibres and the emotive aspect of interpersonal healing. Maintenance becomes a practical and moral capacity. A means to live and to tell the story of how we ought to live.

The Anansi figure and spider web thus draw us to our present. It not only tells us how we, across time and space, came to be. It offers a vision of what we might be. Connected through sticky links, not tethered to roots. In-process and undefined, not pre-set as fixed types. And able to mend and heal, not irredeemably damaged.

Ajay Gandhi is a faculty member at Leiden University and Senior Fellow at the Maria Sibylla Merian Centre Conviviality-Inequality in Latin America.