Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
Xhosa Beer Drinking Rituals: Power, Practice and Performance in the South African Rural Periphery. Patrick A. McAllister. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2006. 355 pp.
Patrick McAllister’s latest book draws on over twenty years of fieldwork in South Africa and brings together the fruits of a long publishing career on Xhosa ritual, oratory, and beer. Xhosa Beer Drinking Rituals: Power, Practice and Performance in the South African Rural Periphery is a compilation of participant-observation ethnographies that convincingly demonstrates the social significance inherent in Xhosa beer drinking rituals. Through an analysis of the preparations and practices of beer drinks, with special attention to the content and pattern of speech and performance during the rituals, McAllister successfully presents Xhosa beer drinking rituals as an index of Xhosa speakers’ simultaneous cultural adaptation and resistance to colonization and postcolonial apartheid experience.
Originally charged with uncovering the connection between labor migration and rural life among the Xhosa during the twentieth century, McAllister’s research grew from the work of Philip Mayer (for whom he was an assistant in the 1970s) and led to questions about the Xhosa’s preservation of rural tradition in an increasingly urban and capitalist South Africa. These considerations of tradition and cultural independence in the climate of colonialism and apartheid illuminate the importance and complexity of ritual and recreation, specifically beer drinks.
Xhosa Beer Drinking Rituals argues that the transition from primarily rural agrarian work to urban wage labor effected a transition from a kin- to community-based economy for Xhosa speakers. These economic changes were reflected in cultural practices as well. McAllister identifies the prevalence of large communal beer drinking rituals over smaller, family-based animal killing rituals, since the beginning of colonization. Therefore, beer drinks were and are not static cultural practices; rather they continually change and improvise to meet present conditions. Thus McAllister posits the significance of beer drinks as a gauge of Xhosa cultural reaction and meaning.
McAllister reminds the reader that the beer drinks he found so common during his fieldwork were far less prominent before the colonial era. He finds the shrinking size of homesteads, caused by compounding factors of land shortages, migrant labor and disease, coincided with a changing agricultural focus from sorghum to maize that demanded brief but labor intensive periods of harvesting and clearing. These factors all led to a community-based economy requiring cooperation to complete tasks, and often engendering remuneration for the help of neighbors. In this context, beer brewed from excess maize was more available, and communal beer drinks as compensation for community labor were more frequent. Eventually, then, McAllister argues that beer drinks came to reinforce a kind of “traditional” significance in a relatively new Xhosa lifestyle.
One particular form of beer drinking ritual is posited as a lens to view the Xhosa reaction to colonialism and urbanization. McAllister uses the umsindleko—a beer drink celebrating the return of migrant workers—to demonstrate that Xhosa speakers both accepted the necessity of their young men sojourning for wage labor in urban centers and yet resisted urban, colonial, and capitalist invasions into traditional, rural, Xhosa culture. To McAllister, the celebration of migrant laborers safe return to the village in a traditional forum is a hidden transcript of the Xhosa; he argues that it is the resistance of colonial and urban domination by protecting, even while refining, the rural habitus which signify an independent Xhosa culture manifested in beer drinking rituals.
By revealing the beer drink as both a vehicle of cultural change as well as a symbol of cultural tradition, Xhosa Beer Drinking Rituals is important for a reconsideration of Xhosa speakers’ adaptation to colonization and apartheid. But the choice of subject—beer—as a source of autonomous culture, also marks significant scholarly contribution. The sympathetic description of Xhosa beer drinks forms a counter-narrative to the body of literature on alcohol in Africa, which has predominantly associated a rise in the use of alcohol during the colonial period with socially destructive habits. McAllister’s book emphasizes that the process of ritual is more important than the product of beer. This presents a more general challenge to western epistemology which tends to privilege the text at the expense of the spoken word, and thus often excludes the importance of the ritual of speech that McAllister suggests is the most important source for analyzing the trajectory of the ritual.
The wealth of McAllister’s first hand accounts and original photographs personalize his series of narratives and make for an engaging read. However, Xhosa Beer Drinking Rituals is most valuable for specialists in the fields of African anthropology, sociology, and cultural history, who will take interest in the evolution of McAllister’s research and conclusions, and appreciate his interaction with noted scholars and theorists such as Mayer, Mary Douglas and Pierre Bourdieu. Although the relatively sparse documentation in endnotes will not be of great help for graduate students crafting research agendas, Xhosa Beer Drinking Rituals will certainly stimulate discussion in graduate seminars surrounding the subjects and methods of researching indigenous African experiences in the colonial and postcolonial eras.
Andrew Smith Purdue University