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The Poor are Not Us: Poverty & Pastoralism. David M. Anderson & Vigdis Broch-Due (eds.). Oxford: James Currey, 1999. Pp. 276.
The recent severe drought in northern Kenya dramatically illustrates
the need to broaden our understanding about African pastoralism. According
to the United Nations World Food Program, nearly thirty-five percent
of children under five are suffering from malnutrition in the region.
The food aid agency describes Wajir District as virtually without cattle,
and other sources have put the loss of cattle in the north as high as
seventy percent. As donor agencies consider what they can do to alleviate
the hunger and suffering of the millions affected by the catastrophe,
they would do well to consult the two volumes discussed here. Spencer's
impressive monograph is the product of more than forty years work by
one of the doyens of British anthropology and The Poor are Not Us
represents the discerning contributions of leading scholars in Europe
and the United States ably integrated by its two editors. Both books
speak to the related issues of poverty and development.
The geographical area under examination is essentially the same in
the two works. Spencer's study of the "pastoral continuum"
focuses mainly on the cattle-centered pastoral groups of East Africa.
These peoples are bounded in the north by desert and Islamic communities
and to the south and west by tsetse-fly belts. Ecological barriers block
the further spread of cattle herding and adherence to Islam alters the
nature of power relationships within those societies that adhere to
it. The exception to this geographical overlap is Bernhard Helander's
study of camel-herding Hubeer Somali in the Trans-Juba region of southern
Somalia in the Anderson and Broch-Due anthology.
An important part of Spencer's analysis is its historical perspective.
Spencer, whose anthropological works have consistently demonstrated
his unique appreciation of historical processes, again argues that in
order to understand pastoralism, one must recognize how it has changed
over time. Part Two of his book examines the history of the Chamus from
the nineteenth century to the present. The Chamus's transition to a
pastoral lifestyle under the aegis of the pax Britannica and the resulting
changes they made in their age organization underscore their adaptability
to the challenge of colonialism. Following independence, however, Spencer
maintains that the Chamus age-system has become unsustainable even to
the point where warriorhood has lost most of its meaning. Elsewhere,
Spencer shows how historically, elders have reinterpreted tradition
in order to respond to challenges to their way of life. He emphasizes
their resiliency and ability to accommodate change, and uses the example
of the Ariaal who switched between cattle and camel-herding over time
according to changing circumstances. Using the example of the ethnic
and cultural differences between the Turkana and Samburu, Spencer contends
that there existed an "indigenous concept of 'tribe'" (p.
18) already in the precolonial period. Yet, he also notes how this concept
was subject to abandonment in times of ecological adversity and how
colonialism altered it. Likewise with respect to age-sets, Spencer states,
"Generally, the evidence points towards a creeping change, and
the resilience of the age systems may have been precisely their ability
to adapt rather than persist unchanged. The age systems in the remote
areas may have survived, not despite colonial and post-colonial interventions,
but rather because they adapted at each stage" (p. 128).
As in The Pastoral Continuum, there is a strong sense of history
in the Anderson and Broch-Due volume. Richard Waller's chapter is a
perceptive and innovative one considering the difficulty of detailing
previous instances of pastoral poverty due to scant references in archival
records and oral histories. Basing his analysis mainly on the Maasai,
Waller stresses the fundamental link between wealth and power, while
also emphasizing the significance of age and gender in the allocation
of resources in herding societies. Waller further presents a nuanced
treatment of the impact of colonialism on the pastoral economy giving
the reader a better understanding of the subtleties behind the marginalization
of herders in Maasailand and northern Kenya. Broch-Due's contribution
on the Turkana adds weight to Waller's thesis concerning the difficulty
of gaining a complete understanding of pastoral poverty. She argues
that the Turkana omit "losers," or those who have become poor
and exited the local economy, from oral traditions. Nevertheless, Broch-Due
is able to comment on all the aspects of the Turkana's past as well
as their present circumstances with skill. In this case, again, distinctions
of age and gender are of prime importance to the "moral economy"
of the Turkana.
Spencer's earlier works have mainly focused on generational rather
than gender and family issues. Likewise, The Pastoral Continuum
emphasizes the significance of age systems to pastoral societies particularly
the insightful chapter entitled, "The dynamics of age systems in
East Africa." This does not mean, however, that as Spencer stresses
the gerontocractic and patriarchal nature of pastoralism, that he ignores
the fundamental importance of women and the family. Indeed, Spencer
links these together, explaining how age systems are "an institutionalized
way of controlling strains within the family" (p. 19). He points
out that herding is not simply an individual, male domain-women are
essential to trade and food production and the family are vital to growth.
He argues that all are part of a wider, "moral community."
In addition, Spencer notes how relations within pastoral societies are
dynamic. Thus, the ability of younger men to acquire money through employment
and trade to be used as a medium of bride-wealth has had the concomitant
effect of increasing their power at the expense of that of the elders.
Polygyny, to which Spencer devotes a chapter of his book, is an indication
of the distribution of wealth and power within pastoralist societies.
The issue of gender is integral to The Poor are Not Us. Thus,
while highlighting the relationship between dignity and poverty, Aud
Talle's chapter discusses issues of sexuality between Maasai men and
female prostitutes in a northern Tanzanian border town. Dorothy Hodgson's
contribution on Tanzanian Maasai is a provocative reexamination of what
she describes as "narrow, ahistorical, gendered image[s] of pastoralists"
(p. 222). According to Hodgson, Maasai women suffered a double deprivation
under colonialism: not only did the Maasai become marginalized as an
ethnic group, but Maasai men deprived females of traditionally shared
rights to cattle as well. With these facts in mind, she is critical
of the ill-conceived development projects initiated in the past, since
they generally have been based on false assumptions that treat women
as irrelevant to pastoral production. One certainly cannot take issue
with Hodgson's plea for aid agencies to consider women's perspectives
when considering developmental interventions. On the other hand, her
advocacy of introducing cultivation, if this implies the widespread
applicability of agriculture, bears closer inspection when one considers
the historical failure of such projects elsewhere in pastoral domains.
Indeed, within the same anthology the case study of the Rendille by
Fratkin, Nathan, and Roth concludes "that alienating pastoralists
from their livestock leads to impoverishment, not only of the body,
but the spirit as well" (p. 162).
Regarding the issue of development, Spencer is relatively pessimistic.
To Spencer, the herders are "caught in an ecological trap"
(p. 5) caused by human and livestock population increases and the expansion
of market relations into peripheral, semiarid areas. The generally optimistic
pastoralists are unable to cope with the contradiction between their
hunger for bigger herds and the environmental degradation their feeding
animals inevitably engender. Moreover, they remain uncaptured by a money
economy and capitalism as they are reluctant to diminish their cattle
herds or diversify their economy and remain tied to the "moral
boundaries" (p. 44) of tradition. Finally, Spencer notes the widening
gap between rich and poor with the wealthy gaining control over land
and the poor increasingly having to seek wage-paying jobs as herders.
The contributors to the edited book present the broader context that
development planners need to consider as they devise ways to help herding
peoples. Thus, Hellander gives insights into the social dimensions that
are associated with Somali poverty. In a similar manner, Tomasz Potkanski
analyzes clan-based institutions for wealth redistribution among Ngorongoro
Maasai and advocates their revitalization as a means of facilitating
development. Rekdal and Blystad not only put contrasting Datooga and
Iraqw attitudes towards the future into historical perspective, but
they also demonstrate how religious attitudes influence access to wealth.
Zaal and Dietz's well done comparative study of the impact of commoditization
in Kenya's West Pokot and Kajiado Districts distinguishes between the
survival strategies undertaken by the poor and the way the wealthy respond
to economic challenges. Anderson's final chapter examines the successes
and failures of development efforts since they were first undertaken
on a large scale in the colonial era sixty years ago. His dispassionate
treatment of contentious issues and his unwillingness to prescribe a
universal panacea for the problem of pastoral poverty makes a fitting
conclusion to the anthology.
Both of these books have much to recommend them. Taken together, their bibliographies are extensive and up-to-date. Spencer not only integrates his vast knowledge of East African herders, but reminds his readers of "the wider links between pastoralism and other forms of livelihood" (p.5). The contributors in The Poor are Not Us likewise succeed in their task of presenting a more holistic view of pastoral societies. They go beyond the widely held stereotypes that herders are conservative egalitarians and challenge the notion that pastoralism is a doomed means of subsistence. The scholarly articles demonstrate that one cannot understand wealth simply in economic terms, but must also take into account social and cultural variables. Aid agencies would do well to consider this holistic approach to pastoral poverty before embarking on potentially misguided development projects in a part of Africa that is in crisis today.
George L. Simpson Jr.
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