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Review of Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous / I Say to You / Pastoralism & Politics


By Karen Cereso and Lionel Cliffe

Being Maasai, Becoming Indigenous: Postcolonial Politics in a Neoliberal World. Dorothy L. Hodgson. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2011. Pp. 266. ISBN. 978 0 253 22305-0 (pb). $28.

I Say to You: Ethnic Politics and the Kalenjin in Kenya . Gabrielle Lynch. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2011. Pp. 291. ISBN. 978-0-226-49805-8 (pb). $27.50.

Pastoralism & Politics in Northern Kenya & Southern Ethiopia. Gunter Schlee and Abdullahi Shongolo. James Currey, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2012. Pp. 179. ISBN. 9781847010360 (hb). £40.

Kenya is a country of extremes. Fertile and well-watered uplands in the central mountains and by Lake Victoria are surrounded by huge areas of semi-arid lands across the north and stretching south down the Rift Valley. The volumes by Lynch and by Schlee and Shongolo shed welcome light on these latter often neglected areas and their people, including those resident across frontiers: Lynch on the people in the centre of Rift Valley Province who have come to form the Kalenjin; Schlee and Shongolo on Somali and Oromo peoples in north east Kenya and across the border into Ethiopia. Both focus on ‘the ethnicisation of politics’ (Schlee and Shongolo p115), seen as recent historical processes rooted in the colonial experience. Hodgson’s ethnography, on the other hand, concerns the Maasai in Tanzania, and more particularly the role of Maasai NGOs and the ‘positionings’ (Hodgson p5) of ethnicity there, and thus examines such processes in a state context different from the Maasai in Kenya, who are neighbours, and sometimes political allies, of the Kalenjin.

While the approaches underlying the three books all rely – to greater or lesser extent- on ethnographic accounts, they contrast in how they attempt to explain these processes and their implications for ethnic politics (vertical and horizontal), for broader politics (national and globalised), and for contestation, conflict and corruption. The differences are not primarily disciplinary. Although Lynch is a political scientist she focuses on the shifting patterns of what constitutes ethnic identity and government policies that shaped ‘Kalenjin-ness’ and the central role its leaders came to play in national politics. Hodgson, an anthropologist, also examines political processes, with NGOs as a crucial vehicle. Schlee and Shongolo, also anthropologists, root their analysis in the material basis of life of people whose livelihoods and culture depend on mobile livestock pastoralism.

Hodgson notes, ‘anthropologists have struggled over whether there is a way to talk about making culture without making enemies’ (p.5 citing Jean Jackson). All three works do not shirk the reality, i.e. that ethnic groups, however they may promote a culture of ‘origin’, ownership rights and being oppressed, and one of environmental, social and economic morality, also demand participation in politics, and defend and reinforce livelihoods, and even, as Hodgson  (p.1 citing Ferguson and Gupta) argues, make themselves ‘a marketable commodity’. Ethnic politics, like all politics, also shows itself as contested.  Furthermore, as much as nation-states ‘invent’ national culture and impose convenient historical narratives as ‘the’ reality that underlies it, so too do ethnic groups do this for ethnic culture, or even, as argued by Lynch for the Kalenjin, invent their ethnicity’s very existence.

In Dorothy Hodgson’s book the concept of ‘positionings’, drawing on Stuart Hall’s and others’ conceptualisations of  ‘articulation’ and ‘positioning’, convincingly makes sense of Maasai politics in Tanzania, as they ‘became’ indigenous. Maasai activists, working through NGOs and increasingly participating in the United Nations Working Group, legitimated the establishing of rights and political activism. Hodgson’s focus on NGOs, far from engendering a narrow focus on development aid and localised politics of resources, evidences Maasai as working towards a position of political recognition, albeit acknowledging that this ‘takes place in complex fields of power’ (p139). Such recognition eventually brought the reversal of the settlement of Maasai in villages as rationalised in Nyerere’s ‘socialist vision of Ujamaa (“familyhood”)’, a policy that sought to ‘move beyond ethnicity to build national unity’ (pp66-7). The journey to recognition was not straightforward, and, the gains in solidarity and support in the international arena was sometimes at the expense of a more united grassroots organisation-building at home (p143). While Hodgson evidences well the positionings, pragmatism, and Maasai agency overcoming complex political contexts, she sometimes appears to rue the contested and rival indigenous politics, almost suggesting that Maasai politics is weakened or even tainted by disagreement. Arguably though, when ethnography writes up ‘culture’, there is focus on photogenic essentialisations, facilitating an attractive presentation of people in harmony, while politics, especially subaltern politics, is by definition about resistance, contestation and difference; Hodgson’s ‘positionings’ frame this context well while providing a useful analytic model.

In I Say to You by Gabrielle Lynch, contestation and difference in ethnic politics are seen to have darker outcomes. Lynch reveals a fascinating and innovative discussion of the processes by which the Kalejin were ‘made’ (chapter 2) with reference to narratives on past injustices and in opposition to Kikuyu identity, especially concerning disputed land ownership and political representation. Chapters 3 and 4 look at President Daniel arap Moi and the Kalenjin’s rise from 1955. Lynch does, as she sets out to, ‘move[...] beyond a common but oversimplified account of political patronage’. This does not, though, deny the importance of local processes, disputes, and, contradictions: Moi himself ‘was just as autocratic and probably more autocratic among the Kalenjin as he was with other communities’ (p133 quoting a retired Kalenjin civil servant). Lynch further develops accounts of the transition to multiparty politics from the early 1990s to 2007 in chapters 5 and 6, discussing the heightened militancy of ethnic politics, complicated by various actors and institutions: for example, evangelical church leaders ‘“train[ed]”… a wide range of Kalenjin “youth” [who] became Kalenjin “warriors”’ (p195). The violence and displacements (the latter in the hundreds of thousands) following the 2007 election are explained through linkage to political and economic marginalisation and resultant ‘resentment’ (‘bottom up’), and not just elite provocation (‘top down’). Lynch concludes with the enduring politics of belonging, the discursive repertoires of marginalisation, and the sense of entitlement making for ‘ethnic chauvinism’; she returns pessimistically to her opening and the ‘potential for a sense of ethnic difference to endorse, and even demand, violent atrocities against the “other”’ (p. 1).

In the Introduction and Chapter 1, which situate the work in terms of frameworks for analysing ethnicity in general and Kalanjin identity in particular, conceptualisations and debates are not always convincingly explained. There is no discussion about the book’s combined use of the epistemologically and methodologically distinct discursive and empirical conceptualisations that inform the work. Many concepts, arguably too many, are introduced but often barely explained. For example, although Benedict Anderson is cited, ‘imagining’ of ethnicity is implied as a weaker form of Hobsbawm and Ranger’s ‘invention’, and both concepts are loosely used. Notably, as the book develops, references are made to ‘culture brokers’ and to ‘power brokers’ without explaining who these were and how they conducted such brokerage. Having said this, the main chapters of empirical analysis have much to reveal, and there the quality of the research shines.

This same period of Kalenjin political emergence and the ‘Moi era politics’ are seen to underlie processes of ‘territorialization of ethnicity’ in Schlee and Shongolo’s book. Their account of these dynamics is very much bottom up, exploring what those national processes meant for clans whose identity and inter-relations evolved into a more clear-cut definition of being ‘Somali’ and ‘Boran’ (in turn part of Oromo). Interaction, often on a huge and devastating scale, was around what mattered most to the livelihoods of these different pastoralists and was marked by mutual raiding and conflict over access rights to grazing land and water, and efforts at resolution of these conflicts. These issues are explored through a more detailed and sensitive discussion of the ‘logic’ of pastoralism and prospects for development within it than ordinarily appears in the discourse of social analysts and politicians in Eastern Africa. Among the welcome truths articulated: ‘Nomadism is a form of specialisation which has nothing archaic about it. ... it is not only sophisticated in the field of organization, but also technologically ...’(p. 14). Furthermore, the authors assert that no pastoralists in Kenya have ‘ever been self-sufficient [but have always] barter[ed] for agricultural produce’ (p. 11). The analysis has profound implications for understanding ‘tribalism’ in Kenyan politics: the conflict issues in these localities are not the simple result of a Malthusian logic of scarce resources, nor of ‘environmental wars’, but of local leaders’ political belief that ‘whatever resources are available should be shared  ... on the basis of tribe’. Thus land is at the core of the ethnicisation of politics. Secondly, the authors highlight that the land rights which the pastoralists claim (and are ready to fight over) are collective rights to common land. This is especially so since social and economic sustainability depends on ‘an open boundary policy and by reaching agreements with their neighbours’ (p151), something that is contradicted by urban Kenyan politicians who, unconcerned, work instead toward taking, distributing and sub-division. Paradoxically then, not only does patronage in these regions not even provide trickle down benefits to clients, but acts against their interests.

The conclusion of Schlee and Shongolo’s book deserves deep consideration of the connection between political participation and appropriate land reform, between identity and development – in other areas of Kenya and Eastern Africa. All three books have implications for the analysis of ethnic politics and its relationships with national and broader politics. They provide invaluable insight into the regional context, as well as useful analyses for those researching ethnic conflict and policy implications in other parts of the world.

Reviewed by: Karen Cereso and Lionel Cliffe, LUCAS, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 107-111]

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