Skip to main content

Review of Elusive Hunters: the Haddad of Kanem and the Bahr el Ghazal


By William Rea

Elusive Hunters: the Haddad of Kanem and the Bahr el Ghazal. Ida Nicolaisen. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus, 2010. Pp. 522. ISBN. 978 87 7934394 8 (hb). €60.95.

Elusive hunters is a large book about a small, seemingly difficult to define, group of people living on the Northern margins (ie: within the republic of Chad) of Lake Chad.  The hunters in question are the Haddad of Kanem and Bahr el Ghazal (geographic outflows from the lake proper).  The book purports to be an ethnography “in the round”, an old fashioned concept now, but one that sustained much ethnographic reportage in the middle of the twentieth century. Thus we are introduced to the geographic region, the various permutations by which ethnic identity might defined, family structure, the religious beliefs and perhaps overwhelmingly the technical means by which the Haddad support their lives (the final section of the book is a comprehensive catalogue of Haddad material culture).  In the terms that the book sets itself, the documentation of the Haddad must be reckoned to be an aim fulfilled.  That this survey is seemingly so complete throws up a whole series of questions.  Not least of which is what sort of ethnography can be seriously completed by only a couple of month’s fieldwork!

Two themes dominate the structure of the book: the definition of Haddad ethnic identity and the material base that surrounds the prominence of hunting in their lives.  That the two are linked is clear if not explicitly made within the book.  The book explores in full the Haddad hunting techniques of various animals, having long descriptive passages on a couple of hunting expeditions, it explores the different architectural styles used in village encampments, it makes use of a standard lifecycle model to examine the social and cultural life of the Haddad (although the presence of Islam is acknowledged it is rather hastily subdued by descriptions of birth, circumcision and marriage) and performance and poetry (essentially relating to the animal world around them) are given a chapter.  While Nicolaisen is too aware of current literature on gathering and hunting to fall into the “hunters” trap, making the reader fully aware of the role of women, the persistent representation here is of a world in which man and animal / environment have achieved symbiosis.

In concentrating so firmly upon a rural, hunting/gathering Haddad (Haddad Kanembu) the book ignores other, more urbanised people with a claim to Haddad ethnicity – the smiths and craftspeople, as well as the Haddad Kreda, who are pastoralist.  This is a shame as it would be fascinating to have laid out more clearly the intersections between these various groups, to understand the development of the different specialist life ways and to place these in a more general West African context.  There is enough here to provide tantalising glimpses of historical development and progression but the book insists upon focussing on the most rural, detached, indeed, the most elusive of the three groups.

In doing so I suspect the author lays bare her own real interests in the study.  This is in many ways the worst form of survival ethnography.  Despite the extended descriptive passages, the clear work that has been spent on historical archive sources and the use of other ethnographic accounts, the book is couched in an archaic form of structural functionalism, despite protestations that it is not.  It is a kind of mapping exercise that would not be out of place in the IAI Ethnographic survey.  Perhaps worse than that quasi scientific colonial exercise is the embedded romanticism that runs through this work – one that is reminiscent of some early studies of hunter-gatherers – and is excruciatingly heightened at times by the insertion of the author’s own travel narratives.  I don’t know it this was meant as an exercise in self-reflexive anthropology, but if so it fails.  Sentences such as “The livestock was well fed, hunting was good, the children not malnourished – no big tummies here,” give an indication of the sort of patrician European view that ultimately underpins this book.  It is a form of “tribal connoisseurship” long past its sell by date.

The book, which is elegant and punctuated by stunning photographs (with publication costs no doubt supported by the Carlsberg Foundation’s Nomad Research Project) would have benefited greatly from a good editor.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 141-142]

Article keywords:

Article Categories: