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Review of Friends for Life, Friends for Death: Cohorts and Consciousness Among the Lunda-Ndembu


By Will Jackson

Friends for Life, Friends for Death: Cohorts and Consciousness Among the Lunda-Ndembu. James A Pritchett. University of Virginia Press, 2007, Pp. 267. ISBN 978-0-8139-2624-7 (hb) £31.95

In the preface to this book, anthropologist James Pritchett describes something that is perhaps common to all who have attempted to convert their lived experiences of the field to the bloodless expression of the printed page. How, Pritchett asks, might one articulate “the sights and sounds of the lived-in-world” to an academic audience? How, in other words, is it possible to remain faithful to experience while articulating that experience through frameworks and styles that do much to change how that experience is perceived and understood?

When Pritchett began his anthropology fieldwork in Zambia in the mid-1980s, he was determined that he would not succumb. “I would strive to capture the raw sensorium of a culture that was not my own”, he writes. Back on campus, he changed his mind. To be heard, one has to speak with words that others understand. “I wrote to demonstrate my command of the tools of my discipline”, Pritchett writes, “I paid homage to the founders of the field. I crammed my thoughts into widely recognizable anthropological categories. I built my arguments through the meticulous arrangement of theoretical blocks.”

Twenty years later, Pritchett has returned to the field, and to the idealism of his youth, forsaking his categories and blocks for “the tone and tenor of daily life”. Conceived not so much in the spirit of interdisciplinarity, Pritchett wishes to write “as if disciplines did not matter at all”. “Here”, he writes, “one will find bits and pieces of ethnography, history, philosophy, theology, political science, economics and literature. Yet most assuredly it is fully none of those.”

Such enigmatic claims may infuriate the purist, but they are welcome to anyone aspiring to work across, or beyond, the confines of academe. It is surely only later in a career, however, once homage has been paid to rigor and rule, and enough surplus material accumulated to warrant bringing it all together, that the academic can throw away his tools. And this is how the book must be read; as an assemblage of bits and pieces, a gathering up of ‘scattered material’, an anthology perhaps from the cutting room floor.

And yet this book is anything but a random collection of odds and ends. It may be, of course, that without a firm conceptual framework, readers are bound to see the book in their own particular terms. The anthropologists will read it as anthropology, the political scientists as political science. For this reviewer, the book is clearly history, with chapters set out chronologically to provide a narrative roughly spanning the duration of the twentieth century. Yet if there is an overarching theme here – a thesis amidst the bits and bobs – it is the importance of consciousness for explaining how historical change has been experienced and remembered, not just by individuals but by corporate groups.

Here, perhaps, is the advantage of dispensing with the methodological tools, for what results is a strange mélange of history and anthropology; a textured narrative written within the lived experience of a particular group of Ndembu men. Not concerned with reconstructing political history, still less in depicting these lives as being either remarkable or strange, Pritchett depicts his subjects as “just plain folks”. In doing so, he insists their stories be located at the heart of global narratives rather than dimly perceived on their fringe, forever on the periphery of a north Atlantic gaze.

Pritchett’s ‘just plain folks” are a group of male friends among the Lunda-Ndembu of North-Western Zambia. Tracing their shared experience through the political and economic transformations wrought by missionary and settler colonialism, decolonization and independence, the book illuminates how one particular mission-educated group of men acted on change themselves, and reoriented their world around them. This is not a story of resistance or oppression, but a glimpse into far more complex processes of collaboration, adaptation and the continual reworking of subjective experience.

Divided into two parts, the book’s opening sections bring to life “the tales of the anakaka”,the stories told and retold by grandfathers and fathers, constituting the imagined world through which the amabwambu developed a consciousness of their past. The second part of the book relates their actual lives, emphasizing the diversity of experience that flux entailed while highlighting friendship over kinship as the critical means by which individuals respond successfully to change

Friends for Life, Friends for Death provides a valuable addition to the social history of colonial and postcolonial Zambia. Far more than that, however, the book is both an intimate portrayal of ‘ordinary’ life and a powerful challenge to academic convention.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 70 (2008), pp. 79-81]

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