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Philanthropy in the World's Traditions
By Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz, Edward L. Queen II
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1998 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Reciprocity and Assistance in Precolonial Africa
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Over the past 150 years, the creators of the human sciences have characterized the movement toward modernity in shifting, yet rich and interrelated sets of terms—as a movement from status to contract, from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from use value to exchange value, from gift to contract, and on through many other ways of defining a movement from authenticity to alienation, from a simpler division of labor to a more complex one, or from power exercised by a sovereign to power operating through technical knowledge. Underlying many of these distinctions has been the assumption that in the past the web of society itself, the fabric of reciprocal ties, constituted the safety net for those in need; only with the movement away from reciprocity has it been necessary to create specialized institutions for the care of those too ill or too poor, too young or too old to care for themselves. According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, "In preliterate societies, the family, kin, caste, tribe, or clan looked after its own people as a natural duty." The movement toward the creation of philanthropic organizations is, in this view, part of the movement toward modernity. Robert Wuthnow, in a more nuanced statement, wrote: "So interwoven were material interests and caring for others that it actually made sense to speak of a 'moral economy,' as students of traditional societies have come to recognize, rather than regarding the very notion as an oxymoron."
The history of reciprocity past is not so much a reasoned analysis of the early history of philanthropy as it is an etiological myth—an origin tale of a kind more easily recognized among ethnologists—saying what we consider fundamental about ourselves, who we are at this moment, by telling an imagined story of how we came to be.
A moment's thought will tell us that the world never existed where reciprocity was a constant and reliable safety net. Indeed, it could not have existed. This is not to argue for the absence of a moral economy, nor is it to deny that local descent groups, kinship groups, or village communities looked after their own. It is to argue, however, that those looked after by their kinship groups were not the ones in need of a safety net. In a society constituted as congeries of kinship groups some of these groups are bound to be under stress at any given time—some die out when disease or maternal mortality strikes; others scatter in time of war; still others find themselves under attack by regional political leaders. When a kinship group is withering away, or when people are torn by circumstances from their supporting relatives, this is the time when a safety net is needed most, and it is the time when bonds of reciprocity are the least effective. In many cases the assumed logic of assistance is reversed. It is not so much that the unfortunate are family and therefore they are helped, but rather that they are helped, and therefore they are defined as family.
Sub-Saharan Africa, in the centuries before colonial conquest, was a region where voluntary giving was, in a majority of cases, grounded in reciprocity, and yet where inequalities existed, where kindly help was as double-edged as it is in the philanthropic West—a peculiar combination of caring and dominance, of generosity and property, of tangled rights in things and in people, all in a time and place where the strong would not let the weak go under, except sometimes.
In many places, the model for generous giving was that of a parent caring for children, so that even strangers might be taken in and defined as children. This way of giving care to the poor grew out of a perceived need for numerous and fruitful descendants—a need partially grounded in the religion of the ancestors as practiced in many (but not all) societies of precolonial Africa. Where the ancestors were honored an individual could not become an ancestor without descendants. These were an admission ticket for taking a place in collective memory. The greater the number of descendants, the more important the ancestor.
The evidence of expressed need for descendants is overwhelming—in ceremonial songs and ritual dramas, in oral narratives, and in reports by ethnographers all across the continent. Only a few localized illustrations are possible in this space. Kriel, summarizing central themes in Shona folktales from Zimbabwe, wrote that "the European may attain a status even if he is a bachelor—a muShona would not even leave amudzimu [ancestral ghost] when he dies." According to Devisch, writing about the Yaka of Zaire, "Inheritance and transmission of life are equally constitutive of personhood. It is this exchange which forms the basis of social individuation, of social identity and personhood.... The person is a stitch in the fabric of kin." Later in the book, he writes, "Seniority grows with multiplication of the self in descendants and initiates." When Yaka elders open their council, "a pair of senior men solemnly proclaim, dancing all the while.... Thuna ha muyidika maambu, 'We are here to generate things.'" Among the Shambaa-speaking people of northern Tanzania, in the years before the general spread of Christianity and Islam, the officiant sang in the sacred rite of sacrifice, Mpeho tuu, na wana, "The cool of peace, and children." The assembled community would respond by singing of the ancestors, concluding, Mpemba ing'we jamema kizumuo, "One ear of (seed) corn fills a granary." Such examples could be multiplied endlessly throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
The "descendants" valued in this way, however, were not only children, but also dependents who attached themselves to wealthy or powerful leaders. These included homeless people who attached themselves to a wealthy man, young men without prospects who came to work for the elder of a matrilineal village and to marry his daughters, or war captives taken into a wealthy household and treated as though they were sons, or daughters, or wives, or sons-in-law. In some instances, the disabilities of low-status refugees would be marked off in some way, so that they (and their descendants) would be recognized as different from, and inferior to, other descendants within the same kinship groups.
The value placed on "descendants," and therefore on caring for the poor, can be understood within the broader patterns of African demography and economy. Many historians argue that the emphasis on attracting people in Africa south of the Sahara—on building a kinship group—was appropriate to a continent rich in land and poor in population. This was a result of relying on labor-heavy hoe agriculture in the absence (in most places) of the animal-drawn plough. There is some justice to this picture, although the relative balance between land and people was, in fact, highly variable. Land which was irrigated, or carefully cleared, or located on favorable soils, or in a favorable spot with regard to rain, was often treated as a scarce resource, even though poorer land went unoccupied nearby. Nevertheless, in many societies the rich or powerful were defined as those with numerous followers; often the poor had access to land but lacked the labor to develop or farm it. In their relative abundance of land and relative scarcity of labor, most African societies were unlike early modern or modern European ones. They differed also in the significance of women's labor for daily farming activities.
The language of caring did not, of course, refer to the shortage of labor for exploiting the land any more frequently than the need for an abundant and docile labor force figured into the language of philanthropy in early capitalist Europe. Reciprocity was grounded in old patterns of the relationship between giving and political allegiance, between exchange and marriage, between people and things. Kinship groups—the descendants of a future ancestor, or the followers of a wealthy big man—balanced their relationships to one another through the exchange of people and things. Injury inflicted by one such group on another usually was compensated through payment in livestock, cowries, metal currency, or woven raphia squares.
The larger set of exchanges of wealth and of labor included marriage. Unlike European dowry payments, which were made by the wife's family, African bridewealth was a form of compensation paid by the husband or his kinsfolk. In some cases the husband worked for his wife's family for a number of years; in others, the husband's family marked the establishment of a relationship with the wife's through the continuing payment of wealth in the form of livestock or one of the currencies. Payments were of different kinds and had different social meanings, but they all were part of an ongoing process by which groups, and networks of relationships, were defined by payments made and payments received. In Shambaa society different payments marked off the brother-in-law relationship and the husband's relation to his wife's mother, as well as the livestock payment given to the bride's patrilineage to be eaten commensally as a mark of their unity. There was also the "cow of affinity" (ukwe) which reproduced and had calves, in parallel to the birth of children in the marriage, so that the ongoing exchange of the calves paralleled the ongoing marriages of the daughters conceived in the marriage. Marcel Mauss, in the great classic on reciprocity, wrote, "The pattern of symmetrical and reciprocal rights is not difficult to understand if we realize that it is first and foremost a pattern of spiritual bonds between things which are to some extent parts of persons, and persons and groups that behave in some measure as if they were things."
The method of tying people together through exchanges of wealth, and of building up followings through reciprocity, is clearly a very old one on the African continent. In the language scholars have reconstructed as proto-Bantu—ancestral to the large set of languages spoken all across eastern, central, and southern Africa—there is a word (-gab-), thousands of years old, which has a cluster of meanings (with some variation in different places), including to divide, to give away, and to distribute, and referring also to patron-client relations. Another proto-Bantu word, - kúmú, refers to a rich man, someone who is honored, a leader; in some places the word refers to clientage. These words, and others, point to the existence of an ancient pattern in which people built leadership through the gift. The evidence for particular parts of this complex is, in some cases, absent until a later date: 1,000 C.E. for the institution of bridewealth in the equatorial forest, for example.
Seen from afar, through the perspective of writings on Europe, voluntary giving grounded in reciprocal exchanges seems at first to bear little resemblance to philanthropy. J. B. Schneewind, in an essay on the intellectual history of property and charity in early modern Europe, explains why reciprocity differs from charity:
In these societies there is accumulation of material objects by one person or family or clan, and transfer of these objects to other persons, without contractual repayment in kind or in money. The recipients will typically give the objects away to yet others, and eventually the initial donor will be a recipient; but none of this is charity as we think of it. The donors are not securely and predictably better off than the recipients, and the point of the giving is not to provide material assistance to the recipients. The whole cycle of giving and receiving is viewed as a way of securing honor, prestige, or recognized social standing; and the practice serves to reinforce solidarity and the sense of interdependence of the members of the community.
This is a careful description of reciprocity as seen in Mauss's classic work, which is a profound analysis of the principles underlying certain forms of exchange. But these principles are located in Mauss's own essay in the world of an ahistorical other; Mauss finds them in "culture gardens" which are either outside history, or in the imagined time of an evolutionary past. If, instead, we study reciprocity as practiced by people who lived at particular historical moments, and who engaged in their own historically situated struggles, then reciprocity changes its aspect. The same principles can be seen as having been implicated in movements toward domination, as undergirding inequality, and as being invoked by those who gave material assistance to the poor and the powerless. In other words they are implicated in the very contradictions between helping the weak and preserving privilege which characterize "charity."
The contradictions are clearest in many African societies in the period just before colonial conquest. One reason for this has to do with the sources: encroaching Europeans left records of what they heard and saw; oral traditions, also, are relatively rich for this period. The patterns which emerge are strikingly clear, in the combination of generality and variability. Generality, because all across the continent big men (in some cases big women), lineage heads, chiefs, wealthy slaves, and traders worked to assemble large followings of people who depended on them and who, in return for dependency, received protection and help. This was so on the western side of the continent—in Lagos and the Yoruba kingdoms, for example, where men and women struggled to "build themselves up" by attracting people, and it was so among the voluntary Lemba associations of the Equatorial forest; the pattern held from southern Cameroon all the way across to central Kenya. Proverbs in southwestern Uganda informed people that "Brotherhood means stomach," and "When you are rich you find so many relatives." The large anthropological and historical literature on the central African matrilineal belt describes the tension between men as mothers' brothers, who tried to build their matrilineages by attracting their sisters' sons, and men as fathers, who tried to keep their children with them, so as to build up their followings in that way. The struggle to attract people meant that the weak, the poor, and the hungry could hope for some support. In a patrilineal region of central Kenya, men used their wealth to adopt dependents who had been left without support, and the person who bemoaned her fate (or his) was the one without a protector. The words of a women's work song in Kitui said, "I poor person.... I have not relatives to call."
Along with the generality was diversity—not just between kingdoms and stateless societies, or matrilineal and patrilineal ones. In some societies, the process of assembling a following was cast in egalitarian terms, with an emphasis on open and shifting forms of leadership. In others, like the kingdom of Rwanda, the process of building a political following was connected to the emerging prestige of a dominant occupational group and with the rigid hierarchies of the state. There was diversity also in the particular cultural definition of wealth, or of people. In the Igbo language, in what later became southeastern Nigeria, the word ùbá meant "fruitfulness" or "plenitude," in crops, livestock, and persons, whereas àkhu meant "property acquisitions." Within each language the terms for kinds of wealth, and the ways in which they were used to win people's allegiances, changed with time. Long ago Bohannan made the case, in writing about the Tiv of Nigeria, that media of exchange were divided among several categories and that only very special kinds of exchange objects could be given for rights in people. This in contrast to general purpose money in contemporary American society, which flows freely across a wide range of social domains. Other more recent authors have shown how categories of exchange objects which are ostensibly limited in circulation take on the more protean and boundary-breaking characteristics of money.
Excerpted from Philanthropy in the World's Traditions by Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz, Edward L. Queen II. Copyright © 1998 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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