Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya

Ethno-erotic Economies: Sexuality, Money, and Belonging in Kenya

by George Paul Meiu

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Ethno-erotic Economies explores a fascinating case of tourism focused on sex and culture in coastal Kenya, where young men deploy stereotypes of African warriors to help them establish transactional sexual relationships with European women. In bars and on beaches, young men deliberately cultivate their images as sexually potent African men to attract women, sometimes for a night, in other cases for long-term relationships.
George Paul Meiu uses his deep familiarity with the communities these men come from to explore the long-term effects of markets of ethnic culture and sexuality on a wide range of aspects of life in rural Kenya, including kinship, ritual, gender, intimate affection, and conceptions of aging. What happens to these communities when young men return with such surprising wealth? And how do they use it to improve their social standing locally? By answering these questions, Ethno-erotic Economies offers a complex look at how intimacy and ethnicity come together to shape the pathways of global and local trade in the postcolonial world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226491202
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/10/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

George Paul Meiu is assistant professor of anthropology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

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Moran Sexuality and the Geopolitics of Alterity

The question of identification ... is always the production of an image of identity and the transformation of the subject in assuming that image.

— Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture

"Sexually transmitted diseases aren't a pleasant conversation or a source of pride for many Kenyans. ... But, today, in Samburu County, there are some who consider getting an STD a rite of passage." So began a special feature story broadcast on Kenya Television Network (KTN) on October 4, 2014. The fifteen-minute reportage was entitled "A Moran's Cold." The morans it depicted were Samburu. And their "cold," it turned out, was gonorrhea. "Many morans will not use condoms," the young female reporter explained, "and, because of this, there is a growing concern about the number of gonorrhea infections in Samburu County." Over footage of morans in colorful attire singing and dancing, she noted that "gonorrhea is on the rise among morans," and that these young men take pride in acquiring the infection, as it "establishes their manhood." "The culture of sharing lovers is nothing new, and it is also seen in modern society," she concluded as she stood in front of a Samburu settlement. Whereas, she explained, people in "modern society" know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), in Samburu, "change has to start with the simple recognition that gonorrhea, like other STIs, is not merely a common cold."

Part of a series suggestively entitled The Other Kenya, this KTN feature story highlighted the depth of Samburu cultural otherness through a focus on moran sexuality. It spoke to an imagined audience that considers sexual promiscuity and unprotected sex socially irresponsible. Its narrative drew on a long-standing paradigm in Kenya, according to which Samburu sexual lives figure in moral opposition to the Christian notions of sexual propriety that anchor middle-class aspirations. Such aspirations and their moral opposites have played a central role in the imagination and articulation of national citizenship. The logic of the televised feature story was forthright: in sharp contrast to respectable Kenyan citizens — who would be embarrassed to talk about, let alone acquire, STIs — Samburu morans proudly assert their "manhood" by getting gonorrhea. In this narrative, what distinguishes Samburu from "modern society" is their lack of knowledge about sexual matters. Morans, so the argument goes, act on instinct rather than reason and thus spread gonorrhea, unaware of its severity. According to this logic, morans fall short of the demands of moral, rational citizenship because of their alleged ignorance and libidinal excess.

The KTN segment may have ridiculed Samburu morans in order to entertain its imagined audience of middle-class Kenyans, but it also expressed nostalgia for the morans' masculine assertiveness and sexual indulgence. As the reporter explained:

[Morans] are the foundation of the Samburu community. They roam the lands, revered by all, yet answerable to no one. They only pledge allegiance to members of their own age sets. Because they stay segregated from the rest of the community, morans are allowed to take lovers. When he sees a girl he wants, the moran will sing a song. And in most Samburu clans, if a girl agrees, she is given beads as a sign that she belongs to a moran. ... When the relationship is over, they are both free to find new lovers, and that's where the problem lies.

In Samburu, the KTN journalist discovered a protosexuality unburdened by risk and responsibility, and an assertive masculinity unthreatened by diseases. "Revered by all" and "answerable to no one," morans lead lives of sexual freedom. In ways that echo a long history of both romantic nostalgia and moral derision, morans figure here as the nation's "bad boys" (cf. Waller 2010). This narrative on moran sexuality was widely shared in the Kenyan national media and more generally in Kenyan public discourse.

Why have morans become so central to discourses of respectability, moral responsibility, and sexual propriety in Kenya? How has the nationalmedia come to assign sexual and cultural otherness to Samburu morans? How have such discourses shaped the material realities of political belonging in the region? And how have locals positioned themselves historically in relation to discourses about morans and their sexuality? Answering these questions is crucial if we are to understand how and why moran sexuality later became a best-selling commodity in Kenya's tourist industry. Colonial and postcolonial discourses of ethnosexuality were complexly entangled in the growing political and economic marginalization of Samburu regions and populations throughout the twentieth century. The emergence of the discursive category of moran sexuality and its subsequent transformations relate, as we shall see, to how colonial leaders built ethnic regions and sought to reform social life. They also relate to how development ideologies, Christian values, and middle-class aspirations shaped moral hierarchies of ethnic and regional belonging in the postcolonial context.

Stepping Back in Time: Ethnoregional Marginalization in Samburu

Those who travel for the first time from Kenya's capital city of Nairobi to Samburu, in the northern part of the country, often describe their trip as a journey back in time. The impression is understandable. As the green hills of the Rift Valley gradually give way to semiarid savannah plains, towns become smaller and smaller, and cultivated farms slowly morph into dense bush with occasional sightings of zebras, giraffes, and sometimes even lions. Eventually, you begin to spot small settlements of mud dwellings with thorn fences and people dressed in colorful fabric with bead decorations. To many, this is a world so saliently different from that of central Kenya that Kenyans and foreigners alike venerate the north as a place of traditional African culture. But they also see it as a hub of poverty and underdevelopment.

One hundred forty miles north of Nairobi, the tarmac road ends abruptly. For the remaining hundred miles, the journey continues on a dusty dirt road. It may take nine hours to reach Maralal, the administrative headquarters of Samburu. During the rainy season, the journey might take even longer, as vehicles get stuck in the mud and struggle to escape. Safety is an issue, too. At times, when rains destroy the road, armed carjackers ambush vehicles, demanding money and cell phones. "Six days traversing Samburu," writes a Kenyan journalist, "and the experience was like stepping back in time. Roads are in a pathetic state. This pastoralist community seems forgotten." Another journalist traveling on the same road in 2015 recalled how "the driver of the ... shuttle that I boarded to Nyahururu ... thought I should have my head examined when I told him my final destination." "You may die of anything," the driver warned, "cold or heat, animal attack or bandit assault."

My friends and acquaintances in Nairobi and Mombasa wondered why I chose to do research in Samburu. There, they would say, "people lived like they did a hundred years ago." Although most of these interlocutors had never traveled to Samburu, they described the region as "primitive" and "backward," borrowing from the rhetoric of Kenyan media and state development. Some of them blamed poverty in northern regions on politicians who had neglected these areas. Others blamed it on the northerners themselves and their alleged reluctance to abandon archaic cultures and embrace modernization. No matter who is to blame, however, middle-class Kenyans often invoke dominant discourses of socioeconomic progress to place Samburu and other pastoralists in the nation's past. In doing so, they perform what anthropologist Johannes Fabian (1983) described as a "denial of temporal coevalness" of the Other, that is, a denial of a shared contemporaneity between the speaking subject and the cultural others invoked. As a Nairobi businesswoman explained to me, trying to convince me of the backwardness of my research site, "Those kind of mud houses that they have in Samburu, those haven't existed in central Kenya for many, many years. Those Samburus are left behind." In this sense, southern Kenyans often perceive traveling to Samburu as a way to displace themselves temporally, to step back in time. Euro-American travelers, writers, and development workers who visit the region often agree with this modernist narrative of unilineal temporal mobility. On her way back from Samburu to Nairobi, Swiss writer Corinne Hofmann (2006, 143) noted how "the road improves as we approach civilization." Kenyans and foreigners alike invoke this paradigm of temporal displacement to situate Samburu regions and populations at a distance from "civilization," the capital city, and middle-class values. Thus, through what historian Anne McClintock (1995, 30) describes as a common modernist trope, the road to Samburu is for many "proceeding forward in geographical space, but backward in historical time."

This temporal paradigm of cultural Otherness offers Kenyans and foreigners a meaningful narrative for grasping the sharply unequal regional distribution of wealth and privilege in Kenya. However, this paradigm is also deceptive in that it occludes its own ideological complicity in the very production of marginalized regions and populations. Since the advent of British colonialism, administrators have invoked social disorder and radical cultural difference to marginalize northern regions. They argued that cattle raids and intertribal wars were frequent in the north, and that the region had no marketable resources. British administrator Lieutenant Lytton made this point bluntly with regard to Samburu in 1924. "The Samburu are economically unsound (from the Imperial point of view)," he said, adding that "it is therefore best to confine an unprofitable people to as small an area as possible." The colonial state relegated Samburu, along with other pastoral tribes, to the Northern Frontier District, a region kept separate from Kenya's markets and requiring special access permits (Simpson 1994). The colonial government then postponed building infrastructure and initiating modernization projects in the area. After Kenya's independence in 1963, politicians continued to use stereotypes of Samburu and other northern pastoralists as disobedient and irrational people in order to keep delaying investment in the region.

Over the course of the twentieth century, northerners came to understand their position within the Kenyan state as marginal. Many thought that relative to southern ethnic groups, they were — as they would put it —"lagging behind" (S: kubaki nyuma) in achieving development (S: maendeleo), or that they needed to "catch up" or "push forward" (S: kuvuta mbele). This developmental notion of progressive time came to play an important role in how they understood their relationship to the state. When considering the relative absence of infrastructure, the lack of proper schools and health care facilities, rampant unemployment, and poor security in their district, they questioned their belonging to the state. Samburu have articulated this perceived exclusion by suggesting that Kenya lay elsewhere, south of their district, in the capital city of Nairobi and its environs (Holtzman 2004, 64–65). Since independence, political leaders from other ethnic groups, such as Kikuyu, Luo, or Kalenjin, have controlled the distribution of state resources. Many northerners see these ethnic groups as being ahead (S: mbele) of them on an imagined path to development, and emphasize their own alienation at the hands of these political leaders. This mode of temporal hierarchization of ethnicities not only shapes national belonging but also sustains and legitimates the unequal distribution of resources. Some Samburu would describe themselves as the nation's Others, because they feel they have been cheated out of their share of the state's resources.

While some Kenyans imagine Samburu to inhabit a backward past, Samburu themselves draw on similar notions of time and development to articulate their respective positions in the district. Jon Holtzman (2004, 71–76) shows how Samburu distinguish between those of them living in the lowlands (M: lpurkel) and those living in the highlands (M: ldoinyio). Both highlanders and lowlanders generally perceive the lowlands as backward spaces, in which people have little access to resources and live in harsh conditions. That fewer people in the lowlands went to school, had access to employment, or wore modern clothes enhanced their image of backwardness. On our first research trip to lowland villages, my research assistant, a highland resident, remarked in English, "These people are very primitive, surely!" By contrast, the highlands are seen as a space of development and economic possibilities. In the highlands, many people own farmland, live in modern houses, have some education, and occasionally benefit from informal work opportunities. While lowlanders see themselves as marginalized in relation to the highlanders, highlanders also think of the lowlands nostalgically as "a bastion of true Samburu culture," where people have a "greater sense of respect and social responsibility" (75). During my research, Ldereva, a Samburu elder from the lowlands, had moved to the highland village of Siteti to live on his brother's land. He told me he wanted to make money. "I saw with my own mind," he said, "the difference between the lowlands and here." As if to make his point more strongly, he switched from Maa to Swahili, a language he used more often in his daily dealings with traders in Maralal's markets. "Here is the forefront of the Samburu [S: hapa ni mbele ya Samburu]. I cannot return there, backwards [S: siwezi kurudi huko nyuma]." For Ldereva, moving between the lowlands and the highlands was thus a way to travel in time, to move forward on a path to development and prosperity. Ldereva's name translates as "driver," a choice that, he said, reflected his parents' desire for their son to become a rich big man and own a car. Although Ldereva owned no more than two cows and thirty goats, he stayed true to his parents' desire by moving to the highlands to seek personal development. For him, as for Kenyans in general, development came with belonging to regions that offered security and economic prosperity.

For the past century, Samburu have seen the road connecting their district to Nairobi as a key idiom for the creation and contestation of their belonging to the state and a world beyond Kenya. During conversations with elderly Samburu, I learned that for many of them, the road still prompts memories of violent extraction of material resources and labor. They remembered how, in the first half of the twentieth century, colonial administrators forced morans to join labor camps and build the main road of the district. Traders from other parts of the country traveled along this road to Samburu to purchase livestock and hides at lower prices than in the south and import foreign commodities at much higher prices. As a result, they used and perpetuated the relative geopolitical marginality of the region to maximize their own earnings. It was along this road, too, that several generations of morans migrated to southern Kenya to sell their labor. As more and more young men migrated down country and returned with money and goods, Samburu came to see this road as an avenue to a land of riches and heightened economic possibilities. And so, for many of them, the deplorable conditions of the road became iconic of their peripheral position within Kenya. Generations of southern political leaders came to power by promising to tarmac the road, improve infrastructure, and intensify the economic linkages between the south and the north. Yet little has happened so far.

Instead, northern Kenya has become a zone of relative legal and fiscal deregulation that allows myriad shadow economies to flourish. Take, for example, cattle raiding. Often portrayed in the national media as an archaic practice of traditional pastoral tribes, cattle raiding, in its current form, represents an instantiation of the neoliberal economy (Roitman 2005). Collaborating with local morans, politicians and businessmen have generated new modes of speculation and entrepreneurialism. Through violent raids, they sometimes extract thousands of cattle from local economies to be transported to the south and sold on the national beef market. Meanwhile, the media, in depicting these raids as archaic interethnic feuds, ideologically erases the historical context of these shadow economies and legitimizes exceptional measures for policing and securitizing the region.


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Table of Contents

A Note on Language

1. Moran Sexuality and the Geopolitics of Alterity
2. Livelihood and Respectability in Hard Times
3. Slippery Intimacy and Ethno-erotic Commodification
4. Shortcut Money, Gossip, and Precarious (Be)longings
5. Marriage, Madness, and the Unruly Rhythms of Respectability
6. In a Ritual Rush: Crafting Belonging in Lopiro Ceremonies


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