Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya

Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya

by Jon Holtzman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520944824
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/13/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Jon Holtzman is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Western Michigan University and is the author of Nuer Journeys, Nuer Lives: Sudanese Refugees in Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

Uncertain Tastes

Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya

By Jon Holtzman


Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94482-4


Memory, Ambivalence, and Food


"Would you like to see a film of the time when you Kimaniki were murran?" I asked Lekutaas, our colorful next-door neighbor in Loltulelei. A member of the Kimaniki age set, who were murran from 1948 to i960, hundreds of his age mates were captured on film in 1951 in the John Ford classic Mogambo. Ford was purportedly lured to Samburu District by the blustering district commissioner Terence Gavaghan, with the promise of "a thousand pig-tailed, ochre-smeared, spear-toting moran as extras" and all the charging rhinos and elephants he cared to film. Gavaghan delivered, while also providing hospitality to stars Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, and (especially, according to both Chenevix-Trench [1964] and Gavaghan's [1999] memoirs) Ava Gardner. Three hundred or so murran were brought down to a spot near what is now Samburu Game Reserve, feted in slaughtered oxen, and paid handsomely in cloth and other goods. The result was a rather corny five-minute sequence in which Clark Gable's safari party—he was hired by Grace Kelly's (subsequently cuckolded) anthropologist husband to lead him to gorillas—decides to stop their riverine odyssey to see the Samburu. The Gable party alight from their dugout canoes and walk through an eerily empty village toward the house of the district commissioner. Samburu warriors begin appearing menacingly from behind the odd conical huts of which the village is composed (bearing no resemblance to actual Samburu houses), and the party hurries into the commissioner's house to find him in bed dying of malaria. The commissioner explains that the Samburu rebelled after he caught them poaching ivory. No hope for him, he explains, but please help get his two African policemen out—they are "good boys." Gable's party exits between masses of angry Samburu, spears poised to strike, and jump into their canoes just in time to safely avoid a small group that, without explanation, suddenly decides to run after them and hurl some spears.

I discovered this classic but hokey film sometime after my doctoral fieldwork, and when I prepared to return in 2001 I copied the Samburu sequence onto my laptop to show to interested informants. Some had actually been in the filmed group; all were amused by oddities in the film—the strange houses, the fact that though threatening with their spears, the murran are not actually holding them in a way that would allow them to be thrown. Among members of the Kimaniki age set in particular, there was considerable interest in seeing themselves during their glory days as murran. When I told Lekutaas that he was going to see his age set when they were young, he was excited and replied in his characteristic half-joking manner, "Now we will see some real murran," grunting, flexing his muscles, and practically strutting about. "These ones who ate meat [grunting again]—not like these ones these days who eat ... I don't know what." After he watched the film clip on the laptop, I was curious if he noticed changes in dress, ornaments, and the like. When I asked him to compare the murran in the film with those of today, he had more on his mind than such superficial differences. "Are those murran different?" I asked. "Very different," he replied. "Those ones [in the film] were fools. They wouldn't even eat things at home."

In this short exchange, Lekutaas captured the essence of the two master narratives employed by Samburu to discuss their history through food. In the first instance, murran of today—and by extension all Samburu—were seen to be essentially degraded from their former glory. Where once they ate meat, garnishing not only physical strength but self-discipline and self-restraint, today they eat peculiar, unimaginable things—characterized, as Lekutaas's words trailed off in befuddled disbelief, simply as "I don't know what". Yet within minutes Lekutaas transposed his condemnation of the current, degraded murran eating practices to its mirror image: the murran of his time clung foolishly to cultural beliefs that the Enlightened life of today shows to have no practical basis.

That Lekutaas encompassed both sides of this reality is not as surprising as it might first appear. While on the surface he appears to be, like many of his age mates, highly oriented toward what Samburu regard as "traditional" culture—always seen wearing tartan blankets, focused on his herd, prominent at local meetings and ceremonies but rarely venturing to town—at the same time his extended experience outside the district in the King's African Rifles is central to his self-construction of a worldly and forward-looking persona. In the 1950s he spent two years in the jungles of Malaysia, fighting communist insurgents but also "learning about white things." Thus, while he is very knowledgeable about Samburu traditions, he is often more enthusiastic about discussing World War II based on films he saw while in the service, contemplating the fate of Hitler, and sometimes imitating the goose-stepping Nazi troops.

Yet these seeming contradictions vis-à-vis food are not unique to Lekutaas's mildly eccentric persona but are, indeed, characteristic of how Samburu live and remember through food. For if eating practices remain central to self-definitions rooted in the superiority of a pastoral way of life, they also form the basis for a self-critique rooted in the impracticality of "traditional" cultural practices. There is little sound basis for the long-standing stereotype of pastoralists as "naturally conservative" and resistant to change (e.g., Schneider 1959), but Samburu, like many other African pastoralists, have been historically quite circumspect in embracing forms of development that they view as undermining core cultural values and the economic basis of their existence. Thus, while there is no question that a host of significant processes of transformation have been ongoing since the earliest days of colonialism, Samburu have accepted change only piecemeal and on their own terms, fusing it to their own notions of tradition, in contrast to "government" (that is, European) ways. However, severe declines in the livestock economy over the past few decades have changed these views. They have left many Samburu destitute and struggling to find alternatives, open to embracing the notion that current patterns of widespread poverty are empirical proof that perhaps they had been wrong about Development all along.


Comments such as Lekutaas's criticism of traditional eating are in many ways a contemporary and culturally specific instantiation of long-standing discourses and debates. How pastoralists eat has long been a source of interest and unease to observers in East Africa and elsewhere, as well as a source of self-definition for pastoralists, both in its own right and in contrast to these external discourses. Pastoralism, as practice and diet, has long been marked as a problematic aspect of the lives of East African pastoralists. From quite early in the colonial period, travelers, missionaries, and administrators drew stark boundaries based on the economic practices of pastoralism and agriculture, and the resulting dietary practices. Thus, for example, Karl Peters emphasizes the distinctive psychological makeup of pastoral peoples.

The continual flesh diet on which they live has physiologically increased their natural savageness, and the brutalising of the feelings that must ensue with people who are in the habit of slaughtering and devouring, in a cold-blooded manner, the domestic animal they themselves have reared, appears here in a very decided manner.... This law has always explained why the herdsmen of the nomadic races have constantly furnished the most savage phenomena in the world's history, as we have seen them embodied in Europe, in personages like Jhengis Khan and Attilla. In addition to this psychological law comes the fact, that such races are prevented by the peculiarity of their employment, from establishing themselves anywhere permanently. The possession of great herds necessitates a continual change of domicile. While the agriculturalist is obliged to remain on his soil, to which his heart becomes attached, the nomad is indifferent to the charms of owning a home. (Peters 1891, 224-25)

This distinction was not merely economic but was layered with connotations that were ethnic, racial, and evolutionary as well. Pastoral peoples were viewed as more savage and more conservative than agricultural ones, yet they were often accorded a racial status more akin to European races. Indeed, despite their greater savagery, they were by and large viewed as savages of a decidedly noble variety. As Peters continues:

But if all the conditions are present that tend to bring to full development the wild and brutal qualities of the man, on the other hand, among the Massais there may be recognized the ennobling influence which is produced in every people by the inherited consciousness of rule. Accustomed to see all around them tremble at the name of Massai, the warriors of the race have acquired a natural pride, which cannot be designated otherwise than as aristocratic. From the first the Massais assumed towards me the deportment of young, haughty noblemen. (225)

Within the framework of colonialism, this opposition of cultivator and pastoralist provided a crucial distinction in understanding processes of change. While agriculturalists have been seen as quite ready to engage with Progress—through education, missionization, and the like—pastoralists are seen as uninterested, even disdainful of change, content in the nobility of their traditional ways. In this sense, they were seen as the inevitable victims of progress, swept away in the maelstrom of change—change that was most prominently seen as the spread of cultivation to their pastoral lands. Take, for example, H. H. Johnston, writing about the closely related Maasai in 1886: "They must turn their spears into spades and their swords into reaping hooks—or starve.... Soon there will be no cattle left to raid and the Masai will range the wide deserted plains in all their splendid, insolent bravery and die of inanation. The inhabitants of the walled cities or lofty hills will dwell secure from attack, and the wretched remnants of vanquished tribes still lingering in unprotected haunts will not be worth robbing. Then the proud Masai must turn to and wring from the soil the sustenance which only comes as the reward of honest labor" (Johnston 1886, 406–7).

Like many discourses and images of East African pastoralists, these are uncommonly resilient, coming forth into the twenty-first century, seemingly altered little by the intervening 150 years. While in the colonial period authorities throughout East Africa pushed cultivation as a means of bettering pastoral peoples (e.g., Galaty, Aronson, and Salzman 1981; Little 1992; Fratkin 1994), the transition to cultivation continues to be viewed as an inevitable step that will finally be undertaken on the road of reluctant pastoral peoples toward modernity. Indeed, some read cultivation (and eating crops) as having a unique, civilizing influence. Looking at other parts of Africa, Gordon (1992) notes the widespread Namibian belief that to tame a Bushman you simply needed to chain him to a post and force-feed him mielie (maize) meal, the infusion of cultigens presumably transforming his wild nature. Both NGOs and governmental agencies continue to push agriculture as the key to the future of pastoral peoples, bringing the benefits of a more stable and economically viable way of life, as well as successful integration in the economies and polities of East Africa. While we must be cautious of too readily glossing the cultural specificity of what such perspectives mean in particular historical contexts, the kinds of issues to which they become fused and the agendas they support or contradict, their resilience is nonetheless significant.

These discourses form an important backdrop for understanding contemporary Samburu collective memory through the lens of food. They may be read in two different and important ways. These discourses provide an external critique of the cultural and economic forms of East African pastoralists, such as the Samburu, and are an important part of long-standing and ongoing external efforts to modify pastoralist societies. Yet they now have become part and parcel of a Samburu landscape of memory in which food is prominent. In an era of pastoral poverty, it has become increasingly common for Samburu to conceive of their current predicament with a degree (albeit misplaced) of self-blame, alleging that their reticence to embrace Development is at least partially responsible for the struggles they now face. There is thus a growing tendency to intermingle an identity based on the cultural superiority of pastoralism with an identity based on underdevelopment (Gupta 1998; Holtzman 2004), and to ambivalently embrace—sometimes in speech, less often in action—the very economic and cultural alternatives they have struggled against for decades. Consider the comments of Leirana, a junior elder from Lodokejek who has never attended school. His views are by no means atypical, as he compares the Samburu with the Kikuyu, the agricultural group from central Kenya that was affected most profoundly by colonialism, and which in the independent period has been considered the most "developed" Kenyan ethnic group. Scanning the dry grasslands around his home in Lodokejek, Leirana mused on how different things would be if these were Kikuyu lands rather than Samburu: "If this place had been theirs [the Kikuyu's] this land would be filled up with food. But these people here, they only know how to look after the animals."

As Leirana's comments suggest, a notion of Development and Progress informs one major discourse concerning the division of agricultural and pastoral peoples: if Samburu were more Enlightened (or if a more Enlightened group occupied their lands), things might be different --- and better. While such discourses are considered with increasing degrees of acceptance by Samburu themselves, not surprisingly, Samburu discourses typically differ. Long-standing cultural values of East African pastoralists—and of Maa speakers such as Samburu and Maasai—construct the opposition between agricultural and pastoral foods as a central feature of their value systems. A reliance on a pastoral diet of meat, milk, and blood, and a general avoidance of cultivated food has long been noted to be of central importance in constructing the identity of Maa-speaking pastoralists (e.g., Galaty 1982). This is summarized neatly in the title of Arhem's (1987) "Meat, Milk and Blood," which emphasizes that while such a diet has never been easy to fully realize, it forms an important means through which Maa speakers construct their identity. Pastoral products are seen as the only proper foods, and the need to consume other foods—be they cultigens or wild foods—is viewed as a consequence of poverty, of having inadequate herds to provide proper food. Beyond these issues of ethnic self-definition, food is profoundly linked to an array of practices and values that are fundamental to pastoral life in areas such as the age-gender system, religious beliefs, and moral forms of sociability.

The centrality of a pastoral diet has been significantly problematized, however, by severe and steady declines in the livestock economy, beginning in the i960 s and accelerating through the present. In tandem with a more than doubling in human population, Samburu livestock holdings have declined from seven cattle per capita in the 1950 s (the approximate threshold for a purely pastoral diet) to around two cattle per capita today. Thus, it is only a small, wealthy minority who can rival even the average livestock holdings of the 1950s, while large numbers of Samburu are virtually stockless. The immediate consequence is that Samburu have been forced to rely more and more heavily on nonpastoral foods—particularly maize meal—usually purchased with cash acquired through livestock sales, remittances from wage labor, or mercantile activities. As is elaborated in detail in the chapters that follow, this has resulted in transformations in practices and values surrounding eating that are generally held to have had negative consequences on social, moral, and physical well-being. Drawing on the contrast between a culturally salient diet of milk, meat, and blood, and the unappetizing, unhealthy, and symbolically empty "gray foods" or "poverty foods" of the present, a seemingly endless litany of complaints target the new ways of eating: These foods have made women promiscuous. Children's stomachs are made "hot," resulting in symptoms reminiscent of ADHD. Too much maize meal gives you liver disease. And most notably, new foods and new patterns of cooking and consumption have made warriors weak and shameless, the most salient expression of a loss of the sense of respect and social distance central to the age-gender system, seen across all social categories.


Excerpted from Uncertain Tastes by Jon Holtzman. Copyright © 2009 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Part One: Orientations
1. Memory, Ambivalence, and Food
2. Food as Food

Part Two: Worlds of Food
3. The Alimentary Structures of Samburu Life
4. A Samburu Gastronomy
5. The Calabash behind the Calabash behind the Calabash

Part Three: Histories of Eating
6. Mixed Like a Pot of Gray Food
7. In a Cup of Tea
8. Turbid Brews
9. Eating Shillings


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