Saturday, March 03, 2007

Something I’ve been wrestling over in the process of writing my prospectus and preparing to start my project is exactly how to describe the communities I’m working in. My initial inclination to check out Laikipia District as a field site over the summer was reading in several different places that there were Maasai communities there. Upon visiting, these writings seemed to be confirmed; I recognized at least the most superficial aspects of Maasai culture from my prior trips to Maasai communities in the south, and most of the people I talked to self-identified as Maasai. However, things started to get more complicated as I read some papers in the Fall which made strong claims that there were no Maasai in remaining Laikipia, and that all existing Maasai sections were either in southern Kenya or Tanzania. I more or less ignored this discrepancy and carried on, describing this set of communities I intended to work with as “Maasai” in my prospectus. In the last few days, I’ve managed to clarify this situation by reading a bunch of work by Lee Cronk, an anthropologist at Rutgers who did work in Mukogodo division (the area I’m planning on working in) in the 1980s. Cronk clarifies that although most of the people living in Mukogodo division self-identify as Maasai, speak Maa, practice a number of Maasai rituals, and practice cattle pastoralism, they all have in the past practiced some combination of hunting, gathering, or cultivation, all of which fall ouside of the “Maasai Mainstream”. As a result, they are categorized as “Il-Torrobo” by the Maasai, a word that means “hunters” but which carries substantial social stigma.
Cronk’s work focuses on the Mukogodo, who were previously cave-dwelling beekeepers who became cattle pastoralists in about two generations. More interesting to me is a neighboring community, the Mumonyot, who are one of the remnants of the Laikipiak maasai, a peripheral Maasai community that was politically dominant in the early 19th century, but was defeated by an alliance of core maasai sections in the 1860s. After the defeat, some of the Laikipiak were assimilated into the victorious Maasai sections, while others adopted hunting and gathering while trying to regain stock by raiding neighboring communities of Samburu, Boran, and Rendille. Eventually they started herding cattle again, but they are still recognized as being “Dorrobo”. What I think is really fascinating about this community is that it raises important questions about what “survival” of political units entails; even though the Laikipiak were eliminated as a political unit, this didn’t entail death for all (or even most) of the people who had previously identified as Laikipiak. In addition, looking at this community should provide an interesting opportunity to look at the effect of changes in the size, structure, and economic orientation of a community shape and are shaped by local institutions.

truth be told, I wrote this on Tuesday, before I left Nairobi for Nanyuki, the captial of Laikipia. I tried to post it on Thursday, but the power cut out before I got to save (that's how things roll here up in Laikipia), and then I spent the past two days starting my interviews with leaders from two different Mukogodo Maasai communities. Lots of stories from both of those, but not until I'm less exhausted.


1 comment:

amelia said...

super interesting -- and one of those reminders about the dangers & confusions of "self-identification." i can't seem to blog about anything of interest lately, but i swear that interesting things (beyond housing market issues) are happening here.