Living within tent

African Nomadic Architecture
January 12, 1996

There was a time when any tropical anthropologist's training involved an exhausting and ultimately useless course in how to build an igloo and many British ethnographers of cold climates will recall suffering dire, fact-heavy lectures by a man from the Royal Geographical Society who specialised in "How to determine the age of camels by examining their teeth and feet". Despite its splendid colour photography, any work on African tents, such as African Nomadic Architecture, rings alarm bells since it seems to look back to such an age of unanalytic lean-jawed ethnography. The Lucky Jim-style chapter headings ("The tent in African history"), the "I-spy plants of the desert" section and the discussions of camel trappings in loving detail are all in keeping and bound to raise such fears. And while much of the introduction will be new to Africanist anthropologists, there is also plenty of repetition of long-discredited myths of the "Berbers driven off into the desert" sort.

Yet suddenly this book gathers breath and takes off by asking the basic question that most works on material culture still ignore: so what? In the process it ceases to be merely of interest to alternative technologists and appeals to a wider readership of architects and students of culture - puts the "intent" back in "tent" - for an audience only too prone to equate permanent, immobile buildings with civilisation itself. Labelle Prussin argues that tent construction is usually women's work (among the northern Tuareg, noble women may even carve the wooden ridgepoles) and that the invisibility of this female labour to both men and anthropology (inasmuch as the latter are different at all) derives from its assimilation to reproduction. The old tent classification of tensile versus armature is neatly dismantled to show the technological mix involved in actual tent styles. These are related to ecology, the ways in which elements of tents ingeniously become elements of litters in transport and ultimately the gendering of technologies. Prussin contends that the articulation of space within and via the mobile tent is a major structuring device of society and links the "meaning" of tents to both female bodily experience and ritual.

A number of contributions examining specific cases are condensed and incorporated within the general framework. Peter Andrews and Du Puigaudau write on the Tekna, Trarza and Brakna of Mauretania, Johannes Nicolaisen and Dominique Casajus on the Tuareg, Uta Holter on the Mahria of Sudan, Anders Grum on the Rendille of Kenya and Arlene Fullerton and Amina Adan on Somali female artisans. While each comes at the problem from a different angle, what emerges is the centrality of the tent as an articulating principle of space and direction, male space, female space, cosmic space. Prussin argues for the existence of a distinctively nomadic aesthetic, though some of the examples, especially the Tuareg, deny her somewhat romantic assumption of the seamless sisterly fabric of communal female experience. It is simply perhaps that the lighter the range of material objects, the heavier the symbolic load each must carry. The rotation and turning inside out of the marriage tent in the course of transportation and wedding ritual acquires a central importance in her argument though reversals of inside and outside are equally important for sedentary Berber (as Pierre Bourdieu showed long ago). Puzzling too, is the assumption that sedentarisation involves a fundamental change from female to male ownership of the home. Fixed houses are not infrequently owned by women and if Prussin is content to argue that male tent poles can be adequately appropriated by women carving decoration on them, it seems odd to dismiss the widespread feminisation of sedentary domestic space as a lesser form of control.

Concrete description and symbolic interpretation go hand in hand so that we are able to relate usages as diverse as women wearing eye makeup while moving house and the designs they make on screens. There is a fascinating section on the production and use by Somali women of the woven sweetmeat vessel, xeedho, whose sealed lid must be cunningly opened by the groom's friends at his wedding - on pain of forfeits such as doing Michael Jackson impersonations - in order to gain access to the goodies within. Yet the metaphor of the woman as container, central to Prussin's view of the nomadic tent and palanquin, is not even primarily a nomadic construct - ask any African potter. Prussin mentions, with politically appropriate tutting, the research by Janice Boddy on architecture and the closure and enclosure of women in the Sudan but does not explore the issues it raises for the assumption of a distinctive muted female view of the world that is necessarily at variance with dominant male ideology.

Nigel Barley is an assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind, London.

African Nomadic Architecture: Space, Place and Gender

Author - Labelle Prussin
ISBN - 1 56098 358 2
Publisher - Smithsonian Institution Press & National Museum of African Art
Price - £42.95
Pages - 245

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