They will survive (probably)

The Pastoral Continuum
May 21, 1999

In 1926, Melville Herskovits identified what he termed a "cattle complex", a set of cultural features that were characteristic of the cattle-keeping, nomadic pastoralists of Africa. In a study published in 1989, Gunther Schlee traced a similar cultural design among the eastern Cu****ic camel pastoralists of northeastern Africa. He demonstrated that there existed a fluid ethnic boundary across which pastoralists have historically moved back and forth in times of crises. In this new study of the area, Paul Spencer compares the socio-economic features that have historically connected the cultures of five non-Islamised ethnic clusters in the eastern African region across the cattle-camel divide. He sees this phenomenon as constituting a "pastoral continuum".

Spencer builds on an earlier study ( Nomads in Alliance , 1973) in which he explored the cultural links between Samburu cattle herders and Rendille camel herders. He discusses a number of wide-ranging issues that have characterised the practice of (nomadic) pastoralism in eastern Africa. He sees this pastoral continuum as demarcating a certain continuity in the traditions of the pastoral groups studied. Despite the far-reaching socio-economic changes that have taken place in the pastoral production systems, he is able to posit the persistence of the value systems that have qualified pastoralism as a way of life from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial periods. The dynamic nature of these traditions has enabled pastoralists to survive a series of catastrophic economic and ecological crises. Spencer indicates that while the elders in these groups may have been resistant to change, it is through the spirit of enterprise of the younger generation that innovations have been made to pastoral economies.

Spencer shows, however, that as pastoralists are pushed further back into the fringes of the territories they formerly occupied, these traditions are becoming marginalised. In an interesting analysis of how pastoral economies have interlocked with national, regional, and international systems, Spencer measures the impact of development programmes on pastoralists. He points out, however, that despite growing disparities and social differentiation, there exists a moral threshold through which a certain traditional cultural integrity is still maintained. Spencer stresses that pastoralism has never been an independent mode of production. As his discussion indicates, pastoralists have historically employed a variety of strategies to overcome periodic crises in their production systems and they have moved back and forth between different economic modes. These have traditionally included forms of foraging, fishing, grain cultivation and animal husbandry. To these can now also be added entry into the capitalist market economy by individuals. Through such adaptation, pastoralists have not only been able to exploit the different ecological niches of their territories successfully, but have developed complex, symbiotic cultural links with their non-pastoral neighbours and other pastoral groups that have enabled them to form alliances across ethnic boundaries. However, Spencer, like Herskovits and Schlee, has perhaps not sufficiently taken into account the indigenous knowledge systems that underlie such alliances and make them possible.

The essays in this volume move from an overview of general problems to detailed investigations based on case studies and quantitative analyses. As Spencer notes, the ethnographic material conceals important numerical data that have not been fully brought out by other researchers on the topic. The author's statistical analyses provide valuable insights that will be of particular interest to more specialised readers.

Spencer's study is neither overly romantic nor unduly pessimistic. He ends on a note of hope for the future of pastoralism as a way of life in eastern Africa.

Aneesa Kassam is lecturer in anthropology, University of Durham.

The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalisation of Tradition in East Africa

Author - Paul Spencer
ISBN - 0 19 823375 2
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00
Pages - 302

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments