The Significance of Earth-Eating: Social and Cultural Aspects of Geophagy among Luo Children

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Earth-eating is common among primary school children in Luoland, western Kenya. This article describes the social significance and meanings attributed to it. Earth-eating is practised among children before puberty, irrespective of their sex, and among women of reproductive age, but not usually among adult men or old women. To eat earth signifies belonging to the female sphere within the household, which includes children up to adolescence. Through eating earth, or abandoning it, the children express their emerging gender identity. Discourses about earth-eating, describing the practice as unhealthy and bad, draw on `modern' notions of hygiene, which are imparted, for example, in school. They form part of the discursive strategies with which men especially maintain a dominant position in the community. Beyond the significance of earth-eating in relation to age, gender and power, it relates to several larger cultural themes, namely fertility, belonging to a place, and the continuity of the lineage. Earth symbolises female, life-bringing forces. Termite hills, earth from which is eaten by most of the children and women, can symbolise fertility, and represent the house and the home, and the graves of ancestors. Earth-eating is a form of `communion' with life-giving forces and with the people with whom one shares land and origin. Earth-eating is a social practice produced in complex interactions of body, mind and other people, through which children incorporate and embody social relations and cultural values.

INTRODUCTION

Earth-eating or geophagy, the deliberate and regular ingestion of earth, is found on all continents (Laufer, 1930; Stahl, 1932; Anell and Lagercrantz, 1958). It is more common in the tropics than in temperate climates (Abrahams and Parsons, 1996). Most evidence of earth-eating stems from Africa, where it seems to be culturally accepted among women, especially during pregnancy, and among children (Lagercrantz, 1958; Kilbride and Kilbride, 1993:'. 105-7; Abrahams, 1997; Thomson, 1997; Geissler et al., 1999). Previous studies among the Luo of western Kenya have found that about three-quarters of primary schoolchildren eat earth every day (Geissler et al., 1997). The aim of this article is to explore the cultural and social motives associated with this habit. Earth-eating will be described as a socially distributed practice, which is closely related to people's position in the family and community, and as a cultural domain, which is rooted in the broader cosmology of Luo people. As a social practice and a culture-specific discourse, earth- eating enters into processes of change: on the individual level, the life course from childhood to old age, and on the societal level, historical changes related to the colonial and post-colonial situation. As such it is of particular relevance with regard to children, who grow up in a complex and rapidly changing society.

To analyse children's motivation for earth-eating in its social and cultural context, I will present several interconnected themes in which earth or earth-eating plays a role. I will move from concrete experience--sensory perception of earth-eating and the body--to its social significance in relation to gender roles and power within family and community, and finally to broader ideas related to earth--fertility and reproduction, belonging and continuity. Subsequently, termite mounds--which supply most of the earth eaten--will be examined as a material focus in which the different social and cultural themes converge.

I will explore these themes using the children's explanations of their practice as a starting point. However, children live in a wider culture, and their ideas and practice relate to cultural models which can often be traced only as fragments in children's discourse. The children's statements will therefore be interpreted in the context of adults' explanations. In addition, information provided by ethnographic literature about the Luo is included. …