Nachituti's Gift: Economy, Society and Environment in Central Africa

Article excerpt

Nachituti's Gift: Economy, Society and Environment in Central Africa. By David M. Gordon. Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 304; 14 illustrations. $60.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Nachituti's Gift is a finely crafted history of the fisheries of southern Lake Mweru from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, located in their regional economic and political contexts. But while David Gordon uses local people's changing relationships to fisheries as a touchstone, his primary interest is in broader questions of central Africans' understandings of and strategizing around resource use and ownership.

In the oral tradition of the people living in the Luapula river valley south of Lake Mweru, in the late eighteenth century, Nachituti was the sister of a local Shila ruler, Nkuba. After Nkuba murdered Nachituti's son, she sought revenge on her brother by inviting the eastern Lunda to conquer the Luapula valley. After the Lunda conquest and her brother's execution, Nachituti presented the Lunda king with a basket of earth and a pot of water representing the natural resources of the river valley. Local people have understood and deployed this story (and adjusted and contested it) to define reciprocal and ambiguous relationships between political control over local people and local control of fisheries resources. The meanings of the story, problematizing Western ideas about power and private property as they do, frame David Gordon's history of the fishing economy in the Lualuba valley.

This is a powerful portrayal of the complexity, fluidity, and subtlety of Lake Mweru fishers' production strategies. Central components of these strategies include dependable supplies of nets and boats and people being more vital than cash; the importance of close involvement in the entire commodity chain, from fishing to processing to transportation and marketing; and that social and economic investments are closely bound. As environmental history, the text includes discussions of spawning grounds and the relationships between changing fishing technology and species. But David Gordon is primarily interested in changing economic and social relationships in the practices and businesses of fishing.

This is a story of relative success and resilience, of taking advantage of opportunities as opposed to losing them or never having many to begin with. David Gordon's chapter on the Chisense fishery (a small anchovy-like fish) emphasizes a recent commercial boom in this fishery and, in particular, women's successful involvement in this growing economic opportunity. But I imagine, as with similar fisheries in other central African lakes, this is also a fishery of poverty, as Chisense can be purchased in extremely small amounts, and caught and processed with the simplest of equipment. …