Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society, and Politics

By Little, Peter D. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society, and Politics


Little, Peter D., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society, and Politics. Edited by Markus Hoehne and Virginia Luling. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 437; bibliography, index, glossary. $55.00.

Few scholars of Africa are as closely associated with a single ethnic group and a particular nation as LM. Lewis. His ethnographic and historical work among Somalis spanned more than fifty years and has appealed to a range of different disciplines, from anthropology and linguistics to history and political science. Markus Hoehne and Virginia Luling have done a great service to the fields of African Studies, generally, and Somali Studies, specifically, by bringing together a stellar cast of scholars, including several Somali authors, to celebrate the contributions of Lewis. It is not possible to comment on each of the individual chapters, but it is worth pointing to a few of the book's key themes and chapters that reflect important dimensions of Lewis' scholarship. In the majority of chapters, individual authors attempt to address particular contributions of Lewis and their impacts on Somali studies and/or anthropology. Only a few of the chapters make no or only minimal reference to Lewis' work, which implies that the co-editors succeeded in selecting contributors who both could address their own scholarship and that of Lewis's.

The first key theme of the volume addresses the role of kinship in Somali social and political life and is the focus of at least five different contributors (Lee Cassanelli, Luca Ciabarri, Marcel Djama, Virginia Luling, and Charles Geshekter) to the volume. Many readers will be familiar with the controversy and critiques surrounding Lewis' work on kinship and clans and his insistence on their primacy in Somali social and political affairs. In particular, the chapter by Cassanelli on the "total" Somali lineage system shows how the elaborate and deep kinship structures explored by Lewis provides Somalis with a "genealogical map which embraces virtually all Somalis and at its most remote level links them to a putative common ancestor" (p. 54). He dodges the debate about how significant these lineage-based relations actually are in determining Somali social and political behavior, but does challenge the critique that the lineage systems was an "invention" by Europeans, including Lewis, by suggesting that early visitors and colonial administrators relied on a small group of local Somali genealogists who were Arabic literate and capable of providing these detailed lineage accounts. Along similar lines, the concluding chapter by another historian, Geshekter, shows how a careful reading of Lewis on Somali kinship and clan structures demonstrates a greater sophistication and flexibility than most critics acknowledge. Other themes related to Somali kinship and ethnicity are addressed in chapters by Ciabarri on trade and lineages; Ken Menkhaus on Somali Bantu identity in the Jubba and Shebelli river valleys; Djama on the political ecology of Somali pastoralism; and Luling on the "mixed" lineages and communities of southern Somalia that trace an Arabic heritage.

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