The Iraqw of Tanzania: Negotiating Rural Development/A History under Siege: Intensive Agriculture in the Mbulu Highlands, Tanzania, 19th Century to the Present

By DeGregori, Thomas R. | African Studies Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview

The Iraqw of Tanzania: Negotiating Rural Development/A History under Siege: Intensive Agriculture in the Mbulu Highlands, Tanzania, 19th Century to the Present


DeGregori, Thomas R., African Studies Review


Katherine A. Snyder. The Iraqw of Tanzania: Negotiating Rural Development. Boulder, Colo.: Westview case Studies in Anthropology, 2005. xii + 196 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $20.00. Paper.

Lowe Börjeson. A History Under Siege: Intensive Agriculture in the Mbulu Highlands, Tanzania, 19th Century to the Present Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2004. Distributed by Almqvist & Wicksell International. 187 pp. Photographs. Bibliography. SEK 266. Paper.

These two fine studies taken together are as refreshing as they are informative. They are both about the same ethnic group, the Iraqw (or Iraqw'ar Da/aw) of Tanzania. The study by Katherine A. Snyder is more of an ethnography, while that of Lowe Börjeson is more an historical ethnogeography. Both deal with agriculture, its intensification and modernization. They nicely complement each other and have implications for understanding development and change in other areas.

The Iraqw are anything but traditional (in the stereotypical use of that term). They clearly have an ability to adapt and adopt new technologies in agriculture and food production for their benefit. Both authors recognize that many Iraqw see that what is modern (even if Snyder uses the term with quotation marks) can also be desirable. To Snyder, "notions of tradition and modernity have resulted in a struggle over identity as well as the meaning of community" (2). Modern ways have clearly brought a diversification in agricultural products and pursuits. Snyder has an entire section on the "decline in production" (91-94), but it is not clear whether she means a decline in total agricultural production with a concomitant decline in yields or whether it is a decline in per capita production as a result of population pressures resulting in ever smaller holdings. Is she, in fact, referring to a decline in grain and cattle production, which may have been offset by increases in tree crops, other crops, and livestock?

In neither study does one get the sense that accepting the modern has, in any significant way, undermined Iraqw traditional identity. Quite the contrary, the successful use of new ways of doing things seems actually to have helped sustain bonds of group identity that would otherwise have been lost for those seeking participation in the larger community. This does not mean, as Snyder's study makes clear, that older forms of authority may not have been undermined; as would be expected, it is the younger members of the community who are most attracted to the practices of "modernity." Snyder speaks of the "ways in which Iraqw manipulate 'development' for their own aims"; she notes that "Iraqw have always been quick to adopt changes that provide obvious benefits, yet who gets these benefits is always determined by those who are quickest to recognize the possible gains" (100).

Whatever problems modernity creates, "modernizing" elements allow its members both to retain their group identity and to participate more fully and effectively in the larger community and nation state. "In the Iraqw homeland, cultural practices continue to endure, albeit in modified form, in new circumstances and are deployed in novel ways to fit current problems, thus continually blurring the divide between past and present, tradition and modern" (100). This conclusion has broader applications. As is often the case, what seems to the outsider as an alien intrusion in a "traditional culture" is often accepted by the people themselves as local or even indigenous. …

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