Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya

Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya

Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya

Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya

Synopsis

This richly drawn ethnography of Samburu cattle herders in northern Kenya examines the effects of an epochal shift in their basic diet-from a regimen of milk, meat, and blood to one of purchased agricultural products. In his innovative analysis, Jon Holtzman uses food as a way to contextualize and measure the profound changes occurring in Samburu social and material life. He shows that if Samburu reaction to the new foods is primarily negative--they are referred to disparagingly as "gray food" and "government food"--it is also deeply ambivalent. For example, the Samburu attribute a host of social maladies to these dietary changes, including selfishness and moral decay. Yet because the new foods save lives during famines, the same individuals also talk of the triumph of reason over an antiquated culture and speak enthusiastically of a better life where there is less struggle to find food. Through detailed analysis of a range of food-centered arenas, Uncertain Tastes argues that the experience of food itself--symbolic, sensuous, social, and material-is intrinsically characterized by multiple and frequently conflicting layers.

Excerpt

One man, two histories of food

“Would you like to see a film of the time when you Kimaniki were murran?” I asked Lekutaas, our colorful next-door neighbor in Loltulelei. a member of the Kimaniki age set, who were murran from 1948 to 1960, hundreds of his age mates were captured on film in 1951 in the John Ford classic Mogambo. Ford was purportedly lured to Samburu District by the blustering district commissioner Terence Gavaghan, with the promise of “a thousand pig-tailed, ochre-smeared, speartoting moran as extras” and all the charging rhinos and elephants he cared to film. Gavaghan delivered, while also providing hospitality to stars Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, and (especially, according to both Chenevix-Trench [1964] and Gavaghan’s [1999] memoirs) Ava Gardner. Three hundred or so murran were brought down to a spot near what is now Samburu Game Reserve, feted in slaughtered oxen, and paid handsomely in cloth and other goods. the result was a rather corny five-minute sequence in which Clark Gable’s safari party—he was hired by Grace Kelly’s (subsequently cuckolded) anthropologist husband to lead him to gorillas—decides to stop their riverine odyssey to see the Samburu. the Gable party alight from their dugout canoes and walk through an eerily empty village toward the house of the district commissioner. Samburu warriors begin appearing menacingly from behind the odd conical huts of which the village is composed . . .

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