The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalization of Tradition in East Africa

The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalization of Tradition in East Africa

The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalization of Tradition in East Africa

The Pastoral Continuum: The Marginalization of Tradition in East Africa


Paul Spencer presents the definitive study of the ways of life of the cattle-herding peoples of East Africa, drawing on many years of research. This region has offered a prime example of a traditional culture resisting the inevitability of change; it provides the best-known and most extensive instance both of cattle-pastoralist society and of social organization based primarily on age. Pastoral peoples were once dominant in the East African interior, but development of the market economy has progressively polarized the region and forced them into the most marginal, drought-ridden areas; in this ecological trap they have become a peripheral underclass. The Pastoral Continuum examines the richness and resilience of their cultures and illuminates the role of indigenous practices and institutions in adaptation and survival. The pastoralists' systems of age organization in particular are notable for their resilience: it is demonstrated that these are bound up with problems of growth and succession in family enterprises, and that marriage is a critical link in the web of alliance that governs the problematic relations between old and young. Spencer's exploration of the development of the pastoralist phenomenon yields a unique view of its place in the modern world and its prospects for the future. This landmark work by a leading authority will be of lasting value to any reader interested in traditional social systems of this kind.


Within any society, some overarching premiss may be characteristic of a much wider region. Studies of rural Mediterranean societies, for instance, emphasize the concept of honour associated with the integrity of the family. Studies of Hindu society stress the concept of purity which defines status within the caste hierarchy. Correspondingly, in studies of traditional Africa, a theme that recurs is the association of respect with age. It is hardly surprising that the terms 'elder' and 'elderhood' are so well established as translations of vernacular terms. They convey a sense of status and respect.

There are, of course, variations on this theme, and it persists only to the extent that it has not been undermined by recent change. But typically in rural areas, older people are expected to have cultivated a sense of respect, and they claim a right to the respect of others based on their accumulated experience and seniority. Explicitly or implicitly, older people foster an ethos of gerontocracy--an assumption of privilege--and their juniors acquire a stake in this way of thinking, ensuring their own future even before middle age.

However, the premiss of respect in old age is also ambiguous. It has the appearance of a clear-cut notion, but it does not quite match up to relations between young and old. If older people are characterized as having achieved a sense of respect--a state where they are both respected and respecting--then this implies that younger people have not yet achieved this ideal. To this extent, the young do not invariably show respect for elders, and elders do not have respect in every sense of the term: they have a sense of respect, but are not altogether respected, and they cannot altogether respect the disrespecting young. Again, this emphasis on respect for old age may be tinged with fear; and a grotesque caracature of self-indulgence among older people may be one of greed and envy, associated even with witchcraft or sorcery. This appears as a perversion of the norm, but it hints at an unscrupulous streak in the power of older people. in these ways, the premiss of respect is relevant to the rhetoric between different ages, but ultimately it is flawed. One is therefore led to look more closely at ways in which the ambiguities of ageing are contained within the institutions that legitimize the claim to authority among elders.

This authority is commonly expressed through the extended family dominated by the senior generation with control over property and marriage, both in giving away daughters and in restricting sons. This may be elaborated through ancestor cults, manipulated by those closest to the ancestors. in West Africa especially, it is elaborated through secret societies, in which careers are marked . . .

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