Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape

Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape

Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape

Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape


The authors of this highly original book set out to remove the persistent boundary between the authors and readers of ethnography on one hand and the subjects of ethnography on the other those who observe and those who are observed.

The authors use stories to reveal Siaya, the Luo-speaking area of Western Kenya down near the Lake but still surprisingly vulnerable to drought. There are the stories of survival by a woman with her carpenter husband in Nairobi, there is the launching of a boat as bride into the Lake and there is the great Boro Christmas disco riot. The book finishes with an Afterword on the burial of the lawyer S. M. Otiono that divided its whole of Kenya.

It is both written about and for the Luo. It brings together Luo ideas and debates about their own past and present with findings, arguments and questions produced about this other people; by outside scholars writing in their own disciplines. Among the Luo, what constitutes culture, what is correct behavior, what is history, are questions that are heavily fought over.

This is one of those rare books that makes students and other interested individuals question their own cultural preconceptions and what are the genuine concerns of academic disciplines."


'Of course . . . Odongo does not feel at home because home is where the placenta is.'

People in Siaya say that the weak and awkward are those whose placentas were buried outside their respective homesteads and, worse still, those whose placentas were buried away from the lands of familiar people. They refer to these individuals as jooko, the 'outsiders'. Indeed, those who are thought of as weak and Clumsy may be referred to as biero (placenta), as in the remark 'Nene oyik dhano to owe biero'('we buried the human being and left alive the placenta'). in contrast, those whose placentas are: buried within their respective homesteads are seen to belong, to be upright, to be secure.

Biero, then, becomes part of the constitution of boundaries between. those born and raised on familiar ground and those unrecognized, or coming from outside the lands of familiar people. Doubt is cast on the claims of those not traceable to the homestead. They are jooko.

Importantly, the value of the homestead is articulated in each discussion of biero. Tension is introduced into the thinking of young people considering moving elsewhere to seek work or new lands to settle. They are exposed to the likelihood that they will be received asjooko elsewhere; and they are pressed to discover and secure the support of known relations in the new setting. Intimate concerns and discussions in the homestead feed into the construction of enduring social and ethnic boundaries, in Siaya and elsewhere.

The discussion of biero also places pressure on young women to return to their country homes to give birth. and the biero discourse is part of the pressure placed on young men from Siaya to return to the countryside to enhance the simba (the 'bachelor's house') and to make investments in the countryside. While composing an ideology reaffirming the country homestead, concepts such as jooko and biero are joined to other issues and interests.

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