Academic journal article Africa

Himba Animal Classification and the Strange Case of the Hyena

Academic journal article Africa

Himba Animal Classification and the Strange Case of the Hyena

Article excerpt


Continent-wide in African folklore the hyena is depicted as a dull witted, easily duped creature--despite the fact that the hyena is also known as a cunning and dangerous predator. This article explores why in particular the Himba of northwestern Namibia entertain the characterisation of the hyena as stupid yet from the management of their flocks and herds have experienced first hand how clever a predator the hyena is. For the Himba, the answer lies in the hyena's anatomy, in the perception that the hyena is a hermaphrodite. As such, the hyena stands at the margins of fixed social categories; it is neither this nor that but a hybrid, a creature acting outside of its proper bounds. Among the Himba, such marginal people or creatures are not felt to be dangerous, rather, their primary characteristic is stupidity.

Presente dans le folklore africain, l'hyene est reoresentee comme une creature a l'esprit lent qui se laisse facilement duper, malgre qu'elle soit aussi connue pour etre un predateur ruse et dangereux. Cet article examine en particulier les raisons pour lesquelles les Himba du nord-ouest de la Namibie nourrissent l'image de l'hyene stupide, alors meme que leurs activites pastorales leur ont appris de premiere main que l'hyene etait un predateur intelligent. Pour les Himba, la reponse reside dans l'anatomie de l'hyene, dans le fait que l'hyene est percue comme un etre hermaphrodite. En tant que telle, l'hyene se trouve a la limite des categories sociales fixes ; c'est un hybride, une creature qui evolue en marge de ses propres limites. Chez les Himba, les personnes ou creatures marginales ne sont pas percues comme dangereuses ; au lieu de cela, leur principale caracteristique est la stupidite.

The folklore of the Himba of north-western Namibia exhibits certain features common to the folklore of many African peoples, including depictions of the tortoise as a wise creature, the jackal as a clever one, and the hyena as hapless and slow-witted, as an animal easily exploited and bested by its fellows. This last depiction occasions some curiosity, since the hyena, though a sometime scavenger, is a powerful and dangerous predator. Himba know this well, as few have not experienced the loss of livestock to hyena attacks, yet the characterisation of the hyena as dull and foolish persists. Himba discuss and imitate animals in the contexts of folklore, dances, human character descriptions, joking relationships, and proverbs. And while it goes almost without saying that creatures in folk tales are imbued with human qualities and characteristics, why particular animals should symbolise the particular human moral qualities they do is rarely obvious or transparent. The characterisation of the hyena is largely a result of Himba natural and moral classification, and grasping something of how Himba classify and divide the world into categories based on conceived similarities and differences will be helpful in illuminating this peculiar case.

Himba are keen and astute observers of the natural world, drawing both fauna and flora into categories rooted in naturalistic (1) and cultural understanding. The same, of course, can be said of any human society, as order is requisite to thinking about the world. But human classificatory systems never consist entirely of neat, well defined categories into which every single natural or social object can unequivocally be placed. Instead, categories are often flexible, tenuous, polythetically arranged, and widely overlapping (Ellen, 1993; Needham, 1975; Wittgenstein, 1953). And there are always certain objects that defy strict, obvious categorisation.

Himba divide the animal world into various categories based on the observation of particulars guided by specific criteria Himba consider important. But their naturalist classification is only one of several commonly employed, and as Himba discuss specific animals, conversation shifts freely from naturalistic considerations to moral (i. …

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