Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Houses and the Ritual Construction of Gendered Homes in South Africa

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Houses and the Ritual Construction of Gendered Homes in South Africa

Article excerpt

This article examines the life course of people growing up in Griquatown, South Africa, and explores the manner in which people used ritual in the creation and maintenance of both a broader ethnic Griqua 'family' and a nuclear family within a private house. The key aim of the article is to bring together two disparate areas of theoretical concern--namely ritual interpretations and analyses of material culture--in order to explicate aspects of Griqua identity. By the late 1990s, the Griqua comprised a diverse category of people who were historically understood to be the 'mixed-race' descendants of indigenous Khoi (nomadic pastoralists), autochthonous San (nomadic hunter-gatherers), escaped slaves, Boer frontiersmen, Africans (predominantly Tswana), and European settlers (Ross 1976: 1). The name Griqua--by origin a Khoi name which had come to be used as a general term for the [not equal to]Karixurikwa, Chariguriqua, or /Karihur Khoi residents of the Cape Colony--was adopted in the early nineteenth century at the behest of British Protestant missionaries in preference to the widely used Dutch designation, Baastard (Halford 1949; Nurse 1975; Ross 1976). During the apartheid years (1948-94), the Griqua were subsumed under the government's broader racial category of 'coloured', which included the heterogenous conglomerates that resulted from people's interactions during the colonial era and other categories of people, such as Malays, not easily identified as either black or white.

Griqua people were still resident around Griquatown, their former London Missionary Society station, at the end of the twentieth century. No longer an important mission, Griquatown had been reduced to an economically depressed, small, rural town in the Northern Cape. Griquatown had a population of about 3,000 adults, who had been classified as coloured under apartheid but who identified themselves as Griqua; there was a smaller population of black residents, predominantly Tswana, together with a handful of whites who controlled economic opportunities (primarily sheep-farming because of the stony, arid landscape).

In this article, I argue that the association of Griqua women with houses stemmed from a complex interaction between their pre-colonial Khoi origins, Christian missionary influences, and the manner in which the apartheid government implemented housing policies. This material is drawn from archival records in the Griquatown municipal offices. The following section, which examines the actions of women--mothers, sisters, wives, and widows--in relation to men and to houses, is based on anthropological research conducted in Griquatown between 1987 and 1998. Here, the emphasis is on how particular women ritually stress their association with the house; and how men--brothers, husbands, and sons--endorse this symbolic relationship through ritual acquiescence or inactivity. In so doing, I aim to explore the related themes of gender and space, rather than to provide a full-scale account of ritual behaviour and its symbolic meaning. What my observations suggest is that the ritual complex surrounding the house and its spaces incorporated two distinct elements: ideologies of a nuclear home and notions of a broader Griqua family in which everyone is related. Not all women, however, supported these symbolic statements about their role within the home. Younger people in particular sought to negotiate their involvement in ritual and to shape their lives only partially along the ritual and ideological lines dictated by older women.

Although houses have been understood to provide models of society (Carsten & Hugh-Jones 1995; Gibson 1995; Gudeman 1976; Kuper 1982; 1997), Ellen has criticized the idea of the house as a symbolic reflection of reality, pointing out that different levels of meaning and contradictory symbolism can be brought together in the significance of the house (cited in Carsten & Hugh-Jones 1995). It is in the multiple connections between residents and the physical houses in which they live, rather than in a single monolithic meaning, that the symbolism and value of the house as metaphor is to be sought. …

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