Academic journal article Africa

In the Belly of History: Memory, Forgetting, and the Hazards of Reproduction

Academic journal article Africa

In the Belly of History: Memory, Forgetting, and the Hazards of Reproduction

Article excerpt


This paper examines the intertwined issues of memory and forgetting, focusing particularly on the question of precisely how, and by what social mechanisms, forgetting is accomplished. I discuss how collective and individual forms of forgetting are central to Bourdieu's notion of the habitus, commenting that the habitus is a living paradox, foreclosing (unimagined perhaps because unimaginable) possibilities and opening others only when moments of improvised reflection intervene. Moreover, the systems of the habitus enact a forgetting of the strange, the marginal, the in-between, and even the singular and the autobiographical. I explore these issues through the juxtaposition of formalized, collective Samburu (Kenyan pastoralists) memory, forms and the illicit sexual practices that underworld them.


Cet article examine les interdependances du souvenir et de l'oubli, et particulierment la question de savoir precisement comment, et par quels mecanismes sociaux, l'oubli s'accomplit. Il traite de la place centrale qu'occupent les formes collectives et individuelles de l'oubli dans le concept d'habitus de Bourdieu, en faisant remarquer que l'habitus est un paradoxe vivant, excluant des possibilites (inimaginees car peut-etre inimaginables) et ouvrant d'autres seulement lorsqu'interviennent des moments de reflexion improvisee. De plus, les systemes, de l'habitus exercent un oubli de l'etrange, du marginal, de l'intermediaire, voire meme du singulier et de l'autobiographique. L'article examine ces questions en mettant en juxtaposition des formes de memoire collective et formalisee samburu (pastoralistes kenyans) et les pratiques sexuelles illicites qui les habitent.


A long rime ago there was a woman who was being harassed by other women because they claimed she was having affairs with all of their husbands. They continued to accuse her of this, annoying and pestering her until finally she decided to leave and make her own settlement (nkan). Though she had constructed her own settlement, she wanted to have men around to defend the livestock and take care of anything that might need a man's attention. So she designed the ntotoi game, deciding the shape of the game and its precise rules. Then she called men over to play it. The men enjoyed the game so much that they began to come every day to play, spending the entire day there, leaving the woman free to herd and milk her livestock without worrying in the least about raiders or wild animals attacking her little settlement. This went on for some time, all of the men coming each day and spending all of their time at her settlement. Thus, even if she was not having affairs with them, she had managed to steal her neighbours' husbands anyway.

It happened one day, however, that the men decided they were spending too much time away from home and were ignoring the needs of their own families. So they decided to take the ntotoi game away to play near their own homes. This happened while the woman was away herding livestock. When she returned, she discovered that the men had left, taking the ntotoi with them. She walked to their homes immediately, angrily demanding to know why they had taken her ntotoi game. They responded, 'No. Ntotoi is not yours. It is ours.' Then they cursed the ntotoi game so that, should women ever play it, their fecundity and even overall health would be deeply imperilled. Thus it became a man's game, and even now women cannot play it. (1)

In his recent article entitled 'Forgetting Africa', Johannes Fabian reminds us 'that remembering Africa and forgetting Africa--in the sense of recognizing and denying its presence--have always gone together, often such that the latter has been a condition of the former' (Fabian 2001: 10). The notion that memory is in some sense contingent on forgetting is both a powerful and long-standing one, particularly when that forgetting is not merely denial but forced repression and misconstrual. …

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