Academic journal article Africa

A Question of Honour: Property Disputes and Brokerage in Burkina Faso

Academic journal article Africa

A Question of Honour: Property Disputes and Brokerage in Burkina Faso

Article excerpt

Rightly to be great Is not to stir without great argument, But greatly to find quarrel in a straw When honour's at the stake. Shakespeare, Hamlet IV, 4

Les choses que l'honneur defend sont plus rigoureusement defendus, lorsque les lois ne concourent point a les proscrire; et celles qu'il exige sont plus fortement exigees, lorsque les lois ne les demandent pas. [Montesquieu, De l'esprit des lois IV, ii]

When people are in conflict over land in the region of Dori in northern Burkina Faso, bribery of officials through certain `brokers' is common. However, farmers often pay more in bribes and in greasing the palms of the powerful in the legal system than the piece of land is worth. `It's a question of honour,' people say. Van Donge (1993) found a parallel situation in Mgeta in Tanzania, where people's litigation costs bore no relation to the value of the disputed land. Van Donge points to `envy' as the force driving the conflicts. Unbridled by a predictable institutional order, envy leads these disputes into the irrational. It is my contention, however, that such seemingly irrational disputes can be rendered `reasonable' if they are analysed in relation to the local meaning of honour and the politico-legal institutional configuration.

The notion of honour has several facets, according to Pitt-Rivers (1968: 503). It is both a sentiment and the manifestation of that sentiment in conduct, and it is also the evaluation and appreciation of the conduct by others. Honour is a matter of individuals' feelings, their behaviour and the treatment they receive. Stewart (1994) disagrees with Pitt-Rivers in the sense that he sees honour not as a sentiment but as a right to recognition within a particular society. It follows that respect or disrespect for someone's right to recognition is likely to provoke a reaction. By viewing honour as a right, Stewart brings valuable precision to the concept because, as a right, honour can be pledged and lost.(1) Obviously, all societies have their own forms of honour as well as other codes. Or rather, different forms of claiming, showing or denying recognition. They vary from one period to another, from one place to another and from one class to another. Still, `the notion of honour possesses a general structure which [can be] seen in the institutions and customary evaluations which are particular to any given culture' (Pitt-Rivers, 1966: 21). Stewart (1994) draws a useful distinction between horizontal and vertical honour. The first signifies honour among equals, the second the special respect enjoyed by those who are superior. (See also Berger, 1983; Taylor, 1994: 37-44.) Both forms of honour prevail, as we shall see, in Dori.

The principles of honour can be detected anywhere, but it is clothed in conceptions which vary from one place to another.(2) A community's relative remoteness from state or imperial control and protection seems to favour the development of a social code which can simultaneously ensure the integrity of the individual and the family vis-a-vis the rest of the community and a certain solidarity within the community against the rest of the world (see Gellner, 1974; Gluckman, 1955). Under such circumstances a certain form of honour seems to be important (Schneider and Schneider, 1976: 109). As Peristiany argues, `Honour and shame are the constant preoccupation of individuals in small-scale exclusive societies where face-to-face personal, as opposed to anonymous, relations are of paramount importance and where the social personality of the actor is as significant as his office' (1966:11).

In such situations, honour often becomes the object of jealous maintenance: if A. impugns B.'s honour, B.'s honour is ipso facto diminished or destroyed unless he responds with appropriate countermeasures. Thus, while the piece of land in question may be comparatively insignificant, to usurp it is to impugn the honour of the owner and hence his entire property. …

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