Modern Cows and Exotic Trees: Identity, Personhood, and Exchange among the Iraqw of Tanzania (1)

Article excerpt

This article examines forms of personhood and identity among the Iraqw of Tanzania. It explores how ideas of personhood have changed from the precolonial era to the present as the Iraqw have been incorporated into the wider regional, national, and global political economy. Drawing on the literature from Melanesia, it investigates how ideas of the individual versus relational person play out in an African context. It illustrates how Iraqw are, through exchange systems, connected to different communities and social networks, each with different emphases of the person. (Iraqw, East Africa, personhood, modernity)


There is a widespread sentiment among the Iraqw of northern Tanzania about the differences between generations today. These differences are often framed in terms of "traditional" and "backward-looking" views versus "forward thinking" and "modern." An example appears in the following quote from a young Iraqw man: "I am a modern person. I don't believe in keeping herds of cattle like my father. That is a waste of time. People who are educated believe in moving forwards. I am planting trees on my land and growing cash crops. These will bring more development than `village' cattle." This difference in mindset accompanies changing views on the nature of personhood in Iraqw communities. Studies of personhood in Africa have benefited from analyses of Melanesian societies, where Strathern's (1988) landmark Gender of the Gif set in motion much fruitful debate about notions of the person. Lambek and Strathern's (1998) collection of cross-fertilization efforts suggests new avenues for investigation in all geographical locales. A related topic is the subject of identity. In much of the African literature, identity is often portrayed as a strategy deployed by actors to handle various events and situations, particularly in the turbulent postcolonial world. A recent volume seeks to explore the "cultural politics of identities in transition within postcolonial Africa [by examining the] disparate identity strategies emerging in everyday life" (Werbner and Ranger 1996:2). These strategies are deployed by actors to achieve particular aims. Yet the political and strategic nature of identity must also be complemented by attention to what is considered important in forming a person or actor in these societies. Identity and personhood exist in reference to each other, not in isolation.

This article explores the connections between the ideas of personhood and identity among the agropastoral Iraqw. It draws heavily on ideas explored in Lambek and Strathern's (1998) volume, particularly those of LiPuma (1998), who rightly points out, in something of a corrective to Marilyn Strathern's dichotomy of the Western individual versus the Melanesian "dividual," or relational person, that people act in ways that are both individual and dividual in all societies. After carefully examining the patterns that emerge from these practices and actions in a Melanesian setting, LiPuma demonstrates the need for paying attention to the effect of the forces of modernity present throughout the world. While Strathern's (1988, 1993) work has brought attention to how Eurocentric analytical models have limited analysis of personhood in non-Western contexts, studies that emphasize the relational aspect of personhood often ignore how the "dynamics of encompassment reconfigure local forms of personhood" (LiPuma 1998:54). This reconfiguration, or encompassment by global forces, in a Tanzanian context is the focus of this essay.

A recent review of studies of personhood critiques Euroamerican notions of society and the self (a term often used interchangeably with "person") and argues that these theoretical approaches posit a self that is "autonomous, propertied, self-interested, accumulative, and having independent agency--measured in terms of its power of control over others. …


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