Grains from Grass: Aging, Gender, and Famine in Rural Africa

By Cattell, Maria G. | African Studies Review, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Grains from Grass: Aging, Gender, and Famine in Rural Africa


Cattell, Maria G., African Studies Review


Lisa Cliggett. Grains from Grass: Aging, Gender, and Famine in Rural Africa. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005. xvii + 193 pp. Photographs. Maps. Figures. Tables. Notes. References. Index. $19.95. Paper.

About three months after her arrival in Zambia to begin fieldwork, Lisa Cliggett saw an old Tonga woman harvesting seeds from stalks of grass. Her research assistant explained that the old woman had no maize to eat and that she would spend about three hours collecting enough "grains from grass" to provide herself with a small bowl of porridge, her meal for the day. When I tried harvesting grains from grass in my own garden, I realized that it would indeed take a long time to produce a very small and inadequate amount of food. And though I have been doing research in rural Kenya for many years, this story brought home the meaning of poverty and persistent hunger in a new way.

Grains from Grass deals with socioeconomic change in Zambia, its effects on family relationships, and how Gwembe Tonga people, especially older persons, have learned to cope in an economy of scarcity and ongoing food insecurity of varying intensities. The first three chapters establish the context with a discussion of older populations in non-Western societies, a vivid description of Cliggett's fieldwork experiences, and the history of the Gwembe Valley, which has come to be an environment of extreme poverty and environmental degradation, largely as a result of the building of Kariba dam in 1958 and the forced relocation of Tonga from their fertile river lands into an area of uncertain rainfall. This story of socioeconomic change has been the focus of decades of research by Elizabeth Colson and Thayer Scudder in their ongoing Gwembe Tonga Research Project, which Cliggett will carry forward into the future.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 describe Tonga social organization and social relations from the different perspectives of male and female elders in relation to "making a village-style living" (78), residential arrangements, and manipulating the spirit world. Lifetimes of gendered differences in access to productive and material resources and the labor of others have produced a "gendered vulnerability in old age" (63), the theme around which Cliggett constructs her analysis. …

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