African Encounters with Domesticity

By Karen Tranberg Hansen | Go to book overview

3 Civilized Servants: Child Fosterage and Training for Status among the Glebo of Liberia

Mary H. Moran

Among the many legacies of Western contact with and domination of Africa has been the introduction of new systems of prestige and value. These go by a variety of names: westernization, modernization, and civilization, are perhaps the most commonly used. While all of these terms imply access to new kinds of knowledge, wealth, and property, they are also marked by changes in life-style that are often reflected in a new domestic order. Where once people slept or sat on mats on the ground, now they have beds and chairs. Eating utensils replace the fingers and a new etiquette of meal-taking replaces the old. Different standards of dress and definitions of cleanliness are acquired, making both the home and the body a visible manifestation of the new order.

That such details of daily domestic practice can serve as centrally important markers of relative prestige among people experiencing broad social change has become evident from a number of studies. Karen Tranberg Hansen, in her introduction to this volume, notes that scholarly work on the history and ideology of domestic practice in the West has seen a sudden upswing in recent years. By "domestic," I mean both the socially defined space associated with a residential group and the meaningful practices that take place there. Clearly, domestic spaces are neither "natural" nor divorced from other domains of human behavior. Early attempts in feminist anthropology to explain gender hierarchy in terms of a presumed universal human distinction between "domestic" and "public" spheres ( Rosaldo 1974) have been challenged in a variety of cultural and historical contexts ( Rosaldo 1980; for Africa, Sudarkasa 1986).

Recently, a new direction in scholarship has emerged that explores how the domestic, even when ideologically separated from other aspects of human life, is inextricably bound to and mutually constitu

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