Printer Friendly

The Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World: Consumption, Commoditization and Everyday Practice.

Brad Weiss. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), vii, 250 pp. Paper $17.95, hard cover $49.95.

Weiss's intriguing, though slightly obscure, title might be more aptly named "Things Fall Apart in East Africa." Weiss, an anthropologist, constructs an extremely detailed ethnographic account of traditional Haya worldview and its contemporary dissolution in the face of increasing commoditization of goods and services and its inevitable social devastation, including a major AIDS outbreak, and the ultimate subordination of the Haya to the state which today encapsulates the one-time autonomous kingdom. The Tanzanian Haya, on the remote western shore of Lake Victoria are, in Weiss's view, the latest in a long line of reluctant new members of the global village in which the disruptive forces of the world capitalist system descend on their homeland to reek havoc on an otherwise well-ordered and perfectly integrated social system.

Weiss's fieldwork is worthy of high commendation. It reflects an inordinate attention to descriptive detail and a superb mastery of the local languages, Buhaya and KiSwahili, to a degree that is uncommon among current Africanist scholars and a sophisticated understanding of semantic subtlety and nuance that is absolutely critical to his analysis of the Haya's rich world of the symbolic.

The Haya belong to the larger interlacustrine world. Like the Buganda in nearby Uganda, the Haya historically are members of one of several kingdoms which, like the Buganda, was built on the energy surplus generated by plantain cultivation. For the Haya, establishment of an early African state is but one of many pieces in the construction of a worldview based on solidity, permanence, predictability and control, from the royal court to the domestic unit. As his unit of analysis Weiss focuses on the household. The Haya household is central to his symbolic analysis in demarcating interior vs. exterior space; these borders are integral to the Haya sense of security and to perceptions of a controlled world. The Haya home sets the all important boundaries of private vs. public, personal vs. impersonal, and controlled vs. uncontrolled forces of life. Consistent with his perceived duality of Haya life, Weiss places great emphasis on Haya gastronomy and the symbolic value of "hot and cold" foods.

In spite of the importance of eating, its participation is limited to the immediate family. Although household heads are obliged to extend an invitation to guests present in the home at mealtime, the gesture is a mere formality. Outsiders, according to Weiss, are never expected to partake of a meal served within the household (something of an anomaly given the continent's ubiquitous emphasis on hospitality). The Haya, apparently, feel the need to conceal what they eat and the quantities they consume from the outside world. Matters deemed private affairs of the family are guarded; personal secrecy is perceived as essential to preserving the status quo ... a delicate social equilibrium based on a zero-sum assumption that all personal gain comes at the loss of others. Jealous rivalry between neighbors and members of the Haya community is avoided at all costs. Weiss paints an elaborately detailed picture of Haya community stability based on harmonious social relations. Fundamental to that end is the family's ability to achieve near total self-sufficiency in food production, deemed central to the Haya's sense of control in the world. For example, maize is generally not cultivated in the Haya region; not only is maize considered unpalatable and inferior as a type of food consumed by outsiders (other Africans), it is sold at market value in shops. Its monetary value represents the creeping commoditization of food that becomes spirit from the outside, external world into Haya life. Commoditization of food is symptomatic of the Haya world's transformation, dissolution and destruction.

The second half of the ethnography deals with the unmaking of this best-possible-world scenario as the result of increasing commoditization in which all goods and services even one's lifeblood - are reduced to an economic value. Automobiles, principally lorries (trucks), are quite literally the vehicles of commoditization. Trucks violate the borders of the Haya world, transporting change agents and other uncontrolled forces of life. Automobiles represent speed, which threatens control and stability. Some women who have fled the economic and social constraints of Haya society return later in life flush with cash from the commercial centers of Nairobi, Mombasa and Dares Salaam: they buy land, thus alienating it from traditional Haya patriarchy. Others return as prostitutes who bring the scourge of AIDS. Perhaps an even greater perceived external threat is the pervasive rumor of blood thieves who scour the countryside in search of unwitting victims who are killed, drained of blood and their bodies dumped in pits. The blood thieves, it is believed, speed across national borders where the blood of the Haya is sold to foreigners.

Haya salvation comes, it seems, at the hands of traditional sorcerers who seek and destroy the wealthy who have acquired their ill-gotten gains at the expense of others. And thus, through sorcery, the Haya have some hope to return to the relished stability of the past.

Weiss's work, though thought provoking, is a paradigmatic mixed metaphor. The author wants to provide a convincing Marxist materialistic analysis for the alienation of the Haya from their land, labor and even their blood. However, his field data are primarily mentalistic (not empirically verifiable or quantifiable). Here he draws heavily from Levi-Strauss, still a major influence at the University of Chicago (where Weiss did his doctorate) it seems, with his continual references to binary opposites like hot-cold, interior-exterior, control and lack of control. In good Levi-Straussian fashion Weiss seems convinced that empirical phenomena are mere surface manifestations of the "deep structures" of reality which ultimately must be intuited. Weiss makes a giant leap from his perceptions to his conclusions. It begs the question, does his work reflect a Haya reality or merely one he imposes upon them? The results yield tantalizing food for thought, but, like Levi-Strauss's "raw and the cooked," seem half-baked and not easy to digest.

JAMES L. MERRYMAN Wilkes University Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Sage Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Merryman, James L.
Publication:Journal of Asian and African Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Previous Article:Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese Way of War, 1961-1974.
Next Article:Nuer Dilemmas: Coping with Money, War and the State.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters