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Imagining Serengeti

A History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Time to the Present

Jan Bender Shetler

Publication Year: 2007

Long before the creation of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the people of the western Serengeti had established settlements and interacted with the environment in ways that created a landscape we now misconstrue as natural. Western Serengeti peoples imagine the environment not as a pristine wilderness, but as a differentiated social landscape that embodies their history and identity. Conservationist literature has ignored these now-displaced peoples and relegated them to the margins of modern society. Their oral traditions, however, provide the means for seeing the landscape from a new perspective.

Imagining Serengeti allows us to see the Serengeti landscape as a book of memory that preserves the ways in which western Serengeti peoples have actively transformed their environment and their societies. Moreover, it strengthens the case for involving local communities in conservation efforts that will preserve African environments for the future. Using a new methodology to analyze precolonial oral traditions, Jan Shetler identifies core spatial images, which are then recontextualized into historical time periods through the use of archaeological, linguistic, ethnographic, ecological, and archival evidence. Imagining Serengeti reconstructs a socioenvironmental history of landscape memory of the western Serengeti spanning the last eighteen hundred years.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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p. v


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book is divided into two main parts, roughly representing historical memory before and after the nineteenth century. The mid-nineteenth century is the critical chronological breaking point between these parts of the book because after that time oral traditions become more historically grounded and written sources also become available. The first section establishes the oldest and ...

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pp. xi-xiii

This book has been ten years in the making and along the way has incurred many debts of gratitude that can never be fully repaid. I am grateful for the institutional support I received during the course of my graduate studies and research in Tanzania. The dissertation research was assisted by a grant from the Joint Committee on African Studies of the Social Science Research Council ...

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Introduction: Landscapes of Memory

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pp. 1-26

Standing on a rocky outcropping, one looks across the rows of low hills to Mangwesi Mountain on the far horizon. The short grass lawn is a vibrant green, dotted with well-spaced acacias (umbrella trees), beneath which graze a dozen zebras and a few Thomson’s gazelles. One might see this western Serengeti landscape as nature at its finest, a last remnant of unspoiled wilderness ...

PART I. Past Ways of Seeing and Using the Landscape

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pp. 27-28

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1. Ecological Landscapes: Settling Frontier Environments (Asimoka), ca. 300 CE to Present

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pp. 29-62

In a history of western Serengeti memory, the first, and perhaps oldest, way of seeing the landscape is accessible in origin or emergence traditions of today’s ethnic groups. This view places people practicing different economic subsistence strategies in the ecological niches of the woodlands, grasslands, and hills. In this ecological view of the landscape social identity is connected to ways of making ...

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2. Social Landscapes: Forging Food Security Networks (Hamate), ca. 1000 CE to Present

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pp. 63-100

The next historical way of seeing the Serengeti landscape appears in clan traditions that name particular settlement areas and natural resources by their association with purported descent groups, linking diverse people together in extensive regional networks necessary for survival. When I traveled with the Ikoma elders in the game reserves, they identified each group of hills across the ...

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3. Sacred Landscapes: Claiming Ritual Space of the Ancestral Land (Emisambwa),ca. 1500 to Present

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pp. 101-132

In the history of memory, a third historical way of imagining the Serengeti in chronological sequence is as a sacred landscape marked by specific places in the wilderness where powerful spiritual forces remain accessible to those seeking fertility, healing and protection. The core spatial images of this landscape— sacred places of power and encirclement of territory—are available in ...

PART II. Landscape Memory and Historical Challenges

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pp. 133-134

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4. The Time of Disasters: Creating Wilderness, 1840–1920

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pp. 135-168

In the late nineteenth century a series of disasters brought significant challenges to the imagined ecological, social, and sacred landscapes of the western Serengeti. As in other parts of East Africa, drought, epidemic disease, interethnic warfare, and ecological collapse marked western Serengeti incorporation into both a regional system controlled by the Maasai and a global Indian Ocean ...

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5. Resistance to Colonial Incorporation: Becoming “Poachers,” 1900–1950

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pp. 169-200

In a history of memory, colonialism was the next crisis that precipitated changes in imagined landscapes just as western Serengeti communities were recovering from the disasters explored in the last chapter. Colonial officials promoted a view of the landscape as a reserve for economic exploitation, resulting in demands for labor and resource extraction as well as radical changes in political authority. Oral narratives about this period use the new core spatial images ...

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6. The Creation of Serengeti National Park: Voicing Global Concerns, 1950–2003

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pp. 201-238

The creation of Serengeti National Park in 1952 was the third challenge faced by western Serengeti peoples, coming in short succession after the late-nineteenth- century disasters together with Maasai hegemony and the imposition of colonial rule at the turn of the century. The park finally set in place boundaries and rules that imposed a hegemonic conservationist view onto the ...


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pp. 239-242


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pp. 243-324


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pp. 325-360


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pp. 361-378

E-ISBN-13: 9780821442432
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821417508

Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 648346527
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Imagining Serengeti

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Landscape changes -- Tanzania -- Serengeti National Park.
  • Landscapes -- Social aspects -- Tanzania -- Serengeti National Park.
  • Geographical perception -- Tanzania -- Serengeti National Park.
  • Landscape assessment -- Tanzania -- Serengeti National Park.
  • Oral tradition -- Tanzania -- Serengeti National Park.
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