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Journal of World History 7.2 (1996) 320-323

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The Gogo: History, Customs, and Traditions. By Mathias E. Mnyampala. Edited and translated by Gregory H. Maddox. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E.Sharpe, 1995. $40 (cloth), $17.95 (paper).

Mathias Mnyampala's historical ethnography The Gogo, originally published in Swahili in 1954, is a valuable source for the study of the precolonial history of the Gogo District of central Tanzania (formerly Tanganyika), comprising both clan histories and a brief overview of Gogo "customs and traditions." As editor and translator Gregory Maddox argues, however, the book has even more to tell us about the times in which it was written. Mnyampala's central concerns—the rela-tionship between "tradition" and "progress," and the value of "tribal" identity in a modernizing world—produce subtle ironies and contradictions that reflect the ambiguous position of the author and the transitional nature of his late colonial world.

At the heart of the book is the question of Gogo identity. At first glance it appears that Mnyampala is taking a very conservative line, accepting the reality of a historic Gogo "tribe" in a way that legitimizes the administrative structures of British indirect rule. The division of the territory into "tribes" and the use of "traditional native authorities" to administer them lay at the heart of British colonial practice. [End Page 320] As postwar African society became more restive and nationalist politicians sought openings to a mass base, the British found it necessary to counter the drift toward "detribalization." "Tribal histories," of which Mnyampala's was one of many, fit this need and were encouraged by the government.

As Maddox emphasizes in his introduction, however, this narrative of Gogo history is also subtly subversive. In contrast to the colonial view of tribal stasis, Mnyampala stressed motion and fluidity in the Gogo past, highlighting the presence of many cultural and linguistic traditions. Whether outsiders came as invaders or refugees, they were ultimately assimilated into Cigogo—the language, manners, and customs of the Gogo—though often retaining subtle markers of their "foreign origin." Cigogo was an identity both flexible and enduring.

What were the implications of Mnyampala's dynamic concept of ethnic identity of the late colonial period? On the one hand, he himself was a leader of a "tribalist" organization, the Gogo Union, and like the British he argued against the dangers of "detribalization." Apparently contradicting his historical description of ethnic fluidity in Ugogo, the poem he appended to the clan histories proclaims: "A civilized man does not change his tribe, which he was given by the creator,/He who rejects traditions, ceases to be a man with a country,/More than his tribe, he brings dishonor to his parents!" (p. 82). At the same time, however, Mnyampala was a nationalist, and Maddox argues that he served as a sort of intellectual mediator: "Mnyampala's work was part of the discourse between the nationalists and the people of Ugogo. It was part of the construction of an anti-colonial counterhegemony that used the past to justify the future" (p. 29). How could an ardent supporter of "tribalism" be a spokesman for nationalism?

Here is the source of the book's ambiguities, the uneasiness of its political middle ground compared to other works in the same genre. Officially sponsored "tribal histories" were blandly supportive of official ideology, lacking Mnyampala's consideration of the dynamic character of ethnic identity. In contrast, Jomo Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya (London, 1938) was clearly an attempt at "anti-colonial counterhegemony." Like the colonial apologists, Mnyampala traces the lineage of the current watemi (chiefs) to precolonial antecedents and so legitimizes them. Like Kenyatta, however, he indicates how the im-position of the colonial state subverted the traditional system—for example, by depriving clan elders of the power to chose and depose watemi. Since the British decided who the "native authority" would be, the Gogo divided what had previously been inseparable: the "political [End Page 321] chief" and the "rain chief." While the former were chosen by the British, the "rain chiefs" retained a legitimacy that...


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