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  • The Similarities of Difference:Symbolic Reversals among East Africa’s Gabra and Their Neighbors
  • John C. Wood


This article grew out of the 1999 Oxford seminar on interethnic relations in southern Ethiopia. One aim of that meeting was to discuss regional similarities among different societies on the periphery of the Ethiopian state. I was staggered by the complexity of making claims, any claims, about similarities across ethnic boundaries. I had seen these sorts of similarity in my own fieldwork. But what could one say about them? They seemed more easily noted than understood. When we see a similar element or practice shared by different ethnic groups, how do we know whether it is an accident? A coincidence? An epiphenomenon? An imitation? How do we know whether it is an importation of a cultural form by people who have migrated across an ethnic boundary? A common influence from some third source? A consequence, like pidgin, of interaction: we the X trade coffee for meat with you the Y and, by the way, share other things as well?

I assume that interest in interethnic similarities stems from a prior interest in interethnic relations, however direct or oblique, even gazes from afar. The sorts of similarity that arise accidentally from common ecological or economic adaptations are set aside for this paper. Here I am interested in symbolic, or communicative, similarities. These similarities are interesting because they do work: they facilitate or impede, mark or [End Page 59] distinguish, separate or connect. People say about such things: "We do it this way, and they do too, but those across the river, they don't." Even difference may signal relation. Gabra, for instance, share with Rendille, their southern neighbors and sometime enemies, the use of woven mats in the construction of nomadic tents. With Borana, their northern neighbors and sometime allies, Gabra "share" a difference: Borana make their houses from grass instead of mats. Gabra and Rendille are wora dasse, people of matted tents, while Borana are wora buyo, people of grass houses. "They," the people across an immediate ethnic divide, are Georg Simmel's strangers: familiar others, about whom one must know something, otherwise one would not know what "they do" or "they don't do"; if they weren't somewhat familiar in the first place, they wouldn't fall into a category as strangers (Simmel 1950, 402–8). A lack of similarity in these cases becomes a strategic sign of relation. We who are interested in interethnic relations ought to pay as much attention to difference as similarity.

It is one thing to ask people within a given society about common practices, for they may agree that they do the same things for the same reasons. Within a particular society one can at least ask. It is quite another matter to ask people in different societies about common, or similar, practices. The very idea of similarity across a divide, a difference, is a puzzle: what does it mean to be similar and different? They may not see their practices as similar. They may not see their differences as related. They may not see similarities as related, or even relevant. They may do different things for related reasons. They may do the same things for different reasons. And different motives, more than similar activities, may indicate the relevant relation between them: imitation being asymmetrical. I am thinking here of Okiek hunters in Kenya copying Maasai pastoralists' costumes in such a way that Okiek adornment is at once Maasai and Okiek, same and distinct, identical and imitative (Klumpp and Kratz 1993).

Thinking about interethnic similarities and differences puts us immediately into a methodological thicket. We get tangled up in relations that maintain differences, or differences that maintain relations, or similarities that call attention to differences. These verbal tangles [End Page 60] are not surprising, if one considers that when people negotiate similarity and difference across cultural divides they manage the real but paradoxical problem of maintaining relation, if not similarity, and difference at the same time. Similarities and differences of this sort hold open a contradiction. They keep the borders between people meaningful, not arbitrary or accidental. They connect and distance at once.



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pp. 59-84
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