- Grains From Grass: Aging, Gender, and Famine in Rural Africa
Lisa Cliggett's new book on the patterns of social change among Gwembe Tonga communities in Zambia makes several important contributions to the literature on southern Africa. First, it is the latest installment in an unparalleled longitudinal study of social change among the Gwembe Tonga people, who were displaced by the construction of the Kariba Dam, completed in 1959. This research, initiated by Elizabeth Colson and continued by Thayer Scudder, represents the most comprehensive approach to documenting the experiences of a single cultural group in the world. Cliggett's book demonstrates that the social disruptions that the initial resettlement put into motion still resonate with the descendant population. This book, in combination with previous works of Colson and Scudder, is a resource without equivalence in anthropological literature.
The second major contribution of Cliggett's work is to add to the literature that documents responses to hunger and food stress, notably the differential impacts experienced by the elderly, and how gender influences their ability to cope with food shortage. Cliggett deftly shows how aging people, as they become less capable of self sufficiency, use their social and kin networks to mobilize support. Contrary to the widely held view that most Africans invariably look after the aging generation, Cliggett demonstrates that women must utilize intersecting spheres of support through their matrilineage and immediate descendants to encourage younger people to protect their welfare in times of food scarcity. To achieve the same end, men use different tactics, of more overt intimidation and coercion, supplemented by their abilities to marry polygynously and thus ensure they have a younger and abler wife as they age. In these discussions, Cliggett demonstrates the resourcefulness and personal agency that characterize rural Africans, and illustrates the heterogeneity of communities we often ignore.
In the chapter that I found most fascinating, Cliggett explores how themes of personal agency and gender differentiation play out in dealing with the spiritual world, and how supernatural interactions reflect relative vulnerability and wealth. Though the majority of Gwembe Tonga are nominally Christian, indigenous beliefs about spirits and bewitching are common. Women are perceived as being the involuntary hosts of malevolent spirits, and they use this perception to encourage others to provide assistance, lest a spirit (zyelo) take affront and retaliate against those who act stingy toward a needy elderly woman. In contrast, men are believed to engage in sorcery [End Page 109] for malevolent purposes, and accusations of inflicting harm as sorcerer can lead to social ostracism, or to being stripped of much of their wealth, as they agree to restore social balance by being cleansed of their evil powers by a well compensated "sweeper."
In less detail, the book explores additional themes, including the impact of rural-to-urban migration on the migrants and their sending communities, strategies commonly used to cope with food shortage, and the changeability of Tonga economic patterns. Migrants to urban centers send token gifts to relatives in the sending communities as a means of maintaining claims for future return to the home area, and are obligated to host rural relatives who visit the urban centers, yet these relationships are so managed (as some urban migrants acknowledge), that being distant from home insulates migrants from obligations to share food resources. As poor rural people grapple with increasingly chronic food scarcity, they invoke many practices to augment their food resources, including harvesting grass seeds as a supplemental food—an image reflected in the book's title. Much of the increase in inequality in Gwembe Tonga society stems from the initial resettlement. As the involuntary relocation that followed the impoundment of Lake Kariba progressed, the rich lakeside alluvial gardens, which had been managed by women, disappeared, and were replaced by rainfed plowlands, supporting agriculture dominated by men. At the same time, increasing emphasis on accumulating cattle exacerbated growth in the gender-based economic inequality that the shift in agrarian practices had initiated.
Cliggett's book presents a fine combination of broad theoretical perspectives on African...