- Imagining Serengeti: A History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present
Jan Shetler’s Imagining Serengeti is a fine addition to an expanding interdisciplinary literature aimed at recovering the human history of Africa’s wilderness landscapes. Its geographic focus is the iconic Serengeti, a wildlife-rich [End Page 208] environment that for decades has been at the center of an international struggle over human rights and nature conservation. Most (or perhaps all) of the studies of this conflict center on Maasai pastoralists. Shetler’s book provides a completely new analysis of the Serengeti debate by adding the voices of a forgotten population, the peoples of the western Serengeti—a rich cultural mix of agropastoralists including the Ikoma, Nata, Ishenyi, Ikizu, and Ngrome peoples, all of whom have some historical claim on the lands now enclosed by Serengeti National Park and its associated game reserves. The book, however, is not merely—or even primarily—an analysis of people–park conflict in Africa. Rather, it is a successful effort to demonstrate both the power of landscape and place in the formation of collective social memory and to reassert the central role of centuries of human occupation and management in shaping the “wild” Serengeti.
Shetler’s approach is catholic in theoretical conceptualization as well as in method. Building on previous studies in geography, anthropology, and environmental history, she positions the book as a critical challenge to conservation scientists’ perceptions of Africa as wilderness. Methodologically, she directs the bulk of her effort toward the collection and interpretation of oral histories, supported by her own extensive archival research and key secondary sources in ecology, archeology, and history. She analyzes and interprets oral traditions in terms of what she calls “core spatial images.” Her innovative approach concentrates on identifying spatial references in oral histories and then reinserting these remembrances into their broader historical contexts. In this way she is able to reveal a history of memory for western Serengeti peoples that is highly spatialized and embedded in environmental change.
Shetler divides the book into two equally strong parts. The first traces the oral histories of “mythical time”—narratives untraceable through measurable chronology—focusing on stories of collective origins, migrations, and descent. This section advances chronologically, culminating in a chapter that covers the most recent five hundred years and highlights the geography of sacred landscapes, which were critical to the formation of modern ethnic identities. Part 2 concerns dateable history, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing through the establishment of Serengeti National Park. The stories of displacement, resistance, and conflict are sadly familiar. Both parts are well illustrated with maps, diagrams, and photos; indeed the maps are integral to the analysis and are particularly enlightening.
There is a generosity of spirit in Shetler’s writing. Her deep appreciation for the cultures and collective histories of her interview subjects and her commitment to re-placing them in the Serengeti landscape shine through in each chapter. While her interpretations of the narratives are central to the analysis, the peoples of the western Serengeti are allowed to speak for themselves throughout, thereby illuminating a landscape that had been obscured by the wilderness narratives of outsiders. She takes the [End Page 209] reader walking with elders across the landscape as they recover their memories by visiting disused ritual sites, crumbling fortifications, and abandoned hunting grounds and pasturelands, most now incorporated into the greater Serengeti “wilderness.” The centrality of the landscape to Serengeti peoples’ identities, the complexity of local environmental knowledge, and the deep historical and emotional attachments to place are thus illustrated in vivid detail. This is an important book for Africanists across a range of disciplines interested in historical methodology, local environmental knowledge, and conservation.