- Beyond Bodies: Rainmaking and Sense Making in Tanzania
Todd Sanders’ recent volume Beyond Bodies represents an important, and revelatory, contribution to the relatively recent effluence of anthropological volumes on witchcraft, sorcery, and magic in Africa (see for example, Comaroff and Comaroff, 1993; Geschiere, 1997; Moore and Sanders, 2001; Meyers and Pels, 2003; West, 2005). While early to mid-twentieth century anthropologists described African witchcraft as a matter of “primitive” mentality (Levy-Bruhl, 1923), a logic-based system for explaining unfortunate events (Evans-Pritchard, 1937), or as a social apparatus characterized by confession, accusation, and punishment (Douglas, 1970), many contemporary anthropologists have been concerned with reframing African witchcraft as a discourse that is emblematic of modernity, rather than contradictory to it. In previous work, Sanders embraced this reframing, analyzing, for example, the occult trade in human skins in Tanzania in relation to externally imposed structural adjustment policies (Sanders, Magical Interpretations, Magical Realities, 2001). However, in both “Reconsidering Witchcraft” (in American Anthropologist n.s. 105 ) and Beyond Bodies, Sanders moves beyond the discursive frame of modernity arguing that magic—here in the form of rain-making— may best be understood through local sense making.
The local context in Beyond Bodies is Ihanzu, the arid area of north-central Tanzania, populated by the small (30,000 member) Ihanzu ethnic group. Because their sustenance is utterly dependent on seasonal rains, rainmaking practices are the central focus of both Ihanzu sense making and Sanders’ monograph. As Sanders learned early in his fieldwork, “rainmaking is much more than mere rituals that purportedly cause water to fall from the sky. It is also inextricably linked to a host of other issues: good and evil, the living and the dead, human and divine, royals and commoners, male and female” (p. [End Page 249] 5). Most centrally, rainmaking is gendered, as are all aspects of Ihanzu life. The Ihanzu understand their world as inherently gendered, where male and female substances reproduce most things, including babies, pots, and rain.
This gendering (and its subsequent complementarity) transcends human bodies and is evident in many objects. Gendered inanimate objects, Sanders argues, are not merely symbolic of gendered Ihanzu people and their social relations, but are themselves embodied by gender. This reconfiguration of object/human moves beyond feminist and traditional scholarship and allows, “[n]on-human gendered forms [to] make sense not because they are ‘like’ human bodies that ostensibly pre-exist and ‘explain’ them but because, when appropriately combined, they produce particular outcomes” such as rain (p. 105, emphasis in original).
This conceptualization of gender serves as the theoretical underpinning for a number of chapters that elucidate Ihanzu rain-making. Chapter 1, “Ihanzu Everyday Worlds” situates the Ihanzu in terms of cultural practices and socioeconomics. It is in this chapter that we learn about Ihanzu beer brewing, kinship and descent, and begin to understand the ways that gender shapes human relationships and makes men male and women female. We learn for example, that human gender relations are asymmetrical—the same is not true in reproductive practices such as rainmaking, which requires gender complementarity. Women are dependent on men, who themselves control livestock and participate in local politics. Perhaps contradictorily, women control grain and the household, and thus beer-drinking sociality and much of everyday life. Chapter 1 also explores Ihanzu agricultural practices and explains the importance of rain in an area where drought and famine occur every five years.
Chapter 2, “The Making and Unmaking of Rains and Reigns,” will be of particular interest to historians of East Africa as it provides a detailed, and at times witty, account of Ihanzu royal rainmaking and its encounters with colonialism. The male rainmaker was interpreted as a “Sultan” by German explorer C. W. Werther in 1893, a misidentification that pervaded colonial relations, first as the Germans attempted to quell resistance, and second as the British created government chiefs. Ihanzu rainmakers, while royal, hereditary, and worthy of respect, were not rulers over people, but controllers of rainmaking power on behalf to the people. Sanders also points out that neither the...