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  • Uncertain Tastes: memory, ambivalence, and the politics of eating in Samburu, northern Kenya by Jon Holtzman
  • Ruth J. Prince
Jon Holtzman, Uncertain Tastes: memory, ambivalence, and the politics of eating in Samburu, northern Kenya. Berkeley CA: University of California Press (hb £39.95 – 978 0 520 25736 8; pb £19.95 – 978 0 520 25737 5). 2009, 338 pp.

Food, Holtzman tells us, is ‘a particularly compelling site for the construction of complex, contradictory forms of memory and the ambivalent subjectivities that arise from them’ (p. 6). Based on fieldwork in northern Kenya, this monograph focuses on everyday patterns of food provisioning, eating, sharing and tasting, as Samburu cattle herders confront radical transformations in economy, gender and generational relations, moral community and cultural identity. Within this familiar narrative of social change, Holtzman explores the complexities and ambiguities creating memory, which reach deep into the psyche, producing ambivalent and contradictory statements, attitudes and actions, and subjectivities.

Unlike other ethnic groups in Kenya, Samburu resisted incorporation into the colonial economy through wage labour, preferring to stay with their herds. The transformations Holtzman documents have thus taken place largely since the epidemics of livestock disease in the 1970s, which decimated herds of cattle and forced many Samburu to seek alternative livelihoods. The Samburu diet has shifted from an ideal pastoral diet of milk, blood and meat to one largely dependent on maize, produced by sedentary Samburu, bought from shops or donated as food aid. Maize products are described disparagingly as ‘grey foods’, ‘poverty foods’ and ‘government foods’, and it is generally held that dependence on them has negative consequences for moral, social and physical well-being. At the same time, farming and the sale of agricultural produce are regarded by many Samburu as necessary to development and progress, while a daily diet based on grain means that people no longer fear starvation during severe droughts.

The introduction draws upon the anthropology of embodiment and the senses in order to reflect upon memory’s relationship to embodied practice, non-verbal [End Page 680] dispositions, historical experience and conscious reflection. Inspired by Cole’s work on Madagascar, Holtzman argues that historical experience is found less in neatly constructed narratives than in historically sedimented practices, values and institutions, and embodied senses, which shape the contours of everyday life but can also become objects of anxiety and debate. The ethnographic meat begins with three chapters describing core arenas of Samburu life; these analyse the symbolic and sensual, material and social meaning of various foods and offer the reader essential signposts concerning the importance of food to the age-set system of murran (warrior-hood) and to patterns of avoidance and social distance in the gendered and generational structuring of households. The last three chapters focus on arenas of consumption introduced in the twentieth century – tea, alcohol and maize – and address Samburu engagements with the colonial and post-colonial Kenyan political economy. The ninth and final chapter, ‘Eating shillings’, shows how money changes the dynamics of exchange and value in a society in which social relations not only used to be constructed through cattle but were about cattle.

My favourite chapter, entitled ‘The calabash behind the calabash behind the calabash’, brilliantly addresses Samburu notions and practices of ‘respect’ (nkanyi), showing that maintaining respect is a balancing act involving dissimulation and deception, display and disguise, and that the emphasis on respect, cooperation and altruism may express the difficulties in maintaining these ideals rather than the necessity of following them. Holtzman draws attention to practices of duplicity between husbands and wives, between generations, and between hosts and guests, which suffuse the provisioning and sharing of food. The importance of displaying respect in public, which conforms to social ideals of sharing, is counterbalanced by Samburu proverbs acknowledging that the survival of individuals and families may depend on the ability to deceive others and hide food. The respect of a young wife for an aged husband may mean concealing the fact that she underfeeds him, reserving food instead for her children and lovers. Respect for a wife is less about refusing other sexual relationships than about keeping them hidden from view. This chapter uncovers the moral ambiguities that underlie the...


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pp. 680-681
Launched on MUSE
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