- Remembering Nayeche and the Gray Bull Engiro: African Storytellers of the Karamoja Plateau and the Plains of Turkana by Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler
Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler's Remembering Nayeche and the Gray Bull Engiro is an engaging study of the ethnohistory and storytelling of the Jie and Turkana people who live in northern Uganda and Kenya. Much contemporary scholarly and journalistic writing about this geopolitical region and its nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples emphasizes the warring between groups for limited resources and the groups' involvement in local, national, and international conflicts. Mirzeler chose not to contribute to these negative portrayals and instead focused his ethnographic study on the oral traditions of the Jie and Turkana people. At the core of this study are the multiple variants of stories about Nayeche and the gray bull Engiro, an origin tale of the Turkana people. One very hot day, Nayeche leaves the home of her father, Orwakol, a leader of a Jie clan, and follows the footprints of the gray bull Engiro to seek water and food. Eventually, she and Engiro settle on a hill near a dry riverbed where there is a well, crucial for survival in this parched climate, and food sources where the bull can graze and Nayeche can gather fruits. After many years, Jie men join her, and their descendants "called themselves Turkana" (p. 6).
Mirzeler's study focuses on the telling of variants of this narrative, which he refers to as instances of "remembering." He explores how storytellers variously adapt this and other tale types in situated performances to negotiate multiple fluid versions of history and community identity-making. By examining how storytelling is used to negotiate rights to water and to mediate disputes, he emphasizes that the relationship between Jie and Turkana narratives is "not oral tradition as historical evidence, but rather the cultural and political contexts in which the images of the past are constructed through remembering" (p. 8). Historical narratives are not only about the past, but about the "pressing social and political concerns of the moment of its remembering" (p. 8).
The book is divided into four parts. The two chapters in part 1 provide a detailed overview of the setting and the complex identities and interrelationships between the people who constitute the Karimojong cluster. In chapter 1, Mirzeler provides important context about the origins of the peoples living on the Karamoja Plateau and the basis for some of the conflict between the groups, their experience under British colonialism, and their experiences with and participation in Ugandan national politics since independence, characterized by ongoing conflict in the region. The last section of the chapter argues for the important role of storytelling in the region, describing how people use oral tradition in interaction with a continually changing physical and social environment. The second chapter, "Ethnography of Storytelling," introduces the setting for Mirzeler's research and the storytellers who contributed most to his project. It provides wonderful descriptions of the physical landscape, villages, cattle kraals, and people, as well as some examples of narratives.
Part 2 comprises three chapters that focus on oral tradition, memory, and history. Chapter 3 describes the various genres of narratives told by the Jie and Turkana people. Mirzeler explains the conventions for each, differentiating between fictional folktales and historical narratives about ancestors and places familiar to storytellers. For each genre, he describes types of plots, motifs, themes, historical information, and the relationships of the narratives to contemporary realities. In chapter 4, Mirzeler shifts his attention to the landscape, describing the beauty and vastness of the barren physical setting where the Jie and Turkana live and where their narratives take place. His discussion of the relationship between kinship, land, memory, story, and contemporary reality is one of the most provocative sections of the book. Chapter 5, "Historical Tradition and Poetic Persuasion of Pastness," presents a very welcome and insightful analysis of how variants of the stories discussed in previous...