- The Bashada of Southern Ethiopia: a study of age, gender and social discourse by Susanne Epple
This monograph on a southern Ethiopian people appeared a few years ago but may not have received the attention it deserves. German anthropologist Susanne Epple has written a remarkable ethnography of the approximately 2,600-strong Bashada people, an agro-pastoralist group in the south-west Ethiopian plains east of the Omo River, which she has studied on and off since 1994. Culturally akin to the Hamar and Banna peoples and speaking virtually the same South Omotic language, the Bashada are a more or less independent society that distinguishes itself from its neighbours and survives through a combination of livestock herding (mainly goats), shifting cultivation, pottery production and hunting and gathering. While many ethnographic studies on this now rather well-documented part of Ethiopia have focused on politics, conflict, violence and livelihood changes, this study takes a different approach, offering a sustained analysis of the Bashada’s social organization and social and gender relations through the spectrum of their age organization. The result is a very rich and detailed study that evokes admiration for this society, and shows the author’s fieldwork skills. Age organization (age-sets, age-grades, generation-sets) having been a favourite theme of earlier generations of East African ethnological studies, it contributes by focusing on the conflict-mitigating and social equilibrium-enhancing role of the prevailing age system.
The book has five chapters: a brief introduction on age organization, age-sets and their definition; one on methodology; a third on the Bashada way of life, economy, family and local history; and the core Chapter 4 on ‘age differentiation [End Page 196] in everyday and ritual life’. Chapter 5 is the conclusion. The book also has a helpful glossary and an excellent index.
In the methodology chapter, the author explains with admirable frankness her positioning in the field. Her rapport with the host population is shown to have been exceptional. The gallery of Epple’s interlocutors, with their photographs, is quite valuable (pp. 35–9), and an attention on personal detail recurs throughout. But I think this chapter could have been shorter, as it rehearses all the details of her entry into the field and the most well-known anthropological methods in exhaustive fashion. The book thus retains much of the PhD thesis format.
Chapter 3 describes the features of the Bashada age system and places them in their wider regional and ethnic context (i.e. their relations and origins in Nyangatom and Kara). Also, the kin terminology used in age organization is well explained; this section and its corresponding parts in Chapter 4 are a major ethnographic contribution. The Bashada have named and delineated age-sets for men (with the women taking over or reflecting the husband’s age-set membership) that express group solidarity, identity and generational relations (seniority is key) and ‘obligations’: for example, those regarding ritual duties and labour relations. They are formally initiated. The author has focused on their role and effects in everyday Bashada life, or, as she describes it, ‘how … social relations between male and female, and between young and old are influenced by the prevailing age-organisation’ (p. 13). Relatively few authors have done this – usually preferring the political-ritual aspect, or the abstract rule system – and they have not paid much attention to how the age system permeates daily social and family life. The role of peer groups in particular is highlighted as ‘taking over’ the social role of families in several contexts.
The author appears to see the age organization as a more or less stable organizing principle among the Bashada, having a structuring and socially ‘disciplining’ role, one to which people – adult men but also women and children – try to adhere. It is thus more than a rhetorical-discursive construct, but essentially a ‘fixed’ template of cultural rules. The author has specifically looked into the effects of age-set membership on the social relations of...