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Uncertain Tastes

Uncertain Tastes: Memory, Ambivalence, and the Politics of Eating in Samburu, Northern Kenya

Jon Holtzman
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Uncertain Tastes
    Book Description:

    This richly drawn ethnography of Samburu cattle herders in northern Kenya examines the effects of an epochal shift in their basic diet-from a regimen of milk, meat, and blood to one of purchased agricultural products. In his innovative analysis, Jon Holtzman uses food as a way to contextualize and measure the profound changes occurring in Samburu social and material life. He shows that if Samburu reaction to the new foods is primarily negative-they are referred to disparagingly as "gray food" and "government food"-it is also deeply ambivalent. For example, the Samburu attribute a host of social maladies to these dietary changes, including selfishness and moral decay. Yet because the new foods save lives during famines, the same individuals also talk of the triumph of reason over an antiquated culture and speak enthusiastically of a better life where there is less struggle to find food. Through detailed analysis of a range of food-centered arenas,Uncertain Tastesargues that the experience of food itself-symbolic, sensuous, social, and material-is intrinsically characterized by multiple and frequently conflicting layers.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94482-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    I walked behind Barnabas in the cool morning air, approaching his home in Lesidai. Nearly on the equator, but more than 7,000 feet high on the Leroghi Plateau, Lesidai’s weather year-round is reminiscent of early autumn in the American Midwest—perpetually on the cusp between warmth and briskness—and, over the past two decades or so, farming has assumed a growing importance in an area previously devoted wholly to subsistence pastoralism. As I followed Barnabas along a path through his brother’s field of ripening maize, he gestured to the surrounding crops and exclaimed with characteristic drama, and his best ethnographic...

  5. PART ONE Orientations

    • CHAPTER 1 Memory, Ambivalence, and Food
      (pp. 21-49)

      “Would you like to see a film of the time when you Kimaniki were murran?” I asked Lekutaas, our colorful next-door neighbor in Loltulelei. A member of the Kimaniki age set, who were murran from 1948 to 1960, hundreds of his age mates were captured on film in 1951 in the John Ford classicMogambo. Ford was purportedly lured to Samburu District by the blustering district commissioner Terence Gavaghan, with the promise of “a thousand pig-tailed, ochre-smeared, speartoting moran as extras” and all the charging rhinos and elephants he cared to film. Gavaghan delivered, while also providing hospitality to stars...

    • CHAPTER 2 Food as Food
      (pp. 50-66)

      Naliapu Letoole, a Samburu woman in her mid- to late thirties, recalled a time when food had been especially plentiful. The memory was in some ways bittersweet, for it described events that many Samburu take to be a turning point in the vitality of their pastoral lifestyle, the coming oflipis, the East Coast Fever epidemic that began in the late 1970s and remains a chronic threat to livestock to this day. But what it represented to Naliapu was not the decisive moment of an epochal shift. Rather it represented a massive amount of meat—and not from emaciated cattle...

  6. PART TWO Worlds of Food

    • CHAPTER 3 The Alimentary Structures of Samburu Life
      (pp. 69-93)

      “You have the power to harm someone you have stayed with together because they ate your food,” explained Lopeulu Lekupano, an Lkiroro junior elder. “You have done good for him before God, so if he has wronged you it is not good before God. And so that anger will rise from your stomach, or be pronounced through your words, and will cause harm because that sweat of yours [they have consumed in your food] will inflict it.”

      Food is a potent gift. Anthropologists have long been aware, in light of Mauss’s (1967) classic formulation, that sharing food creates powerful connections...

    • CHAPTER 4 A Samburu Gastronomy
      (pp. 94-121)

      Samburu cuisine presents a seeming conundrum. On the one hand, what and how one eats is central to the complex construction of the most integral relationships and values in Samburu life. Food and eating practices are crucial to social action and the symbolic world, and the types of food one eats, the context for eating, and the company with whom one eats construct crucial aspects of individual and group identity across the lines of ethnicity, kinship, gender, and age. On the other hand, Samburu diet is sparse, ideally constituted of just three livestock products: milk, the daily staple; meat, a...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Calabash behind the Calabash behind the Calabash
      (pp. 122-150)

      Nkanyit(a sense of respect) is, as Paul Spencer rightly explicates in his now classic monograph, perhaps the most fundamental Samburu value. Nkanyit dictates a certain selflessness, evenhandedness, and cool-headedness, giving everyone their due even if it is at your expense. It is fundamental to the ethos of Samburu life, and to the bearing with which Samburu carry out their daily affairs and daily interactions. Nkanyit is a value that fundamentally ties the most trivial of everyday actions to religious mystery, as well as to blessings and curses and pollution—for Samburu continue to hold today, in the words of...

  7. PART THREE Histories of Eating

    • CHAPTER 6 Mixed Like a Pot of Gray Food
      (pp. 153-174)

      “Children never used to stay around old people,” said my cantankerous old friend Lmomonyot Lempirikany contemptuously, as we rested under his shade tree. The new ways of eating, he explained, had mixed everyone together—old and young, men and women. Everyone just sits huddled around the same cooking fire, and respect has been lost, even to the point that “these days, if you tell a child to go look after the goats, they will refuse if the tea pot is on the fire.”

      Cooking, Mintz (2003) has argued, is an underexplored area of the anthropology of food. While food choice,...

    • CHAPTER 7 In a Cup of Tea
      (pp. 175-194)

      This is the history of a beverage, tea—not directly as a quintessential product of the capitalist world system, born of plantations and slave labor, and a central cog in the development of world capitalism in Europe and abroad (Mintz 1985; Sahlins 1988; MacFarlane and MacFarlane 2004) but rather—sitting on a dusty hillside in northern Kenya in the faint shade of an acacia tree—the Samburu beverage of choice served, of course, very sweet and piping hot.

      Though anthropologists are no longer surprised that even on the fringes of global capitalism our subjects create their worlds from its pieces,...

    • CHAPTER 8 Turbid Brews
      (pp. 195-221)

      One of my first main Samburu haunts in the semiformalized hanging out that is participant observation, was in the settlement of the Lengoseks, a large extended family in Nkorika, up the hill from Lodokejek and its Catholic mission. It was a natural fieldwork setting in a number of different ways, not far from the house I was staying in at Lodokejek, and a midpoint between town and the settlement of my friend and sometimes research assistant Robert Lesengei. The settlement was also a major neighborhood center of social activity for many Lkiroro junior elders in the neighborhood, who were my...

    • CHAPTER 9 Eating Shillings Money and the Changing Politics of Food
      (pp. 222-248)

      I was in Lesidai in early 2002, and went looking for Lanyaunga Letuaa to interview him about food, including how he acquired his unusual name, “He who eats flour.” He welcomed us outside a house where changaa was sold but asked us to wait a few minutes while he finished up some other business. Moving some thirty feet away, he sat with a man around the same age and a younger woman—who, their conversation quickly revealed, were Lanyaunga’s father-in-law and his wife Ntinti. In this oddly public forum, they proceeded to discuss Ntinti, who had recently fled to her...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 249-256)

    It is 2001, and I am relaxing at the house of my friend and former research assistant, Matano Lesengei. He runs off on a short errand—perhaps letting his mother know I am around, looking for milk for tea, or some other such thing—and he hands me his photo album to pass the time while he is away. As I finger through his pictures of old friends, secondary school classmates, and the like, I come across a photo I myself had taken of Matano but that had since slipped from my memory.

    It was nearly ten years prior, at...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 257-262)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 263-278)
  11. Index
    (pp. 279-285)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 286-286)