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The Land is Dying

The Land is Dying: Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya

Paul Wenzel Geissler
Ruth Jane Prince
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 444
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  • Book Info
    The Land is Dying
    Book Description:

    Based on several years of ethnographic fieldwork, the book explores life in and around a Luo-speaking village in western Kenya during a time of death. The epidemic of HIV/AIDS affects every aspect of sociality and pervades villagers' debates about the past, the future and the ethics of everyday life. Central to such debates is a discussion of touch in the broad sense of concrete, material contact between persons. In mundane practices and in ritual acts, touch is considered to be key to the creation of bodily life as well as social continuity. Underlying the significance of material contact is its connection with growth - of persons and groups, animals, plants and the land - and the forward movement of life more generally. Under the pressure of illness and death, economic hardship and land scarcity, as well as bitter struggles about the relevance and application of Christianity and 'Luo tradition' in daily life, people find it difficult to agree about the role of touch in engendering growth, or indeed about the aims of growth itself.

    eISBN: 978-1-84545-802-7
    Subjects: Anthropology, Public Health, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Chapter 1 Introduction: ‘Are we still together here?’
    (pp. 1-36)

    This book is based on fieldwork in Uhero in theDholuo-speaking Bondo District of western Kenya at the end of the twentieth century.¹ It examines late modern East African village life, looking particularly at the central role of everyday practices of material contact ortouchfor the constitution and contestation of relations, and for the construction and reconstruction of time. Underlying the significance of material contact is its connection withgrowth, of persons, groups and theforward movementof life more generally. As we shall show, for many people in western Kenya growth is engendered by material engagements among persons...

  6. Chapter 2 Landscapes and histories
    (pp. 37-76)

    On Fridays, the buses,matatu(minibuses) and ‘Peugeots’ (each with a different price, speed and level of risk) from Nairobi to Kisumu are crowded. Music and conversations entertain the passengers and distract the fearful from the dangers of the road. Every weekend cars collide and people die, occasioning further travel, to the burial of people in their rural homes. Returning to the village is important in the life of people in western Kenya, and every turn of the road brings familiar signs. After the steep descent from the tea plantations of the western highlands – formerly ‘white farms’, now mainly...

  7. Chapter 3 Salvation and tradition: heaven and earth?
    (pp. 77-110)

    In mostJoUhero’s understanding,KaOgumbaandKaOkothare located at opposite poles of the continuum of possible lifestyles in Uhero. One home is the place of the oldest family, who, however, gave away (and of late sold) almost all its land; the other is the home of people new to the place, but wealthy and expanding their landed property. One household is large, polygamous, multigenerational; the other is a nuclear family centred around one married couple. Most (though not all) of the people of Okoth’s home try to follow the customary order of life, while the Ogumbas go to some...

  8. PART I.

    • Chapter 4 ‘Opening the way’: being at home in Uhero
      (pp. 113-150)

      AllJoUhero– wherever they are, and like most Luo everywhere – can point to a place called home (dalaorpacho, pl.mier) (married women have two: birth and marital home), and everyone agrees that a person must have a home. Home is the origin and the end of the person and it is where persons, place and things engage in material contacts – intimate, domestic moments of touch – from which all growth arises. Home in this sense is not just a place but a movement, a process that unfolds over time and in space. If customary Luo...

    • Chapter 5 Growing children: shared persons and permeable bodies
      (pp. 151-192)

      In this chapter, we continue our exploration ofJoUhero’s concerns with coming together and engendering growth, turning to the core of domestic life: nurturing children. Children are the destination ofJoUhero’s efforts to move life forward. As the expression ‘growing children’ (pidho nyathi) suggests (pidhois, applied to crops and livestock, also ‘to plant, maintain, raise’), raising children is productive, creative work. It takes up much of women’s daily life and is transformative in more than one sense, creating children and making wives and mothers, husbands and fathers. We examine three practices that intertwine physical and social growth – sharing...

  9. PART II.

    • Chapter 6 Order and decomposition: touch around sickness and death
      (pp. 195-226)

      In the previous chapter we mentioned a situation in which an act of touch during a delivery was understood by some as a rejection of touch and generated tension. In this chapter, we explore further the potentials and problems of concrete, bodily contact by looking at moments of touch and its absence during the sickness of Otoyo, his wife MinFlora and their adult daughter Flora, our neighbours in Uhero.

      Unlike the practices that are involved in nurturing young children, the fatal sickness and death of adults is an aspect of everyday life in which explicit reference is made to customary...

    • Chapter 7 Life seen: touch, vision and speech in the making of sex in Uhero
      (pp. 227-260)

      The previous chapters have focused on care, for children and for the dying and dead, the beginning and end of life. Here we examine another, no less strained form of contact with the other body: sleeping with the other, bodily intercourse between woman and man. One could call this the invisible core of social life in Uhero: it is the essential touch underlying ritual and mundane everyday practices, the nucleus from which life, social ties and continuity grow; but it is not usually spoken about, let alone seen. Like a sacred act, it is outside representation. We concur with other...

    • Chapter 8 ‘Our Luo culture is sick’: identity and infection in the debate about widow inheritance
      (pp. 261-294)

      The previous chapter discussed how, over the course of the past century, bodily intercourse has been drawn from the realm of unseen and unspoken-of everyday ritual into the light of discourse, and has been made and contested as ‘sex’. The core of transformational, creative touch was thus laid bare to scrutiny and control. The present chapter pursues this theme further, exploring the ‘problem of widow inheritance’ as it presents itself to turn-of-the century Uhero, Luoland and the world. Due to the widespread death, in 2002 one-fifth of Uhero’s adult women were widowed (over one-third of these were below fifty years...

  10. PART III.

    • Chapter 9 ‘How can we drink his tea without killing a bull?’ – funerary ceremony and matters of remembrance
      (pp. 297-326)

      Conflicts about ‘widow inheritance’ have a dramatic quality and resonate with late Twentieth-century global concerns about gender, sex and rights. Yet, to understand sociality amongJoUhero, another field of tension and debate related to death and ritual should be explored. This field concerns the substances that are engaged in funerary ceremonies. This chapter thus turns to another important ritual through which people try to deal with death, and explores the role of food and other materials during funerary practices for the negotiation and contestation of relations, memory and temporality. In particular, we shall attend to what is referred to as...

    • Chapter 10 ‘The land is dying’ – traces and monuments in the village landscape
      (pp. 327-356)

      In this last ethnographic chapter, we return to the landscapes of Uhero, with which we began our account. Previously, we emphasised the historical continuities embodied in the land and the theme of return that binds people to place. Here, we want to address aspects of differentiation and rupture that might ultimately entail the impossibility of return.Piny tho(‘the land is dying’) is a turn of phrase often used byJoUheroto describe the present. Sincepinyrefers to the group of people one lives among as well as to the earth on which one lives, this expression sums up...

    • Chapter 11 Contingency, creativity and difference in western Kenya
      (pp. 357-368)

      This book has examined concerns with and conflicts about the making of social relations and of growth among people who live, as some see it, at the ‘end of the world’. Exploring their everyday life engagements with each other, we have drawn attention to the importance of material contact in creating, negotiating and contesting different forms of growth and sociality. We have examined bodily practices of touch, including those mediated by food and other substances, and situated these among equally intimate contacts in the wider spaces of the landscape. Our broader aim was to understand how social relations in Uhero...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 369-396)
  12. Index
    (pp. 397-424)