Africa: East (Anthropology)

Definition and influences

Historically, the definition of this region can be linked to colonial and geopolitical factors rather than a coherent ethnographic space. The East African Community, first established in the colonial period, was limited to Kenya, Tanganyika (now United Republic of Tanzania) and Uganda. After a sporadic existence, the EAC was re-established in 2000, and was first joined by Rwanda and Burundi in 2007. Political boundaries reflecting colonial interests crept into the ethnographic tradition when the East African Institute for Social Research (EAISR) (first directed by fAudrey Richards) was established in opposition to the fRhodes Livingstone Institute which led research in Central Africa. This division of labour belied the cultural similarities between the two regions covered by these research institutions. Parkin goes so far as to say that East and Central Africa could be viewed as a ‘single theoretical and ethnographic area’ (1990: 188) that could also be extended to southern Sudan. Geographic boundaries also limited anthropologists’ delineation of the region for a time. The so-called Swahili coast, extending up from Tanzania through to Kenya, does not reflect Swahili culture, which is better understood in terms of trading networks around the coastline of the Indian Ocean. Arab and

Portuguese trading posts on this coast exported slaves from the mainland from 1830 throughout most of the nineteenth century. Taking place after the Atlantic slave trade from West Africa, the East African slave trade was devastating.

When the first missionaries and colonial settlers arrived, they found mainly ‘stateless’ (seg-mentary) societies, with some kingdoms, notably those of Buganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Contemporary nation states were defined during the colonial period — 1890 to the early 1960s. Kenya and Uganda were British colonies, and in 1919 Tanganyika passed from German hands to the British as a ‘mandated territory’. Zanzibar (comprising the islands of Unguja and Pemba) was first a centre for goods traded between Africa, Arabia and India. It was taken by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century and held until 1698 when the Sultan of Oman successfully invaded, and it came under the British Empire during the nineteenth century. Whilst post-independence Uganda and Kenya are anglophone countries, the national language of Tanzania (which united mainland Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar in 1964) is Kiswahili. Kis-wahili, originally a coastal trading language, became the lingua franca during the colonial period, and is probably the most widely spoken language in Africa. Rwanda and Burundi were colonized by the Belgians and are now francophone. In addition to national languages, Kis-wahili is widely spoken across the region, and local languages are numerous; there are over 120 spoken in Tanzania alone.

Late colonial anthropology, for example that of the EAISR under Audrey Richards, was development-oriented and concerned with themes such as land tenure systems, labour migration and customary law. Despite this applied approach, colonial officers were seldom convinced of the usefulness of rigorous ethnography (Mills 2006).


As with other parts of Africa, during the colonial period administrators assumed that people living in the region were organized into clear ethnic groups, and anthropologists organized their studies accordingly. Aidan Southall was one of the first to insist that the ‘tribe’ was not an appropriate unit of study and that ethnic identity was better understood as plural. Later anthropologists documented the shifting and fluid nature of ethnicity — for example the collection of essays Being Maasai (Spear et al. 1994) illustrates the contingent nature of the designation ‘Maasai’. Nevertheless, ethnic identity has since solidified and many East Africans now regard themselves as members of just one ethnic group.

Religion and magic

In addition to Southall’s innovative observations on the instability of ethnicity, Middleton’s rich account of Lugbara religion is an early example of a study that rejects the tradition of studying entire societies in favour of a focus on the importance of witchcraft and ancestor worship for the political position of old men. His approach was distinctive because it saw religion instead of lineage as central to political action in a stateless society. fEvans-Pritchard’s classic work on Witchcraft, Magic and Oracles among the Azande could be claimed for East Africa, although his intellectualist approach to understanding witchcraft and sorcery has not since been matched. More recently there has been a reappraisal of the idea that witchcraft, sorcery and magic are no more than an idiom through which to critique modernity and global capitalism (Sanders 2003). Recent studies of Christianity have focused on the influence of African religions on colonial missionaries and their work (Pels 1999).


The most distinctive theme in older ethnographies of the region is age and generation sets, in which groups of male peers are promoted through a series of roles. For example the Sam-buru move from child cattle herder to warrior, to firestick elder, to father, with increments in political responsibility after the warrior stage. A unique contribution to this area was fMonica and Godfrey Wilson’s work on Nyakyusa age villages, in which each generation of men would build and live together, and political authority was handed from fathers to sons at a ‘coming out’ ritual. The work on fage sets provided a fascinating alternative to thinking about stateless societies through the life cycle as opposed to the lineage, and yet simultaneously produced a bizarre picture of the region. Missing from the picture, as with much of the early work on kinship, was the perspective of women, as well as views from politically marginal ends of the life cycle — children and the elderly. Since, there has been a considerable body of work on gender, notably the ritual role of elderly women in the control of fertility and death (Moore et al. 2003). The interest in generations and age sets, was in part a response to colonial fears about young African men in ‘warrior sets’ and their involvement in violence and cattle raiding, which has more recently, and controversially, been put forward as an explanation for armed conflict in the region. In contrast, contemporary work, such as that of Brad Weiss, seeks to understand the fantasies of dispossessed urban male youth who reconfigure their proximity to the world through the idiom of American West Coast gangster rap.

Violence and armed conflict

The horror of the Rwanda genocide has provoked responses from anthropologists trying to answer the question of how the genocide was possible (Eltringham 2005, Taylor 2001). Anthropology itself has been put under scrutiny in debates about the Hamitic hypothesis. Imagining that the Tutsi were descended from the Hamites in ancient Egypt, early European observers (including anthropologists such as Seligman) believed that the Tutsi were ‘naturally’ superior to the Hutu. Ethnographies of Rwanda demonstrate how this binary construction of ethnic identity had terrible social consequences, but also show that claims that ethnic distinctions are socially constructed can also be politically motivated. Other anthropologists have focused on the aftermath of the genocide, for example Johan Pottier’s exemplary Re-imagining Rwanda which focuses on the success of the post-1994 RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front) government which persuaded international agencies of a narrative of genocide that legitimizes its current regime and deflects attention from the slaughter ofHutu refugees and its involvement in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Aside from the horrors of the Rwanda genocide, armed violence is a major preoccupation of contemporary ethnographers of the region. Conflict in the Great Lakes region, in particular the involvement of the Ugandan and Rwandan armies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the rebel Lords Resistance Army in northern Uganda, and the long-lasting war in southern Sudan between the African Christian South and the Arab Islamic North, have all been the subject of anthropological attention. Notable is Sharon Hutchinson’s re-study of the Nuer, which reveals how long-term armed conflict (first with the British, then with the Islamic North in Sudan) has caused the Nuer to ask themselves questions about money, blood disputes, and the state. Anthropologists have also challenged myths that violence is innate to the region, either because particular ethnic groups are believed to be ‘savage’, or because conflict is thought to be an inevitable consequence of ^segmentary lineage systems (Leopold 2005) and cattle raiding. Important also, is the work of Behrend (2000) on the Acholi prophet Alice Lakwena, whose spirit possession cult laid the foundation for the notorious Lords Resistance Army in the north of Uganda. Armed conflict in the region has led to the displacement of people, either within nation states or across national borders. Liisa Malkki makes an important contribution in her study of how the experience of Hutu refugees in a camp in Tanzania shaped narratives of their own history, creating an imagined moral community.


Anthropological work on HIV and AIDS in the region began relatively late, and public health programmes were initially implemented on the basis of understandings of the epidemic gained in Europe and North America. Insights include critiques of messages promoted by Western NGOs, which fail to take into account local understandings of fertility and women’s difficulties in negotiating safe sex in unstable economies. Ethnographies of HIV and AIDS also contribute insights into the ways that a new language of risk, and the medicalization of sexuality have informed longer-standing debates about gender and generation (Setel 1999). It still remains to place HIV and AIDS within a broader landscape of health and illness; the stigma of AIDS means that any less nuanced picture risks reintroducing memories of racist stereotypes of African sexualities and losing ground gained by any successful health interventions.

In sum, a discernable trend in contemporary ethnographies of the region, is an unpacking and questioning of ‘invented traditions’ of earlier anthropologists and other European observers. Notable themes tend towards analyses of crisis, and to balance this there is perhaps a need for more work on the everyday, and the many strategies that people use to ‘get by’.

Next post:

Previous post: