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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik


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1In seeking to understand the polity of the old Tigania-Igembe, we have used various indirect approaches as well as strategies others might consider incompatible, while maintaining the essential features of a monograph––the most appropriate way to tackle this kind of subject. The criteria of age and generation, and the temporal dimension they imply, can no longer be regarded as subordinate elements of socio-political organization, of little interest to anthropological study. To understand this complex form of polity, a diverse range of descriptive and analytical methods were required. It was necessary to draw on all available means in social and cultural anthropology, but use each in moderation; to transcend the traditional division between social norms, ritual, myth and symbolism, between quality and quantity, synchrony and diachrony, ethnology and history, restitution and reconstitution; to go beyond what is conventionally considered “total social fact”.

2As A. Legesse already showed in his monograph on the gaada of the Ethiopian Borana (1973), it is vain to adopt a single point of view or to seek a central thread linking all the available facts. But his analysis of the gaada generation-system––successively functionalist, structuralist, and historical––was seen to present a rather disenchanted view of these different strains of anthropology. The only part of his highly innovative study to receive lasting attention was his “Essay in Protest Anthropology”, the most accessible part of the work. Legesse was in fact trying to determine whether this form of social organization and polity was a sustainable one. It had been a recurring issue for those specializing in these societies, and resulted in two studies using very different but ultimately complementary approaches: F. Stewart (1977) shed light on the formal and demographic aspects of this social classification, while B. Bernardi (1985) focused on the great variety of processes at work in age systems. Because of a lack of appropriate analytical tools, and also of time, the questions raised by different ethnographers in their monographs remained unresolved. But they suggested a common direction that my own research has sought to continue––consider, for example, the ethnologists mentioned throughout this text who studied different generation sets in the Karimojong, Maasai, and Nilotic groups, composite rules of the type used for the Dassanetch, or altered rules like those for Bantu speakers. In this respect, the situation of the Tigania-Igembe has provided a unique vantage point: although colonial conquest did lead to an irreversible loss of information, the occupying authorities and their archives also provided a way of recording, over more than a half century, the generation-set system and the interplay between event and structure.

3The Tigania-Igembe age and generation system may be considered a primary form of sociation alongside other well-recognized principles such as kinship and affinity, descent groups, dualist divisions, organization into different “houses”, varied forms of hierarchy that may or may not include a governing State, networks and groups with ascribed or achieved status, and so on. The Tigania-Igembe generation-set system operates on certain basic principles. First and foremost it is a system of collective power and diffused authority enabling the control of territory. This conventional yet crucial aspect explains the success of these institutions in this part of the African continent: in an ecosystem whose great potential is limited by the impossibility of predicting the rains, the use of sets of fathers and sons enables the immediate establishment of sovereignty over a territory and the (re) constitution of society. Once one group organizes itself in this way, the system begins to spread, since neighboring groups are obliged to follow suit or risk being absorbed or forced to leave. Polities structured in this way form a meta-network within which people and goods circulate, whether in a peaceful or violent manner, thus precluding the conquest of one structured group by another, the creation of local chiefdoms, or long-term subordination and slavery. The main restriction on this polity and its collective sovereignty is that an optimum quantitative threshold must be maintained, above which there is a risk of secession and below which it is impossible to gather the required number of warriors or prevent an excessive mortality rate. This method of maintaining equilibrium through (processes of) duplication, exchange and homeostasis allows us to infer that such systems have existed in the region for a very long time. It was only with colonial conquest that the self-regulation of the whole and of groups within it came to an end: by seizing their territory, the new authorities deprived the population of their means of perpetuating the generation-set system, and started them on a new historical trajectory.

4In this political regime, control of territory is guaranteed by the even distribution of power between the sets over time: at a time t, one set is permitted to assume sovereignty and power on behalf of all, because their successors know that their own turn will come. Such far-sightedness relies on a sophisticated and shared conception of time, while consecutive sets are nevertheless required to replicate themselves exactly, with this homogeneity being possible through birth control and the synchronization of rituals. The regulation of the population and initiation counterbalance one another: initiation continues to play a major role in establishing the pace of generational progress in that any anomalies are contained, while initiation and related rituals help to control excessive numbers of overaged and underaged people. When used for the purposes of social division, the criteria of age and generation have an effect on all demographic variables. Ritual agency is here the means by which these elements are given expression, and the driving force behind the re-ordering of society. However, the tension between each set’s rank within the system and the age of the individuals in each set is not completely diminished: at regular intervals, a crisis occurs that indicates a marked contrast between “static” time, when order is established, and ‘accelerating’ time resulting from genuine rebellion before handover of power. The crisis is an inherent part of the structure, and the ritual exists to rectify that which the demography dictates.

5The spheres of domestic organization and kinship are controlled by the power system: the domestic cycle progresses in parallel with the movement of the sets along the age scale; cumulative patrifiliation takes place within generation-division, marriage and affinity have a wider reach and unites the elements separated by death of the father, head of the family. The elementary structure of kinship— the sister-brother pair––is emphasized by the initiation process since future marriage bonds depend on it, but is simultaneously terminated, as necessitated by the affirmation of paternal rights and the construction of age. Both myth and vocabulary signal a clear opposition between the suspended, or repetitive, time of maternal kinship and marriage, and the accelerated time of paternal kinship—a constant tension that finds temporary resolution in the discontinuous passage of time and the emphasis laid on the idea of starting anew.

6Whereas social structure is achieved according to the rhythm of the progression of the generation-sets, age appears to be a construction with only a distant relationship to biological components. At birth, the child is half mother, half father. Ageing then consists in an ordered progression through a series of inevitable metamorphoses that help to shape various elements of the person in different ways. Periods of gestation and then rebirth––signaled by the giving of first a provisional and then a permanent generation-name, and the accumulation of individual names unique to each age position, but also through bodily markings, clothing, ornaments and make-up, the body’ movement and the breath and energy of the voice as manifested through the different songs and dances for different ages––act as markers along a life course where the fecundity of sexuality is coupled with that of the spoken word. This element of speech gradually takes on importance and becomes the central focus until the final “accomplishment”, when the power to bless and curse is handed on. The construction of gender is dependent on that of age, while reproduction—for which the sexes are specially prepared––occurs at a time determined by the social structure. Everything hinges on the lifetime of the individual. An “Accomplished” who dies during the last grade is seen to die at the right time: fully mature, they demonstrate that the individual’s progress has been successfully synchronized with the temporal progression of the sets. Those who die before or after this moment of resolution, like the children of non-initiates, babies born prematurely or in breech position, or those whose first tooth appears on the upper jaw, imply a disturbance in the flow of time, a suspension or inversion––chaotic elements in the system against which society must be protected.

7This process of social and biological organization is based on ideas about the body and percepts that are essentially elemental. The categories of dry and humid, hot and cold, soft and hard, and also those of light and the sense of smell, hearing and the perception of sound, form inherently unstable dynamic systems of drying and moistening, warming or cooling, softening or hardening––the very ones evident in the techniques and procedures of everyday life.

8The body is formed in the same way as cereal on the threshing ground, the ore the blacksmith reduces before working on its bloom, or the clay the potter kneads before the pot is dried and baked, techniques that require the appropriate actions to be made in the correct order and at the right time––otherwise the cereal rots, the metal breaks, the pot cracks. In addition to this world of objects there is also the world of livestock, whose products and growth are an important part of the individual’s accomplishment and offer a substitute for human existence, and the world of bees, where the hive divides into two once the queen becomes old. We are a long way here from Western notions of the primacy of biological life, or the age-old opposition of nature and culture. A person’s maturation is a process imbricated with potential growth given by the Supreme principle, and with the objects human beings create and which modify their relationship with the world.

9The present confusion of ages and generations means that these areas of knowledge and thought have been relegated to the annals of history, if not completely obliterated. However, it is impossible to understand changes in the initiation ceremonies, the transformation of power, the tentative reordering of society and the establishing of new hierarchies, or the anomie characterizing sexual social relationships and family bonds, without reference to this past that continues to exert an active influence on the present. Here the generational split is more pronounced than elsewhere: there is a complete lack of understanding between the old, who have seen their world disappear and in a sense condemned it, and the young, who are reinventing themselves according to what they can trace of their parents’ past. The model for modernity that these parents believed in and worked for can no longer be said to function. In this sense, the challenge is once again a universal one.

© Africae, 2020

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