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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Appendix C. Book Review by Bernardo Bernardi (2000)

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  • 1 This book review, first published in 2000 (Africa, Roma, lv-1 pp. 133-135), has been translated fro (...)

1Anne-Marie Peatrik, La vie à pas contés. Génération, âge et société dans les Hautes Terres du Kenya (Meru Tigania-Igembe) 1

2The strength of the book’s original title, Life by Counted Steps, lies in its non-rhetorical suitability to the reality of the society studied. The “counted steps” in question are in fact the steps of social advancement set to the rhythm of institutional age grades, or better yet, to the inflection of the individual’s biological maturation through the collective passage––by set, precisely––from one social status to the next.

3This collective passage begins with the first rituals of post-pubertal initiation and continues through subsequent age grades up until that of old age. In every society, the physical and cultural development of a person is an essential condition in his or her social advancement: that is, to the attainment and exercising of rights connected to the various stages of life. Some societies make this advancement the determining criterion on which the structure of society and participation in political life are based. The criterion applies to all members of society, in different ways for men than for women, these latter having their own associations often parallel to that of men and not necessarily subordinate to them. Thus organized, political life regulates the exercise of power. As a result, power in these societies is neither monarchic nor oligarchical but, on the contrary, diffused and open, since all members of the society––men and women alike in their respective associations––attain power following an ordered sequence punctuated precisely by the grades (Peatrik’s counted footsteps) that determine the organization and progression of sets within the social structure.

4The concept of set is inseparable from that of generation. Yet they must not be identified as the same thing; they must be kept separated. Generations are principles of genetic order based on the age of birth and ancestry of the individual. In contrast, age sets are strictly social criteria, the result of a cultural choice. Age sets criteria are used to classify, that is to arrange into separate groups, people born during the same period of time. The analogy between concepts of generation and age set should not be discarded, but the concepts must not be confused. In some cases, the principle of generation may be the only one used in the organization of a society, such as with the Nyangatom people of southern Ethiopia, studied by Serge Tornay. Their social structure is simple (in appearance), as it is limited to two levels: “Fathers of the country” and “Sons of the country”. Both groups share in the maintaining of social order, and succeed each other in government, that is in the exercising of political power at pre-established intervals. Age sets themselves can also be the sole principle within social organization. More often, both principles overlap in the organizing of structures, society, and power in a flexible and effective manner. The case of the Meru of Kenya, a Bantu-speaking population living to the north of Mount Kenya, is a typical example of an acephalous society in which age sets form the framework of their social structure; in fact, age sets take on a primary role in relation to that of generation, which remains nevertheless an essential criterion in their social organization.

5What Anne-Marie Peatrik presents in her book is a masterful analysis of Meru society with particular attention to two ethnic groups: the Tigania, and the Igembe. There are nine Meru ethnic groups in all––Igembe, Tigania, Imenti, Miutini, Egogi, Mwimbi, Muthambi, Chuka, and Tharaka––that were once included in the same district that was actually named “Meru”. Today the district is divided in two, Meru District and Nyambene District, and the Igembe and Tigania people live in this second district. It is worth pointing out that Meru ethnic groups make up the northernmost limit of the Bantu-speaking populations. Like all Bantu, the Meru people, both Tigania as well as Igembe, are agro-pastoralists: the farming of land, despite all its related problems (property, inheritance, ancestors, etc.), dominates, whereas keeping livestock, both large (cattle) and small (sheep and fowl), is a complementary, even secondary, activity. Among the Tigania––who live in the plains stretching north of the city and of the Meru forest, right up to the slopes of the Nyambene Hills––keeping livestock is more common, while among the Igembe living on the slopes of the Nyambene Hills, farming takes precedence.

6We know that the social organization of the Bantu is not homogeneous: both monarchies and acephalous societies can be found in it. The Meru society was traditionally acephalous, yet today they are an integral part of the Republic of Kenya, led by an elected president and a national assembly made up of representatives of the people grouped according to their political affiliation. However, the traditional organization by age sets preserves its local value even today.

7Anne-Marie Peatrik uses an appropriate expression to describe the age sets system: “life by counted steps”. These counted steps are the age grades that initiates pass through their entire lives, thus succeeding each other in running local government. The counting of steps is actually the counting of ages of life. It is clear that the formation of age sets creates a gap between individuals, based more on the time of their initiation than on that of their birth, since it is only after their initiation that young people are assimilated into a set. Initiation rituals are performed within a normal period of 15 years, during which initiation rituals alternate between open and closed periods. The alternation determines seniority among sets and the distinction between senior and junior among members of the same set. The dynamics of old age is thus reflected in social relationships, and influences relations within sets as well as between different sets.

8Anne-Marie Peatrik’s analysis is rooted in fact––not only because the data she presents was collected on the field during extensive periods of research throughout which she participated in the life of the local population, but also because her method of analysis is carried out with constant references to the data, rendering her interpretations reliable and supported by factual evidence. The descriptions are detailed, giving solidity to her arguments. The work as a whole offers a sense of thoroughness. The age sets emerge as a system fully integrated into the social organization, and in this light, the singularity of the Meru social structure proves highly significant. Peatrik’s work can be placed among the classic Africanist monographs and those on cultural anthropology. On the subject of age sets alone, the work proves to be a paradigmatic text in the area of comparative study.

9The work is divided into four parts. The first section, entitled Age and generation-set system, contains two chapters: Life cycles and age sets, and The sets system (pp. 43-106). The second section, Kinship and society, contains three chapters: Family, residence, and territory; Composite kinship; and Alliance, filiation and generation system: from one gaaru to another (pp. 109-145). The third part, Rites of maturation and sovereignty, has four chapters: The state of warrior; Sets and powers of women; Fathers of the country, Mugwe, and the blacksmith; and Mbwaa, or time suspended (pp. 147-425). The fourth and last section, Life out of tune, has two chapters: The colonial intrusion and the crisis: the changing in the demographic regime, followed by two appendixes, a glossary of the Kimeru language, a bibliography, and an index (pp. 515-571).

10The Meru, both Tigania and Igembe, trace their origin to their exodus from Mbwaa, a place where their fathers, the proto-Meru, were forced to leave in order to escape persecution. The reference to Mbwaa is mythical, but it marks the beginning of the history of the Meru. Actually, there is not one Meru able to pinpoint its location. Peatrik offers intelligent observations to support the argument that Mbwaa is situated less in history than in a “suspended time”. It is a myth that “is not so much historical narrative as allegory about the passing of time and the necessity for initiation” (pp. 381-421). Nevertheless, the power of the myth, for the Meru, lies in the idea of the exodus as a defining event in their ethnic identity.

11Peatrik’s analysis of course focuses on the young initiates. Even among the Meru, these young initiates were singled out with the utmost pride. In fact, they represented the strength and security necessary in defending the country. A collective residence was reserved for the warriors, called the gaaru. Every hut is an aru, but the gaaru is reserved for initiates. At times the gaaru is the residence of the young unmarried men––naturally, given that when the warrior-initiates have just left the first stage of initiation (one step among many that must be counted, to take up Peatrik’s terminology) before being allowed to marry. The gaaru were widespread throughout the Meru land, as the warriors were responsible for defending the country’s strategic positions from the eventuality of enemy attack, with preventive raids or, when necessary, counteroffensive expeditions.

12The mûgwe’s role is central to Meru daily life, in particular among the young initiates. In fact, the term mûgwe is a title that confers on the person a religious role for the entire Meru society. His primary function was blessing. Those who sought his help in particular were women desiring to have children and mothers, but most importantly it was the warriors who were obliged to ask for his blessing before each raid. They could not leave without his blessing to guarantee the success of the mission. Peatrik likens the mûgwe to the blacksmith, in the sense that African tradition attributed a spiritual power (magical or mysterious) to the blacksmith, who works with fire and iron. Yet even more than the blacksmith, the mûgwe held a singular, mysterious power that set him apart from others.

13Anne-Marie Peatrik’s book is not a simple ethnographic monograph, but an innovative analysis of the issue of age sets––an issue that, with rare exceptions, is usually relegated to ancillary sections of ethnographic studies. Her analysis is firmly grounded in fact, and her clear style makes for smooth reading and reveals a firsthand knowledge of the subject, in a testimony worthy of the utmost confidence. Such features can only be the result of research in the field, carried out with intuition, and accompanied by interpretive analyses never stretched beyond obtained data and firsthand experiences, as well as a remarkable capacity for description. Her study merits a place not only among the classics of ethnological studies but also among the most original and comprehensive works on the subject. The text is of great value to Africanists and anthropologists alike, as well as to those interested in the study of social and political systems.

14(Roma, January 28, 2000)


1 This book review, first published in 2000 (Africa, Roma, lv-1 pp. 133-135), has been translated from Italian language.

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