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The Sociological Review. March 1961, vol. 9 no.1, pp. 111-112

The Social Organization of the Gwembe Tonga by Elizabeth Colson.

Pp. XXii + 234. Manchester University Press, 1960 35S.


When the Governments of British Central Africa decided to dam the Zambesi at the Kariba Gorge, and produce the largest artificial lake in the world, various learned bodies in the region combined to produce a plan to study the people, archaeological remains, fauna and fish and birds, and geology of the land that was to be drowned. It was hoped that the initial anthropological study of the people, the Gwembe Tonga, in their original home could then be followed by a further investigation into how they adapted themselves to new conditions in the areas where they were to be re-settled. 'Me initial study had to be carried out at short notice and quickly; but happily a skilled anthropologist with local experience and knowledge of the language was available. Professor Elizabeth Colson had previously visited the area while carrying out a full study of the neighbouring and related Tonga on the Mazabuka Plateau of Northern Rhodesia. Her study of Marriage and the Family among the Plateau Tonga (1958), and a series of brilliant articles on Tonga politics, not only had provided excellent descriptions of the tribe, but also were of important theoretical significance. She has here, on the basis of less than a year's field research, produced an equally important study of the Valley Tonga.

Her task in writing her report was difficult. Though she planned herself to return to see the Tonga in the new homes in which the Northern and the Southern Rhodesian Government were planning to re-settle them, she could not of course be sure that she would be able to do so. Hence she has tried to specify the differences between the several groups of Valley Tonga, in order that each group can be followed with its own customs into the areas where it may to some extent be dispersed. To avoid repetition, she has therefore described the main theme of organization or custom for one group, and then summarized the differences between that group and others. This course was inevitable; but it necessarily imposes hard thinking on the reader who tries to maintain a general picture for each group. This hard thinking is well rewarded, for there are riches of ethnographic data and of anthropological analysis in this book. Their value will be increased for those who know Professor Colson's work on the Plateau Tonga, and can follow her comparisons of the changes in custom which accompany changes in organization, themselves associated with a different ecological and political situation. The Valley Tonga are far more permanently settled around their riverside gardens than are the Tonga of the Plateau, and land tenure is further developed among them: this accompanies far more stable developments of the matrilineal kinship groups until they have the internal organization of lineages. Hence while the two groups of Tonga have the same cultural elements as one another, these are combined with different weightings in the two environments: the same type of clan membership, of inter-clan joking relationships, of rituals, etc., appear in both areas with significantly varying connotations. Thus this study adds to her earlier analyses of the Plateau system an extra dimension of understanding. I must draw particular attention in this context to the treatment of the 'shades', their mode of inheritance, and their manner of affecting the relations of the living. Her long article on 'shades' on the Plateau (International Archives of Ethnography, xlvii) is a classic study of the sociology of religious beliefs, and its arguments am enhanced by the treatment of the same problems here.

The concluding chapter pulls together the somewhat disjointed (though necessarily disjointed) presentation of data an the several Valley groups with great clarity; and it also discusses the relevance of the people's culture to the 'forcible' resettlement they have since undergone. Professor Colson's handling of this resettlement in her early chapters is subdued: the personal and group problems it raised for individuals and groups emerges startlingly in this final chapter. Hence we have here besides a first-class anthropological monograph, a study of how people fare when their homes, their lives, and their destinies, are affected by large-scale developments, whose planners obviously had little understanding of what was involved for those moved. The appendices by officials setting out what it had cost to re-settle the Grwembe Tonga, do not answer entirely the points Professor Colson raises.

Max Gluckman, University of Manchester


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