You are here: Past Lectures > Elizabeth F. Colson > Published Works > 1952 Review of Seven Tribes of British Central Africa, African Affairs
Seven Tribes of British Central Africa. Ed. E. Colson and M. Gluckman. London: Oxford University Press (for the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute) 19sz. pp. 410. 37/6.
This is a symposium written by seven distinguished anthropologists, and I opened it with some trepidation, fearing that I should soon be eraneshed in a tangle of siblings, gnates, uterine cousins and all the rest; but as I read on I became convinced that the team ad achieved its object of presenting, for each of seven important Central African tribes, a general description which might be useful to government officers and to students of anthropology.
Such important topics as land tenure, Native law and custom and the effect of British administration are necessarily only mentioned by the way, but the general picture is there, and the clues for those who wish to follow them up. And what an infinite variety there is I On reading of the highly organised and centralised political and social structure of the Lozi presented by Professor Gluckman, and then of the completely unorganised and decentraUsed structure of the Tonga one can hardly believe that the two tribes are near neighbours. In fact, we have here Central African tribes originating from all points of the compass. Some patrilineal, some matrilineal, some with chiefs, some without. Land tenure systems, marriage customs, sources of authority, all varying and all immensely important. To take land tenure as an example. Lord Hailey Sir Philip Mitchell and others have recently emphasised the great importance of studying the customary land systems and their evolution. One feels sure that these seven anthropologists could provide much of the information so urgently necessary to administrators dealing with the problem if they could be persuaded to get together and write it up now.
To digress, there has recently been some criticism by administrators of the work of anthropologists in Africa. It is felt that, too often, they write with an eye on the academic world alone, when they could, and should, do so much to help the administration to solve some of the urgent practical problems which face them at this critical stage of develop- The criticism has much cogency; and it is no doubt partly due to the fact that the anthropologist feels that his own future lies in academic advancement in present circumstances, and that his career is not in Africa, in which he takes only an academic interest. There are signs, however, that this outlook is changing and the appearance of this book is one of those signs.
To return to the book: Barotseland is an anthropologist's paradise with its complex social system, its tangle of kinship relationships and obligations, its no less complex hierarchy of authorities. Dr. Max Gluckman presents us with a fascinating study of the country's social and political systems; but one reader was a little irritated by the Gilbertian trick of promotmg everybody to the top of every tree. The Paramount Chief becomes the King; and by the time one has swallowed all the princes and princesses, one is left with the certainty that dukes must indeed be two a penny. Again, is he right in saying that the Paramount Chief may not travel in the Nalikwanda? This must be some very new taboo. One senses that Dr. Gluckman disapproves of the efforts of the administration to reform the traditional system of government, to accord with modem needs and trends. He must know, however, that unless the systems are modified they are bound to decay and die. The operation will inevitably be painful. It may remove, with the bad and corrupt, much which is good, comely and most precious, but unless it is performed there can be no survival. His own investigations will help in ensuring its success.
Dr. Elizabeth Colson's objective and restrained account of the Tonga describes a very different and much simpler society, and her treatment of the tribe will be of special value to administrators, especially to those charged with supervising Native Courts. Her description of the rain-making rituals are of particular interest, and those whose task it is to establish the parish system will find the section entitled The District well worth study. From the Tonga, we are taken by Dr. Audrey Richards to the Bemba, who brought their semi-military organisation and culture from the north. Her account is derived from studies made in 1934, and is consequently a little out of date, but it presents a clear and concise account of the traditional organisation of the tribe which will be very valuable to those now engaged in its reorganisation. The paragraphs dealing with land and marriage customs are of particular interest. Leaving the Bemba, we are introduced by J. A. Barnes to the Ngoni, another tribe whose institutions were based on military needs, this time deriving from Zululand in the south. Mr. Barnes describes the modifications which have occurred as a result of the influence of the British administration, and of modern economic forces. In the concluding pages of his description he touches on labour migration, but he tells us little of its effects on the social life of the tribe. The Rhodes-Livingstone Institute has been asked to pay particular attention to this subject, and it is indeed disappointing that there is so little about it in any of these studies. One hopes that we will hear more of this important aspect of life fairly soon.
The study of the cattle owning Nyakyusa of the Southern Highlands Province of Tanganyika Territory was made by the late Godfrey Wilson in 1936. It is much concerned with an account of marriage customs and sex relations, but his descriptions of the peculiar traditional chiefdom and age grade systems are of interest, and were the background to the local government reforms in this area, which are described by Z. E. Kingdom in the October issue of the 7ournal of African Administration. In his account of the Yao of Southern Nyasaland, J. E. Mitchell provides just the sort of information the interested layman wants to have about this interesting and intelligent tribe, whose culture has been influenced by Islam through its association with the Arab slave trade. Incidentally, he does something to shed a more realistic light on the effects of labour migration than we have sometimes had from Nyasaland in the past. Traditionally, he writes, men are absent from Yao villages, formerly in trading and slave raiding expeditions, nowadays as soldiersand labour migrants to Southern Rhodasia and the Union of South Africa. The collection is concluded by an account of some Shona tribes of Southern Rhodesia contributed by H. F. Holleman, which includes an interesting account of the effect on their life and land tenure, of efforts being made to improve agricultural methods, and to prevent soil erosion and land deterioration.
Altogether, it is a valuable volume which is appropriately dedicated to Edwin W. Smith, who pioneered anthropological study in this region, in company with Andrew Dale, an administrative officer. May this happy union be an example to be followed by all anthropologists and administrators.
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