REVIEWS

Edited by John Cooper-Poole

WIELDING THE AX: STATE FORESTRY AND SOCIAL CONFLICT IN TANZANIA
, 1820-2000. Thaddeus Sunseri Ohio University Press, 2009. ISBN 978 0 8214 1865 9. P/B. £22.95.

This is very well researched work on a topic of considerable contemporary importance in relation to forest utilisation and conservation. It is especially good on the wide range of historic use of the coastal forests in particular, not just for material resources, but also for social and ritual purposes by local people. It is also valuable in tracing the development of forest products such as copal and rubber in the 19th century and the subsequent transformation in wealth and status of those who controlled this trade, especially led by the Germans, who introduced scientific forestry to the management of the mangroves, for example.

The writer claims with justification that it was the latter which played a fundamental role in the subsequent Maj-Maji rebellion in the early years of the 20th century, while the post WWI years saw the replacement of the authority of the chiefs by an organised state forest service, followed by an attempt to move people out of the forests and into more controllable villages elsewhere This background work is therefore impressive and forms a unique assemblage of material.
The main thesis and conclusions are more questionable. A hint is given by the constant misuse of the word ‘colonial’ applied to the period of British administration, not over a ‘colony’ but what was a Trusteeship Territory. This is not semantic nit-picking, since there is much castigation of the governing authority (not excluding the post-independence government) for ignoring the rights of local people to the forest; latterly, the targets become international conservationists with their biodiversity agendas, in which the Tanzanian state has been complicit.

While there is good evidence that in recent years both international organisations and state government have all too frequently sidelined the interests of local people, there is insufficient recognition of the need for some degree of control over peasant exploitation (not least with modern equipment) for the long term benefit of all. The question revolves around who should have ultimate power over the allocation of land for forestry and forest reserves, but this work does not address that most intractable of issues.
James McCarthy

BECOMING MUSLIM IN MAINLAND TANZANIA, 1890-2000 by Felicitas Becker. Oxford: OUP for the British Academy, 2008, 364 pp. ISBN 978 0 19 726427 0. £50.

Dr Becker has followed up her doctoral research on S-E Tanzania with a magisterial treatment of the spread of Islam in the Lindi region. Starting from the pre-colonial period, a time of raiding, migration and slave-trading, she shows how ‘big men’, well-armed and involved in coastal trade, controlled and exploited the local people. Few people converted to Islam until after the Maji-Maji war, not because of Arab influence but because they sought protection and social progress during the disruption which lasted until Indirect Rule in 1927. Islam brought a new egalitarianism in place of the exploitation of earlier times.

People could become Muslim without abandoning traditional practices. Some were attracted by the social festivals introduced by the Sufi tarika. Becker traces the foundation of mosques, followed by madrasas, staffed by village waalimu who taught their followers to recite the infallible Qur’an. They and the missions respected one another because both promoted dini, more progressive and authoritative than anything jadi (tradition) could offer. Islam was more accommodating to local tradition than Catholic missions which, unlike the Masasi Anglicans, made few advances in this region. At any rate, Islam became numerically dominant by the 1950s and was instrumental in modifying the region’s matrilineal customs. Chapter 4 throws light on the common complaint that Muslims are educationally disadvantaged compared with Christians.

Muslims often took leading roles in the independence struggle, but afterwards lost influence, being regarded as ‘provincial’ or uneducated compared with the new political leadership. Their inability to influence the ujamaa movement was a symptom of this. In the last twenty years they have felt even more marginalized, partly due to the rise of the Ansar, young Muslim reformists, some of whom have returned from Arabic studies in Saudi to preach a strict Islam modeled on the ways of the Prophet. They are impatient both with government and with the relaxed syncretism and popular sufism of mainstream Muslims – yet (just like fundamentalist Christians returning from studies in USA) fail to understand the need for religion to be contextualized to African needs and culture. There are however indications that the two sides will reach compromise as the Ansar mellow and the mainstream understand the Qur’an better.

The many transcripts of interviews with locals are likely to appeal to readers of TA, so is the account of Muslim and Christian education, and of the growing self-confidence of today’s post-Iranian revolution Muslim youth. Briefer reflections on the Maji-Maji war and the Groundnut Scheme will also interest the non-specialist. But do not expect any simple theories – Becker is scrupulous in deducing no more than the evidence will allow. This does not make for light reading, and some specialist knowledge of anthropology and Islam is required of the reader. The content belies the title – this volume covers only one very limited region of Tanzania. Both Muslim and Christian phenomena are different in other regions.
Roger Bowen

G. THOMAS BURGESS, ‘RACE REVOLUTION AND THE STRUGGLE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN ZANZIBAR: THE MEMOIRS OF ALI SULTAN ISSA AND SEIF SHARIF HAMAD, Ohio University Press, 2009. 978 0 8214 1852 9 p/b
ISBN 978 0 8214 1852 9 Distributed by Eurospan Group 01767 604972 www.eurospanbookstore.com

This extraordinary book is not yet available in Tanzania, nor in Swahili, but requests are beginning to trickle in for copies to be shipped, photocopied, begged and borrowed by those who have heard of its explosive contents. I bet it won’t be long before an enterprising newspaper serializes the two life stories it chronicles.

Professor Burgess of the United States Naval Academy presents the authorized biographies of two leading Zanzibari figures both of whom have had a front row seat at the tumultuous political events of the last half century on the Isles. Ali Sultan Issa, a key figure in the revolution and in Amani Karume’s revolutionary government, and Seif Shariff Hamad, Minister of Education, Chief Minister, political prisoner and now Presidential candidate of the Civic United Front (CUF), Tanzania’s largest opposition party. But it is the first account that will cause the most controversy.

Hamad recounts with authority and balance his years in the Zanzibar government of Aboud Jumbe and Ali Hassan Mwinyi. The details of his arrest, detention, and the power struggles within the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (party of the revolution) will be of real interest to historians and political pundits. However, parts of the later chapters sound more like a CUF manifesto.

Issa, on the other hand, a self confessed drunkard and philanderer, seems to relish the telling of all the sordid details of his outlandish life story without regard for the reputation of his former colleagues, the revolution or even himself and his family. The blisteringly honest account is liberally peppered with the phrase ‘may Allah forgive me,’ and with good reason. Issa’s racy life: multiple marriages; pot-smoking while Minister of Education then Health and his encounters with key figures of the twentieth century such as Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara, and Nikita Khruschev make his account highly readable. But the picture that emerges of the revolution and the post-revolutionary government is truly compelling. He describes houses being nationalized on his personal whim, policies such as forcing the youth to join work camps and nationalizing imports cooked up overnight while the completely inexperienced ministers had the power to imprison and kill, at will. These young revolutionaries appear drinking and dancing while the rest of the population survives on rations and forced labor. According to Issa, it seems they tried to govern according to socialist principles but really had no idea what they were doing at all.

Prefaced by an excellent introduction that demonstrates mastery of Zanzibar’s tangled history, this book will be a key text in Tanzanian history for many years to come.
Ben Rawlence

WHERE HUMANS AND SPIRITS MEET: THE POLITICS OF RITUALS AND IDENTIFIED SPIRITS IN ZANZIBAR. Kjersti Larsen. Social Identities series, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2008. x + 173pp (hardback). ISBN 978-1-84545-055-7. £37.50.

Spirit possession is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, and has understandably attracted a lot of attention from ethnographers and others entranced by its beguiling blend of the spiritual and the exotic. Approaches to the study of possession vary along a continuum from the theory that it provides (mostly) women with a crafty means of ensuring that their menfolk pay them greater attention (not least by having to pay for expensive treatments), to the belief that spirits are real and that understanding of possession is only possible through personal experience of it. Most contemporary anthropologists take a middle course by arguing that there’s more to possession than cynical manipulation, and that description and analysis must start from an acknowledgement of the raw reality of spirit possession to those involved. This may seem like a fudge to sceptics who don’t believe in spirits, but it preserves respect for the beliefs of others and allows for careful exegesis.

The islands of the Western Indian Ocean and the countries around its rim are home to a spirit possession complex that coexists with Islam (and other religions) and has spawned its own minor academic industry. Kjersti Larsen’s book is a welcome addition to this burgeoning literature. It is based largely on her doctoral dissertation (Where Humans and Spirits Meet: Incorporating Difference and Experiencing Otherness in Zanzibar Town, University of Oslo, 1995) and provides a detailed account of spirit possession and its rituals in Zanzibar town, focusing in particular on the significance of the gendered nature of spirits and their self-identification as members of different ‘tribes’ (Swahili makabila) or racial and ethnic groups. When men and women are possessed, the possessory spirit (sheitani) typically identifies itself by name and ‘tribe’ to those present, often in response to interrogation by a local doctor or medium (mganga). The tribal affiliation of the spirit determines the type of treatment and actions appropriate to it, and draws together people who have been inhabited by spirits belonging to the same category.

Drawing on her extensive experience of possession rituals in urban Zanzibar, Larsen describes these and related practices at length. She provides a sensitive account of people’s experiences of possession and the ways in which they relate to their spirits. It is refreshing to read an account like this in which some of the uncertainties and differences of opinion about spirit possession are highlighted: indeed many Zanzibaris are themselves deeply sceptical about this phenomenon and question the sincerity of fellow townspeople and villagers who claim to host spirits and in some cases (involving masheitani ya ruhani, Arab and Muslim spirits) have regular sexual relations with them. Some readers will find the theoretical sections of this book, and the introductory chapter in particular, heavy going. But stripped of anthrospeak, the author’s view of possession as the dramatization of other identities, enacted through mimesis (imitation) and at times lightened by parody, seems eminently reasonable. There may be a lot more to spirit possession than role playing, but acting up is certainly a large part of it.

Where Humans and Spirits Meet does not claim to be comprehensive or definitive, but it complements other accounts of possession in Zanzibar (notably Tapio Nisula’s Everyday Spirits and Medical Interventions: Ethnographic and Historical Notes on Therapeutic Conventions in Zanzibar Town, Saarijärvi, 1999) and draws attention to important aspects of this complex phenomenon. A fuller analysis, including a deeper understanding of the particular ‘tribal’ identities ascribed to spirits, can arguably only be undertaken in the context of a historical and comparative study of possession in the wider region. Larsen’s book lacks this broader perspective, but in company with other monographs and articles on spirit possession in this part of the world provides important ethnographic evidence for the larger task. Perhaps more surprisingly it also lacks reference to the most extraordinary set of encounters between Zanzibaris and spirits in recent years: the modern Popobawa panics that began with a vengeance in 1995 (see Tanzanian Affairs 53, 1996). This is perhaps explained in part by the timing of the fieldwork for this book (1991-92 and 1997). But there is no excuse for the multiple misspellings of Swahili in the text and glossary of what is otherwise an attractively produced volume.
Martin Walsh

1 Comment »

  1. G. Thomas Burgess, “race, revolution and the struggle for human rights in zanzibar” « Benhuser's Blog said,

    March 12, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    […] Tanzanian Affairs […]

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