Jan Bender Shetler, Imagining Serengeti

Shetler, Jan Bender. Imagining Serengeti : a History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present. Ohio University Press,, 2007. Print. New African Histories Series.

Landscape as “humanized” not just through material transformations but memory and culture.

Classic restatement of the methodological dilemma of the Africanist historian: any time you want to deal with culture, subjectivity, narrative, etc. you’re either stuck ‘reading against the grain’ of an archive that refuses to acknowledge the historicity of African societies and landscapes, or you’re forced to get more and more hazy and speculative before 1800 or so. Not so hard for the environmental historian who is comfortable with the “longue duree” but hard for the person who is trying to trace imaginaries, representations, stories, etc.

Ch. 1: origin traditions as a way of imagining and charting landscape and environment.

Serengeti as described by ecologists in the rhetoric of wilderness: absent of humans. But this is as Shetler points out simply untrue for at least the last 2000 years and likely true for much, much longer. It’s always untrue in some sense in East Africa: humans and African mammals are clearly co-evolved. What happens if we learn in this case to always talk about landscape and environment in terms where humans are always present? One possibility is that the discourse of “humans despoil environment” has to shift dramatically away from implications of “Africans always despoil” and towards the landscape of dubious tropes about African modernity (overpopulation, depraved poverty, etc.).

Ch. 2 is really in some ways a very clever reclamation of ‘archaeology’–rather than the excavation of a single vacant site, using the material remnants of old networks of food production and exchange, indexed against memory, to infer a social structuring of the landscape.

Ch. 3 Sacred Landscapes

Lists of place names + specifications of rituals
Generation-set as responsible for maintenance of place
Power of place created by presence of ancestors
Different sort of ideology of preservation–the proposition that the land has to be unchanged at the site of power
Walking the land as a mnemonic of ritual (but maybe walking is an evidence of a more quotidian set of everyday connections: ritual is maybe what’s left when the everyday is taken away)

A bit of the tendency of ethnohistorians to ennoble memory by the fact of it being memory. E.g., Nata and others remember sites in association with wealth & power, but this is surely both something that is meant in terms of contemporary Kenyan politics to strike a claim to land (with it, we were rich; without it, we are poor supplicants) and it as much an erasure as a memory (e.g., there is no reason to think that wealth was equitably distributed in the past among these groups, but in these memories, any sense of social conflict within the groups drops out)

Spirits can mark beneficial places; but elsewhere in Kenya other ethnic/linguistic groups may use spirits to mark places as dangerous or unsettled.

Again, the strong association here between ancestors (embisambwa, ancestors w/specific place & power associations) and Serengeti land has got to be given some charge or valence by the absence of the people remembering from the land that’s remembered.

Specific instructions about how to treat land and animals at sites

Encirclement as a precolonial understanding of territory and boundaries–potentially really powerful combination with Nugent’s Smugglers, Secessionists and Loyal Citizens for thinking about ethnogenesis and territorial control.

Good for students to “read out” a politics of environmental history/political ecology.

1 thought on “Jan Bender Shetler, Imagining Serengeti

  1. Ana Alonso

    Landscape has now become a theme with buzz and lots of bees making noise. It interests me too. Animists view landscape as being made up of subjects not objects–a much more fun and less hideous way of treating what we’ve objectified as nature. Nature is always social and the “natural” in the social is a good reminder to discard narcissism and keep front and center in your brain that you are going to die sometime. Problem you raise about landscape studies and human narcissism important. Does a landscape exist if there is no human being to view it? Of course it does. Maybe like Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who writes about the urban-scape through the eyes ears nose and 6th sense of dogs,we could do landscape ethnographies in terms of the animals that occupy them. And no they are not in nuclear family groups! So take part of the landscape (animals) and turn the discourse into a moebius strip with a large sign, “No Humans Admited.” Frankly I’m sick of having to reply with the culture argument. Have you read Aime Cesaire’s poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal or listened to Arsenio Rodriguez, a cuban
    of congolese descent, who initiated a negritude movement in Cuban Music? Brilliant. Totaly


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