Doing Violence to Ethnography: A Response to Catherine Besteman's "Representing Violence and 'Othering' Somalia" Author(s): I. M.

Lewis Reviewed work(s): Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 100-108 Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL: . Accessed: 25/01/2013 14:59
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Doing Violence to Ethnography: A Response to Catherine Besteman's "Representing Violence and 'Othering' Somalia"
I. M. Lewis
London School of Economics

In "RepresentingViolence and 'Othering'Somalia,"Besteman claims thatU.S. media coverage of the collapse of the Somali state was based on "racist"and "evolutionary"assumptions, presenting the Somalis as "savages" in order to boost the "American self-image" (1996:120-133). No serious evidence is offered in support of this functionalist argumentexplaining how, exactly, the "American self-image" was actually strengthened as a consequence of such reporting.Moreover, Besteman's characterizationof the often poorly informed and simplistic media reportsis not based on any systematic content analysis but merely on apt, anecdotal citations. War and Feud in Somali Political Culture My chief concerns here, however, are with Besteman's inaccuratediscussion of Somali politics and, more generally, her misconceptions about segmentary lineage political systems, which, despite their well-known rarity, she bizarrely supposes to be widespread "throughoutAfrica" (Besteman 1996:129). She starts from the endearing assumption that recourse to violence in Somali politics, ratherthan being a matterof "internal'tribal' dynamics,"has to be explained in diffusionist terms as a consequence of "global economics and politics." "Were pre-colonial Somalis really trappedwithin destructive spirals of kin-based warfare and feuding?" she rhetorically asks (Besteman 1996:123). This is an odd question to ask of a segmentarylineage society, which by definition inscribes the institutionof feud-a query,moreover, which anyone at all familiar with Somali history and culture, and however untutored in segmentary systems, would be bound to answer affirmatively. For betteror worse, violence is actuallyendemic in this pervasivelybellicose culturethattraditionally only distinguishesbetweentwo male roles-waranleh, or warrior,and wadaad, or priest.' All available historical evidence and recordsof
CulturalAnthropology 13(1):100-108. Copyright? 1998, American Anthropological Association. 100

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Somali values, coinciding with my own extensive field observations, confirm that in the battles of the 1990s, Somalis were indeed "doing what they have always done-only with greater access to more lethal weapons" (Besteman 1996:122). This is also how contemporarySomali historians,social anthropologists, and novelists themselves view the clan violence of today (see, for example, Ahmed 1993; Djama 1992; Farah 1993; Issa-Salwe 1996; Osman 1996; Samatar1996; Xusseen et al. 1996). In fact, as is well-known to serious studentsof Somali history, the earliest writtenrecorddetailing individual Somali clans and theirparticipationin the Islamic jihads of the period (the Futuh al-Habasha, from the 16th century) extols Somali expertise in guerrilla warfareand their notorious skill in mounting roadblocks (Shihab ad-Din 1897-1909). This well-authenticatedwritten source also mentions specific clans and lineages (and contemporarywarlords),thus providing invaluable information for the reconstructionof the historical development of the Somali lineage system over time (Lewis 1962, 1988, 1994:95-112). To report all this is not, of course, to imply, as Besteman seems to think, that Somalis are mindless macho robots locked into an unremitting dance of death.The lineage system provides inherentlyoppositional and confrontational basic identities that are mobilized when competition and conflict develop over materialresources,power, personal security, and reputation-yes, even "honor" (which, significantly, is one of the connotations of the common Somali termmagac, usually translatedas "name"). The Somali Segmentary Lineage System It is thus irrelevantto invoke, as Besteman (1996:123) does, interpretations of "tribal"warfarein Amazonia to understandSomali patternsof conflict. What is needed, in the first place, is an understandingof the operation of the Somali version of segmentarylineage politics. As the anthropologistwho 40 years ago first introducedsegmentary lineage organization into the discourse on Somali politics, perhapsI may try to correct some of her misconceptions. I applied this concept to the primarily decentralized and highly fluid Somali political structure, which is based on kinship units, defined by genealogical reckoning (abtirsiinyo, in standard,or northern,Somali, or abtirsi, in southernSomali: literally, "ancestorcounting"). IndividualSomalis thus belong to a series of groups mobilized, as the need arises, in opposition to each other and following the genealogical relationships of their eponymous ancestors. Although all the divisions are formally lineages, I applied different terms to different levels of groupingto indicate variations in behavior which are partly a function of demographicsize and scale. Besteman (1996:125) follows my terminology but does not fully understandits implications. Thus, I described the five main primary divisions of the Somali nation (Dir, Isaaq, Hawiye, Daarood, and Digil and Rahanweyn [also known as DigilMirifleh]) as "clan-families," each comprising a variable number of "clans." Within clans, the most clearly defined level of action is thatof the minimal lineage, whose kinsmen pay and receive damages for injuriesand death collectively.

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This diya, or paying group(those who pay andreceive blood-compensation collectively), is based on a specific heer or xeer, a contractualtreaty or agreement, and constitutesthe primarylocus of politico-jural identity. It is the genealogical level at which the diffuse bonds of tol, or political kinship, are most commonly mobilized in daily life. Contractualtreaties can thus be used to extend as well as to narrowthe bounds of kinship; and, as I have repeatedlyemphasized in my writings over the years, all of these genealogical units are relative, with solidarity mobilized situationally according to the context and the machinations of local political impresarios. Clan and Clan-Family This flexible system of grouping should surpriseno one familiarwith segmentarypolitics. But Besteman perversely invests these essentially fluid levels of genealogically invoked identity with much greater solidity and immobility than they actually possess. She reifies the "clan" excessively, and this apparently leads her to invoke what she calls "praxis"(to explain actual behavior), which she imagines is a recent development in lineage studies. In fact, I deliberately employed the term lineage paradigm (Lewis 1957, 1958, 1959, 1961a, 1961b, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1969, 1976, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1993a, 1993b, 1993c, 1994, 1995, in press) to emphasize that this is fundamentallya political ideology manipulatedby lineage leaders and would-be leaders. Similarly, failing to grasp the fluid, genealogical relativity of political identification, Besteman also asserts that the "clan-family [the largest lineage division within the nation in my terminology] has never actually been the basis of political mobilization"(1996:125). I am afraid this is quite wrong. To cite a notable example, the Somali National Movement, which successfully liberated the self-declared Somaliland Republic in 1990, was directly based on the Isaaq clan-family. Once its membershad recovered control of their own territoryand established their own Isaaq-based (but not exclusively Isaaqi) government, internal segmentarypressures became acute, since they no longer confronted the Daarood enemy. Thus, the solidarity of the victorious Isaaq clan-family dissolved into the rancorous clan competition for power which has since caused such acute divisions and problems in the Somaliland Republic (Compagnon 1990; Gilkes 1993; Lewis 1994:177-219; Prunier 1992). With a parallel mobilization of cohesion, Hawiye clan-family members formed the Hawiye Party in the 1950s run-up to Somalia's independence in 1960. This clan-family also more recently formed the basis for the United Somali Congress,whose guerrillaforces, led by General MohamedFarahAydeed, successfully ousted the DaaroodPresident,Mohamed Siyad Barre,in 1990. The Hawiye Party then fell apartin the interclan conflict of the 1990s described in the media reportsthat Besteman discusses. Clan-familypolitical mobilization is even more stronglyexemplified in the These are the people who occupy the case of the Digil-Miriflehagro-pastoralists. fertile land between the Juba and Shebelle rivers which has been so devastated

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by militias of the better-armedand more warlike pastoralistclans in the course of the recent destructionof southern Somalia. But before discussing Besteman's misrepresentation of their political structure,let us note in passing the exception to clan-family mobilization that, as it were, proves the rule. This is the case of the Daarood, the largest and most widely scatteredof the five Somali clan-families, who-with a population well over one million in number-are simply too numerous and too dispersed to act as a single political unit. They do, however, display diffuse sentiments of solidarity, and in keeping with their wide dispersal throughoutthe Somali region, their members today, as in the past, tend to exhibit greaterenthusiasm for national Somali unity than other groups. The Agro-Pastoral Digil-Mirifleh In contrast to these mainly pastoralist groups, the southernDigil-Mirifleh have been less enthusiastic Somali nationalists and illustratethe most outstanding example of clan-family mobilization of all the divisions of the Somali nation. Their Digil-Mirifleh Party actually campaigned in the 1950s and 1960s (when I attendedsome of theirrallies) for local independenceandheld a number of seats in Somalia's national assembly (Lewis 1961b:285 f., 1988:155 ff.). Digil-Mirifleh clan-family solidarity is still a significant, if fluctuating, force, and led in 1994 to the formationof an autonomousregional administration,under a clan-family-wide council. Although Besteman (1996:125) urges her readers to believe that "race"is a dominantmotive in Somali politics, Somali lineage distinctions are, in principle, invisible, andthereareno known genetic (i.e., "racial")differences between members of the pastoralist groups (Dir, Isaaq, Hawiye, and Daarood). Ethnic differences only enterthe picturewith the Digil-Mirifleh.These agro-pastoralists speak what is arguablya separate(and only partiallymutually intelligible) language called maymay.They have a slightly more hierarchicalpolitical structure, with more formalized political leadership than their belligerent pastoralist neighbors by whom they are surroundedon all sides (Helander 1988, 1996a, 1996b; Lewis 1966, 1969, 1994; Luling 1971). Their most significant political feature is that, unlike the other Somali groups, they constitute a veritable melting pot, containing people drawn from almost every other (pastoralist) Somali clan and clan-family. This is based on the open-door policy, over the generations, of systematically adopting and assimilating foreign settlers and refugees as client citizens (sheegad, literally "claimants"). Here, contraryto Besteman's assertions, it is actually the ideology of clanship (tol) and shared, fictitious genealogical descent (abtirsi) that are used to bind people together. Throughthis process of interclanadoption,local political groups are formed that transcend the original clan and lineage allegiances of their members (Colucci 1924; Helander 1988, 1996a, 1996b; Lewis 1961b, 1966, 1969). Amongst these comparatively peaceful farmers,political solidarity expands as their synthetic clans act collectively as units paying andreceiving

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blood-compensation and managing land and other resources-according to the terms of their constitutional treaties (heer). Paradoxically, in a sense clanship is actually more politicized here than amongst the more genealogically freewheeling pastoralists, who regard the farmers as less aggressive and weaker than themselves. The less militaristic Digil-Mirifleh are thus vulnerableto attack by maraudingpastoralists, and the devastation of their fertile interriverterritoryby rival militia forces of nomadic origin was the main cause of the Somali famine in the early 1990s. As an unwarlike and partly sedentary people, they-and the adjacent Bantu, who occupy small, scatteredriverine settlements(among which Besteman apparentlydid her fieldwork)-are traditionallydespised by the arrogantpastoralists.These Bantu groups derive in part from probably indigenous pre-Somali populations and from Swahili slaves, importedin the 19th century to work the arableland along the rivers thatvarious Somali pastoralistclans had recently conquered.After the suppression of the slave trade in southern Somalia, the riverine communities formed by ex-slaves and pre-SomaliBantu were allied in client-patronrelationships with the adjacent Somali clans (Cassanelli 1982:163-165; Luling 1971:45-47). The Digil-Mirifleh themselves include a substantialproportionof people of non-Somali origin (Bantu, Oromo, and other minority groups), whom they distinguish as boon, or commoners, as opposed to bilis, or nobles, and claim to be visibly different from themselves. The presence of this non-Somali element reinforces the superiority complex of the pastoralist clan-families (Helander 1996a). There is no evidence, however, that these discriminatoryattitudes (which are extended to other non-Somalis-including Europeans and Americans as well as Arabs) were in any way a motive for the conquest and exploitation of these southern, disadvantagedgroups by Somali militias of pastoralist origin. The pastoralistswere not inspiredby race or class hatred.They were simply after territory, livestock, and loot, which they believed they could easily seize from people who seemed, militarily, an easy prey. "Race" and "class" are thus irrelevanthere, even in the conflict between pastoralistSomali groups and the most ethnicallydistinctDigil-Mirifleh.Among the pastoraliststhemselves, "class"likewise plays no significant role as a basis for group conflict or solidarity, nor does "race"-unless Besteman is proposing that descent groups should be defined as races! It would thus be interestingto know on what evidence Besteman bases her assertion that"for most of the twentiethcentury, status (derived from collective social constructions of race, language, and purity) has presented a far greater constrainton individual agency and identity thanclan membership"(1996:125). While quite inapplicable to the general Somali population, this statementwould have some, but by no means complete, relevance to the Bantu minority group with which Besteman herself worked.

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Cultural and Politicized Nationalism Besteman is equally misinformed about the rise and natureof modern Somali nationalism. Disapprovingly citing the title of Laitin and Samatar's valuable book Somalia: Nation in Search of a State (1987), she asserts that academic studies of Somalia have "reflectedevolutionaryassumptionsaboutthe direction in which ... the relationship (between 'kinship and contract')... should move" (Besteman 1996:129). Yet this evolutionarylanguage is not actually to be found in Laitin and Samatar. This issue is, however, explicitly examined in Lewis (1961b:300). There, in a discussion of the possible relevance (or irrelevance)of contract theory to Somali institutions, I state that "thereis no evidence that Somali heer is in a historical sense a development away from lineage status" (1961b:300). In truth, Laitin and Samatar's title refers to a different kind of quest for statehood-the struggle to bring togetherall the Somali territoriesdismembered by colonialism within a single state, whose boundarieswould be those of the Somali nation. Until the overthrowof MohamedSiyad Barre's infamous regime in 1990, this was the central dramaof the Somali saga. The terrible irony, unnoticed by Besteman, is that this pan-Somali struggle unleashed forces, focusing on clan rivalry,thatultimately played a majorrole in destroying the Somali state itself. Harping on the fundamentalopposition that she sees between "state"and "tribe,"Besteman (1996:129) is evidently determinedto project her ratheroldfashioned evolutionist standpointonto the sources she cites. She clearly holds thatkinship in general, and segmentarylineage structurein particular,represent "pre-civilized," dark "primeval" forces that determine people's behavior. I think this is nonsense. The reality is ratherthat Somali kinship, although ideologically endowed with supreme moral force and conceived of as a "natural" fact (blood), is, as elsewhere, deployed tactically as a multipurpose,culturally constructed resource. While thus apparentlysharing the evolutionary assumptions she attacks, Besteman prefers the purportedlyprogressive stereotypes of "race"and "class" which, as features of modern plural societies, she seeks to project onto the Somali political scene, thus rescuing it for "modernity." This may be a laudable aim. But it does greatviolence to the facts of Somali ethnography. The point here, it may be added, is not that Somalis reject modernity. On the contrary,they embrace it, adopting and adaptingwhat interests them for theirown purposes. In this spirit,fierce poetic exchanges currentlytake place on the Internetas Somali poets exalt the fame of their own lineages anddenounce their clan rivals. It would, of course, not be difficult to find excuses for the ignorance of the intricacies of Somali politics displayed by the journalists whom Besteman attacks. But more is properly expected of anthropologistswhen they write about a foreign culture. It thus seems ratherpertinentto consider what specific empirical research informs Besteman's conclusions about Somali politics. In this regard, Besteman (1994) reportsthatover a period of 12 months, she carriedout field researchin a government-organized village settlementamong the WaGosha

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riverine Bantu on the middle Juba in 1987 and 1988. It would be interesting to know in what language she conducted her fieldwork in this marginalized community on the fringes of Somali society, and on what basis of systematic research she feels equipped to generalize from it and to write with such misplaced confidence about the dynamics of macro-Somali politics. Notes 1. All non-English terms in this article are in standardSomali. In a few cases, where relevant, I indicate local Somali dialect variants as well as the standardSomali expression. References Cited Ahmed, HassanOsman 1993 Morirea Mogadiscio.Specialissue 2. Africae Mediterraneo gennaio-marzo. 4/93 Besteman,Catherine 1994 Individualisation and the Assault on CustomaryTenure in Africa: Title RegistrationProgrammesand the Case of Somalia. Africa 64(4):484-515. Violenceand"Othering" Somalia. 11:120-133. 1996 Representing Cultural Anthropology Cassanelli,Lee 1982 The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Colucci, Massimo della Somalia Italianameridionale.Florence: 1924 Principidi dirittoconsuetudinario Societa Editrice "La Voce." Compagnon,Daniel 1990 The Somali Opposition Fronts. Horn of Africa Journal 13(1-2):29-54. Djama,Marcel 1992 Sur la violence en Somalie: genese et dynamique des formations arm6es. Politique Africaine 47:147-152. Farah,Ahmed Yusuf, with I. M. Lewis 1993 The Roots of Reconciliation: Peace-making Endeavours of Contemporary Lineage Elders. London: ActionAid. Gilkes, Patrick 1993 Two Wasted Years: The Republic of Somaliland, 1991-93. London: Save the Children Fund. Helander,Bernhard 1988 The SlaughteredCamel: Coping with Fictitious Descent among the Hubeerof Southern Somalia. Ph.D. dissertation, Uppsala University. 1996a The Hubeer in the Land of Plenty: Land, Labor and Vulnerability in a Southern Somali Clan. In The Struggle for Land in Southern Somalia: The War behind the War. CatherineBesteman and Lee Cassanelli, eds. Pp. 47-69. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 1996b Rahanweyn Sociability: a Model for Other Somalis? In Voice and Power: The Cultureof Language in North-EastAfrica. R. J. Haywardand I. M. Lewis, eds. Pp. 195-204. African Languages and Culture, supplement 3. London: School of Orientaland African Studies. Issa-Salwe,AbdisalamM. 1996 The Collapse of the Somali State. London: Haan.

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Laitin,David D., and Said S. Samatar 1987 Somalia: Nation in Search of a State. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Lewis, I. M. 1957 The Somali Lineage System and the Total Genealogy: A General Introduction to Basic Principles of Somali Political Institutions.Hargeisa, Somalia: Somaliland Government. 1958 Modern Political Movements in Somaliland (Parts 1 and 2). Africa 28(3): 244-261; 28(4):344-363. 1959 Clanship and Contract in NorthernSomaliland. Africa 29(3):274-293. 1961a Force and Fission in NorthernSomali Lineage Structure.American Anthropologist 63:94-112. 1961b A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa. London: Oxford University Press. 1962 Historical Aspects of Genealogies in NorthernSomali Social Structure.Journal of African History 111(1):35-48. 1963 Dualism in Somali Notions of Power. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 93(1): 109-116. 1965 Problems in the Comparative Study of Unilineal Descent. In The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology. Michael Banton, ed. Pp. 87-112. London: Tavistock. 1966 Conformity and Contrast in Somali Islam. In Islam in Tropical Africa. I. M. Lewis, ed. Pp. 253-267. London: Oxford University Press. 1969 From Nomadism to Cultivation: The Expansion of Political Solidarity in Southern Somalia. In Man in Africa. Mary Douglas and Phyllis Kaberry, eds. Pp. 59-77. London: Tavistock. 1976 The Nation, State and Politics in Somalia. In The Search for National Integration in Africa. David Smock and Kwamba Bentsi-Enchill, eds. Pp. 285-306. New York: Free Press. 1985 Social Anthropology in Perspective. Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press. 1986 Literacy and CulturalIdentity in the Horn of Africa: The Somali Case. In The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Gerd Baumann, ed. Pp. 133-149. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. 1988 A Modern History of Somalia. 2nd edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 1993a Making History in Somalia: Humanitarian Interventionin a Stateless Society. Centre for Global Governance Discussion Paper, 6. London: London School of Economics. 1993b Misunderstandingthe Somali Crisis. Anthropology Today 9(4):1-3. 1993c Understanding Somalia: Guide to Culture, History and Social Institutions. London: Haan. 1994 Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somali Society. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press. 1995 Introduction:The Uncentralised Somali Legacy. In A Study of Decentralised Political Structuresfor Somalia. I. M. Lewis and J. Mayall, eds. Pp. 1-13. London: London School of Economics for the EuropeanUnion. In press Adventures in Somali Anthropology: Reflections on a Long Engagement. In A Pastoral Democracy. 3rd edition. Munster,Germany: Lit Verlag. Luling, Virginia 1971 The Social Structureof SouthernSomali Tribes. Ph.D. dissertation, University of London.

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Osman,A. Y. 1996 In the Name of the Fathers. London: Haan. Prunier,Gerard 1992 A Candid View of the Somali National Movement. Horn of Africa Journal 14(1-2): 107-120. Samatar,Said S. 1996 Somalia's Horse that Feeds His Master. In Voice and Power: The Culture of Language in North-EastAfrica. R. J. Haywardand I. M. Lewis, eds. Pp. 155-170. African Languages and Culture, supplement 3. London: School of Oriental and African Studies. Shihabad-Din 1897-1909 Futahal-Habasha.R. Baset, ed. and trans.Paris: Publications de l'ecole des Lettres d'Alger. Xusseen, Musa, MohamedRiirash,and IbrahimWacays 1996 Spared from the Spear: Somali Traditional Behaviour in Warfare. Nairobi: InternationalCommittee for the Red Cross-Somalia Delegation.

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