Mwalimu Mwamhanga told us in one of our first classes that the western world possesses high economic capital but the tribal communities of eastern Africa can boast of a greater social capital. Our camp in Rhotia is located between two tribes. The first, the Maasai, are the stereotypical African nomadic peoples who extend through large parts of Kenya and Tanzania. The second tribe, the Iraqw peoples, are pastoral-agricultural. They were probably the first food producing inhabitants of East Africa and have a smaller homeland stretching through the elevated parts of the Mbulu highlands in Tanzania.
Historically, the Iraqw built their houses into the sides of hills (much like a hobbit would do) in order to protect themselves from the neighboring Masaai. Nowadays their houses are above ground, traditionally made from acacia trees and clay but more frequently from bricks and cement by those who can afford it. They keep cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys and historically grew small grains and subsistence foods. Recently, with the introduction of cash crops such as maize, wheat and beans, they have begun cultivating for profit at local markets. Men usually take responsibility for grazing large herds and conducting large scale agriculture. Women are primarily responsible for at home activities, such as milking, cooking, cleaning, gardening, fetching firewood and water, and raising children.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Iraqw is their social structure. They have huge families where all older people are equally responsible for raising younger children, regardless of relation. They advocate mutual accord and solidarity over almost all other values. For instance, groups of neighbors will work each others fields in rotation, attending work parties at each house where the only responsibility of the homeowner is to brew buura, sorghum beer, for everyone afterwards. Similar parties will occur if one family faces misfortune that threatens their viability. They will organize a party, serve buura, and the guests will bring gifts of cows or other items to help the family recuperate. It is understood that each person gives according to what he has and each receives according to his needs. This ensures all families have an equal workforce and therefore an equal chance of surviving.
A traditional Iraqw proverb states, “if we all agree with each other, then Looaa must agree with us.” Looaa is their traditional deity and communal support and stability is the presupposition for contact with her. As a result, disputes between individuals or groups threatens this spiritual connection and are dealt with quickly by all members of the community. Buura is used as a symbol of friendship and reconciliation in such situations.
Some of these traditional views and activities are changing with the introduction of a market economy, shifts in gender roles and the expansion of the Iraqw homeland. However, the basic implications of these practices and values are still strongly prevalent in the culture. Many of my staff friends in the kitchen are Iraqw and they are undoubtedly some of the most genuine and accepting people I’ve ever met. In addition, I recently spent my a day with an Iraqw family. in Rhotia. My family, who I had never met before, took our intrusion into their home with excitement and grace. They taught us how to cook, taught us new Swahili words, played katikati and spent an afternoon relaxing with us. They invited us back and I fully intend to return.
Old accounts of interactions with the Iraqw reported that anyone could settle among them as long as there was enough land and the immigrants were willing to adjust to their norms and behaviors. Many outsiders who encountered them accused the Iraqw of putting herbs in the Buura they shared that “make strangers forget their homelands and want to stay with them.” I don’t think the Iraqw would need herbs to do that, just a little alcohol and a lot of their unchecked, unconditional, appreciation and love.
For information cited in this post please see “Money, Milk and Sorghum Beer: Change and continuity among the Iraqw of Tanzania,” from Africa, v. 3, 1996.