Your view is not my view: Reflections on Shetler J.B (2007). Imagining Serengeti: A History of Landscape Memory in Tanzania from Earliest Times to the Present

Imagining Serengeti Book Cover Imagining Serengeti
Jan Bender Shetler
Academic: Anthropology; History
Ohio University Press

If someone wants to teach about the theory of Construction, I think the best book to start with would be “Imagining Serengeti”. This may not be what the author would prefer, given the depth and richness of oral history documented in the book from earliest times to present. Nevertheless, the  underscoring issue which comes very strongly in the last chapter (which I won’t focus much on due to a potential conflict of interest) is the contrasted and radically different view of landscape.  How the people of Western Serengeti view their landscape – ecologically, socially,  and spiritually (sacred) – is radically different to how the colonial government and successive independent governments (the state) and international actors view the same. This difference explains the conflict between the communities surrounding Serengeti with the authorities and other hegemonic stakeholders  that ensued from the colonial occupation (German), British, and then the independent state.

The book, however, is beyond that. It is an historical account of Western Serengeti’s people and their culture. The  author engaged with the community to obtain the oral history through deployment of a systematic methodological approaches triangulate by the use of different sources to ensure a coherent narration. The thorough concentration on the methodology, of which explanation took several pages of the book, makes it an academic piece and almost an authority to the history of western Serengeti and collective contribution to the history of Tanzania.

The core spatial image and the memory of the landscape is the basis through which Shetler explains the view and the use of landscape- such as how the people  interacted, managed, and conserve  the ecology of the landscape. The oral stories given where translated into the view of landscape from its ecological aspect.  For example, on p. 39 a story about the Ikuzi origin – and its founder Muriho who had the power of the wildlife. Similarly, the Nata founder, Nyamunywa, had demonstrate his power over fire- which was/ and still is crucial in maintaining the ecological landscape of Serengeti. The social view of landscape demonstrated the social-cultural interaction between people and the landscape and the mutual influence. For example, since labour was an issue more than land, the people had to innovate social ways of obtaining labour. These were diplomatic and diverse. Included polygamy, encouragement of immigrants, and the inheritance practices. The heavy investment on livestock was in order to be able to marry more wives.  The landscape also informed social structures such as age-set and generational set.  The sacred view of landscape was based on the spiritual spaces that the landscape provided. The land hosts spaces for worship and other spiritual practices including praying and offerings.

Natural (e.g. droughts, tsetse flies) and unnatural disasters (Maasai raids, colonial occupation, famine) led to the re-contextualisation of the landscape based on old view in order to address the disaster. Hunting, for example, increased during the famine. The introduction of cash crop by the colonial government, which was resisted by the people, partly contributed to famine. That, together with the initial moves of separating the landscape for “conservation” led to social stress with increasing hunting and “poaching”.

The last chapters of the book showed how, ironically, the independent government followed their former colonial master’s view of the landscape while even the very leader of independence struggle had used some of the traditional practices from western Serengeti to inform the nation-building strategy.  For example, the idea of  the national  torch (Mwenge) and the practice of  “walking” it throughout the entire country is related to Mwl. Nyerere’s Zanaki’s tradition of ritual health of land (see p. 131). In contrast, the Ujamaa informed villagalization was partly used as a strategy to expand the Serengeti National Park and the game controlled area. Some of the villages (e.g. Sibora) that were left by people as were relocated to Ujamaa villages, were incorporated as part of the game controlled areas hence further shrinking people’s land and separate them from their landscape (see pp. 217-223).  This selective embracement of African traditions upon the independence eve, is partly what has come to make Africa a compromise. The dilution of African practices and its failure to export its culture as supreme is partly due to denial  and failure on the side of the leaders to confidently walk on their own and to embrace the values, meanings, and place of their people.  In relations to this, it is crucial to be reminded that the hegemonic powers “legitimized their context by sexualizing the landscape as an empty wilderness that must be ‘penetrated’ ” (p. 165). Such strategy continues in many aspects to allow penetration- either be business, trade, education, health, etc.   From the other side, one could argue that the institutions set up by the colonial powers were too embedded and strongly held on by the persevering  hegemonic powers, politics and knowledge that it was difficult for the new independent leaders to change.

All in all, the contribution made by Shetler to the history of Tanzania is impressive. This is especially because the book is based on oral history provided by the elders as well as by being an active participants in the society. The author used other sources too to bring validity to the oral stories narrated by elders and leaders. For the scholars of history in Tanzania, the last pages of the book highlight areas for further research through which scholars could pick up and continue with the research. For the students of Tanzanian history, this is a book to read.

I would recommend such a book (at least chapters) to be part of the compulsory and/or supplementary read for Advanced Secondary Schools students in Tanzania who are doing history. Although the book is a heavy read, teachers could digest some topics or selectively pick up stories from the book to narrate to students.  The history major students at Universities in Tanzania should have it as a recommended supplementary read.


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