Africa

Research Article

Shared Lives: Exploring Practices of Amity Between Grandmothers and Grandchildren in Western Kenya

P. Wenzel Geissler and Ruth J. Prince

Abstract

This essay explores the relationships between three Luo grandmothers and their grandchildren with particular attention to forms of address and of sharing as practices of amity. Classic Africanist kinship studies identified these as central to the relations between alternate generations. We argue that they are also crucial to our understanding of some aspects of the notion of ‘love’ (hera) that old and young Luo describe as constitutive both of grandmotherhood in particular and of sociality in general. We shall intertwine these concerns of the first generation of social anthropologists, in what were then imagined as pre-modern societies, with the concerns that contemporary, modern Luo grandmothers and grandchildren have with love. Love or amity, and their attendant everyday practices of sharing, retain their importance both for the grandmaternal bond and for broader Luo sociality. Rather than providing an unquestioned and unequivocal prescriptive framework, these practices of relatedness are situated within an imaginative field which is often explicitly dichotomised. Some practices stress individual selves and autonomous subjects, while others emphasise the sharedness of the self and the primacy of relations over subjects. Rather than adhering to one or the other of these poles of relatedness and personhood, modern Luo grandmothers and grandchildren create their everyday lives between them, drawing on divergent ideas and practices, while enjoying, where possible, the pleasures of'love’.

Résumé

Cet essai examine les relations entre trois grands-mères luos et leurs petits-enfants, et plus particulièrement les formes d'adresse et de partage en tant que pratiques d'amitié. Les études africanistes classiques sur la parenté les ont identifiées comme étant au cœur des relations entre générations alternes. L'article montre qu'elles sont également essentielles pour comprendre certains aspects de la notion d'«amour» (hera) que les vieux et jeunes Luo décrivent comme constitutifs de la sociabilité en général et de la grand-maternité en particulier. Il mêle ces préoccupations de la première génération d'anthropologues sociaux, dans ce que l'on imaginait alors être des sociétés prémodernes, avec les préoccupations des grands-mères et petits-enfants modernes et contemporains concernant l'amour. L'amour et l'amitié, et les pratiques quotidiennes de partage qui leur sont associées, conservent leur importance pour le lien grand-maternel et plus largement pour la sociabilité luo. Plutôt que de fournir un cadre prescriptif incontesté et sans équivoque, ces pratiques de parenté se situent dans un champ Imaginatif souvent explicitement dichotomise. Certaines pratiques mettent l'accent sur le moi individuel et le sujet autonome, tandis que d'autres soulignent la qualité de partage du moi et la primauté de la relation sur le sujet. Plutôt que d'adhérer à l'un ou l'autre de ces pôles de parenté et d'individualité, les grands-mères et petits-enfants luos modernes bâtissent leur existence quotidienne entre les deux, usant d'idées et de pratiques divergentes tout en jouissant, lorsque c'est possible, des plaisirs de l'«amour».

(Online publication March 30 2001)

(Received October 12 2001)

Having read Human Science and Medical Anthropology, Ruth Prince worked on several health-related anthropological research projects in Kenya before embarking on her Ph.D. at the Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, and the Danish Bilharziasis Laboratory. Wenzel Geissler received his Ph.D. from the Faculty of Natural Sciences, University of Copenhagen, based on health research conducted with the Danish Bilharziasis Laboratory in Kenya. He subsequently studied social anthropology at Cambridge University, and now teaches social anthropology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London.