Simone Rettberg: Das Risiko der Afar. Existenzsicherung äthiopischer Nomaden im Kontext von Hungerkrisen, Konflikten und Entwicklungsinterventionen. Saarbrücken (Studien zur Geographischen Entwicklungsforschung 35) 2009. 318 S.

This is an old-fashioned book. Old-fashioned in a good sense, though. Simone Rettberg’s research monograph on the Afar pastoralists in eastern Ethiopia is a dense ethnography. Geographers after the “cultural turn” tend to regard such dense ethnographies about “people in remote places” as “just” oldfashioned regional geographies. I think, however, that this is a misconception; and Simone Rettberg’s excellent study reminds us why such as old-fashioned” geographies still have a lot of value.

The Afar pastoralists, once a people famous for their wealth and courage, have undergone decades of social, economic and political decline. Simone Rettberg investigates the external and internal dynamics of this history of decline. The Afar have been troubled by territorial conflicts with the neighbouring Issa Somali and by ecological challenges of their degrading pastures which exacerbated internal rifts and fragmentations within the Afar, between different clans and within clans. Her study analyses the fate of a particular clan situated at the frontier zone between Afar and Somali territories. This clan experienced increasing confrontations with the Issa which reduced its territory dramatically. A severe drought in 2002/2003 decimated herds due to the limited mobility to the grazing grounds that have remained accessible to the pastoralists. Simone Rettberg’s study does not uncritically reproduce local or external discourses of “decline” or “backwardness”, but documents and contextualises these. This allows her to show that the Afar have to cope with external and internal challenges at the same time and that exposure to urban life, for example, also changes life aspirations of the younger generation. Her analysis is very convincing as she does not only document discourses of elders who lament on the younger generation not following traditional clan rules anymore, but shows the younger generation’s grievances of feeling left alone by clan leaders as well. In addition, the study illustrates the  geopolitical context within which the Afar-Issa conflict has been taking place and which has shifted the power balance in favour of the Issa who receive weapons and other support from the Issa-dominated regime in neighbouring Djibouti. The study is framed around the notion of risk, risk discourse and social practices of coping with and managing risk(s). This enables Simone Rettberg to document different viewpoints, imaginaries and ways of talking about “Afar”, their history, fate and social dynamics. She differentiates different local and external discourses on “Afar” and discusses social practices of the Afar clan in coping with different risks through changing herd management, income diversification and military strategies. Her analysis also indicates the “clash of civilisation” that emerges from the external discourse of (highlander-dominated) bureaucrats working on pastoral development as a way of modernising a “backward” people. Thereby, she combines analysis of discourse and social (material) practices. There is much to praise, and only minor issues to raise critically. While I found the risk concept useful as a framing device, I thought at times that it could have been used more fruitfully in the analysis of the dense  ethnographies. Also, the risk concept could have been of greater analytical value had it been deconstructed into its components: What elements make up different types of risk? What is the analytical difference of risk and uncertainty and how do these different forms of risk shape social practices of coping? I was also a bit surprised to find relatively little discussion of the rich literature on pastoralism in East Africa and the Horn of Africa where many of the issues discussed in this book have also been raised. These small  reservations aside, this is a great geography of the Afar. I recommend to read it side-by-side with the excellent study of Bekele Hundie (2008) who has studied neighbouring Afar clans looking at the social dynamics of internal conflict and cooperation in theface of increasing risk and uncertainty. A (post-)modern geographer might say that Simone Rettberg’s book is pretty much “old-fashioned” area studies; regional geography covered behind the veil of risk discourse. I am not sure. Being “in” Afar and “with” Afar – I have been “in” Afar twice for short periods (but certainly not “with” Afar as Simone has managed to be) – reminds the geographer that there is something outside the text, outside the discourse(s); the material, often grim and challenging world of very poor, marginal people in far away places. Being “in” that place, being “with” these people and seeing their material realities does not leave a researcher untouched. Their fate escapes our efforts of deconstruction. Sure, “Afar” is also a discourse – and Simone shows the multitude of discourses around “Afar” – but it is also a material world of struggling, coping, suffering, hoping and despairing. Simone Rettberg looks at both elements of “Afar”. Her fine study brings to light a geographical tradition that started with Alexander von Humboldt’s exploratory enquiries into little known territories and deserves continued recognition even after the “cultural turn”.

Hundie, B. 2008: Pastoralism, Institutions and Social Interaction. Explaining the Coexistence of Conflict and Cooperation in Pastoral Afar, Ethiopia. Institutional Change in Agriculture and Natural Resources 34. – Aachen

Benedikt Korf


Quelle: Die Erde, 141. Jahrgang, 2010, Heft 1-2, S. 151-152

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