The Power of Animals: An Ethnography
Berg Publishers, 2000
Brian Morris spent a number of years living among the indigenous people of Malawi in southeast Africa. His focus in this, and a companion volume that I’ll be reading soon, “Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography”, is the relationship between the various cultures in Malawi, and the native fauna. “The Power of Animals” specifically focuses on relatively more mundane aspects, such as the hunt and other everyday interactions with animals, as well as touching on moeity in relation to animal-symbolized clans.
The book is divided up into four primary chapters. The first goes into great detail about the basic social structure common in Malawi cultures, and describes its matrilineal nature. Central to this structure is the sedentary village-based lifestyle that primarily involves women, children, and elders, and the mature men who are considered outsiders, and who may have several families in several villages among whom they divide their time. This segues into the next chapter which goes into greater detail on hunting traditions. Not only are older traditions covered, but the changes wrought by European invasion and the rise of capitolism, as well as the overhunting of wildlife by European hunters and the ivory trade in general, are examined as well. Folk classifications make up the third chapter. The taxonomy of animals in Malawi is quite different from Eurocentric taxonomy, and the differences in relationship between humans and animals is made quite clear per culture in this respect. Finally, there’s a chapter dealing specifically with the attitudes the Malawi tribes have towards animals, based upon the research done in the previous three chapters.
This is an incredible look at one particular set of cultures’ views towards animals, and nature in general. The difference in worldview between these people, and people in post-industrial countries, is at times astounding. Reading this also reminded me of the detachment that American culture has from nature in general. For instance, Morris pinpointed the erroneous argument that meat-eating, and the pleasure derived thereof, is primarily a Caucasian corruption, by exploring the eagerness to procure meat that the people around him studied. Additionally, Morris is careful to point out that his research was done in the field, while digging mice up or otherwise participating in day to day activities with his “subhects of study”, and his close relationship shows in his work, which lacks the detachment, Eurocentricism and condescension often found on anthropological work.
The writing is quite academic, and those who aren’t used to this style of writing may take a bit to get used to it. However, it is far from being a dry read, and once I got into the rhythm of Morris’ writing style I really enjoyed myself. I will say there are a number of typos and grammatical errors, but content-wise this book is excellent.
This truly is a wonderful look at a very complex series of human-animal attitudes. I’m looking forward to reading “Animals and Ancestors” to see what the rest of his research on this says.
Five pawprints out of five.