April 19, 1999
Volume 51, No. 28
Sidney Kasfir is part of the African culture she studies
"Here, take a whiff of this." Sidney Kasfir held forth a mahogany-colored gourd decorated with beads and shells. One sniff of the smooth pear-shaped container's innards revealed a sharp, pungent aroma. "That's smoked milk," she explained. "That smells like home to me."
The vessel is made by the Samburu women of Kenya, where Kasfir spends her summers doing research on the semi-nomadic group inhabiting the rift valley highlands. As a professor of art history and curator of African art for the Carlos Museum, Kasfir has spent a regular part of her adult life in Africa, in Uganda and Kenya and studying the Idoma in Nigeria, but the relationship she's forged with the Samburu is more intimate.
As much as any Westerner could be under the circumstances, Kasfir has been "adopted" by the people with whom she spends her summers, as well as occasional research semesters. She has a companion, Kirati, on whose enkang, or farm, she has her own house. His daughter, Naseku, regards Kasfir as a surrogate mother since her biological mother is dead. Also on or nearby Kirati's enkang are a co-wife, eight other children, a father-in-law and several brothers and their wives and children, and this extended family considers Kasfir enough of a member to reschedule important ceremonies so she can be in attendance.
"I'm both a part of the community and separate from it," Kasfir said. "It's extremely hard for any Westerner, no matter how much time spent in Africa, to give up all the things we come to think of as essential."
Things such as listening to classical music and having access to running water, she explained. She learned to cope with these incoveniences, just as she has the occasional bull elephant brushing against her front door. "We put a fence up. It won't keep them out, but it might keep them from wandering up." But she had to draw the line when it came to compromising her research.
"I do have solar panels for my laptop," Kasfir admitted, who said she tried handwriting her notes but found the inevitable transcription too tedious a process. "People find ways--I do have to work. I have to write."
What she has written is a book tentatively titled Wounded Warriors: Colonial Transformations in African Art. The book examines the encounter of the Samburu with modernity and how that clash affected traditional activities such as body art and blacksmithing. Since the Samburu are (or, at least, used to be) a highly mobile culture, their art tends to be portable: body decoration instead of art "objects," music made of singing and handclapping instead of African drumming.
As for blacksmithing, encounters with the late 20th century have severely affected this most respected and feared of Samburu occupations. A Samburu warrior's spear traditionally was his best friend: a weapon, a tool, a symbol of status. Cattle raiding, which is common among Samburu, is not simply a game but a "primary means of accumulating capital," Kasfir said, and one that is becoming increasingly more deadly as warriors are now just as likely to be carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles as they are iron spears.
Global trade also has taken its toll on African blacksmiths, just as it has among artisans everywhere: Why pay a potter or smith to hand-fashion a pot or hoe when the imported model at the local market sells for a fraction of the price? Kasfir examines all of these relationships in her book.
Her relationship with the Samburu is different from the one she shared with the Idoma in Nigeria where she lived in the compound of a paramount chief and studied masquerades and chieftaincy rituals in the '70s and '80s. By 1989 "I felt the need to get away--Nigeria was in a downward spiral," she said. "The economic adjustments being demanded of Nigeria's government really hit the rural people, and what was a hard life before became even harder." Idoma ideas of generosity demanded that she never pay for her own food or other expenses, and she realized her presence had become one more economic burden for her hosts. She does plan to return within a few years to complete her research.
Leading a student trip to Kenya in 1987 provided Kasfir a glimpse of a country "about as different from Nigeria as you could possibly imagine." Four years later she spent her first research trip with the Samburu. She arranged to have a contact who could teach her the language and was a member of the blacksmith caste, which is how she met Kirati.
What began as collaborative research became a deeply personal relationship in which she is now considered a co-wife in a polygymous family household. However unplanned, it's brought Kasfir closer to the Samburu than she thought possible when she became interested in them. "Many of our neighbors probably think I'm a little crazy," she said. It's also afforded her a unique understanding of Samburu culture that she tries to bring to her Emory students, sometimes with difficulty.
For example, one topic that always incenses the passions of her students here is that of female circumcision, which is an unquestioned practice among the Samburu. Stereotypical images of backroom, broken-glass operations performed on girls who have to be psychologically, if not physically, restrained provoke strong opinions from Kasfir's students. But the truth of the ritual, even if it's still not easy for outsiders to accept, is less horrifying than the myth.
"Naseku was very excited about this," Kasfir said of Kirati's daughter, who underwent the procedure (a clitoridectomy) at the age of 15. "She asked me to hold her while they performed the surgery, and I had to say I couldn't. That was very hard for her to understand since this is usually the mother's role. I also told her that Melania and Elisabetta, my own daughters, would not wish it to be done to them."
But to say to a young Samburu girl that rituals such as these are simply not done in America, "You might as well say they don't do it on the moon," Kasfir said. "Westerners are hardly seen as models to emulate. For example, we eat fish, which is an abomination to them."
When Kasfir explains the cultural context of the ritual--the actual operation is a few minutes in the middle of two weeks of ceremony symbolizing a girl's transformation into womanhood--most Emory students understand it, even if they don't agree with it.
"It will change," Kasfir said. "When more Samburu girls start to go to school with non-Samburu girls, and when they have enough peers who don't do it, they won't want to do it either. In that regard, they're not so different from other teenagers."