The Datoga consider themselves the oldest tribe in Tanzania (the Maasai and Bushmen also claim this fame). The Datoga are proud people and are first and foremost fierce warrior’s, known for their stealth ability to eliminate their enemy.
Datoga people performing their tribal dance
Traditionally, young men had to prove themselves by killing an "enemy of the people," defined as any human being not a Datoga, or one of the dangerous wild animals, such as elephant, lion or buffalo. Other Tanzanians and outsiders consider the Datoga primitive, because they resist education and development. They live in low standards of hygiene, and have high infant mortality.
City-based Datoga family
The range of population estimates for Datoga living in Tanzania varies between 30-76,000. In the mid-1990s it was estimated that there were approximately 30,000 self-identified Datoga scattered across Tanzania and even some parts of Malawi.
Rates of fertility among Datoga are higher than among other pastoral populations, but tend to be lower than their agricultural neighbors. Borgerhoff Mulder (1989) identified seasonality in Datoga births that corresponds to rainfall, although this trend is more prevalent among semi-nomadic communities. General health is poor compared to other groups in the area, marked by a high rate of infant and young child mortality, poor growth and nutrition, and increased prevalence of infectious disease (Sellen 2000, 2003; Young 2008).
Datoga tribe man carrying his fresh Zebra meat
Datoga are not as well known as some of the other pastoral groups in Tanzania such as the Maasai, however their visibility has increased in recent years. Datoga have received local and international media attention, as well as increased visibility related to cultural tourism in northern Tanzania. As a result, it is now possible to find pictures of Datoga wearing traditional dress on YouTube, Flicker, as well as on many safari sites promoting trips to northern Tanzania. The impact of cultural tourism on Datoga communities is unclear at this point, however rates of alcoholism have increased in many areas where tourists are consistently present.
The Datoga people live in Tanzania. The most general name for this widely-dispersed ethnic group is Datoga, though it is sometimes spelled Tatooga. In the outside world like Tabora, Shinyanga and Mara regions, they are often known by the Sukuma name for them, Taturu or Wataturu. In Arusha, Dodoma and Singida Regions the Datoga are known as Barabaig or Mang'ati. The name Mang'ati comes from Maasai word "Ilmanga`ti" which means an "enemy." The Datoga earned this name because, according to Jacob (1979:36) they "have always... bested pastoral Maasai in their occasional bouts of reciprocal cattle raiding and small-scale wars."(Ndagala 1978:2)
The best-known and most numerous sub-tribe of the Datoga peoples are the pastoral Barabaig, who reside chiefly in that part of the northern volcanic highlands dominated by Mount Hanang (3,418 metres). The sacred nature of this mountain makes it an important theme in Barabaig myth and song. In some people lists, the Barabaig are listed as a separate people, but as speaking the Datoga language.
The Datoga language, with its dialects, is a Southern Nilote language, related distantly to the Kalenjin languages of Kenya. About 20% also speak the language of their Southern Cushitic neighbors, Iraqw. A language closely related to Datoga is Omotik, the speech of another small northern Tanzania people.
Shy Datoga girl
The Omotik are close in cluture and language, related genetically and linguistically to the Datoga. More distantly related to the Kalenjin cluster of Nilotic peoples, the Omotik show clear signs of being linguistically influenced by Kalenjin languages in recent history. (The Omotik are one of the groups commonly called Dorobo.) Only about 5% speak Swahili, the national language of Tanzania. This further accentuates their isolation. The Barabaig dialect is spoken by over half the Datoga. Their literacy rate is only about 1% and there is very little available in their language. Schools available are conducted in Swahili.
Beautiful Datoga girls in their tribal wear
There is little concrete history of the Datoga people. Their migration history has been reconstructed through comparative linguistics and study of oral traditions of the Datoga and their neighbors. The Datoga are linguistically and culturally classified as Highland (Southern) Nilotes. Their origins are thought to be in the Southern Sudan or western Ethiopia highlands, probably 3000 years ago.
Datoga man with a horn in his hut
A gradual southward migration of their ancestral people resulted in a settlement of the highland areas of Kenya and Tanzania by speakers of Nilotic languages, herding and ultimately farming in those rich highlands by about AD 1500. These Highland Nilotes now fall into two groups, the Kalenjin cluster of peoples in Kenya, speaking several closely-related languages, and Datoga, whose language is more distantly related.
Shy Datoga chief`s wife at Karatu
They are characteristically known for keeping to themselves. Datoga consider anyone other than Datogan an enemy. They refused to engage themselves in colonization and vehemently resent the government, making them an enemy of the state. However, their current situation has placed them in a pivotal challenge of continuing their traditional existence. An ongoing challenge has been Datoga’s poor attention to health and education but has been slowly changing. Until recently only 5% of Datoga spoke the national language Swahili. The current challenges facing Datoga are the intrusion of other tribes for tourism and investment purposes, cutting of trees for making coal, Maasai stealing their cows, and the government selling land and moving the Datoga to drier pastures. Datoga’s resistance to peace partnering with other tribes has made it difficult to create empathy for their cause.
Wife of Datoga chief with her mobile phone hanging on her neck
Datoga self-identify as pastoral and place incredible cultural meaning on cattle, however, like many other people they rely on a range of economic subsistence strategies including farming, market, and wage based labor.
Pastoralist Datoga people
The extent to which Datoga rely on semi-nomadic herding strategies varies across the region, with some communities relying extensively on traditional practices and utilizing primarily a milk based diet, while other communities rely on intensive agriculture and intermarry with other ethnic groups (especially the Iraqw in Mbulu region) (Rekdal and Blystad 2000). Among pastoral Datoga, herds consist of goats, sheep, and donkeys, but cattle are by far the most important domestic animal (Sieff 1997).
Datoga boy with herds of cattle
They resemble the Maasai in culture. The meat, fat, blood, milk, hide, horns, tendons and cow dung of every animal have either practical or ritual purposes. They were formerly nomadic, depending largely on milk products for their diet, and moving whenever the needs of their cattle dictated. Now, however, many farm a plot of maize and sometimes beans and millet.
Datoga as farmers are specialists in onion plantations. They live a very difficult life, in semi-arid areas, where water is hard to obtain and often unclean.
Datoga shy girls
The Datoga comprise some 13 sub-sections (emojiga), spread out in smaller and larger enclaves over large parts of the Tanzanian mainland from the Grummeti River in Mara region in the north to Manyoni, Singida Region, in the south. Kjarby (1976;6) notes that less than 8 of the emojiga (sub-section) of the Datoga tribes retained their original identity and that most of them were being assimilated by the neighbouring peoples (Loiske 1990:79). Tomikawa (1979) lists 13 emojiga which he calls sub-tribes and like Kjarby single out Barabaig as largest, more or less homogeneous section or a separate tribe (people). Traditionally, a section "was a largest political and ritual unit in Datoga society, and consisted of autonomous territorial groups (Tomakawa 1979-15).
Datoga family outside their hut
Between themselves members of each sections refer to each section by its appropriate names.
The following are the seven Datooga tribes:
Gisamjanga (Kisamajeng, Gisamjang)
Barabayiiga (Barabaig, Barabayga, Barabaik, Barbaig)
Rootigaanga (Rotigenga, Rotigeenga)
Buraadiiga (Buradiga, Bureadiga)
Bianjiida (Biyanjiida, Utatu)
Datoga households and social networks over time. Traditionally patrilineal and polygynous, wealthy Datoga men would often marry multiple wives from outside their clan and maintain multiple households to access the widest diversity of agricultural and grazing lands. In fact, it was not uncommon for a Datoga man to marry at least one Iraqw woman to gain access to farm land as well as additional cattle. Families often had an elaborate kin and community network that they could rely on in times of scarcity. Wealthy households, commonly supported poorer households in the community through herd-sharing and other cooperative forms of resource distribution.
Datoga wife grinding maize
Now, Datoga households are becoming gradually smaller and more isolated from social networks. This is particularly true in areas where Datoga continue to rely significantly on pastoral activities. The identification of this shift is documented in work by Lane (1991, 1996), Sieff (1995, 1997, 1999), and Ndagala (1991), who expressed concern about the differential impact of land degradation and privatization on more marginal groups such as Datoga almost 20 years ago.
Datoga man and his daughters
In part, the shift in household composition is due to changes in labor activities that rely more on male labor out migration, as well as larger structural adjustment policies that increase the cost of livestock, farming products (maize, beans, rice), education, and medical care. As a result, many family sizes are shrinking, with men generally only marrying one wife, and women often being left as defacto household heads when men migrate for labor.
Datoga mother and child
It is not the changes in family size and shifts to different primary economic activities that has led to the increased marginalization of Datoga households, however. It is larger structural forces such as the neoliberal movement toward privatization of land, increased pressure from agriculture (both domestic and commercial), and a history of Machiavellian state policy towards the Barabaig, that has pushed many semi-nomadic Datoga into more marginal areas. Now semi-nomadic Datoga often occupy spaces with limited access to water and arable land, as well as restricted access to basic social services. This situation is exacerbated by the breakdown of traditional social support networks. While community networks may remain fairly intact, many long-distance relationships with kin have suffered, leaving many Datoga feeling more vulnerable and uncertain about the future (Blystad 2000; Lane 1991, Ndagala 1991; Sieff 1995; Young 2008).
Attitude towards Children
In traditional Datoga society, the illegitimate child was considered to be clanless. Moreover, “[a]doption of Barabaig by Barabaig is not practised. But there is a system of adoption of foreigners into the clan and tribe” including Nyaturu who had been enlisted to help with herding, whose employers treated them as their own children, for example, by providing cattle for bride wealth (Huntingford 1953:98-99).
Datoga girl with a big smile
Klima reports that a high mortality rate in Barabaig children necessitated “the institution of sale and adoption of children from neighbouring tribes” (1970:48). This unwillingness of Datoga to foster Datoga is still reported to be a feature of the culture, and fostering of a handicapped child would be considered highly unusual in Datoga culture. An orphan would be cared for by a relative allocated for the task, but not by a neighbour.
Datoga little boy
Children are valued by the Datoga, indeed it is suggested that “Datoga men and women intensely desire children” (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:632). Children born outside marriage are considered the property of the mother‟s father. Child fostering in which a child is transferred to the care of a woman other than his natural mother, has been observed in Datoga families, for example, as company and help for a widowed grandmother, to obtain extra help with herding, or if a family is too poor to feed a child they may allow him to be fostered by a wealthier family, who benefit from the child‟s labour (Sieff 1995:21-27). A childless couple will often be given a child or two by relatives who have many children (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:633).
Veiled Datoga woman
Views on Sexual relations and Illegitimacy
The Datoga traditionally condemned pregnancy out of wedlock (Blystad 1995:90-92). It is reported that “a child born to unmarried parents can suffer severe hardship, since he or she will lack not only a legitimate father from whom to gain a clan name, but also a category of relatives from whom to receive gifts of cattle, protection and support.
Beautiful Datoga woman
The elaborate ritual impurity customs related to premarital pregnancies and births are greatly feared … [with] long-term isolation for the mother and her child in a special hut” (Olsen 2002:122). Thus the illegitimate Datoga child was highly disadvantaged and vulnerable, and would have many obstacles to becoming an independent adult.
In traditional Datoga culture, it is acceptable to have sexual relations with specified people other than one‟s spouse. It has been reported that while many marriages lack warmth, sexual relationships between a woman and her husband‟s younger brother are common, and may have a romantic element not present in the marriage relationship. This puts the Datoga at high risk of HIV infection (Blystad 1995:92-94), which in turn affects the well-being of children by depleting family resources while paying for health care as well as producing orphans.
Datoga girl smiling outside her thatched hut
Social gathering and fun
For the Datoga, dancing and brewing of honey beer is associated with special occasions such as funerals (Blystad 1992:113; Klima 1970:56,102).
“With the tremendous transformations taking place in Datoga communities, not the least with the increase in contact with outside peoples who brew a large variety of brews on which there is no customary restrictions, the consumption of alcohol has increased substantially” (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:636).
Datoga women decorating a design on traditional jug
The Datoga supreme deity is Aseeta, “an androgynous, powerful, and inherently good deity, invested with immense creative potential” (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:630) who can be communicated with by the mediation of ancestral spirits. These ancestral spirits talk to diviners, are appealed to in prayer, and can bless or punish (Rekdal & Blystad 1999:139-145).
Datoga man playing traditional violin
The majority of Datoga maintain animistic beliefs and practices, and respect ancestors. They are said to practice divination, rain-making, witchcraft and sorcery. About 1% of Datoga are thought to be Christian (Jenkins 2005a). A Datoga Bible is currently in preparation.
Datoga Child leaning on wooden piller
Many Datoga in the urban part of Haydom village are now practising Christians; the Lutheran church has the largest membership, while the Catholic church is also well attended and there are several smaller churches of other denominations, some of which are Pentecostal. The churches appear to be important and influential institutions in the village, and have helped in food distribution in times of famine. They preach the importance of helping others less fortunate than oneself, although there is currently only one small-scale organised programme to assist vulnerable individuals in society
The Datoga themselves blend in with their environment, their dress being the color of the reddish brown soil. Only on closer inspection will they appear colorful with their reddish, patched leather dresses, bead work, and brass bracelets and necklaces.
Datoga girl from Tanzania. Courtesy World_Discoverer
A prominent decoration is tatooing of circular patterns around the eyes. This people are part of the broad Nilotic migration from the Sudan along the Nile River centuries ago. They were cut off from other Highland Nilotes by later migrations of Bantu and Plains Nilotic peoples like the Maasai.
Datoga girl with circular facial tattoo
The Highland Nilotes are distantly related to the Plains Nilotes like the Samburu, Maasai and Karamajong-Turkana and the River Nilotes like the Luo. They were herders, but have diversified to include agriculture in recent times. The Datoga are proud people, with a reputation as fierce warriors.
Datoga traditional dress
Traditional dress for Datoga men and women is commonly seen, especially in the rural areas. Men wear a „Maasai blanket‟, often of a red colour, around their shoulders over short trousers and a shirt, and carry a stick with a widened end.
Women traditionally wear a leather cape, or a piece of woven cloth, often of a red colour. Married women are distinguished by a special skirt made of thin strips of leather. Women are often adorned with metal neck, arm, ear and ankle ornaments, and beads may be sewn on to clothes or worn as decoration (Blystad 1992:70; Blystad & Rekdal 2004:630; Huntingford 1953:101; Jenkins 2005a; Klima 1970:8-9).
Life and Life after death
Traditionally the Datoga have considerable respect for the dying, as the dead are believed to become guardian spirits. However, they fear corpses; those in contact with the dead, or who have had a miscarriage, have restricted contact with others for prolonged periods. „Ordinary‟ people may be buried in the living compound, but every year, a small number of revered elders are buried in grand communal funerals in large cone-shaped mounds (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:637).
It has been observed that Datoga value their migrating pastoral lifestyle, their traditional dances and dress, and their councils (including the „open meeting‟, „clan meeting‟, „youth meeting‟, „married women‟s meeting‟), beer drinks, and festivals when honey mead is consumed (Blystad & Rekdal 2004:630-6; Wilson 1952:39,46-7). These meetings appear to no longer occur in Haydom village; cross-cultural groups are called together to meet when a community crisis arises, such as a child getting lost, as noted in section 1.2.5 (William, P. 2007. Personal interview, 12 December. Haydom).
Datoga marginalization, ethnic conflict, and state violence
Generally, Datoga have maintained a peaceful relationship with most of the other ethnic groups in the regions that they occupy. Maasai are considered traditional enemies, however there has been very little conflict between the two groups in recent years.
Datoga woman with facial tattoo
While some cattle raiding does go on between Datoga and other agropastoral groups in the area (primarily Iraqw, Iramba, and Sukuma), these raids usually involve few cattle and very little violence, especially compared to cattle raiding in other parts of East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Nonetheless, a period of conflict spanning the late 1960s through the mid 1980s left a mark on the Datoga community that is as indelible as the embodiment of violence occurring in many other places.
Datoga girl in traditional red dress
Initiation of conflict
The period between the late 1960s and the late 1980s marked a dramatic shift from normally peaceful relations. Disparities between the Datoga and their neighbors had been increasing over time as a result of colonial policies which created differentials in power and wealth between various ethnic communities. The flash point occurred in 1968 with the failure of several of Nyerere’s Ujumaa villagization projects designed to provide increased social services to rural communities. Instead of improving all the services promised, the government only improved a small percentage–leaving most pastoralists in an even more marginal situation. The associated increase in population in areas with limited resources fueled mistrust and escalated violence between Datoga and their neighbors, while concurrently increasing tensions between Datoga and the government of Tanzania (Ngadala 1991).
The first death
One of the first publicized events during this time was the death of an Iramba school teacher in Hanang District in 1968. The killing was blamed on Datoga living in the area. As a result, government troops were sent into Datoga areas and ordered to arrest all Barabaig men. Reports from this time indicate that soldiers then proceeded to violently break into houses, rape household members, and steal cattle and other belongings. Nyerere eventually ordered the release of the arrested Datoga men, but no case was ever brought against Tanzanian soldiers (Blystad 2000, 2005).
Unfortunately, the conflict associated death of the Iramba school teacher further fueled state policies to deal with the “Barabaig problem” and led to the intensification of settlement programs including “Operation Barabaig,” a program designed to permanently settle Datoga herders. During this time, Datoga were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in permanent villages. While this was going on, land formerly used for herding was reclaimed for agriculture by other ethnic groups and national farming projects. It was the movement of increasing numbers of new groups into this recently reclaimed land that led to a second major event in 1976, the Kihonda murders (Ngadala 1991).
The Kihonda murders were preceded by the death of a young Barabaig woman as well as the murder of a number of other Datoga by Nyaturu men during the 1976 drought. The killings caused panic and anger among Datoga, which hit a flash point when a group of Datoga men visiting Kihonda found Nyaturu stealing food aid off a truck from Singida District. Enraged by both the stealing and the awareness that Nyaturu had been using food aid as a way to create wealth differentials between the two communities, Datoga men killed all the Nyaturu men that were raiding the truck. This led to a response from the Tanzanian government that involved the arrest of even more Barabaig men and the confiscation of hundreds more cattle (Blystad 2005, Ngadala 1991). The last of the men arrested for these murders were finally released in 1994 after 20 years in prison.
The Tanzania Canada Wheat Project (TCWP)
Another project sparked during Ujumaa and its push to intensify agriculture eventually led to a third major conflict, one of the most violent and egregious human rights violations of the state of Tanzania against Datoga. In 1970, the Tanzania Canada Wheat Project (TCWP) was allocated 100,000 acres of prime grazing land in the Mbulu highlands to begin farming wheat. Prior to the TCWP, these plains were the primary grazing land for Datoga, as well as an area where a number of Datoga were buried in sacred tombs (bungeida). While TWCP cleared areas for farming, they also razed a number of the tombs located in the area.
In 1973, several tombs at a burial site (Gidabuygweargwa) were destroyed on the same day that two Datoga women were raped by TCWP employees. The confluence of these events caused mass protest among Datoga involving hundreds of women. The Tanzanian government ordered the arrest of suspected ringleaders, and sent troops armed with tear gas and guns to confront protesters. Nonetheless, protests escalated until the entire work force of the Basotu farm was driven off. Unfortunately, when TWCP employees later returned to work the violation of Datoga resumed, continuing the pattern of violence, including the confiscation of cattle, destruction of homes, and seizure of land (Blystad 2005). Newly confiscated land was quickly taken over by Iraqw, Nyaturu, and Iramba immigrants.
Death of the Sukuma (1985)
According to Datoga, the first stage of the conflicts in the 1980s were seen as a basic set of cattle raids between Buradiga (Datoga) and Sukuma. The initial conflict escalated when Iramba and Nyaturu joined the Sukuma side and other clans including the Barabaig, joined the Datoga side. The fight was far from even, however. While Datoga continued to fight with spears and sticks, Sukuma and their allies enlisted people with advanced weaponry, including machine guns. Additionally, Sukuma allies began incorporating psychological warfare by desecrating women’s traditional Datoga skirts (hennewendig) during battle (Blystad 2005). On May 3rd, 1985, Datoga men responded to this escalating series of conflicts with Sukuma and their allies by attacking a homestead in Singida region. At that point, Datoga killed all 48 men in the compound. Media coverage of the event primarily focused on the Datoga, while underplaying the role of other groups in the conflict (Blystad 2005).
While the ethnic tensions and some of the conflict with the state have settled down since the 80s, Datoga still feel the effects of this turbulent time. Over the course of almost two decades of conflict, Datoga households in many areas of northern Tanzania lost thousands of cattle to raids, while houses were burned, crops destroyed, and people were killed and raped. The conflict also initiated a number of mass migrations among Datoga. During this time, some chose to give up pastoral subsistence entirely, while others simply fled as refugees from the area. The size of these migrations varied, but one of the largest included 349 people that moved to Mbulu District and 500 that moved to Manyoni District (Lane 1996; Ndagala 1991). Although ethnic tensions between Datoga, Iramba, and Sukuma have improved significantly, many elders today still remember and talk about the violence and loss of life that accompanied the conflicts in the 1980s. The loss of land, large numbers of cattle, the death of family members, and forced migration also meant the loss of subsistence strategies and social support and an impoverishment that continues to affect Datoga to this day.
Legal disputes about land seized during the 1970s-80s as part of the TCWP have continued–often while violating legal procedures for protecting the land where Datoga hold customary rights. For example, in 1989, the state eliminated customary land rights in the areas under the occupancy of the National Agricultural and Food Corporation (NAFCO). The retroactive nature of this legislation violated basic principles of human rights law, and enabled prosecution against Datoga for trespassing on the very land they used to inhabit (Lane 1991, 1996). Since 1989, a human rights commission and legal rulings have vindicated Datoga claims, but compensation from the Tanzanian government has been limited.
The primary concerns for Datoga in Tanzania continue to revolve around sociopolitical marginalization and the scarcity of resources associated with the loss of land and animals.
Resource scarcity: In 2005, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights adopted a report of the Working Group of Experts on Indigenous Populations/Communities. The report found that Datoga displacement has continued to various parts of Tanzania and Malawi. In 2007, Datoga protests to the lease of grazing land in Babati District led to the arrest of 14 alleged Datoga ‘ringleaders’ assumed to be undermining the district authorities encouraging foreign investment. Datoga protesters were released without charge but the situation has not been resolved and at least 45 families are still under threat of eviction (as of July 2009).
A June 2008 report from the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) revealed that between May 2006 and May 2007, large numbers of Sukuma and Datoga pastoralists were evicted from the Usangu Plains in Mbarali district. The IWGIA estimates that more than 400 families and 300,000 livestock were moved, and that a large number of livestock died or were lost in the process. The report describes a range of human rights abuses committed during the eviction including theft of livestock, imposition of unjustified fines, extortion, torture, forced separation of families, disruption of social networks and safety nets, and widespread hunger. These findings were presented to President Kikwete in June 2007, but the affected families have not been compensated and many are destitute (MRGI 2009). The Wildlife Conservation Society has begun working with these households as part of their wildlife management program in Ruaha.
The lack of infrastructure in many areas where semi-nomadic Datoga are living has also meant increased issues with resources that tie directly into health, such as food, water, medical, and veterinary care. This has had a significant impact on health through its effect on nutrition and infectious disease (both among human and livestock). Many Datoga living in rural areas still rely on hand dug wells for water and lack reasonable access to medical and veterinary services. For example, rates of vaccination among Datoga for both children and animals is low. Rather than a lack of concern about vaccination and health, low levels of clinic attendance represent the combined effects of geographic distance to services, negative interactions with clinic staff, as well as conflicts with household labor obligations.
Education and social services: Despite Nyerere’s initial push (as well as several recent attempts) to settle Datoga and improve rates of education, literacy among Datoga communities is only around 1%, and only around 5% speak Swahili. There is a higher prevalence of Swahili speaking among men, partially because of gender disparities in education, and also because men conduct most of the market activities (such as cattle sales) that require Swahili. While rates of education are increasing among Datoga children living in more populated areas, rates are still low among semi-nomadic Datoga. Part of the issue with education relates to Datoga distrust of the Tanzanian government as well as the the fact that many semi-nomadic Datoga still rely on younger children for herd labor and live in areas little infrastructural support and fewer schools.
Health disparities: There are marked health disparities between Datoga communities and many of their immediate neighbors. Datoga show higher rates of tuberculosis, brucellosis, and other infectious diseases (Mfinanga et al. 2005), as well as high rates of undernutrition and micronutrient deficits such as anemia (Hinderaker et al. 2001; Sellen 2000; Young 2008). Datoga also show a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression. The direct mechanisms behind differences in mental health are unclear, but recent research indicates that anxiety and distress are likely linked to issues of food insecurity, land scarcity, structural inequalities, as well as other significant aspects of abject poverty (Hadley and Patil 2006; Patil and Pike 2006).
The rate of HIV/AIDS is still fairly low among Datoga, but a number of cultural practices as well as recent changes in labor economies among Datoga communities could create bring about rapid changes (Yahya-Malima et al. 2007). Concern about the rapid spread of HIV in datoga communities has led to the development of a culture-specific film targeted towards improving understanding of HIV transmission within Datoga communities. The film, entitled “Eshageada UKIMWI Datoga!” (Datoga let’s beware of AIDS!) is available here.
Several non-profit organizations such as Farm Africa have recently initiated health and development projects in Manyara region to build reservoirs and train community health workers. This will help in the short term, but more work needs to be done that identifies and addresses the long-term effects of these projects and the larger structural issues that shape disparities in access to resources. For example, among Eyasi Datoga, food security is still an important issue for both livestock and people and rates of child under-nutrition are high. Given the important links between nutrition and infectious disease, it is unlikely that we will see sustained health improvements in Datoga communities unless we begin to tackle the larger scale inequities that contribute to both of these issues.
SECLUSION, PROTECTION AND AVOIDANCE:
EXPLORING THE METIDA COMPLEX AMONG
THE DATOGA OF NORTHERN TANZANIA
Ole Bjørn Rekdal
This article deals with metida avoidance practices as they exist in daily and ritual practice among the Southern Nilotic, agro-pastoral Datoga speaking peoples of the Mbulu/Hanang districts of northern Tanzania. The avoidance practices are particularly elaborate in connection with death or death-like events and birth or birth-like events, but are also set in motion by many other events that are experienced as abnormal or threatening. Metida implies the seclusion of people, animals and parts of land perceived to be temporarily highly ‘infertile’ in order to contain and control their inherently ‘dirty’ and ‘contagious’ elements and prevent them from affecting fecund elements or segments. Through diverse forms of seclusion, metida also aims to protect the potential of particularly fertile people, animals and parts of land from ‘dirt’ (ririnyeanda) or from unlucky events perceived to be contagious and dangerous.
All Datoga who believe in and practise metida may be liable to protection or seclusion at particular times in their lives, but women of procreative age are regarded as particularly susceptible to the threats and consequences caused by death and misfortune, and thus commonly experience the most severe restrictions. We are talking about a set of avoidance practices where in some instances women may spend years of their lives with severe restrictions on their conduct in terms of movement and socialization. In this article we shall explore the metida complex as a domain of meaning, experience and power that affects large spheres of Datoga lives, and guides and guards Datoga conduct in particular ways. Increasing numbers of educated or Christian Datoga in Mbulu no longer believe in and in principle no longer practise metida. We shall suggest substantial variations in how different groups or individuals perceive and relate to metida prescriptions.
The metida complex has not yet been explored in Datoga sources. In this first attempt at making sense of the phenomenon we will draw on ethnographic material gathered during three years of fieldwork conducted over the course of some 15 years by the first two authors, and on lifelong experience of the practices in the case of the third author, a Datoga of the Gisamjanga sub-section. As the origins of the metida practices among the Nilotic-speaking Datoga appear partly to lie within the meeta complex found among the neighbouring Cushitic-speaking Iraqw, we shall also draw upon central ethnographic contributions on Iraqw meeta practices. Before we explore the metida complex, we shall place the phenomenon within some of the ongoing debates on the Iraqw meeta complex, as well as within debates on analytical concepts that may assist us in making sense of avoidance phenomena such as metida and meeta.
METIDA CONCEPTS AND PRACTICES
Cooling down danger
Most Datoga of Hanang and Mbulu perceive the death of babies
and procreative individuals, or other highly abnormal or threatening
events, as certain to anger the spirits profoundly. If these occurrences
are not attended to properly, the spirits may cause illness, death and
dying that reach far beyond the individuals immediately affected by
Such events have to be dealt with through avoidance
conduct or seclusion, commonly combined with some sort of ‘cooling’
activity (gimista) to appease the spirits. Exactly how a particular event
is ‘cooled’ depends upon the incident in question. Common ways to
confront such disturbing events include the brewing, consuming and
sometimes ‘blowing’ of honey mead (ghamunga) on affected people or
places, combined with prayers (moshta ghawooda); and the making and
spreading of medicine (meajooda) at the affected locations. Sometimes
this takes the form of a ritual such as the ghadoweeda (‘blessing seeking’)
which commonly consists of a healer or ritual expert, supported by a
large group of women, singing, praying and spreading out medicine to
‘cool’ the misfortune and illness of people, cattle or land. It may also
take the form of a lughmajega nyangida (‘the hide of earth’), a ritual that
cools environmental threats through the slaughter of a goat, sheep or
bull and the spreading of the chyme from the animal’s stomach on the
Most cooling activity will lead, upon completion, to some form
of avoidance conduct and/or seclusion of people, animals or sections
of land for a certain period of time. The ‘seclusion of land’ (metida
nyangida) will commonly be linked to particular parts of the natural
environment such as lakes, rivers, mountains or any other fairly bounded
area. Among the Iraqw, whole villages or even entire wards can be
quarantined for set periods of time (Lawi 1999a: 293; Thornton 1982).
If people quarrel or fight, use an axe or a knife, eat salt or in other
ways show disrespect during the time of the metida, the ‘medicine is
destroyed’ and the treatment will have to be repeated. It is not the
cooling activity as such but the linked avoidance conduct that we shall
concentrate on in the coming pages.
During our fieldwork on an almost daily basis we experienced
encounters with people with whom we could not relate freely:
individuals to whom we could talk only with a high thorn fence
between us and them, for example, and sometimes with our heads
turned away while talking. Every social gathering consisted of a number
of people who would approach the location slowly and remain at a
distance, sometimes eventually coming close to the compound fence
to talk to friends and relatives. During such occasions it was also
common to see a woman eating by herself or a man seated apart from
his male companions while drinking honey mead.
During long walks
to visit people and sites, it also became a common experience to take
detours around abandoned homesteads, or homesteads where we had
a glimpse of large poles barring the compound gate, or observed at a
distance people walking on their own and carefully watching the path
to preserve their isolation. People we asked explained such sights by
reference to metida. Similarly, questions about apparently unrelated
observations – pieces of animal skin hanging from the branches of a
tree, lumps of cow dung and butter smeared on the ground, men and
dogs eating together, men sweeping the dusty path in front of a crowd of
young men, pregnant young girls living on their own or married women
living alone behind high thorn fences for months on end – would all
receive the same reply: ‘it is metida’.
‘Secluding the dirt of death’(ghawiida)
According to Datoga informants, some deaths (miyeeda) or deathlike conditions produce ‘dirt’ (ririnyeanda) that is both harmful and
contagious, and hence necessitates some form of restrictive action or
seclusion of those affected to prevent it from spreading to others. It
was said to be dangerous to approach such individuals or animals ‘with
dirt’ (buneed ag ririnyeanda, literally ‘people with dirt’) or rather, as the
Datoga usually put it, ‘people eating death’ (fuuga aki miyeeda). The
dirt (ririnyeanda) produced by the death refers to substances left on
the skin (easily observed when dead skin peels off the body after long
baths). What is feared is this ‘dirty’ skin, as well as personal belongings
such as clothing and eating and drinking vessels that have been in direct
contact with the affected skin/body. It is important to note that it is not
the death per se that instigates seclusion or other avoidance practices,
but rather that ‘ghawiida is made’, as the Datoga say – by which they
mean that the type of seclusion, the persons to be secluded, and the
extent of the seclusion are decided upon in each individual case. Indeed,
ghawiida may in some instances be skipped altogether if the practical
circumstances work strongly against its being practised.
The deaths that are perceived as producing the most dangerous kinds
of ‘dirt’ and are experienced as the most threatening are deaths of
women in labour, miscarriages (of a foetus with a ‘human-like shape’,
as in pregnancies from the fourth or fifth month onwards), stillbirths,
deaths of suckling infants, deaths of women of childbearing age and
deaths of men with wives of childbearing age. Deaths perceived as less
threatening to outsiders are deaths of children who have been weaned,
and deaths of youths, adults who have not yet given birth or adults past
Ghamata Gidasang tells the following story about her experience of
seclusion due to the ‘dirt of death of the child’ (ghawiida jeapta):
I lost my first child just after he had ceased nursing, so there was no ghawiida.
My second pregnancy ended in a late abortion, and even though I was the
last wife, still young, and my husband liked me, I knew I had to ‘eat’ the
ghawiida alone, as he had other wives and children to take care of.
The body of the child was left inside while an ‘outsider’ – an Iramba we
have never seen since – came and cleaned out the hearth, shaved my head,
turned the leather skirt inside out, removed my jewellery and threw out the
cooking stone of the child. We never mentioned the baby again.
A fenced-in grass house was constructed some distance away from the
housing compound. The isolation was strict in the first months. You know,
people were so afraid of the milk that was dripping from my breasts. In
the beginning I could not fetch water or firewood; I placed my calabashes
outside the fence where the first wife of my husband poured water into them.
The other young wives of my husband were so afraid of being affected by my
dirt and kept far away from my calabashes. I was not given milk or butter,
for fear of exposing the cattle and their calves to the dirt. I did not eat with
anyone. Nor did I attend women’s meetings or celebrations.
Nobody came inside my fence during the early months. After some four
or five months, however, the brothers of my husband secretly visited me, and
also my husband would now and then sneak into the hut at night. The only
thing I could think of now was to become pregnant again. My husband slept
with me too early, though, and got severe sores on his head that he failed
to treat for a long time. He was also affected by the ghawiida in other ways;
he was not invited to the social gatherings of the neighbourhood men, and if
he was together with others he had to eat apart from them from a separate
bowl. As the months went by I could gradually start to go outside the fence,
although I avoided getting too close to people. Slowly I also started to seek
out the women’s gatherings to greet my friends and to receive news. In the
beginning I remained outside people’s compound fences, and when I finally
joined them I was served apart from the others for several more months.
Throughout the months of ghawiida people would talk to me over my own
fence; people don’t fear words but the milk that can affect them so badly.
More than a year later I joined the others, as I was by then visibly pregnant.
Nobody, except maybe a lover, fears a woman who is pregnant, so I was fine
This is just the beginning of Ghamata Gidasang’s story. The woman
became pregnant at least 13 times but had only four children that
survived. Most of the deaths instigated ghawiida and the restrictions on
her life became gradually worse, keeping her more or less continuously
isolated. Even the healers and ritual experts eventually feared contact
The fear of ghawiida jeapta is so profound not least because a woman
risks becoming neaboda, feared for her ‘unclean breasts’ until her death.
Datoga women say that it is the fear of never being able to freely
share food and sleep with their family and friends that is the most
painful aspect of ghawiida. Ghamata Gidasang concluded her account
by saying: ‘I was so lonely that I ended up running away from my
husband. I am neaboda’ (pointing to her breasts that had not nursed a
child since her last infant died). ‘People will continue to fear me and
my food until I die.’
The fear of miscarriages, stillbirths or the death of suckling babies
extends into the animal world. Cows, sheep, goats and donkeys – and
their products – are in diverse ways avoided if they have lost their
offspring. People who practise metida will strictly avoid the milk and
meat of cows and goats that have lost their offspring, and such animals
will never be used for ritual purposes. Nor will people touch the salt
brought by a donkey who is neaboda. Many such examples could be
The death of a husband with wives of childbearing age, or the death
of a wife of reproductive age, will commonly lead to ghawiida of the
widow (ghawiida dirangwa, ‘the dirt of the lion death’) or widower
(referred to by the same term). The ghawiida of a widower is commonly
less strict and less elaborate, however, than that of a widow. A widow
will be secluded in her own house where she will eat, drink and sleep
alone or together with her co-wives or ‘assistants’. Both widows and
widowers will ‘eat the mourning’ (ghayaji barakta), made physically
visible through the wearing of a filthy dress, the shaving of the head
and the removal of jewellery except for a dark-blue glass-bead necklace
(gelenga barakta). Although the deaths of husbands and wives commonly
lead to some sort of avoidance conduct, such avoidance is talked of
less in terms of ‘dirt’ than as a sign of mourning and respect for the
Avoidance and protection caused by abnormal/frightening events
Many events, sights or sounds are perceived as abnormal, frightening,
infertile or threatening to the extent that they have to be ‘cooled’
(gimista) and prescriptions instigated on conduct so as not to harm
or bring misfortune to more people, animals, land or plants. Most
commonly, precautions are set in motion by what is perceived as
unacceptable or failed birthing (jeata), the most elaborate avoidance
practices being prompted by pregnancies out of wedlock. Premarital
sexual intercourse leading to pregnancy is morally highly unacceptable
among the patrilineal Datoga, as a child born out of wedlock will be
regarded as nameless or clanless, and will lack the paternal kin on
whom he/she is to depend for social, economic and political support.
The unacceptable conception, moreover, is said to produce ‘dirt’
(ririnyeanda) in a manner that resembles that of miscarriage and infant
death. In such cases it is no longer the mother’s milk that is the focus
of fear, but rather the ‘birth water’ (buweadega) that will pour out in a
home where it does not belong. The only place ‘birth water’ can flow
acceptably is in a woman’s private room located in the compound of
the husband or his father. If the girl is unmarried the available options
are giving birth in the hospital, or in the house of a Christian or another
‘outsider’ who fears neither the ‘unclean’ birth water, a girl ‘with a
closed womb’ (hudanirachi) or a child who results from a premarital
pregnancy (darawayenda). Tellingly, the term ‘birth water’ also means
‘kin’ or ‘relative’, drawing attention to the social bonding the birth water
Until a couple of generations ago the Datoga appear not to have
feared the unwed mother. Such girls were certainly despised, but the
unacceptable pregnancy was, and indeed still is, somewhat downplayed
by quickly marrying the girl off to any fairly suitable partner. The
Iraqw, however, have customarily feared these girls and their babies to
the extent that they have been completely secluded or expelled from
Iraqw communities. Recent history has shown a stark decrease in the
practice among the Iraqw, while the Datoga have picked up certain
aspects of it. Despite Christianity and official schooling working against
the practice, it is still very common to find some sort of avoidance
of unwed mothers and their babies. Indeed, unwed mothers and their
children were believed, according to our informants, to suffer from
a more serious contamination than that produced by death. While
ghawiida will usually come to an end, for example through a new
pregnancy and the birth of a live child, the uncleanness of the mother
who remains unmarried will continue, if not ‘cooled’ extensively, to
pose a threat to vulnerable villagers.
Upon discovery of her pregnant condition, Udabarasa was expelled from
school. The family was poor, and sending their daughter to distant Christian
kin for a fee was out of the question. The girl therefore remained at home
until the fear of the birth water falling in her father’s home drove them
to action. It was decided that she should give birth at Haydom Lutheran
Hospital, and a small room was rented for her in the hospital vicinity. The girl
was expelled from her new dwelling twice, however, due to her neighbours’
fear of having a ‘girl with a closed womb’ in their proximity. Upon giving
birth her life was filled with restrictions. She remained on her own, and she
strongly felt the silence, unease and fear with which people dealt with her
and her newborn son. As it is only a husband who can slaughter the goat
and spread the chyme necessary for ‘cooling’ her condition, and she knew
the likelihood of finding a marital partner was low as she had a child out of
Udabarasa soon moved to distant relatives in Arusha town where
she gave birth to three more children, all outside of marriage.
Other events perceived as ‘failed birthing’ that commonly cause fear
and restrictive action, albeit a regime far less elaborate than that for the
unwed mother and her child, are breech births (suruhuuda), births of
twins (saleahooga) and children born with teeth.
There are also a great many unfortunate or accidental occurrences
that cause uncertainty and fear due to their perceived contagious
potential, and that therefore require action. Common events that
instigate ‘cooling’ action and avoidance behaviour are particularly
frightening illness episodes(such as many people falling ill simultaneously
or the occurrence of types of illness perceived as frightening – such as
blisters, burning or diarrhoea); accidents(such as being bitten by a wild
animal or injured in a car accident); sights (such as seeing awkward,
ugly or incompletely formed people, animals or natural features);6
sounds (such as those that may at times be heard from Mt Hanang);
environmental phenomena (such as lightning, hail, fire, serious drought or
serious flooding) or particularly disrespectful events (such as harm done
to sacred Datoga trees, lakes or graves).
Avoidance and protection upon giving birth (ghereega)
Avoidance practices are not only triggered by negative or threatening
events perceived as contagious to the fertile segment of the population.
Metida is similarly initiated to contain and protect the fertile element
or fertile condition produced by the birth of a child, or in connection
with a number of birth-like conditions. A mother and her child, for
example, commonly spend four months – or three months in the case
of a newborn girl – in more or less complete seclusion inside the dark,
private room of the wife’s house. No one will enter the room except for
the midwife and a close relative who assists with cooking and cleaning.
Post-natal convalescent women said they experienced themselves as in
a sacred state produced by the occasion of a successful birth (ghereega).
Ghereega is said to follow from the ‘near death’ condition of birth-giving
(ghoghomnyeanda), a condition characterized by extreme danger where
the outcome is highly uncertain. Birthing may lead to the birth of
new life (jeata), but it may also lead to death (miyeeda) and dying.
While perceived as a most vulnerable state, ghereega is simultaneously
experienced as a most desired and enhancing one – a sacred or elevated
condition that has to be vigilantly protected from harm. A post-natal
convalescent woman is commonly referred to as ‘Udaghereeg’. The
women’s conduct during ghereega is circumscribed by quite extensive
avoidances, not least in terms of eating, drinking and sexual contact.
A most important extension of the avoidance conduct instigated by
birth-giving is the manner in which a number of animals such as cows,
sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs and cats, as well as certain wild animals
such as leopards and lions, are said to have ghereega, again talked of
as a near-sacred and elevated period following birth-giving. Ghereega
in animals is manifested in terms of protection from harm during
pregnancy, labour and while nursing their offspring, as the case below
A neighbour’s dog had a litter, and a couple of days after the puppies were
born the household head returned home uncommonly drunk. When the dog
reacted to its owner’s awkward demeanour by rushing towards him, barking
fiercely, the man lost control and beat the dog furiously with his stick. The
dog died the following day, and her puppies a few days later. Upon hearing
how the man had caused the death of the dog and her puppies, the married
neighbourhood women mobilized and convened meetings where they heard
every aspect of the case, and sang and prayed. The meeting’s decision was
to fine the man a black bull. A few days later, the man’s favourite black
ox was suffocated and cooked, and honey mead was brewed. The men and
women shared the meat with the remaining dog in the compound, and an
eight-day seclusion of the compound was instigated upon completion of the
meal. According to our informants, had immediate action not been taken
the beating of a dog in ghereeg would have threatened the birthing (jeata) of
Limited seclusions or avoidances also follow diverse rites of passage
to facilitate the transition from one state or status to another. The
transformation process is made manifest through performances of
birthing (jeata), where the initiate passes through near-death conditions
(ghoghomnyeanda) only to reach his/her new status and experience
ghereega. The most overt examples of such shifts of identity/status
and consequent seclusion/avoidance are found in connection with
the circumcision of boys (lughmajega dibiga or giyillida dibiga), the
circumcision of girls (bannoda hawing or giinnoda haweega, literally
‘making girls nice’), and the youth hunts (lilichta/lugooda).7
eventual celebration of ghereega may attend the time of marriage (the
seclusion of the bride,sibeeda), the initiation of men to the honey-meadconsuming community of elders (ginealda ghamunga), and the burial of
esteemed elders (bunged) – an event talked of as the ‘birth of the spirit’
(jeata meangenyeanda), where particular chosen elders are more or less
completely secluded for months.
Living with metida, ghawiida and ghereega
Although the avoidance/seclusion processes set in motion by death
or death-like conditions and those motivated by birth or birth-like
conditions are seemingly located at different ends of the scale, the
elaborate prescriptions will in the course of normal life interfere with
each other – and practical solutions have to be found. The following
examples indicate how people cope with the complexities of ghereega
A group of men were consuming honey mead (ghamunga) at the gathering
of the ‘hide cleansing the land’ (lughmajega nyangida) at Gidawadin’s home.
Two men who were seated apart in separate places were drinking from their
own gourds. As the honey mead became scarce during the evening, and
there was still plenty of mead in the gourds of the two men who were sitting
on their own, inquiry was made about the men’s conditions. One of the men
explained the details surrounding the ‘eating the eight-month-old death of
his wife’ while the other revealed that he was still in ghereega following a lion
kill. It was then asked whether there were men in the crowd who did not fear
the eight-month ghawiida. A group of men came forward and confirmed that
they did not fear the man or his belongings. They got up and moved over to
him to share whatever was left. The man in ghereega now shared what was
left in his gourd with the remaining two men who placed their gourds on the
ground. The lion-killer carefully poured mead into their calabashes, making
sure their gourds did not touch his to prevent his own gourd from becoming
Four wives were ‘eating the dirt of death’ (ghawiida) after the death of
their husband. They had shaved each others’ heads, had removed their
leather skirts and jewellery, and had a dirty appearance. Young women in
particular carefully kept away from them. The wives stayed together in one
house where they ate, drank and slept apart from others. As a decision was
made that their late husband was to be honoured by the rare event of a
large official Datoga funerary ritual (bunged) to ensure the rebirth of his
spirit, the ghawiida was terminated quickly. The wives then entered a new
phase of avoidance, a phase characterized by extreme vulnerability linked
to the ‘near-death condition’ (ghoghomnyeanda) that at the closing day of
the funeral leads to the elevated state following birth-giving (ghereega). The
wives, who until then had been avoided, now avoided contact with others,
and ate, drank and slept apart from other people to prevent outsiders’ dirt
from harming their valued but highly vulnerable state.
Transformation of metida practices
There are strong signs of the diminishing impact of metida practices in
many segments of Datoga communities. With the substantial transitions
taking place through schooling, the spread of Christianity and the
emphasis on development (maendeleo, Swahili), the metida practices
are losing their foothold. An important distinction is made between
Christians and non-Christians, and informants commonly held that
Christians have ceased practising metida. Although such a tendency is
easy to observe in practical lives, this often-reported distinction is upon
further investigation not as clear-cut as it may at first appear. Both
Christians and non-Christians, schooled and non-schooled individuals,
will often believe in and practise metida to varying degrees. What is
more, these people live within the same communities and share food
and drink and often also houses and beds. Thus people who are
differently situated in terms of adherence to the metida complex will
have to relate to each other in daily life: Christian villagers, for example,
will have to accept that people will shun their houses unless they make
sure that salt is not brought by a donkey who is neaboda, or that a girl
who has recently given birth out of wedlock or has lost an infant does not
sleep at their house. The metida restrictions, not least those following
the death of an infant (ghawiida jeapta) or a birth out of wedlock, make
it tempting to search for potential escape. Women these days readily flee
metida through outright rejection of the practice. One consequence is
particularly visible: the large numbers of young unmarried women who
reside in particular quarters on the outskirts of Mbulu, Dongobesh and
Haydom. Many of these women have become Christians and no longer
practise metida, but in practice they remain secluded to quite some
extent, since fear of their condition is still alive in their surroundings.8
MAKING SENSE OF THE METIDA COMPLEX
The precariousness of procreation
Let us now take a fresh look at what metida is about, and how
we are to make sense of the phenomenon. What is quite clear
is that metida is located at the heart of the Datoga compassionate
concern with procreation – or rather their concern with the experienced
precariousness of procreation and their related attempts to prevent
hazards from destroying the fecundity of people, animals and land.
A large number of older as well as more recent ethnographic sources
explore the substantial preoccupation with fertile features and forces
and the articulateness of African folk models of fertility.
have also demonstrated how the perils of reproduction and reproductive
imagery dominate African systems of thought. Such broad references to
a preoccupation with fertility become meaningless unless they address
both the subtleties of local cultural practice and the broader historical
and political contexts.
We suggest that the substantial Datoga concern with threats to
their fecundity cannot be properly grasped without a reference to
the particular historical-political circumstances within which it has
developed. The Datoga people of northern Tanzania have become
extremely marginalized during the past century (Lane 1996; Rekdal and
Blystad 1999). A systematic employment of political rhetoric against the
Datoga by colonial and independent governments alike, in combination
with the encouragement of agricultural growth, has caused an expansion
of neighbouring cultivators and the initiation of large-scale mechanized
cultivation in what was once the heart of Datoga pastureland.
activity has caused a massive loss of land and starkly diminishing herds,
to the point where the large majority of Datoga in the area today have
merely a few head of cattle, if any at all. The Datoga experience of
being surrounded by enemies, which surfaced so strongly during the
conflicts with the Maasai at the end of the nineteenth century, has thus
been nourished throughout the past century as new enemies-in-chief
have appeared. The Datoga preoccupation with threats to procreative
processes must be at least partly grounded in the embodied knowledge
of marginalization that history has produced (Blystad 2000).
Metida understood as containing ‘dirt’ or ‘pollution’
The Datoga material has revealed that metida may be used to seclude
what is perceived as dirty, contagious or dangerous. What is perceived
to be dangerous can be dirty skin, dirty vessels, dirty mothers’ milk or
cows’ milk, or dangerous birth water. As we have seen, these substances
and liquids are perceived to be particularly threatening to human beings
and animals capable of procreation.Metida, however, may also instigate
seclusion of that which is perceived to be utterly productive and fecund,
as highlighted by the protection of the sacred state following birth-giving
(ghereega). Where the first metida process contains what is feared and
thus prevents the sharing of food, drink and physical closeness with
contaminated persons or substances, the second secludes the fertile and
fecund to prevent it from becoming affected by ‘dirt’ that may endanger
We argue that the substantial focus on dirt and pollution in literature
on the subject may have led to the exclusion of this latter category,
namely the huge sphere of seclusion practices that are set in motion not
to contain dirt or polluting conditions but rather to contain and protect
the fecund element at its procreative peak. We suggest that attempts
to grasp the dynamics and meanings of the Datoga metida, and indeed
also the Iraqw meeta complex, depend upon assumptions that move us
beyond the fairly narrow and rigid ‘pollution’ and ‘quarantine’ concepts.
Metida understood as containing ‘flows’
The works of Broch-Due (1990) and Hutchinson (1992) have
demonstrated in a scholarly manner how a flow concept can open
up a more processual and dynamic analysis of African systems of
thought. Selvik (1998) similarily indicates in relation to the Iraqw meeta
practices how the ‘flow’ concept may assist us in opening up what has
hitherto remained a far too rigid field. An excessive preoccupation with
limits and boundaries will prevent us from grasping the ways in which
both seclusion and avoidance practices must be understood in the more
dynamic context of the exchange and movement of substances between
bodies. The concepts of ‘flows’, ‘unboundedness’, and ‘intake/outtake
systems’ add an important and dynamic dimension to concepts such as
‘pollution’, ‘risk’ and ‘avoidance’ in relation to Datoga metida practices
as in other contexts.
The ‘flow’ model appears to make it easier to discuss the dynamics
of the metida practices among the Datoga. A focus on flows and bodily
exchanges helps us, for example, to grasp how a Datoga mother-to-be’s
fear of being affected by harmful states, sensations or substances implies
an understanding of permeability, crossings and transitions, since
procreative activity necessarily entails complex exchanges with other
bodies. Activities such as lovemaking, gestation, childbirth and nursing
involve the crossing of boundaries, so that bodily fluids can move in
and out of bodies. While inherently fecund, these bodily encounters
can also be dangerous, and they become particularly threatening with
the loss of an unborn or still-nursing child.
The ‘flow’ concept, moreover, makes it easier to grasp the pervasiveness of metida – for example, how metida can contain both highly fertile
and highly infertile elements and can cause the seclusion or protection
of human beings, animals and parts of the natural environment. We
need to move beyond the relatively clear classifications of types of misfortune that bring about ‘pollution’ in the manner commonly spelled
out in accounts of the Iraqw meeta practices. The lists and categories of
states and incidents that cause meeta have also been reassessed critically
by Selvik, who writes that meeta refers to ‘a series of avoidances which
most people practise as they go about living their daily lives’ (Selvik
1998: 4). Metida indeed instigates an enormous domain of restrictions,
avoidances or seclusions that may vary with gender, with time, with
kinds of severity, with location, and with the decisions of particular people. Metida sets in motion a series of restrictions that are made relevant
in daily life, restrictions that can be located on a scale which at one end
consists of minor and almost unnoticeable avoidances, and at the other
consists of the full-fledged quarantine of individuals and households
for months or even years on end. Datoga who practise metida relate
to the complexity of their own and others’ avoidances and seclusions
throughout their lives.
Datoga informants, however, did not speak of ‘flows’ as such, and
did not readily confirm this way of talking or thinking in our many
discussions on metida – although they agreed, for example, that the
dripping of milk from a woman who has lost a baby or the flowing of
birth water in forbidden locations was highly feared. They would talk
animatedly, however, about people’s fear and avoidance of a woman
suffering a miscarriage, or of the death of a nursing child – and their
eloquence would dwell on a fear of the ‘dirty milk’ in the woman’s
breasts, or on the need to contain ‘the dirt’ inside a secluded woman’s
hut. It was the prevention of the concrete touch of a body or of a
common vessel, and not the prevention of the exchange of bodily
substances and fluids, that emerged as the prime concern.
Datoga conceptions appear to indicate that the ‘dirt’ and ‘boundary’
concepts of Douglas are still relevant and valid. This does not mean
that we should dismiss the productive, dynamic and open approach to
metida that the ‘flow’ concept facilitates, a concept which more easily
allows us grasp the workings of live bodies. But it does indicate that a
too-strong focus on flows and bodily exchanges may have shortcomings
in terms of grasping the fairly definite Datoga preoccupation with
the creation of boundaries and borders; boundaries that may contain
either dirty and harmful mother’s milk or vulnerable new mothers and
their babies. We propose that in encounters with Datoga ethnography,
Douglas’s concepts should be located within an open and dynamic
analytic framework, drawing upon the flow concept. Such an approach
is necessary to understand the simultaneous fluidity, concreteness and
rigidity of metida.
The potential to control metida
The extent to which a particular individual observes metida avoidance
does not solely depend upon the degree to which he/she experiences
accidents and events related to death and dying, or birth and birthgiving. The practice of metida also varies in the sense that some will
observe strictermetida than others. The same incident may cause diverse
responses, depending upon those affected. The example of the men who
were drinking honey mead revealed that some men were not afraid of
sharing a vessel with the man still ‘eating’ the death of his wife, while
others chose to refrain from drinking with him. There is therefore an
inherent flexibility within the metida complex that allows for individual
assessment and choice.
There is a limit, however, to this flexibility. It is very likely that
those who refused or feared to drink with the man ‘eating the dirt of
death’ themselves had wives of a procreative age, or had wives who had
experienced extensive procreative hardships. The people who observe
the harshest restrictions on their conduct, however, are not men but
women, not least those who have experienced numerous miscarriages
or infant deaths. The severe sanctions against unmarried mothers,
the isolation that prevents young widows from leaving their deceased
husbands’ compounds, and the seclusion that prevents a young woman
from leaving her husband’s house after miscarriage, still-birth or infant
death, are all restrictions placed primarily on women. Both male and
female informants readily pointed out the political game inherent in
metida. One male informant put it this way:
We Barabaig have taken over the fear of ghawiida and darawaida from our
[Iraqw] neighbours and we truly like these customs. Our young wives can
no longer run away after the death of their husband or after losing a baby
as they did in previous times. Now they stay behind and become pregnant
again. They remain to bless the clan of their husbands.
If a woman nonetheless chooses to run off, she will have to leave
behind any other children she has managed to bring into the world.
The hardships experienced by women who go through several periods
of ghawiida seclusion, or who live with the chronic neaboda status, were
commented upon by another informant:
A Datoga woman doesn’t mind ‘eating the death’ of her husband, what we
fear is ‘eating the death’ of our children. The loneliness is agonizing and
adds to the pain of losing the child. We are terrified that we will remain
outsiders until death. But what can we do? Some women run off, but with
what benefit when our children remain with their fathers?
This article has aimed to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the metida
avoidance phenomenon among many Datoga of Tanzania. The impact
of the restrictions is highly visible, not least in relation to young women’s
reproductive lives, where the potential for negotiation is limited because
Datoga custom is under threat from conversion to Christianity. Indeed,
Christianity is the option that increasing numbers of Iraqw and Datoga
girls and women choose in order to avoid the long-term isolation
instigated by the painful recurrent loss of infants, or by pregnancies
out of wedlock.
We have argued that the critical employment of a
combination of the analytical concepts of ‘pollution’ and ‘boundary
making’, on the one hand, and ‘flow’ on the other can enhance our
understanding of the meaning and employment of metida concepts
and practices. We have argued that one should be cautious about
uncritically substituting classic ‘pollution’ and ‘boundary’ concepts
with a new set of potential ‘gate-keeping concepts’ such as ‘flows’
and ‘unbounded’ bodies – concepts which appear to fit equally well in
Hagen, Turkana, Nuer and Iraqw communities. Generalizing concepts
need to be employed critically lest we lose the subtleties of local
phenomena. Ivan Karp (1987: ix) has pointed out that when focusing
on a commonly found phenomenon we need to demonstrate how it
takes its meaning and ‘emotional coloration ... from custom, society,
cosmology and experience’ in a way that makes the general and familiar
culturally specific. It is the diversity of local meaning and ‘emotional
coloration’ of the Datoga metida phenomenon that we have addressed
in this article.