Category: Narrative/Verbal Art

Remembering Nayeche and the Gray Bull Engiro: African Storytellers of the Karamoja Plateau and the Plains of Turkana (Anthropological Horizons)

By Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler. 2014. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 365 pages. ISBN: 9781442626317 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Assefa Dibaba, Indiana University

[Review length: 1028 words • Review posted on January 14, 2015]


[Cover ofRemembering Nayeche and the Gray Bull Engiro: African Storytellers of the Karamoja Plateau and the Plains of Turkana]

Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler’s seminal work, Remembering Nayeche and the Gray Bull Engiro, is an ethnographic and folkloristic exploration of the Jie/Turkana peoples of East Africa. Overall, in this folkloristic and ethnographic journey, Mirzeler shows us that the ordinary people are not that ordinary. They are not blank tablets on which regimes carve their cultural and political hegemony. The ordinary people live their lives with hope and determination, not totally lost in fear and desperation, contemplating their past. They sing and story to the present; they dance and smile to the future. In this book, Mirzeler takes folklore scholarship beyond exploring the realm of social and political everyday life of the people to illuminate a broader spectrum of “folklore and resistance culture.” “Society must find different means to survive,” Milzeler affirms, and one such means is “to fight back through their memory and tradition rather than through weapons of destruction” (63). Decentering, breaking up the dreary high claims of the dominant culture, must begin with revitalizing an understanding of the lives and struggles of ordinary people.

In his theoretical introduction called “Ethnography of Oral Tradition” Mirzeler establishes the significance of oral tradition in the lives of the Jie/Turkana communities based on the Nayeche and the gray bull Engiro stories, important not only for the construction of history but also for the passion of storytelling, i.e., the performance. Mirzeler’s hypothesis is that since the Jie/Turkana peoples “do not themselves date events” and “do not recall information beyond three generations,” the storytellers are less interested in the chronology of the actual events than in the memory of what happened where, for example, “where Nayeche traveled in the desolate plateau” (7).

Remembering Nayeche is divided into four parts and seven chapters. In Part I, chapter 1, Mirzeler outlines the pre-colonial and colonial history of the Jie people and their current difficulties in the context of the post-colonial period with displacement, disarmament, and famine in an unpredictable political and environmental situation; there are themes here of resistance and accommodation (52). In chapter 2 the Jie world of storytelling, ritual, oral tradition, and performance is explored; the ethnographer also recounts his interactions with the storytellers and culture-bearers.

Part II, chapter 3, examines Jie historical traditions by drawing on the Xosa (South Africa) notion of “thematic images” introduced by Harold Scheub to refer to the storyteller’s dramatic performance before an audience, seen also in the Xosa ntsomi tradition of conflict resolution (103). In chapter 4, Mirzeler presents the relationship among oral tradition, memory, landscape, and the Jie worldview. In the historical tradition of heroic journey, he argues, reference to time is not as important as geographical spaces represented by groves, graves, ritual sites, rivers, hills, sacred trees, and caves. Landscape, intertwined with historical events, constitutes a genre with toponymic features, for example, Moru a Nayeche (the Hill of Nayeche) that marks the mythic home of Nayeche, or Tarash River, that meanders through the land and the genres (159). In chapter 5, Mirzeler describes how social memory of the collectively remembered past shapes social identities of the people and how reference to common origin promotes unity among people with a common past and a common destiny.

In Part III, chapter 6, Mirzeler focuses on the story of Nayeche and the gray bull Engiro, with a background of Jie historical tradition and Jie marriage and harvest rituals that delineate the significant role of women in Jie/Turkana political thought (202). Based on the autobiography of Lodoch, his informant, Mirzeler argues in chapter 7 that the mythic characters in the Jie stories go beyond real life experience. The gray bull Engiro is not a real bull but a symbolic representation of the Jie/Turkana tradition binding the people together. The problem of how to compare the personal lived-experience narrative, which Mirzeler calls “autobiography,” with larger oral tradition is also a major topic of this chapter. Here, it is made clear that the border between “biography,” “autobiography,” and “life history” is fuzzy—a methodological concern in studying oral tradition.

The rich Jie stories are presented in Part IV using line-by-line translation and transcription of the original texts. The aim is to make the oral materials in the book accessible to those interested and also to facilitate understanding of the symbolism of Nayeche and the gray bull Engiro. However, the original texts are left out to reduce the length of the book.

Mirzeler casts light on the ongoing debate regarding tradition—whether it is inherited essence, an unchanging cultural trait, or a reconstruction of the past, with multiple interpretations by people in the present. The past is a foreign land; people did things differently there. In the Jie/Turkana oral tradition, however, as Mirzeler illuminates skillfully, the past is not just a foreign land of fixed historical moments; it is a world view continuing to the present and navigating its own trajectories through the current situation into the future. This conception of “pastness” draws from the Africanist historians’ use of oral traditions in reconstructing Africa’s past.

In this study two major themes stand out: first, the collectively remembered past shapes identity and enhances unity among the peoples who claim common origin by referring to common historical tradition. Second, the discursive ideologies of oral tradition serve to explain interdependence and inter-ethnic relations among the Jie and the Turkana communities that share land and land resources by referring to common ancestors. Using Nayeche and gray bull Engiro as master narratives, Mirzeler concludes his ethnography of oral tradition “in a general way” by restating the significance of remembering and meaning-making in performance contexts (241).

Methodologically speaking, Mirzeler muses about the inevitable difficulties and flaws in ethnographies of oral traditions, the limits of transcription and translation of oral materials, which reduce or eliminate the cultural expressions and emotions. Using the techniques of representations and creative writing, as anthropologists and folklorists do, Mirzeler handles meticulously those methodological problems. To avoid subjective misappropriation of the data and an unintended distortion of texts during transcription and translation, Mirzeler worked closely with his local fieldwork assistants. His mastery of the Turkana language, both grammatical proficiency and sufficient vocabulary, also significantly facilitated his long ethnographic and folkloristic odyssey in Najie.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.