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The Land Is Dying By Paul Wenzel Geissler

The Land Is Dying by Paul Wenzel Geissler

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Based on several years of ethnographic fieldwork, the book explores life in and around a Luo-speaking village in western Kenya during a time of death. The epidemic of HIV/AIDS affects every aspect of sociality and pervades villagers' debates about the past, the future and the ethics of everyday life.

The Land Is Dying Summary

The Land Is Dying: Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya by Paul Wenzel Geissler

Based on several years of ethnographic fieldwork, the book explores life in and around a Luo-speaking village in western Kenya during a time of death. The epidemic of HIV/AIDS affects every aspect of sociality and pervades villagers' debates about the past, the future and the ethics of everyday life. Central to such debates is a discussion of touch in the broad sense of concrete, material contact between persons. In mundane practices and in ritual acts, touch is considered to be key to the creation of bodily life as well as social continuity. Underlying the significance of material contact is its connection with growth - of persons and groups, animals, plants and the land - and the forward movement of life more generally. Under the pressure of illness and death, economic hardship and land scarcity, as well as bitter struggles about the relevance and application of Christianity and 'Luo tradition' in daily life, people find it difficult to agree about the role of touch in engendering growth, or indeed about the aims of growth itself.

The Land Is Dying Reviews

Awarded the 2010 Amaury Talbot Prize for African Anthropology by the Royal Anthropological Institute

"For me this was one of the best ethnographies I have read for many years." * Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale

"...[a]thoughtful and creative book... [It] is an excellent resource and it is a good read: theoretical without being overwhelming, anthropological without being off-putting, serious but amusing. In sum, it is a rare and valuable contribution." * African Studies Quarterly

"While not a light book, this is one for anyone seeking ethnographic understanding based on an equatorial African setting not to overlook...A short review can hardly do justice to the care behind the book or the local flavor it conveys: the accuracy of its translations, the sensitivity and empathy behind its life histories, the candor about research tactics and dilemmas...It is one warmly to be welcomed." * Anthropos

"One of the richest ethnographies of African social life of recent years... As do the best ethnographies, this book communicates the wonder of its authors at touching and being touched deeply across difference." * JRAI

"In addition to [its] broad examination of the intertwining of Africans' experiences of AIDS and associated social changes, [an important] theme[its]extended and sophisticated treatment of morality as an integral aspect not only of the AIDS epidemic, but also of every dimension of the social responses it has produced." * African Studies Review

"The originality of this book lies in its careful exploration of touch and contingency, drawing on Michel de Certeau and Emmanuel Levinas. The sensitive ethnography and judicious use of other sources make for superb anthropology...Here is a book that provides inspiration as well as beautifully crafted documentation of efforts to maintain the flow of life in specific difficult historical circumstances." * Mortality

About Paul Wenzel Geissler

Paul Wenzel Geissler teaches social anthropology at the University of Oslo and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He studied medical zoology in Hamburg and Copenhagen (Ph.D. 1998) and social anthropology in Copenhagen and Cambridge (Ph.D. 2003). Since 1993 he has worked in western Kenya, conducting first medical research and then several years of ethnographic fieldwork. Currently he is writing an ethnography of post-colonial scientific research in Kisumu, Kenya.

Table of Contents

Table of illustrations

Chapter 1. Introduction: "Are we still together here?"

  • A community at the end of the world
  • The death of today
  • Growing relations
  • Being together
  • Growth
  • Touch
  • Searching for another social practice
  • Engaging boundaries
  • Hygiene
  • Knowing boundaries
  • Changing perspectives?
  • Coming together
  • Visiting

Chapter 2. Landscapes and histories

  • Returns
  • A road in time
  • Kisumu
  • Driving out Bondo District
  • The lake
  • Piny Luo - 'Luoland'
  • A 'tribe'
  • Luo sociality
  • The reserve
  • Return to Uhero Yimbo Muthurwa
  • Making Uhero village
  • (Re-)Settlement
  • Belonging and ownership
  • A modern Luo village
  • 'Down' into the village
  • 'Up' and 'down' KaOkoth
  • Alternative 'modernities': the beach and 'Jerusalem'
  • KaOgumba

Chapter 3. Salvation and Tradition: heaven and earth?

  • Dichotomies in everyday life
  • Salvation
  • Strong Christians
  • Saved life
  • Saved and others
  • Faith in purity
  • Tradition
  • The Luo rules
  • 'Born-again'
  • Traditionalism
  • Traditionalism, Christianity and The West
  • Customary everyday life
  • Searching ways
  • Tradition in everyday life
  • Everyday ritual
  • The absence of ritual
  • The omnipresence of ritual


Chapter 4. 'Opening the way': being at home in Uhero

  • Introduction
  • "Our culture says that one must make a home"
  • Relational flows: embedding growth in the home
  • Tom's new home
  • Moving forward - directions
  • Openings and closures
  • Order and sequence
  • Complementarity and growth: coming together in the house
  • Making a house
  • Sharing the gendered house
  • The living house
  • Gender, generation and growth
  • Struggling against implication
  • The home in heaven
  • 'The rules of the home'
  • Powers of explication
  • Practicing rules
  • Cementing relations
  • Traditionalism and other kinds of ethnography

5. Growing children: shared persons and permeable bodies

  • Introduction
  • Sharing
  • Sharing or exchange?
  • Sharing food
  • Food, blood and kinship
  • 'The child is of the mother'
  • Changed foods and relations
  • Sharing and dividing nurture
  • Shared bodies
  • Illnesses of infancy and their treatment
  • Evil eye and spirits
  • Medical pluralism?
  • Herbal medicines
  • Cleanness and dirt
  • Sharing names
  • Being named after
  • Being called
  • Sharing names and naming shares
  • Conclusion


Chapter 6. Order and decomposition: touch around sickness and death

  • Introduction
  • Otoyo's home
  • The sickness of a daughter
  • Return of a daughter
  • Kwer and chira
  • Continuity and contingency
  • Avoiding the rules
  • Treating chira
  • Caring
  • The death of a husband
  • Expected death
  • "She should remember her love!"
  • Death
  • The funeral
  • The dead body
  • Loving people
  • Conclusion

Chapter 7. 'Life Seen': touch, vision and speech in the making of sex in Uhero

  • Introduction
  • Earthly ethics and Christian morality
  • Riwruok
  • Riwruok: outside intentionality
  • Chira: Growth and directionality
  • Chodo and luor: continuity and change
  • Cleanness: Sex and separation
  • The proliferation of 'Sex'
  • AIDS and chira
  • The fight against AIDS
  • Pornography - 'bad things'
  • Conclusion

Chapter 8. "Our Luo culture is sick": identity and infection in the debate about widow inheritance

  • Introduction
  • Testing positive
  • Becoming a widow
  • Contentious practices
  • A tough head
  • Tero
  • Independence
  • Alone
  • Inheritance and infection
  • Past and present tero
  • Fighting tero
  • Deprivation and property
  • Inheriting HIV - fears about women's sexuality and social reproduction
  • Turning tero into a business
  • Ambiguous heritage: Tero as source of identity and infection
  • 'Our Luo culture is sick'
  • 'The most elaborate and solemn ritual': tero is our culture
  • Sanitising Luo culture?
  • Conclusion


Chapter 9. "How can we drink his tea without killing a bull?" - funerary ceremony and matters of remembrance

  • Introduction
  • Funerary ceremonies
  • Funerals in Uhero
  • Funeral commensality
  • Returning to the funeral
  • Osure's sawo
  • An Earthly feast
  • Rebekka
  • Eating the sawo
  • Traces of the past
  • 'Sides'
  • Baba Winston's memorial
  • A Christian funerary celebration
  • Debates
  • The service
  • Remembrance
  • Conclusion

Chapter 10. "The land is dying" - Traces and monuments in the village landscape

  • Introduction
  • Cutting the land
  • Ownership
  • Land, paper and power
  • Living on the land
  • Gardens and farms
  • The bush
  • Fences
  • At home
  • Traces and inscriptions
  • Getting one's land - finding one's place
  • Conclusion

Chapter 11. Contingency, creativity and difference in western Kenya

  • Creative difference
  • Old and new dealings with hybridity
  • "Are we still together here?"
  • Postscript
  • Ka-Ogumba 2007

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Additional information

The Land Is Dying: Contingency, Creativity and Conflict in Western Kenya by Paul Wenzel Geissler
Berghahn Books
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