Clans in the News (Again); Plus, When Informants Embrace Research

William Finnegan’s ‘Letter from Maine’ on ‘the Somalis of Lewiston’ (The New Yorker, December 11, 2006 — sorry I can’t find it online), revisits the issue of the contemporary relevance of both anthropology in general and of the anthropology of kinship (or perhaps I should say the anthropology of clans) in particular. He writes:

People [Somali immigrants] are loath to talk, at least to outsiders, about the clan system in Somalia, whose rivalries have helped fuel the civil war there. But it survives in the diaspora, and it continues to divide expatriate communities, where different groups scramble for access to resources. (A young Somali social worker told me that he’d stopped going to the Lewiston mosque, because it was dominated by members of the Ogaden clan. ‘I refuse to pray next to someone who sees me first as an Isaaq, nost as a Muslim,’ he said.)

The article pictures not a monolithic block of refugees composed of a phantom ‘nationality,’ but rather a set of people from diverse backgrounds, with different interests, histories of conflict and movement, experiences of oppression. The article focuses mainly on Somali Bantus, and their position vis-a-vis other Somalis both in Lewiston and back home. The article also features the work of Colby College anthropologist Catherine Besteman, work that has been important for Bantus in recovering and remembering their past(s). At a panel discussion on refugees in Lewiston, Besteman was amazed to meet some of her very own informants — they had been children when she first met them in the field. Besteman subsequently organized a slide show (with photos taken by her husband Jorge Acero). In the New Yorker, Besteman recalls the scene:

Most of those who made it over here [to the U.S.] were babies then. They never knew their parents. People in the audience were seeing their moms and dads for the first time. It was very, very moving. There were a lot of stories being shouted out about the people in the slides… Even the pictures of the fields, they were just incredibly excited to see. People went crazy over [a chart of census data]. They could account for everyone on the chart. This guy was shot in his field by a Somali. This guy was hacked with machetes and died of infected wounds. This woman was taken by militiamen from a fleeing group, right near the Kenyan border, never seen again.

The incredible trauma noted here and the lingering wounds of war notwithstanding, I find stories like these heartening. I think they demonstrate the continuing relevance and importance of anthropological research (in a way quite different, and in some sense, complementary to a relevance that would attach ‘local knowledge’ to the ‘security’ apparatuses of states that wage war but make the victims of their violence invisible). Who else but an anthropologist is going to spend two years recording lifeways, taking census data, learning stories of people in an out-of-the-way place? Sure, journalists will helicopter in for a few days, a few weeks, even months. But who is going to do the patient work of sitting on the flatbed truck and chatting with folks about their kin, about their hopes and fears?

Also, stories like these I think make a compelling case for a truly public anthropology. For the data that we anthropologists collect (whether we are from the U.S., Brazil, Finland, or Papua New Guiena) has value and meaning — above all for those people with whom we work.