The Making and Unmaking of the Haya Lived World: Consumption, Commoditization, and Everyday Practice. Brad Weiss. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996. 250 pp.
Ann Reed (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In relation to the Haya of Northwest Tanzania, Brad Weiss constructs a model of coeval symmetry in which people engage in making the world around them but also engage in making themselves (4). His ethnographic analysis illustrates how relationships with commodities contribute to the constitution and reconfiguration of the Haya sociocultural world. Drawing from the phenomenological work of Merleau-Ponty, Weiss constructs the Haya lived world in terms of inhabiting both social space and time in an effort to show the relevance of this conception of the world to both the anthropology of the body and understanding sociocultural practice in general (5-6). Weiss not only argues that commodities like food or land have social value but that they "can be understood as personifications (e.g. as extensions or embodiments) of those who give and receive them" (13).
Part 1 focuses on the household production, provision, and consumption of food, which Weiss states is essential to making the lived world of the Haya. The cultural values regarding interiority, exteriority, heat, and speed are discussed as modes by which the Haya mediate with the processes of consumption. Architectural descriptions of different Haya homes are oriented to the ways in which division, enclosure, and exclusion shape the Haya habitus. Spatial configurations of social relations become embedded in Haya house opening rites, which serve to protect the house against potential conflict with guests (38). The hearth is central to the household, both literally (spatially) and metaphorically, in terms of the social relations which rest on it.
Weiss relates the consumption of different kinds of banana beer and banana gin to both the temporal nature of banana cultivation and of beverage production and consumption. Hearth-ripened bananas involve a slower process but the resulting beer (olibisi) is considered superior (taste, ascetics) to that beer produced from the pit (olutala)-ripened method, a faster and more lucrative process. Banana gin (enkonyagi), having a much higher alcohol content, commands a higher market price but is associated with "the desire for money and its deleterious consequences" (61). Not only is the banana-ripening process faster for the gin, but also patrons get drunk more quickly while rapidly losing their pocket money. Weiss suggests that the Haya associate the rapid speed of such product turnover with animosity and illness, while the hearth is more revered for both its placement in the home and its more withdrawn stance from the world of quick monetized exchange.
After constructing a model for the Haya lived world in Part 1, Weiss (in Part 2) analyzes phenomena, including "plastic teeth" disease, AIDS, and blood theft, which have threatened the sociocultural order, thus "unmaking" the lived world. Weiss writes that commodity flows do not cause alienation of the Haya in the global economy, but "commodities flow into situations in which they transform experience, and in this same process are themselves transformed" (156). Long-standing Haya beliefs and practices surrounding the acquisition of teeth are contextualized in the discussion of the recent disease (affecting the Haya in only the last 2-3 years) of "plastic teeth" in which children are either born with or develop pathological plastic teeth. Treatment for the disease is to have of all of the plastic teeth extracted, which is often done before the child has started to teethe. According to the Haya, lower teeth must come in first; in a spatial scheme teeth should "grow" from the bottom—up. When "proper teeth" are eventually formed, "(they) present themselves…as bodily forms that have been scrupulously observed, sequentially organized, and rigorously grounded in a broad nexus of interpersonal relations" (176).
Weiss’ analysis of the Haya lived world provides the reader with a unique (anthropological) perspective on the processes of commoditization and consumption not relegated to one product, but integral to daily life in an East African context. He provides vivid ethnographic description of the Haya landscape and home and connects his temporal / spatial analysis to relevant social theory, including the work on modernity and alienation by Taussig and Bourdieu. Weiss is able to support the claim that the Haya are not merely bystanders alienated by the world economic system but instead engage in a dynamic process of appropriation and local mediation. However, he falls short in characterizing the Haya lived world as reciprocally affecting any impact in the global economy.
Considering the amount of time Weiss spends discussing the hearth, coupled with the fact that the hearth is located in the women’s domain (confirmed by Haya men and women) of the kitchen, he fails to give a detailed description of women’s work and its spatial dimension, except as it relates to the domain of men. His discussion of women often times falls under one of three categories: marginalized post-partum members of a larger society, surprising contributors to realms beyond the household, or sexualized objects who "give out water like banana stem(s)" if desirable (87, 88, 95). I shudder to think that these are the only possible ethnographic depictions of Haya women!
Additionally, while Weiss occasionally uses direct quotations given by informants, these are rarely—if ever—identified as the voices of women. In fact, Weiss fails to supply the reader with much information about any of his informants as well as a description of his relationship to them and his work’s impact on the making and unmaking of the Haya world. A footnote reveals that the "plastic teeth" chapter is based not on Weiss’ 1st-hand fieldwork, but on the accounts of others (233). Another basic criticism of Weiss’ account is that he refers to the Haya as a homogenous entity without any reference to the possibility of multiple local perspectives, which may arise out of class distinctions or geographic variations. Incorporation of multiple perspectives—including the voices of women and a more reflexive perspective would have added to the richness of Weiss’ ethnography.