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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 2 (1995)

Houses in the Rainforest: Ethnicity and Inequality among Farmers and Foragers in Central Africa, by Roy Richard Grinker; Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994. xviii, 225 pp.


Reviewed by Robert Harms, Department of History, Yale University

Farmers and foragers in Zaire's Ituri forest, we have been told by anthropologists, exist in a symbiotic material relationship by which farmers produce cultivated food and foragers produce forest products. Indeed, the inhabitants of the Ituri themselves echo this assessment. Nevertheless, Roy Richard Grinker argues in this path-breaking book that the relationship between Lese farmers and Efe foragers in the Ituri is more complex than it first appears. The foragers bring to the village only small quantities of meat, less than is obtained by the hunting activities of the villagers themselves, and although the foragers receive in return products from village gardens, they also work in those gardens, receiving, in effect, the product of their own labor.

What is it, then, that binds the two groups together so tightly? Following John Comaroff, Grinker sees ethnicity as first and foremost a process of symbolic classification. He then goes on to reinterpret the concepts of "farmer" and "forager" as markers of ethnicity rather than simply as markers of ecological adaptations. This allows him to examine the symbolic and structural aspects of the division of labor and to explore relations of inequality between the two groups. He argues that Lese farmers and Efe foragers must be seen as parts of a larger, ethnically differentiated totality.

This book differs from other studies of farmer-forager relations in that it looks at the issue from the perspective of the Lese farmers and examines how the Efe foragers are symbolically and structurally incorporated into Lese society on a basis of inequality. After reviewing several key oppositions (forest / village, wild / civilized, dirty / clean, uncontrolled/controlled) by which the Lese farmers define themselves and denigrate the Efe foragers, he shows how the major opposition Lese men use to define their relations with their forager clients is that of gender: farmers are male and foragers are female. The analogy comes less from Lese theories of race or gender than from theories of how Lese men incorporate outsiders into their houses: both their Efe clients and their Lese wives are outsiders who are incorporated on terms of inequality. The Efe are thus the structural equivalent of Lese men's wives.

The institution by which these relations of inequality are brought together and structured is the Lese "house," a term that includes Efe clients who do not live in the village, but who participate in a common food production and distribution system with members of a Lese household. He contrasts the Lese house, as a form of social organization, with the Lese clan, which uses a descent model to structure relations among male heads of houses on the basis of equivalency and equality. The two models structure very different kinds of social organizations and social processes.

The house is the focal point of hierarchy and inequality on a day-to-day basis, and it provides the meanings and metaphors by which members understand and represent their relations with one another. Grinker argues that the forms of inequality associated with Lese-Efe ethnicity writ large are discernible in the daily operations of the Lese house. The very process of food production and distribution reinforces the male/female analogy of Lese/Efe relations: the Efe bring meat, which honors the receiver, whereas in return they receive cultivated foods which symbolize their dependency. The marginal status of Efe as members of the house, yet not members of the house, comes in handy for Lese houses dealing with witchcraft. The Efe serve as powerful protectors of the Lese house against the witchcraft of neighboring Lese houses, yet the Efe are not considered capable of bewitching people themselves.

The arguments about the two groups being mutually constituted symbolically, and about the structure of ethnic relations being based on the institutionalized inequalities that make up the house, are convincing. They break new ground in our understanding of farmer/forager relations in the equatorial forest and they show in detail how ethnicity is constructed and maintained. Because much of the recent literature on ethnicity in Africa argues that it is an urban phenomenon created by colonialism and modern politics, it is useful to see how rural ethnicity is created out of the structures and symbols of everyday life.

Still, this remains a Lese-centric analysis. I can see why Lese men maintain Efe partners who give them honor, reinforce their sense of superiority, and mediate their relations with neighboring houses. But what Grinker fails to explain is why the Efe put up with the relationship. Do they interpret Lese/Efe interactions through a set of counter models and symbols whereby the inequality is reversed? Are they oblivious to the structural and symbolic inequality in the Lese house? Perhaps it is possible after all that they endure the degradation because they need access to Lese gardens.