Social and spatial orders: Farmer-herdsmen relations in south-east Burkina Faso.

A group of herders in a gathering.

Change and reproduction of cultural identities in Western Africa are strongly determined by the high degree of migration and mobility that is particular to this region. Integration of migrants or the stressing of ethnic differences are the two poles that shape (and constantly reshape) ethnic attributes, social norms, and strategies. This project will analyse the causes and consequences of these processes in the case of farmer-herdsmen relations in southern Burkina Faso: the farming Bisa population and the pastoral Fulbe. Although both groups are sedentary and have been living together in the region for as long as 200 years, questions of autochthony vs. allochthony and different patterns of mobility are a main argument in interethnic discourse and are used to maintain group differences as well as to create fields of interaction. These include economic (exchange of cattle, food), as well as social and religious relations: a restrictive, although socially quite relevant system of intermarriage, personal friendship and the rendering of religious services.
The working hypothesis is that while institutionalised relations tend to stress differences and ethnic separation, these interactions help at the same time in constructing a common identity based on locality and the commonly shared natural environment. This notion of a common local identity is mainly expressed in individual/personal relations across ethnic groups. A major aim of the project thus lies in describing and analysing the normative socio-political framework that provides the background for these individual relationships and how these two - the public and the semi-private - fields of social interaction are interrelated ("structure vs. strategy").

A Fulani boy watching the anthropologist.

A key approach to the understanding of the processes of spatial and temporal separation and integration is the analysis of the social landscape: Both principles of inclusion and exclusion are encoded in the spatial order. Certain parts of the land, such as fields or pastures are considered permanently or temporarily off-limits for the respective other group, other places, such as markets or waterholes, are designed to generate encounters. A major aim of the project is thus to determine the rules of how "physical" space is shared and divided sequentially (in time) and geographically. Questions of cognitive representations of the environment, as well as differing concepts of land-rights and the access to and control of resources are analysed in detail.
Another focus of research lies on the comparison of the groups' internal social and political organisation. Strategies of alliance making and networking differ greatly between the groups and determine their mutual relations. Marriage preferences, as a main example, play an important role in reaffirming claims of autochthony among the farming Bisa on the one hand, while keeping up the ideal of a nomadic people among the Fulbe on the other: Among the Bisa, clan-exogamy together with the preference for marrying into neighbouring groups creates a stable regional network that ties its members to the land. The preference for lineage endogamy among the Fulbe, on the other hand, ensures a lineage's autonomy and allows to maintain major kinship-relations even in migration.
A third main topic of the project is concerned with the transition of these local inter-group relations within the modern nation state, its administrative institutions and global organisations. In the course of the ongoing land rights reform in Burkina Faso, local notions of land-ownership (including the rights to control and access resources) become formally legalised. This on the one hand aggravates local struggles for political power, and at the same time may represent a serious challenge to the democratisation processes, as traditional chieftaincies regain importance in the national political landscape.

Keywords inter-ethnic relations, farmer-herder conflicts, anthropology of space, land rights

Go to Editor View