Vanishing Stones and the Hovering Giraffe.
Identity, Land and the Divine in Mela, South-West Ethiopia

Lucie Buffavand

In her PhD theses Lucie Buffavand investigates the processes of collective identification and place-making practices of an agro-pastoral group of south-west Ethiopia, before and under the government-led development of commercial agriculture in their land. It is based on twenty-one months of fieldwork conducted between October 2010 and January 2016 among the Mela, also known by the Ethiopian authorities as ‘Bodi’, in the Salamago district, which borders the eastern bank of the Omo River. The Mela, numbering about 6,000 people, are part of the constellation of Me’en groups, who speak the same Surmic language (mɛ’ɛnɛn) and whose territories span across varied ecological settings. Me’en people migrated from the lowland presently inhabited by the Mela into areas of higher altitude starting in the 19th century, and the Mela are recognized by most Me’en as being the authentic bearers of Me’en culture. The Mela are thus part of an on-going movement of Me’en people, a movement that is itself part of a general northward migration of the people of the Omo Valley: the Mursi, the Mela’s southern neighbours, have gradually moved into former Mela territories. How, in the midst of population movements and shifting territories, have the Mela maintained their identity?

Her research took place on the brink of a major shift in the Mela’s history: state-building, which had long been a protracted effort in the region following its conquest by the northern armies in the late 19th century, was by then seriously accelerated. The building of hydroelectric dams on the Omo allowed for the development, starting in 2012, of irrigated commercial agriculture along the river, on Mela’s and other people’s land. The Mela have to cope with a significant loss of land and resources, the coming of thousands of migrant workers, and the pressure from the government to settle in large grid-plan villages and to become sedentarised out-growers. How do the Mela keep the sense of an enduring collective identity in the face of such upheavals?

According to Mela’s oral traditions, they came into being more than three centuries ago when migrants coming from the west crossed the Omo and, after fighting with or integrating the people they found, imposed a new political order. The migrants or ‘firstcomers’ were then to hold a legitimate authority at the expense of original inhabitants and latecomers within Mela. In the course of this thesis, I show that the firstcomers and the autochthones each have a particular way to produce a sense of place that is important for the Mela as a whole.

Among the firstcomers, the komorutiya (sing. komorut) are the holders of a hereditary office whose duty is to carry rituals deemed essential for the fertility and prosperity of all. Mela lay out stone arrangements at the homestead and at the grave of their komorutiya. The autochthones, through their primacy of occupation, have a special connection with their place of origin and with extraordinary animals dwelling therein. Mela harness the power of the genii loci or of the dead komorutiya in rituals and ceremonies. These powers are made present in stone arrangements and in other features of the landscape.

In the face of dispossession by the state, however, Mela discourses focus especially on the extraordinary animals which inhabit the land, and which they have recognised thanks to the authochthones’ knowledge and ritual powers. The power of autochthones, which is defensive rather than offensive, is an apt answer to the threats on Mela land and livelihoods. Through these discourses, Mela express their hope for the continued existence of their group.

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