The Rendille age-set system in ethnographic context: adaptation and integration in a nomadic society
Beaman, Anne W
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The dual purpose of this work is to present a detailed ethnography of the Rendille people, a nomadic society of northern Kenya with a camel-based pastoral economy and an East Cushitic language, and to describe and analyze the Rendille age-set system in the context of the total culture. The work was inspired in part by the work of Harold C. Fleming (1965), who, in his cross-cultural historical study of agegrading societies of East Africa, hypothesized a major impact on area cultures by the early contact between the Nilotes and the Cushitic ancestors of today's Rendille and Somali peoples. Also in part this work was inspired by that of Paul Spencer (1973), who published an introduction to Rendille social organization in his study of the relationship between the Rendille and the neighboring Nilotic Sarnburu, but who interpreted the Rendille social structure and age-set system mainly in terms of their relative similarity to Samburu forms. Specifically, Spencer claimed that the Rendille age-set system is a modified imitation of the Sarnburu system, less important in Rendille society than the Sarnburu system is to the Samburu. The dissertation is organized in two parts. Part I comprises the general' ethnography, with chapters on the ecology of Rendille-land, the culture history of the Rendille and neighboring peoples, the social and residential structures of the society, the livestock economy, the calendar, and religion and ritual. It is shown that all these aspects are interlocked to form a unified social organization well adapted to the limitations and requirements of a meagre ecology and the camelbased pastoral nomadism through which the people gain their subsistence. Part II comprises the structural and functional analysis of the Rendille age-set system, and the conclusions. The rules governing the age-set system are outlined and extensively analyzed, partly using the structural analytical methods of Frank H. Stewart (1977), and partly through comparison with the age- and generation-set systems of the Jie, Dassanetch, Boran, and Samburu. It is shown that, contrary to Spencer's contentions, the Rendille age-set system incorporates the principles of genealogical generation, chronological age, and calendrical time in a total and internally coherent system, and is a definite reflection of Rendille Cushitic cultural heritage. Characteristics of the system misunderstood by Steward and Spencer are reanalyzed in terms of generational organization and the calendar to support this finding. The rituals of the age-set cycle are described, and the system is further analyzed in terms of its functional relationship to the rest of the society, showing how the system provides for the division of labor, for demographic regulation, for political succession, for the categorization of historical events, and for the unification of society members across clan apd lineage boundaries. The degree to which the Rendille age-set system is integrated into the society makes its functional significance to the society clear. The structural analysis shows the strong Cushitic basis of the system, shedding potential light on further historical study of area cultures.