Remembering Nayeche and the Gray Bull Engiro (book review)

Categories: Qualitative


Remembering Nayeche and the Gray Bull Engiro: African Storytellers of the Karamoja Plateau and the Plains of Turkana.

By Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler. 2014. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 365 pages.

ISBN: 9781442626317 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Assefa Dibaba, Indiana University

[Word count: 1028 words]

Mustafa Kemal Mirzeler’s seminal work, Remembering Nayeche and the Gray Bull Engiro, is an ethnographic and folkloristic exploration of
the Jie/Turkana peoples of East Africa. Overall, in this folkloristic
and ethnographic journey, Mirzeler shows us that the ordinary people
are not that ordinary. They are not blank tablets on which regimes
carve their cultural and political hegemony. The ordinary people live
their lives with hope and determination, not totally lost in fear and
desperation, contemplating their past. They sing and story to the
present; they dance and smile to the future. In this book, Mirzeler
takes folklore scholarship beyond exploring the realm of social and
political everyday life of the people to illuminate a broader
spectrum of “folklore and resistance culture.” “Society must find
different means to survive,” Milzeler affirms, and one such means is
“to fight back through their memory and tradition rather than through
weapons of destruction” (63). Decentering, breaking up the dreary
high claims of the dominant culture, must begin with revitalizing an
understanding of the lives and struggles of ordinary people.

In his theoretical introduction called “Ethnography of Oral
Tradition” Mirzeler establishes the significance of oral tradition in
the lives of the Jie/Turkana communities based on the Nayeche and the gray bull Engiro stories, important not only for the construction of
history but also for the passion of storytelling, i.e., the
performance. Mirzeler’s hypothesis is that since the Jie/Turkana
peoples “do not themselves date events” and “do not recall
information beyond three generations,” the storytellers are less
interested in the chronology of the actual events than in the memory
of what happened where, for example, “where Nayeche traveled in the
desolate plateau” (7).

Remembering Nayeche is divided into four parts and seven chapters. In Part I, chapter 1, Mirzeler outlines the pre-colonial and colonial
history of the Jie people and their current difficulties in the
context of the post-colonial period with displacement, disarmament,
and famine in an unpredictable political and environmental situation;
there are themes here of resistance and accommodation (52). In
chapter 2 the Jie world of storytelling, ritual, oral tradition, and
performance is explored; the ethnographer also recounts his
interactions with the storytellers and culture-bearers.

Part II, chapter 3, examines Jie historical traditions by drawing on
the Xosa (South Africa) notion of “thematic images” introduced by
Harold Scheub to refer to the storyteller’s dramatic performance
before an audience, seen also in the Xosa ntsomi tradition of
conflict resolution (103). In chapter 4, Mirzeler presents the
relationship among oral tradition, memory, landscape, and the Jie
worldview. In the historical tradition of heroic journey, he argues,
reference to time is not as important as geographical spaces
represented by groves, graves, ritual sites, rivers, hills, sacred
trees, and caves. Landscape, intertwined with historical events,
constitutes a genre with toponymic features, for example, Moru a
Nayeche (the Hill of Nayeche) that marks the mythic home of Nayeche, or Tarash River, that meanders through the land and the genres (159).

In chapter 5, Mirzeler describes how social memory of the
collectively remembered past shapes social identities of the people
and how reference to common origin promotes unity among people with a common past and a common destiny.

In Part III, chapter 6, Mirzeler focuses on the story of Nayeche and
the gray bull Engiro, with a background of Jie historical tradition
and Jie marriage and harvest rituals that delineate the significant
role of women in Jie/Turkana political thought (202). Based on the
autobiography of Lodoch, his informant, Mirzeler argues in chapter 7
that the mythic characters in the Jie stories go beyond real life
experience. The gray bull Engiro is not a real bull but a symbolic
representation of the Jie/Turkana tradition binding the people
together. The problem of how to compare the personal lived-experience narrative, which Mirzeler calls “autobiography,” with larger oral tradition is also a major topic of this chapter. Here, it is made
clear that the border between “biography,” “autobiography,” and “life
history” is fuzzy — a methodological concern in studying oral

The rich Jie stories are presented in Part IV using line-by-line
translation and transcription of the original texts. The aim is to
make the oral materials in the book accessible to those interested
and also to facilitate understanding of the symbolism of Nayeche and
the gray bull Engiro. However, the original texts are left out to
reduce the length of the book.

Mirzeler casts light on the ongoing debate regarding tradition —
whether it is inherited essence, an unchanging cultural trait, or a
reconstruction of the past, with multiple interpretations by people
in the present. The past is a foreign land; people did things
differently there. In the Jie/Turkana oral tradition, however, as
Mirzeler illuminates skillfully, the past is not just a foreign land
of fixed historical moments; it is a world view continuing to the
present and navigating its own trajectories through the current
situation into the future. This conception of “pastness” draws from
the Africanist historians’ use of oral traditions in reconstructing
Africa’s past.

In this study two major themes stand out: first, the collectively
remembered past shapes identity and enhances unity among the peoples who claim common origin by referring to common historical tradition. Second, the discursive ideologies of oral tradition serve to explain interdependence and inter-ethnic relations among the Jie and the Turkana communities that share land and land resources by referring to common ancestors. Using Nayeche and gray bull Engiro as master narratives, Mirzeler concludes his ethnography of oral tradition “in a general way” by restating the significance of remembering and meaning-making in performance contexts (241).

Methodologically speaking, Mirzeler muses about the inevitable
difficulties and flaws in ethnographies of oral traditions, the
limits of transcription and translation of oral materials, which
reduce or eliminate the cultural expressions and emotions. Using the
techniques of representations and creative writing, as
anthropologists and folklorists do, Mirzeler handles meticulously
those methodological problems. To avoid subjective misappropriation
of the data and an unintended distortion of texts during
transcription and translation, Mirzeler worked closely with his local
fieldwork assistants. His mastery of the Turkana language, both
grammatical proficiency and sufficient vocabulary, also significantly
facilitated his long ethnographic and folkloristic odyssey in Najie.

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