Toward a Reconstitution of Ethnicity: Capitalist Expansion and Cultural Dynamics in Sudan

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While examining an issue, social scientists tend to take ethnic groups as granted. This is what scholars call the primordialist approach. Ethnic groups are believed to exist for ages, and such a view is ahistorical and ignores critical processes as well as events of the past. Ethnic groups, stripped off past events, cannot be better understood. The basic argument of O’brien in this article is that like many other phenomenon, ethnic identities in Sudan emerged in the process of peripheral capitalist development. With two examples from Sudan, he demonstrates that capitalist expansion can transform, produce or dissolve ethnic groups. He also makes the important point that what people refer in western world as nationalism is called tribalism in Africa. With the colonialism labor force in Africa was restructured, and this led to reformation of ethnic identities.
 
Sudan was a British colony. Since the British needed cotton as raw material for booming textile industry in England, they opened the vast irrigated Gezira Scheme for cotton production in 1925. Considerations of security and social control, led the British to establish a smallholding tenancy form of organization of the Scheme rather than allowing conditions for the formation of a large landless proletariat to arise. In response to this need, the colonial regime fostered the development of a large, seasonally migrant wage labor force composed of peasants and pastoralists who maintained their village plots and their herds in addition to working for wages for a few months of the year. participation in wage labor varied from group to group depending on their differing divisions of labor, conditions of social reproduction, techniques of production, and so forth. For some, seasonal migration for wage labor became a regular part of their annual work cycle. For many more, it became an irregular part of life, occasioned by crop failure, disadvantageous livestock prices, special expenses (such as for marriage), or was a temporary necessity for youthful households.
 
West African Immigrants
 
Lack of adequate labor force led British to allow immigration into Sudan of west African Muslims, especially poor Hausa peasants. In the early 1930s the government and the Gezira Scheme management organized an active coordinated program of settlement of such immigrants in the scheme (see O'Brien 1980, 1983, 1984). As a virtually landless population they served as a stable pool of cheap wage labor year round. Other groups of West African immigrants were encouraged to settle in underpopulated areas outside the Scheme. Right from the beginning resentments against these groups began to develop among the indigenous populations with whom their work brought them in contact. The Gezira authorities used them in two important ways to discipline tenants in the Scheme. If a tenant failed to carry out an agricultural operation on schedule, the Inspector hired settled labor to do the job at double the going wage and charged the expense against the tenant's account. Any tenant who failed to cultivate his plot to the satisfaction of the British Inspectors or who absconded (as many did during early cotton blights and the depression) were replaced by immigrant settlers.
 
The settlers came to be known generally in Sudan as "Fellata" (from the Kanuri word for Fulani). This term was applied indiscriminantly to all "Westerners" and quickly took on basically pejorative connotations linked to stereotypes of these people as hard-working and slavish. In a context in which the contacts local populations had with these diverse people were socially homogeneous, the cultural differences among them were glossed over and ignored. The settlers responded to these conditions of hostility, discrimination, and confinement to the lowest rungs of the social ladder through a process of cultural realignment. Some material differences with the local populations were reinforced. Some of the settlers moved into previously vacant economic/ecological niches, such as riverbank vegetable cultivation and commercial fishing, which they had occupied in West Africa. In particular, they tended to adopt fundamentalist, ascetic Islamic practices and beliefs which served as a counterpoint to the "paganism" of the surrounding Arabs, who practiced spirit possession (zar), ecstatic trance, and veneration of saints, and drank alcoholic beverages. Gradually, the name "Takari" came into use among them as a term applied, regardless of ethnic origin, to all of the people otherwise called Fellata.
 
The Joama’ of Central Kordofan
 
The Joama' people are another group that has played a prominent role in the agricultural wage labor force. From the beginning they have been prominent as regular suppliers of cotton-picking labor in family groups. They occupy the transitional zone of central Kordofan where the sandy ridges of northern Kordofan penetrate the heavy clay plain of the rich central agricultural zones. Settled cultivators identified as Joama' have been recorded as living in this region since at least the 17th century. All are Muslim Arabicspeakers and they generally claim Arabian origins. Whatever the cultural dynamics of the earlier history of these people, their contemporary identity is clearly bound up with their modern position in the wage labor force. This position is characterized by annual family group migration for cotton picking, initially in the Gezira Scheme, but latterly more often in the pump-irrigated schemes along the Niles.
 
The Joama' soon became famous in central Sudan as good, reliable cotton pickers and were highly sought after. With the rapid expansion and differentiation of capitalist agriculture beginning in the 1950s, an elaborate recruitment system for seasonal labor evolved and the Joama' belt became a prime recruiting ground. Representatives of tenants or management would travel to the region in advance of the picking season and negotiate with prominent men to supply stipulated numbers of pickers at agreed rates. Recruiters would supply transportation to the scheme, cash advances and food for each family while at work in addition to fixing piece rates for work performed. As this recruitment system became entrenched, newcomers to the agricultural labor market--or people who sought to move into a different sphere of it-increasingly found it necessary to be in the places recruiters usually went to find such labor. It also helped to be identified to the recruiter as a member of an ethnic group, such as the Joama', reputed to be good workers at the particular sort of job being recruited for.
 
In response to these conditions, some of the thousands of immigrants and seasonal migrants from further west who annually moved through the Joama' area began to settle on the fringes ofJoama' villages and insert themselves into theJoama' pattern of seasonal migration.
 
In research in a Joama' village in 1977, O’Brien found a number of families with known origins outside the village who appeared to be in different stages of assimilation to the group. Four families, related to each other through their male heads of household, identified themselves to O’Brien as Joama' and were referred to by other villagers in conversation as Joama'. After some weeks in the village, however, O’Brien learns from one older man that these families "used to be Fellata" (i.e., West African immigrants) who had come to the village in their youth and been granted plots of land by the speaker's father. In this man's view, the "Fellata" families had proved their worth through hard work and cooperation and had become legitimate Joama'.
 
Another group of three brothers and their families had settled in the village more recently and occupied a somewhat different status. They had settled a separate small hamlet with a number of relatives (Ballala, from Chad) about 200 m from the village and had been given very little land. Most of these families had sharecropped or rented land from the Joama', until all but the three remaining families had moved a few kilometers away to a new Ballala village a few weeks before I arrived. The families who remained behind had moved their houses into the main village and continued to cultivate the small plots that had been given them by a large landowner. Villagers referred to these people as "good Ballala" who were "just like the Joama'."
 
In short, by ethnic group, in the west, social scientists refer to a group of people who share the same genealogy.  But O’Brien demonstrates that capitalist expansion and labor relations can form, restructure or dissolve ethnic groups. Therefore, at least in the case of the Sudan, the term “ethnic group” might have different connotations.