Persons and Property in Kilimanjaro: Claims, Development, and Legal Anthropology

Researcher: Knut Christian Myhre

The project started in 2006 and was completed in 2010

Property is a strong contender for a universal human phenomenon. It is difficult to imagine a society where property is absent, but the manner in which property holding and transfer is conceptualised and organised varies across time and space. Property is a localised phenomenon, which cannot be taken for granted, but rather must be studied in its specific forms.

Strands within development discourse have recently argued that codified and formalised property rights are preconditions for economic growth and poverty reduction in Africa. These arguments presuppose and aim to introduce notions and practices pertaining to property that involve title deeds, contractual relationships, and monetarised transfers. These strategies seek to export modes of property holding that are familiar from the developed world, and thus try to universalise phenomena that have specific historical and social origins.

The Research Focus
The present project probes the validity of these notions and practices for an African context through an empirical study of a rural area in Rombo District, Kilimanjaro Region, Tanzania. The research focuses on people’s claims to different forms of property, and aims to situate these within the local semantic and practical universe.

One entry to these claims and justifications goes through the inheritance of homesteads, where the person’s birth-order is of great importance. Earlier research in the area demonstrates that birth-order intertwines with other social phenomena, such as kinship terminology, modes of marriage, and naming practices that create an alternation of generations. Central to these are extensive and protracted bridewealth exchanges, where the results of everyday production, and the substances that constitute the local diet, become preconditions for legitimate reproduction, and bring the marital homestead into being.

A relational perspective
By adopting a relational perspective, the project investigates the meaning of property claims and the ways in which they are made, justified, contested, or recognised. For this purpose, the project interrogates how persons are born into a relational web, which extends through their participation in ‘dwelling’, and enables these claims. Claims to property are thus not based on unequivocal rights that are bestowed at birth, but rather on preceding social relationships, which enable a multitude of potentially conflicting claims.

By tracing the networks that make up the basis of these claims and counter-claims, the research brings forth the relational constitution of local agents, as opposed to the rights-bearing individual presupposed by formalised property rights. In this way, the project discloses discrepancies between vernacular conceptions and organisations of property, and the legalistic framework of the nation-state and the development discourse. Through a processual approach that allows for social, political, and economic changes, the project enables an historical ethnography that can serve as a corrective to the common presuppositions of development discourses and legal anthropology.

Knut Christian Myhre holds a DPhil in Social Anthropology, St Anthony’s College, Oxford, United Kingdom. His subject areas are East Africa, Tanzania, land claims, property rights, legal anthropology, historical ethnography, modes of livelihood, social complexity.

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