Human Ecology

, Volume 24, Issue 2, pp 255–272 | Cite as

Whose cows are they, anyway?: Ideology and behavior in Nandi cattle “ownership” and control

  • Regina Smith Oboler
Article

Abstract

The system of rights in cattle among the Nandi of western Kenya is built on a paradox: wives' predominant rights in certain categories of cattle vs. a strong public ideology assigning cattle control to men. Various Nandi categories of cattle and the structure of rights in them are described. Husbands' and wives' interests at times conflict; the negotiation of such conflicts is explored through analysis of several case studies. These studies show that it is possible, though not common, for wives to use traditional legal processes to counter husbands' herd management decisions. It is suggested that this possibility, and the potential loss of face it entails, explains why husbands rarefy take actions contrary to wives' rights in livestock. Different rhetorical strategies of men and women in talking about rights in cattle, and emphasis on different aspects of customary law, are also discussed. This discussion is related to the emerging theory of “customary law” as the result of conflicts negotiated in the political context of colonialism. Ongoing economic changes are eroding wives' positions in negotiations over cattle “ownership.” Literature on other African societies is reviewed, showing similar patterns of erosion of women's property rights, and differing interpretations of customary rights from those formalized in customary law.

Key words

gender and property rights customary law pastoralism Kenya 

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Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Regina Smith Oboler
    • 1
  1. 1.Ursinus CollegeCollegeville

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