‘The Kwegu’ is an entirely tasteful and dignified presentation of the harsh realities of subsistence living, and it may help us understand how, even in stateless societies, dominated groups come to accept their domination as part of the natural order. (A. Southall)
The Kwegu are hunters and cultivators who live along the banks of the River Omo in Southwestern Ethiopia. They are experts on the river, manipulating their dugout canoes through a swift current where falling overboard could mean delivery into the jaws of a crocodile. The Mursi are cattle herders and cultivators who live with the Kwegu for several months of the year. This film is about the relationship between these two groups of people. The Mursi number about 5,000 and the Kwegu about 500. Both groups cultivate flood land along the Omo during the dry season, when the Mursi may also bring their cattle to the river. But the Kwegu keep themselves separate from the Mursi; they speak their own language among themselves, although they are bilingual and communicate with the Mursi only in Mursi. When the Mursi and Kwegu share a village, the Kwegu houses usually form a separate cluster. When a Kwegu marries, a vital part of the bridewealth is livestock. But since the Kwegu do not keep cattle, a system of exchange has developed whereby the Kwegu perform services in exchange for Mursi cattle. In addition to providing bridewealth cattle, the Mursi patron protects ‘his’ Kwegu from other Mursi and acts on his behalf in bridewealth negotiations. In return the Kwegu provides his patron with honey and game meat and is available to ferry him and his family across the Omo when needed. This is a vital economic service, since the Mursi cultivate on both banks of the river and yet do not, unlike the Kwegu, live at the Omo all the year round. The Kwegu are therefore ‘guardians’ of the canoes as well as ferrymen. There is some debate about the nature of the Mursi-Kwegu relationship. The anthropologist advisor for the film, David Turton, sees the relationship as one of domination. The Mursi depend economically on the Kwegu more than the Kwegu do on them, and yet the Kwegu see themselves as dependent, in a different, more extreme sense, on the Mursi: they cannot marry without the aid of Mursi patron. The Mursi exploit the economic services of the Kwegu through their control of Kwegu marriage. Jean Lydall, in her review of the film in RAIN (June 1982), suggests another interpretation for the exchange of services. She wonders if indeed the Kwegu are not making the Mursi ‘pay through the nose’ for the services they require. This film suggests that far from being second-class citizens, the Kwegu are sharp manipulators who have acquired protection and material wealth by making their services indispensable to the Mursi. Turton defended his interpretation in a reply to Lydall (RAIN, No. 51, pp. 10–12) and has more recently provided a more detailed description and analysis of the Mursi-Kwegu relationship, following the same argument as developed in the film but including much additional ethnographic information (Turton, 1986).
‘The Kwegu’ (letter). RAIN, No. 55, p. 12. J. Lydall, 1982. Review of the film. RAIN, No. 50, pp. 22–24.
A. Singer with L. Woodhead, 1988. Disappearing World: Television and Anthropology. Granada Television Ltd., Boxtree.
A. Southall, 1984. Review of the film. American Anthropologist, Vol. 86, pp. 512–13.
‘The Kwegu’ (letter). RAIN, No. 51, pp. 10–12.
L. Woodhead, 1987. A Box Full of Spirits: Adventures of a Film Maker in Africa. Heinemann, London.
Language and subtitles
English with English Subtitles
North and Northeast Africa
Collective / Community identityAgriculture / FarmingSocial OrganisationMarriageTrade