In his own words, Joost Fontein’s Remaking Mutirikwi is an interrogation of ‘the immanence of diverse past practices, interventions and occupations in the active political materialities of landscape’ (p. 14). Focused on and around the man-made Lake Mutirikwi—Zimbabwe’s second-largest body of water and a Brobdingnagian legacy of white Rhodesia’s efforts in the post-war years to tame the African veldt—this book seeks to disentangle the complex relationships between people and land. Based off numerous interviews and complemented by field-notes, archive work, and secondary sources, it is an ambitious and at times overly dense work. Yet it is one that succeeds in bringing together multiple strands into a cohesive, compelling, and insightful analysis: that struggles for belonging, sovereignty, and legitimacy are shaped by the endurance of past interactions with and within the landscape. Building upon an excellent library of work by JoAnn McGregor, Donald Moore, and Jocelyn Alexander among others, Fontein’s book is set apart by the agency given to the landscape and its own place in history. In part this is due to the book’s layout with Fontein having deliberately written ‘the history of Mutirikwi backwards […] in order to defy normative linear temporalities and the determinist causalities they imply’ (p. 289). Thus part one (five chapters) opens towards the end of the story, with the remaking of Mutirikwi’s landscapes in the early 2000s and the reclamation of land around the lake by a variety of groups during Zimbabwe’s Fast-Track Land Reform Programme’s (FTLRP) most contentious years. The author assesses claims to and aspirations for the land through autochthonous knowledge, the role of water in legitimising the presence of these claimants (including issues of fishing, wildlife, and irrigation), and finally the ‘genealogical geographies’ of Mutirikwi’s inhabitants whose connections with the land are often facilitated by the presence of ancestral spirits and physical remains. Part two (four chapters) focuses on ‘earlier remaking before, during and after the dam was built’ (p. 6). Here Fontein address the physicality and politics of dam building and white Rhodesian cultural, social, and political demands on both the region’s inhabitants and the landscape itself. It also tackles the impact of growing African nationalism on the area culminating in the liberation struggle which routinely played out ‘within Mutirikwi’s active African landscapes’ (p. 239), as well as the disputes over the rights to the land itself that marked the post-1980 land reform programmes. The epilogue returns to the initial period of the 2000s and advances up to 2014, putting Zimbabwe’s land question into perspective for the people of Mutirikwi. By bookending the history of part two with the experiences of Mutirikwi’s residents in a Zimbabwe devastated by economic uncertainty, political violence, and unprecedented food shortages, Fontein ensures this book also makes a valuable contribution to discussions about FTLR. That is not to say this book is without flaws. Because of its unusual layout, Fontein finds himself touching upon topics in the first few chapters to provide context to contemporary events, only to subsequently return in later chapters and in moments of déjà vu to the same history in more detail. Furthermore, some sections make for particularly heavy reading especially when Fontein provides intellectual contexts for the issues being discussed. The shift between the flowing narratives and the dense theoretical sections can come as something of a shock for even the most prepared readers and interrupt the presented arguments on a regular basis. Yet despite these minor weaknesses, Fontein’s biggest strength shines through at all times in the personalization of the topics he tackles. The extensive stretches spent with the people of Mutirikwi and the author’s intimate knowledge becomes quickly evident, not only of these individuals but of the broader structures within which they construct their identities and daily lives. Frequently the most interesting anecdotes from his field-notes and interviews run over into the footnotes and flesh out stories with a satisfying conclusiveness. Fontein’s interdisciplinary approach as an anthropologist, a sociologist, an ecologist, and a historian provides further credence to his writings; he is as comfortable discussing the contemporary issues faced by the current crop of actors around Mutirikwi as he is the challenges faced by their ancestors a half-century ago. All of this ensures that the topics are rooted in something substantial, whilst still retaining their theoretical significance and ground his writing in an entertaining and captivating manner regardless of the varied topics being discussed. Fontein consistently reiterates that this is a book about proximities in a variety of forms; historical, political, social, cultural, spiritual, geographical, material, and ecological, and moreover it is a study of the interactions between all of these. If the success of this approach for Mutirikwi is anything to go by, Fontein may have opened the door for a whole new understanding of peoples and places. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Royal African Society. All rights reserved
African Affairs – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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