Stones of remembrance and forgetting: Gravestones in a South-Western Ethiopian landscape


CFEE Seminar Past and Present: History, Memory and Heritage

3ème séance / 3rd session: Stones of remembrance and forgetting: Gravestones in a South-Western Ethiopian landscape, par / by Lucie BUFFAVAND (Max Planck Institute)

Mardi 2 février 2016, 14h-16h, Bibliothèque d’études éthiopiennes Berhanou Abebe (CFEE) / Tuesday 2 January 2016, 2-4 PM, Berhanou Abebe Library of Ethiopian Studies (CFEE).

Session organisée en partenariat avec Thomas Osmond, assistant professor au département d’anthropologie sociale de l’Université d’Addis-Abeba / Session organised in partnership with Thomas Osmond, assistant professor in the Department of Social Anthropology of Addis Ababa University.

Cette session est la troisième d’un cycle thématique sur la question du lien entre bâtiments et mémoire locale. / This session is the third of a thematic cycle devoted to the link between local memory and buildings.

Stones of remembrance and forgetting: Gravestones in a South-Western Ethiopian landscape, par / by Lucie BUFFAVAND

The Mela, a small agro-pastoralist group of south-west Ethiopia, have dotted their landscape with the burial stones of the men holding a politico-religious office or komorutiya (sing. komorut). They are of particular importance for Mela identity because the naming ceremony of a new generation-set, which occur every forty years, has to be conducted at a chosen komorut’s gravestone. In this presentation, I contend that Mela gravestones are not simple mnemonic devices, but that they are forgotten and remembered. The landscape is not a definite record of social memories, but is part of the process of forgetting and remembering.

These gravestones transcend the potency of the komorut who lies under them: they are potent in themselves. They are sacred, that is separated from daily social activities. Therefore, the Mela do not easily remember the location of the grave-stones: they forgot them, and then re-discover them. Moreover, the grave-stones come to be known as if for themselves, often apparently detached from the particular ancestor who lies under them. They are not simple mnemonic device in that they do not re-activate the memory of the ancestor’s name each time someone sees them.

When people see a connection between features of their landscape and episodes in their history, it is tempting to say that such people write history into the landscape, a practice which could be tantamount to a ‘protowriting system’. This perspective makes one marvels at the ‘art of memory’ of illiterate societies who preserve their history by spatializing it, but it ignores memory in the making – and its obverse: forgetting. The memory work that attributes meaning to specific places – here, an ancestor to his grave-stone – is constantly going on.

In this presentation, I relate this perspective on the landscape with the ambiguity that pervades the definition of local groups’ respective territories. Mela reflect on their own territoriality as it is increasingly at odds with the much more exclusive territoriality of the Ethiopian state.

L’ intervenante / The speaker

Lucie Buffavand est doctorante en anthropologie à l’Institut Max Plack pour l’anthropologie sociale de Halle (Allemagne) / Lucie Buffavand is a PhD student from the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (Germany).

Organisateurs du séminaire 2015-2016 / Convenors of the seminar series 2015-2016: Belete Bizuneh (AAU, History Dept.), Deresse Ayenachew (Debre Berhan University, History and Heritage Management Dept.), Thomas Guindeuil (CFEE), Margaux Herman (CFEE/IMAF), Kindeneh Endeg (AAU, IES), Shiferaw Bekele (AAU, History Dept.).

Photo: Omo Valley (© J.-R. Boisserie / OGRE project)

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