Tanzanian Ritual Perimetrics and African Landscapes: The Caseof Dracaena

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Abstract: The people of the North Pare Mountains have multiple uses for the dracaena plant. It forms living fences between agricultural plots, it marks graves and shrines, and it serves as a symbol of dispute settlement. It mediates boundaries – between adjacent farms, between life and death, and between rival kin groups – as no other plant does. Dracaena serves similar economic, political, and symbolic functions in societies throughout tropical Africa. This paper reviews the social values of dracaena in North Pare and reviews the evidence that these functions relate to geographic expansion (and, in particular places and times, agricultural intensification) among rural peoples across Africa. I survey the scattered references to the use of this particular plant for tenurial and ritual purposes across Africa and suggest some reasons for the persistence of these uses. Finally, I contrast how this plant mediates local land tenure processes in North Pare with the mediation functions of tenurial institutions in both colonial Tanganyika and independent Tanzania. The argument, in brief, is that dracaena is a symbol of flexible and negotiable land rights, and derives much of its efficacy and legitimacy from its multivocality as fence, grave marker, and kin group property marker. As such, it links local ecology, political economy, and moral economy. Colonial and postcolonial tenure institutions, in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa, have been less effective and reliable because of their rigidity, narrow focus, separation of ecology, politics, and morality, and, especially in the post-independence period, their ultimate transience.