Killing your Neighbors

Killing Your Neighbors: Friendship and Violence in Northern Kenya and Beyond, by Jon D. Holtzman (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016)

Reviewed by Erin K. McFee, University of Chicago

In Killing Your Neighbors, Jon D. Holtzman embarks on a multi-sited, multi-vocal, dialogical ethnography of intergroup relations – violent and otherwise – in Northern Kenya. He traces the stories people tell about inter-ethnic conflict, friendship, and economic activity. Throughout the book, Holtzman convincingly argues that the values, cultural practices, and social processes attached to these stories create a certain set of conditions that can make killing logical, transforming relationships among neighbors, friends, and intimates. Unsurprisingly, all sides have their own version of the truth. Holtzman’s mediation on these conflicting accounts answers a compelling question: how is it that all sides of a given conflict are able to make sense of and justify shifting relations between friendship, peaceful trade, and combat against mortal enemies? This work represents a timely and much needed contribution to the study of inter-ethnic conflict at a time when peace negotiations worldwide among warring groups continue to stall, result in fragile accords, or even fail to launch altogether.

The text draws from more than two decades of field research with Samburu pastoralists in the Northern Kenyan Rift Valley, complemented by fieldwork among various neighboring ethnic groups such as the Kikuyu, Somalis, and Pokot. These groups are sometimes enemies, sometimes friends.  Holtzman locates his work in the tradition of anthropological writing on violence inaugurated by Neil L. Whitehead and his colleagues, who situated violence as implicated in, rather than antithetical to, cultural systems and ways of understanding the world. He analyzes complementary and competing discourses of violent events and lingers on the dissonances and, at times, impossibilities that emerge between them. In doing so, he constructs the basis for his main argument: the stories that people tell about both war and peace sow the seeds for constantly evolving, culturally-situated (mis)understandings that give rise to future violence. 

Without underselling the theoretical and empirical contribution of the work, it is first and foremost a substantial contribution to ethnographic methodology. Most chapters chart the conflicting accounts of key events and actors from all sides (Holtzman’s multi-sited, multi-vocal approach). In Chapter Three, for example, he compares discourses of the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s offered by his long-time host community, the Samburu, and their then-enemy neighbors, the Kikuyu. By drawing on accounts from both sides, he is able to challenge commonly held assumptions that war convenes opponents with an equal degree of ill will towards each other. The Samburu remain utterly convinced that contemporary intergroup tensions constitute a reprisal for their role defending the colonialists against the Kikuyu in the Mau Mau uprising, whereas the Kikuyu cite only the pesky Samburu habit of stealing goats as the logic behind continued skirmishes. In the half century since the Mau Mau uprising, each group’s efforts toward memory, forgetting, and erasure have contributed to these competing memory claims and differentially justified their violence toward each other.

Holzman’s approach shows us clearly that while people from various ethnic groups often agree upon the events and actions that constituted key historic moments, the motives behind, relative importance of, justifications for, and logical sequels of such events vary widely from one implicated actor to the next. Some narratives present interpretations that are diametrically opposed to those gathered from members of other groups. Holtzman’s commitment to this messiness, ambiguity, and ambivalence–along with the clarity with which he is able to write of such entanglements–enable him to elaborate the mechanisms by which the Samburu (and others) map other groups’ behaviors, dispositions, and assumed motives onto their own frameworks for morality, values, and virtue. These processes, in turn, shape the possibilities for the dialogical production of war and peace. Through his approach to research and writing, he makes a convincing claim that “rather than simplifying this messiness for the sake of analytical clarity, we as anthropologists [should] embrace the ambiguities and contradictions within ethnographies that mirror, and thus more truly capture, the uncertainties in the world that our subjects (and ourselves) inhabit” (p. 125).

Killing Your Neighbors theorizes contradictions as mechanisms through which future conflict becomes possible. For example, the Samburu have an oath of peace with the Pokot, and otherwise little affection towards these generally derided neighbors. Meanwhile, no such oath exists with the Turkana and deadly conflicts occur periodically between them and the Samburu; and yet, real affection, mixing, and even intermarriage occur between the two groups outside of the moments of conflict. Holtzman’s claim is that violence between groups does not emerge despite these contradictory social dynamics, but rather, as a direct result of them. The contradictions themselves are what enable both sides to wage morally justifiable war on the other.

In the area of alternatives to violence, and even possible refusals of violence, I hoped for a different, complementary analysis–perhaps one to emerge from parallel work in the future. This is a book about intergroup relations; however, individual accounts of violence done and suffered are foregrounded as the empirical basis for analysis. As a reader, I wondered about those among the Samburu and other groups who choose not to kill their neighbors, even when the killing has been thoroughly socially and morally justified. How might conceptualizing non-violence as “deviant,” individual behavior in contexts of conflict add to our understanding of collective violence? Or, how might such non-normative behavior illuminate intra-ethnic group frictions and heterogeneity of motives for engagement in conflict more generally?

Holtzman’s elegant writing interweaves strong empirically grounded argumentation with a wit and levity that makes for an enjoyable read as much an informative one. This book contributes to the anthropology of inter-ethnic violence, and would be of interest to Africanists, peace and conflict scholars, historians, and narrative scholars across a variety of disciplines. It also contains meaningful methodological reflections on the positionality, possibilities, and limits of conducting ethnographic research in these kinds of settings, which makes it a decisive contribution to the canon of methodological writing in anthropology.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For further, related reading in PoLAR reviews, see Eric Loefflad’s review of The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide, by Benjamin Meiches, or Matthew Canfield’s review of Hunting Justice, by Maria Sapignoli.]