Domination: the Mardu & Kwegu as Exemples

April 6, 2008

The Mardu are Australian Aborigines who came 40 000 years ago from Asia and since then lived in total isolation in the Australian inner land desert where they developed a complex web of kinship relations and a hunter gatherer life style. The Mardu lived in harmony with the harsh desertic nature, as they believed in a Law provided by the spirits, which inspires them their social organisation, their taboos and ritual practices in a Dream living logic. However Mardu aborigines don’t have the notion of Progress in their culture, they only believe in change ordered by the spirits. By the beginning of the twentieth century Mardu aborigine where forced to get out of their isolation, as a new form of non-Mardu human beings came to live only 50 miles away from their homeland. After leaving the desert and settling in the community of Jigalong, the Mardu have been living under the Whitefella’s cultural, economic and political domination. Yet, the Mardu succeeded in maintaining to some extent their original Law’s integrity from the contact with the white Australians.

The Kwegu are a tribally organised population living next to the Omo River in southern Ethiopia. The Kwegu are considered being a second-class people in a society dominated by the pastoral Mursi and Bodi tribes. Even if the Kwegu are the first settlers on the Omo land, they still live as a culturally, economically and politically dominated group under the rules of the Mursi and Bodi tribes. The Kwegu don’t perceive them selves as dominated, as they are aware of their economic and social contribution to the society. Yet, the number of Kwegu is shrinking more every year because of the unfair social organisation and marriage restrictions.

The anthropologist David Turton, who studied the aspects of the Kwegu domination, suggests that the understanding of the Kwegu- Mursi- Bodi relationships can help in understanding how domination works in general. This article is a comparative paper of the cultural, economic and political aspects of dominations within the Kwegu and the Mardu societies, as to analyse whether Turton’s theory fits to all dominated groups or not.

Cultural Domination

The life of the Mardu, as described by Tonkinson, is “characterised by an extremely simple technology and material culture and an equally outstanding complex religious and cosmological system” (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: vi). Consequently, the cultural domination was more felt in the cultural aspects and means of daily life rather than in the religious and ceremonial ones, which remained preserved from any outside influence. Mardu Aborigines see White Anglo-Australians as belonging to an other category of creatures other than the human beings they were used to, so cultural curiosity played a major role in the physical abandonment of their homeland and migration next to the Withfella’s settlements (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: 160). The Mardu settlers in Jigalong are a cultural minority compared to the huge number of Anglo-Australians living next to them. As a result, it is obvious that the culture of the dominant group in terms of number will affect the minority groups. The Mardu, and especially the young generations, changed their diet, their clothing, marriage age and started learning English and going to health centres as well as schools, as to be assimilated socially and culturally to the dominant group. Yet, the kinship connections remained as important as before in the Jigalong camps. The Christian missionaries entered Jigalong by 1945, and as stated in the book “in its quarter century of life, the mission failed to become a viable concern evangelically or economically” (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: 163). This can be better explained regarding the strength of the cosmological believes and how it regulates the whole live of the Aborigines. The notion of progress it self is questioned here, because progress doesn’t exist in the Mardu believes, only changes can acquire, whereas Progress can only come from the dream spirits. Thus, clothing, language and other daily things can change but not the religious believes. I can say here, that maybe the Mardu are dominated by the esoteric world which prevented them from being dominated by the new masters of the esoteric world. It is quite a complex psychological kind of domination by their dream spirits.

In the case of the Kwegu-Mursi, the dominant and the dominated group can’t be culturally separated, as they lived together for several time and developed progressively their complex relationships. In the Kwegu society, unlike the Mardu, there is no non-human being other, there is only two interdependent parts of the same society. However, in this same society, the Kwegu are seen as second class people (Turton, 1989). The cultural and social domination by the Mursi can be noticed in all the aspects of daily life. For instance, the Kwegu houses lay out sparely in a form of a racial ghetto, so is the separation in terms of ceremonial practices and marriages (Turton, 1989). The Kwegu are bilingual because they have to master the language of the dominant group, whereas the Mursi only speak their own language, because they see the Kwegu tongue as being inferior and not worth learning (Turton, 1989). We noticed the same linguistic domination among the Mardu, who learn English to communicate with the Anglo-Australians. Another aspect of cultural domination is how the Mursi call the Kwegu. They often call them “those who don’t have” or “ours”, as if they were their property, the same thing was practised by the Australian government, which took long time before admitting that Aboriginals were human beings and citizens.

The aspects of cultural domination are the same regarding daily life’s relationships and social organisation, but contrary to the Kwegu who are losing their identity while shrinking in number, the Mardu have changed in their external looking and behaviour but kept the integrity of their kinship ties and especially their religious perception of the world.

Economic domination

Moving from the nomadic life in the desert toward a stable life in Jigalong implies the end of the hunting-gathering life and a huge upheaval in the economic life of Aborigines. The author explains “the link between increasing involvement and growing dependence on, an alien economy” (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: 162), which means that one of the highest prices for integration into the Anglo-Australians life style is to accept their economic domination. The Mardu, who became dependant of many services like teas and sugar, give in exchange sheep labour and Aboriginal prostitutes. After 1945, some Mardu started working also in pastoral leases owned by the missionaries (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: 163-164), but the Mardu men continue to return to Jigalong where their family and kids live, which helped in maintaining the kinship structure. Another main aspect of economic domination, is how the sedentarization transformed the Mardu economy into a cash-oriented economy (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: 166), which is very typical of the dominant group economic style. The Mardu workers were also marginalised in some economic activities like mining, even if it’s their land which has been exploited by the miners.

Economically, the Kwegu don’t see them selves as a dominated group, because they feel that they have a major role in the economic exchange with the Mursi and the Bodi (Turton, 1989). The Kwegu provide the canoes for the Mursi to cross the river to take care of their lands and do their trade, and without the Kwegu skills in canoe making and sailing the dominant group can be economically in danger. The Kwegu also work in all hand working as honey gathering of fixing rifles… In the other hand the Mursi are the land owners, and the ones who own cattle, which is the main distinction between the two groups. Thus, in this society hand workers are seen as second-class people, while the cattle owners are the noble people. In the marriage negotiations, every Kwegu is in need of a Mursi or Bodi patron to provide the bullets and cattle needed as dote for the bride (Turton, 1989).

In the Mardu society, the aboriginals are completely dominated within a new economical system very different from what they were used to. They had to let down all their hunting-gathering skills for new repellent activities to ensure their survival. In the other hand the Kwegu don’t feel dominated economically by their Mursi patrons, as they use their specialised skills to get the necessary help in order to get married.

Political Domination

Originally, the Mardu were totally disinterested in political life and bureaucratic procedures “which they perceived as legitimately “Whitefella business”… they were considered trivial in comparison to the central concern of the Mardu” (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: 164). Consequently, Mardu aborigines didn’t feel politically dominated, as they believe neither in political organisation nor in land ownership. They see the land as the property of the Dream Spirits, and dealing with political matters of being secondary compared to their concern with religious rituals. Since 1967, the Australian state has been discriminating the aboriginals, and even when it legislated the Self-determination law, it hasn’t taken into consideration that the Aboriginals were unprepared to elect representative agents to negotiate for them (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: 167-168). The political domination resulted in patriarchal governance elite, which pushed the Aboriginal women to ask for their political rights (Tonkinson, 2002, pp: 170). The Aboriginal land rights are still a big issue for the Australian government, which is still to some extent favouring the dominant group.

The Kwegu are considered politically like children having nothing to do with decision making. Even in their marriage the Kwegu need a patron to be able to have a wife. “The Kwegu have the choice in choosing their patron but must have one” (Turton, 1989), as they are seen as note able to rule them selves without a Mursi or Bodi patron. The Patrons provide physical protection for the Kwegu and play the role of a family guardian if he provides the cattle for the marriage.

The Mardu and the Kwegu are both politically dominated, but the Mardu have originally no concern with decision making because of being too busy with their religious lives, whereas the Kwegu remain minors all over their lives because their patrons take care of speaking on their names.

The Mardu Aborigines are culturally and socially dominated by Anglo-Australians in external aspects of life, while they kept their religious integrity, as they seem to be spiritually dominated by the Dream spirits. Yet, the Kwegu as a cultural group are totally dominated, and their culture is shrinking as they are being assimilated by the dominant group. Economically we see the Mardu suffering from the huge upheaval in their economical system from hunter-gatherers to field workers and prostitutes, whereas, the Kwegu feel comfortable in their economic exchange with the Mursi-Bodi, as being a part of a skilled class. Politically speaking both Mardu and Kwegu suffer from marginalisation, as the Mardu have no experience in political affairs and the Kwegu are still considered as minors. Consequently, we notice that Turton’s theory about generalising the aspects of domination prove to be very relative, because every dominated group has its particularities, so is the dominant group, and this chock between the values of both which creates the domination aspects.

Reference List

Woodhouse, L. (1989). The Kwegu: Disappearing World. With David Turton,
anthropologist. PBS.

Tonkinson, R. (2002). The Mardu Aborigines: Living the Dream in Australian’s desert.
Stanford University. Thomsom custom publishing


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