Venice Clothesline

Venice Clothesline309
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One Essay Response

  1. Amandalin29 says:

    This photograph of an African hut in a mountainous and lush landscape is at once intimate and puzzling. The house is well-constructed, its mud walls bound with branches and topped with water-repellent, dried grass. Maize grows in a plot nestled between the home and a small, wooden shed, evidence of planning and care. Yet, tall grass surrounds the domicile and people and animals are absent from this pastoral scene. In this photograph, the intimacy of what is visible hints at the stories left unseen to the observer. Is this homestead still a home, or now a remnant, left behind during a recent migration?

    Home, when linked to a particular house and homestead, is often considered an unmovable, geographical place upon which changes are unavoidably wrought. Social structures past and present shape where houses are located, who lives in them, and how the monetary values of both buildings and landscapes are determined. When disaster, displacement, economic change, or depopulation alters the physical contours of communities, individuals may leave behind their immobile residences.

    At the same time, the social construction of home exceeds mere materiality. As Bachelard (1958) explained, “a home, even though its physical properties can be described…is not a physical entity but an orientation to fundamental values” (1). A person may be more transitory than their house, but their sense of “home” may be linked with cultural belonging, experiences, lineage, and social networks. Many African agrarian communities divvy up access, rather than ownership, to homesteads through customary land tenure laws. In both Swaziland and Uganda, sites of two of my studies on land tenure, land is owned by a group, and access to land is negotiated and reinforced by village, clan, or homestead hierarchies. As a solemn, Ugandan man told me, “home is where ancestors live, where your god dwells, where you were born, and where your kids live.”

    What happens to “home” when people are no longer in the picture? In the wake of seasonal migration, crisis, or displacement, how do people, particularly those who relied primarily on land for livelihood, recreate home after extreme “domicide,” such as war and the forced resettlement of indigenous people (2)? And how can individuals made especially vulnerable by conflict and social loss find their place, both materially and symbolically, in the midst of such disorientation?

    We do not know where the photograph was taken. Local history, context, and culture is vital for fully understanding the meanings of place and residence. For instance, if this hut was located in Swaziland, it might be simply left fallow for a season, while its residents temporarily work in the capital city of Mbabane. If this home was in Acholiland, Uganda, it’s emptiness may reflect decades of internal displacement. In the 1990s, the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group confronted government forces in guerrilla warfare and terrorized Acholi villages along the way. The Ugandan government sent one and a half million Acholi to stay at internal displacement camps to allow for better protection and support of civilians. Two decades and a peace treaty later, family and clan members are finally able to reconvene at homesteads overgrown in tall grass. They return to familiar places to rebuild huts, replant maize, remember forgotten boundaries, and reestablish what it means to be at home—at least for them, in Acholiland.

    What is seen in this photo of an African hut is a window into the unseen: evidence of cultural legacies, lived experiences, and hopefully, many possible futures for this home’s people, and this peoples' home.

    (1) Bachelard, G., 1958. Poetics of Space 2nd ed., Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
    (2) Porteous, J.D. & Smith, S.E., 2001. Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home, Montreal and Kingston, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press.