Iteso - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Eleusine (finger millet) and sorghum are major food crops. In the 1920s colonial officials introduced cassava as a supplement to these staples and as a famine-relief food. Cassava, which the Iteso cook with finger millet and sorghum, is planted in fields that would otherwise be fallow. Women grow vegetables in gardens next to their sleeping houses and gather various wild foods, especially mushrooms and flying ants, a delicacy. Men herd cattle, and the grazing of animals was regarded as a commonly held right until the late 1960s and early 1970s; there have been conflicts over the right to graze since then, and some people have fenced their fields. The primary cash crop was cotton, which was grown by men and women in separate plots (and for individual income) during the short rains. As a result, the labor demands for cash crops did not conflict with demands for subsistence farming. Many households have teams of oxen and plows; others trade their labor for the use of a richer household's teams. Newly introduced cash crops such as maize and tobacco are grown during the long rains and have caused considerable concern about how people will manage the conflicting demands of cash and subsistence farming. The primary commercial activities are trading in cattle, owning small shops, and (in Kenya) employment in such public-sector jobs as local administration and schoolteaching.

Industrial Arts. The primary occupations are carpentry, tailoring, butchery, and various indigenous skills, such as making the boards used for elee, a game of calculation played with seeds, which is the Iteso national pastime. Few of these are full time occupations. In some areas there are women potters, but blacksmithing is unknown. The Iteso of Kenya traded with the Samia people for their iron goods in the precolonial period.

Trade. There were a few markets at independence; some have grown much larger with the addition of government facilities such as schools and dispensaries. Market and cattletrading days rotate among different major markets. These have also become centers for an extensive trade in dried fish and goods such as used clothing imported from the United States. Gas-operated grinding mills are now frequently found at market centers. Women pay for the grinding of foodstuffs through the sale of beer they have brewed and small amounts of grain and vegetables.

Division of Labor. The division of labor among the Iteso is characterized by the radical separation of the sexes in subsistence and ritual activities. Men are responsible for building houses and clearing land. Both men and women plant, weed, and harvest, but women are solely responsible for processing food crops, including threshing, grinding, and cooking. Although public rituals have largely disappeared among the Iteso, domestic and life-cycle rituals are regularly performed by women. Ritual is defined as part of their work—protecting the lives and health of the children of their households. Within neighborhoods, households regularly cooperate in tasks such as harvesting cotton; in this way, individual harvests are quickly garnered, and labor is fluidly distributed in a period of peak demand. The social mechanism underlying this cooperation is the beer party, which is also a context for cooperation between husbands and wives. People who do not work cooperatively and attend beer parties are judged to be epog ("proud" and thoughtless of other people's needs)—a very serious insult to the Iteso.

Land Tenure. Land was freely available during the precolonial period. Only improvements—for example, trees planted on the land—were owned. Today such trees are a source of considerable conflict because people own trees on land belonging to someone else. Land was first sold in the mid-1950s, but registration did not begin until the early 1970s. Land was never held by corporate groups such as lineages, and thus the transition to individual landholdings was accompanied by less conflict than elsewhere in Kenya. Important men anticipated the impending land scarcity and moved their former clients to large, newly claimed land parcels. For the first time, some Iteso in Kenya are unable to grow enough food to feed themselves. They have to work at very low rates for wealthier, usually salaried, people.

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