Iteso - Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. The Iteso live in territorial units of increasing scale: the household; the neighborhood; government-defined units (the headman's area and the sublocation); the location (headed by a government-appointed chief); and the division, which also tends to correspond to the constituency for the Iteso member of parliament. In addition, the Iteso of Kenya recognize three dialect groups, which have had different external cultural influences.

The precolonial Iteso were organized into territorial units called itemwan ("fireplaces"—called "sections" in the anthropological literature; sing. item ), which were the largest-scale political units and were organized for defense and political expansion. An itemwan may have been led by a successful war leader. The age system appears to have been extremely different from one part of the Iteso territory to another. One constant element was the rituals associated with retirement from the status of elder. After performing them, retired men could no longer marry and were believed to have privileged access to the divinity.

Women's forms of social organization include special, ritually defined friendships, labor cooperatives, groups formed to heal illness caused by spirit possession, and, since the mid1980s, church groups.

Social Control. The feud functioned as a significant mechanism for social control among the Iteso during the precolonial period. All members of a lineage were held responsible for the actions of their fellow lineage members. Witches and deviants, such as persons who committed incest, were either expelled or punished. Since the advent of colonial rule, neighborhood disputes have been adjudicated by a council of male elders and the headman. Disputes that cannot be settled at this level can be taken to the chiefs meeting or to the district court. Values associated with ideals of male and female achievement, particularly those connected with childbearing, are very significant for the Iteso. Even the words for "adult male" and "husband" and "adult female" and "wife" are the same. All adult Iteso strive to become successful parents, and their sense of efficacy is tied to their reproductive status. Women are closely supervised from marriage through the end of their fertile period. One of the consequences of joining a cult of spirit possession is to provide contexts in which male supervision of female activities is not appropriate.

Conflict. The Iteso are a very egalitarian people and have a quite justified reputation for independent action. They tend to settle conflicts before they reach the formal legal system. There are a number of sources of conflict. The first is interethnic: the Iteso still see themselves as disputing with their traditional enemies. Territorial disputes occur pertaining to the number of seats the Iteso should have in parliament and to the boundaries of the location in which they live. During the 1970s, when land was first registered, land disputes were a major source of conflict—especially between sets of half-siblings or the descendants of in-laws who had chosen to live together. Disputes between neighbors (over cattle grazing) and between husbands and wives (over the allocation of labor) are now frequent. These are the product of land scarcity and changing patterns of cash cropping, which now conflict with the labor demands of subsistence.

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