'Hospitality without Commensality': Why Guests Eat Alone in Western Kenya
Mario Schmidt (Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology)
Paper short abstract:
Guests in Western Kenya often eat without their hosts. While scholars tend to interpret such 'hospitality without commensality' as attempts to foreclose the premature establishment of kin-like relations, we analyze it as acknowledging already existing relations whose exact nature is still unknown.
Paper long abstract:
Western Kenyan hosts often serve guests food without partaking in the meal. Inspired by studies that consider commensality and hospitality two sides of the same coin, ethnographers interpret such actions of not sharing substance as preventing a premature establishment of kin or kin-like relations with strangers. In contrast and building upon ethnographic data gathered between 2009 and now, our paper understands these acts of 'hospitality without commensality' as being built upon an acknowledgment of already existing relations whose exact nature is conceptualized as unknown. It is not the guests who are strange, but the puzzling nature of the relations they already share with their hosts. Regarding a larger analytical framework, we suggest that the attribution of kin-relations in Western Kenya went through a figure-ground reversal. The ground is no longer an "enduring, diffuse solidarity" (Wagner 1977, 'Analogic Kinship') which social actors cut into "analogic flows" that stand out as figures (such as patrilineal relations). Rather, this "enduring, diffuse solidarity" has itself turned into the figure that stands out against the ground of a multiplicity of "diffuse flows" of relatedness (patrilinearity, friendship, relations established by 'care' etc.). This new figure is epitomized in the concept of chuny, a form of social substance already shared before contact and related to Christian notions of body and soul. While hosts share chuny with their guests without being sure what that precisely means, 'hospitality without commensality' gives time to postpone an ultimate decision.
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