Farmlands, or agricultural landscapes, captures the interest of a number of researchers based at the Department of Human Geography, Stockholm University. On this blog we share information about research findings, activities, events and comments related to our work.

Our interest in farmlands has three roots: farming, landscape and society.
Farming as a practice, including farmers knowledge and labour investments
Landscape as society-nature relations, congealed history, and as space and place
Society as a short form for institutions, gender relations, political economy and scientific relevance

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Furrows in Africa -- canals in the Americas ?

Lowe Börjeson inspecting an abandoned irrigation "furrow"in Engaruka 1996.

An abandoned irrigation canal in Safford, Arizona US (April 2013).

A certain type of irrigation system in East Africa (known for example from Engaruka in Tanzania and Marakwet in Kenya) has now for a long time been recognised by the term "furrow systems".  In 1989 Bill Adams noted the following on this terminology:

"The term 'furrow system' is now too well established in the archaeological and anthropological literature to be dislodged, but it should be noted that it engenders some confusion with the engineering term for a certain method of field water application, known as furrow as opposed to border or strip irrigation. It may therefore be useful to call them ´hill furrow´ systems, thus marking their physical similarity to the systems of Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan" (Azania vol 24)

In the literature on these "hill furrow systems" in east Africa the term furrow is also most often used for the artificial watercourses from the intake to the fields and the social organisation around them is written about in terms like "furrow man", "furrow owners" etc. (My own texts on the African systems also use that terminology.)

In April I visited Arizona and was guided in the remains of the precolumbian Hohokam irrigation systems in the Phoenix/Tucson area and could note that what in Eastern Africa would have been a furrow was called a canal in the archaeological terminology on these systems.

A "furrow" leading water to the recent irrigated area in the lower part of Engaruka, Tanzania (Sept 2012)
As can be seen from the photos the size and shape of the canals in Arizona and the furrows in East Africa are close and there is definitely no reason to differentiate between them in the terminology. The irrigation engineering terminology is simple. Canals lead the water to the fields and on the field a furrow system is one of the possible ways of applying the water on the field (others being e.g. flooding, sprinkler and drip irrigation), . This is in line with the lexical difference between a canal and furrow in English -- and in many other languages. 

Bill Doolittle photographing furrow irrigation for cotton NW of Pima in Arizona

Water is spread in the field with the help of furrows, Iraqw´ar Da/aw, Tanzania (1996)

Although  the term hill furrow system is well established I nevertheless see a problem when different terminologies are used in different parts of the world for similar features. As Bill Adams recently commented (pers. comm.) the comparative examples in Asia are also now summarised under the term hill irrigation (see book by Linden Vincent) in the meaning of gravity flow canal irrigation in mountainous areas.

A more clear distinction between canals leading water from the rivers towards the fields and more temporary furrows for spreading the water on the fields (the latter can clearly bee seen in the lower parts of Marakwet) could also sharpen the research on the gravity fed canal systems of East Africa. Reference is sometimes made to furrow being a local term, but I have not yet come across a study discussing the terminology in the local languages (please comment!).

When it comes to terminology the global study of ancient irrigation systems and of ancient field systems more generally is almost in pre-scientific state. It is not only when it comes to irrigation that regional research traditions have come to dominate terminology (lynchets exists almost everywhere where agriculture was practiced, but seems in the literature to be confined to NW Europe etc etc). I am not expecting us to come up with a fine-grained Linnean taxonomy, but especially in the time of internet a consistent terminology opens up for interesting international comparisons and syntheses. (See for example the overview of social organisation of canal irrigation by Hunt and co-authors)

The origin of the term furrow for the irrigation canals in east Africa is not fully clear to me, but looking back to the period before archaeological research I first find the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson who noticed the "employment of canals for irrigation" among the Marakwet. He learnt in a most surprising way of the canals since he pitched camp close to what he thought was a stream and found it dry in the morning. Only after negotiations was the canal again filled with water (Through Maasailand 1887).

In 1941 the district officer R.O. Henning published the article "The Furrow-makers of Kenya" in Geographical Magazine. The main emphasis in this article is his detailed knowledge of the irrgation system  and his admiration of the ingenuity of the Marakwet for their irrigation system. He nevertheless emphasises that the irrigation system is "primitive and small". There can be no doubt about his colonial attitude: "The African's only accomplishment of importance were singing and dancing, and iron-working" he writes.

Whatever the background for the usage of "furrows" for the irrigation canals in Eastern Africa it is nevertheless obvious that using furrows instead of canals makes them seem more simple in comparison to e.g. their American counterparts. Seeing the hill irrigation complex in East Africa as part of global pattern of indigenously developed canal irrigation systems (be it in the American South West or in Pamir) on the other hand, opens up for broader comparisons.
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POSTSCRIPT same afternoon

Reminded by an eager reader with better memory: Note that John Sutton uses the term canal for the main arteries bringing water from the rivers in Engaruka, and feeder furrows for lower rank artificial watercourses (See for example John Sutton: Engaruka: An irrigation agricultural community in northern Tanzania before the Maasai, 2000).

It also struck me that I needed to check the German terminology -- note therefore that Jigal Beez in his work on the Kilimanjaro irrigation Die Ahnen essen keinen Reis (Bayreuth 2005) consistently uses Kanäle for the canals (and also shortly discusses how Furchenbewässerung  - furrow irrigation -  rather refers to how the water is applied to the field than how it gets there.) Beez also shows that the Chagga word for the canals is mfongo  and that the Swahili word mfereji for canal or furrow is a loan from Arabic.

Postscript dec 2014

A printed version, with more references,  of this blogpost can be found in the journal   Azania

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