ACT - Volume 9 Issue 2 

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Meet the Conservationist: Jean Lydall

Jean Lydall is an ethnographer, filmmaker and scholar who along with her husband Ivo Strecker, has studied, filmed and written about the Hamar in southern Ethiopia for 44 years. Her critically acclaimed films are ‘The Women who Smile’ (1990), ‘Two Girls Go Hunting’ (1991), ‘Our Way of Loving’ (1994) and ‘Duka’s Dilemma’ (2001). ACT celebrates the lifetime achievement of Jean, and is proud to name her as conservationist of the month – Editor Murali Pai.

Pai: Tell us something about your growing-up years and how come you chose to study anthropology?

Jean:  My best friend in school was a girl named Sheena, and her uncle was the anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis whose fieldwork in Brazil, among people who had never been contacted by outsiders before, fascinated me. When I was 15, my father worked in Delhi, and I visited there with my siblings for Christmas, and fell in love with India. Then I moved to Australia with the family, and as a student I grabbed the opportunity to visit Papua New Guinea (PNG). PNG was a stark contrast to India and these experiences nudged me on to the path I would take.  On graduating with a B.A. (Economics and Psychology), I applied for a postgraduate degree in anthropology at the London School of Economics (L.S.E), where I bumped into Ivo. My money ran out before I could complete the 2 years course at L.S.E. when Ivo helpfully suggested marriage because he had a grant. After the MSc, I signed up for a Ph.D. and not knowing where Ethiopia was, ended up in the Hamar country in the south, with Ivo and our infant son Theo, on a research grant Ivo secured from the DAAD, Germany.

Pai: How did you adjust to challenges in a world away from home, and win friends in the Hamar society?

Jean:  In northern Ethiopia everyone would only talk to Ivo, and I became just his shadow. But in Hamar the girls greeted me and were fascinated by our son. However, when our belongings were stolen, we had health concerns especially for our child, and the physical challenges became too much, I thought and wrote of the Hamar as a harsh society. One day, Ivo walked from our first home in Gabo to Jinka to catch a flight to Addis Ababa to get a motorbike. I was all alone with my child, but this proved to be a good time when everyone got to know me in a personal way. When Ivo returned with his motorbike, I had already built up a close network with our neighbours. Then Aike Berinas, a.k.a. Baldambe, sought us out. He had initially met us in Turmi, then came to Gabo, and became our friend, philosopher and guide. He was an amazing man and became a mentor to us and we eventually shifted our residence to Dambaiti where he lived. There, we were accepted by everybody because we were Baldambe’s friends. Learning Hamar language was our top priority. There was no written source and we learnt by trial and error using a good bit of imagination. Earlier on, a schoolboy from Bana, Paulos, had taught us some phrases in Bana language, which is same as Hamar.


Jean Lydall. Photo credit: Murali Pai.


Pai: The ethnography of Hamar women has been a leit motif of your work. Are you a feminist or is this your research interest?

Jean: I am not a feminist but rather feminine. That said, I am always open to all Hamar issues, and not simply gender questions. In fact, my first essay ‘Hamar Colour Symbolism’ though not gender based deals with gender differences. Much as gender plays a big role in Hamar society, my interests also include Hamar social organization, history, economics, kinship and marriage, community and social control. I did not find Hamar women to be poor or weak individuals exploited by opportunistic males. Even as I was in their midst, a women’s-lib movement was raging in Europe, and naturally I was influenced by it. When I started making films (from 1989), I did further research directed towards revealing ‘women’s power’. A woman makes man feel and seem important – she is the one who knows how much food is in the pot and keeps the household going. Hamar society could be described as socrulineal. It other words, the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship is central to the kinship organization and the transmission of property. A man only gains full ownership of cattle, goats and sheep via his wife, to whom gifts of animals are made by his parents and other kinsmen.

Pai: Let’s talk about your films. How did you learn the craft and master it?

Jean: I did not learn the technical aspects of filmmaking. My films happened because of a close bonding with my subjects, clear concepts and a good script. I usually have it all worked out well before the film crew arrives on the location. For the fourth film, ‘Duka’s Dilemma’ (2001), my daughter Kaira Strecker was the camerawoman and co-director. Kaira is a sister to Duka, and it was a very intimate film. Duka had married, gave birth to a daughter, then a son and then had twins. She had malaria when pregnant with the twins.

Pai: What exactly was ‘Duka’s Dilemma’?

Jean: Her dilemma was that she could not go back to Hamar where she grew up and there was no malaria. She needed to remain with her husband, and contend with malaria and her husband marrying a second wife. Her predicament and how it gets resolved is the story of the film.

Pai: You are a gifted homemaker and host as well. How do you make your Hamar guests feel at home in Germany?

Jean: Baldambe was the first to visit with us in Germany. Although he was not taken aback by anything, the refined food he ate made him constipated and sick. He recovered with a balanced diet. We learnt from this experience and have made sure all our Hamar friends who visited with us in later years ate food that would agree with them.

Pai: The ACT’s theme for this issue is ‘Best Protected Areas of Africa’. How would you extrapolate from your research on Hamar practices to comment on the role local communities should play in conserving Protected Areas of Africa?

Jean: The top priority of the local communities is their subsistence economy. The sugar cane and cotton plantations in southern Ethiopia are taking away large chunks of their pastureland. In addition, the Hamar are now forced to use the Mago National Park because of overgrazing and shrinkage of their traditional grazing areas. Formerly, Hamar men proved their ‘manliness’ by hunting dangerous wild animals, but with the proliferation of fire-arms they overdid this, killing again and again instead of just once as in olden days. Now not much wildlife is left, and the Hamar and other stakeholders are grappling with these stark realities in search of a solution.