Trouble Showed the Way: Women, Men, and Trade in the Nairobi Area, 1890 - 1990

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Robertson's book represents a powerful contribution to African social, economic, and women's history. Highly recommended." -Choice

An important resource for anyone interested in the history of women and trade in modern Kenya...." -International Journal of African Historical Studies

... a landmark study, meticulously executed and written.... it will have a wide impact on some of the most significant questions facing the disciplines of history, anthropology, political science, and development economics." -Gracia Clark

Herskovitz Award-winner Claire Robertson employs a variety of approaches to analyze and weave together this wide-ranging study. Her book provides an extensive case study of historical transformations in gender, agriculture, residence, and civil society. Based on archival documents, library sources (fiction and nonfiction, primary and secondary), surveys and oral histories, participant observation, and quantitative and qualitative analysis, Robertson breaks new ground by focusing on traders in one commodity, dried staples, and comparing and contrasting the evolution of women's trade with men's trade.

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I. Introduction

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African woman I want to praise you
the way you work in this world.
Oh bless you!

Translation of Kiswahili song composed by Elliot Ngubane1

Should the new markets of eastern and southern Africa develop lines of sex division in buying and selling comparable to those which characterize the markets of the western and central parts of the continent, it seems likely that not only the economic position of women, but their place in the social order in general may undergo change.

M. J. Herskovits2

Central Kenyan women traders and farmers were and are key actors in the development of the trading and market gardening system that feeds Nairobi. Their accomplishments represent an unheralded achievement that remains hidden partly because government persecution has pursued some of their activities. While women supported their families and took pride in their capabilities, their work was also essential to the transformation of the economy to fill the needs of the large Nairobi urban agglomeration to such effect that their lives--their relationship to their bodies, to relatives and children, and to other women involved in organizational attempts, were also transformed. Their efforts belong to the economic, social and cultural history of Africa as much as, for instance, those of Gold Coast cocoa farmers, but this history has been ignored, disclaimed or discounted as unimportant. And yet, their achievements were grand in sum, durable, transformational, and intentional. In effect, central Kenyan women reclaimed themselves by pursuing trade. This book chronicles those efforts, but also the ambivalent implications of some transformations for the women who furthered or instigated them. The increasingly convoluted world capitalist economy, race, class, ethnicity, and gender all were imbricated in the processes that caused their problems. However, they used links welded most solidly out of gender-shaped experiences in efforts to overcome the trouble that showed them the way to Nairobi.

 

II. From Njahe to Nyayo: Beans and the Evolution of Agricultural Imperialism in Kenya

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Beans are intimately associated with women in central Kenya.1 The symbolism associated with njahe, a variety especially important for the Kikuyu, was no less important than the trade in beans. Dried beans are a women’s crop, a women’s trade commodity, and preeminently a women’s food. The study of beans and their trade turned out to be subversive of established orthodoxies in some ways and requires serious attention to women. Moreover, beans serve as symbolic articulators of women’s labor in both their expropriation and their connection to the soil. In this chapter I will describe the history of beans as a crop, in which women struggled to control their own produce as a part of resistance to the impact of agricultural imperialism, defined as the expropriation of land, labor, profits, and plant genetic materials, and the imposition of alien priorities upon farmers in central Kenya.2 Women have asserted themselves in the matter of crop choice and in so doing foiled some ill-judged export attempts and fostered multi-purpose hardy crops suited to Kenyan conditions. They have also, however, yielded to agricultural imperialism under the pressure of preferential pricing and high labor demands to the detriment of their diet and wellbeing. Given the limitations of the data, I will pay most attention to Kikuyu beans and symbolic systems, but include information about the Kamba where available. The fullest picture was gained by combining oral, linguistic, secondary and archival sources.

 

III. The Development of Trade in the Nairobi Area, 1890 to 1940

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Women’s militancy began with labor.2

To disregard internal exchanges, which in some African countries actually dominate the economies, is to distort the reality of African economic processes, aboriginal or post-colonial.3

The segregation of maize from beans and different varieties of beans from each other is mimicked in the changes in women’s trade occupying this chapter. The motif of increasing segregation of the trade of women from that of men is evident. The first section considers the precolonial and early colonial situation, in which local and long-distance trade was intimately connected. In the late nineteenth century women and men cooperated in trade, but asymmetrically to a certain extent, with women’s profits subject to male expropriation, increasingly as conditions became at once more chaotic and hierarchical. The second section looks at trade in the 1920s and 1930s with particular attention to various types of controls and changes in the scale of African trade. Differentiation in both of these then necessitated separate sections on men’s and women’s trade. Attempts at control of women’s trading activities objectified women as one aspect of segregation and were accompanied by self-conscious efforts by some women to achieve autonomy. In the last section male-female trade relations are clearly adversarial, which represented a triumph of colonial divide-and-conquer tactics.

 

IV. Various Nefarious Happenings: Trade, Wars and Traders War, 1940 to 1963

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If in the 1920s and 1930s various manifestations of the Kenyan colonial government experimented with beans and explored forms of control over traders and trade, from the 1940s more rigorous efforts were implemented until the failure of that policy was manifest in the early 1960s. African trade lost autonomy under war conditions but developed adaptability and further capacity to evade controls. The struggle to maintain that autonomy became a fundamental part of the conflicts that evolved into the Kenyan independence movement. Women traders pursuing their usual rounds found that much of what they were accustomed to doing was becoming criminalized as regulations proliferated in the face of several wars--World War II, the 1950s Emergency, and what I have termed the first hawker war from about 1940 to 1963. Indeed, as trade and trade networks were becoming more elaborate, with women expanding their local trade into Nairobi on a more permanent basis, their commodities became subject to produce movement controls while their bodies were subjected to population movement controls enforced under the pressure of several political crises. From about 1940 to 1958 a more or less continuous state of emergency existed with regard to controlling the movement of Africans into and out of Nairobi. The declaration of Emergency in force from 1952 to 1960 was aimed as much at controlling a burgeoning contumacious Nairobi trading population as it was at putting down guerrilla warfare in the forest.1 From about 1959 to 1963, although the formal Emergency was mostly over, an informal one continued with respect to controlling hawkers. The difficulty and expense of controlling the Nairobi African population, in fact, formed one motivation for some British officials to give up on the effort and pass it on to African successors.

 

V. Here We Come Only to Struggle: Changes in Trade, 1964 to 1990

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In the 1960s Nairobi began to take on the aspect of a big city; the population’s annual growth rate was 7.9% from 1948 to 1962, 5.8% from 1962 to 1969 and 5% from 1969 to 1979. In 1990 the population was pushing two million, with a projection that by the year 2000 25% of Kenya’s population would be urbanized. Despite punitive population density, the supply of legal housing grew, if anything, at a slower rate than in the latter years of colonialism. From 1964 to 1971 urban land values inflated by 300% in Nairobi. In 1972 there was a shortfall of about 60,000 housing units, while by one estimate over 70% of families could not afford even the cheapest two room conventional housing. In 1977 there were 30,000 names on a waiting list for 1000 NCC public housing units. The city government came under stricter central government control, and very little money was allotted for the maintenance of infrastructure and services. But immigration continued, with an increasing proportion of women joining the stream, many of whom took up trade as an occupation.2 In 1973-74 the female migration rate to Nairobi was twice that of men. From 1973 to 1982 the Central Bureau of Statistics estimated that the informal sector in Nairobi grew from employing 41,415 persons to 172,214, more than a 400% increase, and by 1987 it was thought to be generating employment at a rate three times faster than the formal sector. In 1984 the NCC estimate of 30,000 hawkers in Nairobi was regarded as too low by the press, who added another 15,000 to it.3 There were also the perpetual migrants; the insecurity of life in Nairobi, heightened by ongoing squatter settlement clearances carried out by authorities, confirmed for many women the wisdom of living elsewhere and trading to Nairobi, a commute facilitated by better transportation.

 

VI. Seeking the Freedom to Raise my Children: Changes in Marriage

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One does not always know when changes are occurring but realizes later on that the things she is seeing are different from what they were before.2

The significant role of family obligations in motivating and setting limits to women’s trade was evident in Chapter V. Changes in marriage patterns have affected women’s trade and vice-versa; they renew the gender segregation motif of this study. Marriage3 is a key factor in determining women’s status and wellbeing in such patrilineal societies. To get at the complexities of marriage I have integrated material concerning ideals and attitudes toward gender and marriage, the arrangement of marriage and husband-wife relationships, wife abuse, and the use of fertility control methods into a consideration of intrahousehold economics in the widest sense. Broad changes in central Kenyan marital patterns from 1890 to 1990 will be delineated here, with particular attention to the period from the 1920s on. The 1920s and 1930s will form a baseline from which to establish change, albeit not a pristine or reified “traditional” one in any sense. The picture that emerges here is fragmented in many ways, with inherent contradictions that resist easy assignment to stereotypical categories making women either subjugated or free. Marital relationships are historicized, rather than essentialized. In the 1940s and later the contradictions become, if anything, more extreme, with marital crises accompanying erosion of the economic basis of marriage. Socioeconomic change is more easily observed over a long period of time, so that its analysis is compressed here into one chapter. The changes entailed women’s growing efforts to control their own marriages and their bodies. It is not accidental that women traders demonstrate higher rates of change than among the general population, for they are, through circumstances or self-selection, more likely to be women faced with all of the challenges of independence.

 

VII. Organizing: Women and Collective Action, 1920 to 1990

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Those who take counsel together do not perish.1

The history presented to this point has delineated how individual women have faced collective problems. These problems are related to landlessness, crops grown and traded, control over trade profits and labor, marriage, and dependency burdens. Nairobi women traders, disproportionately single, divorced or widowed, have suffered greatly from discrimination in access to critical resources, everything from land and education to fertilizer. A few women cried when telling of terrible experiences they had endured, of husbands’ beatings, of poverty and starvation, of the deaths of children or beloved husbands, of imprisonment or internment by the British under the Emergency or by the government in the 1980s for selling illegally, of backbreaking labor for little pay on the plantations of the wealthy, or of prostitution undertaken to feed their children. More laughed, danced, and persevered in the face of overwhelming odds. In the end, they refused to see themselves as victims; they dried their tears, picked up their heavy baskets of produce, and trudged off, determined to overcome and carry out their activities so essential to the survival of Kenyans.

 

VIII. Trouble Showed the Way; Conclusion: Empowerment?

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If it is not appropriate for women, it is not appropriate.2

A 1987 incident on a Nairobi matatu indicated a direction of change in self-esteem among urban women. The Daily Nation article describing it was ostensibly about the career of a musician, Julius Kang’ethe (a.k.a. By-law), who failed to find a job when he first came to Nairobi in 1979 and hawked at Machakos Bus Stop while he composed his first song, “a prayer to God asking for help for jobless young men.” He then went on to compose another song called “Ithe wa Kiune” (Kikuyu=Father of Calamity), which prescribed severely deferential behavior for married women and justified abuse by husbands if wives were not deferential enough. A matatu driver annoyed many of his women passengers by repeatedly playing it until most of the women on the bus demanded that he stop and let them off, whereupon they “accused those who were left behind of being half-women who enjoy hearing and seeing their lot being ridiculed by male chauvinists.”3 This incident invites comparison with Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru’s exhortations at the Thuku demonstration in 1922, and indicates a fundamental change that urbanization, along with women’s growing involvement in trade, has encouraged. Whereas Mary urged men on to do their duty and take action, these women were pushing other women to join in a protest action intended to boost their self-esteem. To protest male dominance was seen as incumbent upon women; not to do so as insufficiently womanly. The resonances here are both with the precolonial gender system and its checks on male abuse fostered through the ndundu ya atomia and with new forms of gender relations in which male abuse is countered by a female solidarity engendered by urban solidary groups and peer efforts.

 

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