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3. “Now I was in business”

Berida Ndambuki Indiana University Press ePub

When Ndambuki and I first married we worked together at home and on the farm. We worked together in union. Even if it was just eating, after I had cooked I would bring the food and we would eat together. If it was going to the farm he would lead the cows and I would hold the plow. When it was time to eat he would take the cows to water while I would go home to look for what to eat. I was not selling then. We had four oxen for plowing. If we wanted to build a granary he would go and cut the poles and I would cut the grass for thatching. Men were in charge of cutting the poles for building and doing the walls and women did the thatching. I would hand him the poles as he worked and he would throw the grass up to me as I thatched. We tried to find help with the planting. One person would lead the oxen while the other held the plow. You drop the seed into a furrow and cutting the next furrow covers the seed in that furrow. Ndambuki would put the seeds in his pockets and drop them into the furrow just before the next furrow was cut. We also used the oxen to weed, cutting furrows between the rows. We put a kind of net over the oxen’s mouths so that they would not eat the crops as we plowed. We weeded by hand between the plants. Both men and women did that and even children. On Saturdays when they were not in school you gave them hoes and they went to weed. People who don’t have oxen use jembes [short-handled hoes] to make holes for putting the seeds in. Now things are much the same but people might weed millet using a plow by leaving a furrow free between each row.

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2. “No woman can know what will happen to her in marriage”

Berida Ndambuki Indiana University Press ePub

I was very young, only fourteen, when I married Ndambuki on 1 January 1950. I was supposed to marry another man. If you compare how I was married and how you [Mbithe] were married there is a big difference. Long ago there was no courtship; your father was just given bridewealth and you were married off. If you refused to marry the man who had given bridewealth your father would beat you.1 That is what happened to me. My father had accepted bridewealth for me from a man whose father was wealthy whom I disliked. He started paying when I was small, but as I matured and saw him I disliked him. I didn’t like the way he looked, although he was not old. He didn’t know how to dress. He used to wear mikalya [sandals] made from tires; his had only one strap instead of the usual two. Whenever I saw that I felt like vomiting. I was just disgusted with him. [Laughter.] If I saw him I would go in the opposite direction. When my father insisted that I marry him I refused and was beaten. My mother could not say anything about it; if she had, she would also have been beaten. Mm mmm! Those things of long ago! Nzilani hid me. I finally ran and threw myself in the pond. Then they realized I might drown and they rescued me.2 My father quit insisting and nobody forced me again. My grandfather told the suitor to outline what he had paid and they would repay him because they realized that they might lose a child through death. He was the only one I turned down. You know, you can look at a person and the way they dress and assess whether or not they should be called your husband. And you know, I was beautiful.

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I. Introduction

Claire Cone Robertson Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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VIII. Trouble Showed the Way; Conclusion: Empowerment?

Claire Cone Robertson Indiana University Press ePub

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

Claire Cone Robertson Indiana University Press ePub

 

 

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.

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