Kikuyu Women, The Mau Mau Rebellion, And Social Change In Kenya
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Kikuyu Women, The Mau Mau Rebellion, And Social Change In Kenya

Cora Ann Presley

  1. 228 páginas
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Kikuyu Women, The Mau Mau Rebellion, And Social Change In Kenya

Cora Ann Presley

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Based on rare oral data from women participants in the "Mau Mau" rebellion, this book chronicles changes in women's domestic reproduction, legal status, and gender roles that took place under colonial rule. The book links labour activism, cultural nationalism, and the more overtly political issues of land alienation, judicial control, and character

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Over the last 30 years, there has been a considerable growth in the literature written about African women. We have a better understanding of African women's roles in traditional society and the modern state. More recent studies explore the constraints placed upon women's mobility and their exclusion from the public arena. This work is intended to be a contribution to this growing literature on social change. I address the issue of women's interaction with the colonial state by looking at whether colonialism affected women differently than it did men and produced a different reaction.1 Women's nationalism operated in tandem with men's nationalism since both protested labor exploitation, land alienation, and the erosion of culture. Frequently, however, women acted on their own when male associations failed to address women's concerns or to include them in their membership. Women's participation in these issues forced some fundamental changes in the societal perception of women, particularly when this came to be reified through defining women's legal and political status in the post-colonial state.
The major thesis of this work is that there was a basic transformation of women's roles from 1880 to 1962 because of Kikuyu women's significant involvement in the "politics of protest" from the 1920s through the Mau Mau period. This did not merely affect women's traditional status. The nationalist movement itself was enlarged because of female participation. The political conflict between Africans and Europeans lasted longer, included a larger portion of the population, challenged colonial social policy, and accelerated reform. The actual number of instances of protest increased when women staged their own demonstrations. The political conflict was broadened when issues primarily affecting women were added; this was done first by male nationalists and later by women acting independently. The parameters that had previously defined women's roles in traditional society broke apart.
This study of the changes in the sociopolitical status of women in colonial Kenya grew from my observation that, despite a large literature on nationalism and social change in the colonial period in Africa and in Kenya in particular, there was a gender gap. Rarely were women included in political studies. Most discussions of gender treated women as if they were apolitical. Since then, many Africanists have turned to the subject of women and the state and women as political activists.2 Nonetheless, the treatment of women and nationalism is still largely confined to micro-level studies, a necessary stage before synthesis can occur. If the discourse on Mau Mau is typical of other nationalist historiographies, the gender gap is persistent. Women's history has not been incorporated into the general nationalist historiography. Even in the most recent studies of Kenya's colonial period, women's activism is presented as isolated incidents, if it is treated at all. Some political scientists and historians refer to women's roles in the nationalist movement.3 However, excepting Tabitha Kanogo's recent work on squatters, none of the authors include oral testimony from men and women about women's participation in the war. Representative of this trend are Frank Furedi's recent Mau Mau in Perspective and David Throup's The Social Origins of Mau Mau. Without reference to gender, these studies are incomplete and fail to communicate the societal involvement in the nationalist struggle. The British introduced major changes in land ownership, labor patterns, and political control of Kikuyu society. Two Kenyanists, John Lonsdale and Bruce Berman, suggest that the analysis of the colonial state in Kenya and African reactions to it suffers from the tendency toward single issue analysis.4 They argue that only by interweaving the issues can historians understand the complexities of shifts in authority and control in indigenous societies. Although in many ways theirs is a seminal work, Lonsdale and Berman ignore the presence of what may be an essential and separate area for analysis: the dynamic of colonialism for women in Kenya and the ways that dynamic may change the composite picture of protest and transformation in the nationalist era.
This study explores three major themes. First, it connects the issues of land, labor, and cultural nationalism to women's politicization. Second, it looks at the differences between women's actions and men's. Finally, it examines the differences between loyalist and nationalist women. These three themes are traced from the beginning of the colonial period up to the end of the Mau Mau rebellion. Because women did not begin to organize as political activists until the 1930s, it is only possible to explore the significance of their involvement and role transformation for three of the colonial decades. Moreover, women's articulation of their resistance to colonial penetration was not uniform, differing between groups and over decades. Within Kiambu district, where the bulk of the oral data was collected, males split into opposing loyalist and nationalist camps over the most effective strategies for lessening the impact of British colonial policy.5 Women, too, split into factions of loyalists and nationalists. The main thrust of this study is chronicling the motives and actions of the most radical female nationalists: they eventually became the backbone of the Mau Mau movement in the district and recruited others, mostly women, into the rebellion.
Colonialism generally, as well as peculiar form it took in Kenya, was a crucial variable in the transformation of women's roles. When women became formal political actors, they changed the Kikuyu social contract. In traditional society, women did not participate in the formal political processes of their communities. Women's sphere was in domestic production: the care of the family, agricultural production, and trading.6 Kikuyu women's involvement in nationalist politics changed this. After World War II they gained entry into formal politics. In the new order that emerged after independence, individual women had the same rights as men in many areas that had been closed to them before colonialism.
British colonialism created a new set of conditions that unintentionally provided opportunities for women to gain some economic independence and access to formal political processes. The British presence in Kenya came first in the form of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) in 1885. The IBEAC arrived in Kiambu district in 1890. In 1895 the East African Protectorate was established and the British government formally assumed the responsibilities of the IBEAC. In the process, the British Crown assumed jurisdiction over governance, the legal system, taxation, choice of work, and location of work. The Kikuyu were concerned about European forays into matters that had been the purview of Kikuyu male elders—the adjudication of disputes over land ownership, the regulation of society, and the control of the political affairs of Kikuyu communities. At one time or another, the Kikuyu protested all of these issues. The most enduring issue was that of control over land since the Kikuyu mode of production was based on agriculture.
The land issue affected women directly, bringing them quite early into the ranks of radical young nationalists. The pre-colonial social contract vested land in men. However, women were the major cultivators. They controlled the disposition of food, determining what was to be consumed, stored, or traded. When the British expropriated and sold or gifted the most productive land to European males, African women were thrown into more intense competition for cultivation rights in the Reserves. Demographic changes for women seem to be directly related to artificially induced land scarcity. The number of polygamous marriages increased. Thousands of women migrated to urban areas where they worked as servants, traders, or prostitutes.7
Colonialism also produced change for women in non-household production. When the colonial government began its transfer of land to European settlers, large tracts of land were converted from peasant subsistence agriculture to large-scale farms producing cash crops. Under settler ownership, much of the land expropriated from the Kikuyu remained underutilized.8 This forced a shift in the labor pattern for women in the Reserves. This new system reversed the Kikuyu traditional pattern. Where women once had been the primary farmers, now large numbers of Kikuyu men became farm workers. Women, however, had the double burden of cultivating the traditional subsistence crops and serving as wage laborers. Most women wage laborers were employed as coffee pickers on settler farms. The harvesting of coffee conflicted with the harvest season for traditional crops. Working for wages also reduced women's choices about where and for whom they would work. No longer did they work exclusively for their own families; now they were compelled to work for an alien employer who paid minimal wages. Until 1923 women were compelled, through the use of physical brutality or the threat of the use of force, to work on the coffee estates against their will and in opposition to indigenous traditions. Women's agricultural contributions to domestic production were a part of the economic "contract" developed by the Kikuyu; their work complemented men's herding contribution. Women had nearly full control over the disposal of food and the amount of time spent on cultivation each day. Wage labor undermined their autonomy in the labor process. Control over standards of work, the amount of time spent on cultivation, and the disposal of the "profits" from agricultural production were taken out of women's hands and placed in those of European settlers and government officials. Economic change for women was the result of their loss of control over the productive process and their organized struggle to regain it.
Changes in the Kikuyu political structure were induced even as the colonial government forced changes in land ownership and labor processes. As part of colonial rule, the British altered the process of decision-making in Kenya, placing a Governor at the apex of the structure. Traditional village elders' councils were changed in 1925 into British-appointed Local Native Councils, the lowest level in the structure. One of the outcomes of this shift was that women were able to force a wedge in a sphere which had previously been denied them. The course of the nationalist struggle was such that by the mid-1930s women had become active and important in protest politics. Their contribution to the nationalist movement became significant because the Kenya African Union (KAU) in the 1940s and Mau Mau in the 1950s depended on thousands of women who obtained and smuggled information, goods, and services. This female prominence created a legacy in independent Kenya. On the national level, elite women serve as high ranking political appointees. On the local level, women sit on local and district councils and serve as representatives of the national party. This was a radical change that was achieved through multifaceted protest politics. The primary issue was recovery of political control. The second issue was the return of alienated lands. Two other grievances were the loss of economic and cultural integrity under colonialism. All of these questions must be explored when female activism is discussed. Colonialism changed women's roles in important ways; their reactions to those changes show the degree of women's commitment to the liberation struggle.
Chapter 2 explores the gendered nature of domestic production, legal status, and political leadership from 1880 to 1910. Though many of the domestic duties and responsibilities of Kikuyu women remained unchanged from the pre-colonial period, what may be real structural change in women's positions in political, economic, and social relations is illuminated by comparing the pre-colonial, colonial, and independence periods.
A crucial area of change for gender roles was in labor relations. Thousands of women were forced into the new role of wage laborers, producing considerable resentment because of the element of force. This radicalized them and produced many dedicated political workers. Chapter 3 recounts women's conversion into wage labors. Chapter 4 introduces women's labor activism, work stoppages, and the linkages women labor activists made between labor protest and the political movement.
As a consequence of British colonization, social formations changed when European missionaries launched a frontal assault on cultural patterns. A missionary/government alliance attempted to eliminate some customs. Government cooperated by altering laws and devising new regulations that increased the power of the missionary societies. The most well-known of these assaults was the female circumcision dispute led by Dr. John Arthur in the late 1920s. Before the 1920s, Kikuyu males and the missionaries clashed over aspects of women's roles and status: marriage customs, female rites of passage, and religious beliefs. An important part of this was the contest between the elders and the missionaries for juridical control of marriage and widows. Frequently, missionaries represented themselves as African women's liberators. With the often unstated goal of changing Kikuyu traditions, they provided a refuge for women who were escaping the restraints of traditional life. The complex and changing relationship of the churches to women is the subject ofChapter 5.
The second part of the Chapter 5 examines mission education for females. The limited amount of western education available caused constant friction over the small number of schools and the restricted curriculum offered. The mission-run system gave priority to educating males. The curriculum for females was even more limited than that available to males. Kikuyu women added their special concerns about gender bias in the system to the dispute. This was partially resolved when the Kikuyu created Karing'a and Independent Schools during the circumcision controversy. The female circumcision controversy has been described by numerous scholars as an important root of political protest. However, women's views are rarely a part of that analysis. Chapter 5 includes data from women who sided with the missionaries as well as those who opposed them. Pro-circumcision women believed that clitoridectomy was a symbol of their womanhood and part of their cultural identity which became connected to their political dissent.
The final narrative chapters shift the discussion from cultural nationalism to women's participation in political organizations.Chapter 6 discusses the growth of political associations and women's relations with them. Chapters 7 and 8 examine women's participation in the Mau Mau rebellion and how that involvement created a real change in colonial social policy. Women were not politically passive from the 1920s through the 1950s. Their connection to the nationalist associations began in the 1922 riot which was sparked by Harry Thuku's arrest. Mary Nyanjiru, who was shot by the British during the riot, is the mother of female political protest. In the 1930s and 1940s, Kiambu women built on these traditions, organizing the Mumbi Central Association (MCA). The MCA was a radical revision of the traditional women's council (kiama kia atumia). MCA was used as a wedge for entry into the activities of the Kikuyu Central Association (1923-1940) which sprang to life after the colonial government banned Thuku's East African Association in 1922. The Mumbi Central Association's existence and activities pose new questions about the forms and duration of women's political activism and their later involvement in the Kenya African Union (1944-1952). The founders of MCA contend that this was a turning point in gender relations: the size and strength of the organization made it possible for women to join men's associations as rural politicians and as near equals. The MCA is also connected to Mau Mau. MCA members claim responsibility for promoting political consciousness among women. Through their efforts, thousands of women were recruited and mobilized ...


  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. List of Tables and Maps
  7. Preface
  8. 1 Introduction
  9. 2 Women, Domestic Production, and Social Organization
  10. 3 Women and the Colonial Economy
  11. 4 Kiambu Women's Labor Protest, 1912-1960
  12. 5 Cultural Transformation: Women and the Missions
  13. 6 Kikuyu Women and Political Associations, 1920-1947
  14. 7 Kikuyu Women and the Mau Mau Rebellion
  15. 8 The Mau Mau Rebellion, Kikuyu Women, and Social Change
  16. 9 Conclusion
  17. Glossary
  18. Abbreviations
  19. Bibliography
  20. Index