Findings from Kisii
Kisii is among the most productive cash and food crop regions in Kenya. In 1907 the population was estimated at 75,000. Since then the population has multiplied at least 20 times. HIV/AIDS infections are alarming with more women than men infected (UNAIDS Update 2002). Unemployment is a serious problem, because the land available is not enough to secure survival. Before colonial rule men were warriors, cattle herders and took active part in political decisions. Cattle represented wealth and power, and constituted the major part of bride price. The more cattle a man had—the more wives he could marry, and the more land could be cultivated. Through marriage he controlled his wife’s sexual and reproductive powers. Masculinity was closely linked to self-control and dignity.
The colonial power impacted significantly on the pre-colonial social and economic structure. Taxation was introduced, and men were recruited to construct railroads and urban centres. Many women were left for years to manage the farm.
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After World War II, a shift towards production of industrial goods began. This created a demand for skilled and semi-skilled workers rather than for unskilled workers. Most Gusii migrants were unskilled and had to return home. In Kisii, though, men’s activities had disappeared. No tribal wars to fight. No more cattle – camps because it was more profitable to use land for cash crops. Many returned to the urban areas—only to find that their labour was not needed. As a result, most workers returned again to Kisii.
In the 1940s and 50s the household became dependent on men’s financial aid. Matching these changes men acquired a new social and ideological role—that of breadwinner. With the urban minimum wage only providing the barest essentials for a single man (White 1990) husbands’ remittances were irregular or non-existent. The colonial power’s introduction of migrant work initiated a shift from men’s dominance and responsibility as head of household to a pattern of absent tax-paying men with responsibility towards the state rather than the household. The ideology of male breadwinner and household head survived, however.
Over the years new values were created—meshing with old ones. Men’s difficulties in providing financial assistance to the household undermined their social roles and their social value. The disappearance of cattle camps had a negative effect on bride price payment. ‘Unions’ with no transfer of bride price were increasingly substituted for marriage. This made women’s access to their means of production insecure. Moreover, women had to learn how to make ends meet—without any assistance from their husbands. And they did. Male control over women weakened.
Women have no illusions about men as providers. In my interviews in Kisii recurrent comments from the women were the following: “a woman is better off without a husband”; “if only he was dead”; “men are so delicate; they break so easily”; “our sons have nobody to take as a model”. Men interviewed would immediately emphasise their status as head of household and their right to correct (= beat) an obstinate wife. However, typical comments by men (and also women) were that “men drink to drown their problems—and they are many”, “men drink and are rude to women to forget that they cannot provide the family with blankets”. Particularly striking was men’s aggressive ‘macho’ behaviour, on the one hand, and on the other, men’s complaints that “today women do not respect their husband’’; “they humiliate the husband and tell home secrets to others”. Some felt pursued and were afraid to get poisoned by food prepared by their wife (Silberschmidt 1999).
The intensification of their roles and responsibilities made women increasingly aware of their important position in the household. This nourished their sense of identity and their self-esteem. They complained about lack of male responsibility, lack of male assistance and the fact that having a husband was like “having an extra baby in the house”. But when women complain they take a position of power (LeVine 1979). Thus, even though structurally subordinated, women have actively responded to the new situation. They have created new social roles for themselves. According to both men and women interviewed “more and more
Masculinities, Sexuality and Socio-Economic Change in Rural and Urban East Africa
women have taken command of the home”, and “harmony has gone out of the window”. Thus over the past several decades, Kisii has been in an ongoing process of fundamental socio-economic transformation with escalating gender antagonism and domestic violence. Persistent rumours about men being poisoned by their wives circulate. Men’s position as heads of household is challenged, and some women see men just as ‘figureheads’ of the household. However, land is still owned by men, and most men call themselves farmers (Silberschmidt 1999).