Social Reconstruction in Rural Africa: A Gendered Class Analysis of Women's Resistance to

Cash Crop Production in Kenya


Terisa E. Turner* Wahu M. Kaara Leigh S. Brownhill

1997 *Biographical notes and key words appear at the end.

This paper was written with financial support from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and from the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa. SOCIAL RECONSTRUCTION IN RURAL AFRICA: A GENDERED CLASS ANALYSIS OF WOMEN'S RESISTANCE TO CASH CROP PRODUCTION IN KENYA

Terisa E. Turner, Wahu M. Kaara and Leigh S. Brownhill



This study traces the struggles in Kenya of two groups of landless women to assert control over their own labour in agricultural production in the decade 1985-1996. In the first case, the women of Maragua have refused to produce coffee, an export cash crop, and instead are producing bananas and selling them independently. In the second and very different setting of Mwea, a government rice producing project, women have appropriated the inputs, notably irrigation water, to produce garden crops for their own consumption and sale. The study uses a 'gendered class analysis' to consider how, at the household, national and international levels, women farmers are exploited and resist that exploitation. The success of women in sustainable, sustenance agriculture is linked to their success in establishing control over their own labour power, in the face of efforts by husbands, the state and private firms to retain control.


There is a protracted struggle going on in East and Central Africa for control over land and the crops that are grown on it. The media typically constructs this struggle as a series of ethnic clashes, rooted in atavistic tribal conflicts and even witchcraft (Reuters 7 December 1996, p. 8). In contrast we focus on the material bases of such struggles and the social relations of power which they express. In Kenya, some women cultivators have strengthened their command over land and the organization of labour. As these dispossessed women reclaim resources, they shift away from the global market to revitalize trade on a regional level. This study examines confrontations in two rural locations, Maragua and Mwea, in central Kenya. Women in the two communities are reorganizing how they are integrated into household, national and international relationships to emphasize subsistence and ecological reclamation. It is in this sense that they are engaged, with other actors, in what we call 'social reconstruction.'

We consider developments in the decade 1986-1996. In 1986 the government of Kenya accepted an International Monetary Fund program which featured export crop expansion and privatisation. By 1996 the government was imposing the program in a setting of regional armed conflict. Our focus is on the process of 'gendered class struggle' defined as contention amongst producers along gender lines and between producers and their class antagonists for control over resources and outputs. In carrying out a gendered class analysis we pay particular attention first, to relationships at sites of struggle. When struggles reach a certain pitch the wider power dynamics which they express are stripped of much of their camouflage. Second, we begin to examine the historical roots of the changing relationships represented in the conflict in question. And third, we focus on the self-expression of participants with respect to their experiences, conceptions and demands.1 The study is also an attempt by East African and North American women to join in a search for routes to justice through gendered class struggle. It is based on oral histories, interviews and secondary material collected in 1994-1996 by a small international network of researchers called First Woman (East and Southern African Women's Oral Histories and Indigenous Knowledge Network).

In Section I we consider some theoretical aspects of gendered class analysis. In Section II we trace the shift from coffee to banana production in Maragua. In Section III we examine the shift from rice to tomatoes and other vegetable production in Mwea. In Section IV we compare the processes of gendered class struggle in Maragua and Mwea. In the conclusion we note two lessons from these case studies and identify possible future developments. In her study "Gender and command over property," Bina Agarwal came to the conclusion that rural women need independent rights in land (Agarwal 1994, p. 1459-1461). This is our starting point. We agree that women need land rights but the real question is 'how can they get them?' In addressing this question we examine two cases of efforts by women cultivators to organize to gain rights in land. We are interested in the lessons that might be learned and applied elsewhere.

Mortal crises are erupting in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, parts of Kenya and in Zaire. We take three steps towards debunking the misrepresentation of the strife as merely ethnic antagonism. First, we centralize the issue of land as a vital resource for life. The contention over land has intensified with structural adjustment. Second, we recognize that conflicts over resources frequently involve racism. In such conficts, members of both owning and producing classes historically have also made alliances across ethnic and race lines to pursue common class interests. Resource conflicts are often constructed as ethnic hostilities, a construction which obscurs gendered class conflict. Third, we identify the insurgency of exploited women as an opening for an historical consideration of the 'ethnicized, gendered class composition' of contemporary imperial relations. We suggest that the militarization of East and Central Africa can be understood, in part, as a response to the struggles to reorganize production relations as are illustrated by the Maragua banana growers in Murang'a District and Mwea Rice Scheme farmers in Kirinyaga District, Kenya.


In theorising rural women's struggles we draw on Turner and Benjamin's argument that "individuals and groups who directly produce the majority of the goods and services needed for the production of their own labor power and the labor power of others, have a direct interest in preventing capitalist commodification of communal relationships, natural environments, and public space. Furthermore, ... those individuals and groups whose relationship with capital is primarily defined by the work of producing labor power have a unique social power to appropriate and abolish the technical/structural divisions of the working class in the struggle against capitalist enclosure" (Turner and Benjamin, 1995, p. 211). This unique social power resides both in the potential to strategically refuse to produce labour power and in the control which certain labour power producers exercise by virtue of their involvement with non-commodified communal relationships, natural environments, and public space. This theoretical framework stands against both social movement theorists and their critics (Laclau & Mouffe, 1987; Wood, 1986) who, despite their differences, agree that capitalist relations of production are confined to the waged work place. In contrast, we centralize a global struggle of the unwaged "in which women in general, as well as women and men among groups of peasants, indigenous peoples, squatters, migrant laborers, and other diverse subject groups have emerged as the central protagonists" (Turner and Benjamin, 1995, p. 211).

Dispossessed rural people with tenuous claim to insufficient land and resources constitute some four-fifths of Kenya's civil society. This civil society is being subjected to neoliberal restructuring. Central to the structural adjustment programs are policies of privatisation and commodification which intensify the exploitation of all dispossessed peoples but especially of women and children, along with nature and public space. Privatisation involves enclosures.2 Other analysts have shown that agrarian and indigenous women in particular resist enclosures (Agarwal, 1992, Chambers, 1969, Rocheleau, 1991, Shah, 1993, Turner and Oshare, 1993). This resistance to enclosures is simultaneously a creative process of transforming exploitative social relations to communal, egalitarian social relations. We focus on those women who try to transform society by reconstructing relations with kinsmen, with the state and with global capital.

A 'gendered class analysis' encourages us to consider how the dynamic between exploited women and men changes with pressure from government and corporate interests. It rules out the separate treatment of 'gender roles' and 'class roles,' by underlining the importance of gendered exploitation and gendered resistance. Gendered class analysis is more than an appraisal of 'how structural adjustment impacts upon poor women.' A gendered class analysis highlights the reciprocal nature of interactions between the classes comprised of people of specific ethnicities and genders. It also underlines how capitalists themselves seek to strengthen bonds with categories of exploited men who are instrumentalized to control their wives' labour and redirect the labour to activities that will generate more profit for capital. This 'male deal' between husbands and capitalists in turn contributes to impelling transformative activities by exploited women (Dauda, 1992, Turner and Benjamin 1995).3Carol L. Dauda, 'Yan Tatsine and the male deal: Islam, gender and class struggle in Northern Nigeria, unpublished MA thesis, Guelph, Ontario: University of Guelph, Department of Political Studies, 1992; Terisa E. Turner and Craig Benjamin, "Not in our nature: the male deal and corporate solutions to the debt-nature crisis," Review, a journal of the Fernand Braudel Center, State University of New York, Binghampton, XVIII, 2, Spring 1995, 209-258.4 Finally, a gendered class analysis is distinctive in that it encompasses the breakup of the cross-class 'male deal' and the forging of cross-gender alliances amongst the exploited, against class antagonists, aimed at creating new, humane social relations.

Because the concepts of the 'male deal' and its antithesis, the 'gendered class alliance' are central to a gendered class analysis, they warrant more attention. In this study the 'male deal' refers to an alliance between those male farmers who collaborate with men in state and corporate organizations for their mutual, though unequal, benefit and against the interests of dispossessed women and men. The male deal is bolstered by much of customary law, by the 'invention of tradition,' by the contemporary civil service and customary rulers put in place by colonialism's indirect rule (King, 1980); by patriarchal religious expression and by aspects of official culture (Mamdani, 1996).5

The 'male deal' is always under challenge. When resistance to it reaches an intense pitch the insurgents are typically organized in a 'gendered class alliance.' In this study the gendered class alliance consists of some female farmers with the support of some of their menfolk who challenge the cross-class male deal. The process of alliance building between exploited women and men and the challenges which gendered class alliances pose to male dealers are the processes which constitute social reconstruction.

The project of social reconstruction involves the emergence of a new local and global society from the crisis and debris of the old. The organizations through which this transformation emerges through struggle are the organizations of the recomposing, neoliberal world system (James, 1992). The project of social reconstruction involves the replacement of exploitative 'neoliberalized' social relations with gendered class relations which are egalitarian and concensual at all levels from the household to the international market.


"Every woman belongs to at least one woman's group," Alexiah Kamene (1996) told us as if it were the most obvious fact of life. Kamene is a widow who lives in Maragua and grows bananas and vegetables on her one acre farm. She works part-time for a hotelier as a domestic servant and seasonally hires herself out with a group of other women to weed or harvest in the gardens of farmers with larger holdings. "Banana money is better than coffee money. Men do still take the money from women. Single women manage better. You will find that banana traders are mainly divorced or widowed women."

Kamene described the situation in Maragua as she sees it. It is not a utopia for women who do not own land. But it is better than it was ten years ago when unwaged women dutifully picked coffee which fetched incomes for their husbands, state officials and international merchants. Since 1986 Maragua farming women have taken steps towards a new organisation of society in which they, as producers, manage resources, outputs and incomes.

Maragua lies in the middle of a coffee zone, about 80 kilometres north west of Nairobi, Kenya's capital. Maragua Location, a part of Kigumo Division, covers about 220 square miles. Approximately 100,000 people live there. (Republic of Kenya, Murang'a, 1993, p. 1, 12). Husbands own most of the small, one to five acre (0.4-2 ha) farms in Maragua. Technically and legally, their wives are landless (Okoth-Ogendo, 1978). In practice, peasant women in central Kenya have customarily had the right to work on their husbands' farms and control the use of foodstuffs they themselves produced (Mackenzie, 1991). Women cultivators have historically belonged to collective work groups which applied themselves to large tasks on each other's food plots (Clark, 1980, Stamp, 1986). However, these groups never worked on men's cash crop plots since the income from cash crops did not cater for women's needs. Women who had been effectively 'housewifized,' worked individually, with children or with casual labourers, on husbands' cash crop plots, but did not control the yield.

At independence in 1963 the government of Kenya lifted colonial restrictions on coffee growing by Africans. In the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, coffee production on small holdings provided farmers with substantial incomes, and provided the state with more foreign exchange than any other commodity. This was the heydey of the mythic 'heroic small farmer' whose 'rational choice' to produce export crops was the held up by the World Bank as the model for all of Africa. The World Bank "relied in part on glowing academic accounts of the "success" of smallholder agriculture in Kenya to argue more generally that a policy focus on small farmers was crucial to allieviating Africa's economic "crisis" (Haugerud, 1995, p. 5)

This mythology was silent about the women who provided the labour which made Kenya the "miraculous" exception to the rest of 'unstable,' 'coup-ridden' and 'corrupt' Africa. The myth of the heroic smallholder was also silent on the bloody repression by British forces of the Mau Mau Land and Freedom Army in the 1950s and the colonial social engineering (via mass concentration camps) of agricultural production relations. These featured continuing coercion, as is illustrated in our case study of the Mwea Rice Scheme. The coercive social construction of progressive or 'good farmers' was a process of forced 'husbandization' and 'housewifization' which had at its core land enclosure and the replacement of women's collective work groups by husbands' command over wives' individuated labour power (Turner, 1994, chap. 2). The demise of the "Kenyan miracle" in turn is partly the result of women's refusal of these relationships so essential to export crop production and women's insistence on food production through communal, self-organized women's work groups. By the 1990s, discourse that centred on "pessimism" replaced that of the "miraculous" (Leys, 1995, chap. 9). However more than a decade earlier a resurgence of rural militancy was underway. It echoed the militancy of Mau Mau women's committees in the 1950s.

In the last half of the 1970s coffee began to lose its attraction to smallholder producers. State corruption swallowed sales income so producers were not paid fairly or promptly. The 1978-79 oil workers' strikes in Iran caused the price of petroleum to surge thereby driving up the cost of producing coffee and other oil-dependent, input-intensive commodities. Between 1980 and 1990 real international prices for Africa's coffee exports fell by 70% (World Bank, 1994).

By 1986 Kenyan coffee farmers had faced ten years of falling producer prices for their crops. Increasing numbers of women coffee pickers received nothing from the coffee payments directed by the government to male landowners. According to one source

the people who really pick the coffee are not men, it is women and the children. But when time comes for the payment, the people who actually go for the money are men, not women. ... Some men even do spend weeks in the bar drinking and even sleeping there without knowing [acknowledging] that the coffee was picked by the wife and children at home. That has been the complaint from the women. Some families have really come into a lot of trouble ... because of the coffee. The man decides about the money but he doesn't decide about the labour of the coffee. The labour is for the wife and the children, but the money is his (Waithaka, 1997).

Increasing numbers of women coffee cultivators threatened to stop caring for their husbands' coffee:

Some say, 'I am not going to pick coffee any more.' And the men say, 'If you are not going to pick, then I am going to chase you [away], you are not going to be my wife.' So in that struggle, you find them heading to the chief or sub chief (Waithaka, 1997).

Government chiefs intervened to mediate between embattled wives and husbands. Faced with the women's strikes, the chiefs frequently supported women's demands that both spouses' names appear on the bank account into which coffee payments are made. However, this gain was hard fought:

Even for women to appear in that bank book, it has really been a struggle. ... the man has been called by the chief and even [also] the wife, and they have been told, 'You must reconcile, because we want the women to continue picking the coffee, you have to put your wife in that account. You must have a joint account' (Waithaka, 1997).

The chiefs sought to preserve both the marriages and the coffee production, and thereby safeguard the profits on which government revenues depended and on which were premised debt repayment and hence good relations with the International Monetary Fund and Paris Club of donors.

By 1986 the contradiction between female coffee workers and male coffee farm owners contributed to a situation of declining overall production (Mgendi, Dec. 1996, p. 4, Oct. 1996, p. I). In response to lower coffee export earnings the World Bank and International Monetary Fund provided funds to increase coffee production. The government raised coffee payments to encourage husbands to defend the industry by forcing recalcitrant wives back to work. The International Monetary Fund introduced cost-sharing in health and education which created a greater need amongst producers for cash. This need constituted a coercive incentive to resume the production of cash crops. In effect, the International Monetary Fund mounted formidable obstacles to women's efforts to refuse coffee production by first, introducing incentives in the form of loans to the state on the condition that social service spending be cut and second, by requiring the state to pay higher coffee prices to men.

As the International Monetary Fund and the government of Kenya signed the loans and accompanying structural adjustment agreements in 1986, state officials worked to convince the unwaged female workforce in the coffee industry not to withdraw their labour from husbands' farms. There was a resurgence of state interest in rural women which, spurred by the 1985 United Nations Women's Conference in Nairobi, took the form of 'women and development' projects and a mandate to agricultural extension officers to work increasingly with women instead of only with men (Feldman, 1983).

Despite the harsher discipline faced by many women in their households, some of those who refused to produce coffee resolved to stay with their husbands and preserve their marriages. But the Maragua women planted beans between the coffee trees, contrary to restrictions against intercropping with coffee. They thus provided their families with food and began the tedious process of renourishing the chemically damaged soil. Finally, because neither their husbands nor state officials were willing or able to satisfy their needs to produce food and secure cash income the women took drastic action. In Maragua and elsewhere in Kenya, women uprooted coffee trees and used them for firewood.

The penalty for damaging a coffee tree was imprisonment for seven years. In 1990 women responded defiantly to the longstanding deterrent, saying "let the police come and bring money to pay for labour in coffee." Soon uprooting coffee was so widespread as to be unstoppable. The women in effect repudiated the law by direct action. This process of nullifying the one party dictatorship's authority in the crucial matter of coffee was part of the process of mobilization for democracy and social justice that began to gather force in Kenya in the mid-1980s.6

By late 1986, most women farmers in Maragua had planted bananas and vegetables for home consumption and local trade instead of coffee for export. In Mathira women "uprooted the coffee and they instead planted maize, beans and some grass so they could keep cattle there" (Waithaka, 1997). This pattern was repeated with varying intensity throughout Kenya and the East and Central African regions as a whole.

The their dramatic attack on the coffee trees, women broke and restructured longstanding social relationships at three levels. First, the Maragua insurgents shifted effective control over resources from their husbands into their own hands. Second, they broke their relationships of chronic indebtedness and subjection to the state coffee apparatus and established an alternative self-regulated banana trade. Third, the Maragua women extracted themselves from state-mediated relationships with foreign suppliers of agro-chemical inputs and a highly cyclical global coffee market which enriched commercial traders at the expense of producers.

Sir Roger Swynnerton was a colonial architect of rural enclosures in East Africa in the 1950s during the Mau Mau war. In a 1985 interview he provided, from his imperial perspective, a fragment of a gendered class analysis which hints at the historical practices reflected in the women's uprooting of coffee trees. According to Swynnerton

"In Kenya twice a year we called our provincial agricultural officers together for a conference to discuss programmes... About the middle of the 1950s, one of our subjects of discussion was whether we should push for crop specialization in different areas of the country...leaving food crop areas to produce the subsistence requirements of the cash crop areas. One very experienced provincial agricultural officer said this just would not work. The African was so inured to securing his food supplies that when the first rain started pattering on the roof of his hut, the wife in her sleep would reach over on one side and pick up a hoe, the other side to pick up a bag of seed and in the middle of the night she would go out and start planting food. In no way would she stop doing that whatever the cash crop being grown" (Swynnerton, 1985).

By and large, in Maragua in the late 1980s, the typical working man "secured his food supplies" by participating in his wives' rejection of coffee. The majority of men made a transition from resisting their womenfolk with threats, violence and divorce to accepting their initiatives. This acceptance, encouraged by factions within African Independent Church, grew into support and participation. It involved some men in breaking with the male deal in coffee which was centred in the thoroughly corrupt cooperatives, coffee union and the Kenya Coffee Board. Many husbands recognized that their wives' resistance contributed funds and organizational militancy which allowed men to hold onto their land in the midst of expanding and accelerating large scale enclosures.7 Not only did Maragua women cultivators plant food. In addition the women reinstated producer control over land by taking control of their own labour. They also re-established and strengthened their collective women's groups. Through these groups widows, unmarried women and wives shared their particular strengths.

A decade later in the mid-1990s East African coffee producers continued to abandon the crop.8 Meanwhile, the banana market grew with the urban population and as the price of processed food such as bread rose due to structural adjustment programs. Banana production and sale are peculiarly female activities. The various stages of cultivation, bulking, transport, wholesaling and marketing are vertically integrated by networks of women's groups with the involvement of some men. This good business has brought money into Maragua and the money is controlled to a significant degree by women. Having substantially won the struggle against coffee, many women farmers now have the opportunity to decide what is to be grown on their husbands' farms. Maragua women have progressively gained control over land not only as tillers but as beneficiaries of what is produced. They add nutrients to the soil while avoiding chemical inputs.

Landless Maragua women have benefitted from banana production and the money it has brought into the community, for instance through their association in 'merry-go-rounds' with women who have access to small gardens. These revolving micro savings and credit groups based on friendship and trust further promote women's business investments such as the purchase of a goat or a bicycle. The money stays in the community and members of the 'merry-go-rounds' have a strong interest in the financial success of their partners. Barter and social solidarity are enhanced and these in turn strengthen women's capacity to operate cooperative work groups (Ngugi, 1996). Women with no access to land (widows, divorcees) have formed trade partnerships with women who cultivate bananas. The Maragua women have enhanced their control over land and their own labour in a field in which they are growers, 'middlemen' and consumers of their own crop. They have replaced an hierarchical, extractive system of marketing boards with face-to-face negotiations amongst peers.

In 1996 the International Monetary Fund loaned 12 billion shillings (US$218 m, C$ 299 m)9 to the Kenya government, earmarked for the "full commercialization" of agriculture with emphasis on export crops (Kimenia, 1996).10 Though Maragua farmers escaped the exploitation of the coffee market, the alternative they built exists within the framework of an increasingly privatised and commodified society. The state and transnational corporations continue to regulate women's labour by giving credit to male title deed holders to encourage horticulture. Foreign and local capitalists entice landowning men in Maragua into labour intensive and chemical dependent export production. The seduction's coercive edge is the hunger for cash which neoliberalism feeds. Husbands of women who have rejected coffee may view horticulture as a means to reassert command over women's labour. To be successful in "evading male control" (MacGaffey, 1988) women need "laws that insist on the registration of women as owners of parcels of land" according to the Kenya NGO, Women and the Law (Ikonya, 1996, p. 6).

By planting bananas the women cultivators act against the interests of a number of antagonists. With increased commodification of all aspects of life under structural adjustment, the incidence of husbands' violence against women has increased, notably in confrontations over money.11 Groups of frustrated, dispossessed people are increasingly involved in violent crime. They can be easily instrumentalized by private entrepreneurs or by elements within the state to usurp control over resources through violence.12 The escalation of this trend is manifest in the mortal crises currently gripping East and Central Africa. At root the crises are struggles over land. To defend the terrain they have won, the Maragua cultivators need links to other insurgents. This takes us to an assessment of another refusal by rural women to yield up cash crops to the state.


The insurgency at the state-owned Mwea rice producing operation is rooted in the origins of the scheme. The colonial government developed irrigation at Mwea detention camp in 1953 using captive labour "of the Mau Mau detainees made available after the declaration of state of emergency in October 1952 and the ensuing Mau Mau war" (Njihia, 1984, p. 1). Kenyans fought the anti-colonial war mainly for land. Throughout the 1950s the British counter-insurgency campaign focused on interning Kikuyu farmers in concentration camps, the so-called 'protected villages'. Many detainees lost their land to African 'loyalists' who defended colonial rule. Because they were landless, the Mau Mau often had no alternative to remaining in the detention camps at the war's end. In 1961, the emergency was over and the state recast the Mwea detention camp as the Mwea Irrigation Scheme.

Mwea Irrigation Scheme is located 100 km North East of Nairobi in Kirinyaga District. The total scheme area is 12,000 ha (30,000 acres) while the area under rice crop is 5,830 ha (14,400 acres). The irrigation system is gravity fed from Nyamindi and Thiba Rivers. Over 50,000 people live in 3,242 farmer families settled in 36 villages. The mean net income per farmer in the 1994/95 season was Kenya Shillings 43,915.00 (US$ 813.24, C$ 1,114.14) (National Irrigation Board, 1996, p. III).

It is not only the physical infrastructure born of Mau Mau toil which remains in Mwea in the 1990s. The class conflict between labourers and state owners persists. According to one old man who had been "a peasant at Mwea" since 1958, "It is us who constructed the water canals when we were detainees, and if it were that one would be marketing his own rice and that to be paying little by little yearly, for the piece of land we occupy, the whole of this place would now belong to the people." (Kiragu, 1996, p. 3)

As specified by the rules of the scheme, each settler is allotted one plot and no more. Nevertheless, some politically well connected persons have illegally registered numerous plots in different fictitious names, but in reality, earn an income from these plots themselves. Those tenants who have acquired several plots constitute a class of business men and women who thrive off of the Mwea farmers, for instance as suppliers of machinery and inputs (Waiguru, 1996). Carolyn Wamarua is one such businesswoman. She owns supply stores, a matatu (public bus) business and is an officer of the women's organization, Maendeleo ya Wanawake (Progress for Women) which acts as an arm of the ruling party.13 In 1984 a government researcher carried out a study on declining rice yields in Mwea and reported that "the farmers can be classified broadly as 'good' or 'bad' farmers depending on certain characteristics. ...The bad farmers in Tebere section had some or all of the following characteristics:

1. Misdirected motivation or lack of it. Some farmers preferred salaried employment. They would, therefore, leave their holdings temporarily unattended for short periods while engaging in such activities.

2. Poor motivation. Lazy. They do not follow instructions.

3. Social weaknesses. a) No proper family, mainly bachelors (young or old). Lack reliable labour and proper control of inputs and output. b) Unstable families. Farmer is swindled by wives or sons. c) Old and physically weak. Lack strength and managerial capacity. d) Physically and mentally sick.

4. Unfaithful to scheme management. They sell some of their produce in the black market. They might sell some of their inputs also (Njihia, 1984, p. 7).

On the other hand 'good farmers' were polygamous husbands who could control large amounts of family labour: "The characteristics of good farmers were the reverse of those of bad farmers. ...Married persons and those with stable families had high output. ...the high yield group was aged between 36 and 40 years, had previously been traders and had three wives" (Njihia, 1984, p. 7).

Those men who "leave their holdings unattended," in reality leave their wives unattended. The women then irrigate their vegetables with water from rice paddies. Men who do not "control" their womenfolk, find that they divert their energies into vegetable production. Without question violence is often a method of control (Stamp, 1989, p. 66). In the mid-1980s battered women frequently fled from their husbands who consequently became "bad farmers" with "no proper family."

After more than forty years of operation, Mwea Irrigation Scheme is one of capitalist agricultural planners' best documented disasters for rural families.14 Broken promises and a divided body of farmers have meant that conditions have worsened over the last ten years. Rice production declined 13% in the decade ending in 1995 while actual deliveries declined much more (National Irrigation Board, 1996, Kamau, 1 June 1996). Child survival in Mwea has "deteriorated." There are high incidences of alcoholism, "marital problems" and child neglect (Republic of Kenya, Kirinyaga, 1993, p. 70). Violence against women in Mwea has escalated in the past decade. Single mothers' groups gain members by the month, as abused women flee their husbands (Wamarua, 1996). The disasterous conditions of the Mwea Settlement Scheme are in fact common characteristics of most such schemes throughout the world.15 A question for future research is the extent to which the gendered resistance in Mwea is equally common in other settlement schemes.

Perhaps as a result of continual physical decline, the social forces in Mwea have begun to consolidate across gender and ethnic lines on the basis of common class interests. Two examples of this process of consolidation can be cited. First, on 4 June 1996, Martha Karua and three others representing over 3,000 farmers at Mwea (almost 100% of farm families), rejected new tenancy agreements from their bosses at the government-run National Irrigation Board (Nation, 5 June 1996, p. 12). The women claimed that Mwea farmers do not accept the designation of tenant. They ridiculed the new agreement's terms which require farmers to deliver all rice, with the exception of a much reduced quantity of some ten bags per year, to the Irrigation Board.

Mwea residents' refusal to sign new tenancy agreements is evidence of their social power relative to that of the government. Despite threats of eviction, tenants have held firm in their claim to the land. There have been ominous government warnings in the press of "potentially explosive ethnic tension."16 Women farmers are succeeding in the production and marketing of tomatoes and other vegetables. Behind the decline in quantities of rice actually delivered to the state, the sole legal buyer, is a burgeoning independent trade. Mwea women sell the rice on the parallel market and repudiate the debts which the Irrigation Board has levied against them for water and inputs.17 Led by women, Mwea farmers have, to a significant extent, appropriated the land, water and their own labour and have organized these resources in their own interests. Some women are getting much more support from their menfolk than in the past. Other women have at least been able to hold at bay some of the male violence.

Second, on 14 July 1996, some 300 women shouted and ululated at government officers who called in police to break up a rally held by opposition politicians in a sports stadium in Mwea. Women farmers crossed the road to a building site and gathered stones in their skirts and dumped them on the playing field. Young men hurled the stones at police (Waiguru, 1996). "One policeman was heard to plead: 'Please spare us now, the war is over.'" (Nthiga, 15 July 1996, p. 2). The insurgents drew media attention to their demands for titles deeds and payment arrears. They forced the police to flee and effectively defied the government practice of disallowing public meetings by popular or opposition elements.

An alliance between Mwea women and especially young men was evident in the drama of the opposition politicians' rally in July 1996. For the first time in Kenya since the height of the democracy movement in 1992, citizens succeeded in defying the state ban on freedom of assembly and speech. Women and men successfully repelled police who were trying to disperse over 1,000 people. This event exposed the weakness of the de facto one-party regime. It revealed the power of Mwea women and men who had at that time, in effect, seized control of the rice scheme. While opposition politicians cited the drama as a victory for themselves, it was unquestionably a victory for the insurgent grassroots. This point was driven home by editorialists in the Kenyan press who decried the disrespect which Mwea farmers had shown for the forces of law and order (Shimoli, 1996). Amongst the old women who led the demand for land titles and the attack on the police were Mau Mau fighters from the 1950s. Called back to the frontlines by neoliberal enclosures, these seasoned survivors are now joined by the youth.


How does the Mwea experience with gendered class struggle compare with that of Maragua? Without question the domestic and producer-state relations in Mwea are much more sharply conficted than are those in Maragua. And the overall quality of life in Mwea is much lower. These differences are grounded in the different land-labour relations characterizing each community. Mwea's rice producers are quasi-peasants but because they do not have land titles they are also unwaged tenants. They are quasi-bonded because they are chronically in debt to the corrupt state apparatus which owns and manages the scheme. The state has organized the scheme to make survival coincident with men having multiple wives and children working in the rice fields rather than being in school. In contrast, Maragua's small holders are peasant owners whose households almost always secure essential income from additional waged employment. Maragua families exhibit a high incidence of monogamy and attendance at school by both girls and boys.

The contrasting land-labour systems have their corollary in Mwea and Maragua's different gendered class relations. One of the values of a gendered class analysis is that it reveals the ways in which the land-labour systems have different implications for women and men. It further reveals the gendered anatomy of resistance. Here we compare gendered class relations in Mwea and Maragua with respect to two elements: the male deal and the gendered class alliance.

The male deal in Mwea is much more pervasive and rigid than in Maragua. The state's various agents require husbands to discipline family labour in very precise tasks such as the operation of the scheme-wide gravity flow irrigation system. To be "good farmers" husbands are forced to behave almost as plantation overseers. Violence is omnipresent. It is very difficult for Mwea men to break out of these deals with the state since to do so brooks explusion from the land. To repudiate the male deal, men have to both repudiate their status as debt peons and their status as tenants. They have to simultaneously refuse to pay debts to the government Irrigation Board and effectively assert ownership over their plots of land. Their level of poverty and lack of alternative sources of livelihood makes escape from the male deal a major challenge to husbands in Mwea. It is a challenge which probably can be met only as part of a national or regional mobilization spearheaded by a gendered class alliance.

The emergence of such an alliance in Mwea is incipient and hence its features are discernable only in barest outline. Because of the harsh enforceabilty of the male deal, husbands may not be readily available for an alliance with wives against the state. Rather it would appear that sons are joining their mothers, grandmothers and sisters in a gendered class alliance in Mwea. Younger men frequently do not have tenancy rights which means they have not formally contracted a male deal and they have few prospects for a livelihood (and hence marriage) within the paramenters of the rice scheme. They witness their mothers and grandmothers securing an income through illicit tomato and rice sales. They are ready to challenge the police and corrupt elements who are laying false claim to land which the youth desperately need. Young men see battered women fleeing or taking refuge in the community. They see a few husbands cooperating with their wives in smuggling, sustenance cultivation and other survival strategies in opposition to the rules of the scheme. Under these influences, young and unmarried men may be increasingly open to alliances with those older women engaged in autonomous, collective sustenance activities in defiance of the state.

The male deal in Maragua was much more flexible than the one in Mwea. It enjoined title-holding husbands to organize family labour in coffee production for the state in exchange for control of the net proceeds. Because men owned the land, the coffee bureaucracy (cooperative, union, coffee marketing board, agricultural extension officers, chiefs, subchiefs, police) could only invite and not legally force them to deliver coffee. It followed that the state could only invite the men to discipline their wives to work in coffee. Hence husbands were much more vulnerable to wives' resistance and to their proposals for alternative land use. Compared to Mwea, Maragua husbands' more voluntary participation in the male deal made it relatively easy for some to withdraw and align with their womenfolk in projects to replace export crop with subsistence production.

The emergence of a gendered class alliance in Maragua was conditioned by the comparatively flexible character of that community's male deal. The state made significant concessions to women's labour strikes through directing chiefs to mediate in favour of joint bank accounts for spouses and through "women in development" projects some of which were income generating. Once small concessions enabled Maragua women to obtain control over some money, they went further, building on this strength to refuse coffee work completely and to put their labour into aggressive expansion of an integrated banana industry. Gradually most husbands withdrew from their deal with the state18 to align with wives who moved rapidly to become collective sustenance producers and protagonists of profound social transformation.

Some features of the gendered class alliance in Maragua warrant emphasis. This alliance appears to be mainly that of wives and husbands. Married women were initially mobilized and strengthened by initiatives taken by unmarried, divorced, 'deserted' and widowed women who together re-invented multi-purpose collectivities which are expressions of women's reappropriation of their own time, indigenous knowledge and social power. Husbands had little choice but to align with these women who, by taking charge of their own labour had also taken charge of food and money.


In the past decade, many farming women of both Maragua and Mwea have attempted to gain control over land for food production. They have confronted the state, corporations and often, their own husbands. The relations of production imposed upon producers by capital and the state have organized dispossessed women to resist. They began by refusing the discipline meted out by husbands who sought high returns on the crops women produce. While the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are stepping up pressure to privatise state assets, including coffee and rice marketing bodies, women producers are creating an alternative to corporate takeover. Many have revived customary women's work groups. Through these self-organized and autonomous groups they have begun to reconstruct sustenance society, for instance through rebuilding a regional trade and subsistence system.

Two of the many lessons that might be taken from the experience of women cultivators in Maragua and Mwea are, first, that capital organizes women to break exploitative relationships with men and then to join with other women to pursue common class objectives which are shared by people of different ethnicities. This study suggests that exploited men's abdication of domination over women workers and wives not only extends the scope of workers' initiatives to control resources but also breaks hierarchical relationships which keep women and men producers hungry, enslaved to capital and repressed by dictatorship.

A second lesson involves the movement of women cultivators into direct confrontation with international capital. Our analysis confirms the insight that neoliberal strategists predicate their structural adjustment programmes on the effectiveness of husbands' discipline over wives' labour. Those women who reject exploitative relations of production appear to do so through a transformative process which starts by satisfying the needs of the dispossessed. They focus attention on a crucial source of ethnic antagonisms: competition amongst factions of the exploited for resources which are dominated by capital. In repudiating export crops rural women enhance food supplies for the dispossessed who are thus less divided. In repudiating gendered exploitation, women cultivators in Maragua and Mwea offer an alternative to neo-liberalism.

Following upon Agarwal's research on women's need for independent land rights, we have presented examples of exploited Kenyan women who have collectivised their struggle to control land and pursue a livelihood. These women took command of their own labour and other resources by spurning often violent discipline by husbands, defying state policies and resisting their own incorporation into global markets on capital's terms. As the Maragua and Mwea cases suggest, the pivotal struggle in East and Central Africa today is one of commodification versus sustenance. In resisting export crop agriculture women are expanding the terrain for a much more sustainable, ecologically sound, sustenance agriculture. Women are at the forefront of the many forms of resistance to structural adjustment. They are joined by those men who decline to be overseers of their wives' production on behalf of the state and capital.

Structural adjustment's insistence on more cash crop production for export combined with untrammelled private appropriation of the commons and public property under the rubric of neoliberal privatization has thrown small-scale farmers (who are overwhelmingly women) up against an array of class enemies. These disguise the complex gendered class struggles as 'tribalism,'19 while inviting militarization and debilitating 'aid' from interests which are fully committed to rapid structural adjustment (Chossudovsky, 1996, Abwao, 1996). The original challenge in the mid-1980s by women cultivators such as those in Maragua to exploitation mediated by their husbands has evolved into a confrontation with the forces of globalising capital a decade later. In the future two patterns are likely to unfold. First, women can be expected to coordinate their actions regionally and internationally to a much greater extent and with the involvement of allied men. And second, the militarization of the region by international capital can be expected to increase. Maragua and Mwea women's struggles for sustainable agriculture stand as evidence of the real reasons for 'humanitarian intervention.' They call for a response of solidarity from people elsewhere to resist military reconquest of Africa and to stand with the women farmers and their allies as they resist neoliberal enclosures by fighting to replace export crops with food production.BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Biographical Notes

Leigh S. Brownhill completed a MA in sociology and international development ath the University of Guelph in 1995. Her study on Kenyan women's resistance to colonialism in the 1940s was based on oral histories collected in Kenya between 1989 and 1994.

Wahu M. Kaara is a Kenyan historian, teacher and organizer.

Terisa E. Turner is associate professor of Political Studies, Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Her recent research has focused on gendered resistance to structural adjustment.

The authors are founding members of First Woman, an East and Southern African women's oral history and indigenous knowledge network. First Woman is based in Canada and has been engaged in action research in East Africa since 1994.


Wahu M. Kaara P.O. Box 52906 Nairobi, KENYA tel messages, p. (254-2) 221-293 fax: (254-2) 562-175 email:

Leigh S. Brownhill 405 St. George St. East Fergus, Ontario CANADA N1M 1K9 tel: (519) 787-0609

Terisa E. Turner Departments of Political Studies and Sociology & Anthropology University of Guelph Guelph, Ontario CANADA N1G 2W1 tel: (519) 824-4129 ext.3990 fax: (519) 837-9561 email:

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