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Journal of Women's History 16.3 (2004) 213-220
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Colonialism and Beyond:
Gender and Culture in Recent Histories of Tanzania, Ghana, and Lesotho
Each of the books reviewed for this essay addresses ways in which African identities were negotiated during the colonial period in sub-Saharan Africa. Two of the books are explicitly interested in African women's experiences of and responses to social, economic, and political transformations in the first part of the twentieth century. Marc Epprecht's study of Basotho women during the late colonial period, 'This matter of women is getting very bad': Gender, Development and Politics in Colonial Lesotho, highlights the centrality of gender to colonial strategies for labor procurement, development, and nationalist politics in Basutoland/Lesotho, and also the responses of Basotho women to their rapidly changing circumstances. Jean Allman and Victoria Tashjian's volume, "I Will Not Eat Stone": A Women's History of Colonial Asante, explores the lives of Asante women born into the first colonized generation during the first two decades of the twentieth century. They view the dramatic changes wrought by cocoa production, together with colonial authority and missionary influence, through the lens of African women's experiences, particularly in the context of conjugal relations. The third book, Dorothy Hodgson's, Once Intrepid Warriors: Gender, Ethnicity and the Cultural Politics of Maasai Development, casts the net more broadly to consider the ways in which Maasai cultural and gender identity have been continually negotiated in relation to colonial and postcolonial development interventions in Tanzania.
Each book draws on a combination of archival research and interviews. In addition, Hodgson's and Epprecht's work is enriched by the authors' [End Page 213] work experiences in Tanzania and Lesotho, respectively. The results of the all of the authors' extensive field experience come through as the works never lose sight of the agency of those who are struggling to define their identities and livelihoods. Each of these books makes significant contributions to African history by recovering the voices and experiences of those left out of more conventional histories that focus on colonial perceptions, state policies, and the experiences of dominant groups. But, in different ways and to different degrees, these volumes go well beyond correcting the androcentric tendencies of official histories by situating their subjects within much broader discourses on modernization, progress, and development that should draw the attention of scholars beyond African history.
At the heart of each of these works is the question of how African men and women lived their lives during the colonial period and beyond. One of the strengths of these volumes is that they illuminate the details and nuances of gendered identities in three different historical and spatial locations. Nevertheless, one cannot help but be struck by the similarities that emerge from women's experiences of colonialism and development. In their concluding chapter Allman and Tashjian write, "when one aims the historical spotlight on commoner women, on work obligations, on the shifting burdens of social reproduction, one cannot help but be struck by the commonalities in experiences" (223). In circumstances characterized by marked differences in labor practices, agricultural systems, lineage, and forms of colonialism African women experienced declining status, increasing work burdens, disappearing safety nets and increasing responsibility for household reproduction.
This statement will ring true for anyone who is familiar with the growing field of historiography on African women during the colonial period. And while all of these volumes do, indeed, illustrate a tale of...