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  • Trouble Showed the Way: Women, Men, and Trade in the Nairobi Area, 1890–1990
  • Lynn M. Thomas
Trouble Showed the Way: Women, Men, and Trade in the Nairobi Area, 1890–1990. By Claire C. Robertson (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997. xii plus 341pp.).

In Trouble Showed The Way, Claire Robertson brings insights and empathy gained through over two decades of research and writing on women and class in African history to an analysis of the Nairobi bean trade. Robertson’s documentation of the crucial roles played by African women in feeding Nairobi broadens our understanding of the economic, gender, and urban history of Kenya. Echoing previous feminist scholarship, this study aims to demonstrate how women with [End Page 242] few material resources have profoundly shaped the worlds in which they live. According to Robertson, trade is a logical thematic lens through which to explore issues of agency because central Kenyan women have largely constructed their identities through work.

Robertson begins her study by analyzing concepts of womanhood in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century central Kenya. Relying on ethnographies and her own interpretations of Kikuyu proverbs and folktales, Robertson argues that previous scholars have underestimated the extent to which central Kenyan women were regarded as property. She explains that the caravan trade of the 1880s—90s contributed to the “commodification of women” by concentrating commerce in the hands of men while increasing the demand for women’s agricultural labor. Robertson maintains that despite this property-like status, women were not “completely powerless victims.” The reader, however, must wait until the penultimate chapter for a thorough discussion of women’s councils and female initiation, the most important social institutions through which older women exerted authority. But even here, Robertson insists that women’s power existed “apart from” and rarely “over” men.

Women first began trading beans in Nairobi to acquire cash and goods for rural households. Within central Kenya, beans had long been regarded as a women’s crop and trade commodity. Under colonialism, according to Robertson, women and beans suffered similar fates. Just as colonial policies “marginalized and devalued” women, maize replaced beans as the most favored food staple “in a case of prototypical agricultural imperialism.” (3) Beans, however, remained a primary food stuff and, with increased European land alienation, trade became an even more important strategy for avoiding poverty. Or, as Robertson expresses the tenacity of the bean trade: “some beans and some women have indigestible qualities.” (63)

By the inter-war period, trade had become segregated by gender; men, with more capital and fewer household responsibilities, engaged in wholesale and long-distance trade, while women remained confined to small-scale trade along Nairobi streets or in illegal markets. These decades also mark the height of African men’s anxieties over the sexual activities and social mobility of women traders. Previous scholars have explored how Kikuyu-speaking men considered Nairobi’s property-owning prostitutes and missionaries’ anti-clitoridectomy campaigns as threats to their political authority and moral order. Robertson expands our understanding of these anxieties by documenting how these men (including Jomo Kenyatta) understood women’s trade in food stuffs as a pretext for selling sex. They clearly associated women’s commerical success with their own decreasing control over women’s bodies.

Robertson persuasively argues that the most profound change in discourses and policies concerning women traders accompanied the late colonial state’s efforts to foster the formation of stable working-class families supported by male breadwinners. Prior to the 1950s, European colonial officers, realizing that women traders fed Nairobi cheaply and efficiently, largely ignored African men’s calls for increased regulation of women traders. During the Mau Mau rebellion and its aftermath, however, government efforts to promote law and order within Nairobi coalesced with the interests of wealthier male traders. Crackdowns on mobile [End Page 243] traders, increased regulation of markets, and loan schemes that favored male traders, all worked to weaken the position of women traders. Despite election-time promises, post-colonial politicians have done little to alter these policies. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, police attacks on traders escalated as political elites sought to gain control over market areas deemed...

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pp. 242-244
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