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  • Gossip, Markets and Gender: how dialogue constructs moral value in post-socialist Kilimanjaro
  • Tom Fisher
Tuulikki Pietilä, Gossip, Markets and Gender: how dialogue constructs moral value in post-socialist Kilimanjaro. Madison WI: Wisconsin University Press (hb $45.00 – ISBN 978 0 29922 090 7). 2007, 280 pp.

Gossip, Markets and Gender looks at the role of discourse – more particularly, gossip – in constructing and rethinking moral value and gender in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. In the literature, Chagga men and women from Kilimanjaro are regularly described as modern, with a long history of trade, and as having embraced the cash economy. Pietilä, however, reveals that social recognition and personhood comes not merely from economic resources but rather through discourses and gossip in bars and markets.

Pietilä conducted the research for this book in the mid-1990s. This was a time of social change in Tanzania, as the liberalization of the economy had led to shifts in relations of autonomy and dependence in local communities and within families. She argues, however, that it is the cultural debates and conceptualizations surrounding these changes that ultimately make these transformations real.

The key concept in Pietilä’s work is gossip – everyday conversations and interpreted life histories, in informal contexts such as markets, bars and houses. An analysis of the role of gossip in social situations is not new. James Scott, for example, has argued that gossip is one way that a subordinate group can resist and criticize formal power structures. Pietilä, on the other hand, argues that gossip in Kilimanjaro is not necessarily anti-hegemonic; rather, it is a discourse that serves to identify how a situation differs from the cultural norm, the ‘way the world should be’. Pietilä argues that, while gossip occurs in the ‘back stages’ of bars, markets and private houses, it almost always eventually reaches the ears of its target. While targeted individuals rarely respond directly to the gossip, they find other ways to respond to criticisms – through actions or a dialogue of their own to justify past actions. As such, gossip becomes dialogue about moral reputations and values. Gossip in Kilimanjaro becomes a semi-public sphere that links the front and back stages.

Pietilä begins her analysis with the marketplace, and the ways in which both the buyer and the seller appeal to ideas of domesticity and motherhood. Even the more successful women traders claim to be trading not to make a profit but in order to ‘feed their children’. While the reader may initially be sceptical of these claims (as was Pietilä when she began her research), a closer examination of the idea of ‘feeding’ reveals it to be a broader concept of domesticity and providing for the family. A woman would usually take care, however, not to take on characteristics interpreted as masculine; it was not common for a woman to say ‘I bought a car’ or ‘I bought a house’, as this would be interpreted as insulting to her husband’s role as provider. These discourses on proper gendered behaviour also extend to sexual behaviour, particularly as the bars surrounding the marketplace are seen as places where prostitution is common. However, Pietilä does not see the market women as passive victims of moral criticism, and places their justifications for their actions as the other [End Page 338] side of the moral discourse in Kilimanjaro. The study of gossip also provides for some rich and fascinating ethnographies; the character of Mama Njau, a ‘big woman’ trader to whom a chapter is devoted, provides a particularly memorable example.

Pietilä goes on to look at the moral discourse surrounding Chagga men. Historically, but particularly after the liberalization of the economy, many men have migrated from Kilimanjaro to become traders or do business elsewhere in Tanzania. These migrants, able to earn far more than those who remained, often build very fine houses back in rural Kilimanjaro. The discourse surrounding these processes is of interest. For, while Chagga people are usually seen as embracing trade, money is still a key source of moral concern in Kilimanjaro. While money’s individual, concealable and convertible nature is seen as enabling social mobility, there is a moral disquiet about these forces. Discourses surrounding activities such...


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pp. 338-339
Launched on MUSE
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