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As she explains in an honest and informative introduction, Penvenne wrote her most recent book to critique earlier labor histories of Mozambique, including her own. Drawing on archival sources and concentrating on leading industries, these prior works were histories of men. Reflecting on her writings and on her experiences in Mozambique, Penvenne decided to remedy the gender imbalance. The challenges of defining the topic and refining a methodology to unearth it remained. In this book, Penvenne met those challenges by taking women’s stories seriously. As a result, she has delivered a warm and generous narrative.
Penvenne is convincingly critical about the blind spots and inaccuracies in state-produced archival sources. Oral testimonies are more difficult to analyze than archival or documentary sources and more difficult to understand, but the lessons are more valuable. Her methodology to uncover the details about female workers was to listen to them as “narrators,” not merely “informants.” This strategy involved filtering their positions about decolonization and their experiences of the postcolonial moment to develop a deeper understanding of their earlier lives. The [End Page 257] stories told by individual women are diverse, revealing experiences both happy and tragic, a range of different values, and changes from one generation to the next. Women remembered gossip and nicknames, as well as their own lives. Their recollections revolved around their struggles and achievements. In addition to interviews, Penvenne analyzes four “touchstone” songs, because women might sing what they will not always say. The songs are laments about hard circumstances and provide shared commentary and meanings. Through this method, women, their work, and their values take their rightful place with the androcentric and state-centric narratives that have thus far been normative. Penvenne is not alone in this effort, but her introduction and conclusion explicated her methodology particularly well.
The topic of the book is more innovative than the title or the cover photograph of factory workers suggests. The story of women’s labor certainly includes politics of the shop floor, but women workers’ explanations of their paid labor are rooted in their experiences on farms and in families. In a fresh move, Penvenne includes movement within household, gift, and informal economies as a form of labor migration. Affirming that these realms were as political as wage labor and relations with the state makes women’s stories legible within the customary frameworks. Abusive husbands, dead parents, and helpful siblings were crucial to decisions to migrate. Especially powerful was the imperative to care for children, discussed in the chapter “Children Are Not Like Chickens.” Penvenne deploys the poignant stories about mothers’ faithfulness to explain participation in the formal and informal economies.
When women migrated to the city, “to take up a new kind of hoe,” they formed new alliances there, but mothers were sometimes desperately alone. Fortunate families combined work in the informal economy—selling food, wood, and alcohol—with labor in the cashew-processing industry. Managers, especially the South Asian merchant Jiva Jamal Tharani, could be paternal and sympathetic. “Tarana” became the name for a good employer and for the entire economic sector. The women experienced increasing intervention by the state, which did not see the value in their social capital. That failure of recognition permeated the archival record and academic analyses, until now.
But attention to management and the state recedes throughout the course of the book. Rather, this history concerns the aspirations and strategies of women in often-hard times. “Poverty, death, and irresponsibility undercut aspirations for respect, discipline, and harmony in people’s lives. Some things one could not change or escape, but since ‘somebody had to take care of those children,’ many women carried on in pursuit of the most dignified harmonious accommodation they could manage. It was never easy” (208). [End Page 258]