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LAND, ECOLOGY, AND RESISTANCE IN KENYA, 1880-1952. Fiona D.A. Mackenzie. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1998. pp. 286, paper $26.00.
On 14 April 1948, the "Revolt of the Women" occurred in Muranga District of Kenya's Central Province. Twenty-five hundred women marched upon the District headquarters with "Amazonian war cries" to protest against the use of coerced labor for state soil conservation measures. Although wider peasant unrest occurred in Muranga between 1947-1948, this event was significant due to the gender and class issues raised. As such, it provides the backdrop for Fiona Mackenzie's work, Land, Ecology and Resistance in Kenya, 1880-1952. Mackenzie examines the dialectic of ecological improvement within the reserves in Kenya and the subsequent social impact upon African communities. Her specific purpose is to examine the antagonisms of class and gender which arose as aspects of this discourse of ecological improvement.
In the 1930s and 1940s, environmental degradation became a major preoccupation of the colonial state in Kenya. As one result, soil conservation campaigns broadened in scope. These campaigns became part of the overall intensification of an administrative presence in the reserves. For Mackenzie, these campaigns also served as a subterfuge for an underlying discourse of control. The rhetoric of ecological improvement served as a veil for settler apprehension concerning land tenure. Settler concerns for the spread of diseases and soil degradation associated with African farming methods disguised fears for their holdings in the White Highlands. Consequently, environmentalism became a weapon to legitimize settler land tenure (associated with right farming practices and correct land use) and reinforce state support for settler agriculture. The campaigns of the 1930s and 1940s also recast the political crisis over land as a technological problem that privileged Western agricultural practices while portraying indigenous agricultural practices as unscientific (p. 9). Since much knowledge about agriculture in Africa was the purview of women, such privileging of Western knowledge entailed the silencing of female voices.
The campaigns of ecological "betterment" reduced the status of women as the main cultivators of the land and keepers of agricultural knowledge. These programs were implemented in an atmosphere of increasing land scarcity within Central Province. As a result, the British attempted to define customary land law more clearly, with an eye toward formulating policy. These attempts resulted in a fluid and dynamic system becoming rigid and static. The net effect was a system of customary law that weakened the position of women and the poor against that of the rich peasants or "Big Men" (p.17).
Mackenzie's work is divided into seven chapters and uses extensive archival sources, mainly Colonial Office records, in addition to European travelers' accounts and oral evidence. The first three chapters examine the role of women in pre-colonial Muranga as the primary agricultural cultivators and how this role changed when the British began to redefine customary law. Pre- colonial rights to land were dynamic and complex, leaving space for the negotiation of women's rights to land. The reassessment of the customary land laws served to effectively suppress women's rights to land. Although women previously could technically not own land, their rights to land were secured through recognition of their value as cultivators (p. 24).
Mackenzie states there were latent tensions within this customary land system. The fluidity of customary land law masked tensions that would later surface more acutely. These underlying tensions between the Mbari (subclan) and the individual or between women and men would become much more problematic as land became scarce under colonialism. British attempts to define customary land law exacerbated the tensions underlying the customary land system. For example, since the Mbari controlled rights of allocation of land, heightened social differentiation and increasing land sales threatened the solidarity of the sub-clan. Mackenzie points out that in Kiambu, this had been the case. Due to the impact of long distance trade on the southern part of Kikuyuland during the nineteenth century, the solidarity of the Mbari had given way to increasing individualization by the time of British conquest. In Muranga, on the other hand, Mbari power over land allocation remained strong due to the lesser impact of long distance trade.
These attempts took place through an assortment of commissions and inquiries. Mackenzie's analysis examines The Committee on Native Land Tenure in Kikuyu Province in 1929 and the Kenya Land Commission of 1932-1934. As evidenced in Kiambu and Muranga, these commissions encountered class and gender issues reflecting contradictory views of customary land law. In Kiambu, where the process of individualization had been more acute, witnesses reconstructed a version of customary land law which reinforced the idea of individual land sales. This served to protect the rights of accumulators who were amassing land and wealth. In contrast, many Muranga witnesses reconstructed a version of customary land law which stressed the power of the Mbari over land allocation. In both Muranga and Kiambu, the evidence laid before the commissions did not diverge regarding women's rights to land: it uniformly stressed rights of allocation over rights of use. Since women derived many of their rights to land through their power over usufruct, the stress upon allocation rights over use rights weakened women's negotiating power (p. 90).
The second half of the book discusses the impact ecological improvement campaigns upon the resource base and women's agricultural knowledge. According to Mackenzie, concern over environmental degradation belied an ulterior motive. By the end of the 1930s, European settlers feared the African success with maize production. The colonial administration was becoming alarmed at the rapid growth of African accumulators (p. 142). The solution was to blame it on the Africans. The problem of land degradation became a problem of African farming methods. As a result, the ecological improvement campaigns articulated methods involving Western knowledge or techniques. State programs relied upon engineering as opposed to biological/agronomical methods in controlling soil degradation. To combat soil erosion, the state recommended time and space consuming methods such as terracing. However, the use of terracing often proved problematic. Since terraces pulled much land out of cultivation, many African farmers preferred biological methods, such as contour hedges and mixed farming to control land degradation.
The suppression of indigenous knowledge also occurred in the effort to increase agricultural productivity within the reserves. To stimulate maize production, the Department of Agriculture began a massive seeding campaign, which involved dispersing seeds bred for high yield, marketability, and varietal uniformity. The environmental effect of these campaigns of "betterment" in the reserves was twofold. Ecologically, the seeding campaign resulted in a high yield maize crop but one which lacked genetic diversity and resistance to pests, disease and drought. The promotion of maize also resulted in the decline of millet production, a more nutritious and drought-resistant crop. The state also advocated the use of monocropping methods, as opposed to the indigenous inter-cropping methods. The emphasis on maize production demanded a heavy reliance upon imported agricultural knowledge, undercutting women's authority since they were the main purveyors of indigenous agricultural knowledge. As Mackenzie states " the negotiation of gender relations of production was linked to the politics of knowledge production (p. 202).
The discourse of ecological improvement in Kenya had already been covered by scholars such as David Throup. But Mackenzie uniquely adds to the scholarship on this subject by projecting women's voices. Mackenzie attempts to write history "from below" by discussing the role of women in the discourse of environmentalism. She does not bring gender into the picture so much as cast light upon a dark recess which has been ignored by previous scholarship on the subject. However, on this point I also find fault with Mackenzie's analysis. In her re-enactment of pre- colonial customary land law, Mackenzie relies almost singlehandedly upon Jean Fisher's Anatomy of Kikuyu Domesticity and Husbandry (1954) to reconstruct the role of use rights in giving women more power of negotiation against the patriarchal structure. Moreover, most of her oral evidence comes from female informants without any counter point from male informants. The danger here is the problem of creating herstory, whatever it may be. However, this work is needed and students of Kenya's history will find it a worthy contribution.
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