Developing the African Woman

by Beth Rebisz, PhD student

For six weeks this summer I was based in Nairobi conducting research in the Kenyan National Archives. As this was my first fieldwork trip to Kenya I was excited to see what the archives held and was able to use this opportunity to scope out further sites for research, meeting individuals I will be able to conduct oral history interviews with. As part of my PhD thesis aims to explore the experiences of Kenyan women during the Mau Mau conflict in the 1950s, I was intrigued to learn more about the community development programmes enforced during this decade by the British colonial government to boost ‘self-help’ amongst African women during this period of intense warfare. Maendeleo ya Wanawake was an organisation established by the colonial government in 1952 with the proclaimed aim of encouraging the ‘advancement of African women’. So, what were these advances and what did the colonial government mean by ‘self-help’?

It is little surprise when placing this in the context of the 1950s that classes run by Maendeleo ya Wanawake, often with the support of the British Red Cross, centred on domestic duties and crafts. Kenyan women attended training on how to keep their homes clean, how to wash their babies effectively as well as cooking classes focused on preparing typical British recipes. In terms of their recreational sessions, sewing, crocheting, singing and dancing took centre stage. It is important to note that membership to Maendeleo ya Wanawake was not free, however with joining the organisation women could access resources for their homes, childcare to attend classes as well as further incentives such as competition prizes and promotions to become paid leaders of their village and district clubs.

Photo credit: ICRC archives (ARR)

Delving into the monthly reports of the organisation, there are clear signs of disengagement of Kenyan women towards certain classes. Colonial officials saw this as an indication of Africans not wanting to help themselves. As a historian critically analysing this evidence, it is important to explore other reasons behind this and to consider the context of the proclaimed ‘civilising mission’ behind European colonisation of Africa. The described purpose of Maendeleo ya Wanawake may have been to encourage the ‘advancement of African women’, but this advancement was focused on Western ideals of women with little consideration of African womanhood. This sat within a wider aim coined by historians D. A. Low and John Lonsdale as the second colonial occupation. This aimed to develop African populations in a manner that prepared them both for independence and to ensure citizens became more governable.[1] By viewing these signs of Kenyan women’s disengagement to the classes organised by British officials within this wider context, one could instead interpret this as an act of defiance.

Curiously, Maendeleo ya Wanawake was established in 1952, on the eve of the declaration of a state of emergency across Kenya. While the British were fighting a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against Mau Mau guerrilla fighters calling for land and freedom from colonial rule, the Ministry of Community Development and Rehabilitation were not only forming Maendeleo ya Wanawake, they were also ‘rehabilitating’ detainees suspected of being part of the Mau Mau movement. This begs the question whether this organisation really centred on the ‘advancement of African women’, or whether their aim was two-fold; engineer Kenyan women into the idolised Western mother within the patriarchal household and steer them clear of any Mau Mau involvement. What is notable is that to this day Maendeleo ya Wanawake is thriving, now seen as a vehicle for women’s rights and gender equality within leadership and economic sectors, in Kenya. Despite the alarming purpose behind its formation, Kenyan women have transformed the society to fully embody the definition of ‘Maendeleo’; the Kiswahili term for ‘progress’.

[1] D. A. Low and John Lonsdale, ‘Towards the New Order 1945-1963’, in: D. A. Low & Alison Smith (eds) History of East Africa Vol III (Oxford, 1976), 13.

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