The divergence between the activities, responsibilities, attitudes, understandings, work, and leisure of women and men in Kuria society was striking in the 1980s, and gender inequalities became one of the first arenas to understand while doing fieldwork. So was the differential positionality of myself and the people I engaged with. At first requiring assistance in communication almost entirely, I have come to have relationships with individuals of many walks of life that have spanned decades, and that have educated and socialized me to the norms of Kuria social life. These continue to be altered as my friends’ and acquaintances’ lives respond to both old and new vectors of power inequalities that shape their relationships and behaviors. At the outset of the third decade of the 21st century, employment offers continuity with the old divisions of labor in some sectors but opens new dimensions in especially schools, where women and men work side by side, doing the same work. In the countryside education is the most significant form of employment available to people, both male and female. In agriculture, customary forms of labor relations prevail, even with growing reliance on paid agricultural labor provided by both men and women.
Research and Fieldwork
I have focused on gender-related issues in many contexts. My doctoral research was the first sustained research effort, as I tried to comprehend the ways in which norms are created, behaviors modified, and gender roles and ideologies embodied.
Investigation into how gender roles are internalized led to a specific focus on adolescence and that opened up the world of genital cutting, establishing the boundaries of sexual human beings, of male and female, and the role of ritual in delineating group boundaries. While finalizing a book on genital cutting, I spent a fieldwork term doing exploratory research with NGOs and government agencies concerned with the elimination of FGM, in Kenya and Germany, 2014. Though illuminating, this work was not sustainable, as I was denied admission to the contexts where decisions regarding global campaigns worth $8 billion are being made.
Another winter was spent visiting the program where I had been a postdoctoral fellow, at the Research School of Social Sciences, the Australian National University. There, I worked out the spine of my monograph on genital cutting in rural Kenya, 2007. I had previously spent a number of winters visiting with friends in Kenya, in reply to their invitations to participate in initiations of their children.
Over the course of 25 years in rural Kenya, I came to know very closely a Kuria elder whose life history is now the subject of my ongoing project to portray her life and times. In talking about her life, she shared a great deal about her experience as well as how she thought about it, a critical understanding of the norms of age and gender specific statuses, and how they fit into other elements of hierarchy. Equally fascinating is the view she has of the changes the society underwent, sometimes gradually, sometimes radically.
I am working to include other voices too, supplementing the major voice of her life history. Only a most holistic approach can do justice to the complexity of the topic: the changing notions of womanhood in precolonial, colonial and postcolonial East Africa. During my most recent sabbatical, spent at the Oakley Center for Humanities and Social Sciences at Williams College, I began working on the monograph. I re-listened to all the tape recordings, re-read the transcripts, and began formulating a plan on how to proceed. My fellowship at Oakley included field visits to Kenya and Germany, and archival research in the Seventh Day Adventist World Headquarters in Silver Spring, MD, 2017.
I am looking for the voices of colonial settlement as brought into Kuria lives in various ways. I have a good collection of information from the Kenya National Archives from official documents of the process of colonization and the colonial era. I am also looking for the voice of German colonial settlement in German colonial archives and the national museum in Berlin, Germany as well as online. German settlers published a newspaper in Tanzania, and those records are a window into the society of the day. Those ceased following the end of WWI. The Abairege moved north into Kenya in the first decade of the 20th century.
I am also looking at the voices of the earliest missionaries to establish themselves in Kuria communities. The Seventh Day Adventists arrived from Germany to the southeast zone of Lake Victoria first, followed by Mill Hill brothers from Ireland. It was was both thrilling and enlightening for me to hold, one hundred years after they were written, the flimsy paper sheets on which missionaries wrote about their work and posted them by boat for the long journey back to their church headquarters. I have been conducting online research in the Seventh Day Adventist archive since 2017 and am in the process of gaining access to the Mill Hill archives to learn what I can about their experiences and exposure to the inhabitants of rural East Africa.
Courses taught on the subject
- Gender and Social Change in Modern Africa
- Gender, Inequality and Social Change
Women, Gender, and Sexuality in East Africa
Introducing Alternative Rites of Passage
The Female Circumcision Controversy Continued
Making the Mark: Gender, Identity, and Genital Cutting
Through the Lens of Tragedy: Learning about Gender and Age in the Construction of Community
P.A.V.E: Project Against Violent Encounters
Celebrating Circumcisions (upon request)
Anthropological Perspectives on Female Genital Cutting: Embodying Tradition, Violence, and Social Resilience
Papers and Talks
Reflection on new anti-FGM law in Sudan, interview in the UpFront program hosted by Jeannine Etter, KPFA (94.1 FM), May 8, 2020.
“Gooko: Womanhood at the Edge of Colony, State, and the Neoliberal World,” ANSO lunch presentation, Williams College, Williamstown, MA, November 12, 2018
“Gendered Violence: FGM in Sierra Leone,” discussant of The Secret Pain by Kate Kendel, Women’s and Gender Studies Program, Williams College, February 11, 2009.
“UNAIDS/CAPRISA Consultation on Social Science Perspectives on Male Circumcision for HIV Prevention” in Durban, South Africa, January 18-19, 2007.
“Kuria Girls and the NGOs,” paper presented at the African Studies Association annual meeting in San Francisco, CA November 16-19, 2006.
“Making the Cut: A Kenyan Community Confronts the Tradition of Female Circumcision,” public lecture at University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, January 24, 2006.
“What Do Alternative Rites of Passage Alter?” American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, November 30- December 4, 2005.
“Genital Cutting as a Threshold in Identity Formation in Rural Kenya,” American Ethnological Society meeting in Atlanta, GA, April 23-25, 2004.
“Perspectives on Genital Cutting,” Women’s and Gender Studies Department, Williams College, Williamstown, MA, October 23, 2003.
“Is Circumcision Genital Mutilation? A Report from the Field,” presented at the Social Science Colloquium, Bennington College, October 17, 2002.
“Dealing with Circumcision,” presented at the American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., November 28-December 2, 2001.
“Circumcision as Locus for Negotiating Identity in Rural Kenya,” presented at the African Studies Association Meetings in Nashville, TN, November 16-19, 2000.
“Age and Gender, Power and Authority: Socioeconomic Change in Rural Kenya,” presented at the Anthropology Department Faculty Seminar Series, Research School of Pacific Studies, Institute for Advanced Studies, the Australian National University, August 4, 1993.
“Fertility and Female-Headed Households in Kenya,” presented at the Demography Department Seminar Series, Research School of Social Sciences, Institute for Advanced Studies, the Australian National University, July 27, 1993.