Crisis & Decline in Bunyoro: Population & Environment in Western Uganda 1860-1955.
"Girl Cases": Marriage and Colonialism in Gusiiland, Kenya, 1890-1970. By Brett L. Shadle. (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2006. Pp. xliii, 256. $29.95.)
The two books under review make important contributions to East African social history. The studies focus on regions, one in western Uganda and the other in western Kenya, that suffered a particularly violent colonial conquest as a result of sustained resistance followed by some years of neglect. In both regions, the conquest and the decade that followed it brought large losses in cattle and other livestock. Neither district was part of the political mainstream of the colonies within which they were situated. In addition to these similarities, the authors of both books have taken advantage of rich archival sources and oral interviews in the field to present well-documented historical studies, including good use of statistics taken from colonial records. Moreover, both make effective use of the research of Western anthropologists who worked in the areas after World War II. Both books are grounded in the relevant secondary literature. Both make authoritative contributions with the primary focuses of the books: demographic changes in the Bunyoro kingdom in the first and the "crisis" over marriage in Gusiiland in the second. In particular, the authors realize the importance of colonial economic changes impacting the social history that is the focus of the books.
Yet significant differences also mark the authors' approaches to social history. Obviously the subjects are different (population and environment as opposed to "girl cases"). Shane Doyle demonstrates that Bunyoro was violently conquered, was deprived of a huge amount of land and livestock, and was neglected, systematically oppressed, and underdeveloped. Brett L. Shadle shows that Gusiiland was at first neglected but suffered no loss of land (some Gusii gained access to additional land under colonial rule), and cattle herds were rebuilt after World War I. Gusii accommodated themselves to colonial rule, and eventually experienced considerable economic prosperity as a result. (It was the first African area to plant arabica coffee legally in colonial Kenya.) Although the latter economic innovation, together with large increases in the sale of maize and the later introduction of tea and pyrethrum, encouraged and sponsored by the colonial state in Gusiiland, brought substantial increases in wealth to the region, Doyle presents a persuasive case that new crops such as cotton and tobacco, by contrast, brought great poverty to Bunyoro.
There are also significant differences in the ways the books approach their core issues. Although Doyle does not make political history the center of his study, he provides at least two chapters that give the reader an understanding of the main political trends and issues in colonial Bunyoro and, to a lesser extent, in the larger Uganda arena. Shadle leaves colonial politics (Gusii or Kenyan) largely out of his social history. In the treatment of colonial rule and its impact, Doyle presents an extremely negative picture, as colonial officials and European missionaries helped to shape Bunyoro's disastrous demographic experience through their hostility and neglect. By contrast, Shadle presents the missionaries and colonial rulers in a much more benign light, especially those who served in Gusiiland after the 1930s.
Moreover, the crisis and decline in Bunyoro was far more severe and threatening, as it involved a decline in population with only a modest recovery toward the end of the period covered by the book. In chapters six and nine in particular, Doyle presents a compelling analysis of the demographic disaster. A variety of factors are shown to be responsible: the colonial conquest and colonial policies brought on a series of famines and epidemics and encouraged large-scale migration from Bunyoro. The Nyoro themselves bore considerable responsibility for this situation. Doyle maintains that the Nyoro leadership, particularly after the failure of the Nyangire Rebellion of 1907, was characterized by "conservatism and limited ambition" (96). Gender relations also "lay at the heart of the evolving colonial demographic crisis" (244). All this meant that between 1910 and 1924, Bunyoro's birthrate was the lowest of any district in Uganda and the mean death rate was higher than average. These factors, together with nutrition, are treated in detail, with the sections on endemic and epidemic diseases (sexually transmitted diseases, sleeping sickness, and malaria) being particularly revealing. The population of Bunyoro thus only began to recover toward what Doyle estimated to be preconquest levels at the end of the colonial period (three decades later than the East African norm). Even late in the colonial period, Bunyoro suffered more from malnutrition than any other people in Uganda. This--together with an unhealthy environment, the nature of gender relations, and poor health for most of the Nyoro population--explains chronic infertility and high mortality.
In view of the focus of the second book under review, it is of interest to note what Doyle has to say about marriage and gender relations in Bunyoro for roughly the same time period. Just as in Gusiiland, the 1930s witnessed bridewealth becoming increasingly inflated; unlike Gusiiland, payments of bridewealth became monetized. Important results of this situation were an increase in informal unions and later marriages. Although polygamy remained a desired marital state for men, Doyle argues that such a practice was the preserve of the wealthy. The period also produced a high divorce rate for Bunyoro. Thus marital issues clearly had an impact on Bunyoro's low fertility.
Doyle's study makes a significant contribution to understanding health and population issues in one portion of Uganda. Although some might contend that Bunyoro's experience was atypical for colonial Uganda, it is nevertheless valuable for historians to have access to studies like this as it is important to understand the experience of all regions of colonial East Africa. Among the less-than-completely satisfying aspects of the book, however, are the several references to the Kikuyu of Kenya. These add little to the reader's understanding, as the two regions had quite different precolonial histories and experiences under colonial rule. Doyle's treatment of innovation in the colonial economy also leaves something to be desired. It contrasts with that of Shadle, who provides a detailed account, for example, of the introduction of coffee growing that helps the reader to understand the roots of differentiation in Gusiiland. Doyle's treatment emphasizes differences in wealth, but provides little detail as to their origins. A particularly confusing aspect of Doyle's narrative has to do with his reference to other scholars. He identifies these by their profession (e.g., historian or anthropologist), but for African scholars, their nationality and/or ethnic origin is also indicated. If it is significant that a scholar is Nigerian or Ugandan, then one wonders why Canadians, Americans, Scots, or others are not so identified in the book.
As noted above, "Girl Cases" treats economic innovation more effectively as a prelude to a detailed examination of marriage and associated gender issues in the Gusii highlands over a period stretching roughly from the late 1930s through the 1960s. Here also there was a crisis, although different than that in Bunyoro, of marriage. The background to the colonial economy is preceded by a discussion of the establishment and functioning of colonial rule in Gusiiland and a chapter that sets the background for marriage disputes with a brief description of Gusii marriage practices and the nature of the disputes examined in the book. An interesting and informative part of the discourse is provided by a description of the agitation in Britain over the issue of forced marriages in Kenya and other colonial territories that owed much to the initiative of the Church Missionary Society missionary W. E. Owen. The discussion provides new insights as to the metropolitan conceptions of problems with African marriage in the second half of the 1930s.
Turning back to Gusiiland, the focus on marriage disputes includes forced marriage and runaway wives, elopement, adultery, and abduction. All are well illustrated through examples drawn from cases heard by the Gusii local tribunals set up in 1937. Forced marriage and runaway wives highlighted the issue of female choice in a spouse, which could easily lead to conflict with the woman's father, as the narrative illustrates. Elopement was primarily the result of a couple's gamble that they could draw a reluctant father into marriage negotiations. Abduction of a woman to gain a wife involved the use of force and sometimes physical harm, but a common reason for this, the court cases indicate, was a lack of sufficient wealth to afford the escalating bridewealth demanded by Gusii fathers. Behind these "girl cases," therefore, were the economic realities of Gusiiland from the 1940s to the end of the 1960s. Rising levels of income from the sale of crops and greater numbers of men seeking wage employment (particularly high during World War II) pushed bridewealth ever higher. This had a negative impact on poorer households in particular. Shadle demonstrates, for example, that in the 1940s and 1950s it took up to three or four years, and perhaps longer, for a poor man to earn money to meet the bridewealth demanded at the time.
The result was that what the book terms "disputes over women" or "girl cases" poured into the courts that colonial rule created in Gusiiland (Ritongo Kuja and Ritongo Gesima) (152). Shadle was fortunate to gain access to these court records, and he makes excellent use of them. In his analysis, he maintains that women's consent and female agency generally lay at the center of the struggle over marriage that the court cases reveal. The analysis of the court cases also demonstrates the difficulty of balancing or reconciling the rights of fathers and daughters and husbands and wives. The result was that court elders "usually favored the rights of senior men over their womenfolk, but did not always dismiss women's wishes" (177). Compared with this rich data and insightful analysis, what is termed the demise of marriage disputes is relatively briefly treated in chapter seven. Nevertheless, a key point comes through. Just as the "peculiarities of the colonial political economy and legal system help to create the context for and to shape the crisis in Gusii marriage," a different political economy and judiciary in independent Kenya changed the nature of marriage disputes, reducing the number and importance of "girl cases" (215).
Although the core of the book represents a most interesting excursion into the social history of marriage and gender relations in East Africa, this study is characterized by far too many problems that weaken its value, particularly for the specialist in Kenyan history. First, there are the factual inaccuracies, which are far too numerous for a book seemingly based on the consultation of a wide range of archival sources. Despite several uses of the term, there was never any entity in colonial Africa known as the East African Protectorate. S. H. Fazan was not provincial commissioner of Nyanza in 1949, nor was H. R. Lambert a postwar champion of resurrecting communal authority (189, 210). There was no South Kavirondo Local Native Council (LNC) in 1933 or after 1948. The author neglects to tell his readers that South Kavirondo had two LNCs between 1925 and 1936. K. L. Hunter did not appoint the first African Assistant Administrative Officers, unless one may construe such a conclusion from the fact that Hunter presided over a panel of Nyanza province district commissioners that made the recommendation for the first six appointments (187). The archival record does not support the claim that "the administration directed" anthropologist Philip Mayer "to study 'traditional' cooperative farming techniques" (207). Rather, the record suggests that Mayer sold the idea of using neighborhood work groups (risaga) as the basis of establishing group farms to the colonial administration. Moreover, Shadle's claim that the esigani (marriage go-between) was a male friend of a bachelor seeking a suitable wife would be disputed by many Gusii (128). To complicate matters further for the reader, the term is spelled differently in the book's index and in the text.
Second, more than a little confusion stems from the author's view of, and use of opinions from, the several colonial officials who figure in the narrative. He offers sound advice for the researcher when he observes: "Even with the transfer of knowledge between old hands and new recruits, DCs [District Commissioners] had come and gone in Kisii with marked rapidity; colonial understanding of long-term continuities and changes in Gusii social relations was probably not terribly deep" (51). Yet this cautionary note is not followed by the author himself! He gives pride of place on far too many occasions to the opinions and insights of such administrators. This provides plenty of fuel for confusion and misunderstanding, particularly for the reader who is not well schooled in Kenyan history. This is particularly a problem in chapter six, where the author informs the reader that after World War II a new generation of European administrators entered Kenya, who thought differently about the future of Africans and of Kenya. This is all quite true, but to assert that, because of this, "the ethos of the interwar years was by 1945 'dead and done with'," is surely misleading (187). K. L. Hunter, an administrator who features prominently in the book, was an example of an individual whose views hardly fit such an interpretation. He was of course not a new administrator, but although he took up new ideas after 1945 (e.g., agrarian reform and state controlled gold mining), he also became an advocate for reviving and utilizing communalism in the postwar world in the shape of the group farms initiative in Gusiiland and the attempt to use the liguru to implement soil conservation in North Nyanza.
Another difficulty for the reader comes from the author's seeming desire to make use of every bit of interesting information gleaned from his research, packing this into endnotes if not the text. Yet such material, in the form of quotations or otherwise, requires a proper context for these to be meaningful, particularly when they have little to do with "girl cases" in Gusiiland. Thus, although C. E. Buxton's extramarital affair(s) are titillating, they appear to have nothing to do with the subject of the book (76). Nor is it clear what relevance Buxton's right-wing political views and affiliations after his retirement in Kenya have for "girl cases" in Gusiiland. If such information is important, then the author has likely erred by not telling readers that Hunter was an enthusiast for the New Kenya Party after his retirement and that S. H. Fazan was an advocate of a majimbo (federal) constitutional future for Kenya following his.
In addition to these points of criticism, it should be noted that there exist conspicuous voids in this social history. The absence of political context has been noted earlier. The state of emergency existing in Kenya from 1952 to early 1960 is little touched on, for example. Nor is there any meaningful discussion of the spread and impact of Western education in Gusiiland. The impact of Western education on the "girl cases" in the courts is largely absent from the narrative as well. So too is the impact of witchcraft. Perhaps the author did not wish to delve into the subject, but it seems difficult not to consider the issue in light of the historic importance of fears of witchcraft and witchcraft accusations in the making and breaking of Gusii marriages.
Although this review provides an extended critique of the second book, this has been deemed important because the majority of the readers of this journal are not specialists in the field. This well-documented book is impressive on many levels, but the criticism noted earlier should be placed in the balance in any overall assessment. Like Crisis & Decline, it provides new detail on previously little-studied subjects; it offers many significant insights; and it opens the way for further research. Nevertheless, the presence of errors and questionable interpretations presents the reader with potential problems.
Robert M. Maxon
West Virginia University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||"Girl Cases": Marriage and Colonialism in Gusiiland, Kenya, 1890-1970|
|Author:||Maxon, Robert M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
|Previous Article:||Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.|
|Next Article:||The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope.|