"We Only Come Here to Struggle": Stories from Berida's Life

"We Only Come Here to Struggle": Stories from Berida's Life

"We Only Come Here to Struggle": Stories from Berida's Life

"We Only Come Here to Struggle": Stories from Berida's Life

Synopsis

Here is the life history of Berida Ndambuki, a Kenyan woman trader born in 1936, who speaks movingly of her experiences under the turbulences of late British colonialism and independence. A poverty survivor, Berida overcame patriarchal constraints to reclaim the rights to her labor, her body, and her spirit. She invokes a many-faceted picture of central Kenyan life in this compelling narrative.

Excerpt

Life Histories

Life histories are one of the best ways to learn about the lives of women in cultures other than one’s own. What is a life history and what value does it have? a life history is a life story or stories told to another person by its primary author, whose life it represents. Magdalene Ngaiza and Bertha Koda defined it as “an extensive record of a person’s life told to and recorded by another, who then edits and writes the life as though it were an autobiography” the secondary author transcribes and publishes it; many life histories have women as both primary and secondary authors. They are a way to restore women to history, to understand change, and to look at the experiences of women other than elite women, who can write their own autobiographies. Thus, a life history can give us a view from the bottom of the socioeconomic structure in societies where the vast majority of people are literate or from ordinary people in societies where relatively few people are literate. As Fran Leeper Buss has said, “oral documents … provide a deep evocation of the thoughts and belief systems of people generally disenfranchised from historical memory”

The particular form of life history used and the purposes involved in the project may vary and should be taken into account to refine our perceptions of that history and inform our use of its content. Some critics have dismissed such work as irremediably flawed because it only represents the viewpoint and experiences of the secondary author. This is, I believe, too pessimistic a declaration of lack of faith in the capacity of the human imagination to bridge cultural and ego boundaries. Women scholars by their training and inclinations have perhaps been better suited to life history work than most men, and have excelled as primary and secondary authors. Although she is not literate, Berida Ndambuki, whose story this narrative is, made a scholarly attempt in her oral narrative to convey her meaning with accuracy and seriousness. She regarded our sessions as a form of white collar work at our “offisi” (office),

1. Magdalene K. Ngaiza and Bertha Koda, eds., The Unsung Heroines (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: wrdp Publications, 1991), p. 1.

2. Fran Leeper Buss, ed. Forged under the Sun/Forjada baja el sol: the Life of Maria Elena Lucas (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), p. 34.

3. For thoughtful discussions of the ethical and political issues involved in life history work see Daphne Patai’s introduction to her Brazilian Women Speak: Contemporary Life Stones (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988) and the various essays in Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, eds., Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York: Routledge, 1991). See also Kirk Hoppe, “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Issues of Representation in Life Narrative Texts of African Women,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, no. 3 (1993): 623–36, and Heidi Gengenbach’sHoppe,” International Journal of African Historical Studies 27, no. 3 (1994): 619–27.

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