Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Repatriation in Colonial Kenya: African Institutions and Gendered Violence

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Repatriation in Colonial Kenya: African Institutions and Gendered Violence

Article excerpt

In contemporary Kenya it is not entirely uncommon to witness scenes of women being violently stripped at a crowded Nairobi bus stage or paraded around naked at a rural town market by an angry mob. Whether it is due to an accusation of infidelity or simply a spontaneous mob indictment about the provocative nature of one's dress, the public spectacle of these violent acts frequently show up on the pages of the popular Kenyan press.1 These incidents, part of a larger issue of state and public ambivalence to extrajudicial violence in postcolonial Kenya, are often reported as customary offences outside the scope or protection of legal authorities.2 While viewed by some as acceptable extrajudicial punishment for "cultural offenses," this style of vigilantism also points to a broader history of how public violence was used to shape the morality of civic virtue and gendered conduct in Kenya's past.3

Reading the discourse of these contemporary events reflects clear continuities with debates from the colonial past. Informants from the Luo community interviewed from 2004 to 2009 often remembered similar scenes unfolding in urban areas throughout East Africa during the 1940s and 1950s. Accounts repeatedly described urban men (regularly sent by parents) who snatched suspected prostitutes in Nairobi, Kisumu, Eldoret, or Mombasa. Informant testimonies typically recalled scenes of forcibly stripping an accused woman, sometimes shaving her head and parading the "suspect" in a gunny sack to be humiliated by the court of public opinion. Finally they reported how the victim was escorted away by members of various ethnic associations before she was forcibly repatriated back to her rural homeland.4 These acts of violent humiliation were meant not only to chastise "wayward women," but also served as a means to publicly demonstrate claims by a young and conservative group of labor migrants that the urban landscapes of colonial Kenya were contested zones of patriarchal authority.

This article uses the case of forced repatriation of African women in colonial Kenya to examine differing notions of urban citizenship, and how a wider movement of youthful male conservatism from western Kenya shaped the acceptable limits of gendered violence in the public sphere. I argue that by justifying repatriation violence as a way to uphold customary law and promote social discipline, an uneasy partnership between African institutions and the colonial state emerged where young men and women engaged in broad moral discussions on the politics of belonging. Ethnic discipline and social welfare were influential themes of this discussion, and African men exploited state fears of urban disorder to carry out activities that were well outside the confines of the colonial legal code. While scholars have clearly shown that women carved out important and influential niches throughout the colonial period, few have focused specifically on the broader meaning of repatriation cases.5

In the realm of both legal and social history, contested views of repatriation reveal the blurred lines between discipline, crime, and the gendered social order across the colonial landscape. Placed within this broader issue on violence in colonial Kenya, repatriation cases more importantly illuminate the ways public violence was employed in the name of "tribal tradition," which allowed this form of gendered violence to fall through the cracks of the colonial legal system. As African elites used the repatriation of women to assert authority and socialize urban migrants into respectability, state officials often turned a blind eye to extra-judicial activities that promoted social discipline in the settler dominated setting of urban colonial Kenya. Examining this form of colonial violence also reveals how public debates over urban citizenship and gendered conduct provide a window into how the use of public/extra-judicial violence was institutionalized throughout the colonial experience. …

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