Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Embu Women: Food Production and Traditional Knowledge

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Embu Women: Food Production and Traditional Knowledge

Article excerpt

This article reports on the results of a study on food production among Embu women in Kenya. As food production is a main source of income for rural women, and as it is strictly gendered, the author applies a feminist methodological frame-work to the study, and questions her own role as an insider/outsider.

What do men know about food! We grow the food, harvest it, carry it home and store it. We manage it until the next deciding what to cook, how much to cook and when to cook...and...deciding how to preserve it. Traditionally, everything in this homestead belongs to my husband, but in reality I own the food, I am the one in charge (Rwamba, interview, 1993).(1)


As an Embu woman whose cultural roots include a long history of participation in agriculture and food processing, I was interested in investigating and documenting the rich indigenous knowledge of the land and its food-related cultural processes. There was also a personal objective for me -- I wanted to fill in the gap that developed as a result of my having been taken from my roots at an early age in order to acquire a formal education. This paper examines the participation of Embu women in the food cycle. It reflects the results of my research among Embu rural women in Kenya, where I studied their traditional techniques of food processing and food cycles and how those techniques are informed by indigenous knowledge. Kenya's extraordinary diversity of people, geographical landscape, and climates, has interested scholars for many years. Very little of their research has focussed on women however, particularly with respect to the important role they play in food production. My study focuses on women's participation in the food cycle and, in particular, in food production, usually the main source of discretionary income in rural areas.

In May 1993, I left Canada for Kenya to carry out research on the role of Embu rural women in indigenous food-processing practices. The women in my study live in the Embu district, one of four districts in the Eastern Province of Kenya. Geographically, the Embu district is part of the fertile and well-watered highlands that border the slopes of Mount Kenya. It is situated 250 kilometers north of the capital, Nairobi, and is accessible by tarmac road. The Embu district populations is about 100,000, the majority of whom are engaged in subsistence farming. Both cash crops (e.g., tea and coffee) and subsistence crops (e.g., maize, beans, potatoes, arrowroot, cassava, and banana) are grown on small-scale holdings -- family farms that may be between one to five hectares of land. Family homesteads are adjacent to family fields. Most homes face toward an open compound, or nja, where many family activities take place, such as food processing, eating, playing with children, or receiving visitors. It was in the nja that most of my interviews took place.


I spoke with 177 women, spread across a radius of 20 kilometres; I interviewed them, recorded their life histories, and administered questionnaires. The questionnaire was based on gender roles and household politics. Seventy-seven women were selected to participate in unstructured interviews, 14 for life histories and the remaining 86 simply filled out questionnaires that had been translated into the Kiembu language. Twelve percent of the 177 women had been exposed to some form of Western education (e.g., adult literacy classes, contraception classes, or Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, meaning "development for women by women"). Eighty-six percent of the women had an annual family income of less than 10,000 Kenyan shillings (CAD$250), derived mainly from the sale of cash crops. The women's reported experiences as homemakers, food processors, and nurturers provided the primary data for assessing their roles in the food production cycle.

The life histories enabled me to link old and new processing practices. …

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