The ‘Finished Products’ of Maendeleo ya Wanawake: Britain’s Attempt of Social Engineering Amongst Kenyan Women, 1952-1960: Beth Rebisz

For our final meeting of 2018, the GSRN welcomed Beth Rebisz, a 2nd year PhD researcher from the Department of History here at Reading. Beth’s doctoral research examines the international humanitarian responses to counter-insurgency campaigns fought in Kenya, 1952-1960, and is particularly interested in exploring the roles of European and African female welfare workers in this context. Her paper focused on Maendeleo ya Wanawake, an organisation whose name means “Women’s Progress” in Kiswahili, and was set up in 1952 by the colonial administration with the aim of the “advancement of African women”.

Beth began by placing this organisation within the context of the Mau Mau conflict, when nationalist Kenyans attempted to overthrow the British colonial government and expel European settlers. This uprising was met with a brutal backlash by British authorities, and led to the detainment of Kenyan people within emergency villages. These villages often housed women and children, as men were mostly detained in work camps. A process of rehabilitation, known as the ‘pipeline’ was put in place, which individuals had to progress through before they were deemed fit to re-enter society. Within these villages, Maendeleo ya Wanawake was created.

Beth argued that the colonial administration of Kenya utilised Maendeleo ya Wanawake to quash nationalism, through incentivisation and rehabilitation, and under the guise of encouraging a notion of “self help” among the Kenyan women within these villages. The classes ran by Maendeleo ya Wanawake, and with the support of the British Red Cross Society, focused on domestic duties, such as cleaning, washing and caring for infants, sewing, crocheting and cooking typically British recipes, reinforcing a British colonial ideal of women’s role in society. Leaders of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, usually white British women or specially selected loyalist Kenyan women, were trained to reinforce Western expectations of women within the Kenyan communities. Beth showed us a questionnaire given to trainee leaders, which reinforced the importance of eating on tables rather than the ground, and of fresh flowers in the house to “please the eye”. Kenyan women were incentivised to participate in classes; by joining they could access resources for their homes, childcare, prizes, and could even become village leaders, a role which they were paid for. Beth argued that whilst these initiatives were celebrated and claimed to be providing opportunities for African women, they were undoubtedly a tactic for the social engineering and rehabilitation of women who had ties to groups involved in the Mau Mau movement.

Beth further argued that this could be seen in the signs of disengagement amongst Kenyan women which were recorded in the papers of the colonial administration. Women walked out of educational films, and resisted attempts by the Maendeleo ya Wanawake leaders to teach them songs in English only. Whilst these were mere glimpses of resistant activity, recorded in British archives, Beth explained that she hopes to find more evidence of Kenyan women’s attitudes towards these classes through oral history research in the coming year. Beth concluded by reinforcing the significance of the colonial administration’s purposeful neglect of Kenyan women’s own identities, cultures and community structures. Since independence, however, a new Kenyan-led Maendeleo ya Wanawake has thrived and now works for women’s equality.

We welcomed many new faces this week, and lively discussion was certainly sparked. Thank you again Beth for an engaging and intriguing paper, and we are glad you found it beneficial for your research!

Beth GSRN Tweet

The Gender and Sexuality Research Network will reconvene in the Spring Term – we will be posting a new programme very soon, so keep an eye on the blog and our Twitter! We hope you have all had a restful winter break, and a very Happy New Year from us all.


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