Rochelle Burgess says that Women and the Informal Economy in Urban Africa – From the Margins to the Centre by Mary Njeri Kinyanjui could be a landmark publication in changing perceptions of how development should be viewed.
In the wake of a series of failed Millennium Development Goals (MDG), opportunities to shift the way we think about development have emerged. Many have begun to query the value of top-down, large scale targets and declarations as routes to real change, a mismatch made clear in analysis of the minute improvement of women’s lives globally despite many MDG development goals devoted squarely to this end. The UN appears all too ready to claim success with regards to women and the MDGs – citing equality in access to education, and the increased participation of women in many ‘public spheres’ around the world as ‘wins’. However, more nuanced arguments highlight that higher proportions of women in government or education do not automatically equate to better outcomes for women. Uganda’s anti-pornography bill, which garnered global attention for its unashamed policing of women’s bodies, was passed by a parliament where 35% of seats are held by women. Empowering women is, and always has been a complex process – one that depends largely on time, and the willingness to understand and embrace the histories of oppression that have created the present situation. Development agendas that fail to recognise this are doomed to failure.
And yet, they rarely do. With the exception of anthropologists and critical theorists, development actors appear reluctant to accept that more often than not, nuance is the answer, and there is rarely one truth to be found. In this period of transition, Mary Njeri Kinyanjui’s book on women and the informal economy in Kenya emerges as a breath of fresh air. Her contribution embodies a willingness to highlight the makings of history within development processes, focusing on how a history of exclusion and marginalisation that originated in colonial policies of urban planning, continued to block women’s participation in the growing urban landscape. However, this is not simply a story of struggle and oppression, as the book illuminates and celebrates women’s stories of success, tracing the creative mechanisms deployed by women as they moved from the margins of urban economic life, into the centre of Nairobi’s urban informal marketplace.
Each of the nine chapters is devoted to uncovering a piece of the puzzle that helps to explain present day life for women seeking to support themselves and their families through participation in Kenya’s informal economies. The introduction sets the theoretical frame, drawing on the work of Peruvian Hernando De Soto to re-position informal economies as forms of revolution and struggle – where individuals demand and mark out their own terrain of economic participation and improvement outside the formal institutions that often exclude them due to lack of credentials. It is on this foundation that Kinyanjui begins to fly the flag of Kenyan women. Chapters two and three provide a history of planning and organisation of the urban market place in Kenya from the colonial roots of Nairobi in 1899, to 2010. In her retelling, various periods of transition in history emerge as moments of hope and opportunity that serve as catalysts for change. For example, spikes of criminal activity in the 1990s that targeted many Asian businesses, led to an evacuation of the central business district, leaving physical spaces available for occupation by informal hawkers, many of whom were women.
Chapters four through eight focus on women in the city, and various dynamics of their participation in the informal economy. Gender norms that regulate the movement and participation of women in various settings are explored, with acknowledgement of the gains, and losses faced by women who made the break from villages to Nairobi. Thankfully, Kinyanjui leaves no stone unturned, taking aim at growing debates of African feminism and how the agency of African women is understood. The unequal distribution of progress among women in cities is explored, highlighting the stark differences of experience between ‘elite’ and subaltern women. While the former experience western notions of women’s empowerment and ‘feminism, benefiting from female representations in parliament and statutory sectors, the women driving the informal economy are acknowledged as isolated from such spaces of power. Instead, women at the subalterns serve the ‘local’ agenda of survival, and thus exist at the margins of western brands of feminism. In line with the arguments of Sumi Madhok and others, Kinyanjui avoids describing subaltern women as lesser, or needing intervention. Instead, issues typically framed by mainstream development as struggle – such as walking long distances to work and services, are repositioned as acts that display agency and triumph, often told through the voices of women themselves. The book ends with a forewarning to those who seek to intervene in the lives of these women, one of which all development actors would be wise to take heed:
“Women are already in groups…this is a good starting point for social and economic action to address spatial justice… it is important to build on the existing mechanisms that the women themselves have initiated. After all, [women’s groups] have some guiding philosophes and ideologies that can be tapped into” (Kinyanjui, 2014 114-15)
As we move into a new phase of international development, with a new set of ‘goals’ driving the global agenda to improve the lives of billions struggling to survive, one hopes that they would take heed from books like these. The takeawayfrom Kinyanjui’s book is undoubtedly that one person’s story of struggle is another’s story of success. People are surviving, in the face of conditions that our comfortable western psychologies can barely conceive of, people survive. Women survive. It is within these stories and these complicated histories, that change and development begins – or, better stated, has already begun.
Women and the informal economy in urban Africa – from the margins to the centre by Mary Njeri Kinyanyju Published by Zed Books ISBN: 9781780326306
Rochelle Burgess is a Lecturer in Health and Social Care in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at London Metropolitan University and a LSE alumna. Follow her on Twitter @thewrittenro.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.