Gendering “Tradition”: The British Debate over Lobolo in Colonial Kenya

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:20 AM
Columbia Hall 12 (Washington Hilton)
Elizabeth E. Prevost, Grinnell College
Gendering ‘tradition’: The British debate over lobolo in colonial Kenya

The liberal tension between reform and non-intervention that so often accompanied British colonial and religious expansion often pivoted around the cultural axes of gender and sexuality.  This paper will examine a case study of just such a conflict in interwar British Africa, when the codification of Indirect Rule coincided and conflicted with a shift in the focus of British imperial feminism from ‘the Indian Woman’ to ‘the African Woman.’   The debate around lobolo (bridewealth), which emerged in the early 1930s alongside the better-known controversy over clitoridectomy, hinged on whether East African marriage practices and customary law constituted ‘slavery’ – a pointed question in the midst of concurrent centennial commemorations of the 1834 abolition of slavery.  Spearheaded by the former suffragette Nina Boyle, and pulling wide circles of MPs, education reformers, colonial administrators, missionaries, humanitarians, feminists, physicians, anthropologists, and nationalists into heated discussions in the press and the House of Commons, the lobby to abolish lobolo suggested the irreconcilability between defences of women’s rights and indigenous rights.  As such, the debate also provoked the question of who should act as the ultimate arbiter (mission church, Parliament, the Colonial Office, the League of Nations, or indigenous authority) in the intimate and public affairs of empire.  Thus, historicizing this particular controversy against changing interwar exigencies of land reform, welfare, nationalism, internationalism, and Christianity will show how gender might help explain the seemingly contradictory impulses to modernize and retain ‘traditional’ institutions that characterized colonial development and evangelical reform campaigns.

Elizabeth Prevost

Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA, USA