Meals and Money: Labor, Food, and the Social History of Depression-era Mombasa

Thursday, January 3, 2019: 2:10 PM
Stevens C-5 (Hilton Chicago)
Devin Smart, West Virginia University
Before 1929, life for Kenya’s migrant working class in the coastal city of Mombasa was indeed difficult. Low wages, monotonous food, and insufficient access to what was anyway substandard housing were its common features. However, these workers also operated in a context of labor scarcity, which, despite the asymmetries of the colonial economy, provided Africans significant leverage over their employers. Within this political economy, African workers were able to develop strategies that mitigated some of the most severe depravations of colonial capitalism. However, after the stock market crashed in the United States in 1929, the circulation of imports and exports into and out of the port city of Mombasa fell off during the early 1930s, and as a result migrants and other urban residents in the city were forced to endure the economic consequences of a systemic failure they did not cause. The combined effects of global economic depression that lowered demand for labor in Mombasa with localized dynamics in rural areas that pushed more migrants into the city transformed the region’s labor economy from one defined by scarcity to one marked by saturation.

Examining a period of declining real wages and increasing unemployment, this paper considers how the Great Depression further compromised the household economies of Mombasa’s migratory working class, with particular attention to food provisioning. However, it also explores how the city’s poor devised strategies of survival in an increasingly precarious urban political economy. Historians have made clear that the Great Depression was indeed a global one, and scholars are also beginning to write the social history of the Depression in Africa. However, our understanding of how this affected the household economies of urban working classes on the continent remains thin, and so this paper begins to fill that gap in the literature.