Gender and Social Change in Marakwet, Kenya

Henrietta Moore has been working in Marakwet, northwestern Kenya, for over thirty years. Through that time, she has been able to undertake extensive longitudinal research that provides unique insights into processes that underlie social, economic and cultural change in rural Africa. She has also developed innovative community research methods, working with a team of local ‘citizen scientists’ to co-design and co-produce research on issues that the community themselves have identified as imperative.

In the 1980s, Henrietta conducted field research in the Endo area of Marakwet, studying gender relations, domestic space and social change in a small village on the western escarpment of the Rift Valley. This work led to the publication of Space, Text and Gender: An Anthropological Study of the Marakwet of Kenya. This distinctive research explored the place of initiation and marriage rituals in light of wider community ideas about material culture, landscape, community renewal and belonging. In those years, female initiation practices had been an almost universal experience for Marakwet girls and received little or no attention national or international attention.

In 2002, by contrast this relatively remote area of Kenya and its adherence to the practice of female circumcision suddenly broke on to the world stage with dramatic consequences. A local NGO, funded by donations from the USA, brought court cases against the parents of 16 Marakwet girls to prevent them from circumcising their daughters. The case attracted the attention of reporters from the US and Europe, including the BBC, and was widely discussed in feminist activist circles. The sudden appearance of this case in the international media, the anxiety and confusion it induced in the community, and the clear need to unravel what kinds of processes were really at work, led to the development of a research project focussing on changing attitudes to female circumcision and initiation.

The actions of the girls involved in lawsuits against their parents are part of a wider debate in Kenyan society about female circumcision and the role of culture in a modern society, a debate that has been framed in part by the growing intervention of churches and international NGOs. One of the central aspects of the study has been an exploration of attitudes towards the notions of ‘belief’, ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, both locally within the community and further afield in the approaches of NGOs, the courts and in government. The discourses of human rights, female empowerment and anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) campaigns often assume culture and tradition to be fixed and discrete entities: repositories of beliefs and practices from which people can be persuaded to select and maintain only those aspects that do not contradict ‘modernity’. Counter to this, this project began from an understanding of culture as history, as a series of experiences of embodiment and self. The research examined lived practices in the actual contexts in which individuals make decisions, take actions and formulate beliefs and viewpoints, and considers these in relation to modes of livelihood, marriage strategies, political institutions, state legislation and international debates.

Building on the ethnographic material collected in the 1980s, this study analysed continuing ‘traditional’ circumcision ceremonies in the valley as well as new ‘Alternative Rites of Passage”. The research developed notions of female agency, power and resistance explored in Professor Moore’s earlier work, in particular exploring the ways in which female initiation provides a fulcrum for individuals and groups to debate and articulate the role of the state, the impact of westernisation, and issues of gender, age and class.

Over the past five years the project has provided training in fieldwork methodology to a team of Marakwet research assistants, all of whom have been invaluable to the research:  Timothy Kipruto, Sophia Kibor, Hellen Tilem, Peninah Ruto, Maurine Kilimo, Gloria Jerotich, Ruth Kisang, Ruth Jepkemoi, Justina Yego, Hellen Biwot, Susan Kanda, Regina Biwot, Jane Chelanga, Peris Chelanga.