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Where Women Are

Nanjala Nyabola
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle

Winning Women’s Hearts: Women, Patriarchy and Electoral Politics in Kenya’s South Coast

Jacinta Muinde


This chapter explores Digo women’s participation in the 2017 Kenya general elections. Contrary to scholarship that overemphasizes how patriarchal mechanisms keep women out of the political sphere, the chapter explores the experiences of women in their local context to show the reality of how the interplay between patriarchal structures and processes within the realm of Islam and state projects, and the persistence of matrilineal practices and ideologies has contributed to the way women navigate the political space in Kwale. I focus on how women negotiated the patriarchal electoral terrain in their positions as political ‘managers’ – as mobilizers and convincing agents. I argue that women’s political participation has been shaped by historical, social and cultural processes, and continues to be informed by gendered maternal ideologies that formed a crucial ground for negotiation and renegotiation of women’s political performances in the 2017 general elections. I conclude that while the prevailing patriarchal climate in Msambweni (inspired largely by religion and kin relations) limits women’s ascension into elective positions, it complexly provides them an opportunity to perform public politics.

Texte intégral


1Women hit the headlines on different media platforms as the biggest winners in the Kenya general elections of 2017 following the significant increase in the number of women elected to various positions in many parts of the country. It was the first time in Kenyan history, and particularly since the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, that women were elected as governors and senators. The media also applauded the notable increase in the number of those elected to the National Assembly - - an increase from 16 in 2013 to 23 in 2017, and 96 elected as Members of the County Assembly (MCA) compared to 84 in the 2013 elections. While this emerged as the state of affairs at the national level, in some parts of the country such as Kwale County, the situation was quite the opposite. Male contestants outshone in the various elective positions and women were, as a colleague put it, “hugely sent back ‘home.’” In Kwale, women were elected only in the positions of Deputy Governor and the woman only seat (that is, the Woman Representative position). This paints a picture of electoral politics in Kwale as, to use Nyokabi Kamau’s words a “no go zone” for women (Kamau, 2010: 27). Of course, the trend is not new in Kwale. Since Marere wa Mwachai, the first Digo and Muslim woman to be elected to Kenya’s Parliament in 1997 lost in the 2002 elections, Kwale did not elect any woman until the election of 2013 when two women entered Kwale’s political landscape through the positions of Deputy Governor and Woman Representative, just as is the case for the 2017 elections.

2While this trend provokes questions about women’s political representation, as much feminist scholarship would be quick to point out, it also invites an interrogation of women’s political performances as drivers or agents of political activities, especially in a Muslim context with a history of matrilineality such as Kenya’s South Coast. Writing about Muslim women and political leadership in Kenya, Ousseina Alidou (2013) provides a brilliant account of Muslim women leaders in the coastal part of Kenya and narrates their experiences of multiple forms of gendered marginalization due to religious and cultural related concerns. She argues that Muslim women’s political leadership is largely constrained by the continued patriarchal interpretation of Islam regarding women’s participation in public leadership. Islamic discourses and practices continue to propagate participation in political/public leadership as an exclusively male affair. This works alongside male domination and discrimination of women through other forms and platforms, including political structures and institutions that seem immune to any gender reform, persistently indicating that women, and particularly Muslim women, still have “difficult penetrating the patriarchal decision-making structures and processes of the state and the party,” culture and religion (Nzomo, 1997: 232; Kamau, 2010).

3Yet women’s political leadership goes beyond representation in the parliament or other political spaces to include women as voters and those who champion election campaigns. For instance, speaking to women and men in Msambweni of Kwale, I was severally told that women are the ‘managers’ of elections in this part of the country. The implication of this is that women are active drivers of electoral activities in Kwale. Indeed, since multiparty system dawned in Kenya in the 1990s, Muslim women took advantage of the new terrain of democratization to “participate as political actors” in electoral politics, both as contestants and campaigners (Alidou, 2013: 114). In Msambweni, for instance, women spearheaded Marere’s campaigns and election, and continued to be the target of many political contestants who sought their art of political support and ‘guidance’ in subsequent elections. Interestingly, the women’s art of ‘managing’ or ‘guiding’ electoral activities is not only inspired by patriarchal notions of leadership, but also embedded with it.

4This chapter explores Digo women’s participation in the 2017 elections as political ‘managers’ - in their positions as mobilizers and persuasion agents - to demonstrate that while the prevailing patriarchal climate in Msambweni (inspired largely by religion and kin relations) limits women’s ascension into elective positions, it paradoxically also provides them an opportunity to perform public politics. I begin the chapter with a historical overview of Digo women’s place in the political sphere in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods to show how Digo traditions, especially those based on matrilineal ideologies, and Islamic and colonial patriarchal ideologies informed women’s political and economic performances that set ground for the political climate in the post-independence period. I will then demonstrate how gender and patriarchal ideologies inform the form women’s political participation has taken in contemporary Msambweni through an exploration of women’s participation in the 2017 elections. I conclude that although patriarchy limits women’s ascension to elective positions, maternal ideologies provide a platform through which women in Msambweni are able to negotiate patriarchal ideologies to their advantage. This, in turn, provides women a greater opportunity to remain central in electoral politics in this part of the country.

Women and the Political Climate in Kenya’s South Coast: A Historical Perspective

5According to popular narratives of the Digo past, like their Mijikenda counterparts, the Digo lived in fortified villages (kaya; pl. makaya) (fortified villages) prior to nineteenth century. The Digo kaya was highly structured and territorially divided on the basis of matriclans. “Descent, inheritance and authority passed through the female line” to the hands of men (typically the avunculate, that is, mother’s brothers) who held decision-making authority, especially with regard to political and economic matters (Spear, 1978: 57). The reproductive potential of the kaya depended on women, but decision-making resided with men. Indeed, matrilineal organization is known for the matrilineal puzzle (Richards, 1950), the practice where “matrilines have to maintain connection with their female members, as bearers of the future generations, but also their male members who are the ‘decision-makers’” (Gottlieb & Robinson, 2016: 6; Schatz, 2002).

6In the kaya, decision-making was organized around a “centralized and relatively cohesive political structure” overseen by a male council of elders (ngambi) (McIntosh, 2009: 37; Spear, 1978: 49). Men were initiated to ngambi through age-set (rika) rituals, which were ranked by seniority into sub-sets of rika (ten sub-rikas among the Digo) (Spear, 1978). The senior elder (mwanatsi; pl. anatsi) of the kaya was chosen on the basis of matrilineal descent of the founding clan (Sperling, 1988: 31). As kaya elders, men were associated with crucial political and economic matters and resources of the kaya: they were consulted in times of war, disputes, trade, distribution of inheritance and marital issues. In the nineteenth century, for instance, elders controlled items of trade such as livestock and agricultural products (including women’s farm labour), and monopolized the returns from trade such as cloth and ornaments (Spear, 1978: 106). Additionally, kaya elders oversaw “the Mijikenda role as middlemen in the trade between the coastal towns and the interior” (McIntosh, 2009: 39), and dominated domains of perceived specialized skill such as attraction of rain as kubos (rainmakers) (Oendo, 1987).

7In addition to ngambi, men were members of various special societies (chama) whose membership was through payment of fees and undertaking of associated rituals rather than passage through sub-rikas. These societies were endowed with various roles and statuses that included distribution of resources, judicial and policing functions, and custody of secret knowledge of the kaya (McIntosh, 2009; Parkin, 1991; Spear, 1978).

8Women did not belong to either ngambi or the male special chamas, both of which were the platforms for direct participation in political affairs of the kaya. However, women exercised some considerable control over important aspects of the organization of kaya life including its productive and reproductive affairs. For instance, through their farm labour, women contributed significantly to sustaining agricultural production for both trade and subsistence, and were the custodians of kaya’s reproductive potential through chifudu (women fertility cult) (Gerlach, 1960; Udvardy, 1990; 1992; Wamahiu, 1988). In fact, Digo men remained significant in the economic and political circles of the coastal economy and specifically that of the kaya villages through their relations with women’s productive and productive roles. For example, since agriculture (chirimo) and trade was the mainstay of the Digo economy in the pre-colonial period, and since men participated in long distance caravan trade (trade was a prestigious male affair in the matrilineages), it is likely that women assumed responsibilities to influence high yields for their matrilineages such as managing others’ farm labour as senior lineage members (especially grandmothers) or within networks of communal/cooperative support (mwerya) - often comprising women of a matrikin group (Waijenbeerg, 1993).

9Additionally, women whose husbands participated in caravan trade not only assumed household responsibilities through their farm labour as members of kaya residences, but also managed separate fields for their particular domestic units, both as individuals and as co-wives. Scholarly accounts describe polygamous marriages within the realm of women managing separate fields and domestic units as a result of absent men in the households due to both polygamy and trade (Gerlach, 1965; Gillette, 1978; Spear, 1978). Yet women did not simply perform responsibilities or exercise influence or authority because their kinsmen or husbands were absent. It is noteworthy that the various domains and roles and responsibilities performed by men and women were not only complimentary, the strategic place occupied by women provided them an opportunity to pursue power and influence. As I show elsewhere, today, this is well captured in women’s notion of collaboration (kusaidiyana) in contemporary Digo society (Muinde, 2018).

10It is not surprising, then, that during dispersion of people from makaya in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, both men and women cleared and retained land, known today as dzumbe (father’s land) and konho (mother’s land) respectively. As such, women were not subordinate to men. Women exercised control over their own fields (both self-acquired (konho) and inherited) and also influenced performances associated with fuko (matrilineal clan) land and the proceeds from these fields (Ng’weno, 1997). As an everyday practice too, senior women (especially grandmothers and senior wives) “stored and distributed the harvest… and coordinated work of women [especially juniors]” within their matrilineages and influenced the way land and other resources were distributed (Waijenbeerg, 1993: 24). According to one of Bettina Ng’weno’s informants, in the pre-colonial past “women had complete authority and freedom in regard to their konho. They could plant and harvest anything that they wanted and made all the decisions regarding this land” (Ng’weno, 1997: 63). This still remains the case today.

11Women’s statuses and roles are also revealed through the women’s fertility ritual, chifudu. Within the rubric of chifudu, kaya’s reproductive potential was vested with women as its custodians and those who ensured continuity of matrilineages. Chifudu was a women’s society and matrilineal women’s affair managed by women (Udvardy, 1990; 1992; Wamahiu, 1988). Each matriclan had a chifudu, and “as custodians of fertility-awarding powers of ancestresses, … women [were] perceived to have the greatest control… over the reproductive potential of [their] people” (Udvardy, 1992: 290). Furthermore, chifudu was not only a metaphor of health and fertility, but was also perceived in terms of wholeness of the kaya society, whose survival was importantly attached to women (Udvardy 1992).

12Because this role was vital to the perceived perpetuation of the kaya and its peoples, it remained a source of female authority and influence on significant matters of the Digo. I was severally told that women associated with such authoritative rituals were/are respected within their matriclans and beyond. I vividly remember one of my informants explaining that her mother’s persistent illness during pregnancy was associated with a particular ancestress, and as part of her health restoration, she had to be ‘nice’ to both the ancestress and the woman who performed the ritual. To be ‘nice’ involved women influencing male matrikin to provide gifts to the ancestress (I was told the ancestress asked for gifts) during ritual performances. Historically, scholars have shown that male matrikin maintained their relations with women by financing such women’s exorcism activities (Gomm, 1975).

  • 1 Uungwana refers, rather loosely, to ‘civilization’ based on Swahili culture. It is complexly used i (...)

13What is significant here, however, is to underpin the forms of women’s authority and roles in the pre-colonial past of the Digo. The tendency by scholarly accounts to overemphasize ngambi or male chama and lack of women’s participation in these domains draws on little attention paid to the significance of women’s influence and their authority in particular crucial spheres of pre-colonial Digo society, which clearly contributed to the very survival of the male domains. Furthermore, both men and women had their particular spheres of influence, and as Monica Udvardy holds, “there is no evidence that these [women] spheres were less important, subordinate to, or in any way less valued than the domains of men” (1998: 1756). My contention is that the political dynamics of Digo pre-colonial past, when understood in relation to gender relations and matrilineal organization of the Digo reveal that women had great opportunity to inscribe authority and influence in various ways and in the different spheres they occupied including some male-supervised ones. This, too, was in spite of earlier scholarship’s emphasis on the guardianship role taken by men, particularly the avunculate (adzomba), to act on women’s behalf in political and economic matters. It is not surprising, then, that dispersion of people from makaya and men’s loss of status as middlemen in coastal trade affected the centrality of male domains such as ngambi because, for instance, kaya became less central to everyday life of the people. For women, this phenomenon instead offered them space to cultivate more autonomy and inscribe further influence to access resources, manage their own households and engage in the wider Digo society. Even when a new patriarchal ideology, uungwana,1 a perceived ‘civilization’ associated with Swahili culture, informed the emergence of a new conception of a ‘good’ man (as husband or as male matrikin), and political and economic constraints flooded household life, women’s performances of influence remained unchallenged.

Women, Islam and the Colonial Era

14Although Islam has been at the Kenyan coast as early as the ninth century (Askew, 1999: 67), the Digo had limited contact with the coastal Muslims prior to nineteenth century (Herlehy, 1984; Kyung Park, 2012; Sperling, 1988). The expansion of the commercial sphere to the hinterland facilitated spread of Islam along the Kenyan South Coast. However, Digo women did not convert during the early stages of Islam, partly due to the urban nature the spread of Islam took, a course that privileged male conversion because men engaged in the coastal trade with Arabs and the Swahili. As noted earlier, women were excluded from trade. Yet even in the wake of “rural Islamization” in the second half of the century, majority of the converts were elders, who were men (Kyung Park, 2012: 160; Sperling, 1988: 173). Some scholarship argues that women resisted conversion because they “continued to protect their cultural “tradition”” (McDougall, 2008: 514). Of course, the patriarchal interpretation of Islam located Islam and its converts outside the household, a space portrayed as women’s domain. While men were out there as traders and clerics, praying in the mosques and attending madrasa (Islamic) teachings, women were fossilized within the household and village life where, it was perceived, Islam was absent and traditions were present (Ng’weno, 1997: 67; Sperling, 1988; 2000: 282).

15During the colonial period, however, the number of Digo converts, including women. Women particularly converted due to the gains and opportunities Islam offered them, and the fact that colonial administration privileged Islamic law and its patriarchal ideologies particularly on matters of land, household and marital arrangements (Gomm, 1972, 1975; Ng’weno, 1997; Oendo, 1987, 1988). Unlike scholarship that charges Islam with the subjugation of women (Strobel, 1979), at the Kenyan South Coast, women’s conversion to Islam was a great opportunity to inscribe their agencies in very visible ways. They successfully used Islam to push through their agendas even beyond the production and reproductive spheres that female gender already controlled.

16On land relations, for instance, Islam’s promotion of, to use Michael Peletz words, “paternal provisioning and patrifiliative inheritance” (also supported by colonial administration through promotion of Islamic laws of inheritance) translated into people’s lives broadly as transmission of property from parents to children (Peletz, 1988: 6). Consequently, inheritance was conceived as sharing land and property among both men and women. Since Digo traditions (Chidigo) privileged transmission of property matrilineally to both men and women, interpretations of Islam reinforced this practice. But this also operated alongside colonial policies which privileged individual land ownership not only by men, but also by European settlers and those considered proper Muslims (Arabs and Swahili) (Kanyinga, 2000). Interestingly, the emergent practice of inheritance based on legal pluralism did not completely deny women access to land, rather it afforded them space to influence decisions on land relations and inheritance including in the event of divorce or death of husbands. Indeed, the interaction between Islamic ideologies, colonial policies and Digo traditions triggered formation of strategies by women to acquire or access land and other resources through different relationships as daughters, as sisters, as spouses, and as mothers by manipulating both Islamic laws (kisharia) and Digo traditions (Chidigo). Through such strategies, women were also able to retain control over their own resources and income (Muinde, 2018; Ng’weno, 2001, 1997).

17Islamic patriarchal ideology of the household and matrilineal ideologies of support to wives and kinwomen also offered women space to persuade and manipulate male allegiance to women’s affairs such as marital and financial requests. For example, women used Islamic law on divorce (talaka), and associated performances such as spirit possession and exorcism as mechanisms to challenge male position as ‘good’Muslim men (as husbands or male matrikin), which in turn influenced their decisions on various household matters including attending to women’s financial needs (Gomm, 1972, 1975). Although Roger Gomm holds spirit possession performances as potential reinforcement of a “social control system that keeps [women] subservient to men”, his observation can be challenged on grounds that such performances, as Gomm himself observes, offered women a potential space to challenge patriarchal interpretation of men as providers and key players in Digo society (Gomm, 1975: 530). For example, by noting that women managed to obtain material support from men when they staged such performances, he clearly demonstrates how women yielded power through such performances to control male behaviour to their advantage (ibid: 435). Luther Gerlach (1960) holds a similar observation for Digo women in Lungalunga.

18Indeed, spirit possession and exorcism performances were not uncommon in many Kenyan coastal communities, many of which formed part of women’s dance groups (ngoma) and events (see for example Strobel, 1976, 1979 and Giles, 1989). According to scholarly accounts, ngoma and spirit possession performances were potential landscape where women not only “expressed grievances against the oppressive forces of… patriarchy,” they also negotiated and influenced how men related with women, kin groups and the society generally, these women’s performances helped to manipulate patriarchal male behaviour and transform relations of power in Digo society (Askew, 1999; Ciekawy, 1999; Gearhart, 1998: 18). Writing about witchcraft accusations by Mijikenda women, including the Digo, Ciekawy (1998) argues that women’s diviner consultation activities are powerful resources for women, through which they attack male patriarchal ways and alter political power relations even beyond the household. Through spirit possession and exorcism performances, therefore, women unpacked patriarchal forms that oppressed them.

  • 2 Prior to abolition of slavery by the British colonial administration, the Digo experienced a slaver (...)

19Moreover, by privileging men as household breadwinners, Islam and colonialism did not simply reinforce male authority, but complicated the patriarchal nature of the household. This provided women incentive to further negotiate with patriarchy and influence household matters that affected them both directly and indirectly. For example, just as is the case with exorcism, within the context of uungwana, women persuaded their husbands to finance their activities and affairs such as purchasing clothes for weddings (Oendo, 1988: 57), and to purchase “high” status foods such as fresh fish since other forms of fish such as smoked fish or sauces prepared from weeds from the fields were associated with low status and slavery (Gerlach, 1963: 38). Men were also at crossroads when it came to farm work as they would be accused of slavery (utumwa)2 if they asked women to engage in hard labour (Oendo, 1988). In order to retain a ‘good’ Muslim man status or to avoid confrontation by women and their kin for accusations of treating women as atumwa (slaves), men either heeded women’s demands or in the case of husbands, divorced. Clearly, uungwana emerged as patriarchal ideology that women used to negotiate their status and position. Today, uungwana plays a significant role in bargaining women’s active agency in the public sphere.

20Unlike other communities in coastal Kenya where women participated in resistance and rebellious activities during the colonial period, for example the Giriama (see Brantley, 1981) and Swahili women (see Strobel, 1979), Digo women did not engage in such activities. Digo women’s dance groups (ngoma) that existed at the time were for recreational and ritual purposes such as marriage ceremonies and spirit possession performances discussed above (Oendo 1988). Yet the sort of influence exercised by Digo women was quickly noticed by the colonial officials since they came to Kenya South Coast. The colonial officials were puzzled by the autonomy of women and the influence they exerted not only on household and marital affairs, but on colonial projects too. For instance, women would not allow their children, especially girls, attend colonial schools, and men, although willing, would not help change the state of affair. Indeed levels of illiteracy among Digo women have remained significantly high for many decades. Yet, this is so not only due to women’s reluctance and influence not to send children to attain Western education, but also due to patriarchal Muslim cultural restrictions on women (Alidou, 2013; Strobel, 1979). Elsewhere, I have shown how women in the present Digo context navigate patriarchal ideologies to invest in ‘good’ life for their children, including education when resources such as a government subsidy programme (cash transfer scheme for orphans and vulnerable children) are provided to women (Muinde, 2018).

21Women too influenced the nature of male labour contribution in European plantation and commercial activities. In Justin Willis’ brilliant account on Mijikenda identities at Kenya Coast, he writes about ‘why the natives will not work’ (Willis, 1993). While Willis’ observes that the colonial government was troubled by the unsuccessful attempts to mobilize male labour because Digo men depended on patronage networks of kin (especially adzomba) and tajiris (wealthy Muslim men especially of Arab and Swahili ethnicities) to secure means to survive, according to the colonial officials, it was women who ‘made’ men not work. This was, as the Coast Provincial Commissioner said of the Mijikenda in 1916, despite women “scratching the soil with a tiny hoe or digging stick.” For the colonial officials, men were “content to loaf around and live on [sic] their women” (Willis, 1993: 82).

22However, the actual fact was men did work – they worked for Swahili and Arabs (Willis 1993). Indeed, refusing to work for the Europeans was a male resistance strategy to colonialism, and women contributed significantly to its success. But the colonial patriarchal eye located women in the household as dependents of men and men as heads and breadwinners of households expected to be out there as wage earners. Yet the observation on how this resistance was performed shows the extend Digo women were integral to the social and political structures and crucial matters of Digo society. Although the conditions provided by patriarchal ideologies propagated by colonialism and Islam only amplified this state affairs since the gendered nature of Digo pre-colonial past already allowed women to take up crucial responsibilities beyond the household. However, the new patriarchal climate set ground for women’s performances in political activities in the post-independence period.

The Post-Independence Period: Politics and Women’s Economic Fitness

23When Kenya attained independence in 1963, women were virtually absent in the first independent Kenya Parliament. Basically, this landscape was characterised by the fact that the independent state inherited the colonial patriarchal ideology based on gender discrimination, such that some key leaders strongly and painfully believed that women were unfit for political leadership (Alidou, 2013; Kamau, 2010; Nzomo, 1997). This was despite the fact that:

The independent state in Kenya emerged from a nationalist movement that involved women in heroic roles. Most of these women led struggles against colonial domination, protested against colonial oppression, fed and protected veterans during fight for Uhuru, led segments of the resistance armies against colonialism, and effectively participated in the political negotiations leading to independence (Kamau, 2010: 12).

24Yet the state viewed women’s economic contribution as significant in the country’s economic growth, hence incorporated women collectivities in its economic development projects under the popular harambee (‘pull together’) self-help projects. Women’s organizing was emphasized as a state’s “development fora” where mutual support and cooperation among women, it was hoped, would help build the country’s economy (Udvardy, 1998: 1750). As such women’s organizing became a crucial ‘citizenship project’ through which the state attempted, to use Sian Lazar’s words in her analysis of women and education projects in Bolivia, “to modify the ways in which individuals [particularly women] act [ed]” not as political agents, but “as economic agents” for the sake of state development projects (Lazar, 2004: 301). It is not surprising then that women’s organizations such as Maendeleo ya Wanawake (MYWO, ‘progress for women’) established by the colonial government in 1952 to assist women through raising their living standards including political participation – MYWO were not viewed as fit to advance women’s political participation. In the event women from such the group attempted to enter the political sphere, men would not allow it. In fact MYWO’s own chairperson, Ruth Habwe, was denied support and later suspended by the male dominated KANU when she contested a member of parliament seat (Nzomo, 1997: Wipper, 1971, 1975). In order to ‘tame’ women’s advances to joining the male political space, MYWO’s leadership was co-opted by the political elite through which men would advance their own political mandate and status quo while marginalizing and subordinating women (Nzomo, 1997; Wipper, 1975). Nzomo argues that MYWO changed its face such that it could not be differentiated from the ruling party, KANU (Kenya African National Union), which “effectively co-opted the conservative leaders within the women’s organization [MYWO]” (1997: 239). Of course men were not interested in sharing power with women and for several decades, patriarchal structures, processes and strategies constrained and denied women space to equally participate in politics (Nzomo, 1997: 240; Wipper, 1971; 1975). Women were reduced to simply being ‘nice’ to political leaders in return for “ceremonial affirmation, tokenism and verbal ploys” even when the government deliberately did little to finance women’s groups in order to curtail their potential economic and political power (Wipper, 1975: 112).

25Nevertheless, women’s solidarity groups rapidly spread across the country in the first decades of independence and formed a platform through which women pursued both economic and political interests. In rural areas, for example, women across the country organized themselves in solidarity groups, which they would then register with the government as citizenship projects. As citizenship projects, these groups formed loci through which rural infrastructure such as roads, schools and healthcare clinics were constructed (Udvardy, 1998). But women also set up income generating activities such as making and selling of handcrafts and rotating credit and savings as a gateway to contribute to the state/community infrastructural projects, survival needs for their households and to accruing collective group assets such as land (Mutongi, 2007; Udvardy, 1998). These groups also kept women abreast of important information such as agriculture and livestock production, and health services and new technologies that would have otherwise been available only to men (Nzomo, 1997; Udvardy, 1998).

26In the South Coast of Kenya, women dance groups (ngoma) - traditionally ritual and recreational solidarity groups - were registered as part of the state’s women’s self-help citizenship project (McComark et al, 1986). Whereas they performed as other women’s solidarity groups within the realm of the state’s citizenship project, they also provided space for men and women to negotiate and bargain their position within and beyond the household. For instance, considering the Islamic patriarchal ideology of uungwana still alive among men and women at the time, the spirit of economic contribution to the household openly promoted through women groups did not receive a soft landing among men. Men perceived such groups as making women take on “economic projects which are traditionally the preserve of men” (Oendo, 1988: 81). Other men were keen that they would be accused of treating women as slaves (atumwa) if they allowed them to take on financial responsibilities in the households. To make matters worse, because women groups required financing for women to perform their activities, men’s lack of funds to support women was a potential incentive for male distaste of women groups since this challenged their uungwana status and caused tensions within households (Oendo, 1988).

27However, since Digo women already had spheres of influence that were designated as women’s domains, the newly formed women’s solidarity groups, with their own strong women’s support networks became a backbone for women to influence matters beyond the household, including political leadership as I show below. Women led their groups to pooling resources together and securing grants from the state and non-state agencies to man their activities (McComark et al, 1986). Since the 1980s women were able to obtain micro-loans (mikopo, sing. mkopo) from micro-credit institutions, a course that cannot be taken for granted because according to men and women in Msambweni, this sharpened women’s power to bargain and negotiate for participation and inclusion even in the public sphere. During a conversation with one elderly man about women and the several small business enterprises run and managed by women in the local market, he explained that “since women (kina mama) (women-folk) learnt how to organize themselves, they can negotiate anything, and we men have begun to have faith (imani) in women.” He continued to explain that, “if a man wants to succeed, he will go for such women. They know what they want in life and for their family. They will build (dzenga) your household (boma).” Speaking about mikopo, Amina, a woman in her sixties, was of the view that women groups “have opened women’s eyes” such that men now look up to women even in the most complex situations. She recounted how her brother would only find help with her when he had a land dispute with their mkpwoi (mother’s brother’s child).

Our brothers were there, but he saw me as the only firm tree. They did not have money, I had to go to our women’s chama. And I helped him. We women have become the backbone for many things in our community and our men know it.

28Thus unlike the perceived wane ofwomen’s organizing such as with regards to MYWO’s national leadership, women groups in Kwale, including the local MYWO, became a central locus for women not only to collaborate on different activities - including those not concerned with generation of income - ranging from agricultural to off-farm and household activities such as funeral and weddings (Oendo, 1988; Wipper, 1975), but also to exercise their freedom, especially of movement and participation, and nurtured their art to mobilize and convince both men and women. As I show below, women groups set the stage for women’s participation in the political sphere in the succeeding decades. As one informant explained, women groups created in women a spirit of working together with men even in those spheres considered masculine and feminine distinctively.

The Rise of Women’s Political Organizing in Msambweni: The case of Marere

29In the 1997 general election, Muslim women achieved a historical milestone for having the first Muslim women contest for elective public positions: Marere wa Mwachai, popularly known as Marere, from Msambweni and Sophia Abdi Noor from North Eastern Province. Sophia did not make it to the ballot because she “was pressured to withdraw before the elections ended,” but Marere won her seat to become the first Digo-Muslim woman elected in the Kenya National Assembly (Alidou, 2013: 86). The achievement was greater for women in the Kenyan coastal region, particularly for the Digo in the south coast where, as earlier mentioned, women have continued to manoeuvre the complexities of Islam, state statutes and matrilineal organization.

30Marere’s success also happened at a time when women’s movements such MYWO were unable to support women’s visibility in the Kenya’s political sphere, and was accused of helping men get elected (Kamau, 2010, 2006; Nzomo, 1997). As mentioned earlier, early women’s movements have been associated with co-optation into ruling parties whose leadership was exceptionally male and did not believe in women’s political leadership (Moghadam, 2007; Nzomo, 1997; Wipper, 1975).

31To the contrary, women in Msambweni capitalized on their local position in the MYWO to enable success for Marere’s election. The women’s political organizing was based on a spirit of proper leadership (uongozi bora), which they described within the rubric of restoration of a mother’s pain for bearing a child, which they persuaded women to believe it was well and properly known by a woman, hence good/proper leadership rested with women. Indeed, women used this ideology very successfully to convince men and other women who not only believed in the women’s course, but also elected Marere. One of my informants, Mariamu, who was the local leader of MYWO at the time, told me that the entire constituency was tired of poor and oppressive male leadership that had operated under KANU for many years with no ‘tangible’ or ‘visible’ development for the local people, and that everyone was thirsty for uongozi bora. Women quickly took advantage of the prevailing climate of the need for change to stage a woman contestant and urged people that salvation and hope would only be possible through a woman leadership. These women were massively supported by both men and women and their candidate was successfully elected.

32However, the process was not a smooth and straightforward one. Women had to creatively and collectively organize themselves. Mariamu recounts how she and fellow women creatively sacrificed their social statuses to support their woman candidate:

  • 3 Mama is a Swahili word for mother or woman in its broad sense. However, it is often used when refer (...)

I was the women’s leader [of Maendeleo ya Wanawake] in Msambweni and we saw that I give Mama Marere my leadership position to help us ‘move’ her around Msambweni. I stepped down as the local leader of Maendeleo ya Wanawake and Marere was ‘made’ the organization’s new local leader. We gave her that position as a gift. I had to get back so that Mama could get the platform, now as the chairperson of Maendeleo ya Wanawake, so that she could be announced. We are grateful she was well announced. To be honest, during her campaign meetings, when we went to places let’s say Mwagunda and Mama was not with us because she had travelled, my colleagues would ask me to stand in the place of Mama Marere. When I got there [campaign places/platforms], people would receive me with joy, ‘Mama Marere, Mama Marere’, and I didn’t show I was not Marere. I went there, stood, spoke and people were very happy. Everyone knew I was Mama Marere. We offered to do the campaigns for Mama, we did it for her just like a gift.3

33Further, considering the weaker position of women due to a privileged male leadership informed by Islamic traditions and the underlying matrilineal organization, women had to devise ways to bargain with patriarchy in order to attract the support of both men and other women (Kandiyoti, 1988). Mariamu told me they had to go for a woman whose education level was higher than that of men who considered education as a male achievement. Of course, wide range of Muslim women, and particularly those of Digo ethnicity were/are uneducated in the secular Western sense, a course generally attributed to Muslims being educationally disadvantaged by the colonial and post-colonial regimes in the country. Yet with regard to women in particular, patriarchal Muslim cultural restrictions have contributed to the high illiteracy levels and “lower ratio of Muslim women with significant western educational credentials” (Alidou, 2013: 16; Chege and Sifuna, 2006; Ngome, 2006; Strobel, 1979). During fieldwork, I learned that majority of the old women could not read or write, and many young women had either attained Muslim education through madrasa with little or no formal education provided by the Kenya government. However, this does not undermine the fact that the number of Muslim women receiving formal education started increasing especially after 1990s (Alidou, 2013; Strobel, 1979). Marere was one of those women, a recent university graduate, and in views of both men and women, as a woman she had not only attained a ‘male achievement’, but also crossed a ‘male line’. This gave Mariamu and her fellow women an assurance that men would not challenge Marere’s candidature on educational grounds. Moreover, contesting under KANU, the popular party at the time, was a milestone for the women in Msambweni. Such that considering the perceived KANU’S political affair with MYWO, becoming or being ‘made’ the local leader of MYWO in Msambweni might have offered Marere a good opportunity to contest on the KANU ticket. Although, as noted earlier, KANU was known for male resentment to women’s parliamentary candidacy including those of MYWO, the strategy worked for Marere.

34The women also had other strategies. They chose to present their candidate as the only hope for the community. Mariamu and her colleagues persistently reminded women of “the pain of bearing a child as a mother”, and how a woman leader would help restore that pain. According to Mariamu, these were not just mere political campaign words, the women “meant it!” and strongly believed the community’s hope for progress lay in the hands of a woman’s leadership: “we announced Marere [to the] women, and herself as a woman.” With this spirit, the women spent sleepless nights and restless days campaigning for their candidate. They sought to win the hearts of everyone, but first, their fellow women because in addition to being the majority voters, women, I was told, “have a heart. When you want to succeed, just win women’s hearts.”

35However, this was not the first time I heard that women in this part of Kenya have a “heart.” I had earlier on heard narratives of economic success or failure in many households explained in relation to women’s ‘hearts’. The notion of women hearts is embroiled with a straightforward spirit and persuasion skill that are considered absent in men, especially where a positive result is desired, or where there is a limitation, for example, as I found out with spending household income and participation in events such as weddings. In light of this, success and failure (economic or political) are complexly explained with regard to a woman’s heart.

36Indeed, the strategies of Mariamu and her friends won the ‘hearts’ of their fellow women in the community. Then turned to men: “we invited and deliberated with them.” The women were shocked by the overwhelming male support for their candidate: “men gave out their vehicles, others gave out money, even others went out and took loans to support Marere.” Contrary to the women’s fears of patriarchy, Marere won the elections and was later appointed assistant minister in the Moi government.

Elections after the 1990s

37However, Marere did not make it to a second term, neither did she win any of the succeeding elections. But the complexities of women’s mobilization in Marere’s election win and the aftermath shaped the very form for elections activities practiced in Msambweni today. According to many people, Marere lost because she ‘forgot’ her fellow women’s ‘hearts’ after assumption to power. These claims had far reaching effects in relation to election of women, the nature of women’s participation in elections and the nature of election exercises. For instance, the situation significantly silenced women’s assumption into elective positions, yet women formed the very basis on which election campaigns were organized. Notably, women have since formed the focal point for success of male contestants for the parliamentary seats and the recent Member of Assembly (MCA) position. As one male aspirant once said to me, “when women here say we are voting in this person, that’s it.”

38Interestingly, while this has formed the prevailing justification by many people as to why aspirants ought and sought to win women’s hearts to successfully win an election, the women’s ‘hearts’ winning game took a male route since the 2002 elections. Male aspirants have since taken advantage of the emergent delicate nature of the conception surrounding women and electoral positions to persuade women, both individually and collectively, to support their campaigning exercises to win elections. Mariamu told me that she received many male political aspirants who sought her ‘art of campaigning’. When I asked her about women’s support to women aspirants, she exclaimed, “things changed with Marere!” In other words, it has become easier to mobilize fellow women to campaign and vote for men than to campaign or elect a woman. To be sure, women did not participate in elections only in the form described for Mariamu and her colleagues. As we shall see below, ngoma (women’s dance groups) and chama (associations) are common spaces for engaging women in political campaigns. However, access to these women’s spaces requires careful cultivation of relationships with key women such as Mariamu, through whom other women’s ‘hearts’ are expected to be won. I argue that the notion of what Oyèrónkĕ Oyẽwùmí (2016: 2) terms “matripotency,” that is the unique connection between motherhood and leadership, is central to women’s conception of political participation in Msambweni. In fact, as I show below, the idea about winning women’s hearts is centred on the ideologies of motherhood.

Winning Women’s Hearts: Women’s Participation in the 2017 elections

39The 2010 Kenya Constitution offered potential space for women’s inclusion in elective political positions in the country. Women in Kwale identified with this space by both contesting the 2017 elections in commendable numbers compared to the past elections and performing in their roles as voters, advisers and mobilizers of the electoral activities. Participation as woman contestants ranged from the Woman Representative position and Deputy Governor, and parliamentary and MCA seats. In Msambweni, Marere contested the parliamentary seat, while two women contested MCA positions in two wards, and two others lost in the nomination exercise. I also gathered overwhelming women’s participation in campaign rallies as dancers and audience, as voters in nomination and election exercises, and as opinion leaders (consultants/advisers). Yet speaking to Mariamu about women and electoral participation, she commented that it was an uphill task for women to win the 2017 election in Msambweni without first winning women ‘hearts.’What is different or particular about women winning women hearts?

40I was often reminded that Digo women are keen on things such as “a child needs to go school, a daughter has a wedding and her mother needs help with that,” and “a woman just sitting with fellow women.” Marere was unable to meet such women’s conceptions and desires that are significantly part of their leadership prescription and ideology. “We gave it to her as a gift, she later chose not to listen to us,” Mariamu explained. Others were of the opinion that Marere “did not have time for her people,” not only to emphasize that after her successful election she later looked down upon women who worked with her during her elections campaigns, but also the fact that she did not embrace the political ideologies of leadership embraced by women in Msambweni. Women were especially particular that winning hearts was about expressing care and compassion, which are qualities anchored on motherhood.

41The view of motherhood as inherently central to social and political performances and as a “practice of leadership” is not new in Africa (Oyẽwùmí, 2016: 216). Numerous studies have shown the relationship between maternal ideology and political leadership in Africa, and argued for a closer attention to both motherhood and matriarchy in Africa as embedded in social, cultural and political performances (see for example Amadiume, 1987; 1997; Diop, 1987; Nnaemeka, 1997; Oyẽwùmí, 2016; Steady, 2011). As many of these studies contend, the relationship between motherhood and leadership is not simply about “reproductive and nurturing roles in households” (Steady, 2011: 22). The overwhelming perception of these as fundamental roles of mothers also:

Reflects the normative values and humanistic ideologies that embrace notions of preservations of the past, present and future generations; prosperity and well-being of society as a whole; and of promotion of equality, peace and justice. It is also viewed as metaphor for humanizing the state (ibid).

42Drawing on Steady, Oyẽwùmí (2016) contends that motherhood is central both to community identity, leadership and activism in many African contexts.

43In Msambweni, the centrality ofmaternal ideology is intertwined with and reinforced by gender relations and matrilineal kinship organization which remains alive in different domains of Digo everyday lives. In this regard, women’s political performances in Digo sociality were conceived within the realm of care, nurturance, compassion, and ‘oneness’, which were summed up as women showing their hearts to women and winning fellow women’s ‘hearts’. Whereas women assessed/evaluated both male and female contestants on the basis of similar leadership ideologies, for instance, I was severally told that women did not elect “just anyone,” underlining that contestants, both men and women, had to qualify the outlined criteria by women - that of wining women’s hearts. Yet, women did not evaluate male and female contestants on equal measures. For woman candidates, their leadership potential was interrogated more on the basis of the underlying maternal ideologies than was the case for men. In part, this could be attributed to the fact that maternal performances and ideologies especially those related to care are often considered a women’s domain, especially in matrilineal terms (Muinde, 2018).

44What struck me, however, was that, regardless of the positions women occupied – as ‘advisers’/’consultants’, mobilizers, voters or contestants – women spoke about their political performances in relation to motherhood and the underlying maternal ideologies. As one woman put it, “A mother is a mother. She will always look with a mother’s eye.” It is not surprising, then, that, for example, women severally cited understanding and fulfilling women’s desires and expectations that shaped their prescriptions of woman leadership as all a woman contestant needed to demonstrate if she was to win the elections. Women did not want a woman to “just stand there and show off her cloth,” or “start pulling her face,” or “throwing her mouth,” but “show you are one of us [women].” Speaking to one woman contestant, she held it was very crucial for her to “behave like a mother” and “weigh the words” she used not only during the campaign events, but also in her everyday conversations with people. As Steady (2011: 21) argues for the West African context, those “qualities of motherhood perceived as being nurturing, compassionate, and protective” continue to be pursued in many African contexts as central to conceptions of female political leadership. Indeed, emphasizing this as an added ‘burden’ or a form of hindrance to women’s political participation, as some feminist or development expert would have it, risks overlooking the potential of maternal ideologies as a creative platform to negotiate with patriarchal climate that continues to dominate political leadership. As I show below, the centrality of maternal ideologies and the value accorded in different spheres of the everyday life afforded women the opportunity to manipulate and negotiate their electoral participation in their different positions and statuses. Women’s art to ‘advise’, convince and mobilize was anchored on maternal ideologies. After all, women and men in this community believe that political success is depended on winning ‘hearts’ of women to influence men, and not vice versa. To grasp the inner connection between maternal ideology and women’s political performances in Msambweni, I now turn to specific cases of the 2017 general election.

Putting On A ‘Motherlike’ Dress: The Case of Bi Asha

45When I visited Bi Asha in April 2017, she explained with confidence that she contested for the MCA seat because she believed that as a woman and a mother, she was able to convince voters to elect her. Bi Asha had already won the nomination exercise, which was not complicated nor difficult because she was the only candidate in Msambweni contesting on that particular party ticket. During our conversation, she demonstrated confidence that she would pursue the contest successfully since it was not the first time she sought or held a leadership position in the community. Bi Asha was previously the local representative of Human Rights Watch and Sauti ya Wanawake (Women’s Voice). Through these positions, she pursued important community matters such as land disputes and child defilement. During these engagements, Bi Asha said that she always perceived herself as a mother, a woman, who was strong enough to manoeuvre the patriarchal ideologies embedded in many aspects of the community life. She remembered how she once responded stubbornly to a police officer during a land dispute conflict: “I carry all the women,” Bi Asha remembered her response to the police officer who confronted her during the dispute.

46However, for Bi Asha, the response was informed by her belief that she had already ‘won’ women’s hearts during her various leadership engagements, a course that she held close to her heart. “Women here see me as a fellow woman/mother who is strong to lead them,” she said. She also explained that she always perceived herself as a woman leader because as a mother, she always cared for everyone. Even when speaking about her leadership roles, she held that the various leadership opportunities gave her “nguvu” (strength) like a woman/mother to champion rights of women, children and youth like a mother. “Land rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, all this I have championed like a mother,” she said. Bi Asha had also established and managed a children’s education project which operated in the schools in the village to encourage and mentor pupils to embrace education. She was also known for having successfully pushed for a child defilement case to the court. Bi Asha said she did these because as a mother, she was concerned about children’s education and welfare. “A mother bears the pain,” she commented.

47Undoubtedly, the success of her leadership projects such as the education project earned her respect and applause from many people, including men, and as a result she believed in greater acceptance of her leadership as a woman. Teachers appreciated and applauded her positive contribution to the schools especially because of notable good academic performance from the students who benefited from Bi Asha’s project. As Steady (2011) shows of one of her informants in West Africa, women’s performances as practices of motherhood as are expanded to the wider arena beyond the house, both ideologically and through performance. One of her informants told her that “a mother has practice at directing, mentoring, and leading her children to achieve their dreams and aspirations. I am sure she can project that into a wider arena” (Steady, 2011: 224). It is in this sort of light that Bi Asha believed her projects and leadership positions painted her, and she believed that since people conceived her in a similar vein, they believed she would “project that into a wider arena [of political leadership]” (ibid).

48Indeed, it is striking about Bi Asha’s strategic conception of the connection between her leadership potential and the maternal like performances and ideologies she embraced. Apparently, it is this conception that motivated her to contest for the MCA position in Msambweni. Of course, just like the case for herself, Bi Asha was aware that maternal ideologies dominated the way women conceived and evaluated female leadership in her community. “Women here look at [woman contestants] very keenly… You find that your fellow woman is the one fighting you… Here, a woman is the enemy of a woman,” she emphasized as she remembered how Marere lost her parliamentary position and was never elected again. She went on to say that women talk about and scrutinize women’s way of dressing and speech, and how you ‘feed’ the audience during a campaign: “As a mother, you must weigh the words you use, and you cannot keep women sitting there, then you just leave like that.”

49Clearly, Bi Asha was very aware that motherhood is valued and respected in her community, and that women’s leadership was often conceived through such lens. Against this understanding, she conceived her participation in politics as a “[leadership] call” to “change the story” about women leadership in the community. She wanted to restore the trust and respect for women as leaders in her community. Bi Asha was keen that Marere’s leadership had significantly changed perception about women and leadership - that Marere did not lead as it was expected by women, that is, like a mother/woman. But she was also aware of women who had survived in the political arena such as the county’s Deputy Governor, Fatuma Achani, who was severally described by some women as “one face with the governor” and that she “weighed her words in public gatherings,” as was expected of a woman. My research assistant commented that she held meetings in her house in the evenings, suggesting that she was mindful about women and the time they were expected to be outside of their home. According to other conversations with women, Achani’s conduct was also charged with maintaining her position as the county’s deputy governor and to remaining with the governor to contest for a second term. One of my informants commented, “besides development record, the deputy governor is the reason for people’s love for the governor’s leadership.” I was told that she always stood next to the Governor whenever they appeared together in public engagements, which, for women, was as a good show of collaboration (kusaidiyana).

50The notion of collaboration is a very crucial aspect of gender relations in Msambweni. As I show elsewhere, women in this community take seriously performances or relations that do not heed collaboration. For instance, lack of kusaidiyana would lead to divorce or separation (Muinde, forthcoming). As one woman put it, in this community, gender relations are about “a woman here, a man here” ( “mchetu hipha, mlume hipha”). Another woman, contrasting Marere’s conduct to that of Achani, emphasized that as a woman/mother, “you don’t take yourself in the front. You have to be the same as the other people”. Literally, women and men are expected to work alongside each other. Gerlach and Gerlach (1988) have insightfully written about the sort of egalitarianism demonstrated in Digo society by different performances by men and women in their negotiations “between individual and collective interests.” They assert that this was as a result of Digo’s past engagement with slavery, Islam and the British Colonial administration, and a past they complexly attempted to ‘escape’ through such egalitarian negotiations. According to the Gerlach’s, such relations also revealed that women “prevent [ed] men from tyrannizing them” (Gerlach & Gerlach, 1988: 113). Yet, the conception of equal relations is quite gendered in the political sphere. Such that while it is ok for men to ‘take themselves in the front’, this is conceived differently for women by women. As I have highlighted above, women are not only deterred from taking themselves ‘in the front’ but are also expected to ‘sit’ with other women regardless of their position and status, not show of their dress, and mind their speech.

51Undoubtedly, Islamic patriarchal ideologies too informed the way women conceived women and the positions they occupied. Alidou (2013) has written extensively about Islam and women’s leadership in the coastal part of Kenya. In her interviews with two Muslim women leaders, Naomi Shaban and Amina Abdallah, she demonstrates the Islamic informed patriarchal terrain the two women negotiated in their political engagements. Yet what I hope to demonstrate here, is that despite the challenges posed by such patriarchy, women creatively negotiated with patriarchy to their own advantage. In the case of women in Msambweni, maternal ideologies became a platform which women creatively used to manoeuvre the patriarchal climate.

52Indeed, such notions were central to how Bi Asha conducted herself during the campaign period - she embraced the notion of motherhood as ideology for collaboration and inclusion. In addition to clothing herself with a maternal dress from her previous leadership engagements, she told me that she incorporated men in her campaign organization team because, like many women in her community, Bi Asha perceived collaboration (kusaidiyana) as a crucial aspect of gender relations, and especially for women because this is a show of inclusivity and care for everyone. To be sure, maternal ideologies of care are embedded on the view of women as welcoming and accommodating, as having ‘big’ hearts, and imbued with notion of commitment and responsibility. This is evident in other situations such as diseases such a HIV/AIDS and marital fluidity which leave many children and women in need of care, especially from their kinswomen. The underlying notion of care and responsibility in gendered matrikin terms, often charges women with a greater responsibility for care of kin members. Ostensibly, such notion equally extended beyond the household, as is evident with women’s political performances. During conversation with several women during women group meetings, I gathered views about women as both accommodating and committed, “they are everything” and as “managers,” they understand everyday things and reality within and beyond the household. One woman emphasized that, “women are interested in everything, they are everything. You find their overwhelming numbers in funerals, weddings, village and school meetings, women always have bigger numbers.”

53Aware of such expectations and conceptions about the mother image, Bi Asha told me that she continued to paint herself as a woman who was aware and in touch with the reality, with kindness and with a “heart of advocacy” for everyone. This was clearly demonstrated in her narrative that she continued to pursue her children’s education projects and used this to show how as a mother she cared even for the young citizens. Bi Asha said:

A mother has the pain [of a child], a father does not feel that pain. I show my leadership is for everyone’s welfare, working for children and with both young people and women, unlike men who look only into their welfare not that of the whole community.

54She also prided how she would demonstrate “maturity in talking” during her campaigns and in ordinary conversations.

“Men Just Follow Women!”: Women As Convincing Agents

55I passed by Malezi’s house one morning in 2017. The energetic woman entrepreneur, in her late 40s, invited me for tea (chai rangi). She sat me on a log of wood under a mango tree next to her house. Malezi was very excited that her women’s group, where she was the group’s chair, was one those that benefited from a recent distribution of funds to women’s groups, which she believed where mobilized by a woman in the village contesting for a MCA seat. Although many women groups in many parts of the country, including Kwale have generally benefited from the government’s Women Enterprise Fund since 2007, and that this was not the first time Fatuma’s group received funds from or through a politician, especially during such highly recharged political periods, this particular case seemed quite popular with Malezi. First, she emphasized the significant increase in the amount of funds received by her group compared to the previous disbursements, especially those mobilized or distributed by politicians. Second, speaking about the woman contestant in comparison to other politicians, Malezi specifically applauded her deeds as an act of absolute care as a woman: “she has helped people a lot.” According to Malezi, the woman contestant, Fatuma, mobilized the funds by persuading President Uhuru Kenyatta to assist women groups during a recent visit in Kwale. But what pleased many women like Malezi was not simply Fatuma’s gesture of reaching out to the country’s President. According to Malezi, Fatuma demonstrated an exemplary act of care and interest in women’s welfare by ensuring all the monies given by the President were distributed to the women groups. Malezi said:

When others get the money, they first get themselves some share before the money reaches us. This time we got a lot of money because she let the money come direct to us. She was not interested in herself. Isn’t that not what women want?

56Malezi believed that Fatuma’s contact would help her win the elections because that not only pleased women, but it would also encourage men to vote for her. She added:

If you contact yourself like this, women will love you. And when women love you, men will just follow what women are doing because we are the majority and men here trust women’s hearts. Women have a firm stand.

57When I asked Malezi whether Fatuma would still win the elections if another contestant showed up to women with more funds, she emphasized her view of how straightforward and focused Msambweni’s women were. Malezi narrated:

If a someone knocked at a house the morning before the elections and gave both men and women Kenya Shillings (KES) 1000, everyone would take the money. When morning comes, you will hear men say, “I will vote for this person who gave us the money.” But women will not do that. They will eat the money, but look back to what you did for them. Women do not forget what happened in the past. Also, if the same night another person came and gave KES 2000, men will wake up in the morning and say, “eeh, how can I vote for the one who gave 1000?” But for women, they will look back and vote according to your good deeds of the past… that makes a man in the house follow the woman. It is women who make men come out and vote well.

58Malezi’s views were echoed by Mwanapangani. I met Mwanapangani, who operated a grocery shop in the nearby local market, on the day nomination exercises took place in Msambweni as she prepared to go to a nearby polling station to cast her nomination vote. Her house was not far from the polling centre and we could see the long queues, mostly of women, some with children on their backs and umbrellas over their heads covering the children from the scorching sun. Looking in the direction of the polling centre, Mwanapangani suddenly signed and said, “you see all those men, I know they will just vote for Fatuma. She is the one women like.” I quickly turned my face to Mwanapangani and wondered, “what do you mean?” Mwanapangani continued:

Women have great hearts. You cannot see all these women have come to vote for their person and then men come and elect another person. Men know that women look with good eyes of a mother. Fatuma has helped women a lot, and women now like her.

59Just like Malezi, Mwanapangani was of the view that Fatuma demonstrated an exemplary art of leadership as a woman, and if she continued to ‘behave’ well, she would also win the elections:

She has touched the hearts of women. Women here are praising her. I have hopes she will win the nominations. If during the campaigns she carries herself well like a woman/ mother, she will also win the elections because even men will come out to vote for her.

60When I asked Mwanapangani about the actions that would constrain Fatuma winning the elections, she explained:

Women look at (assess) alot. They will evaluate how you talk, they want to hear you talk about bursaries. But you will not help someone, then go pronouncing that if it were not for you, that person’s child would not be in that school. Just say the promises and how you will fulfil them. Us women want things that will benefit us as mothers because we are the ones with the burden of providing the household. That is why you see more women than men leave their homes and their activities to go and vote.

61Citing an elections campaign that Mwanapangani and I had previously attended, she reminded me of the large numbers of women who attended the campaign:

You saw even at the campaign, women filled the field. You could count the number of men but not the women. Women know what they want. They attend those campaigns to listen and see for themselves. Men don’t have time because it is us women who feel the pain. But when you get back home, you will hear the man ask, “how was the campaign?” Because when he goes out to his friends, he will discuss with his friends the person women are supporting. Us women look at a person with eyes of a mother. We can easily tell whose behaviour is not good. Men cannot have such eyes. That is why you see many men just follow women.

62Of course, the gendered nature of women’s political participation was not limited to women’s views. During several conversations with men, I was often told that ‘women have kind hearts’, ‘women know how to evaluate better than men’, ‘women were straightforward’, etcetera. For example, Bakari, who worked for a certain microfinance institution was of the view that:

Women pay attention to those things that many assume or ignore. Things like schools fees, and anything that concerns the family and welfare, women will be quick to notice and they will speak about it in one voice. If you want to win the elections, you have to understand these things because they are the ones women look at when they are deciding who to vote for. And women here know how to make a unified voice and persuade men. If you are not careful, they will not vote for you and you will lose.

63During a nomination exercise in one of the polling centres in Msambweni, I overheard a conversation between a man and a woman about the likely outcome of the nomination exercise. The woman challenged the man regarding the fact that men pay little attention to crucial matters that a poor leadership effects in a society. The discussion centred on a contestant who the woman charged with promoting poor sexual behaviours among girls by secretly encouraging unsafe abortions. In response, the man told the woman that he had previously heard the story, and that he would not be surprised if some men voted for such a contestant. However, he continued to tell the woman that many men listened to women, although they would not talk about it or admit. Giving himself as an example, he said that he would support the person the woman suggested, but he may not go around talking about it. He said:

You women are the central pillar. When you talk to us men, it is not that we close our ears. Women have talked a lot about those bad behaviours and I know you women will win because I don’t think men will vote otherwise. You see this is why women are very important to us men.


64Studies on women’s political participation have continued to mask the realities of women’s performances in the political sphere due to overemphasis on patriarchal mechanisms that keep women out of the political sphere. For example, there has been overemphasis on formal political practices such as affirmative action policies and women’s political representation in their roles such as members of parliament. This chapter explores the experiences of women in their local context to show the reality of women’s political participation in Kwale. I have shown that women’s political participation has been shaped by historical, social and cultural processes, and how gendered maternal ideologies emerged as a ground for negotiation and renegotiation of women’s political performances. Indeed, the focus on history helps understand why maternal ideologies have become central to the way women’s political leadership is conceived and negotiated in this context. The interplay between patriarchal structures and processes within the realm of Islam and state projects, and the persistence of matrilineal practices and ideologies, have contributed to the way political space is negotiated in Kwale.

65Indeed, scholars have noted the exemplary ways African women negotiate, manoeuvre and manipulate the patriarchal terrain in Africa (see for example Nnaemeka, 1997; 2003). As I have shown, the use of mother-like ideologies emerged as one such mechanism in Msambweni. Maternal like qualities were used by women to clothe political leadership and defined both the reason for their participation in the electoral process and their evaluation of fellow women who contested in the elections contesting, mobilizing, advising or convincing others was embedded with such maternal discourses and ideologies, complexly termed as ‘winning women’s hearts’. I argue that a focus on how feminine identities complexly inform the way women engage with the electoral domain, as is the case in Msambweni, underscores how women in their specific contexts complexly manoeuvre the overwhelmingly patriarchal space and remain central in electoral politics.



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1 Uungwana refers, rather loosely, to ‘civilization’ based on Swahili culture. It is complexly used in everyday life to distinguish ways of life, especially when relating those aspects of life termed as Digo, Swahili and Islamic. Among the Digo, the concept of uungwana is “based on the establishment of high social status by demonstrating free birth [not slave] and adherence to Islam” (Oendo 1987: 47; see Eastman 1984 for a detailed explanation on uungwana among the Swahili of Mombasa).

2 Prior to abolition of slavery by the British colonial administration, the Digo experienced a slavery complex. While some Digo find it offensive to refer to their descent from slaves, others usually resent treatment which infers slavery. For instance, hard farm work is associated with slavery and women may accuse men of treating them like slaves if they ask them to do farm work. Failure to provide adequate sustenance or finance a woman’s financial needs may also be considered slave-like behaviour. Such instances usually formed a potential ground for divorce (Gerlach 1963).

3 Mama is a Swahili word for mother or woman in its broad sense. However, it is often used when referring to women of age, whether a mother or not.


Has completed her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her research explores the lives of women in the face of socio-economic constraints and historical social, religious and state patriarchal pressures in a matrilineal and Islamic context at the Kenya South Coast. She was awarded the Royal Anthropological Institute/Sutasoma Award for outstanding merit of her PhD research.

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