While young men and possibly young women were laying siege to a shopping mall in Nairobi, killing young and old indiscriminately despite press reports to the contrary, I was spending the day with Maasai families experiencing care at first hand. While they were forcing their way into this space where love and care was being bought in the same way as elsewhere in the global market place, through children’s cooking parties, coffee and tea drinking and the body work of hairdressers and cosmetic sales persons, I was sitting outside a one roomed home, made with corrugated iron sheets, drinking smoky milk tea from a pot on the open fire, with 4 generations of women from one family, the eldest 100 years old, the youngest 2 years. The great grandmother was given her food by her grand- daughter. She was sitting on her goat skin leaning against her hut wall eating her lunch from a bowl with a spoon. The food had been provided by her last surviving child of 12, her youngest daughter in her 60s now living with her mother, having moved from the local ‘town’, some 8 kilometres away on a deeply pitted dirt road. The ugali and goat meat with vegetables had been made into a stew on an open fire. She spooned out all the liquid on to the earth in front of her because she wanted it dry. Her daughter and grand- daughter looked on while she did this, ensuring that the food did not tip out. When we had arrived in the sort of SUV which is ubiquitous in ‘developing’ world contexts with her grand- daughter and two great grand-daughters, she had come out to greet them but immediately went back inside the hut and come out again carrying all her belongings in a cloth bundle, secured on her head and back, which was almost her size, and her long stick. She was intent on getting back to the town to visit her grand-daughter. She was persuaded gently to put the bundle down and to have her food and to share tea and talk. She was not going to be able to go back with us. She and her widowed daughter had moved here because a grandson had taken responsibility for them. Sons are important. They provide this economic protection although widowed women are socially powerful within families. We debated how we would leave when the time came. The answer was for the men in the party to drive off in the vehicle and wait further off and for the women to stay behind. Then at a moment when we hoped she was distracted we ran towards the vehicle. She was not fooled and proceeded to follow us with remarkable swiftness for her age. We clambered in and left her with her daughter to return to their home.
We were there because my Kenyan research student had studied the interaction between gender and ethnicity in matters relating to land in 3 different communities in Kenya. The grand daughter was the sister of her interpreter for the Maasai field work. Agnes had spent time much time and many experiences with this group of women who in Maasai terms are a wealthy and influential family, owning much land. She was paying a visit to reminisce and to catch up on events. I was sharing this visit as her teacher. I also had a ‘husband’ my male partner with me. Agnes had her husband and we had two male drivers, one for the Maasai area, an influential young man who had assisted Agnes with her fieldwork in this area, and a driver whom Agnes had used generally for all her fieldwork who drove for her family. Undertaking fieldwork in rural Kenya is not easy. It involves many challenges which I was only now learning about as we met up with those who had been involved. Everyone was enjoying the stories. The interpreter’s sister, who set up many of the interviews, had been 8 months pregnant at one stage. Her mother made it clear that Agnes must be prepared to attend the birth if this should occur on one trip which involved very bumpy terrain. On one occasion the interpreter had had to climb a tree to try to get a mobile signal to enable someone to come and tow the vehicle out of the ditch. The Maasai driver had been able to clear the road of a large herd of goats while the Kisii driver had not. When the great grand- mother had been interviewed she had wanted Agnes to write down her entitlement to land on a piece of paper. She still had this piece of paper.
I am deeply uneasy about the potential voyeurism involved in this type of narrative but it was not that sort of day. The men in the party wandered off somewhere and the women chatted to each other lined up along the hut wall for a number of hours. They spoke Swahili and the Maasai language and English when necessary. I was made to feel completely welcome but not special. I shared photos from my newly bought flash smart phone of my two small grandchildren. They were struck by their very blue eyes.
A few days before I had delivered a public lecture entitled ‘caring about care; recognising and regulating body work in a global market’ at the British Institute in Eastern Africa. It was based upon my book Gender, Law and Justice in a Global Market (CUP 2011). As part of the presentation I had shown some photos of the elderly in institutional settings in the UK: older women lined up against walls in wheel chairs, heads down. I had shown pictures of migrant care workers tending to these elderly frail people. In the discussion which followed the presentation, we had had a very interesting discussion of the tensions and dilemmas that urban middle class/professional women face in coping with paid work and caring responsibilities in urban Nairobi where use of paid assistance in the home – domestic workers, nannies, care workers generally –are the norm. We discussed the consequences of privatising social responsibilities with no welfare state safety net – individual women feel responsible for the lot of other women who have left children and other family members behind to undertake these roles. The women are not paid enough to replace their care and they may be far from their own homes in the informal settlements in Nairobi. The Kenyan state has provided some legal protections and minimum wage requirements. But how are these to be met by individual women with no support from the state? Women are pitted against each other.
I looked after my mother and father in our home for the last two years of their lives. My mum was by then very frail and needed constant care. They both died aged over 90 in our home. I recognised the care that the women around me were giving on Saturday. I recognised its quality. I recognised the power relationships, the negotiations, the vulnerabilities, the love. I saw the dignity and worth of this very elderly woman’s life – her clean clothes, her neat hair, her alertness, her sense of being part of this community, her frustration at not being able to out run us to the vehicle.
School of Law University of Warwick