Ngecha: A Kenyan Village in a Time of Rapid Social Change

Ngecha: A Kenyan Village in a Time of Rapid Social Change


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Ngecha is the monumental and intimate study of modernization and nationalization in rural Africa in the early years following Kenyan independence in 1963, as experienced by the people of Ngecha, a village outside Nairobi. From 1968 to 1973 Ngecha was a research site of the Child Development Research Unit, a team that brought together Kenyan and non-Kenyan social scientists under the leadership of John Whiting and Beatrice Blyth Whiting.

The study documents how families adapted to changing opportunities and conditions as their former colony became a modern nation, and the key role that women played as agents of change as they became small-scale cash-crop farmers and entrepreneurs. Mothers modified the culture of their parents to meet the evolving national economy, and they participated in the shift from an agrarian to a wage economy in ways that transformed their workloads and perceptions of isolation and individualism within and between households, thereby challenging traditional family-based morals and obligations. Their children, in turn, experienced evolving educational practices and achievement expectations. The elders faced new situations as well as new modes of treatment. Completing this valuable record of a nation in transition are the long-term reassessments of the observations and conclusions of the research team, and a description of Ngecha today as viewed by Kenyans who participated in the original study.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803248090
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 07/01/2004
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.34(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.16(d)

About the Author

Carolyn Pope Edwards is Willa Cather Professor and a professor of psychology and of family and consumer sciences at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Beatrice Blyth Whiting (1914–2003) was a professor of anthropology and education at Harvard University. Whiting and Edwards are co-authors of Children of Different Worlds: The Formation of Social Behavior.

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A Kenyan Village in a Time of Rapid Social Change

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Background and Contexts

Carolyn Edwards and Beatrice Whiting

Ngecha, with an estimated population of 60,000 in 2002 but only 7,000 in 1973, is situated in the Central Province of Kenya in the fertile foothills of the Nyandarua Range (Aberdares) on the edge of the Rift Valley. At an altitude of 6,000 feet, its climate is temperate and mild year-round. Gikuyu lineages came to settle the land around Ngecha in the last decades of the nineteenth century during a late chapter in the great migration of Bantu peoples who first moved into the Central Highlands of East Africa around 1500.

The region's beauty and desirability also attracted the British and other European settlers who poured into Africa during the early part of the twentieth century in search of estates on which to raise coffee, tea, and cattle. The first European missionaries arrived around the same time, also drawn by its prime location 20 miles north of Nairobi, close to the trans-Kenyan railroad that connects the coast with Lake Victoria and Uganda. The missionaries introduced schools along with the Christian religion. In the following years, more and more land was alienated from the Gikuyu lineages who had settled Ngecha but who were now squeezed into an area that British colonial authorities demarcated as a native reserve.

When Kenyans achieved their independencein 1963, the new national government converted the native reserve into a fourth-level administrative unit called a location. (The levels are province, district, division, location, and sublocation.) The location of Ngecha included the village and its surroundings, the village of Kibuku, and seven sections of farm homesteads owned by members of the named Gikuyu patrilineages who had migrated from the area around Mount Kenya. The town of Limuru, made up of a railroad depot with a Bata Shoe Factory and pork processing plant, a government district office, and a small hospital, lies six miles to the northwest of Ngecha. Five miles to the east sits the town of Tigoni, which in 1968 was primarily a European residential area surrounded by tea estates and the fields of the Rockford Flower Company. It was in Tigoni that Beatrice and John Whiting found a home large enough to house both the field director and resident student assistants of the Child Development Research Unit (CDRU) and to serve as a meeting place for the numerous expatriate investigators engaged in related research or projects in other parts of Kenya. Today that same house is the home of the Centre for Health and Behaviour Studies of the University of Nairobi, directed by Violet Nyambura Kimani, one of the original assistants and a contributor to this volume.

Along with the village of Ngecha, Nairobi and the nation of Kenya have grown tremendously. Indeed, Ngecha is now a true suburb of Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya and home to an estimated 2.5 million people in a country of about 30 million (Blacker, 2002). On the eve of national independence, the city's population was 266,794 within a country of 8,636,263 (Kenya Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, 1964; Survey of Kenya, 1970). Kenya's national growth rate has exceeded 3% per year; total fertility is unlikely to level out at fewer than three births per woman (Blacker, 2002).

Forty-two African ethnic groups are named in the Kenya census listing, and the Gikuyu are the largest with about 20% of the total population. ("Gikuyu" is the indigenous spelling of what is also commonly referred to as "Kikuyu.") The Gikuyu people generally occupy the administrative area called the Central Province, which is bounded by Nairobi to the south, Mount Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya) to the north, the Rift Valley and Nyandarua Range (Aberdares) to the west, and the Mbeere Plain falling to the great port city of Mombasa and the Indian Ocean on the east.

This book is a case study of a five-year period (1968-1973) in a particular Gikuyu community living through the processes of rapid social and technological change. It describes the proximate mechanisms by which a farming community changed into a community of wage earners. Reflections on the status of Ngecha in 2002 are provided in the final chapter. The book is written and interpreted by Kenyan and American women and highlights the role of women in the transformation of culture.

Why This Book?

The research was a project of the CDRU, set up in 1967 at the invitation of Arthur Porter, the principal of University College, Nairobi (later to become the University of Nairobi), and affiliated with the Faculty of Education. The project was financed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York under a charter that called for the investigation of child development and mothers' socialization practices as observed and recorded in homesteads. The observations were made by trained Gikuyu students from the University of Nairobi who lived in the project house in Tigoni and who usually spent daylight hours in the Ngecha community, returning in the later afternoon to code their observations and discuss their findings. Interviews were collected, and several tests were administered to young children. In studying the socialization techniques of the mothers, particular attention was given to mothers' beliefs about the nature of children, the traits they wished for their children to possess, and their concepts of a good child. Eventually, the CDRU changed its mission, evolved into the Bureau of Educational Research under entirely Kenyan auspices, and was incorporated into Kenyatta University (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1979; Jefferson, 1976).

The overall goals of the project were to define the critical cultural dimensions that explain important normative characteristics of adult and child behavior and to search for independent variables at the cultural level (dimensions such as the roles and settings that children occupy, the company they keep, and the activities they perform) that are most powerful for explaining parent and child behavior around the world (Weisner & Edwards, 2002). Beatrice Whiting and Carolyn Edwards (1988) analyzed the social behavior of children, using observations from Ngecha as well as from other communities in Kenya and around the world, to show how children's age, sex, and daily activities influenced their social development. For example, children who were more active in household work (child care, food preparation, gardening) demonstrated significantly more nurturant and prosocial behavior and less dependency (B. B. Whiting, 1983; see also de Guzman, Edwards, & Carlo, under review). In most communities, girls participated more often than boys in household and subsistence tasks and at a younger age (B. B. Whiting, 1983; de Guzman et al., under review). Those children who attended school and had frequent opportunity to play in groups of same-age peers were more dominant, competitive, and rough-and-tumble in their play, suggesting that the introduction of schooling and increased opportunity for same-age peer group play led to changes in their social behavior (B. B. Whiting, 1983; de Guzman et al., under review).

The Ngecha behavioral observations have now been published in electronic format so that others can examine them (B. B. Whiting, Edwards & de Guzman, 2003). Additional studies by project members focused on Ngecha infants (Leiderman et al., 1973; Leiderman & Leiderman, 1977), toddlers (Edwards & B. B. Whiting, 1993), and the aging (Cox with Mberia, 1979). John Whiting and Carol Worthman examined adolescence, initiation, and the male life cycle (J. Whiting, 1981; Worthman & J. Whiting, 1987). Herzog (1973) studied Ngecha youths' ratings of their self-concepts, as related to both initiation status and high school attendance. John Whiting (1981) focused on the development of Ngecha boys as they matured into manhood. Recognizing the problems faced by some American males making the transition to adulthood, he speculated that Gikuyu initiation ceremonies facilitated all the key transitions in the male life cycle.

The next step involved turning attention to the range of experiences of Ngecha women, and it was here that the effects of rapid social change were so striking that they clearly became the foreground (B. B. Whiting, 1977, 1984; B. B. Whiting & Edwards, 2002). New technologies and educational and economic opportunities encouraged or required the village women in particular to extend into new realms their managerial and problem-solving skills, originally developed growing up in large families and doing responsible work as children. The mothers' style of interacting with their children (B. B. Whiting & Edwards, 1988, chapter 3) was high in prosocial task assignment and low in sociability and information exchange, but this style was mutable and could be changed to encompass new goals, such as the basic support of formal schooling by seeing that children got to school and had time for homework.

Between 1968 and 1980 we (Beatrice Whiting and Carolyn Edwards) had the opportunity to get to know 14 Kenyan university women who have now become professional career women. In 1968 the majority of the women were students at University College in Nairobi, and they were members of the first generation of their rural communities to attend college. During the time we did research in Kenya, the project employed nine of these women as apprentices who worked with us on our study of child development. Three of these nine as well as three apprentices who had worked on other projects later studied at Harvard University and earned advanced degrees. All now have professional careers. They are successful lawyers, university professors, or professionals in government. Some are senior executives at international organizations. One served as a high commissioner from Kenya to another African nation. (In addition, during the same years, many male Kenyan university students worked for the project, making valuable contributions to research efforts; for example, see chapters 7 and 8. The absence of discussion of these men in this chapter should not be construed as denigration of their efforts to many components of the project.)

Our contact with these women over a period of years stimulated us to speculate about the characteristics that made these Kenyan women into successful pioneers. What in their experience and training facilitated their adjustment to the urban, capitalistic society of the new nation of Kenya and made it possible for them to adjust with seeming ease to international settings? How different were these women from their mothers and grandmothers? How did rural women in Ngecha cope and adapt to their rapidly changing environment, taking into account the needs of their children, husbands, aging parents, and others for whom they were responsible? Perhaps Kenyan women have always been trained to adjust to change. History tells us that they are descendants of the great migratory wave of Bantu peoples who traveled across the continent from West Africa colonizing many areas as they progressed. The Kenyan assistants and collaborators were indeed path-breakers able not only to work alongside American-style researchers (professors and students) but also to move into the international scene in American and European graduate schools.

Living in and through transformation and progress in the lives of women has been central to our personal experience as well. Beatrice Whiting, born in 1914, was among the first women to obtain a Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale University, and Carolyn Edwards, born in 1947, came of age professionally during the American feminist revolution of the 1960s. Each of the editors is "acutely aware," as Wandibba (1997, p. 329) wisely comments, that "the images and models with which [we] select and interpret fieldwork data" are the "product of our personal biographies and the scholarly traditions within which we try to communicate the results of our work." Though we realize that our own experiences, training, and biases necessarily motivate and frame our selection and presentation, we have tried to provide descriptions, background information, and findings that are both sufficiently detailed for alternative interpretations and conclusions to be drawn and sufficiently rich and complex for the material to raise its own questions and not just tell "our" (authors' and editors') versions of the story.

Theoretical Perspective

In the 1960s and 1970s countries all over the world were adjusting to economic and social change. Ever since nations in Africa threw off the vestiges of colonial government, adopted formal schooling, and joined the global economy based on wages and markets, women have been critical players in responding to changing conditions; creating new strategies for gaining access to and control of resources such as soils, water, and woodlands (Thomas-Slayter et al., 1995); and shaping new family lifestyles. The importance of their role as agents of change in Kenya has become increasingly known and documented. As a major example, the availability of food depends to a large extent on women's efforts to produce, process, market, and prepare it. Women have been a dynamic force in shaping the social system and in making their own history, as argued by Ahlberg-Maina (1991) in her study of the response of women's groups to family planning.


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