African Jubilee Mau Mau Resurgence and the Fight For Fertility in Kenya, 1986-2002

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African Jubilee
Mau Mau Resurgence and the Fight For Fertility in Kenya, 1986-2002

Terisa E. Turner and Leigh Brownhill


Part One: Promised Land
We were cheated by the white man with a bible that we should not have things here on earth but we should wait for those things that were promised in heaven. So, the Africans were being tormented and harassed because they were to wait until the day came for us to go up and inherit the things that were prophesied, while the white man could stay here and enjoy the things of the world. Jomo [Kenyatta, c. 1946] went ahead and wanted to broaden the Africans' minds. He said that since we were told to wait for those things that were up there in heaven, and the white man was the one who went up into the sky in airplanes, why doesn't he go up there and inherit everything that is up there and leave the others for the Africans? (First Woman, Elizabeth wa Gatengwa,15 January 1997).1
We [in Muungano wa Wanavijiji, Organization of Villagers] have followed what the Mau Mau were fighting for, because they were fighting for land, and we are also fighting for land. Because the reason we have so many slum dwellers in Nairobi, is lack of land. And if you ask the slum dwellers, you will find that their parents were Mau Mau fighters. Their people are the ones who were in the forest and yet they didn’t get land or anything. And they are the ones who are now spread all over. So we want everyone to be given land and to be given assurance of owning this land (First Woman, Sabina Wanjiku, 25 July 1998).
There is a resurgence of struggle over land in Kenya. Fighters ‘who are now spread all over,’ have taken up the unfinished business of the Mau Mau which began 50 years ago in 1952. Land occupations in the new millennium are part of a new cycle of struggle by the dispossessed in response to the new enclosures of the commons by corporate ‘globalization from above.’

Kenya in 2002 is characterized by a politics of land which is as intense and conflict ridden now as it was fifty years ago when the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, or Mau Mau, engaged British colonialists and African loyalist ‘Homeguards’ in battles over control of land. Land, in Kenya, is power. And though there has been an almost unceasing struggle over land throughout the twentieth century, this struggle has seen quiet times and periods of extreme upheaval. The armed struggle for independence in the 1950s is clearly one period of upheaval. We identify a new period of upheaval beginning around 1986 and intensifying into the year 2002. Why, after forty years of Kenyan independence, has there arisen a new Mau Mau and a new round of conflagration over land?

Sisule wrote of the 2001 Kenyan land conflicts that,
There is a perennial joke that an average Kenyan abhors free, open space and would not hesitate to occupy such land even if it belongs to somebody else. Of course this is only true in the case of the land grabbing types, who sometimes disguise themselves as genuine private developers. Land is a vital resource for abode and production activities and its ownership is an emotive issue (Sisule, 8 October 2001).
It is necessary to distinguish between those commonly known in Kenya as ‘land grabbers,’ who are wealthy people aspiring to make commercial gain from the privatization of public land, and those we call ‘land occupiers,’ who are dispossessed people who assert land entitlements to public land and idle privately owned land.
While dramatizing the fact that struggle over land is a key issue in the 21 century, Sisule does not say why. Why now? The answer to this question is intimately tied up with the introduction of World Bank structural adjustment programs, beginning in 1980. Before outlining the types of land occupations occurring in Kenya today, and defining some of our key concepts, we examine, briefly, three aspects of structural adjustment programmes which bear upon the increase in conflicts over land. These are, first, the fast-tracking of election-focused ‘political pluralism,’ which has manifest itself in Kenya in a fully commodified form in which money and land titlesst are exchanged for votes; second, the privatization of state assets, which puts in place a justification for the corrupt allocation of urban and rural spaces; and third, the de-funding of health and education, which increases the need among the poor for access to land on which to subsist and earn an independent livelihood.
Since the government was forced to concede to multipartyism in 1991, some 400,000 Kenyans have been systematically attacked and displaced from their homes by state sponsored violence targeting ethnic groups perceived to support the political opposition. The role of known high ranking government officials, who remain unpunished, in instigating, inflaming, and financing this violence has been widely documented, not only by national and international human rights NGOs, but also by the government's own parliamentary select committee (which consisted of only ruling party members) (Human Rights Watch 2001).
Multiparty politics emerged in Kenya in the early 1990s as a result of two conflicting but interrelated phenomena. First, in the mid 1980s, transport workers attempted to form a union. They held several strikes which paralyzed regional trade for short periods. Autonomous action by transport workers meant that the state could not control the economy. The government banned unionization in the transportation sector. At the same time, the small scale farmers of coffee tore out their trees and planted food crops for local consumption. They did so because the prices on the world market had fallen and at the same time, state corruption in the allocation of coffee incomes enriched state managers and impoverished rural producers. With the drop in foreign exchange earnings from coffee sales, the state fell into a balance of payments crisis by the end of the 1980s. The World Bank was concerned about the fiscal crisis and conflated the growing resistance through economic disruption by transport workers and small farmers with the increasingly vociferous demands for multiparty democracy. The World Bank offered Moi an ultimatum in December 1991: repeal the section of the Constitution which made Kenya a single party state or lose financial assistance from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as from the ‘Paris Club’ of donors which took its cues from the Bretton Woods institutions. Within days, Moi capitulated. He was not so willing, however, to allow voters to decide the political future of the country on their own. In 2001,
Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons remained unable to return after being driven from their homes in state sponsored attacks since 1991 directed against members of ethnic groups perceived to support the political opposition. The authorities continued during the year to fail to provide adequate security to those who sought to return to their homes under assurances of safety, nor were land titles restored to those who were wrongfully deprived. Nor had the government held those responsible for the violence accountable. In 1999, a presidential Commission on the Ethnic Clashes wound up after eleven months of hearing evidence, including from Human Rights Watch, about the violence between 1991 and 1998. As of October 2000, the commission's findings had still not been released, though the completed report had been submitted to the president over a year before (Human Rights Watch, World Report 2001).
Behind the increasing competition for land in the public sphere was structural adjustment’s insistence on privatization, or as the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics and ex-World Bank chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, calls it, “briberization-privatization.”2 In Kenya in 1994, about 2.5 million hectares, or 20% to 25% of the most arable land, was owned by large scale farmers (Foeken and Tellegen 1994:3). On these large farms, hundreds of thousands of acres lay idle. Thousands of Kenyans live as agricultural labourers on these estates, or nearby in squatter communities on public land. Those Kenyans who own small farms or occupy communally owned land are situated, economically and socially, between the large land owners and the landless, who squat on rural land or make their livelihoods in urban slums. Squatters on public land in urban areas live in substandard accommodation, which they either build from scavenged cardboard and flattened tin cans or rent from landlords who have no legal title to the land.
In 2001, slumdwellers defied landlords by asserting collective rights to housing plots. Nairobi’s Kibera slum houses more than 700,000 people (Otieno 4 December 2001). In an October 2001 public address, Kenya’s President Moi acknowledged the problem of landlords charging exorbitant rents for slum houses: “most of the semi permanent residential houses stand on State land and the landlords pay nothing to the Government, yet they are fleecing the tenants. These people own the land illegally and in fact they should be prosecuted. As of now we will not do that, but they have to ensure that they charge reasonable rents.” (Openda 1 November 2001). Within a month, urban villagers in Kibera acted on Moi’s delegitimization of fake slumlords who “should be prosecuted.” The slum dwellers “organised themselves into a tenants’ association, and vowed to halt rent payments until the Provincial Commissioner issued new guidelines” (Gaitho 20 November 2001). Landlords refused to lower rents and called in police to disperse the tenants, who gathered daily for rallies and discussions. Ten days later, on 30 November, the Daily Nation reported that
Tenants of the sprawling Kibera slum in Nairobi began to flee their homes yesterday, amid claims of rampant looting and rape by police. ... A middle aged woman said she was forced to strip and was molested by policemen, but was not raped. Other tenants said they saw women being raped in some bars but the victims were not willing to speak of their ordeal (Thuku 30 November 2001).
Government Ministers proposed rent cuts to avert the spread of the rent strikes. Landlords offered a 20 per cent reduction. Tenants insisted on a 50 per cent cut (Otieno 4 December 2001). Three quarters of a million slum dwellers, through their tenants’ organization, decided autonomously the value of their accommodation. Auto-valuation of rents was combined with self-taxing. Many Kibera slum dwellers each paid ten shillings a month to Mungiki (Congress) and formed community defense posses against police attack.
Poor living conditions in the slums and in rural areas are accompanied by poor health and education. The Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya, Dr. David Gitari, holds the government responsible for the poverty and ill health resulting from the de-funding of schools and medical centres. Dr. Gitari decried the fact that child mortality rates had “increased from 62 per 1000 live births in 1988 1993 to 74 children per 1000 live births in 1998.” The mortality rate of children under five years of age had also shot up. “During the first two decades after independence [1963-1983], there was an improvement in the health status of the population with a marked decline in mortality and morbidity rates and increase in life expectancy, an achievement the Government has been unable to improve or sustain” (Oywa 8 October 2001). Despite grinding poverty and repression, millions of peasants produce food and hundreds of thousands of land-poor and landless people process and trade it in rural and urban areas of the country. The persistence of this subsistence political economy has ensured that most of the population is supplied with at least the bare necessities, which in turn allows them to struggle to increase their control over land and their own lives.
The struggle for land in this new period of upheaval in Kenya pits those who promote capitalist enterprise against those who reassert a subsistence political economy in concert with others worldwide engaged in popular ‘globalization from below.’ In Part One, we draw distinctions between two types of land redistribution programs and introduce seven types of land occupations which are differentiated from one another according to the relations between the land occupiers and the land owners. We then define the concepts we use to analyze the land occupation movement: commodification, subsistence, the male deal, gendered class alliances and the fight for fertility.
In Part Two, we document ten cases of land occupation by land poor peasants and squatters. We assess the extent to which subsistence is furthered in the course of the occupations by considering the gendered class politics of two organizations involved in the occupations: Mungiki (Congress, literally, in Gikuyu, “we are the public”)3 and Muungano wa Wanavijiji (Organization of Villagers)4. These organizations embody the resurgence of Mau Mau. In the face of land privatization programmes sponsored by the World Bank, which tend to increase instead of alleviate landlessness, the urban-based Muungano wa Wanavijiji (Organization of Villagers) and the massive Mungiki (Congress) have arisen to address, among many other realities, the immediate needs of the impoverished for land.
Muungano wa Wanavijiji (Organization of Villagers) is an organization with approximately 10,000 members, all of whom are land-poor slumdwellers, or ‘urban villagers.’ The self-organized congregation is distinctive for its multi-ethnic membership, women’s prominence and militant non-violent direct action tactics in defense of urban villagers and market retailers’ land rights. Muungano members trace their political roots back to Mau Mau. They trace their current landlessness to Kenyatta’s betrayal of the Mau Mau objective of “land for all.” Muungano women assert that in the guerilla war against British land alienation, “women never surrendered” (First Woman, wa Thungu, 29 May 1996).
Mungiki (Congress) is a multi-class, mass organization that claims 4.5 million members. These are drawn from a cross-section of society, and include dispossessed hawkers as well as members of the Kenyan Parliament and armed forces. Mungiki members pay monthly dues of ten Kenya shillings [about 15 US cents] and have made significant progress towards establishing workers’ control over labour processes and resources, including public transport. Mungiki’s strength amongst hawkers and small retailers protects the subsistence political economy. We assess these two organizations’ capacities to re-assert and ‘re-invent the commons’ by considering their stands on female education and female genital mutilation.
We conclude this study of land occupation by assessing the gains and losses experienced by the parties to the conflict over entitlements to land. We locate the Kenyan land occupations within the movement of globalization from below which is coalescing in international resistance to corporate rule.

Land privatization verus redistribution
The World Bank and popular social movements advocate conflicting types of land redistribution. Both the privatizers and the redistributors claim that their type of ‘land reform’ will solve the problems of hunger, poverty and landlessness. In ‘popular redistributive land reform,’ land is re-allocated to all for the primary purpose of supporting life. In contrast, ‘World Bank sponsored corporate land privatization,’ seeks the commodification of land and its sale to individual capitalist farmers who have ‘purchasing power’ and seek to expand commercial exploitation.
The World Bank ‘land reforms’ enclose and release land to the market, thereby making it inaccessible to the poor. Judith Achieng’s critique of World Bank ‘land reforms’ in Kenya (9 December 2000) cites the alternatives posited by the global movement of landless people. In 2000, the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, and the FoodFirst Information Action Network (FIAN)5 initiated a global campaign for agrarian reform:
The campaign was initiated in recognition of the human right to food, recognised under article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which stipulates that landless peasants and agricultural workers must gain access to those resources, mainly land, with which they can produce food. Under this article, land reform is spelled out as one of the most important means of realising the right to food (Achieng’ 9 December 2000).
Kenya’s land occupation movement carries on the popular redistributive land reforms that were begun by the Mau Mau, forestalled by Kenyatta’s Independence deal of ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ and taken up again by the children and grandchildren of Mau Mau in the contemporary resurgence. Table 1 below contrasts the distinctive characteristics of World Bank corporate ‘land privatization’ with the social movements’ redistribution of ‘land for all.’
Table #1: Difference between World Bank corporate ‘land reform’ and popular redistributive land reform


World Bank corporate land privatization

Popular redistributive land reform


Privatization of communal land breaks down community-based resource management systems and accelerates land degradation. Facilitation of land markets induces mass sell-offs of land, increasing landlessness, land concentration and rural-urban migration.

The vast majority of the rural poor must be beneficiaries of land redistribution to avoid building new hierarchies of land poverty and land concentration.


Ownership is concentrated in men’s hands, leading to conflicts with women and the destitution of women and children in case of divorce or the death of male land owners. Land is used as collateral for loans, leading in many cases to foreclosure and bank seizure of farms and property.

Women’s right to hold title deeds to land alleviates domestic disputes and the destitution of women and children. Collective title deeds, which forbid alienation and use of land as collateral, affirm security of tenure for occupants.

Means of redistribution

Market-led redistribution offers credit to the landless to buy land from wealthy farmers. Rural elites maintain their power to distort and capture policies, subsidies and windfall profits.

The landless and land poor can escape heavy indebtedness through government expropriation of idle land, with or without compensation to land owners. The power of rural elites must be effectively broken by the reforms.

Types of land

Often, wealthy land owners sell marginal, remote and ecologically fragile land to the land poor at exorbitant prices. This increases deforestation, desertification and soil erosion. Marginal and remote lands have poor soils and little market access. Parcels sold by landowners are often those which are in dispute, such as from indigenous peoples’ land claims, pitting the poor against the poor.

The land must be of good quality, rather than ecologically fragile, and it must be free of disputed claims by other poor people. Recognition of the benefits of indigenous uses of fragile ecosystems (rainforests, savannahs) is critical to conserving these areas. Support is required so that degraded or mined soils can be restored.

Credit and debt

Credit is offered, but tied to the production of pesticide-reliant export cash crops. Heavy debts, high interest rates, along with poor soils and poor market access leads to repossession of land by banks.

More than land is needed: credit on reasonable terms, or preferably, collective savings (merry-go-rounds, sou-sou), infrastructure, support for ecologically sound technologies and access to markets.

Type of production promoted

Advocates of chemical agriculture for export claim it will raise money for farmers to pay debts, but it leads to intensification of land degradation and ecological problems. Due to dependence on world market prices, producers have no control over the sale price of crops.

Small family farms must become the centrepiece of economic development. Family farms can resuscitate rural economies: small farmers sell their produce in rural markets and buy supplies from local merchants. Family farms boost urban economies as well.


Central America: During the 1980s and 1990s, USAID promotion of non-traditional export crops which are reliant on pesticides and chemical fertilizers intensified land degradation and ecological problems and left poor farmers in risky enterprises with high failure rates. More land concentration and landlessness were results.

Brazil: The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) has succeeded in winning titles for more than 250,000 families on over 15 million acres of land since 1985. Towns with MST settlements nearby are now better off economically than other towns.

Sources: First Woman 2001, based on Rosset, Peter, “Tides shift on agrarian reform: New movements show the way,” Third World Resurgence, No. 129/130, May/June, 2001, pp. 43-48.

Types of Land Occupation
Mau Mau was made a fighting force in the 1950s by peasants who were evicted from land and denied “access to compensatory land” (Youe 2001:190). Evictions and new enclosures occurred again between 1986 and 2002. It is within a context of forced eviction, increasing inequality in the distribution of resources and the growing negative impact of World Trade Organization corporate rule policies on the majority of people in Kenya that widespread land re-appropriations take on the character of a ‘Mau Mau resurgence.’ This study examines the gendered social anatomy of a renewed popular uprising. The land occupations which are prominent in the resurgence of struggle include the following seven types,6 which reflect different relationships of power between the ‘owner’ of the land and those who assert entitlements to it:

I. British legal claims (occupiers with title deeds)

(1) reassertions of subsistence production on peasants’ own land, especially after the failure of commodity production (peasants destroy export crops and plant food, such as in Maragua).
(2) defense of peasants’ own land from incursion and attack by state-sponsored land grabs and clearances (Githima, Molo).

II. Customary claims

(3) assertion of occupational entitlements by communities dwelling within state-owned forests;
(4) assertion of ownership entitlements by labourers or community members to other state-owned land and experimental agricultural stations (Agricultural Development Corporation farms);
(5) outright re-appropriation, by resident labourers, of land owned by transnational corporations or private individuals (plantations, agribusinesses, large farms, ranches and estates such as Basil Criticos’); and

III. Moral claims

(6) assertion of ownership and control over the management of resources by tenants on state-operated settlement schemes (Mwea Irrigation Scheme);
(7) occupation and defense of urban market sites and ‘slum’ residence areas by traders and residents (Muruoto, Westlands, Soweto, Kamae);
Against the encroachment by land grabbers and agents of export-oriented trade (such as private sector agricultural extension workers) claimants in all seven relationships are defending and reasserting their rights to land and resources for their own collective survival.

The Fight for Fertility
Our framework for understanding the struggle for land identifies three parties to a ‘fight for fertility:’ 1) women and men, united against class antagonists; 2) local men who ‘sell out’ to foreign capitalists; and 3) foreign capitalists who profit from the exploitation of land and labour. We define ‘fertility’ broadly, as the capacity to produce - to produce children, to produce food and other crops and to produce cultural expressions and social networks. The fight for fertility in Kenya is a fight centred around the control of land and women’s agricultural labour. ‘Control’ over land and labour may constitute part of the social organization of ‘commodified’ political economies or of ‘subsistence’ political economies.
Commodification is the complex of social processes through which all aspects of life’s continuation, including production, exchange, consumption and the preservation of the natural world, which had previously taken place in communal subsistence-focused social arrangements, are restructured and given market value. Capitalists operating nationally and internationally directly contribute to the destruction of the subsistence realm as they construct commodified social relations. In the commodified political economy, life sustaining activities are supplanted by profiteering and speculation – the turning of money demand into more money demand (McMurtry 1999, 2002). Commodification is central to capitalist industrialization. It is inherently global and enforces an extreme division of labour. It also structures and inflames divisions amongst labourers, for instance through constructing difference as divisive. Bennholdt-Thompson and Mies (1999:20-21) note that within the commodified political economy,
life is, so to speak, only a coincidental side-effect. It is typical of the capitalist industrial system that it declares everything that it wants to exploit free of charge to be part of nature, a natural resource. To this belongs the housework of women as well as the work of peasants in the Third World, but also the productivity of all of nature.
A commodified political economy is wholly and parasitically reliant on the subsistence political economy. Capitalism cannot exist without the exploitation of the free subsistence labour of housewives, peasants and indigenous people worldwide, who ‘produce’ people, food supplies and ‘nature’ and ‘consume’ the products of the capitalist market. Capital needs labour. But labour does not need capital. In this sense, labour is autonomous from capital (Dyer-Witheford 1999).
We characterize the subsistence political economy as autonomous from capital and the commodified political economy, or containing the potential for autonomy. The subsistence political economies which exist today in the interstices of capital’s rule, have in fact survived decades, and in many cases, centuries of attack and parasitism by the capitalist political economy. As we see it, the subsistence political economy is historically a life economy. It is focused on the production of life. It is the source of the culture of connectedness and community against the culture of capitalism which deifies possessive individualism and competition. Subsistence at its fullest includes not only food production for local consumption and regional trade, but a host of activities and sets of social networks whose main aim is to support and enhance human existence. Subsistence production, or what we alternatively refer to as the subsistence political economy, “includes all work that is expended in the creation, re-creation and maintenance of immediate life and which has no other purpose” (Bennholdt-Thompson and Mies, 1999:20).
Parties to the fight for fertility struggle to create, maintain and defend either subsistence or commodification, depending on their class affiliations and aspirations. Capitalists commodify. Those dispossessed and exploited by capital, in contrast, can be divided into two groups: one which pursues the defense, maintenance and elaboration of subsistence and one which ‘buys into’ the capitalist deal by involving themselves in capitalist production and disciplining the labour of others, especially the unwaged labour of women, children, indigenous people and peasants. These three positions - 1) exploited people’s subsistence, 2) exploited people’s compromise with capital and 3) capitalists’ commodification - succinctly characterize the three standpoints in the fight for fertility that is expressed in the ten cases of land occupation reviewed in this study.
We now consider in more detail the three parties to the fight for fertility. First, women have a special stake in exercising control over their own fertility. They often act to maintain or regain control over their own fertility (labour, land, children, food) against the dictates of their husbands and fathers, against the state and its laws and against the plans and policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and corporate rule regime. Hence, when women rise up, they directly challenge international capital.
The first party to the fight for fertility, then, embraces women producers - in Kenya, mainly land poor farmers and small traders - who struggle to regain or maintain control over their own labour, access to land of their own and the elaboration of subsistence systems which support life (as opposed to capitalists’ profits). Men (husbands, young men) who have broken with their compromise with capital often join women in what we call a ‘gendered class alliance’ to resist capitalist enclosure. The gendered class alliance is formed through struggle when men abdicate their control over women’s labour and join women in seeking just and equitable redistribution of resources and power.
The second party to the fight for fertility includes local Kenyan men - husbands, chiefs, policemen, state officials, businessmen - who work on behalf of local and foreign capital to control ‘fertility’ for profit making purposes. These might be Kenyan capitalists or exploited Kenyans who compromise with capital, in what we call a ‘male deal’ (Dauda 1994, Turner and Oshare 1994). Male dealers typically negotiate relationships which benefit capital and themselves at the expense of the exploitation of women, most dispossessed men and the environment.7 Examples of male deals include the contracting of male heads of households to grow coffee, tea and other export crops for delivery to transnational corporations.8 Corporations and their stockholders reap most of the profit from the trade of such crops. While small land holding men in these deals may make minor earnings, women who actually produce the crops lose out on income and land for food and many other dimensions of control over fertility and life. Landless men have fewer opportunities to gain access to land as land becomes highly commodified. The environment is ravaged by the use of chemicals in the production process. Chiefs, police, businessmen and state officials all take part in the coffee and tea male deals in Kenya. When first the wives, and then most husbands broke this male deal in Maragua (detailed in Part Two), the entire chain of male dealers involved in the industry faced a loss of profits, including the foreign participants in the deal, such as coffee capitalists, investors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
This brings us to the third party to the fight for fertility, that is, foreign capitalists and agents of capitalist development. Capitalists in banks, agriculture and industry are the critical international partners in the male deals. These international partners have taken up where colonialists left off in 1963, in that they use male deals to continue neo-colonial ‘indirect rule.’ International capitalists promote accumulation and sanction its violent enforcement in ex-colonies. United States business economics professor, Ronald Seavoy, wrote in 2000 that “Contrary to what most scholars teach, investments in armed forces are one of the most productive investments that governments of peasant nations can make. ... all police and soldiers ... must be prepared to enforce commercial policies on peasants with the maximum amount of violence if necessary (Seavoy 2000:113, emphasis added). In order to establish, extend and maintain capitalist production, international capitalists and national governments engage local men in male deals to discipline especially women’s labour into production for international markets and the benefit of foreign profit-makers.
Historically, colonialists and African male dealers buried or erased previous social rights and customs which gave women considerable power over land and their own sexualities. Wealthy African men and chiefs who testified before to the Native Land Tenure commission in 1929, for instance, kept secret certain Kikuyu customs such as the right of women to become ‘female husbands.’ Widows married other women in order to maintain ownership of their dead husband’s land. The ‘wife’ was encouraged to bear children, who inherited through the female husband and ‘father.’ One writer of the 1929 report noted that colonialists had difficulty in obtaining information about women’s land rights, “probably because it is a relic of mother-right which is a custom fast disappearing and which the natives no longer wish to admit as custom” (Kenya 1929:26 cited in MacKenzie 1990: 69). Another custom which reveals women’s wider spectrum of choices and powers in the pre-colonial period is that of mwendia ruhui. In this practice a widow took a male lover who was usually landless to provide labour in exchange for food and to father children to inherit the dead husband’s land. Commenting on informants’ reluctance to speak about the practice of mwendia ruhui, the 1929 report noted that “it is a practice which they wish to discontinue as soon as possible because it is a relic of matrilineal and matrilocal customs which have fallen into desuetude” (Kenya 1929:72 cited in MacKenzie 1990: 69).
The male deal in the 1929 Land Commission hearings involved British-appointed chiefs dismissing land distribution practices which were positive for both women and landless men. These male dealing chiefs reduced the numbers of people within their own communities who had legitimate customary claim to land. The chiefs in effect allowed the colonialists to alienate Africans’ land and to fix boundaries around ‘reserve’ land that Africans’ were allowed to occupy. In exchange, the chiefs accorded to themselves greater control over the allocation of land within these ‘reserves’ by burying women’s and landless men’s land rights during a time that was marked by an often violent transition from communal to individual land ownership, especially in the Kikuyu reserves. Colonialists obtained the chiefs’ tacit agreement to continuous European theft of land. By the early 1940s, landless women and men were organized to resist their dispossession by chiefs and European colonialists who faced the wrath of the armed Mau Mau uprising of 1952.
In summary, the fight for fertility is a conceptual tool which may be used to map out the social relations amongst the gendered and ethnicized class antagonists involved in the processes of commodification and resistance to it. Capitalists employ ‘male deals’ to accommodate men from the exploited class within a hierarchy of exploitation and profit extraction central to the process of commodification. Male dealers act as buffers between the exploited and capitalists, and as channels, passing the goods and services of the exploited up to capitalists. Dispossessed women, who shoulder the brunt of exploitation by producing both labour power and other commodities, are often first to resist (Turner and Benjamin 1995). In their resistance, dispossessed women break with men who are entangled in the male deal. These women sometimes gain the support of men who themselves break with the male deal and join women in gendered class alliances. We now turn to the specific character of the fight for fertility in ten cases of land occupation between 1986 and 2002.

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