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Households and historical change on plantations in Kenya

The study
The findings

Kavetsa Adagala
University of Nairobi, Kenya


Historically, the establishment of the plantation system represented the most important turning-point in the history of Kenya, as it not only set the colonial process in motion, but it remains today, like the urban centres, as both the symbol and the means of the economic, social, political, and cultural breakdown of the traditional African societies. The effects of this parallel process on the household in general and gender relations in particular were the major concerns of this project. Kenya has undergone tremendous change as a nation and a society. The process of national formation has directed and accelerated the stratification of the population. For women, change has brought patriarchal economic, social, and cultural relations into question. The study examined the impact of the irreversible changes of the past century on the lives of plantation workers and the patterns of relationships within their households.

The landlessness which is another legacy of colonialism has forced many men and women to migrate in search of paid employment. However, patrilineal constraints like discriminatory inheritance systems and the double load of housework and employment, for example, impose added burdens on women. As women can only live in the rural areas on land owned by their fathers, husbands, or sons, many unmarried mothers or those who have suffered broken marriages must migrate to support themselves and their dependents. Migration therefore provides a way out of a patrilineal system and an entry into the cash economy as a basis for livelihood.

This project focused on plantations where there were large congregations of workers employed in the production of a particular crop. The labour-intensive nature of the plantation system justified surveying the employees and their families as a working unit, although the main emphasis was on the workers themselves and the structure and dynamics of their households as units integrated into the plantation system and so the international economy. A household is an autonomous entity capable of reacting to stimuli by adopting certain measures in order to maintain its integrity. In this process it will modify or discard dispensable aspects of form or function while maintaining its fundamental characteristics. However, as the pattern of change in the households of plantation workers shows, external limitations and contradictions may constrain its ability to adapt in its own best interests. This project concentrated on change that has been wrought as the result of national and international events.

The study area was the coffee and lea zones of the country. Kenya is an agricultural country and tea and coffee are its major cash crops, but although these crops are crucial to the economy, little research had been done on the workers who produce them. The coffee zone is in the Kiambu and Murang'a districts of Central Province, the tea zone in the Kericho district of Rift Valley Province. Coffee and tea arc grown on a large scale in these areas. The ownership of a plantation affects the organization of work and the nature of labour relations, as there is minimal mediating intervention from the trade unions. The extensive coffee plantations are mostly privately owned by foreigners and Kenyan nationals. The lives of workers on three of the plantations owned by Kenyans - Munene, Koorali, and Nyakinyua - were investigated. In the tea zone most of the plantations are in the hands of multinational companies. The study surveyed the lives of workers on plantations owned by the Brooke Bond Company, the country's major tea producer. The areas chosen represent two geocultural regions, each with a distinct ecosystem and ecoculture. It is important to emphasize this, as the extent of the cultural, historical, and socio-economic diversity within parts of Africa is often underestimated.

Large-scale tea and coffee planting started at the beginning of the twentieth century when the Uganda Railway was completed. The colonial government then encouraged settlers as a means of satisfying the growing demand for the products in metropolitan Britain. The establishment of the settler economy and Kenya's incorporation into the international capitalist system inevitably had adverse effects on the local population, which became subordinated to the white community and dependent on wage-labour.

Before European settlement, the African societies had been at different stages of development. Most were in transition from a communal to a feudal economic system, which contrasted sharply with the individualistic capitalist approach. It is important to highlight the contradictions between the two modes of production as they eventually created unique sociological, political, and economic patterns in contemporary Kenyan society. Of central importance to this study arc the social effects of this change on the household, the micro-unit of production and reproduction where the historical and economic effects of this transformation were reflected.

Land, the principal means of production, was wrenched from the peasants and taxation enforced wage-labour, so large-scale migration began. The agricultural sector absorbed many of the migrants and patterns of migration came to correspond to the needs of the plantations. There the combination of hierarchical internal structures and the colonial system led to the exploitation of the household, which subsidized the inadequate wages by contributing the unpaid labour of the worker's family. Women were supposed to reproduce generations of workers for the plantations and at the same time to supplement both the labour force and their husbands' low and heavily taxed wages. With squatters and their families, they formed a labour reservoir guaranteed by the 1925 Resident Native Labourers' Ordinance, which stipulated that all members of a labourer's family living on the plantation had to render services on compulsory terms. Those over 16 had to enter into contracts on their own behalf or cease to live there. When the husband migrated alone the household he left had to manage without his assistance and the burden of bringing up children was left to the women, who had to perform the roles of both parents.

Table 1. Size, acreage under coffee, and annual output of the three plantations

Plantation Size (acres) Acreage under coffee Average annual output (tons)
Munene 213 166 200
Koorali 780 1613 210
Nyakinyua 3600 684 300-350

After the Second World War, more peasants were dispossessed in the violent years of the anti-colonial Mau Mau struggle, and it has been estimated that there were 250,000 squatters by 1952. Later resettlement schemes excluded most of them on political or, more commonly, economic grounds, as the squatters lacked the capital demanded for down payments and improvements. Despite all attempts to develop a satisfactory land policy since independence, the dual problem of landlessness and migration continue to colour Kenyan politics and to keep dispossessed peasants supplying their labour to the plantations in return for inadequate pay, poor conditions, and low living standards.

The study

This study had three main objectives: first, to explore methodology that would be able to incorporate the time dimension, to capture qualitative and quantitative data, and to move between different levels of analysis. Second, it aimed to establish the main causal links between situations on the plantations and the households' structure and dynamics. Third, it sought to provide a basis for policy recommendations and action-oriented projects appropriate in the harsh reality of developing countries today.

It was necessary to identify indicators that would facilitate the evaluation of the web of involved relationships. First, there was the relationship between the labourer and the employer, including terms and conditions, wages and allowances, services and security, and the schedule of duties and work commitments. Then there were the relationships between the individual members of the households; this entailed establishing who was the head of the household, the power structure, and the division of labour within and outside the household by gender and age, as well as the formation and composition of the domestic unit and its variation through time. It was essential to devise an approach that would take both the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of household composition, stability, and interaction into account. Research tools that would allow comparison of historical and structural variation in these elements were needed. It was decided to construct a typology of households on the basis of some selected economic, social, and political variables: the labourer's contribution to the productive process and the wages and benefits he/she got from it; the level and type of participation in social and cultural activities; and active involvement in trade union activities and political affairs.

A historical or longitudinal approach created a perspective that moved along a time axis, gathering information on the past and the present and images of the future. Two kinds of material were collected: quantitative primary data and the results of two types of questionnaires, and qualitative information obtained basically from household members, complemented by the input of community elders or longstanding residents.

The field-work involved both observation and data collection. It was carried out by specially trained female and male students of the University of Nairobi, supervised on the site by members of the research team, who chose the locations, selected the samples, and planned, organized, and co-ordinated the interviews. The team was also responsible for designing, pre-testing, and revising the questionnaires, as well as making sure they were complete and the data clean. Training and research were both integral to the fundamental aims of the Household, Gender, and Age (HGA) project, and it was originally intended to send a member of the team to the HGA training courses in Chicago and Bogota. However, this plan collapsed as the prospective candidate had not completed her Master's course at the University of Nairobi.

After negotiation with the management, the respondents were interviewed only during working hours. The labourers took a break of two to three hours from their work for the interviews, which took place on the plantation itself, under the shade of the tea or coffee plants, or at the factory. In some cases the team had to compensate them for this time by paying the equivalent of a day's wages. In other cases the management understood the value of the research and was willing to give them the time off. In all 600 respondents, 400 women and 200 men, randomly selected from the plantation workers in each crop zone, were interviewed. The main criteria for selection was the household as a unit of co-residence, reproduction, and production.

Questionnaire 1 was designed for and filled out by the plantation management in order to ascertain general and quantitative facts about the plantations and to assist in the preparation of other questionnaires, as well as to verify information supplied by workers. The data related to the age, size, crops, and output of the plantation, the composition of the workforce, type of labour contract, degree of unionization, and housing and social services. The questionnaire was necessary because there was very little literature available on plantation workers; previous studies had concentrated on capital input, profits, management, mechanization, and crop improvement.

Questionnaire 2 was designed to capture the characteristics of the environment and the main economic activities, social facilities, and major problems of the research area. This questionnaire, which was applied to supervisors and longstanding residents of the plantations, also provided a unique historical perspective of the changes in the conditions there. These changes, and the households' adjustment to them, have been precipitated and determined by national socio-economic and political factors as well as by policies on the plantations, and both must be taken into account in any attempt to understand the workers' households.

The questionnaire was administered to the 30 respondents with the longest history of employment on the plantations. Only five of the 15 respondents in each area were women; it was very difficult to find female workers with more than 15 years of service because employers only resorted to engaging them en masse after 1978, when they became entitled to national identification cards which gave them freedom and autonomy of movement and enabled them to be employed as individual workers. It was also a problem to find workers who had been recruited in the colonial period. Most workers retire at 55, in compliance with government policy which took effect in 1979. In fact only one man, a factory artisan, with a total of 28 years' service was found. His was therefore the only first-hand information from that era, as the other respondents were not referring to their own personal experiences.

Questionnaire 3, the main instrument of the project, collected basic big-data and quantitative and qualitative information on household structure, migration patterns, health, nutrition and reproduction, finance, property base and earning capacity, union participation, the division of labour and time-budgeting, decision-making, aspirations, and cultural activities. It was administered to 600 contracted employees, men and women, on the payroll of the coffee plantation, with a ratio of two female to every one male respondent. After rejecting incomplete or inconsistent questionnaires there was a total of 551.

Qualitative information was drawn from Questionnaire 2 and from life-histories of female household members stratified by age-group. This was gathered through two main instruments: a life-course matrix applied to the 150 female respondents, 75 from each plantation area, which dealt with such variables as fertility, education, migration, and employment, and recorded narrative life-histories highlighting major events in the lives of 20 women, 10 from each plantation area. Traditional and popular songs, which gave creative expression to the experiences and aspirations of the workers, were gathered from the plantation generally and from specialized artists.

The diachronic perspective was approached through a time-budget survey of the subsample of 20 women already mentioned. The various activities carried out by members of the household according to gender and age were studied in terms of timing, duration, frequency, and sequential order. One of the main objectives here was to appraise the division of household labour and the weight of individual tasks according to the time spent on them and the number of people involved in carrying them out. The data on time budgets was gathered mainly in blocks of time - before duty and after duty - with a rough estimate of the duration of each activity made after preliminary interviews. The women evaluated these activities and the relevant time allocation because direct observation was not possible, as the management did not allow the team to stay on the site outside official working hours.

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