Martin Walsh
Mombasa June 1986

pp.77-108 in Walsh, M. T. 1986. Interim Report for a Study of Income Generation and its Effects among Women’s Groups in Kenya’s Coast Province. Report to World Education Inc., Boston MA. Mombasa, June 1986.

Mkwiro women’s group is based in the fishing village of Mkwiro on Wasini island, 72 km south of Mombasa and 1¼ km offshore of the Shimoni peninsula. Mkwiro is a compact settlement of some 60 households, with a total population of about 400. Its inhabitants describe themselves as Shirazi and speak a dialect of Swahili called Chifundi, also spoken on Funzi island to the north and in a few villages on the nearby coast. Mkwiro has its own sub-dialect of Chifundi, reflecting a high degree of

intermarriage within the village. The only other village on the island, Wasini, is populated by Vumba, speakers of a very different Swahili dialect. There is a history of conflict between the two peoples, and Wasini has its own women’s group. The island as a whole is administered from the mainland as part of Shimoni-Wasini sublocation, Pongwe-Kidimu location, in the Msambweni division of Kwale district. Research there was conducted in January and February 1986.

FOUNDATIONS Mkwiro women’s group was founded on 25 May 1979, following the example set by Shimoni on the mainland. Mkwiro’s was the first group on the island. It was formed on the initiative of two local men, one of them manager of the South Coast Fisheries co-operative in Shimoni and now KANU chairman for the location. His elder sister, then in her late twenties, became the group’s first chairwoman. She remained in the post until the following year, when she stepped down and was succeeded by her younger sister. Under their leadership the group made its first forays into income generation and chose its first project, securing a government grant for the purpose.

Members were required to pay a 10sh entrance fee and a 50 cents weekly subscription, later upped to 1sh. A dozen or so women joined when the group was founded and membership grew in a steady trickle until, by 1984, it had reached 63. Under the first chairwoman group members started making cowrie shell necklaces after two itinerant entrepreneurs, a man and a woman from Kwale, had promised to find a market for them. But the couple failed to return and members were left trying to sell their necklaces to tourists at Shimoni. Many were sold to the chairwoman’s


father, one of three shop owners in Mkwiro. At 2sh per necklace the return to the producers was too low and the enterprise was subsequently abandoned.

Under the second chairwoman a more promising trade was found. This followed a visit from the chairwoman and co-ordinator of Shimoni women’s group. Shimoni had begun working with Tototo Home Industries in 1978, producing woven handicrafts to be marketed through Tototo’s shop in Mombasa. The co-ordinator, a young man, suggested that Mkwiro do the same, bringing its goods to the mainland to be collected by Tototo. This they began to do, in 1980. (The history of this enterprise is examined in detail in a later section). In early 1982 the group was adopted by Tototo. The first co-ordinator, a woman of 18, proved unpopular with other members and quit the post in November. Unwell, she later dropped out of the group. Her place was taken in 1983 by the group’s first secretary, then 20, and another young secretary was appointed.

Meanwhile, the group had chosen a project: construction of a multi-purpose building to act as a kiosk (small shop), nursery school, office and meeting-place for the group. In August 1980 the group was registered with the Ministry of Culture and Social Services and, helped by the CDA, opened a bank account in Msambweni with the minimum deposit of 500sh. In October the group was given 5,000sh for its project by the Ministry. Work on the building progressed slowly: by September 1981 the group had bought two tons of cement, 400 coral blocks, and had paid a builder 1,000sh. However, no sooner had work begun on the foundations than a local man informed the group of his ownership of the plot they were building upon. Following his refusal to come to terms work came to a halt. The project was not abandoned, but it was not until December 1985 that another plot was found, on land belonging to Mkwiro primary school.

SUCCUMBING TO TRADITION Choosing another project Following its adoption by Tototo, the group was encouraged to choose another project. Members divided over two alternatives: construction of a water resevoir or purchase of a boat. Both of these reflected Mkwiro’s island isolation. A boat could be used to ferry passengers and their loads between Mkwiro and the mainland at 2

Shimoni, site of the nearest dispensary and terminus for a bus which travels thrice daily to Msambweni and Mombasa. Most of the potential passengers were women and their small children who otherwise had to rely upon the irregular service provided by local fishermen, charging 5sh per adult for each crossing. The small hand-paddled dugouts usually used for this purpose take the best part of an hour to complete the crossing, a risky venture when seas are rough. A motor-driven boat run by the group would cut down the crossing to 15-20 minutes, carry more passengers, and reduce the long hours of waiting on the shore for a fisherman willing to make the trip. Construction of a water resevoir, on the other hand, would serve an equally pressing need. Apart from rainwater Wasini island has no natural reserves of fresh water. For over half of the year villagers are dependent upon water ferried across from the mainland: during the rains rainwater is channelled down concrete slipways into concrete-lined pits and drawn from these. In Mkwiro there are a small number of privately-owned reservoirs and one belonging to the whole village from which water is sold for as long as it is available. A resevoir owned by the group would

considerably improve the local supply of water and help reduce dependence upon the expensive imports from Shimoni.

The water project was proposed by the group’s new chairwoman, its treasurer, and a committee member, the mother of the first two chairwomen. This family formed the core of what can be designated as a progressive faction within the group. Their immediate relationships are shown in Table 23. Unlike most Mkwiro villagers they are Bajuni (Gunya) from the Lamu area on Kenya’s northern Swahili coast and have continued to marry outside of as well as inside the local Shirazi community. Their mobility led to the first two chairwomen relinquishing the post, subsequently taken by a local woman who put herself forward and was accepted by the whole group. Together they pressed for construction of a water resevoir, arguing that this would be easy to maintain and run, providing a seasonal source of income and water to help women with their household chores. A boat, they argued, lay too far outside of women’s experience: to operate and maintain the enterprise they would be heavily dependent upon men, while the maintenance costs of a boat and engine would be much higher than those of a water resevoir once it had been built. A boat, however, promised a more regular income as well as easier access to the mainland and all its facilities. Supporters of a water project were outnumbered and the group chose to 3

invest in a boat. In the event, the progressive faction proved justified in its fears. The new enterprise, much to its detriment, was modelled closely upon its counterparts in a male-dominated domain. Control of the group, meanwhile, slipped out of the hands of the progressive faction and into the arms of tradition.

Bajuni Shirazi / Mkwiro

Bajuni shop-owner in Mkwiro

A, born and married in Lamu before moving to Mkwiro

B Shirazi / Mkwiro


in Mombasa


D Shirazi / Mkwiro Shirazi / Mkwiro C in Mombasa Pemba (Tanzania) Vumba


Segeju (Tanzania)

Mkwiro members A-D: A = committee member, supporter of water project; B = first chairwoman, left the post because it made it difficult for her to travel and stay elsewhere; C = second chairwoman, appointed not elected: left the post and group upon remarriage in Mombasa; D = collector of subscriptions for Mkwajuni ward. E = initiator of the women’s group, former manager of South Coast Fisheries co-operative and now KANU chairman for Pongwe-Kidimu location.

An enterprise at sea Tototo’s director began soliciting aid for Mkwiro’s new project in 1982 and secured the support of MATCH, a Canadian donor. After the district community development


officer had given Tototo an assurance that the women were capable of managing this enterprise, the group was presented with a cheque for 35,000sh. This was in August 1983. Group members themselves raised 3,100sh with a 50sh subscription. This covered the cost of a new engine, bought for 24,548sh in Mombasa, but was not enough for the boat as well, priced at 20,000sh. This had been located in Likoni by the Mkwiro village chairman and the CDA from Msambweni. The Digo seller agreed to take 13,000sh and gave the group three weeks to pay the remaining 7,000sh. After taking delivery of the boat the group asked Tototo for a loan of 5,000sh to help meet this payment. The loan was granted, to be repaid by group members in monthly instalments of 310sh.

Mkwiro’s boat went into operation on 8 October 1983, plying between Mkwiro and Shimoni. A ‘driver’, the husband of a group member, was employed to run the boat and buy petrol from Ukunda for its engine. Group members themselves took it in turns of three days each to work as the boat’s ‘conductor’, collecting passengers’ 5sh fares and the varying amounts charged for their loads. Apart from occasional

interruptions the boat ran every day of the week, between about eight o’clock in the morning and four in the afternoon.

From the outset the enterprise was caught in the trap which the progressive faction had warned against. Following the practice of local fishermen income from the boat was divided into roughly equal portions. In the case of fishing boats these vary in number according to the composition of labour, the relation between an owner and his crew (if not the same person), and the technical requirements of a particular enterprise. In other words their shape is determined by the relations and means of production as these vary from boat to boat. The owner of an outrigger canoe might, for example, set aside a portion for himself, one for the crew, and a third for the purchase of bait. The owner of a motor-powered boat might make further provision for the purchase of petrol and maintenance of the boat and its engine. Copying this model the women’s group began by dividing their boat income into three portions: one for the driver, one for petrol, and one for the group and expenses in general. Later, when the enterprise ran into technical difficulties they created a fourth, separate, portion for maintenance of the engine.


Transferred to the group’s enterprise this practice had a number of unfortunate effects. First, it meant that the boat’s driver received a fixed proportion of the boat’s income: one third in the first period of its operation, much more than if he had been paid a set monthly wage (see Table 24 below). Second, and to compound matters, group

members working as the boat’s conductor were paid at the small fixed rate of 10sh per day: conductors, least of all women, are not a normal feature of boat crews. So, where a male driver could average 1,700sh a month, the women themselves made little more than 300sh, much less individually. Profits from the boat were not

otherwise divided among group members and by following the model of men’s fishing enterprises they effectively overpaid their drivers and exploited their own labour. Third, the practice of dividing their income into portions had a disastrous effect upon the enterprise’s accounts. In the records which the group kept the

difference between budgeted income – the portion set aside for a particular purpose – and actual expenditure is not always clear. Over time the accounts became

progressively more confused, a confusion which was to cost the group dear.

The appropriation of the enterprise to traditional practice was confirmed in unequivocal fashion by an early action on the part of some members of the group’s committee. Acting without the knowledge of other members they bought a piece of black cloth and a chicken with group funds and took these to a traditional doctor on the mainland to provide the boat with protective medicine. Again, this was in keeping with the practice of local fishermen, or at least the more traditionally-oriented of them. Following this act conflict with the progressive faction came increasingly out into the open.

The first victim was another committee member, the mother of Mkwiro’s first two chairwomen. The committee had agreed to carry boxes of maize flour destined for the shop she ran with her husband at half the normal rate, 50 cents instead of 1sh per box. However, after loading a consignment onto the boat at Shimoni the driver, working as conductor as well, refused to accept half payment and ordered them unloaded (this was the second driver employed by the group, the husband of a committee member and also of Mkwiro’s first co-ordinator). The argument which ensued was only settled by the intervention of Mkwiro’s village chairman: the reduced rate was accepted and the flour transported to Mkwiro, though the driver refused to assist her 6

in carrying it from the boat to the shore. The following afternoon she refused to help other members pull the boat ashore for the night; arguing that this was the driver’s job – he had left it to a young boy who was forced to call for assistance from the village. The next day the driver again refused to help her unload a consignment of flour for the shop. Angered by these incidents she went to the chairwoman and demanded that he be suspended from his duties. But the rest of the committee refused, telling her not to be foolish. Following this she quit her post on the committee and stopped playing an active role in the group, to the extent that she did not make use of the boat again and transferred her trade to other vessels.

The crisis that was brewing came to a head when the boat’s engine was stolen after exactly seven months of operation, on the night of 7 May 1984. It was one of seven engines to disappear from the area over a short period, probably the work of thieves from Tanzania. Had it been insured by an insurance company rather than a local medicine-man then much of the trouble which followed might have been avoided. As it turned out the group could not afford another new engine and in the storm which followed slipped further into the debt of men and the clutches of tradition.

Following the theft the village chairman took it upon himself to organise a search for the stolen engine. With police consent enquiries were made as far afield as Diani and the north Tanzanian coast. When these met with no success he turned to the task of finding a replacement. To this end he visited the sub-chief at Shimoni and wrote to the divisional officer in Msambweni. It was there that an engine was found, being sold by a Digo man, whose own boat was no longer seaworthy, for 12,500sh. It was bought by the group with 8,000sh from its bank account and a loan of 4,500sh from the village chairman, and went into operation in September 1984.

In his zest to secure recompense for his services and payment for the second-hand engine the chairman scrutinised the group’s accounts. In fact he had been keeping his own record of these during 1984, making a copy of boat receipts every afternoon. According to this record income from the boat between January and May amounted to just over 16,488sh; 6,360sh after expenses had been subtracted. Presenting these figures to the treasurer and secretary he asked if they agreed with his calculations. They did. Much to his dismay, however, they had no money to show for it. 7

Assuming that this had been lost or stolen he contacted officials in Msambweni and Tototo in Mombasa. Subsequant enquiries proved inconclusive. The chairman’s argument does not take account of 8,765sh which the group had in the bank and used to pay for the second engine, money which the group apparently did not have when the enterprise began. Still, many group members allege that large sums of money were taken by their treasurer who, nonetheless, remains in office. The group’s own accounts are not very helpful in resolving this issue. They were kept, mostly in exercise books, by the secretary and the treasurer. Unfortunately they are incomplete and do not always balance, in part a result of the practice, described above, of dividing income into portions. Moreover, for some periods different and conflicting records are available. Table 24 is reconstructed from the accounts kept during the boat’s first period of operation. Both recorded and corrected figures are shown, the latter based upon independent calculation from daily entries, and the village chairman’s record is added for 1984.

MONTH SOURCE INCOME FROM BOAT DRIVER’S PORTION OTHER EXPENSES (PETROL, CONDUCTOR etc.) 1,450.50 1,450.50 1,695.50 2,726.30 2,203.00 1,419.00 3,503.50 3,438.00 2,383.10 2,608.10 BALANCE (Sh)

OCT. 83 from 8


3,034.00 3,104.00 4,848.00 5,524.00 3,479.00 6,709.90 6,165.50 7,123.30 4,902.00 4,571.00 5,665.00 4,814.50

1,025.85 1,025.85 1,980.90 1,739.40 934.00 2,187.75 2,732.50 2,337.50 1,814.00 1,850.00 -

557.65 627.65 1,171.60 1,058.30 342.00 3,103.15 -70.50 1,347.80 373.90 1,206.90 -

NOV. 83

DEC. 83


JAN. 84


FEB. 84







OTHER EXPENSES (PETROL, CONDUCTOR etc.) (460.00) 460.00 1,632.00 1,642.50 (60.00) 60.00 13,387.60 13,804.40 1,912.51 1,972.05


MAR. 84


(4,350.50) 4,320.50 3,330.70 (3,580.00) 3,580.00 2,560.50 (1,321.00) 1,321.00 881.00 31,319.00 37,347.00 4,474.14 5,335.28 19,958.00 22,009.80 16,488.70

(1,427.30) 1,427.30 (1,466.50) 1,466.50 (390.00) 390.00 11,771.05 12,424.30 1,681.57 1,774.90

(2,433.20) 2,433.20 481.50 471.00 (871.00) 871.00 6,160.35 11,119.00 880.05 1,588.42 4,089.10 6,329.90 6,360.00

APR. 84


MAY 84 to 7th






R = as recorded in group accounts; C = corrected from independent addition of daily entries; V = as recorded by the Mkwiro village chairman.

These arguments over money claimed a second victim: the group’s third chairwoman. Taking exception to the committee’s failure to keep her informed about the state of the group’s accounts she tendered her resignation in writing. It was some weeks before the group could find a replacement for her. One unopposed candidate, closely related to the group’s first two chairwomen, was stopped from taking up the post by her husband. It finally boiled down to a choice between the village chairman’s sister (another close relative) and the elder sister of the group’s co-ordinator, a committee member. The latter won the vote. She took office in mid-September 1984, shortly after resumption of the group’s enterprise. Her election was another blow for the progressive faction. The new, fourth, chairwoman was the ‘Queen’ of Mkwiro’s chakacha, a dance employing drums and trumpets imported from Mombasa and


played at weddings and other festivities. Chakacha is danced by all village women, wearing the white robes usually worn by men and mimicking tabooed sexual practices including anal intercourse. As such it is a challenge to male authority, and Mkwiro’s men had moved to stop it being danced outdoors, jealous of the possible consequences of this open display of sexual licence by their wives. It is, however, a challenge which is contained and neutralised by its restriction to important ritual occasions, a staged inversion of gender relations characteristically confined to rites de passage.1

Mkwiro’s resumed enterprise sank deeper into the traditional domain. Its accounts became completely disorganised and the recording of real expenditures fell by the wayside. Meanwhile the committee accumulated a series of debts, most of them to men. The full extent of these did not emerge until a heated group meeting in January 1986, when many members claimed that this was the first they had heard of them. In fact no one individual know the full list, which is shown in Table 25.


1. a local man 2. the village chairman

used towards searching for the stolen engine bus fares to Mombasa and elsewhere, searching for the stolen engine for purchase of the second-hand engine (4,500sh loaned in all) purchase of a coil for the engine to pay a mechanic in Shimoni


900 600 100

3. a local man

for bus fares to Msambweni and other expenses in purchasing the second-hand engine Towards purchase of the second-hand engine Towards purchase of the second-hand engine To buy petrol To buy petrol

170 150 150 50 50

4. a local man 5. a local man 6. a local man 7. a local man





8. the group’s treasurer TOTAL

To buy petrol


The second-hand engine proved more trouble than it was worth. It kept on breaking down and needed repeated repairs. The boat enterprise was frequently interrupted: records indicate that before the engine finally gave up the ghost in mid 1985 the boat was only in operation for a total of 89 days. Little more than a month after the engine had been bought 1,900sh had to be spent on its repair. In November 1984 a Luo entrepreneur, dealing through the village chairman, offered to fix the engine in return for being given use of the boat to fish at night. He took the boat for 11 days, each day’s use reckoned as equivalent to 200sh in hire charges, the total (2,200sh) covering the costs of his repair work. In fact the repairs cost much more – 3,460sh according to the village chairman. Finding himself on a loser, the Luo man sued the village chairman for 6,125sh in a Mombasa court. But the chairman argued that in fact it was he who was owed money, 2,060sh which he had spent on financing the repair work, having raised over half of this sum by selling his watch. The Luo abandoned his claim. Throughout this fiasco the boat and its engine were nothing more than pawns in an economic game, a game whose rules were set by men.

In August 1985 the (European) owner of a recently built hotel in Shimoni, a member of Tototo’s governing committee, offered to take Mkwiro’s ailing engine away for repair – providing it was worth the expense. The group was only too happy to accept. The boat, meanwhile, was out of action until mid-January, when a local man approached the group and started hiring it for 50sh a day. Using an engine provided by a Kikuyu in Ukunda, he resumed the ferry service which the women’s group had suspended. Encouraged by the prospect of a regular income – as much as they had made when running the service themselves – group members turned to discussing what they could do with it. True to form a division into two portions was suggested: one to repay their newly enumerated debts and one to build their multi-purpose house on its new-found plot. The hire arrangement, however, lasted no more than a

fortnight. The man hiring the boat broke an agreement to share profits with his 11

Kikuyu partner, and the engine was claimed back. Still waiting for a verdict on the future of their own engine, the group was back at square one.

Rescue came from more distant shores. Unhappy with the premature decline of Mkwiro’s enterprise, Tototo had not been idle. Following the theft of the first engine, Mkwiro was included in a funding proposal submitted to a U.S. donor, the Parish of Trinity Church in the City of New York. 30,000sh was requested to buy a new engine. The money came through in April 1986. A new engine was bought in Mombasa, delivered to the group, and on 22 April Mkwiro’s boat was back in operation. On all accounts the enterprise is being conducted much as before. The driver, now the husband of the group’s treasurer, is still being paid a fixed proportion of the boat’s income. Without further interventions from Tototo it is likely that some of the problems which earlier dogged the enterprise will recur. On the face of it Mkwiro’s enterprise constitutes a bold thrust into an otherwise male-dominated domain. In practice it constantly runs the risk of being appropriated in turn.

Four groups in one The influence of traditional forms of organisation has not been an entirely negative one. The reorganisation of group subscriptions provides a striking instance of this. When the boat enterprise was in operation the group stopped collecting subscriptions from its members. In November 1984, lacking any other source of income, a weekly subscription was reinstituted at the new rate of 2sh 50 cents per head. At the

suggestion of one of the members its collection was completely reorganised. The model for this reorganisation was Mkwiro’s division into four wards – Mkwajuni, Pwani, Muwani and Bogoa – which intersect at the village mosque. On the basis of members’ residence in one or other of these the group was divided into four sections, three with 15 membes and one with 18. A literate member from each section was assigned to collect its subscriptions, recorded in separate exercise books before being pooled in the weekly meetings of the whole group. The rationale behind this

innovation was to make collection easier and to raise the level of contributions by fostering a sense of competition between the different sections/wards. As such it has proved a resounding success. By the end of January few members were behind in their subscriptions and the ones that were were either away visiting relatives or about to pay up. Beyond providing villagers with a sense of residential identity the wards 12

serve no other organisational purpose in village life. By adapting them to its own purposes Mkwiro has succeeded, at least in the short term, where other groups have failed: enforcing (in the nicest possible way) the regular collection of subscriptions.

WOMEN AND THE ISLAND ECONOMY The structure and practice of household economy in Mkwiro is somewhat different from that found in the other locations described in this report. The range of household enterprises reflects Mkwiro’s island position, while the relations of production and gender which govern these take a form which is modified by Swahili practice. One feature of this practice is a long-standing adherence to Islam and the existence of a strong independent tradition markedly different from the culture of the agricultural villages of Mombasa’s hinterland. To outsiders foreign to this tradition Mkwiro is a conservative backwater, repressive to women. The reality is rather different, and in some ways the women of Mkwiro enjoy a measure of freedom denied their mainland counterparts. Nonetheless, this freedom is circumscribed and, like the island

economy itself, is threatened by economic interventions from outside.

Members and their households Mkwiro women’s group has 63 members, the majority of the village’s adult female population. Most of these women were born in Mkwiro of Shirazi parents and most are married to local fishermen. The majority have received no formal education: Mkwiro’s primary school, which has about 170 pupils, was not built until 1981, replacing an earlier school in the middle of the island which served both of its villages. Local children also attend Islamic classes at the weekend, and in August 1985 similar classes were begun for adult women. Many group members attend these, held at four o’clock in the afternoons, learning to write in Arabic. At present there is no nursery school and no other adult education classes in the village. Few adult women can reckon by the western calendar, and the dating of the logs kept for Tototo shows a confused mix with the Islamic cycle.

A sample of 16 group members shows an average age of 37, similar to that of Agwiraye members.


AGE IN YEARS 20-24 2 25-29 1 30-34 5 35-39 2 40-44 3 45-49 1 50-54 1 55-59 1

Information on the marital histories and offspring of these women is given in Table 27.

Many women married for the first time in their mid-teens, a practice which is now changing as a result of school attendance. Marriage payments are made by

bridegrooms themselves, not by their fathers. These payments are normally in the range of 3-5,000sh, and in some cases include furniture. The money is not given to the bride’s father but to other matrilineal and patrilineal kin, and is used to pay for the wedding and equip the household of the newly married couple. This payment is not returned after divorce and subsequent marriages are generally free of ceremony. Divorce is as common as in Diani. It is usually initiated by women but effected by men. Under Islamic law women can claim maintenance payments if their husbands can be proved negligent: one group member was planning to do this following the prolonged absence of her husband, but was mollified when he returned. In early 1986 only one group member was found to be currently divorced and without a husband.

AGE 22 23 26 30 32 33 34 34 St M M M M M M M M N O C 1 1 1 2 3 2 2 2 2 2 2 3 3 0+5 2+0+5 6+1+1 1+4 2+1 1 3 2 4 C1 2 3 3 2 4 4 4 1 1 1 2 2 1 1 2 3 3 4 1 1 1 first chaiwoman committee member committee member ex-vice-chairwoman (quit when ill) co-ordinator, collector for Muwani ward H H1 H3 H4 H5 Me


AGE 36 36 41 43 43 49 51 57

St M M W M M M M M

N O C 1 1 2 1 1 1 2 2 2 8 6 3+0 11 10 9 2+5 7+1

C1 1 2 1 2 5 1

H 6 4 1 7 3 3 2

H1 3 1

H3 3 3



Me 1

1 2 3 3 3 1 1 1 2

1 2 2 5 4 7 vice-chairwoman ex-committee member



Key: St = marital status (M = married; W = widowed); N = number of marriages; O = number of cowives; C = number of children by different partners; C1 = number of these children now dead; H = number of these children still in her household; H1 = of these, still pre-school; (H2 = at nursery school); H3 = at school; H4 = post-school, unmarried; H5 = married or separated; Me = number of children married and not living in the household

Mean number of marriages = 1.5; mean number of children = 6.1; mean number still alive = 4.5; mortality rate = 25.5%; mean number of dependent children (born by the woman herself) = 2.9

Over 80% of marriages take place between Shirazi born in Mkwiro, usually (classificatory) cross-cousins, the preferred category of spouse. There are no distinct residential units intermediate in size between the village, with its clearly defined boundaries, compact settlement and intricate web of internal relationships, and the individual households within it. Table 28 shows the demographic structure of 16 households, housing a total of 20 group members, some whose husbands (not included in the table) were more or less permanently absent from the village or living with other wives.



NO. OF GROUP MEMBERS male 2 2 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 1 1 20 1 1 1 1 2 1 1 1 1 3 1 17 1 1 1

ADULTS female 3 2 1 2 3 1 1 1 1 1 2 1 2 2 1 25



7 4 3 3 ? 2 4 7 7 3 3 5 4 3 1 60

11 7 5 5 4 4 6 9 10 5 6 7 7 8 3 102

The low residential mobility of women is linked to their right to inherit and own property in the form of houses. Some three-quarters of the houses in Mkwiro were owned and their building partly financed by women. On separation it is the husbands who must move out. Some women inherit the houses owned by their mothers; others continue living in them until they are able to build their own. Before the advent of land registration there was no restriction upon the ownership of land in the village; rights in a plot were established simply by clearing and building upon it, and lost just as easily if the plot was abandoned. Rights in agricultural land were similarly just as easily if the plot was abandoned. Rights in agricultural land were similarly

established by clearance and remained in force as long as the land was continuously cultivated. A third of the fields worked by group members were owned by women 16

(either themselves or their mothers), ownership deriving from their labour in clearing the land and recently sanctioned by land registration.

Labour, income, and expenditure Table 29 details the agricultural enterprises of 13 group members in 1985. Only one woman interviewed – the first chairwoman – did not normally cultivate, except in occasionally helping her mother. 4 women, C, E, F and I in the table, did not cultivate in 1985, while only one woman, B, cultivated during the short as well as the long rains.




borrowed by mother

cultivated with mother (members of the same household)


eaten straight from the field 2 boxes*

bulrush millet sorghum

household heavily dependent upon food bought from the shops




(1½ )

not cultivated with husband maize sorghum eleusine cassava 4 sacks 2 sacks none none eaten by goats grain harvest lasted 6 months





groundnuts small tomatoes cabbage carrots aubergines onions peppers chillies (in the short rains):


Me Fi







beans cow-peas C 4 brother’s children n/a not cultivated

none ½ box

eaten by goats

lives in the same household as B, her daughter maize sorghum eleusine n/a 4 sacks poor eaten by birds ill, pregnant with a child which died at birth caring for small children, all food bought from shops sorghum eleusine ½ sack 1 box 1 sack 1 sack 4 kg maize and elusine finished, sorghum still being eaten 6 months later about half of harvest remaining after 6 months harvest lasted 6 months




4½ (of 6)

with mother





not cultivated





not cultivated




2 (of 4)





1¼ (of 5)

with fatherin-law

maize sorghum eleusine


10 elder brother


cultivated by younger sister (living in the same household) with her eldest son and mother

maize sorghum

1 sack 2 sacks


11 mother



2 sacks

still eating after 6 months


Me Fi








12 her own

with her eldest daughter and mother’s sister

maize sorghum eleusine

3 sacks small eaten straight from the field good

did not last 6 months


13 husband

3½ (of 21)

cleared herself and paid a local man 100sh to cultivate


still eating after 6 months and able to sell half of the crop for 3-500sh still eating after 6 months

sorghum cassva banana oranges mangoes 14 husband (2½ ) not cultivated

2 sacks

planted recently and not yet bearing fruit at Yungi (near Majoreni) on the mainland


15 her own



maize sorghum

poor poor

16 husband


not cultivated

*there are 5-6 boxes to the sack

For much of the year many householders are dependent upon food staples bought from shops on the mainland or in the village. This dependence is said to have increased in recent years and women withdrawn labour from agriculture as the number of retail outlets has grown and cash income become more readily available, although islanders have long exchanged the products of fishing and coastal trade for crops and other goods (include iron tools) produced on the mainland. The island, lacking ground water and strewn with outcrops of coral, does not offer a particularly 19

favourable environment for cultivation. Most households cultivate only one field and few meet their annual subsistence requirements. Only one household in the sample was in a position to sell surplus grain: the only one which employed casual labour. Labour is generally drawn from within the household. Men sometimes assist in cultivation, often in the late afternoon after returning from fishing, and build the fences which surround fields to keep off the goats which roam the island. Otherwise most agricultural labour is performed by women.

Together with other forms of household labour this takes its toll upon women’s participation in group activities. This was particularly evident in January-February 1986, when many group members were working on their fields in the mornings and late afternoons, clearing undergrowth in preparation for the onset of the long rains. Those who came were usually late for group meetings, and three-quarters of the membership did not turn up at all. Table 30 is based upon attendance records for the period 1982-85, and shows a marked fall in 1985 which can be linked to the declining fortunes of the boat enterprise.


1982 1983 1984 1985

On two occasions the group’s first co-ordinator made explicit reference to the demands of household labour upon her own time. On the first of these, in May 1982, she wrote “No any task today because myself I did not go to the meeting I was washing my clothes and after that I go to take firewood at Mkunguni and come with it.” On the second occasion, giving Tototo notice of her decision to quit in November 1982, she ascribed her failure to attend a meeting in Mombasa to her uncle’s refusal to let her go, because of work which had to be done at home.


When free to do so women are also kept busy pursuing various sources of income. Two of the most important of these in Mkwiro derive from the collection and sale of marine produce: octopuses and cowrie shells. Both are collected from the local shoreline, only by women. Octopuses are collected from the reef at low tide, often by women working in small groups, using sharpened sticks as spears. This can only be done in the morning while the sun is still low; the tides permit collection over a period of six or seven days twice a month. Up to 20 can be gathered by one woman in a morning. The dead octopuses are then hung on poles to dry in the sun, and sold to visiting traders from the mainland for 3-6sh each depending upon their size. A good catch might fetch 300sh, though women often come away with much less. Cowries, on the other hand, are sold for 35sh a tin (c.18 kg) to Mkwiro’s Bajuni shop-keeper who sells them in turn to an Indian exporter in Mombasa. In February 1986 he collected 70 tins and made a net profit of some 1,280sh, over 18sh per tin. Women who gather cowries report being able to make 100-350sh every time they sell them, though they do not do this every month. Trade in both octopuses and cowries drops during the cultivating season, while just over half of the group members interviewed engaged in neither, some because they found the work too onerous.

Women also make and sell a variety of different kinds of bread and confectionery within the village, some using ingredients bought on the mainland. Just under half of the women interviewed did this, making up to 100sh per month. A few women trade produce directly from the mainland. The most enterprising of these – the woman who had a saleable surplus of maize – made 3-400sh a month by selling coconuts brought by herself or her husband from Majoreni. Otherwise some women (and some men) keep small herds of goats (usually 3-5) for slaughter or sale: an adult goat fetched 200sh in Mkwiro in early 1986. There was only one rotating credit association in the village, operated by eight women and two men in Mkwajuni ward who contributed 20sh each every Friday. Four of these were group members, three from the same Bajuni family (see Table 23 above). In January the group began a savings club, introduced by Tototo, and nine women paid 5sh each to join. Like other Tototo savings clubs it was offered 500sh (from FAO and Women in Progress Ltd, a Nairobi NGO) to start a small enterprise: at the same meeting Mkwiro members decided to use this to import coconuts from Shimoni.


Involvement with Tototo has provided group members with another source of income: production and sale of woven handicrafts for Tototo’s shop. How this came about has already been described. The group used this trade to repay its 1983 loan from Tototo; but most benefit has gone directly to individual members and their households. Table 31, based upon records kept by Tototo, summarises returns to individual producers between 1981 and 1985.

YEAR NO. OF PRODUCERS TOTAL RECEIVED (Sh) 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 43 54 58 62 63 1,603.00 11,432.00 7,069.00 19,071.00 27,481.50 HIGHEST INDIVIDUAL total 57.00 718.00 353.00 757.00 1,720.00 per month 4.75 59.83 29.41 63.08 143.33 AVERAGE PER PRODUCER total 37.27 211.70 121.87 307.59 436.21 per month 3.10 17.64 10.15 25.63 36.35

The net profit to producers is somewhat lower, because they have to purchase the dried strips of palm leaf (ukindu) and dyes with which their handicrafts are made. Ukindu is bought on the mainland – there is none on the island – in small bundles costing 2sh 50 cents each. Dyes are brought in small 2sh packets from Mombasa: the only natural dye on the island is henna, occasionally used in body decoration. Table 32 summarises information on the purchased inputs and prices of the main goods which Mkwiro members produce for Tototo. Labour and transport costs are not included: oval table mats, for example, fetch a higher price for producers than square ones because they are more difficult to make.

Although the average return to producers was comparatively small, even in 1985, trade in octopuses and cowries is said to have dropped as a result of handicraft production. Group members were correspondingly distressed when the market for their handicrafts came to a standstill at the end of 1985. In January 1986 Tototo staff returned the bulk of their last order to the group, telling group members that they had


failed to sell the goods at shows in Nairobi and Mombasa and that there was no room for them in Tototo’s store. Producers are paid by Tototo when their goods are sold: following the return of their handicrafts women complained bitterly that their investment in ukindu and dyes had been in vain. Mkwiro members have no other market for their handicrafts: what little scope there is for selling them to tourists on the nearby mainland has been taken up by Shimoni women’s group, which also produces these goods for Tototo. In consequence group morale fell sharply, and the blame for this was unanimously put upon Tototo.


Ukindu Floor mat 6 oval table mats 6 square table mats Fan Hat Large handbag Medium handbag Small handbag 50 12.50

Dyes 40 10-20

Total 90 22.5032.50 22.5032.50 6.50 13.50 45 250 102 160 69.5079.50 39.5049.50 5.50 1.50 -15 450 200 200 98






2.50 7.50 25

4 6 20

12 15 30

20 25 50

8 10 20















1986 prices shown

Women generally pool their income with their husbands. Wives are not obliged to surrender this income, but usually spend it on the household. One member said that if she earned 100sh from cowries she might go out and buy clothes for her husband, and


was described as a “good wife” by other women. Another noted that if she got 300sh from octopus sales it would enable her to buy a bag of cement for her house. Women are equally dependent upon income provided by their husbands: 3 women interviewed were wholly dependent in early 1986, having abandoned, for different reasons, efforts to secure an independent income. Two women reported getting no help from their husbands and three had husbands who were absent for most of the year and only gave their wives money on home visits. These women rely on both their own sources of income and help from other household members and kin: one woman, whose husband was absent for up to two years at a time, was given money by her mother’s brother, the head of the household. Another, the group’s co-ordinator, periodically went to stay in Malindi with her husband and co-wife, leaving group records unkept in her absence.

NO HUSBAND widowed absent fisherman: boat owner 6 HUSBAND EMPLOYED fisherman: no boat 5 shop-owner




Table 33 shows the occupation or otherwise of husbands in a sample of 16 group members. Two of the absent husbands were traders based in Moa on the northern Tanzanian coast: there is considerable traffic across the nearby border between Kenya and Tanzania, and a fair amount of smuggling. But most group members’ husbands are local fishermen. 60 men in Mkwiro are registered members of the South Coast Fisheries co-operative in Shimoni, which began in 1966. They fish every day except Friday, the day of prayer, and bring their catches ashore in the early afternoons to be weighed by the local co-operative secretary. The co-operative pays the fishermen 10sh per kilo of (large) fish, 1sh of this set aside in a fund for Mkwiro’s school and Islamic classes. On an average day in February (1986) it paid out 2,000sh to 16 fishermen. Only a third of Mkwiro’s fishermen own their own boats: the rest work with close kin or others for a portion of income from the catch. The example just cited gives local fishermen an average income of 30sh a day, 900sh per month. Daily co-operative payments vary over the year between about 500 and 5,000sh. A good


day’s catch can bring in 600sh and records in Shimoni show individual fishermen in the area earning up to 20,000sh in a single month. These are, however, exceptional cases and do not take account of the division of the proceeds among crews. The traditional division into portions indicates that boat owners also divert a good part of their income to capital reinvestment and maintenance of their enterprises. In Mkwiro fishing is done with nets, lines and traps, only the latter made and sold locally. Three villagers ran motor-powered boats (costing 15-50,000sh), three owned outrigger canoes (15-20,000sh) and the rest dugouts with sails (5-6,000sh).

While households are usually well supplied with fish, a significant proportion of their income has to be spent on purchases of food staples. Water is particularly expensive: 2sh plus per 20 litre container from the local reservoirs and 3sh per container from the mainland when this supply runs out. During the dry season households may find themselves spending between 280sh and 560sh a month on water, depending upon their size. These expenses are usually borne by women with the help of their

husbands, and in many cases leave little to cover other expenses. Female-headed households face the greatest difficulty; and one group member, a widow, had to pay for the building of a new house with three floor mats she had made. On the other hand, some schoolboys pay for their own uniforms by fishing in the holidays; while the fund established from sales of fish to the co-operative covers many primary school expenses which would normally be borne by parents. Married men do not as a rule buy luxury goods for themselves, though some, like the village chairman, can afford to invest in speculative ventures.

Change in the island economy The relatively stable economy which has been described above is now threatened by complete transformation, the direct consequence of external interventions. The first nail in the coffin was land registration, which took place on the island in 1979-80. Before this island land was held in common; now islanders have been issued with title deeds for the plots and fields with they happened to be occupying at the time. In many cases land registration discriminated in favour of men, now holding two-thirds of the titles for fields largely worked by women. The difficulty this created for the group’s building project has already been described, while its effects upon patterns of inheritance remains to be seen. Some islanders, anticipating what would happen, 25

cleared much larger areas than they normally worked – hence the 21 acre field shown in Table 29 – and a small number also laid claims to plots on the mainland. Disputes broke out between the Shirazi and the Vumba, who claimed large areas of land close to Mkwiro – including the village football field – and others at the uninhabited end of the island furthest from their own village. Some villagers were left with relatively small plots, now permanently fixed in size and location, and the prospect of landlessness resulting from the sale and mortgaging of land has arisen for the first time.

This process threatens to be accelerated by tourist development. For many years there was only one hotel on the mainland near Shimoni and a single tourist restaurant in Wasini village. In 1985 a second hotel was opened in Shimoni and a new restaurant is being constructed in Wasini, while other developments are in the offing. At first Mkwiro villagers were resistant to selling their land to developers: the first outsider seeking to buy land by one of the local beaches, a German, was turned away. This resistance has now crumbled under the influence of two factors: need (and greed) for cash, and the prospect of infrastructural and other benefits.

The local agent of this transformation has been the brother of Mkwiro’s first two chairwomen, the recently elected KANU locational chairman, with his sights now set on the position of area councillor (see Table 23). Like his Bajuni parents in Mkwiro he owns a shop, and is building another, both at Shimoni. He also owns a motorpowered boat, used to ferry fee-paying tourists to Wasini and the marine park to the south of the island. He has also been providing his elder sister with occasional European visitors willing to rent a room in her house – the first time accommodation has been let to tourists in Mkwiro. In keeping with his courtship of another world he drinks beer, flouting Islamic prohibition. More significant for the future of Mkwiro, however, has been his role in arranging sales of land. Over the last two years or so he has induced a number of villagers to sell their land, acting as the agent for an English hotel owner from up-country. The prices paid, 40-100,000sh for plots scattered across the island, contain sufficient incentive. In early 1986 some group members expressed an interest in following suit. These included his own mother and sister, who

complained that he was refusing to handle the transaction; presumably because he knows, unlike many of his clients, the value of holding onto land. 26

He argues that the construction of tourist lodges on the island will bring a wide range of benefits, not least a cheap and reliable supply of water. This is where many villagers place their hopes, believing that tourist development will be accompanied by a submarine pipeline or construction of water reservoirs large enough to provide an all year round supply. Earlier developments have brought different forms of community benefit. Construction of Wasini’s first restaurant was permitted on condition that a fixed percentage of its takings be put into a fund for village development; originally this was to have been for both the island’s villages, but has been appropriated by Wasini alone. The owner of Shimoni’s newest hotel is committed to pay half of the costs of staff accommodation for a health centre in the village.2 Mkwiro’s villagers are now keen to get their own slice of the cake. It is also argued that hotels near Mkwiro will provide employment opportunities for villagers and create a lucrative market for local fishermen and handicraft producers. This may or may not be true. But what is more certain, and not admitted, is that the island will become a Diani in miniature.


Sexual politics in Mkwiro do not take the form described by Bujra in her study of a Bajuni village.

The Shirazi have not employed slaves in the recent past; women, not men, play the major role in cultivation; and they do not engage in labour migration/prostitution on any large scale. Mkwiro’s own Bajuni are, however, rather more mobile. See Janet Bujra, ‘Production, Property, Prostitution: “Sexual Politics” in Yumbe’, in Hazel Johnson and Henry Bernstein (eds.), Third Word Lives of Struggle (London: Heinemann, 1982). It might be added that women’s role in production precludes any

confinement or restriction upon their visibility in Mkwiro.

In August 1985 Tototo organised members of Mkwiro, Shimoni and Anzuani women’s groups into a

committee to press for the inclusion of maternity facilities in this centre. But the possibility of NORAD (the Norwegian Agency for International Development) support for this project appears to have been quashed by a report written by a volunteer afer interviewing Shimoni members. This report is strongly critical of the women’s ability to run the project and of Tototo’s relationship with the group.


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