Out of Africa

"To say that women were ghettoized into separate spheres -- supporting men at the expense of their own development while fighting quietly for their rights -- is not enough."This statement comes not from a work about American feminism, but from a brilliant, landmark book about East African Asian life. "Mercantile Adventurers: The World of East African Asians" (New Age International Limited, 1996) by Dana April Seidenberg, which has received rave reviews internationally, is set against a background of East Africa, after independence, after the British left. No surprise that one of the chapters particularly caught my interest: the analysis of the role of women. Men and women came to East Africa in great numbers from India. The men were intent on commerce and on building successful lives for themselves in a new land. The story of the women who came with them has not been told. Until now.Khaldah Dar, a Nairobi social worker, explains: "Women felt they were being protected, taken care of -- making a virtue out of their oppression and being thankful for it. That was the trickery! What it really served for was to undo us, kill us at birth, make us grateful for the processes leading to our own exploitation." Cooperating with one's own demise, that is the true test of oppression. For the Indian woman who came to East Africa, it cannot be said that either location -- the Hindu society which she had left, or the conservative society along the East African coast -- would have encouraged personal development or independence. The decision to emigrate was made by husbands, or male family members. At least, most often, there were servants to wait upon one in Africa.Family and marriage were the two concepts that determined the status of Indian women. It never occurred to anyone to think that a woman could have an interesting life if she was not married and did not have children. That this is true in our own country, until the stirrings of feminism a couple of decades ago, makes reading "Mercantile Adventurers" an act, not only of scholarship and multiculturalism, but of sisterhood. No matter how a girl excelled in school, her formal education was cut short because, in Indian society, educated girls became unmarriageable.Rather than intellectual sharpness, the goal was to be the "beautiful wife," whose purpose was to exhibit the wealth of her successful husband by wearing jewels and expensive clothing. She was part of the picture of prosperity, along with the house and the car. She even went periodically (does this sound familiar?) to a fat farm in India to shed unnecessary pounds. Since Indian girls and boys were usually betrothed in childhood, and divorce was almost unheard of in both Muslim and Hindu custom, fate was early set. And death could create the irony of a child widow.The book describes that when one woman, widowed at age 13, had remarried, her parents refused to communicate with her; someone's "ex-wife" was already "used," and such damaged good were to be rejected. (Men, however, were free to remarry as man as four wives.) As in America and Europe, Asian women in East Africa often helped their husbands in business. But their work outside a family business, or the home, was centered in child care: nursing, teaching, being a midwife. When women left their homes, they were expected to cover their faces. They were to speak only to other women, or (a puzzle) men who were younger than their husbands.In the 1920s, Indian women in Africa were finally allowed to be educated, but only in sex-segregated girl's schools. (One can tie this in to a current regressive trend in education, whereby it is declared in the best interest of girls to take them out of coeducational schools -- and this, in advanced New York City.) If their lives in East Africa, with seemingly unlimited economic opportunity, eliminated the potential poverty which men would have experienced in India, it did little to alter the structured and limiting loves of women. Their successes, like those of millions of women across the time zones and the oceans, were measured in terms of interpersonal relations, rather than achievements.Seidenberg concludes "that a few women did decolonize themselves and become immersed in political struggles and challenging self-directed careers" is a miracle. "Despite a theoretical innocence and lack of consciousness concerning any collective political movement, some progress, if quietly, was made in eroding the barriers of gender. Deeply embedded domains of conservatism were to remain, however, forcing many women to lead lives of convention rather than choice."One literary critic said, "No local Asian has bothered to take as much interest in the Asian community's recent history as Dr. Seidenberg has." Another hails her as "the best Asian academic in Kenya."Yet this pioneering look at the ways in which India and Africa have been interrelated was not written by an Asian. Syracuse native Dana Seidenberg received her B.A. in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and her M.A. and Ph.D in African and South Asian studies from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs. She has lived and worked in Kenya for a number of years, was associated with the University of Nairobi, and spent the summer in Zanzibar doing research for a new book. From the archives in Zanzibar, this passionate observer of the international feminist scene writes that she is "studying about Richard Burton, plus lots of adventurous women -- Speke, Grant, Livingstone, Estella Cave (whom I am writing about). Are you interested?" Yes, indeed.

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