Sarah Hillewaert is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. In 2009, while a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Language, Space, and Identity: Linguistic Practices among Youth in Lamu, Kenya,’ supervised by Dr. Judith T. Irvine. In 2013, she received the Engaged Anthropology Grant to return to the Kenyan archipelago and share her research with the community that hosted her.
I received the Wenner Gren Engaged Anthropology grant to return to my fieldsite in Kenya and organize activities informed by the results of doctoral research conducted between 2007 and 2010. My dissertation investigated the relation between notions of moral personhood and changing linguistic and material practices among young people living in Lamu (Kenya). Lamu is a Muslim town located on an island by the same name, situated off the coast of Kenya. Formerly a successful center for trade and Islamic scholarship, Lamu is now marginalized within the national and global economy and faces increasing poverty. With the announcement of the construction of Africa’s biggest international port in the area, inhabitants of the town hope for new employment opportunities and for a restoration of the trade city’s former glory. At the same time, this multi-billion project forms a clear threat to the archipelago’s eco-system and the local fishing industry that has supported local families over the last decades. In my dissertation, I analyzed the different ways in which young people renegotiate what it means to be a virtuous person in this rapidly changing society. In particular, I looked at the different ways in which young people in this Muslim community negotiate the expectations of elders, their own respect for local norms and values, and their desire for change and development – through language, bodily comportment and social interaction.
One unexpected outcome of my research was the insights it provided in the social lives of young Lamu women: the struggles they face, and the range of ways in which they endeavor to negotiate new social positions. As a rather conservative Muslim town, Lamu has always upheld somewhat strict norms of social interaction between men and women, and for a certain period in history the town’s women lived in complete purdah or segregation. Nowadays, women move openly through town and increasingly pursue higher education and employment. Over the last decade, early marriages have been on the decline and education and professional employment of young women are on the rise. However, with these changes came new challenges: stigma surrounding women’s professional employment and public interactions with men, rising divorce rates and an increasing number of single mothers, to name but a few. When I applied for the Engaged Anthropology Grant, I intended to organize a series of workshops addressing issues surrounding girl education and women employment, in which young women and community leaders would actively participate.
Upon receiving the grant, extensive conversations with local informants showed that, while education was important to discuss, there was a strong desire to facilitate discussions on the broader social issues that result from the changing economic context and women’s greater involvement in the workforce. While international organizations frequently provide information on e.g. neo-natal care, nutrition or single motherhood, few address these issues from an Islamic perspective. Based on these discussions, we designed a series of workshops, each framed around a lecture given by a prominent (Kenyan) female Muslim scholar followed by group discussions. Topics included (1) single motherhood (2) marriage and divorce (3) child rearing and education (4) health, nutrition and fitness (5) pregnancy and neo-natal care (covered over two days). Speakers included well-known scholars from within Lamu as well as invited speakers from Mombasa, Kenya’s largest coastal city. My informants, together with local aid organizations (such as the Kenyan Red Cross) and community leaders (including the education officer at the National Museums of Kenya and local Muslim scholars), created a list of 60 invitees, based on these women’s active participation in community organizations, their position as community leaders, or their status as active community members, with a preference given to young women.
We scheduled the workshops during the second and third week of July, which coincided with the third week of the holy month of Ramadan. Because it was Ramadan, workshops took place early in the morning from 8-12, to enable women to attend and return home in time to prepare meals for the breaking of the fast. I initially did not have high hopes for attendance: not only do people sleep in late during Ramadan, but the political climate in Lamu at the time also was less than positive. Lamu’s neighboring villages of Mpeketoni and Hindi had been hit by murderous attacks (in which approximately 100 people lost their lives). Not only did one of our invited speakers cancel her trip to Lamu out of fear for additional attacks, I assumed many women would refrain from leaving the house due to the rising tensions in the town. Against all odds, the workshops were a huge success. Not only did all invitees attend, but the speakers candidly spoke about the topics at hand and lively discussions followed the lectures. And on several occasions these conversations continued well beyond the designated time.
Due to the success of the initial lectures, we opened up the last two workshops on neo-natal care such that pregnant women could. Those days over 80 women participated. We concluded the workshops series with an iftar dinner (or breaking of the fast) for those participants who attended all 6 days. During this dinner, plans were discussed, not only for a continuation of similar kinds of workshops in the future, but also for the start of a women’s center in Lamu. The latter would combine a women’s fitness space with a counseling center, providing women with a safe communal space to work out and socialize as well as allowing them to seek support for family matters, without the social stigma attached to seeking professional help. While the workshop series somewhat deviated from the initial proposal, the outcome far exceeded our expectations. The manner in which socially sensitive issues, including divorce, polygamy, and family planning, were discussed was innovative for Lamu, to say the least. The gratitude I received from organizers, scholars and attendees was heartwarming and motivates me to pursue similar projects in future.