Mama Kamukunji Jua Kali: The Forgotten Heroine

Published on 10th March 2020

The International Women’s Day came and passed and the commission on status of women meeting that was supposed to take place in New York was affected by the coronavirus.  Elite women who have broken the glass ceiling were celebrated for their ability to enter and succeed in the male-dominated world mostly through sponsorship. The women have used masculine tools to access these spaces and often serve as add ons. 

The world has however forgotten the many women traders, artisans and peasants in our cities and rural areas who ensure we have food on the table. These women are often referred to as mama mboga, mama samaki, mama fua, mama soko and mama jua kali, in Kenya. I wish to introduce to you mama Kamukunji Jua Kali. She is a special kind of woman who joined the Kamukunji Jua Kali cluster forty years ago.

Mama Kamukunji Jua Kali lives a unique feminist life. She is a key player in the evolution of economic informality in Nairobi and peasant agriculture in rural areas. She carries out trade, artisanry and peasantry in open urban spaces, streets or designated market places. Unlike other urban women, she is not fashion conscious. She is easily identifiable with her simple dressing and the way she carries her goods. She deploys perseverance, self-determination and collective action in her everyday livelihood negotiation in the informal and peasant economy. Her logic, norms and values of nurturing, caring and connecting communities as well as creating thriving and flourishing communities determine her business practices. She is the link between disparate communities in the city and rural areas.  She caters for everyone by supplying a range of goods and also sustains the indigeneity of the city.

Mama Kamukunji Jua Kali began by trading in drums which were used as raw materials to make a variety of metal products. Her motivation of going into business was to supplement her family income as well as make herself live a productive life. She started off with one drum. Her uncle, noting her determination, gave her some money to buy more drums. She was the only woman in Kamukunji Jua Kali cluster at the time and her business grew as Kamukunji expanded. She added value to herself by learning artisan skills and started making her own products like the male artisans. She rose above the sexual division of labour in skills and became the head of the traders’ association.

Mama Kamukunji Jua Kali has mentored both young men and women in jua kali activities. She has handled many women issues and encouraged women to form social welfare groups and make savings. She has established herself as an elder in the cluster and represents artisans in cases involving police and city askaris. She has created space and made a name for herself in the city.

She has been able to nurture her family and influence her husband to join her in business. She has overcome the odds of engaging in production and exchange in the least acknowledged mode of production. Her business growth and expansion has taken place in a volatile space that is male dominated. She has learnt to make strategic alliances with her male counterparts in order to become part of the community of artisans. She has actively been involved in the creation of the community of artisans and traders by investing her time and resources. She has created jobs and generated income which she has used in building her wealth portfolio that includes parcels of land and rental houses in Nairobi and upcountry. With bravery, she has dared where majority both men and women would easily give up and taken calculated risks. Ravages of theft on her property have not dampened her spirit. She is keen to repay loans procured.

It takes hard work, self-determination, discipline and collective action to build oneself and overcome gender and economic-based marginalization. Mama Kamukunji Jua Kali’s lived experience represents the true search for gender equity through partnership and working in a male dominated experience. She has demonstrated that one can be part of the struggle of creating productive spaces for marginalized groups with limited resources without being indebted. She has remained true to her feminist experience and supported other women. She has reached the glass ceiling by being part of struggle rather than through affirmative action. Her spirit of determination should inspire many women who are wading in uncertainty.

I celebrate Mama Kamukunji Jua Kali.

By Mary Njeri Kinyanjui

The author is an independent scholar and author of many works including Coffee Time, Vyama Institutions of hope, Women and Informal Economy in Urban Africa, African Markets and Sweet Sobs.

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