Gender and Witchcraft in Agrarian Transition: The Case of Kenyan Horticulture



This article examines the social effects of contract farming of export horticulture among smallholders in Meru District, Kenya. During the 1980s and 1990s, contracting was popularized by donors and governments alike as a way to reduce poverty and increase opportunities for self–employment in rural areas. Considerable research has documented the tensions in social relations that emerge in such cases, giving rise to gendered struggles over land, labour, and income in the face of new commodity systems. This article highlights similar tendencies. It suggests that men’s failure to compensate their wives for horticulture production has given rise to a string of witchcraft allegations and acts, as the wealth engendered by horticultural commodities comes up against cultural norms of marital obligation. While witchcraft accusations can expose women to risks of social alienation and financial deprivation, witchcraft nevertheless remains a powerful weapon through which women can level intra–household disparities and, more broadly, challenge the legitimacy of social practice. In Meru, witchcraft discourses are a vehicle through which gendered struggles over contract income are articulated and contested, and through which the social costs of agrarian transition become apparent.