3 Questions: Professor Kenda Mutongi on Africa, women, power — and human decency

MIT Professor Kenda Mutongi shows classes in African record, globe record, and sex history, and serves on the MIT Africa performing Group. She’s the writer of two award-winning publications: Matatu: A History of Popular transport in Nairobi (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and “Worries of this Heart: Widows, Family, and Community in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2007). The latter book explores how widows, a marginalized team in Kenya, weathered the united states’s transition to a post-colonial society and discovered unique methods to address their particular collective social, economic, and political dilemmas.

Mutongi, produced and raised in outlying Kenya, recently spoke with SHASS Communications in the interplay of African history and existing sex problems within the US; the significance of multidisciplinary reasoning in solving the planet’s issues; while the broader ramifications of the woman research.

Q: In “Worries regarding the Heart” you examine exactly how Kenyan widows have actually navigated the nation’s switching power framework. What lessons is drawn from this record, two years to the #MeToo action?

A: because book, we believe the patriarchal structure of community in rural western Kenya established the hope that ladies is dependent on guys. Widows had been usually considered weak and helpless, and yet they found getting their demands met.

To ensure that guys supported all of them, widows introduced their particular grievances to your guys in public so that they might be experienced by the entire neighborhood. By airing their grievances openly, widows were able to put the guys inside a susceptible position. Men whom refused to help widows had been emasculated when you look at the eyes of other people, because strong, respectable males had been likely to take good care of women — particularly widows.

Basically, the widows switched the very sex norms that were made to oppress them for their own benefit. Whilst the Kenyan widows would not overturn the patriarchal framework, they managed to refashion it with their advantage and garner the sources they had a need to boost their children.

Today, we see some thing comparable occurring in the #MeToo motion, which encourages ladies who have actually survived intimate attack and harassment to go public and expose all those who have attacked them. The assumption usually this going public will empower the women, additionally send a powerful message to the guys in regards to the really serious consequences of the behavior. By going public, the #MeToo ladies are doing just what widows in Kenya did: These are generally — at least partially — trying to change men’s behavior by shaming them, plus the process these are generally empowering themselves.

Reflecting with this history is very important because it underscores a central truth of energy dynamics: There are many ways populations which are not in power could make gains, even though existing societal structures are greatly stacked against all of them.
Q: Your latest book, “Matatu: a brief history of desirable Transportation in Nairobi,” provides a window into African entrepreneurship that is a counterpoint toward indisputable fact that African companies need help from outsiders. How many other myths do you think most need to be dispelled about Africa’s countries, cultures, and individuals?

A: One myth is that Africans aren’t effective at technical or medical innovation. Africans are simply as innovative as anybody; they just are lacking the capital to show their particular discoveries into anything larger.

That is like the idea that Africans lack the entrepreneurial spirit, which are often debunked by instances including that of Nairobi’s matatu business. Matatus tend to be minibuses made use of as provided exclusive taxis. The prosperity of the matatu motorists reflects completely African entrepreneurship: The industry is thriving with no government or outdoors development assistance.

Sadly, Africans in many cases are underestimated. Regarding medical innovation, i believe of my aunt, who was simply an herbalist once I had been growing up in outlying western Kenya. She searched the industries and found many herbs that could cure family members of tummy pains, flu, skin rashes, coughs, and colds. Rich drug businesses including Pfizer and Unilever utilize some of those exact same herbs — yellow dye root, rosy periwinkle, and Asiatic pennywort — inside their pharmaceuticals.

My aunt certainly knew the medical importance of the natural herbs. What Africans like my aunt too often absence will be the resources to turn their specialized knowledge into something acknowledged as technology in worldwide context. This is an essential subject plus one which includes completely been addressed into the work of my peers [MIT Associate Professor] Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga and [MIT plan in Science, Technology and Science graduate pupil] Jia-Hui Lee.

We have to begin taking all kinds of African understanding seriously, because until we do, we will continue steadily to overlook the efforts of the large swath of humanity.

Q: MIT President L. Rafael Reif states that solving the truly amazing difficulties of our time will require multidisciplinary problem-solving and “bilingual thinkers” — approaches that bring together insights and expertise from the sci/tech and humanistic fields. Can you share some methods you imagine understanding from your industry is essential to such worldwide problem-solving?

A: Recently i’ve been wanting to think of African record from viewpoint of goodness and standard human decency. A lot of us within the humanistic disciplines are becoming so specialized in examining conflict that individuals have reached a point where every action — arguably, also positive activity — is addressed as if it just magnifies the webs of energy by which we live.

But, I think that we cannot be prepared to change our societies for much better whenever no-good deed is kept uncriticized. Obviously, disputes occur, and perform a great deal of harm within our life, and now we must confront all of them — but we should in addition enable ourselves to comprehend fundamental goodness and kindness whenever we view it.

In my work I want to examine even more how people are working together and helping both build more powerful communities as opposed to concentrating just on corruption and civil conflicts. Goodness is just as complex as bad, and yet, we have a tendency to privilege analyses of evil. Given that late Toni Morrison has mentioned, “Evil has a blockbuster market; Goodness lurks backstage. Evil has actually vivid address; Goodness bites its tongue.”

Tale made by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial team: Emily Hiestand and Kathryn O’Neill