Worries of the Heart
Widows, Family, and Community in Kenya
Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, rates of widowhood have been remarkably high in Kenya. Yet despite their numbers, widows and their families exist at the margins of society, and their lives act as a barometer for the harsh realities of rural Kenya. Mutongi here argues that widows survive by publicly airing their social, economic, and political problems, their “worries of the heart.” Initially aimed at the men in their community, and then their colonial rulers, this strategy changed after independence as widows increasingly invoked the language of citizenship to demand their rights from the new leaders of Kenya—leaders whose failure to meet the needs of ordinary citizens has led to deep disenchantment and altered Kenyans’ view of their colonial past. An innovative blend of ethnography and historical research, Worries of the Heart is a poignant narrative rich with insights into postcolonial Africa.
Maps of Kenya
Part I: Everyday Life
1. Western Kenya, 1880–1902
2. Feeble Little Lads Looking for Food
3. “What Harm Can an Old Dry Bone Do?”
4. Lessons in Practical Christianity
5. Living “in Line”
6. The Impact of Gold Mining
7. Land Conflicts in the 1930s
Part II: Family Life
8. Educating “Progressive” Sons
9. The Burden of “Progressive” Sons
10. Cash, Cows, and Bridewealth
11. Domestic Education at the Girls Boarding School
12. Moral Panic
13. Wife Beating
Part III: Postcolonial Promises
14. Citizenship and Land Rights in Postcolonial Kenya
15. Rural Widows, City Widows, and the Fight for Inheritance
“I am not sure how to categorize Kenda Mutongi’s magisterial book. Mutongi has gotten under the skin of her material—and what we read is a living document: surely essential for every reading household in Kenya, for schools, and for every department of African studies. It is at once a literary and academic achievement.”
“This captivating book evokes the human experience of living under colonialism in rural East Africa better than any other study I can think of. Widows and their families are Mutongi’s focus, but this is less a history of widows than it is a history of the twentieth century in the Maragoli district of western Kenya through widows’ eyes. As we observe impoverished widows engaging in public performances of their “worries of heart” to compel the men in their communities, colonial officials, and finally bureaucrats and politicians in independent Kenya to pay attention and meet their obligations we must admire their tenacity. Yet Mutongi does not romanticize their actions, and the stories of marginalized women and families she recounts are often heartbreaking. In short, Worries of the Heart is the kind of book that will be read with profit not only by scholars but by students, who are bound to admire its narrative style, its immediacy, and its evocation of crucial issues in colonial and postcolonial rural experience.”
“Simply praising Kenda Mutongi’s history of western Kenya for its textured and complex treatment of important topics including colonialism, gender, marriage, land, and education would be to underrate its value. Mutongi’s book demands a wider reading outside of the field of African history for its accessible presentation of rich empirical detail combined with an engaging prose style. Worries of the Heart also compellingly navigates between insider and outsider perspectives on Kenyan history, offering subtle and generative methodological insights into questions of authority over and within representations of the African past.”
"This is not an abstract work of legal history. Mutongi's book is in many ways a history of a people, and it bursts with character and life."
"Mutongi''s writing is refreshingly clear, and free of unnecessary jargon. The book itself is a delight to read. . . . This is a well-written, thoroughly researched, and quite convincing book. It would be an excellent text for undergraduates and graduate African history surveys, or classes on women or gender."
"In this intriguing book, the author situates her experience as a paternal orphan within the colonial and postcolonial histories of Maragoli widows in western Kenya. . . . The book is interesting and easy to read. The merger of oral and archival evidence lets the data speak clearly to the reader. The voices of the respondents are clear, and their stories are vividly captured."
African Studies Association: Melville J. Herskovits Award