Urbanization, Prostitution and the (Re)Making of African Labor
“...African labor power was only for sale in small units” - Frederick Cooper
“Thus, prostitution exists in a direct relationship to wage labor...” - Luise White
Jade Luo & Chambi Chachage
How did the colonial encounter lead to the emergence of industrial urban spaces? To what extent did labor shape these centers in relation to agrarian rural spaces? And how did the state and the society shape each each other within the context of resistance?
These are some of the questions that Frederick Cooper’s (1987) seminal book On the African Waterfront: Urban Disorder and the Transformation of Work in Colonial Mombasa and Luise White’s (1990) book on The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi address. Work, writes Cooper, has been the most central element in the relationship between Europeans and Africans since the 15th century. He acknowledges that the former constructed a stereotype of the latter as being lazy in the context of slavery and colonialism. However, he shifts the emphasis on this stereotype as a legitimizing myth used to justify coercive labor extraction by taking it as a clue that Europe did not totally dominate labor in Africa. From this he builds his central argument that both domination and resistance shaped the working relationship between employers and workers in relation to the state. As he puts it, his book “concerns the efforts of a colonial state and of a group of employers to reasserts control over a workplace, faced with an orchestrated challenge from African workers” (1).
Cooper correctly observed that the preoccupation with the study of labor market and patterns of labor migration overshadowed that of the nature of work itself. As a result African labor history tended to appear in a linear form. Among neoclassical economic historians it was more of a history of the “development of wage labor as a self-propelled movement of people from an area of low productivity to one of high” (6). In the case of their radical critics it was primarily about proletarization. However, he rightly observes that the case of Mombasa suggests that the story was hardly linear. Rather, change appeared to proceed in bursts or cracks on long-standing forms of organization and ideology through critical moments. These moments that led to new departures, however, “came about not only under the pressure of titanic clashes, but through an accumulation of minute and subtle struggles in the workplace, as both capital and labor tried to bend their relationship with each other” (7).
Such critical moments that Cooper address includes the urbanization of the labor force, transformation of casual labor and the organization of labor strikes. In the final analysis, however, he departs from his main argument on the articulation of domination and resistance by privileging the role of the state and capital over that of workers in redefining labor and urban spaces.
In analyzing the origins and trajectories of trade unions and workers strikes that rocked Mombasa and other African cities during and in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Cooper relies on the history by analogy with the making of the English respectable working class. For him what happened in Mombasa at that time echoed what happened in England a half-century earlier, albeit with one main difference - the nature of casual labor. The problem of casualism in England, he points out, occurred within the structural context of advanced capitalism thus making it easy to solve it by isolating it from the general problem of labor. He means that workers there no longer had, as an alternative, access to precapitalist forms of production that those in rural Africa had. Since Africans in Mombasa were crisscrossing the city and the countryside with relative ease they had too many alternatives to be at the mercy of employers as far as their livelihoods were concerned. For them casualism was only one alternative hence decasualizing was a daunting task. Thus “only by forcing regular work and regular habits of life upon them could they be tamed; and the infant African working class that showed signs of emerging had to be protected against contamination” (21).
Ironically, this move toward regulation was earlier seen as potentially dangerous in terms of providing a space for organized resistance among the workers. However, as Cooper rightly points out, the way migrant and casual laborers managed to unite and agitate through strikes among other measures in the 1930s/1940s shattered this perception. As a result the state and employers opted for decasualization as a way of venting and fragmenting resistance. Interestingly, casual “labor in the port disappeared with remarkable rapidity, far faster than it did in Great Britain itself” (3).
The conventional city-countryside divide, as Cooper observes, was seriously challenged in the wake of the Mau Mau insurgency that was primarily rural. It thus made the problem of stabilizing urban spaces acquire a particular urgency. Moreover, it “shattered any remaining illusions that rural tranquility might be preferable to urban ferment” (128). Casual and migrant laborers who were traditionally seen as contaminating the city with their rural infection were now cast as casual laborers who could easily be induced to mob and participate in urban disturbances. What all these discourses implied was that “both rural and urban Africa had to be remade” (129). Shifting back to his analogy with England, Cooper attempts to show how the colonial state tried to do achieve the remaking by severing the African laborer from his rural life. At a practical level this involved, with relative success, “the restructuring of time, authority, and space” (142).
In the case of time, Cooper put more emphasis on colonial and economic structure. Even though he acknowledges that by 1960 casual labor was no longer the pattern of working desired by workers, he goes on to conclude that “the initiative in decasualization had come from the state and eventually capital, not from the workers” (162). But in line with his central argument, these workers whom he claims their working lives had been profoundly altered to the extent that they opted for weekly labor are the same workers who were part and parcel of the strikes aimed to better their living and working condition. The fact that they did not find it any more desirable to combine casual labor and their farming or other activities explains their resistance and relative autonomy shaped the protracted ways by which the state and capital went about to proletarianized them.
While Cooper’s historical analysis is convincing what we find puzzling is his conclusion that the impetus for the complex of changes that happened in Kenya “lay in the conflicts that arose inside the city, not in a dynamic originating in agricultural change or colony-wide process of economic transformation” (176). We find this particularly surprising because throughout his text he has effectively managed to show the interaction between the rural and urban spaces within the context of the transformation of slave labor on land to relatively free labor. Moreover, he has done so without ignoring the land, labor and agrarian questions. “Indeed”, he affirms, “mounting land pressure, the rationalization and mechanization of estate agriculture, and more intense -- and more conflictual -- land accumulation in several African areas were pushing more and more people out of rural areas” (175).
Echoing Cooper’s emphasis on labor, White is trying to bring the study of prostitution back to the study of labor--to focus on the nature of the work itself. White takes issue with the fact that the reformist moral agenda has obscured the study of prostitution, such that oftentimes it is overlooked that prostitution is an economically driven form of labor, not unlike labor in other sectors of society. White notes the unique position of prostitution as a form of labor: it “exists in a direct relationship to wage labor and is domestic labor,” offering a link between casual and wage labor (11). By examining the content of the labor itself and the use of the earnings, White aims to tell this story of labor, where “a prostitute’s conduct is determined by strategies of reproduction, not personality” (20).
The labor story that White tells is one of kinship and “rational economic choice.” The different forms of prostitution and the prostitute’s choice to engage in one over the other reflected deeper kinship linkages as well as economic situation, such as access to housing. The malaya form of prostitution, which comes closest to domestic labor with its nonsexual services, arose out of a desire to establish independence and break off ties with their family. This prostitution was characterized by secrecy, awareness of the community, and a keen capitalist mindset. The prostitution was a “long-term investment,” and with its “slow and steady accumulation,” many prostitutes were able to establish themselves as property owners, eventually even forging new kinship lines as an independent head of household. The accumulation was for oneself.
In contrast, the much more aggressive wazi-wazi form of prostitution reveals strong kinship ties, usually to the cash-crop production farmers in rural areas. These prostitutes cared little about conforming to the community and developing secrecy and dignity around their work; instead, they aggressively sought customers, to the horror of the malaya. Money was the sole goal of their work, and they were not secretive about it. This money was sent back to support the prostitute’s family back in the rural areas. The wazi-wazi prostitute had no real investment in the urban communities, and their failure (and perhaps unwillingness) to integrate paints a picture of the rural-urban divide.
The wazi-wazi and malaya forms of prostitution also highlight the relationship between strong kinship ties and the acceptance of this new urban spatial framework. The malaya prostitutes, who oftentimes intentionally cut off kinship relations, went to great length to be part of a “good neighbor” to the community, even if that meant not being paid. They not only understood capitalism in the urban context, but they adopted it and for the most part, thrived. Meanwhile, the wazi-wazi prostitutes, though they operated in an urban context, refused to identify themselves with the urban centers. With more traditional strong kinship ties, these prostitutes tended to opt out of re-accumulation of capital.
Like Cooper, White also makes a point to bring in the state into the story, particularly where urban housing comes in. Before World War I, the state had attempted to redefine the African urban-rural divide, identifying certain groups as “urban, detribalized Africans” and others as “mobile, rural migrant laborers” (128). These identifications and the policies that resulted were based on “constructions of African social life, rural and urban” (129). The colonial regime was keenly aware of economic interests in the degree to which they attempted to control prostitution and housing for the urbanized Africans. In the 1920s, “prostitution was essential to the smooth running of a migrant labor economy on the scale Nairobi required,” and thus the regime did not actively evict prostitutes (77). Similarly, landlords and their accumulation “served the state in ideological and practical ways; the high rents they charged…sent more men to their rural homes or into urban homelessness than the pass laws did” (131). Under such policies, certain groups of urban Kenyans thrived.
As time passed, however, the thriving of malaya prostitutes began “founding lineages that, taken in the aggregate, comprised a class” (121). Landlords and their effectiveness in controlling tenants and their behaviors meant growing class differences. Without the control over urbanization that the state desired, by 1938, the regime began their attempts “to create a respectable working class in words and memoranda” (121). What White highlights here is a narrative similar to that of Cooper’s: the state attempted to “remake” the urban-rural divide once again by severing these newly developed urban classes and lineages, without much success. By getting rid of landlords and existing urban communities, the state attempted to use housing units as a way to construct new gender and family-based relationships to maintain control of the urban center. White notes that it was largely unsuccessfully: “[landlords] did not see housing as a way to structure gender and family relationships…[prostitutes] had their own ideas about the meaning of gender and the role of men and women in their lives” (146).
Both Cooper and White’s texts highlight the main themes that have been dominant throughout the emergence of industrial society in urban centers. They both show how by focusing on productivity the state attempted to control the gendered production and reproduction of labor across time and space. However, despite the structural constraints African men and women challenged authority with varying successes and thus created spaces for class mobility and capital accumulation.