Jean Davison,
The Ostrich Wakes:
Struggles for Change in Highland Kenya

(Kirinyaga, 2006)

This book revisits the women that anthropologist Jean Davison interviewed for her 1989 book Voices from Mutira: Change in the Lives of Rural Gikuyu Women, 1910 to 1995. The Gikuyu are the largest ethnic group in Kenya.

Change is the overriding theme of this book. The women covered here range in age from pre-teen to over 90, but all are affected by the struggle between traditional mores and the modern world.

The Ostrich Wakes, as Davison herself would admit, does not quite fit the situation in modern Kenya. The people there have not fully pulled their heads up to face the problem of AIDS, which has become a huge issue for the entire African continent. Much of the book deals with Davison's attempts to get people to talk about it. Because it is sexually transmitted, AIDS carries an aura of shame, and nearly everyone she conversed with tried to avoid the subject. Fortunately, the Gikuyu are open about other subjects like female circumcision, which has almost completely disappeared.

Davison becomes a bit flowery at times in her writing (i.e., "the mountain's spirit nourishes my soul"), but she has a genuine affection for the women whose stories she tells. Many of them have been friends for years, and Davison has come to know their large, extended families.

These women live in a world where firewood is still gathered, tea is harvested in traditional ways and people still follow a village-based culture. They are beginning to use cell phones and computers, and basic education is becoming free again with a change in government.

Overall, the Gikuyu women have become more independent. Some have been beaten by their husbands, and others report that girls are becoming pregnant at an earlier age. But some have been able to support themselves as single parents, and many have taken advantage of education to become self-sufficient.

Davison's book is valuable for showing how the changes in Africa affect individuals at a personal level. There is little discussion of government or economic development programs. Instead, there are descriptions of cooking, education, how each woman dresses and what survival skills they learned when growing up.

Generally the picture Davison presents of Kenya is positive. There is a new government that seems to be moving towards reform, there are educational opportunities, and Kenya has not been ravaged by war like other countries. This book gives a valuable picture of what will hopefully be the emergence of a new Africa.

review by
Dave Howell

2 June 2007

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