The Birth of ‘New’ Materialism? Abortion and Southern African Women’s Writing

UntitledThe next seminar in our African Feminisms series will be a paper by Caitlin Stobie entitled “The Birth of ‘New’ Materialism? Abortion and Southern African Women’s Writing”. The seminar will take place on 27 February 2017 in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (LHRI)  seminar room 1 at 5pm. Entrance is free and all are welcome.

Abstract

In her preface to Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing (1999), Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera recalls a scene from Haile Gerima’s Sankofa wherein a pregnant woman’s corpse mysteriously gives birth after she is whipped to death (1). At the conclusion of her commentary, she returns to the theme of fertility by proclaiming that the authors of the collected stories are “witnesses, in that seemingly impossible birth” of African feminist fiction (5). Yet throughout Opening Spaces, it is the fear of maternity which recurs for those living in rural and urban environments previously colonised by the British ‘motherland’. Tracing tropes of abortion through selected stories written during the ‘birth’ of postcolonial southern African nations in the late twentieth century, this paper considers feminist responses to the shifting relationship between corporeal embodiment and political agency. The writers in this study focus on environments not as essentialised settings, but rather as interconnected and organic systems; creative forms which manifest in these stories include human, animal, vegetal, elemental or textual participants in ecosystems. In this respect, the writers appear to anticipate new materialist theories – particularly the concept of trans-corporeality, which states that human and more-than-human bodies are all enmeshed actors that constitute the environment (Alaimo 2010: 2). Paradoxically, however, they also trouble such purportedly ‘new’ theories by complicating the long history of environmental health and reproductive rights in post/colonial contexts. Illustrating how natural symbolism interacts with the artifice of narrative form, such fictions create spaces for complex, ambivalent perspectives on women’s agency to emerge.

About Caitlin Stobie

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Caitlin Stobie is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, where she is co-director of the Leeds Animal Studies Network. Her research interests include postcolonial ecocriticism, posthumanism and critical animal studies. She has been published, or has work forthcoming, in Green Letters (2017), Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2017) and scrutiny2 (2016).

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Ruth Mumbi, Human Rights, and the Dhobi of Kenya

Ruth Mumbi (Visiting Fellow) Centre for Applied Human Rights University of York
Ruth Mumbi (Visiting Fellow)
Centre for Applied Human Rights
University of York

The gasp that escaped from the audience in response to the image projected before them was proof that Ruth Mumbi, angry tears shining in her eyes, had succeeded in driving home the reality of her message and cause – a reality worlds apart from that of those privileged enough to have attended Ruth’s talk last Friday on the 17th of October. Ruth herself was the subject of the photo and in it she was being dragged up by three police into the back of a truck.

She didn’t so much as blink when she proceeded to mention that she had experienced physical abuse during her time spent in police custody. According to Ruth, she was one of the lucky ones. Having developed a profile as a Human Rights Defender (HRD) many NGOs and other organisations were willing to post her bail. Those beginning to tread down the road of fighting for human rights in Kenya, those without a profile or history, are unlikely to have their bail posted for them. The police had seized Ruth on suspicion of her organising an illegal assembly in protest against a 16% tax increase on commodities (more details to be found here).

Ruth is currently a visiting fellow at the University of York, and is being hosted by the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR). At the focal point of her talk here at York was the organisation Wamama wa Dhobi that she has been part of organising in order to address the maltreatment of informal domestic workers living in Mathare, an informal settlement outside of Nairobi. The troubles of these domestic workers has risen as a result of a stipulation in Kenyan law which recognises only those domestic workers who live with the family they work for. These women, known as Dhobi (which means ‘laundry’ in Swahili), are frequently exploited by their employees who offer them a below minimum wage and then assert the right not to pay the women if they have found their work for the day to be unsatisfactory. Instances of physical abuse and rape are not uncommon. Continue reading