Title page for ETD etd-11102009-105751

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Switzer, Heather D.
URN etd-11102009-105751
Title Making the Maasai Schoolgirl:Developing Modernities on the Margins
Degree PhD
Department Public and International Affairs
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Hausman, Bernice L. Committee Co-Chair
Timothy Luke Committee Co-Chair
Charles Good Committee Member
Patricia Kelly Committee Member
Shadle, Brett L. Committee Member
  • gender
  • Africa
  • Maasai
  • development
  • education
  • modernity
Date of Defense 2009-08-25
Availability unrestricted
In 2000, the United Nations hosted the Millennium Summit, billed as the “largest gathering of world leaders in history” (UN Millennium Project). This delegation defined The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the primary set of metrics that serve as benchmarks against which development, the world over, is to be measured. Of these eight goals, one focuses specifically on education and four relate to women and girls’ empowerment. This study of identity formations among Maasai schoolgirls in southern Kenya, then, is designed to shed some new theoretical light on life as a target of these goals. In this dissertation, I consider the lived experience of development in the form of formal schooling from the subjective point of view of Maasai primary schoolgirls.

The study explores the textured variation of identities within the single social category, “schoolgirl,’ in an effort to uncover the on-the-ground meanings of development imperatives focused on recruiting girls to school, keeping girls in school, and supporting their achievement. Designed as an ethnographic case study focused on the nine government co-ed primary day schools in Keekonyokie Central Location, Ngong Division, Kajiado District, Kenya, interviews were conducted with 98 Maasai girls aged 12-20, enrolled in primary school at the time of the interviews. Additionally, interviews were conducted with some of the schoolgirls’ mothers and teachers, along with 8 secondary schoolgirls from the immediate area (Lood-ariak). Along with ethnographic data, policy documents and overlapping literatures were reviewed in order to ascertain education-as-development imperatives articulated by local, national, and international development institutions. The purpose of the research is an attempt to capture the complex interrelations between formal schooling, multi-scalar development imperatives, and individual everyday life worlds within the changing economic and social context of postcolonial Kenya in the age of globalization.

My research suggests that “the schoolgirl” has emerged as a historically new and profoundly salient social category in contemporary Maasai life that has implications for gender dynamics and social forms like marriage, family and household structure and maintenance, and labor relations. I argue that the “schoolgirl” as a category has been created by the collusion of local and global discourses that define girls’ education as a singular and primary development imperative. Moreover, Maasai schoolgirls themselves deploy the discourse of development in their use of the schoolgirl category which enables them to negotiate and redefine who a girl is and can be in Maasailand today vis-à-vis education. Based on literature reviews prior to the research in Kenya, I went to Kajiado expecting to hear stories of the problems associated with the schooling imperative combined with the pressures of adolescence as a biosocial process that can make staying in school a perilous passage for rural African girls. While many participants did describe the obstacles they faced in their pursuit of schooling, I also found that nearly every girl my translator and I spoke with marshaled a poignant and pronounced sense of agency in their use of the schoolgirl category as both discursive tool and practical fact.

Deployed and employed by schoolgirls and others on their behalf, the schoolgirl category gives Maasai girls unprecedented room to negotiate current realities and future trajectories. This positive finding not withstanding, the theoretical implications of my research also suggest that the schoolgirl subject position has been (and perhaps could have only been) forged in the particular crucible of the market-driven economic development context defined in recent year by neoliberal ideology, and because of this, there are structural limits to the autonomous and independent existence modern development ideology predicts and requires for and of agents.

As I argue, the Maasai schoolgirl subject-position is made—produced, constructed—by and within an intricate matrix of forces, including the discourse(s) employed and deployed by Maasai schoolgirls themselves about their own circumstances. This exposition of Maasai schoolgirls is embedded in a history, political economy, and a symbolic universe. Therefore, the arguments forwarded here must go beyond the mechanical dissection of discourse; they must illuminate the lived realities, contextualized histories, and meaning systems that are enacted and embodied by the storylines and characters that give shape to the arguments themselves. Thus, the earliest chapters (1-3) are dedicated to Maasai subject formation through Kenyan history along with the paradoxical relationships many Maasai have had with formal schooling through out this history, as well as a broader context for girls’ education in selected Sub-Saharan African contexts.

By focusing on African schoolgirls as creators of knowledge around their own experiences and highlighting that experience, this study’s findings contribute to at least two broad literatures: 1) the critical feminist theoretical literatures that are concerned with the construction of gendered subjects in late capitalism and 2) critical development literatures (both conceptual and practical) that are concerned with the contradictory processes of development and their gendered, and gendering, impacts. As Chapter 5 and my conclusions suggest, feminist development interventions must squarely account for these contradictions rather than be seduced by reductive rhetoric that empties gender analysis of its critical edge. In so doing, development scholars, local practitioners, and everyday people may be better equipped to confront the real gendered effects of institutional changes based on sex, such as recruiting and retaining more girls in school. My ultimate goal is to expand and localize the working knowledge of gender in development contexts so that we might face the matrix of complexity of life in the development zone and thus, perhaps, craft more reasonable, just, and gender-centered interventions aimed at transformative and positive change for all, not just girls.

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