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In this paper, I explore the everyday politics of gender and food production at the Office du Niger (ODN), a large agricultural scheme in the French Soudan. The Office was established in the 1930s, at the height of the world-wide depression, to produce cotton and rice on a large scale. Land was allotted to male household heads, and women’s work in food production for everyday sustenance was long overshadowed by the official emphasis on male cash crop production. Into the late colonial period, irrigated rice cultivation at the Office ensured grain needs during the long after-harvest season. At the same time, large scale clearing of land for cotton and rice fields altered the availability of local tree products necessary for making the sauce, and many Office residents continued to buy millet from areas outside the project. Women in some areas of the Office responded by producing the shea butter and soumballa that people wanted in their food. By looking at other aspects of women’s work for food production, it is also possible to imagine alternative temporal markers for the colonial experience. For example water collection for cooking and other household use was greatly changed by the introduction of metal buckets. Wood collection, long the work of women was also altered with the introduction of small wagons belonging to men, after which wood collection became men’s work. These small technological changes also highlight changes in the gendering of labor that greatly impacted the quality of life for women at this large scale “development” project. They further suggest that the history of the Office is less about production and the colonial ordering of labor, than it is about consumption and choice.
Laura Ann Twagira is Ph.D. candidate in African history in Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She is the author of: “Betsy Heard” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History (2007) on the Euro-African slave trader and merchant.