The Gender of Malnutrition in the AOF: Nutritional Science and the Evasion of Political Economy

This paper will explore the tensions between the desire to channel women’s energies into particular activities on the part of the French colonial government in Niger, and the reality that colonial states has very little direct access to women nor did they generally have a grasp of the priorities and concerns that motivated the women under their rule. In a host of domains (hygiene, nutrition, farming, childrearing, sexual behaviour) colonial government strove to direct women’s agency in ways that would serve the often inconsistent interests of the state including the orderly extraction of resources and the upholding of paternal authority.  Women, as guardians of their own bodies, of their children, and of the domestic domain (which could extend far beyond the internal sphere of the compound), pursued their own interests and concerns drawing upon or circumventing the institutions and dictates of the state, occasionally with the complicity of their husbands, fathers and sons, but sometimes in outright defiance of the men in their lives. By focusing upon the ways in which women’s reproductive obligations and concerns influenced their actions and practices, this paper will read against the grain of some conventional colonial era documentary sources (largely related to health and nutrition) to reflect upon the intersections between nutrition, agriculture, and childrearing in Niger from 1930 to 1960. My larger comparative concern is about the framing of the question of population, child mortality and nutrition in colonial contexts. African studies research suggests that patterns of population growth, stagnation or decline are intimately bound up with questions of agricultural production, nutrition and childrearing practices (including weaning). Yet much of the literature of population focuses on sexuality and contraception to a degree that seems to belie the realities and practices of actual women across the globe. This paper will attempt to place the Nigerian case in the context of broader work on women in Africa that brings together thinking on nutrition, farming, and reproduction.

Barbara M. Cooper is Professor in the Department of History of the Rutgers University. She is the author of Marriage in Maradi: Gender and Culture in a Hausa Society in Niger, 1900-1989, Portsmouth: Heinemann (Social History of Africa Series), 1997 and Evangelical Christians in the Muslim Sahel, Indiana University Press, 2006. Winner of the African Studies Association’s Melville J. Herskovits Award for the best book on Africa published in 2006.