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The Greedy Eaters: A moral politics of continuity and consumption in urbanising central Kenya



Change log


Lockwood, Peter 


Since before the colonial period, Kikuyu in central Kenya have argued about the morality of wealth and the delinquency of poverty. A kinship-based labour ethic was at the heart of these moralising debates. Men and women could gain public standing from accumulating the land and tenants that sustained families over generations. Wealth was virtuous, poverty scorned as the product of indolence. In the colonial period, this debate began to shift, as a growing scarcity of land and wages undermined the achievement of ‘wealth in people’ and the moral task of the household’s social reproduction. Irresponsible consumption became the new mark of anti-social wealth destruction.

This thesis revisits the long conversation about wealth, poverty and civic virtue in contemporary central Kenya during a moment of profound change – a ‘construction boom’ emanating from an expanding Nairobi. Rather than a conventional story of urbanisation, however, this thesis explores how these transformations are playing out in ‘emic’ terms as a debate about the possibilities of continuity – of the future pursued through kinship – and the problem of consumption, an index of anti-social, selfish desire.

Drawing on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in southern Kiambu county, alongside archival research, this thesis establishes the historical context of these local arguments about continuity and consumption, before tracking their contemporary manifestations across a range of demographics and situations. Families and friends from peri-urban neighbourhoods argue over the limits and extents of reciprocity when wages can be gleaned from the city, condemning those who seek dependence on others in the process. Patriarchal figures continue to argue for the responsibility of investment in children’s futures, now against the backdrop of apparently neglectful fathers who sell land to fund lives of short-term pleasure. Unemployed youth from local towns find themselves vilified by the same discourses yet claim that they will one day become ‘serious’, responsible men. Intra-kin disputes over precious plots of inherited land see family members accuse each other of greed and destructive desire to accumulate at the expense of their immediate relatives. Consuming figures are condemned as immoral ‘greedy eaters’ in a variety of ways.

Adopting the term ‘moral politics’, this thesis identifies moral debate about economic practice as an important and understudied terrain of anthropological inquiry. Departing from conventional understandings of the ‘moral economy’ as cohesive and harmonious circuits of reciprocity, ‘moral politics’ explores the divergent, conflicting opinions people hold about what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ economic practice, and how such fields of evaluation and debate shape understandings of persons, their reputation and their public standing. In doing so, I show how central Kenyans see consumption as emblematic of a new type of self-interested individuality characteristic of a changing moral world: greedy eating. That economic change is argued about in a moral key underscores emic insistence on moral solutions to economic problems – that better futures are available through adherence to the right sort of moral values and that the solution to immoral predation lies in uprightness, moral fortitude, and, above all, the maintenance of the family.





Englund, Harri


Kenya, Social Anthropology, African Studies, Economic Anthropology, Anthropology of Morality


Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
ESRC (1662087)
ESRC (1662087)
UK Economic and Social Research Council, British Institute in Eastern Africa, French Institute for Research in Africa, UAC Nigeria, Darwin College.