Mbeere - Economy

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Horticulture is central to the economy. The most important crops are maize, millet, sorghum, beans, cassava, sugarcane, bananas, and mangoes. Tobacco and cotton are the most important cash crops. The distribution and relative importance of these cultigens vary according to soil type, elevation, and amount of rainfall. The Mbeere value livestock, particularly cattle, sheep, and goats, as markers of wealth and prestige. Their distribution varies by ecological zone. Herd sizes tend to increase in the low-lying areas. Chickens and ducks are ubiquitous, but owning them carries no prestige. The Mbeere also exploit a number of wild-food resources such as fruits. The most important and valued wild food is honey. It is eaten raw and used in the preparation of beer.

Industrial Arts. Among Mbeere crafts are pottery and woven basketry, both practiced by women. Leather is worked by men. Blacksmiths, always men, manufacture decorative rings, spear and adze blades, knives, arrow points, razors, and the like. Decorative gourds are fashioned by women, and various carved wooden items, including bows, arrows, and spear handles, by men. Production of these items had steadily diminished given the growing cash economy; substitute consumer goods are available in rural shops. Manufacture of metal weaponry has also diminished with the cessation of warfare, reduction of wild game, and the official hunting ban on large animals.

Trade. Trading relationships were an essential feature of traditional society and helped even out the effects of shortages or famines. The Mbeere traded various goods, livestock, and foodstuffs with their neighbors. In the colonial era, formal markets were established throughout Embu District, including the largest one, begun in 1927, at Ishiara in lower Mbeere. The markets included shops and a weekly open-air bazaar for the sale of livestock, produce, processed foods, locally manufactured crafts, and inexpensive imported consumer items.

Division of Labor. A sexual division of labor sharply defines many activities. Men control livestock and gather honey. They hunt and clear fields. Both men and women cultivate, harvest, and gather other wild foods without restriction. Likewise, marketing activities are unrestricted. Craft production is clearly delineated by sex: only men forge metal, and only women produce pottery and basketry. Women perform most domestic tasks such as grinding grains, gathering firewood, drawing water, and cooking.

Land Tenure. Land was traditionally a plentiful resource. Individuals or family groups could claim pieces of uncultivated bush and begin clearing it for cultivation. Pasturage was also freely available. Once land was claimed, it remained inalienable within the founding patrilineal segment, although an individual could pledge his piece of lineage land in exchange for livestock or some other value. The pledge was redeemable because an individual could regain his land on repayment of what he had received in exchange. Lineage land was heritable by male descendants. A woman did not inherit lineage land but was allocated gardens by her husband from his own lineage property. This pattern has been altered dramatically since the end of World War II as land has become a commodity, convertible into cash and controlled increasingly by individuals rather than groups. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing with the independent government, this pattern has gained legal sanction, as individual ownership has become the centerpiece of a land-reform program. Contemporary land tenure thus emphasizes individual ownership of registered plots of land. The constraints previously exercised by one's lineage on the use or disposition of land are now greatly diminished.

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