The Pursuit of Modern Consuming Femininity

by Sanyu A. Mojola

Jacqueline, a Kenyan high school girl, wanted to be modern. She was not poor, but she nonetheless had needs. As she explained, “You know, if you are a schoolgirl, it is very hard to get money unless you are given by your parent, and let’s say there is a very nice trouser you want to buy and you cannot ask your father or mother for money. Now it will force you to look for a boyfriend whose parents are a bit rich so that if you beg for something like Kshs 1000 [$14.28], he can easily give you so that you can go and buy that trouser that you are really in need of, but if, let’s say, you are working in somebody’s house, it will force you to scrub that house every morning but at the end of the month, you only earn 100 shillings.”

As economic inequality becomes exacerbated across sub-Saharan Africa, billboards advertising modern products are ubiquitous, but portray lifestyles that remain out of reach for many. Schoolgirls like Jacqueline, who I write about in Love, Money and HIV: Becoming a Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS were in a curious predicament. For women in this culture, as in others, consumption and display of goods such as fashionable clothing and beauty products are a key way in which modern femininity is signified. However schoolgirls’ families while able to cover basic needs, could not provide what they considered luxuries. So what to do?

Jacqueline had clearly considered what were limited options. Girls’ jobs were hard to find, and when found, did not pay much; certainly not enough to cover consumption desires. Finding a generous boyfriend – whose provision was a marker of love in this setting – was a clear solution to one problem. Yet it opened them up to another. Rich men also had higher rates of HIV. Young African women’s pursuit of consuming modernity helps makes sense of not only their higher rates of HIV compared to young men, many of whom are poor, but also why Africa’s middle class and rich women have the highest rates of HIV.

 

Sanyu A. Mojola is the author of Love, Money, and HIV: Becoming a Modern African Woman in the Age of AIDS, and is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.