Poor Men and Loose Women: Kenya's 'Other' Whites

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Seminar Date
April 15, 2009
On the 17th April, 1917, a female patient at the Mathari Mental Hospital in Nairobi gave birth to a baby girl. The mother’s name was Kate Van der Mere and the name of her daughter, Gipsy. That a patient at the hospital gave birth to a child was certainly unusual. That the patient was European was even more disturbing. But what made the case extraordinary was that Kate Van der Mere had been admitted to Mathari in July 1915. She had been impregnated, in other words, inside the hospital grounds. Shortly after the birth of the child, a committee, comprised of three high court judges, was appointed to investigate how Van der Merwe had become pregnant and to make recommendations with a view to preventing a similar occurrence from happening in the future.1 On the 26 May, two of the judges (one was indisposed) visited the hospital compound, located a short drive outside Nairobi on the Fort Hall road, just beyond the salubrious suburbs of Muthaiga. There they interviewed the hospital Superintendent, Mr. Henfrey; Henfrey’s wife who was the matron of the hospital; the Medical Officer-in-Charge, Captain Thomson and the Acting Principal Medical Officer of the Protectorate, Major Haran. They also inspected the buildings allotted to the female inmates. The committee’s report provides some clues as to how Van der Merwe had become pregnant but more illuminating are their conclusions as to where the blame for what was considered a grievous breach of colonial boundaries should reside. The spatial organisation of the hospital emerges as a central concern: that an (unknown) male had gained access to a female patient indicated first of all the inadequacy of the physical means of separation by which patients were confined according to race and gender. The female quarters, the committee noted, although separate from the male quarters, were not placed in a separate enclosure and were located at a dangerous proximity to the male portion of the Asylum. The hospital matron reported that she had approached the Public Works Department some time previously in order that an enclosure be placed around the female quarters but nothing had been done. As to the identity of the father of the child, the committee was at a loss...
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