Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for March, 2015

Mutumia

Giving birth to myself

A few days ago, I experienced this euphoric feeling that I get when I get intensely absorbed in writing. I do not know whether I can describe it, but I will try. I feel a warm grip around my stomach, as excitement builds up, my heart beats faster, my focus sharpens and my heart experiences this near-explosive sensation, and when I put a full stop to a sentence, I take a deep breath. The deep breath is followed by feeling of deep satisfaction, leaving me elated or in tears. Whichever emotion it evokes, I call it my writing high.

When I get my writing high, I lose sense of space or time, as I experience a spiritual interconnectedness with humanity and nature. I feel like taking a paint brush and splashing yellows, blues, oranges, reds, greens, whites, pinks, purples, blacks and all the colours imaginable on a canvas. My high makes me want to take an instrument and hit notes that are breathtaking. But I am not an artist or a painter, so during my highs my academic side takes over, and I get analytical, philosophical and theoretical, and I feel like I am communing with Karl Marx, Audre Lorde, Frantz Fanon, Leon Trotsky, Chinua Achebe, Bishop Spong, Bishop Tutu, Rev. Njoya and Chimamanda Adichie at the same table. It is a deeply intense feeling, and I don’t even think I have done justice in describing it.

The art of writing

When I experienced my most recent high, I was reflecting on the reason why I write. Like the highs, writing has periods of lows characterised by mental blocks, loss of creativity and even questioning whether writing is really my thing. When I got my high, after a low period, I remembered why I write. I realised that writing gives me untold pleasure; it is my world, and one of the things that I was born to do.

As a researcher, I write for a living, and as a blogger, I moonlight in writing. But beyond paying the bills and getting the occasional high, I write because I am a woman.

writing and discovering your beliefs

The word for woman in my language is ‘mutumia’. Loosely translated this means the voiceless or the silent one. Woman was named after silence, or silence was named after woman; I am yet to figure out which one is which. The fact that woman and silence are synonyms is reflective of the voicelessness of women. I live in a society whose intent to mould me into a ‘mutumia’ began from the moment it was declared, “it’s a girl”. This consciousness of society’s agenda has set me on a mission to re-create myself and my gender; to give birth to an empowered and vocal womanhood.

The journey to recreate myself and reclaim my voice has been and continues to be a long one, with many starts and halts. In a recent blog, I shared about a novel that I began writing in my teenage. The novel was my voice, my way of speaking out about the gender differences I noticed as I was growing up, and challenging status quo. I never finished writing my book because real life priorities set in and these silenced my voice. Like many women, the day to day demands and realities of life required that I ignore my voice and focus on things that would sustain my life. Between getting an education, succeeding in a career, creating happy families, making money and more often than not, juggling all these, many women lose their voice in the rut race.

There is no such thing as voiceless

I am fortunate that despite missing the missed opportunity to finish writing my novel, I have a few tools, thanks to technological advancements, that allow me to reclaim my voice. I cannot however give credit to my ‘privilege’ if any, in reclaiming my voice. Reclaiming my voice has been a process and a journey that has involved listening to the voices of other women that have refused to be boxed in the ‘mutumia’ category. Women that left a mark in society through their voices, and those in my generation that continue to follow in the footsteps of their great predecessors.

Many women are however not as fortunate as I am, and continue to face numerous barriers that limit their ability to defy the notion of woman as a silenced and voiceless being. I have met women in physically, emotionally and sexually abusive relationships, in their homes and places of work. However, social, economic and cultural limitations render them voiceless and powerless, putting them in the ‘mutumia’ box that society has created for them.

I-am-not-free-while-any

As I reclaim my voice through writing, I hope that I can help other women reclaim theirs. I also hope that the women that I reclaim my voice together with, will continue to catalyse and help other women to reclaim their voices.

Because voice is power.

Voices are power

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Why was my womanhood not celebrated?

When I was 16, I began to write a novel about Wambui, a girl who was born with a rebellious spirit. In my story, I depicted Wambui as a girl who constantly questioned and defied gender norms. Her grandmother was constantly lamenting that Wambui had inherited the rebellious spirit of her grandfather, and often wished that her younger brother, Kiarie had inherited it instead. She worried that a girl with a rebellious spirit would never find a man to marry her.

One of the highlights of the novel, was when at the age of 15, Wambui was required to help prepare for Kiarie’s circumcision party. Consumed with anger, Wambui got into a heated argument with her grandmother after refusing to participate in preparing or even attend the celebration. She reasoned that it was not fair that Kiarie’s manhood got to be celebrated, yet her womanhood was not. While her grandmother tried to explain that it was only natural to hold a party when a boy grows into man, Wambui contended that she too had grown into a woman, and deserved a party. She asked her grandmother, why the growth of her breasts and hips, as markers of growing into a woman were not celebrated. “I too, want the beauty of my womanhood to be celebrated.” she demanded.

Celebrating women

The novel was my reflection then of how female sexuality was handled differently compared to male sexuality. I was expressing my dissatisfaction and outrage with these differences. I had attended a few of these ceremonies where a small, timid looking 13 year old boy who had just undergone circumcision would be ushered into manhood. The speeches given in such ceremonies aimed at empowering the boy to take on the challenges and responsibilities of being a man. Every sentence of the speeches began with the phrase “now that you are a man” and this was followed with words that instilled courage, pride and authority. I contrasted with with my “now that you are a woman” speech, with was followed with words that instilled fear, embarrassment and domesticity.

While these 13 year old men would be showered with gifts and words of wisdom, I had never seen a similar event to usher a girl into womanhood. The passage to womanhood was a private affair, addressed in hushed and not so pleasant conversation often between a girl and an older woman. The passage to manhood on the other hand was a public affair, with pomp, colour and ululation. I hated the invisibility of being a woman; unworthy of notice or acknowledgment.

I hated the fact that the transition to being a man came with freedom, liberation and with mandate to take authority, yet for girls, the transition was the exact opposite. Being a woman came with extra policing, caution and ignominy. The growing bodies of girls were deemed evil, with the ability to “tempt men”, who were “naturally weak”. It is no wonder, many girls walked with a stoop to hide their growing breasts, or tied sweaters around their hips to conceal their growing hips.

My novel was my 16 year old way of saying that there is something wrong with the cultural valuation of girls and boys. It was was my way of saying that something is amiss with the way society handles the sexuality of boys and that of girls, and the messages that come with each. It was my way of questioning the undue pressure that these gendered messaged place on women and men. The pressure on women to be “proper”, to be care givers and to shoulder the heavier portion of domestic responsibilities. The pressure on men to be “macho”, unfeeling and in many cases to shoulder the heavier portion of financial responsibilities.

Weighed down

My novel was and is still my way of saying that we need liberation from the shackles and burdens imposed by society; burdens and shackles that keep men and women chained and weighed down; chained and weighed down by the yoke and pressures of gender roles and expectations.

As Nancy Smith says in her poem:

For every woman who is tired of acting weak

When she knows that she is strong

There is a man who is tired of appearing strong When he feels vulnerable

For every woman who is tired of being called ‘an emotional female’

There is a man who is denied the right to weep and be gentle

For every woman who feels ‘tied down’ by her children

There is a man who is denied the full pleasure of parenthood

For every woman who takes a step towards her own liberation

There is a man who finds that the way to freedom has been made a little easier.

Skip Lunch and Save an African

Save all the Africans

I have never experienced poverty, and so I will not claim to speak for the poor. That said, I have experienced the indignity of poverty, and will therefore speak for the dignity of the poor.

It was in the streets of London, where a“beggar” with a container approached me and asked for a donation to “save Africa and other poor parts of the world”. My contribution would send a poor child child to school, and provide a meal for a starving family. He looked tired from all the talking and efforts to convince passersby. I imagined the smirk on his face, as he went to bed with sore feet and a sore throat, but with a happy heart, having saved an African or two, with a container full of coins. As if this was not enough, advertisements on TV begged for money to “save poor Africans”. Miserable women in need of maternal healthcare, young girls and women walking many kilometers to fetch dirty water for their families, starving and emaciated children and mothers were the faces of such campaigns. As an African, I hated this representation of Africa, and every time I saw these “beggars” and watched the campaigns to “save Africa”, I felt my dignity stripped.

Save Umgoga

These campaigns made me understand why I had to go through so much humiliation when I applied for a European visa, or to get into a European country. They made me understand why I was expected to have nothing between my ears, and there was often surprise if I failed to meet this expectation. I understood why the colour of my skin was associated with sex work. As an African, I was the face of desperate poverty, hunger, starvation, ignorance, war and death. I was therefore perceived as ready to run from my country or even sell my body to escape my poverty. I imagined that these perceptions were often based on the idea that I was likely to be another African that had been saved by those who were charitable enough to “experience” my starvation by skipping a few lunches. I became so conscious of the “stench” of my “poverty”, I almost suffocated in it. I identified with Dambudzo Marechera when he speaks of the “identity crisis, self-hatred, self re-examination, both excessive Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism, reversed racism, escapism and alienation” that he struggled with as a student at Oxford.

I identified with parents that I met in a research I had conducted, several years back, seeking to understand why children in Nairobi’s slums attended poor quality low cost private schools in the slums, yet the government had declared free primary education. The parents cited poor quality public education, as a key factor that had forced them to take their children to private schools in the slums.

When I asked these parents whether they had officially complained about the state of public education, some considered themselves to be “beggars”, who could not afford to be “choosers”. They took whatever was offered to them, “waiting for a better donor to bail them out.” While these kind of responses expressed the indignity of poverty, relegating the poor to the mercy of anyone that could help, I also got responses that demonstrated the basic need for human dignity. One woman observed that her poverty required her to withstand whatever was offered, without complaining. This observation led her to conclude that, “free things are bad”, and strongly believed that, “it is better to go for a service you have struggled to pay, no matter how cheap it costs”. These kind of responses made it clear that even though they were poor, they did not want to be at the mercy of charity. They valued their dignity and voice, and they wanted their voices to be recognised and listened to. I realised that, charity, while gratifying to the giver, and even to the recipient, it has this tendency to strip people off their dignity.

I am concerned that we are becoming a charity state. Public services have become synonymous with services for the poor. We have a state where elected representatives serve the poor through handouts, rather than develop laws that cause systemic transformation. It is no wonder the culture of “Mheshimiwa nisaidie” or “naomba Serikali” is not dying even with a Constitution that gives all sovereign power to the people. Sadly, the idea of a charity state, is extending from the government to the people; where the wealthy and middle classes “skip lunches” and “run marathons” to “save the poor”. The desire of the West to save Africa, and the gratification derived from it, is the same desire and gratification that Africa’s wealthy and middle classes derive from saving the poor among them.

Gratification

I am concerned when I see people happy to “save the poor”, but not seeking to question the corruption and poor policy frameworks that underlie the state of our public services.  It becomes even more galling when several of these “charitable” elected representatives, are rumoured to be making money illegally, by selling drugs, grabbing land and inflating tenders. They steal from the poor to give peanuts to the poor; gestures that are are met with loud applause.

When I give food to the poor

I am concerned with the small vision that the government and its citizens have for this state. I wonder if there is anyone who is daring to dream differently. I choose to have a bigger dream. I see the vision of a dignified citizenry. I dream of a day when public services will not be for the poor, because services for the poor tend to be poor services. I see a day when our taxes will provide decent healthcare, quality education, affordable and decent housing, regular supply of clean and safe water, electricity, and security for all its citizens, and not just the poor. I long to walk into a public facility for treatment, confident that I will enjoy high quality and efficient service and treatment. I commit to give the best of myself to support a cause that holds a similar vision.

I've seen the promised land

I know such a dream will quickly be dismissed as insane. Like Erwin McManus, I realise that I live on the bubble of insanity, because I feel the weight of human suffering, loneliness and despair on me all the time. It’s not getting easier; if anything, it’s always right on the edge of my skin.

Insane as this dream may be, I choose to persist and not be quiet, complacent, tired or discouraged, until the campaign for dignity and equality is won.

We must not tire

I Refuse to Shrink

If I fail to be a “good woman” it is not for lack of training or aspiration. I grew up surrounded by messages of the “submissive” and “virtuous” woman. I wanted to be a “good” woman, because like many girls, I aspired to be happily married, and I had been taught, that successful marriages were made up of “submissive” and “virtuous” femininity. I knew the hourly time schedule of the Proverbs 31 woman, because I aspired to one day, “bring honour to my husband in the towns”.

Proverbs 31 woman 3

That was not my only dream though; I also aspired to travel the world, be highly educated, have my own money, and significantly influence society. These two dreams were a source of great conflict for most of my adult life. I struggled with what society expected of me as a woman, who I was, and who I wanted to be. Although it was clear in my head that I wanted to be treated as an equal, I also understood that “men could not handle a strong woman” and I therefore had to compromise, and shrink myself. I didn’t want to shrink myself though, and every time I did, I sensed that I had lost something, that I could never recover.

It was frustrating to hear men who were my equals in many respects, imagine that their gender was an automatic ticket to domination in a relationship. I shared my dilemmas with people that were close to me, and I got all sorts of advice; all given with my best interests at heart.

An older woman, whom I confided in, was surprised at the content of my conversations with “potentials”. She advised me to be less intense, and to be “smart”, which I interpreted as manipulative. The strategy was, to make myself sound “normal”, which I interpreted as less smart, with the ability to “submit” and be a “good wife”. Once I was married, I would “slowly unleash my true colours”. I can only imagine the warfare that would ensue, if he also had true colours to unleash.

warfare

When I confided in a male friend of mine that it felt like I had to choose between a successful life in the public domain and a happy marital life, he encouraged me that I could pursue both to the fullest. He gave me the example of a woman who was a highly accomplished professor, married to a man who was less accomplished academically, and financially. Although she owned most of the property in their marriage, her secret to a happy marriage though, was to claim ownership of her property by her husband. My friend hailed her for remaining a “good woman” even when her success had potential to “corrupt” her.

I shared with a close friend of mine, about the frustration of finding men who believed in gender equality. I argued that perhaps the best thing would be to find someone that had potential to be nurtured into believing in gender equality. My friend rubbished my thinking and argued that if I strongly believed in equality, I should find someone who believed in equality as well. She warned me against the idea of thinking that I could change a person’s view of life. I must say, that was the most profound and empowering piece of advice I ever got on dating: find someone who believes in the same things that you do, and with the same intensity.

My newly empowered self, got back into the dating game, this time, unapologetic about what I believed in. I met fun, intelligent, widely travelled, and well-read, men. Their messages remained clear and consistent: “I will love you, I will do my best to ensure that we have a good life together, I will provide, but you have to be smaller than me; I have to be the man, the leader; your role is to support and help me”. Some got biblical, “God created woman from man’s rib, and not the other way round”. In some cases I went through short courses on human anatomy, “there is no body with two heads; any functional body has one head, and a neck to support it”. In other cases I learned a thing or two about leadership and how to run organisations; “any successful organisation has one leader and followers”. Dating was turning out to be school in itself.

I didn't come from your rib

My newly – empowered response, also got consistent. Determined to stand for what I believed in, I got a new mantra, “My dreams are too big, my view of life too broad, my passions too many, my interests too varied, my imagination too wild. I refuse to shrink”. I determined not to entertain any demands to shrink myself to fit the size of any man’s ego.

I noticed something peculiar with my male friends. Their language shifted significantly when they become fathers to daughters. I now realise how having a daughter can transform a man into a feminist, when I see my young father friends, make posts about their daughters on social media.

Daddys girl 1

These young fathers speak with such pride and sometimes exaggeration about their daughters’ achievements and ambitions. They have such big dreams and wild imaginations of what their daughters can become. They see their daughters as CEOs, great artists and musicians, and even presidents. I haven’t come across any one describing their daughter as submissive, future helper, or future neck to a great man. It is clear that the daughters of these young fathers are their own products, and not the products of the rib of another man. I imagine that they would be outraged at the thought of their daughters’ potential being shrunk to fit the size of the ego of the man they love. The irony of needing a smaller spouse to raise a great daughter, remains baffling.

Today is International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is Make it Happen. We need to raise sons whose masculinities are not threatened by strong women. We need to raise our daughters to refuse to shrink. We can make it happen.

Tino’s soul is dead

When I met Tino, I wanted to be her. She was everything I imagined was an embodiment of success. She was intelligent, well-spoken, confident, and accomplished. Her dread-locked hair and African clothed body spoke of self-assurance and comfort with her roots. I could tell that she was just about my age, and that made me slightly jealous and curious at the same time. I wondered what it was that had moulded her to be that way; was it her background, did she go to the ‘right’ schools, or just a case of very high intelligence? To sum it up, Tino was my girl – crush.

Talking to Tino was completely accidental. I had not intended to talk to her, being too intimidated to approach her. When I talked to her though, I realised that we had so much in common, and although we came from different countries, we had shared dreams and aspirations for our countries. Ours was a union of hearts, and a marriage of minds. Tino was like a waterfall; energetic, inspiring and just fresh. I got so much from her, and felt guilty that I didn’t have as much to offer her.

Over the years, we managed to stay in touch, hopeful, but uncertain that we would meet again. I almost fainted when I got a call from Tino, telling me that she was in town, and inviting me to a conference, where she would be making a presentation. Not wanting to miss a single minute of her presentation, I got there in time to listen to her speak. I took out my note book and my pen, popped up my ears alert ready to listen to every word that Tino had to say. I knew Tino would have just the right words, leaving the entire room energised and inspired.

They say, great expectations make frustrated (wo)men, and I was to learn the meaning of that saying on that day. Tino was not her usual self. I attributed it to fatigue, given that she had just arrived the day before. Even then, I knew that she would deliver, and I waited anxiously. Contrary to what I expected, Tino was flat, dull and even annoying. Her passion was missing, and her radical ideas had been replaced with the conventional. The poor, the homeless, the dead and the dying, were no longer people, but objects of statistics and intervention. Rather than feel energised, I started to feel lethargic as energy was slowly sapped out of me.

As I listened to Tino, I began to experience waves of emotions. First came the shock, at the transformation, then denial, followed by anger, and a sense of betrayal to the cause that we stood for. We had taken on an unspoken oath to defend and fight for equality, justice and truth. At that point, I wanted to stand up and protest, but the ‘dignity’ that masked the room, and perhaps my own uncertainty, held me back.

As she continued to speak, I realised that Tino was no longer with us, but had joined the living-dead; her soul was dead, and she was not even aware. She was like a tree with decaying roots, seemingly alive, but could not bear fruit.

At that moment, I could not stand it anymore. I walked out of the room, my throat choking, as I held back tears, my mind going insane with thoughts, my heart filled with emotions. As I got into a taxi, I asked myself, what had killed Tino’s soul. I reflected at a time when my soul had died. I cried as I remembered the pain of carrying a dead soul. I cried in empathy, at the thought of Tino experiencing the same pain.

My heart bleeds for Tino’s soul. The dilemma I am in is enormous. Where do I find answers to the questions that have been running through my mind? I lay sleepless at night pondering how to awaken a dead soul. I fear for the security and stability of my own soul. I wonder if I am up to the task to resuscitate the soul of a woman that I once looked up to.

My phone is ringing now. It is Tino…”hallo”…..

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