Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for September, 2015

Every struggle needs feminism

I need feminsim because

“What is feminism?” is a question that I have been asked very many times.  Last week alone, I was asked the question three times.  As people ask this question, many do not hesitate to share their understanding of feminism with me.  The most common ones tend to be feminists as women who hate men, with intentions to be like men and go against nature by dominating over men.

After responding to this question during a radio show last week, I got into a discussion with a feminist friend who had listened to the programme, and we both agreed how difficult it can be even for a feminist to define feminism.

Like many feminists, I often focus on challenging inequalities experienced by women, because women are among the most oppressed groups, subjected to various forms of oppression in just about every space that they occupy, be it public or private.

However, this definition doesn’t wholly encompass what feminism is for me, as I find myself concerned about many other forms of oppression experienced by different groups of people.  I seem to be concerned just about every emerging issue that oppresses a particular group of people, while privileging others. From hawkers to farmers, health workers, domestic workers, guards and more recently, teachers.  I am also concerned about a variety of issues from LGBTI rights, to children’s sexuality in addition to society’s need to silence and shrink women.

There is no single issue struggle

My definition of feminism is therefore growing to recognize that gender is not the only factor that facilitates oppression, but class, race, age and ethnicity are also among factors that intersect to exclude and marginalize or privilege certain groups of people.   As such, gendered structures are not the only systems of oppression, but other systems such as colonial legacies, imperialism and capitalism, often interconnect and sustain each other to oppress a majority and privilege a few.

Although women tend to be most disadvantaged by these systems of oppression, they too can be privileged and oppressors of various disadvantaged groups. Feminism therefore needs to be intersectional by recognizing the ways in which different groups of people are disadvantaged as a result of the interconnection of various factors.

Intersectionality

At the moment, like many Kenyans, I am greatly concerned about the education crisis that the country is facing.  Beyond the issue of teachers’ wages, the crisis demonstrates how capitalism as a system of oppression operates, and why the education crisis is an anti-capitalist struggle and consequently a key concern for feminism.

Capitalist ideology has made the Kenyan government comfortable with neglecting its education sector, failing to pay teachers adequately and creating a sub-standard public education.  Citizens on the other hand have responded by resorting to private education when the public system fails.

These mind-sets by both government and citizens, have created opportunity for charities and entrepreneurs to produce brands of education, to fill the void created by government inadequacy. For the upper end of the market, the brands are presented in all manner of enticing packages, with a promise of producing successful, wealthy, confident and all rounded children. For those in the lower end of the market, the conditions are immaterial.

These responses by the government, private sector, civil society and citizens have bred values that normalize capitalism, and even laud it as choice and democracy.  As a result we have a public education system that has over time suffered neglect by the government and has slowly been going to the dogs, while the private education system, both profit and non-profit, high and poor quality continues to thrive and boom.

As the middle class and wealthy rush to take their children to top notch private schools, the poor, who are the majority, are left to go through poor quality education that does not equip them adequately with basic education skills such as numeracy and arithmetic, nor prepare them adequately with skills to be productive in the economy.

An Uwezo study on the quality of education in public schools in East Africa revealed that less than 30% of children in class 3 possess basic literacy and arithmetic skills.  The study also revealed that 20% of children in class 7 cannot competently undertake class 2 numeracy and literacy assignments.

The situation is worse for children in urban slums, up to 70% of whom are attending poor quality low cost private schools with untrained teachers and poorly equipped schools, in unsanitary environments and with minimal resources.  In other communities, children can neither access the poor quality public schools or even the poor quality private schools, and schooling for them remains a distant dream.

Lack of commitment by the government to provide decent education for all its citizens, coupled with privatization and charity as responses to government inadequacy has created high levels of inequality and stripped the poor off the right to education.  Decent education is not secured or available to all, but only to those who can afford it.  Education as a citizenship right thus remains a guarantee to only those with money and the wealthy.

Sadly, capitalism describes this as freedom of choice.  I fail to see the freedom in this.  I don’t see the freedom in a small portion of the population going through high quality of education, while a major section of the population goes through poor quality education. I don’t see the freedom in paying for expensive private education, and at the same time paying huge amounts of taxes to a government that fails to provide the fundamental right of decent education to its citizens.

Did we fight for independence and for a new Constitution to entrench the idea of a class society more deeply? To become a society where the fruits of independence and the gains of the new Constitution are enjoyed by a few?

As a person who went through high quality primary and secondary education in public schools, I believe change is possible. But change can only happen when people respond and resist after carefully and critically thinking about what is happening around them.

My understanding of feminism as a struggle that resists all oppressive systems, is therefore essential in providing me with the tools to be part of this change.

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This is how low we have sunk

A few months ago, I planned a group interview with residents of certain parts of Nairobi.  When I got to the venue of our meeting, I asked the guard to allow me in for the meeting. To my surprise, her response was, “unaenda ile mkutano ya waluhya?” Quite irritated with the question, I informed her that I didn’t know the ethnic identities of the people that I was meeting.

Shortly after that incident, I attended a meeting in a different community in Nairobi.  In this meeting, no one seemed to know the name of any of the people they were discussing, and the descriptions ranged from the “Kikuyu mama”, “Mkamba shopkeeper” to the “Mkisii policeman” and the “Kalenjin watchman” among other ethnic related identities.

Using ethnicities as a primary identity seems pervasive, not only in Nairobi, but other parts of the country as well.  Late last year for instance, I was conducting research in Turkana County, and I had this wonderful taxi driver who picked me up from the airport, took me everywhere I wanted to go, and was extremely helpful to say the least.  On the last day of my stay, as he was driving me to the airport, he asked the common question, “na nikuulize, kwenyu ni wapi?”  I told him that I am from Nairobi, since that is where I was born, raised and live.

As is common with many other Kenyan conversations, he wanted to know where my “real home” was.  I knew that he wanted to know my tribe, so I told him where I came from just to see where he was going with this.

When I told him where I came from, he almost jumped up to hug me.  I had never seen him this excited the entire time I was with him in Turkana.  Seeing how excited he was, I asked him “kwani huko ni ushago kwenyu, ama unajua mtu huko?”  He wasn’t from the place, and didn’t know anyone from the place, but he was my tribesman, and judging from his response that must have been the most important thing he got to know about me.

I think about these incidents, and I get the sense that we are losing it as a country, given the significance and primacy that is increasingly being pegged to ethnic identities. The number of times that people ask me where I am from, so that they can know my tribe is all too common.  Some will go ahead and ask whether my surname belongs to my father or my husband.  Perhaps because to them, my physical identity does not match that of the community that they associate my surname with.

A surname unfortunately is now used to judge political standing, and in some cases economic and social standing, as we saw with a recent tweet by a well-known political analyst.  We elect “our own”, and are satisfied with the simple idea of having “our people” occupy top positions in government, never mind that that they often do not represent us or our interests, often looting public resources for themselves and the few people surrounding them. As citizens we are often left bearing the brunt of the self-interested leadership of “our people”.

We seem to be sinking lower into the morass of tribalism by the day. The recent incident of a man by the name Mugo wa Wairimu, raping women while masquerading as a gynaecologist, demonstrates how low we have sunk as a society due to tribalism.

When I visited Mugo wa Wairimu’s Facebook page following the scandal, I was shocked to see how much support he had from his tribesmen, who purported that this was a political and tribal scheme by the opposing political and tribal camp.  His supporters alleged that this was an agenda to “destroy” their man, and encouraged him to be strong, knowing that the plan of the “evil one” would not prevail.

God was on his side, according to his supporters, who continued to encourage him with examples of men that had suffered tribulation, but emerged stronger and victorious.

Not too long before that, an audio clip of a woman who was being raped went viral in Nairobi.  This time it was by a man by the name Morris, but given the name Mollis, as the woman he was raping could not pronounce his name correctly due to mother tongue influence.  Using her accent to determine her community, jokes went round that this was evidence of the lack of sexual prowess by the women of her community, as the stereotype goes.

Tribalism seems to be eroding our humanity, intelligence and sense of justice.  Value for humanity, pursuit for democracy and justice have been replaced and blurred by tribalism, to the extent that as a society we no longer care how much we suffer or who suffers, the perpetrator will be supported by those they share an ethnic identity with.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and only time will tell how long we can continue this way, and where this will lead us.  What I know for sure is that this is not a healthy state for any nation to be, and as with all diseases, the longer it goes untreated, the more devastating and tragic the final outcome.

Please teach us to use condoms

Condoms

The first time a boy asked me to have sex, I was five years old.  We were playing hide and seek, and the two of us ran off to hide in a bush.  We were so excited because we had found this spot, that we thought was so hidden, we wouldn’t be found.

But it turned out my friend, who was six years old, was getting a few ideas from the fact that the place was so hidden, and took the opportunity to tell me that it was a good spot to “dinya” each other.  I didn’t know what the word meant, so I asked him what it meant.  He told me that it was an act that involved his “thing touching my thing”.  We’d grown up referring to our vaginas and penises as things, so I then understood what he meant.

It still wasn’t clear to me though, so I asked him if that meant that we’d have to remove our under wear, and he answered that it did.  Of course I’d been taught that removing my under wear in public was “bad manners”, so I told him I wouldn’t do it, because it sounded like bad manners.

Sometime back I narrated this incident to a friend of mine who is about 15 years older than me.  I was explaining to her how most children are naturally curious about sex, and I used my experience at the age of five to demonstrate that contrary to popular belief, TV and the internet are not necessarily the main drivers of sexual curiosity among children.

I explained to her that when I was five, we had just about a TV set for every two homes in my neighbourhood.  We had only one TV station, which only started its operations at 4PM, and by 7PM it was boring documentaries until midnight when the station closed until the next day.

She completely agreed with me, and to my surprise shared that she had her first penetrative sexual experience at the age of 9, with a boy more or less her age.  She made it clear that she wasn’t raped.  Sex between 9 year olds at a time when TVs were barely existent, and discussions on sex and condoms were to a large extent also non-existent, would come as a surprise to many.

However, TV and the internet are certainly not the only things blamed for children’s curiosity and engagement in sexual activity.  Religion has taught us to attribute children’s sexual activity to the devil.  But as a friend of mine shared with me, even religious children and teenagers can be sexually active.

This friend shared how she met her first boyfriend at Christmas Bible Camp, at the age of 16 years.  Once they got back from camp and back to school, they wrote letters, often quoting scripture to encourage each other, as they longed to see each other during the next holiday season.

During the April holidays, they would visit each other regularly, with Bible study as a key agenda.  My friend jokes about how they would carry the small Bibles given to them at Bible Camp, although she wishes they had carried condoms instead.  Reason being, she got pregnant and had to procure an abortion, making her 16th year the worst of her life.

At 16 she dealt with pregnancy, breaking up with her first love, procuring an abortion, keeping it a secret, living with the guilt of “murder” as abortion was and is constantly framed in religious circles, and overcoming the depression and suicidal tendencies that came with that.

I consider myself fairly lucky not to have had my first experience of sexual intercourse at the age of 5, 9 or 16, seeing how ill-prepared young people often are when it comes to sexual matters.  But even though I had my first experience in my early 20’s, I still wasn’t better prepared.  I found myself in a relationship, having unprotected sex with a partner whose HIV status I didn’t know.

When I think of my experience, I get horrified at the danger I put myself in.  But the more I listen to other people’s childhood, teenage and early adulthood sexual experiences, the more I realize just how unprepared most, if not all of us were.  But who would blame us if all the sex ed. we got was “say no to sex”, because “sex is sin”, and you therefore have to “wait until marriage”?

Who would blame us for having unprotected sex, when sex ed. was so far removed from our realities, and looked something like this?  And we were left wondering where and how a condom should be worn?

FemaleParts_of_the_male_reproductive_system

The sad thing is that, even though many of us went through sex ed. that didn’t work, and our first sexual experiences either left us traumatized or thanking God for all the things that could have gone wrong, but didn’t, we still don’t seem to have learnt much from it.

We are still burying our heads in the sand, staging uproars every time a sex education initiative that could address the realities of young people’s sexual experiences is tabled for discussion or consideration. We still believe in sex ed. that advocates for abstinence, threatens children with hell and unrealistically expects young people to wait until marriage, even though it didn’t work for us.

I must confess that I am not any different, as I have only been unlearning and slowly coming out of burying my head when it comes to young people’s sexuality.  One of the moments I regret most is during my early days after university when I worked for a HIV education project for young people.  I remember a 10 year old boy, one day after we had conducted a session on HIV and AIDS, pleading with us, “Please teach us to use condoms.  We just want to know.  We promise not to use them.”

His plea to be taught how to use condoms was ignored, but it haunted me for more than 10 years, leading me to write a 100 page dissertation on the topic of children’s sexuality.  I still wish I had responded differently, but I hope that my dissertation will help someone working with children to approach children’s sexuality differently.

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