Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for November, 2015

I am because we are

Ubuntu 1

November 2015 marks exactly one year since I started blogging. My blog was largely inspired by the spirit of Ubuntu, an African philosophy that states, “I am because we are” and in some cases expressed as, “I am because you are”.  The Ubuntu philosophy that appreciates the interconnectedness of humanity; that our humanity is inextricably linked.

Writing was therefore my platform to use my voice to add onto the efforts to challenge exclusion that deprives some groups of people from experiencing their full humanity, with the understanding that I cannot be free when others, particularly women continue to be bound.

Ubuntu 2

My first blog post was inspired by the injustice faced by female hawkers on the streets in the hands of City County Officers, otherwise known as kanjo. My second post  was on “My Dress My Choice”, an initiative that was started by women in Nairobi at a time when violent undressing of women in public spaces was becoming rather common.

I wrote the blog post on “My Dress My Choice” because the incidents of women being stripped reminded me of my own experience when I was 15 years old, after a man threatened to strip me at Commercial Bus Station.

I was wearing a long wrap around skirt, and as the wind blew, it blew away the top flap. As I was holding onto my skirt to avoid it being blown off more violently, a man approached me and told me that if I continued to hold my skirt, he would undress me. He said that if I chose to wear revealing clothes, I should not show any signs of discomfort.

At the age of 15 I was beginning to understand that the world I live in is not designed for girls and women to just live, without being controlled by everyone including strangers.

I wrote the article and supported “My Dress My Choice” because it was unbelievable that close to 15 years later after my experience, and at a time when girls and women are said to have advanced tremendously, women were being violently stripped in public for wearing what was deemed inappropriate.

“My Dress My Choice” protest took place on November 17th 2014, and it was a huge success. Women came out in their numbers, supported by some male allies to protest against violent undressing of women. Some of the perpetrators were sentenced to 20 year jail terms and as a result, women to some extent feel safer knowing that action can be taken against such forms of violence.

A while back, I had an experience that made me realize that “My Dress My Choice”, did make gains for women. As I was walking to meet a friend one Saturday afternoon, I faced the all too common problem of society, and particularly men deciding to control what women wear. I was catcalled on several occasions because I was wearing a short dress.

Shake that ass

After ignoring a few catcalls, I got tired and decided that I wasn’t going to be made uncomfortable anymore. So, when another man walking with two other men catcalled me, I stopped him and asked him if he had something to tell me. To my surprise, he got tongue tied and started sweating and breathing heavily; signs that he was having a panic attack. He stammered that he had not said anything to me. I left him at that and moved on.

When I got to my meeting point, I narrated my experience to my friend, perplexed as to why someone would have the nerve to catcall me and then get a panic attack upon being confronted. My friend told me that things were changing and men were begin to get more cautious after men that had stripped women were sentenced to 20 year jail terms.

She shared with me of an incident that she witnessed when a conductor slapped his colleague who was making derogatory remarks at a woman who was wearing what he considered inappropriate. After slapping him, he told him to stop being stupid, asking whether he wanted their matatus to be grounded from operating. My friend said, the driver commented that the days of “playing” with women were over, as Uhuru had decided that abuse and violence against women on the streets would not be tolerated by his regime.

When I think of these two incidents, I want to shout “WE DID IT! We did it as women! We used our outrage to stand with the women that had been stripped, and made significant changes for women in this country. Many of us did not know the women that we were standing up for and wouldn’t even recognize them if we meet them. But that didn’t stop us from being sisters to one another.

mydressmychoice 1

But even as we celebrate this victory, girls and women are still not safe. All forms of abuse and violence against women continue in every imaginable space, be it private or public. The system is also painfully slow and unfriendly to women who seek justice.

An example is one of the women that faced violent undressing in public, who at some point opted to drop her case because of the challenges in the system. She said that as the sole breadwinner of her family and in casual employment, the legal process was taking too much of her time and prohibited her from fending for her family. The process of recounting her story at every stage of the lengthy legal process was also very traumatic and she wished not to live a life of constantly reliving this experience.

The experience of this woman with the legal process tells us that we have more a lot more to fighting to do to ensure that women are safe from violence and abuse, and guaranteed of expeditious legal processes as well as social, economic and psychological support to accompany the legal process.

As we begin the 16 days of Activism against Gender Based Violence from November 25th to December 10th, 2015, we must bear in mind that the journey ahead of us is long. To succeed in this journey, the spirit of sisterhood must prevail as it did during “My Dress My Choice Campaign”.

To win this battle, we cannot afford to be distracted by hostility towards each other or competing to be recognized.

We must constantly remind ourselves that this is about ALL girls and women and not about any individual. It is about our daughters, sisters, friends, mothers, grandmothers and each one of us to be safe in our homes, on the streets and every other space that we occupy.

Lastly, as I begin my second year of writing, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for reading, commenting, critiquing, and most importantly for giving space to my voice on your screens. I thank you for the wonderful friendships we have established on cyber-space and in the physical world. Thank you for meeting me and warming up to me like old friends or family because of the connection you developed with me from my writing. I have experienced the true spirit of Ubuntu this last year. I truly am because you are! Let us continue to be, for each other.

Ubuntu 3

I also wish to announce that my blog will be moving from ceranjagi.wordpress.com to http://www.kenyanfeminist.org.

I look forward to interacting with you all at http://www.kenyanfeminist.org.

Image credits: All the beautiful Ubuntu images are from AJ’s Art Journaling blog post on Ubuntu http://wp.me/p1D6U9-qM, Picture of My Dress My Choice demostopstreetharassment.org.

Lessons from a taxi driver

Taxi

I often hear researchers say that talking to taxi drivers is a good way to get a sense of the political atmosphere of any place. My experience with one tells me that Kenyans are angry and despondent at a political system that has completely failed them.

While I was in a taxi today, the driver was very vexed, and I decided to hear him out. It turned out that he was so ideologically grounded, it felt like I was in a Sociology 101 class that was speaking to the realities of what is happening.  He spoke with a lot of concern and anger about the inequality that this country is grappling with.  He said, “everything that is going on, is benefiting just a few people, and everyone else is suffering as a consequence”. He spoke of the standard gauge railway and how billions of shillings have been misappropriated by just a handful of people. Then he went on to talk about a by-pass that was recently built, but because the land surrounding it has been grabbed, the road is so narrow, that when trucks approach each other, they have to be very careful not to cause an accident.  “You see”, he continued, “a few people grabbed those pieces of land, and now Kenyans are not safe on the roads that are coming up”. “These roads will kill Kenyans, because a few people have to take what does not belong to them”. He called it the politics of “me, mine and myself”.

I noticed how the narrative has changed. For a long time, whenever I got into a political discussion with taxi drivers from the Mt. Kenya region, they would go on about the humility of the president, and how this was the best president that Kenya ever got. I remember one day as we were driving past State House, the taxi driver began to narrate in awe how the president had dropped off a chopper, ignored the car that was meant to drive him into State House, and instead opted to walk. “The chopper landed right there” he pointed excitedly. This to him was a sign of great humility and good leadership. I remember asking him angrily whether he had ever eaten humility. So today I was surprised when this person who is from the Mt. Kenya region sounded so dissatisfied with the system. I take it as a sign that people are coming to the reality that their tribesman is not their security.

As I was getting to my destination I had to interrupt him, because I wanted to hear from him what he thought the solution was. I asked him what he thought people could do, and he replied, “only God will save us, he is watching and one day he will rescue us; I know that day is coming”. But even as he was saying that, he seemed to have a good understanding of power dynamics. He argued that people could organize themselves and challenge the system, but then the powers that be would seek private meetings with the organizers and pay them off.  He gave me an example of a time when they organized as drivers to challenge the difficult working conditions, in an organization that he worked for.  But the drivers that led the organizing were paid off and given better conditions, and that was the end of their organizing.

Speaking to the taxi driver and other Kenyans, it is clear that people of all walks of life are disgruntled, because of the blatant economic exclusion, where those in the lower strata of the socio-economic ladder toil for hours on end but are unable to afford the basics.  A recent survey tells us that 36% of children in Kenya are underfed, yet their parents are the same people who work day and night, only to send their children to bed on empty stomachs. Even the middle class are struggling with high interest rates on loans and mortgages and failing public systems that force them to send their children to expensive private schools and healthcare services that they can only afford because of the private health insurance their employers provide. Not forgetting constantly having to send MPESA to support friends, relatives and even strangers to access education or to get treatment both locally and abroad.

In a context where the political environment is so stifling, yet organizing to challenge the system seems impossible, citizens have little else but to resign to their fate. Those that strongly believe in a higher being, see that as the sole saviour. Those that do not believe or have given up on the idea that even a higher being could rescue us are giving in to the idea that violence is inevitable, particularly given the subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways in which incitement is happening.

Like many Kenyans, I am concerned that the social, economic and political environment bears the signs of looming violence. But I am even more concerned at the way people are speaking of violence with such simplicity.  Like it is a door that you walk in, and walk out. The little exposure we have of violence has left us with the idea that violence is as simple as killing and burning each other’s property, flying Kofi Annan into the country, having two political figures from opposing sides shake hands, and life going on as usual. Some of us have been arguing that Europeans had to slash and kill each other to get to where they are economically, socially and politically. We forget that it took Europeans 300 to 400 years of slashing and killing each other to finally figure their politics and economies.

As I think of the simplicity that we approach the idea of violence with, I am reminded of an older Somali friend of mine, whom I have the privilege of getting into political conversations with once in a while. He has on several occasions commented that Somali was exactly where Kenya is in the 80’s. That massive infrastructural projects were ongoing, roads were being constructed, high-rise buildings were coming up and foreigners were investing in the country. It seemed as if all was going well, but this development co-existed with massive looting of public resources by those placed in power and outright ethnic hostility. We know that Somali is yet to recover from the war. We know several countries endowed with resources, but war will not allow them make use of the resources.

As we grow more and more despondent, and some us begin to accept the inevitability of violence, let’s put the Kofi Annan mediation scene off our minds for a moment, and think for a while other possible ways that this could go.  When I think of such possibilities, I want to try something else.  Isn’t that what we always do in life? Don’t we try other channels when one isn’t working?  It’s not easy but we have to be willing to try other routes; do our best and remain hopeful that our efforts will create change.  We must begin organizing slowly, but in a progressive fashion, understanding that “unless we learn to live together as [Kenyans], we shall perish together as fools”.*

*Adapted from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote

Photo Credits

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