Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

I’m tired but I will keep going

Wangari-Maathai-Unbowed-cover-photo-3

When I read Wangari Maathai’s autobiography Unbowed, I was going through one of my lowest points this year.  I was feeling tired, deflated and depleted, and questioning whether “all this” matters.  “All this” being my struggle for emancipation of women and other oppressed groups.

I was so deflated, that I thought I would never blog again.  I was tired of the constant scandals and crisis mode that has become of this country.  I remember sharing with a friend how tired I was of the fact that the entire year has been characterized by crisis after crisis, with a new scandal emerging almost every other week.  I was growing weary from the fact that despite so many efforts, women are increasingly becoming more unsafe, to the extent of being raped while seeking medical care.

Looking at the magnitude of what has been happening, I felt overwhelmed and wondered whether what I was doing really mattered.  I felt that I needed some inspiration, otherwise, my spirit was going to die a slow death.

It was at this point that I picked Wangari Maathai for inspiration. I chose Wangari for two reasons; one being that September was the month that we lost her four years ago, and I thought reading and understanding her cause would be a great way to celebrate her life. The second being that, I established a connection with Wangari at the age of 9, and over the years, I have considered her a soul sister, and I therefore expected her to speak to me during my low.

True to my expectation, Wangari spoke to me the way no one else would have at that time. I picked 3 key things from reading the book unbowed: one, the power of voice, two, that no matter how difficult, change is at hand when we persist, and three, that we are never alone, even when it seems that way.

  1. Voice is power

As I was reflecting on the power of Wangari’s voice in protecting Uhuru Park and Karura Forest, I realized that that we have those two green spaces in the concrete jungle that Nairobi is, because Wangari decided not to be quiet about it, and instead wrote letters to different government authorities questioning the intentions to build a sky scrapper on Karura Forest and put up private development in Karura Forest.

As if to confirm the power of voice through writing, I came across these tweets:Capture 1Capture 2

  1. Change is possible

The most profound part of Wangari Maathai’s struggle for change was the year-long vigil held at All Saints Cathedral with mothers of political prisoners, demanding for the release of their sons.  For a year, they slept on benches demanding for change, and they did not waiver in their pursuit, until their demands were met.

Wangari’s spirit must have had an agenda to reinforce the message because at around the same time, I received a number of comments on my blog, on email and even by my friends, saying that my blog was changing the way they were seeing things, and they were becoming more conscious and found themselves questioning what they would consider normal.  That energized me to keep going, knowing that no matter how slow, no matter how minimal, change is coming.

Another world is possible

  1. We are never alone

My third lesson comes from Wangari’s recollection of her horrendous experience being arrested and locked up in a cold cell at the age of 52, while suffering from arthritis in both knees, and the impact that had on her health.  She recalls how she had to be carried by four policewomen into the courtroom while crying and weak from hunger.  As she was being carried into an ambulance to take her to hospital, she saw a banner from a group of women reading, “WANGARI, BRAVE DAUGHTER OF KENYA.  YOU WILL NEVER WALK ALONE AGAIN.”

She says that this warmed her heart and helped her realize that no matter what happened to her, there were people who wished her well, and who understood what it meant to be a woman fighting for the future of her country.

I too experienced that towards the end of the week, when I was feeling as if I was alone in the struggle.  I met some wonderful Kenyans that spoke with deep concern about what is happening and the need for change.  Speaking to them reminded me that I am not alone, that there are people who care and doing whatever they can in their small ways to change things.

So, I may be tired, but I will not give up because I am convinced in the power of my voice to create change, and know that I am not alone, because there are many of us working to create the change we desire.  As Wangari Maathai would say in her humming bird story, “I will do something about the fire….I will be a humming bird, I will do the best I can”.

Wangari Maathai - We must not give up

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Is this really the Nairobi we want?

Guest post by d’Arthez. 

Nairobi is a bustling city. People are always in a hurry – if not to make money, then to spend it. The lucky among us, on consumer goods and holidays abroad. The less fortunate among us on food and school fees. Like an army of confused ants, we’re marching to the CBD, Westlands, Kilimani, Karen. To Kibera, Dandora, Kayole, Kangemi or who knows where.

The fortunate ones waste hours sitting in traffic jams. The less fortunate are wearing their shoes out, While the former go to gyms, or upmarket walking tracks to enjoy the joy of walking, the latter are hoping to make enough money to own cars so that they can enjoy the joys of traffic jams themselves. And if not them, their children.

It strikes me that Nairobi is not meant to be a place to live in. Or if it is, that little to no effort is made to make the city liveable for majority of its residents. There are but a few green spots. Pavements are mostly non-existent. The city still depends on but a few, almost permanently clogged, arteries.

Demand for services, such as education, healthcare, security, transport and electricity, seems to be outstripping the provision of these services. Well-paying jobs are scarce. Recent statistics suggest that the informal economy is far more successful than the formal one in providing jobs, but sadly the jobs in the informal sector often offer little beyond hand-to-mouth living. It is not uncommon to see recent graduates with Masters Degrees performing odd jobs, just to make a meagre living.

To some extent governments, local and national, have given up on their responsibilities to provide these services. We can see it in the mushrooming of private schools, we can see it in the fact that lamp posts hardly ever work anywhere. Corruption is rife, and corruption is essentially another tax on the poor.

But it is equally true, that we as citizens have given up, or simply cannot even be bothered with anything that moves beyond our private concerns.  Rather than demand public services as tax payers and citizens entitled to basic public services, we resort to private solutions to secure just about every basic service.

Education? Spend long hours working and sleepless nights thinking of how to make that extra buck to spend -on private education that costs an arm and a leg.  If you’re poor, you’re left hoping against the odds, that somehow your children won’t become casual labourers, but will have a better life than you.

Healthcare? Get insurance, travel abroad for treatment, or pray to the Lord that one will be spared chronic illnesses.  Those that cannot afford insurance and treatment abroad, endure prolonged suffering or death from illnesses that could be prevented, managed and cured by a functioning health-care system.

Security? Put up a gate, a fence, or rely on neighbours, who hopefully prove trustworthy.  Pray that you are a victim of insecurity, because justice, in a court of law, is unaffordable to the vast majority of people.

Transport? Walk long hours on end, for majority of the population. For the struggling middle class, spend a substantial amount of your salary on matatus, or spend a small fortune for the privilege of becoming a target for traffic police who seek to supplement their income by hook or by crook. While the urban poor are mostly spared traffic police, they have to deal with askaris.

We’re being conned so often, that the highest recommendation for a service provider seems to be that they have not even tried to con you. We all act as if Chapter 6 of the Constitution is entitled “Impunity”.

Nairobi produces and reproduces dysfunction, and as long as our mind-sets don’t change, we’ll have to face the realities of floods, carjackings, polluted air, robberies, corrupt city/county council askaris and traffic police, clogged roads, and sub-par education. Is this really the Nairobi we want?

I dread the rains

Rain

People say that they enjoy sleeping as it rains; that it makes them sleep like babies; that the sound of rain pouring, as they cuddle in warm blankets is soothing and comforting,  and one of the closest experiences there is to heavenly peace.

How I would love to be among those that enjoy sleeping as it rains. Sadly, I am not, if anything I dread the rain; because every time it rains, it means starting my life over again.  It means loss and pain.  The rains hold with them uncertainty and the potential of dreams cut short.

As it rains tonight, I go back memory lane, to last year at a time like this, when it rained  and our house was swept away.  I am lucky my children had gone upcountry to visit their grandmother, otherwise, I would tell a story similar to that of my neighbour, Grace, who lost her only daughter to the flood.

That night we slept in the cold, some of us trying to salvage the little we could of our belongings, as they were swept away by the water.  Some people lost their lives, as they tried to swim and salvage their belongings.  The next day, we got into mourning, for the little girl, Grace’s daughter, and nine other neighbours.  We couldn’t spend too much time mourning, as we had to reconstruct our houses.

I had saved 6,000 shillings with my SACCO, hoping that I would get a loan, triple the amount I had saved and use some of the money to improve my grocery business, and the rest to pay school fees for my son Joshua, who had just joined secondary school that year.

The rain cut short that dream, instead I had to borrow money, not to improve my business or to send my son to school in the new term, but to reconstruct our house, and replace some of the household items that we had lost in the rain.  I didn’t know how to explain to my son that he would have to stay at his grandmother’s home longer, as I tried to look for school fees to send him back to school.

Broken - dreams

I got the loan, and built our house. Determined not to disappoint Joshua, I saved all the money that I made from my grocery business.  To make more money, I started hawking on Tom Mboya Street after 5pm, as people were leaving work.  On the first day, business was booming, and I sold all my stock.

Though I arrived home late and tired, I could afford to have a smile on my face.  I called Joshua, and excitedly shared the news with him,  reassuring him, that I would soon be sending him back to school. Joshua kept asking me to repeat different segments of the story.  I guess just like me, he could not believe the miracle.

In a bid to hasten the process, on the second day, I bought double the stock of the previous day.  I was determined to send Joshua back to school before the end of the month.  As fate would have it, I was arrested that night for hawking on the streets.  The askaris chased after me, but my wares were too heavy and they caught up with me. I was thrown into the truck and taken to a cell, where I spent the night.

city-councils-586x319hawkers-1

I gave all the money that I had, together with the hope of sending Joshua back to school to the askaris, as it was the only way I would gain back my freedom.  All my wares were confiscated, and they were never returned to me. I had to start afresh again, this time unable to borrow from my SACCO as I was still repaying the loan.

Downtrodden, I quit selling groceries, and resorted to casual labour.  I wake up at 5am every day, and leave the house at 6 am, for a two – hour walk to the nearby suburb.  In some cases I find work for 500 shillings, and on good days, 1000 shillings. Some days there is no work, and I have to walk back home for two hours, tired, hungry and still uncertain of what the next day holds.  Life must go on though, and so I never give up.

With the ups and downs, Joshua never went back to school. He also looks for casual work, and helps me here and there with the bills.  I don’t see him going back to school, but I hope that the two of us can work to provide a better future for his sister Brenda.

The rains are now here.  I am now afraid because I don’t know what they hold this time.  I haven’t been sleeping much, as the roof has been leaking, luckily, we have not been swept away yet.

What if Khadija was your neighbour?

I didn’t watch Saturday night’s feature on KTN about Khadija, a 16 year old girl who was brutally burnt by her 60 year old husband in Mandera County. I followed the story on Twitter though, where horrific images of the young girl’s burnt body had been posted, along with comments on the issue. The comments demonstrated outrage; first over the man that had abused the girl, and second towards the community that had been silent about the issue. People were particularly angry because Khadija has been living with severe burns on most of her body for about four months, without receiving any medical treatment, yet the community around her was silent for the entire four months.

The reactions on Twitter led me to reflect on how we respond to violence in our neighbourhoods, and wondered if many or any of us would have responded differently had Khadija been our neighbour. I remembered how growing up, we had a neighbour who was regularly violent towards his wife. On the nights when he got violent, he would throw things and punch his wife as their young son wailed loudly. While the violence was obviously not discreet, there wasn’t a single day that any of the neighbours intervened. Never mind that this was a community with more than 20 households.

On one occasion, the commotion went on for longer than usual, and it sounded as if it was intensifying with every minute. I remember my parents getting very concerned and debating on whether they should intervene. After a lengthy discussion, they decided not to ‘interfere’, and chose to ‘respect the privacy’ that should be accorded to people’s homes. I guess many of our neighbours had that conversation, and resorted to keep quiet and ‘mind their own business’.

We do that all the time, keep quiet and mind our own business, respecting the privacy of what goes on behind closed doors, even in homes where violence is pervasive. Our lack of community, created by a culture where we are only bothered about ourselves, and the people we share a roof with, has resulted in concern being synonymous with intrusion. If Khadija had been our neighbour, how many of us, like my neighbourhood several years ago, would have decided against respecting this privacy to intervene?

The moment we choose to be silent about violence, we enter into another phase of normalising the violence. I cannot recall how many times I heard statements such as ‘the fighting has began’ or ‘he’s at it again’ or ‘tonight we will not sleep’, as domestic violence ensued next to our door.

Sometimes it goes to the extent of making jokes about it. We will joke about how the ‘bull’ or ‘Jogoo’ (bull) of house X gave us sleepless nights, or how the woman ‘alionwa manyundo usiku mzima’ (hammered all night). If Khadija was have been our neighbour, I bet you many of us would not only have normalised the violence, but also normalised the fact that she was a child married to an older man. Some of us would be disgusted, but do nothing about it. Some of us would speak of the hero that the man is, that even in his old age, he is able to get himself ‘a fresh or spring chicken’.

In the process of normalising violence, women are encouraged to withstand it ‘for the sake of the children’. Statements such as ‘if all women left because of one form of abuse or the other, no one would be married’ or ‘this is how it has always been’, or ‘we have also gone through the same’ is common advice among women, particularly older ones advising younger ones.

When the violence becomes an ‘everyday’ and ‘normal’ event, we enter another phase where the situation is seen not only seen as normal, but we begin to look for what is ‘abnormal’ or ‘wrong’ with the victim. In this phase, we blame the victim through stupid questions. We begin to ask ‘why is she there?’ ‘what is stopping her from leaving?’ ‘amefungiliwa? (‘is she been tied there?’). ‘How can someone be beaten daily?’ As I was following the conversation about Khadija on Twitter, somebody asked, ‘what was a 16 year old doing married?’ The situation becomes normal, and the victim abnormal.

Good women stay in violent relationships

These stupid questions are followed or accompanied with justification as to why a woman should face violence. We use all the tools available to us, including, and particularly the Bible and other religious texts to justify this kind of violence. We begin to say ‘there must be something she is not doing’, ‘she must have provoked him’, ‘no man just wakes up and starts beating a woman’. As I am writing this post, someone is engaging me on Twitter trying to justify Khadija’s violence. The conversation goes something like this:

@Kenyanfeminst (me): Can this violence towards women and girls end with this generation? #JusticeForKhadija

@SA (A follower on Twitter who chooses to respond): As soon as wives learn to submit to their husbands, it’s a Biblical command.

@ Kenyanfeminist: are you justifying violence towards women and girls?

@SA: I’m not justifying anything. I’m reminding [you] of the Biblical submission requirement, which should forestall many fights.

@SA: A man just doesn’t wake up one morning, just start battering his wife or daughter. It’s a build up and mostly women cause it.

@ Kenyanfeminist: So are you saying that the 16 year old who was brutally burnt by her husband deserved it?

@SA: Have you [found] out what led to the beating? It’s not out of the blue!

This conversation, which went on beyond this, proves that if Khadija had been our neighbour, many of us are likely to have justified the violence. I need to point out that SA is not your average Kenyan. His profile suggests that he is educated, socially and politically conscious and driven by Christian teachings. He even describes himself as a human rights activist. If someone proclaiming to be human rights activists can publicly justify the outright violation of the rights of another human being, I fear for the kind of society we live in.

Right now we are outraged on social media, but the truth is if Khadija was our neighbour, many of us would have responded the same we respond all the time. We would have kept quiet and minded our business, and our silence would have grown into normalising the violence. With time, many of us would have began blaming Khadija and asking stupid questions, as we find reasons to justify the kind of situation she is in.

What we have been doing and continue to do, is create a society that perpetuates violence towards women. A society where women are neither protected by society or by law. A society that fails to be cognisant of the nuances that surround gender based violence; often assuming that one-size-fits-all approach. We are also blind to the impact of our social and legal responses in addressing gender based violence. As women, we fear to report or speak out because chances are, neither society, nor the law will protect us.

I ask the question that I often ask? Can this end with me and my generation? Will we have another Khadija story 20 years from now. Yes we will, if we keep up with the silence, the culture of normalising violence, blaming the victim and justifying violence.

In the spirit of ending the culture of silence, last week someone named Ann read my blog post “Can it end with me?” and challenged me to name the website that ignored my complaint on sexual inappropriateness from a service that I had purchased through the website. Ann contends that I have no business writing about sexual harassment if I continue to protect companies and websites that abuse women, a sentiment that I completely agree with.

So, in the spirit of consuming what I preach, I will share my story in brief. I purchased a massage deal from Malaika Spa, through Rupu.co.ke. My masseur, Paul Jandi, turned out to be sexually inappropriate. When I reported to Rupu, my complaint was ignored. This was contrary to the kind of swiftness in responding that I had experienced from Rupu in the process of purchasing the deal.

It was not until 25 days later, when a 15 year old Norwegian girl was drugged and raped, and it was highlighted in the media, that Rupu called and wrote back to me apologising for what they termed as my ‘less than satisfactory experience’, offering to make things right. It is too late now. Rupu’s silence and love for profits has resulted in an extremely traumatic experience for a young girl. Rupu’s response is also reflective of our culture towards sexual violence.

We choose to be silent, to normalise, to justify and consequently, perpetuate violence against women.

The question is, can this end with me and my generation?

Getting used to violence

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