Assuming nothing; questioning everything

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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.

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A Kenyan’s plea for Somali refugees

Somali Refugees

During my first year at the university I met a young Congolese woman. I would meet her in class, and in some cases sit next to her, but other than the occasional hallo, I never got to talk to her much. She spent a lot of her time alone and seemed to be in her on world.

On one occasion, the two of us were paired for an assignment. At that time I knew very little about the war in Congo. As we were discussing our assignment one day, I asked her whether the war had affected her family.

I was simply making small talk, and completely unprepared for what followed my question. She explained to me that she lost her parents to the war. She was left with her two sisters, and they had to live together just the three of them. I realised that in war, death and loss are inevitable.

Somali girls

At night, she explained, there was never electricity, and they spent their nights terrified, and in darkness. I realised that in war, all systems shut and nothing functions as it should.

In the midst of the dark and terrifying nights, the three young girls would often hear the loud sound of gun shots. She narrated how they would cover themselves with mattresses, rather than lie on them. This was their way of protecting themselves from bullets in case they flew into the house. I realised that in war, children had to be wise beyond their years and learn to protect themselves.

Other than the possibility of dying from bullets that could fly in, their other biggest fear was the possibility of sexual violence from military officers. She explained how they often broke into houses raping women and girls. I realised that in war, the people you expect to protect can be the greatest source of terror.

I don’t know how successful she and her sisters were in protecting themselves from rape and other forms of sexual violence, because she finished telling her story at that point. Perhaps she ended her story at that point because she didn’t want to relive the trauma of that period, or because it was too painful, or because it occurred to her that she was telling her story to someone she hardly knew. I realised that war came with trauma and pain that could only be described in silence.

I had many questions to ask her, for instance where they got food from, how they escaped, whether she escaped together with hersisters, whether she was in contact with them, but it was clear that she didn’t want to discuss it any further. After our assignment was over, she went back to her withdrawn self, with the casual greeting when we met on the corridors or in class. My questions about her experience during the war were never asked or answered. I realised that in war there were many unspoken words, unanswered questions and experiences that will never be told.

This week I have been forced to remember this experience after the Kenyan government declared its decision to close down the Daadab Refugee Camp. I imagine that many women in the Dadaab Refugee Camp have similar and even worse stories to tell. The story of the young Congolese woman tells us that refugees are not here on a picnic. They are here because they have no choice. Many walked hundreds of kilometres, for days on end without water and food, without knowing what lay ahead of them, to find refuge in this country.

I wonder what kind of government would decide to take back thousands of women and children to that hell of a nightmare, whether or not they were born in this country. I wonder which country decides to evict hundreds of thousands of women and children to a country considered the second most fragile country globally. Where health care, education, and all other basic and essential services have broken down, making them completely unavailable or inaccessible.

I wonder, which country they are supposed to go to; a country that killed their husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and neighbours. A country that almost killed them. A country where women and children watched their fathers and husbands die, as they were raped and exposed to all manner of sexual violence. I am sure many do not believe that they made it through that horror. I can imagine the nightmare of the possibility of going back to such a country. When we ask Somali refugees to go back and build their country, do we imagine that it is easy to build a country that has been torn asunder by avarice and lack of accountability?

As Kenyans, this is our time to demonstrate our humanity, let us stand up and speak out. Let us help the Government understand there are many young girls and boys that do not understand what a terrorist is; and to make them pay for the sins of terrorists is equal to terrorism in itself. Let us remind the Kenyan government that Somali is not synonymous to terrorist.

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First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Pastor Martin Niemoller-

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”…..

WE HAVE EYES BUT CANNOT SEE

Eyes that cannot see

I remember an incident after I had just finished high school, I received a random call requesting me to participate as a respondent in an opinion poll. The researcher asked whether I thought Kenya was going in the right direction, to which I responded a big yes. She asked whether I thought the economy would improve, and I responded with another big yes. Of course a few years later, I was to be proved wrong, and when I remember the opinion poll incident, I laugh at my naïve optimism.

You see, I had just finished high school, and I was lucky to find a small job. In that job I was everything from receptionist, to messenger, personal assistant, sales girl and assistant accountant. For all that, I earned a mere 3,000 KSHS. Despite the low pay and lack of a proper job description, I was highly optimistic about the future. I was young, and I believed that the world was mine for the taking. My youth presented boundless opportunities, and I felt lost for choice.

The next time I experienced such optimism was in 2002. This time, my optimism was shared by the entire nation. Mwai Kibaki had just won the election, declaring him president, and putting an end to Moi’s 24 year dictatorial rule. This was the culmination of our jubilant singing “yote yawezekana bila Moi” (all is possible without Moi). At that time, Kenya was considered the most optimistic country in the world. We believed there was no greater fortune than to be Kenyan at that time. The future looked bright and promising, and like we had declared in song, everything and anything was now possible. We dreamed and imagined of endless possibilities.

Like my youthful optimism, this optimism has faded among most Kenyans, and many now cling on to false hope to keep going. The middle class cling on to middle class comforts and seek to maintain status quo. Even if they pay taxes, and have to secure everything privately, it is ok, as long as they can afford the private education, healthcare, security and all other services. The masses cling on their ethnicities, with the belief that once their own is in power, their fortunes will change. Those whom ‘their own’ have clinched power, believe that they are superior to those who haven’t. Never mind that they experience the same challenges; increasing costs of living, poor housing, unemployment, and poor basic services.

Both have chosen to despair, resigned to apathy, and decided not to understand the struggle for democracy or value the gains delivered to us by the Constitution. While this happens, the Constitution is being watered down slowly but surely. One day we shall look back and not recognise the country, or understand how we got where we will be. Then it will be too late. But until then, let us enjoy our fallacious hopes.

My Body; My Clothes; My Choice #MydressMyChoice

rape-of-womanhood-in-india-and-respect-women-save-women-save-india

On November 7th 2014, a woman was violently stripped naked in Nairobi, by Embassava matatu touts.  The touts aimed to ‘teach her a lesson’ for ‘tempting them’ by ‘indecently exposing her body’. They took matters in their own hands, punishing the woman for the ‘crime’ of ‘subjecting society to immorality’.

While these men justify their chauvinistic actions in the name of protecting society from immorality, the same matatus subject their commuters, young and old, to blaring obscenities, in some cases with videos of semi-naked women in the name of music. On most mornings, many of these matatus will be tuned in to a popular radio station, often perpetuating and justifying what could and has been deemed immoral. Never mind that not everyone wishes to be subjected to such misogynistic content and some parents may wish to protect their children from such exposure.

Violent undressing of women in public by groups of men, often matatu touts, has been reported in Nyeri, Githurai, Bungoma, Kisumu, Mombasa, Thika, Eldoret and Nairobi.  In Nyeri, a woman was stripped naked, by matatu touts for ‘indecent dressing’ in March 2013.  She later died from shock.

Despite the detrimental effects of such violence and humiliation of women, the perpetrators of such abuse go unpunished. The fear that this instils on women is untold. The gender inequality that it perpetuates in society, is unfathomable.

Incidents of men stripping women are reflective of a patriarchal culture of male domination over women, which gives men authority and control over women’s bodies. Men set the parameters of what qualifies as indecent exposure, and determine when it is desirable or unacceptable for society to be subjected to ‘women’s nudity’.

In a society that purports to promote equal freedoms and gender equality, this must change. Male aggression towards women is effectively sanctioned by the authorities, through their inaction, and unwillingness to bring the perpetrators to book.  This must change!

The group Kilimani Mums is calling on the public to join in a peaceful procession from Uhuru Park to Accra Road on Monday 17th November at 10am.  Protestors shall march and deliver a message to Embassava matatu touts that undressing women in public is wrong and women have the right to dress as they wish.

Let us take action to end this blatant abuse of human rights!

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