Assuming nothing; questioning everything

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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how-to-be-a-woman1
Sometime back, I came across a post by a woman sharing about how hooked she was to social media, that on one occasion, her husband hit her because she got into bed with her phone, and she couldn’t put it down.

Interestingly, many women commenting on her post found it ok for her to be hit for not paying attention to her husband, particularly while in bed. There was very little alarm raised over the fact that she had been hit. She seemed more concerned about her addiction to social media, than the violence meted out on her.

Reading the post and the comments that followed, got me thinking about how society has created an image of “the good woman”, and the idea that a woman who fails to fit in that image, should be ready to face male-perpetrated violence.

We learn very early as girls that we need to behave, dress and look a certain way with all men, including our fathers, brothers, male neighbours, spouses and even male strangers, with the threat of male – perpetrated violence if we don’t.

I too, was taught from a very early age to expect physical, emotional or sexual violence from men, if I failed to conform to this idea of being female.

When I was a young girl, I was fond of taking meat from the pan as it was cooking. To discourage me from the habit, our house help often threatened that if I carried the habit into marriage, my husband would one day buy me an entire goat, and demand that I cook it all and eat it all at a go. That apparently would be his way of punishing me for this behaviour that was very unbecoming of a lady.

Our house help was not the only person who threatened me with crazy things that my husband would do to me, if I didn’t fit the “good woman” image. Many times when I overslept, my mother threatened me that no man would entertain such sleepiness. She often told me that one day my husband would return me back to her, because I had overslept, and the children were not bathed or fed, and the house stayed dirty.

In this case, my husband would be returning me to my mother for more training, because if I was not a “good woman”, my mother would be to blame, for not providing adequate training. Never mind that these would be my husband’s children, just as they were mine, or that I was the product of both my mother and father.

We learn to expect violence for not conforming to gendered ways of being female. A lot of people don’t even recognize how they teach girls and women to expect abuse in relationships. I’m sure that was not my mother’s or the house help’s intention. They just wanted me to be a “good woman” who fit in society.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been taught to expect physical, sexual or emotional abuse for failing to conform to certain ways of being female.

Girls that talk too much or question a lot are told to control their mouths, otherwise they will get hit for answering back their husbands. Women are told to teach their daughters not to sit on their fathers’ laps, or to be affectionate towards their fathers, because “men have very little sexual control”, and even a father could rape his daughter. Girls are taught to sit “properly” with their legs closed even in the presence of brothers and uncles, because of this “sexual control issue” that men have.

In a previous blog post I talked about how the lives and bodies of women are dictated and policed. From how to dress, where to be at certain times, and who to be with at those times. Sadly, when women face violence, the first thing society checks is whether they conformed to the standards set for them by society.

The problem with this messaging is that it not only centres the lives of girls and women on fitting into the image of a woman that will find a man to marry her, but it also creates a situation where violence against women is normalized. It also creates a society where women are constantly facing blame or blaming themselves for the violence and the abuse that they face.

It’s high time we cultivated ways of being male or female, that do not create such imbalance between genders; where one gender learns to cater to the other, while the other learns that it is ok to be violent to the other.

It’s high time we abhorred all forms of violence, and discouraged both its perpetration and receipt regardless of gender. No ifs, no buts, because this way of being a woman is not working, and it cannot be sustained.

I packed my bags and left

I packed my bags and left
“I packed my bags and left.” That is the opening line of Dambudzo Marechera’s book, House of Hunger, a statement that I find symbolic, and perhaps indicative that this is Dambudzo’s way of preparing to share with his readers about his journey in life.

Journeys are interesting because no matter how much you have, quite often you leave all that behind and take just what you need for a particular journey. I’ve gone on journeys with just a pair of pants, two blouses, a few sets of underwear, a tooth brush and toothpaste, because that is all that I needed for the journey, even though I possess a lot more than that.

As a sojourner of life, I find a lot of symbolism in the statement, “I packed my bags and left”; a statement that makes me reflect on the many things that I’ve had to leave behind or unpack from my bag, as a feminist.

As a feminist, on several occasions I’ve been forced to leave behind a number of things that I held as true and dear in my life, because they were either unnecessary baggage, or they were too painful to carry on the journey. I’ve had to leave behind what hurt and wounded me, more than bring joy, pleasure or healing.

First among the things that I had to leave behind were books and magazines that defined femininity for me, often telling me how to be a woman worthy of love and success. These pieces of literature often told me that my main goal in life was to secure the love of a man, and they promised to give me the tools to secure this man. They taught me how to tighten my vagina, how to be a goddess in bed, and how to use my feminine charms to secure the love of a man, and even get ahead in my career.

I left these behind, as feminism taught me to depend on my brains and personality, rather than my face,smile or body, in both my personal and professional life.

The depiction of beauty in these books and magazines, was often of women who looked less like me; they were often white or fair skinned if they were black, skinny, tall and flawless. They taught me that to look like these women, I had to learn how to put on makeup perfectly, put on 6 inch heels that made me contemplate having my feet amputated at the end of the day, and make my hair as straight as possible.

Through feminism, I was unlearning dominant ideas of beauty, shaped by western ideals and embracing a more robust notion of beauty.

The next thing I had to leave behind were the rules that came with being a woman. Some of them had been instilled through these books and magazines, and others though talking to my peers and older women. The rules often applied to dating, and these included a host of mind games. No matter how much I liked a man, I couldn’t ask him out. If he asked me out, I had to pretend that I wasn’t interested, until he became so desperate, almost getting on his knees.

Whereas I was to expected to play these mind games as a teenager, as a woman in her 20’s and even beyond the 20’s, feminism taught me that I needed to put aside immature behaviour, if I expected to get into a relationship with a mature partner.

Once he ‘got’ me (the prized possession that I was), I had to keep him on his toes, so as to remain valuable to him. This meant that I had to be available and unavailable at the same time. To achieve this, sometimes I had to pretend to have other plans when he asked me out, and suggest that we meet on another day. This was my way of keeping the relationship on my terms, and not his. It was my way of having power, but in a subtle way.

The rules also included how long to wait before having sex, because if I gave in to sex, I would be losing power. I had to maintain power, by taking his power by making him almost, if not get down on his knees for ‘my prized goodies’.

Through feminism, I was unlearning the power play that had been a key feature of my relationships, and learning to not only seek honesty, but to be equally honest in my relationships. I learned to ask for what I wanted, and to stop demanding for the moon and stars as a proof of love. I learned to seek relationships where my true self was loved and respected, and I learned to do the same.

Some of the relationships that I had also had to be left behind, as I carried the things that I needed for the journey. It became painful talking to many of my male friends and some of my privileged female friends. It no longer made sense to champion for equality, and maintain friendships that saw nothing wrong, or even justified inequality.

My most painful relational loss, was losing the relationship I had with God and the Church. I had grown up knowing that God was my friend and my father, and Church as the place where I found God. I had learned to run to God whenever I was happy, angry, sad, or going through any experience or emotion.

But it continued to become more and more difficult to reconcile this image of God, with the fact that he had created me inferior to a man. It became difficult to reconcile this image of a loving God, who would tear down a city because he hated gay people so much.

Being cognisant of how religious notions of gender, race and class have contributed to the subjugation of women, homophobia, racism and slavery, I had to go through the painful process of losing this being that I had known as my friend, father and source of refuge.

As a feminist, I was becoming less accommodating of any form of bigotry, and I lost the capacity to be part of a religion that saw me as a lesser being, or thought of others as lesser beings.

Packing and unpacking is a continuous process in the feminist journey, and one that never seems to end. At the moment, I am thinking of leaving behind WhatsApp groups that drain my feminist energy with sexist jokes and discussions.

I don’t know what else I will be leaving behind, but I now know that loss for a feminist is inevitable. Some loss is joyful while some is painful, and that I must be ready to embrace.

Smashing patriachy is my cup of tea

When I finally embraced feminism, I was one happy woman. I’d had ups and downs with feminism for about 10 years of my life, dropping it and picking it again every so often in my 20’s. I was conflicted between fully embracing women’s liberation, while battling with the need to conform to what was required of me as woman, based on social and religious teachings.

After a four year feminism-drop, I decided to explore and open my mind up to feminism once again. This time I wanted to understand feminism, and at the same time be as critical of feminism as much as possible. After immersing myself in feminism for a while, I emerged as a true believer in the power of feminism to change the world, and make it better for women.

I found feminism to be personally liberating, taking off so many of requirements that society had placed on me, by virtue of being a woman. As I began to drop the gender related societal pressures, I wanted to share this new-found liberation with the world, and with the women around me.

So I started, with some of the people closest to me; enthusiastically sharing my new-found philosophy; sharing articles, videos and initiating conversations on feminism.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that my new ideas were not as welcome as I expected, in a world that has for a long time embraced patriarchy and sexist ideas of the position of women and men in society.

Contrary to the enthusiastic reception I expected, I was disparaged, and dismissed with Biblical quotations and remarks on feminism being an un-African concept. On one occasion, I was informed that I was the only one that needed feminism, and many African women were happy to be dominated, particularly in marriage, as long as their husbands met their obligations as providers and leaders.

I was accused of demanding women to compete with men, whereas God wanted women and men to complement each other. As a result, I was promised a position in hell, if I continued to question and mislead other women to disobey the word of God, which required them to submit.

Completely frustrated at the turn of events, I decided to start blogging. My blog was my way of talking to myself and imagining that the world was listening. I had no real expectations; but to get an outlet for all the conversations and questions I was having in my head, but lacking people to discuss with. My blog was the outlet of a feminist, outraged by injustice against women, and consumed with fantasies of a new world for women.

A few months since I started blogging, I must say that I have been pleasantly surprised. I have developed friendships with feminists from Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, South Africa, Canada and Nigeria, some of whom I have met physically, others online. I have met some of these wonderful women over mojitos, over tea, and the occasional dinner, and we have had some of the most stimulating conversations imaginable.

I have also discovered other smart, funny, and bold feminist writers from across Africa, writing all sorts of interesting stuff on being women, on feminism, sex and sexuality, patriarchy and sexism, and politics among other topics.

When we found each other online with some of the feminists, we formed the Facebook group, Feminists in Africa; a platform that has allowed us to have deep, intellectual and mind blowing conversations. The platform has allowed us to find solace and support in each other, providing cyber-encouragement and creating a community of feminists in Africa. I have learned so much from this forum, it feels like I just went through a course on feminism.

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When I think about this short and exciting journey as a feminist blogger, I am completely awed at the power of social media. I get overwhelmed and excited when I think of what and how much could be done through social media. At the same time, I realise the limitations of social media in achieving social change.

While social media is key to organizing, it also has potential to exclude the same people we intend to include, particularly in contexts where access to internet is limited, and many women do not even have the skills to have discussions on Facebook, Twitter or discover some great feminist blogs.

Conscious of both the successes and challenges of social media in creating social change, techo-sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci in her Ted Talk argues that although digital technologies have made it easier for modern day social movements to organize, they are not registering highly successful results, in terms of overall social change. She opines that some of the benefits of doing things the hard way are being overlooked.

Zeynep tells the story of how the ruling Turkish political party, has succeeded in combining both online and offline organizing. Curious to find out what the key to their success was, she interviewed and official of the party who told her that “the key is he never took sugar with his tea.” He explains that, in addition to organizing online, his party met people in their homes, in meetings and other offline forums on a daily basis.

While meeting people in their physical spaces, he was often offered tea, and realised that if he was going to take sugar with all the tea that came with visits, it would pose a risk to his health and weight. He therefore had to stop taking sugar, as turning down the offers for tea would be perceived as rude. Zeynep concludes by saying, “to succeed in the long term, sometimes you need your tea without sugar, along with your Twitter [social media].”

The same applies to cyber-feminists. We are part of a radical movement, with power to transform the lives of women in this continent, but to succeed in that, we must move beyond the cyber space, and gradually get into the more lengthy, hard and demanding work.

It is great, but not enough that we write all these wonderful blogs, and create all these online spaces for us to discuss feminism and support each other. To succeed in the long term, we need to meet women in their physical spaces, and sometimes take tea without sugar, along with our cyber-feminism.

We can all do it

Where do we belong?

Chimamanda Adichie often speaks of how she became aware of her blackness, when she left Nigeria to live in the US. It had never occurred to her that her skin colour had any significance, other than being one of the skin colours that exist.

After living in two countries that are not my country of birth, like Chimamanda, I realise that living abroad can make one conscious of things that one would ordinarily be oblivious of. Many times I don’t realize some of the things that I am now conscious of, until something happens.

My most recent is the consciousness that language is not just about words and speech, but also about belonging, inclusion and exclusion; a realisation that was prompted by a call that I made to KPLC to report power outage in my area.

belonging-quotes-2

Late last week, I got home from work, and there was no power. After being notified that there had been a power outage all day, I called KPLC…

The call goes directly to an automated voice machine, which asks me to press a certain number to speak to an attendant. The lines are obviously busy, so I am put on hold, and every 60 seconds or so the automated voice message notifies me that all the lines are busy, and thanks me for my patience.

I then realise that the automated recording speaks in a British accent. It also occurs to me that there isn’t a Swahili recording, and therefore someone who doesn’t speak English, would have a difficult time understanding, and consequently getting assistance.

I wonder aloud why a Kenyan public company is addressing me in a foreign accent, and more concerned that a recording is not done in the national language.

I realise that I am conscious of this, because while living in the Netherlands, I often had the challenge of understanding automated voice messages recorded in Dutch. I remember how often I had to call all the numbers provided on a website, trying to get to a number that would be picked by a person, and not a machine, since I could explain that I didn’t speak Dutch.

After several such frustrating incidents, I realise that the Dutch expect me to live by their rules while I am in their country, and they will not adjust their systems to suit those who decide not to learn the language. It reminds me, in no subtle ways, that I don’t belong.

I then remember an incident in the UK, when I called a British Company and my call was answered by a call attendant with an Indian accent struggling to speak in a British accent. After he had finished assisting me, I asked what his name was, and while I was expecting a Sumra, Vijay, Shah or Sumit, he gives me a typical English name, something like John Smith.

This call reminds me of the movie, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Evelyn, a retired British woman moves to India and takes up a job in a British outsourcing call center. In her job, she teaches Indian call center workers to speak in British accents, and even how to make small talk, the British way.

I think to myself, I guess if you are going to work for a British Company, you have to speak like the British, understand what makes them tick, even if you are in a call center located in Mumbai, Abuja, or Nairobi, receiving calls from London and other English cities. I realise that to belong in this place, I may be forced to begin killing hints of my roots, and adopt the British way of life. I begin to understand why I meet so many Africans in the UK, with weird sounding accents. I become more conscious of their struggle to belong.

Going back to my KPLC call, as I am put on hold, all these incidents play in my head, and I ask myself why KPLC has opted for an automated message speaking in a British accent. I get irritated, because it not only reminds me of my experience of not belonging in foreign lands, but it also gives me a sense of not belonging in my own country.

I get even more annoyed, because I realise how language can be used to exclude people in the very place where they should belong. It reminds me of a few video and audio recordings I made immediately after finishing university, trying to get into the Kenyan media, as a newscaster.

I remember the disappointment I felt, when it dawned on me that I would never get into any of the stations that I was applying to, because my accent did not sound like I had attended an upmarket British or American school. Neither did it indicate that I may have lived in the UK or the US for some time in my life. I realise that while I have been awarded a degree, and conferred with power to do all that appertains to it, that I sound too Kenyan in my speech to be accepted in certain careers. In this case, I can only belong if I have a tinge of the foreign.

Once KPLC sorts out the power issue, and I now have access to the internet, I get on social media to see what has been happening while I was in darkness. The hashtag #Mollis is trending on Twitter, and I wonder, what is this Mollis? Maybe a new discovery? A new type of car? A new restaurant or club?

I realise that Mollis is the name that has been given to a rapist, and it is actually a mockery of the fact that the woman being raped cannot pronounce the name Morris correctly, because her English is influenced by her mother tongue. Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) also create memes and jokes using the word Sallenda, which I realise, is how she pronounces surrender. This is also her way of pleading with Morris, and indicating that that she cannot endure the violent sex anymore, as Morris insults and continues to forcefully thrust himself on her.

shape-sorter-bullies

As I read tweet after tweet, I realise that the fact that she sounds too Kenyan, and more rural than urban, has contributed significantly to people’s inability to empathise with her pain. I find myself thinking about Ngugi wa Thiong’o and wonder if this is what he means when he encourages Africans to write in their languages, arguing that the language of the colonizer is a tool for oppression.

I wonder what the hashtag would have been, if the woman being raped spoke in an American or British accent. Perhaps the hashtag that would be trending would be #FindMorris. Perhaps our colonised minds would believe that this woman is indeed being raped, and we would be looking for her, to help her report the incident, so that Morris can be arrested. Morris would be a beast, a wanted criminal, and the object of our venom, as opposed to the hero he has become, and the accolades he has received.

I find myself thinking of how language has been used to remind me that I don’t belong, while in foreign land, and how it continues to determine who belongs and who doesn’t belong, who gets heard and who is ignored, who is respected, and who is not, even in my home country.

Where do I belong? I wonder. Not abroad, not home. Where do I belong? Where does the woman being raped by Morris belong? Where do we belong?

belonging

Liberating minds _ Angela Davis
Every month, the watchman of the building I live in asks me to lend him 1,000 or 2,000 Kshs, with the promise to pay me back at the end of the month. He rarely pays me back on time, because things always come up. Although he watches over property worth several hundred million Kshs, his earnings are barely enough to see him through the month.

This man walks three hours every morning to get to work and back home every evening. He works 12 hours a day, without a lunch break, and yet he cannot afford to pay 40 Kshs. for his daily transport. This is despite the fact that he supplements his income by washing the cars of the residents of the building, alongside other manual work that is given to him.

Even with all these efforts, he still owes me 1,000 Kshs. from last year, and he has explained to me that he is paying a loan, which makes it even more difficult to make ends meet. He is highly in debt, just to survive. On top of that, he recently got a wife, so things are probably worse, with an extra mouth to feed.

Now that he has a wife, there is a possibility that he will be getting children in the future. I don’t need to investigate to confirm that the chances of his children having the same kind of education, healthcare and nutrition as the children occupying the houses he mans are close to, if not zero. Miracles may happen, but I foresee a high probability that his children will be in the same situation he is in 20 years down the line.

Sometimes I overhear the conversations between the watchmen and the domestic workers, and I get a sense that they are well aware of the structural inequalities in this country. Talking and joking are their ways of dealing with the harsh realities of life. They talk about the challenges of being on the tail end of the inequality divide. They joke about how they can only afford certain luxuries in their dreams.

The luxuries they joke about are nothing luxurious by middle class standards – sometimes it is just the need for a decent lunch, the dream to take their children to university, or to take public transport to work and back home. For the domestic workers, they wish they could see their children daily, spend more time with them, and like their employers, receive their children when they come back from school.

These kind of inequalities glare at us every day in the places that we live, our places of work and just about every public and private space. Any Kenyan will tell you that the fruits of independence are only enjoyed by a few; that where you are born, and who you are born to determines your chances in life and the kind of opportunities that life will present you with.

In their conversations, the watchmen and domestic workers correctly correlate their social and economic challenges to corruption, nepotism, cronyism and tribalism. They know that without these social ills, their lives would be somewhat, if not significantly different.

Yet when Obama talked about inequalities, tribalism and corruption in Kenya, we spent the entire day quoting different sections of his speech through tweets, re-tweets, and Facebook posts that were liked, commented on and shared widely. We marvelled at Obama’s genius, his wisdom, and spoke at length about how inspired we were, never mind that any ordinary Kenya would have told you the exact same thing. We celebrated these obvious statements, as if they were the words of the prophet, foretelling a future that we don’t know of.

I have found myself trying to make sense of the response of Kenyans to Obama’s visit, and more specifically, his speech. I have found myself wondering whether the over-celebration of these obvious statements could be symptoms of a repressed society. Were we celebrating because Obama said what many of us could not say for fear of being branded traitors or unpatriotic?

Could the ‘Obama-mania’ that we witnessed, and the over-enthusiastic cheering of obvious statements be signs of a nation clinging to the hope of much needed salvation? Could these be signs of a society that is in self-doubt? Could the hope we vested in Obama be an indication of low confidence to emancipate ourselves from the problems that we often articulate so well, even across socio-economic divide?

As Africans, we have struggled to emancipate ourselves from the indignity of domination by foreign and colonial rule. Even after attaining independence, Africans have vehemently objected to be shaped by dominant narratives of the West, about Africa. This is a journey that we continue to pursue spiritedly.

However, we cannot succeed in the journey to emancipation if we continue to cling to the West for affirmation and legitimization. When we fail to believe ourselves until a foreigner ‘diagnoses’ our problem and speaks on our behalf. We must rise above the need for affirmation by the foreign, and believe that we are holders of knowledge about ourselves. We must believe that the power to chart a new kind of Africa lies with us, and not the West.

Bob Marley - Emancipation

African feminists found

Guest post by Varyanne Sika 

When I found Cera’s blog I was desperately searching for less known and less established feminist writers (at the time) who were writing about feminism in accessible ways in Kenya. I found Cera’s blog on twitter through a simple search using a combination of two key words Kenyan + feminist. It was a search for feminists who stood firm in their feminism and at the time, to me, nothing was more firm than a bio or name that did not hide behind the kind of meandering and clumsy definitions of feminism I had been finding. Upon finding the blog I quickly read her latest post, at the time it was “I Refuse to Shrink” which was a timely post published on International Women’s Day. In the post, Cera said “we need to raise daughters to refuse to shrink” and I thought, “we must also learn to un-shrink ourselves because shrunken women (who want children) cannot raise daughters to refuse to shrink”. After frantically commenting on the post and complaining about being unable to contact her, I proceeded to share the post with the facebook feminist friends I had at the time (I keep saying ‘at the time’ because things have changed rather drastically, and pleasantly in the past few months). I knew Cera and I were going to be talking to and with each other for a long time.

I was looking for more and other feminist content which was relevant to Kenya and to other countries on the continent because I grew weary of reading the usual dominant feminist platforms which were run outside Africa. Having Pambazuka and the African Gender Institute permanently open in one of my tabs and having downloaded all the Feminist Africa Journal issues (which are free for download), wasn’t enough. I was hungry for more feminist content from the continent because I needed to be able to name at least ten online feminist platforms without thinking too hard.

Four years ago I stumbled upon MsAfropolitan which is run by Minna Salami (who gave this TED Talk) and on her website I found a treasure! A list of African feminist blogs and African feminist resources! I went through the list, subscribed to the running blogs to which I could subscribe and shared the list with the feminists I knew. Two years after the treasure that was the list of resources, I wrote an essay ‘Fashion for Feminists’ on how dress and fashion shapes women’s identities for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa’s publication Buwa! which publishes thematic essays on varying issues on feminism in Africa. All of their publications are also free for download. Buwa! inspired in me a pressing need to contribute to and to increase feminist voices online.

Image from Open Society

Image from Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

A year ago I asked Nyaboe who also runs a music blog called Songs we Like to join me in putting together an African feminist anthology. I asked her this because I had spotted Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ in her library and that was all I needed really. However, Nyaboe and I could not get the anthology started because of usual distractions and a crippling fear on my part, that we wouldn’t be able to string together coherent, let alone compelling paragraphs to add anything worth anyone’s time to the African feminist conversation. Towards the end of last year I read from ‘Voice, Power and Soul’ edited by Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and Jessica Horn, two paragraphs that reminded me of the critical need for feminist voices on the continent.

Our current struggles as African Feminists are inextricably linked to our past as a continent – diverse pre-colonial contexts, slavery, colonization, liberation struggles, neo-colonialism, globalization, etc. Modern African States were built off the backs of African Feminists who fought alongside men for the liberation of the continent. As we craft new African States in this new millennium, we also craft new identities for African women, identities as full citizens, free from patriarchal oppression, with rights of access, ownership and control over resources and our own bodies. We also recognize that our pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial histories require special measures to be taken in favour of particular African women in different contexts. We acknowledge the historical and significant gains that have been made by the African Women’s Movement over the past forty years, and we make bold to lay claim to these gains as African Feminists – they happened because African Feminists led the way, from the grassroots level and up; they strategised, organized, networked, went on strike and marched in protest, and did the research, analysis, lobbying, institution building and all that it took for States, employers and institutions to acknowledge women’s personhood.”

The Wide Margin was thus born, and Cera did not know it at the time but she was going to write about the [Feminist] Liberation not being Un-African.

Image from wide marging

Image from The Wide Margin website, illustration by Naddya Oluoch.

The Wide Margin was started because, “Feminism has often been distorted or co­opted by media, by religion, by capitalism, and by patriarchy. Many Africans avoid associating themselves with feminism. The claim that feminist ideals and projects “are not our culture” is often parroted as a stodgy excuse to disengage with feminism. But, as shown in Silence​ is a Woman by Wambui Mwangi, ‘Transversal​  Politics’ by Nira Yuval­ Davis, We​ Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, amongst others, the concept of “culture” is fraught, and, while often in an antagonistic patriarchal relationship with women’s lives, culture also provides an archive and site of articulation for women’s trans­generational quests for sovereignty, autonomy, freedom, and pleasure…We are here to occupy space, to increase feminist voices from the continent and to tell young feminists in Africa, ‘you are not alone.’ ” – Editorial, Feminist While African, The Wide Margin.

After (and during the process of) publishing the inaugural issue of The Wide Margin, I discovered even more feminist content in Africa including Mon Pi Mon in Uganda, Third Culture Feminism in Zimbabwe and HOLA Africa, a Pan-Africanist queer womanist collective. Through deliberately occupying space online I learned that I did not in fact find already existing African feminists, we found each other.

The word for woman in my language is ‘mutumia’. Loosely translated this means the voiceless or the silent one…The fact that woman and silence are synonyms is reflective of the [imposed] voicelessness of women.” – Cera Njagi in ‘Mutumia

This is a reminder to those who already know about all the women speaking to share the words of other feminists as often as they can and as widely as possible. This is also an announcement to those who are not aware of feminist voices from Africa that African Feminists are being found with more regularity and consistency, tell a friend and tell them to tell other friends.

Bio:Varyanne is the editor in chief of The Wide Margin. She practices black feminist breathing while championing inclusive, intersectional, rigorous and unapologetic feminism. varyanne@thewidemargin.org

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