Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Sexuality’

Please teach us to use condoms

Condoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FemaleParts_of_the_male_reproductive_system

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

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

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

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

What if my child was gay, lesbian, intersex or transgender?

Following the US Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriages, coupled by the fact that Obama will soon visit Kenya, there are fears and concerns among Kenyans that the US may want the rest of the world to follow its example. The Kenyan deputy president, William Ruto has therefore issued a stern warning to President Obama not to talk about gay rights during his trip to Kenya. He has further declared that there is no place for gay people in Kenya. This homophobic sentiments have been lauded by many Kenyans, who have taken upon themselves to spew homophobic messages largely through social media, and in many social conversations.

These events have seen me engage in conversations about gay rights over the last few weeks, mostly with people that are completely opposed to the idea of people with non-conforming sexualities having the same rights as any human being. On several occasions, I have found myself being asked what I would do, or how I would respond if my child turned out to be gay.

I don’t know what people expect as the answer to that question, or even the purpose of asking the question. I suppose those who ask the question imagine that the thought of my own flesh and blood turning out gay, will hit me back to my senses, because to them, this would be a parent’s worst nightmare.

My first question to the people that ask this question is whether the parents of children known to be heterosexual (straight) go about life thinking about their children’s sexuality. If that is not the case, then why would any parent go about life thinking about their child’s non-conforming sexuality? I don’t understand why people imagine that the sexual identity or gender of a child with a non-conforming sexuality or gender identity should be the primary focus of their being.

No one is any one single thing, and to imagine that I would reduce my child to a sexual or gender identity is strange thinking. Human beings are often many things in one, and sexual identity is one thing, but not everything about a person.

If my child was gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual, intersex, transgender, queer, it wouldn’t matter. They would be my child, biologically. I would give them the best life I could. Bring them up to be the best human beings they could be. I would want them to dream and realize their dreams. I would want them to live their lives true to themselves, and without fear that their sexuality would pose a hindrance to them realizing their dreams. I would raise them to know that they are more than their sexuality; that they are humans with lives to live.

I am human

As a person who is socially and politically active, I would want my children to see life beyond themselves. I would want them to speak out and act against corruption, rigged elections, restriction of civic and media freedoms, police brutality and extra-judicial killings, the inadequacy and neglect of public services, among other human rights violations, or whatever other social vices will exist in their society during their time. I would not want my children to be apathetic, only gaining voice on matters concerning morality and sexuality.

My greatest fear would be to raise children that consume and spew hatred towards people that do not look, think or behave like them. I would be greatly concerned if my children would rather hate tax-paying, law-abiding citizens, whose sexualities they may not understand, while there are so many injustices to confront and challenge in society.

I would be concerned if my children would choose to make an issue of people with non-conforming sexualities and gender identities, rather than demand better from politicians living lavishly off their taxes, yet continue to steal from them in the broad day light, abusing, raping and kill them. I would be disturbed if my children got distracted from the real issues.

Why every woman and black person should support gay rights

Same sex Image 1

Recently, I had the pleasure to talk to my grandmother. Though 84 years old, and displaying the frailty we commonly associate with old age, she spoke eloquently about her experiences living under the colonial regime. She recalled the memory of how Kenyans were driven off their lands, tortured, killed and raped, in such detail, depth and clarity.

At the same time, I realise that her story is of a life that did not happen: due to being born a black girl, in colonial era Kenya. From talking with her, I get the sense that she possibly would have made a great academic, who could have lectured and inspired the next generation. Those opportunities never materialized, for she was a black girl, in colonial era Kenya.

In that time it was the norm that girls would not get much of an education, if any at all. She did not choose to be denied, what we now think of as obvious rights. Her path in life was clearly set out for her, and her choices in life limited too. Being born a black girl meant that she would attend school for a few years, and drop out as soon as she was able to provide labour in her father’s farm. She would then get married as soon as she showed signs of being a woman, give birth to as many children as her body could bear, raise them and provide labour in her husband’s farm for as long as her body allowed. Sad as it is, that was the path set out for just about every girl born at her time.

Gender, race and disability are some of the grounds that have been used historically, and even presently to discriminate in just about every part of the world. These kinds of discrimination have seen minorities suffer tremendous injustices, ranging from gender inequalities, slavery, apartheid and colonialism.

The idea of reversing these injustices, and seeing groups that had been historically disadvantaged as human beings with rights was repulsive to the powerful. At that point, the idea of sending girls to school, or allowing women to vote, or to engage in any other public setting was unfathomable. The idea of black people mixing with white people was even more repulsive. People with disabilities were for a long time considered social misfits in Africa and Europe, often not worth living.

While a lot of advancements have been made to end the discrimination of women, black people and people with disabilities, bigotry is still existent in many forms. The most obvious form is expressed towards people with non-conforming sexualities. Be they lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-gender or inter-sex (LGBTI). The same Bible and other religious texts that were used to justify bigotry towards women, black people and people with disabilities, are now used to create homophobic sentiments. Consequently, LGBTI people have suffered rejection, torture, excommunication and even death, across the world. Many gay people cannot live ordinary lives of achieve their full potential because society has no space for them.

I am a person

Sometimes I get angry when I hear my grandmother speak, because I realise the impact of discrimination in depriving people of choice, and deterring people from achieving their full potential. Having faced double disadvantage, first as woman, and secondly as a black person, I imagine if I had been born at the same time as my grandmother, I would not have made the academic and professional achievements that I have made so far. These achievement do not only give me immense pleasure, but they also make significant contribution to society. I hate to imagine of the wasted potential that would have become my story.

At the same time I am glad because some people fought to make sure that would not be my story. Many women and black people were injured, excommunicated, and some even died for me to enjoy the freedom that I enjoyed today.

Had women or black people stopped fighting for their rights to avoid repulsing the powerful, most of us would not be enjoying the freedoms that we do today. People with disabilities would not have the right to live let alone enjoy any other rights. Yet women all over the world, black people, and those with disabilities are still so far, from being considered equal to men, white people or those more able-bodied. Our battles are far from over, and those of the gay community seem to have an even longer way to go.

A Kenyan High Court ruling that declared it unconstitutional to deny registration to a gay rights organisation, has been met with a lot of resistance by ordinary Kenyans, the Church and even our Deputy President, William Ruto. Many have questioned the need to have organisations that support such a ‘repulsive’ group of people. Others are now in panic, fearing that once gay people win this battle, they will move on to demand marriage rights. It is no wonder, the argument that gay people should keep their affairs private has gained so much traction.

Just like any other group has a right to form a group to advocate for its rights, so do gay people. Registration is essential for many organisations to operate. You can imagine the difficulties that any organisation, be it a company, a church, a school, would have if it was denied registration. Just as women, black people and other minority groups decided to move their support groups from private to public spaces, to advance their agenda to be recognised as people, gay people too should do the same. Because no battles are ever won in private spaces.

The journey for the rights of people with non-conforming sexualities has come a long way, and it still has a long way to go. I am hopeful though, and very hopeful for that matter, because if you told my grandmother that she would live to see her granddaughter travel abroad to get an education, she would probably have laughed at the ridiculousness of such an idea. If you told her that her granddaughter would be so political, declaring herself a feminist, sitting at the same table with men the age of her father to discuss issues of national importance, she would have taken you to the nearest mental institution. But she has lived to see it, and I pray that she lives even longer, to see her granddaughters do even more wonderful and amazing things in the public arena.

I say this, not to blow my own trumpet, but to cast hope to the gay community. I am hopeful that our gay sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters will write blogs to celebrate the battles that we fought for them. We therefore must keep hope alive.

We must refuse to be discouraged or to feel powerless. We cannot afford to become complacent, or allow lack of support to overcome us. We must shed off all fear, and refuse to worry about what other people think about us stepping into a role that might make us unpopular. We must silence the voices that urge us to shut up or quit, the voices that call us defeated. We must reject any idea to cave in to the discouragement that surrounds us. We must continue to work, fight, and challenge, awaken, and campaign for equality and social justice. (Quote adapted from the Pillion Trust Charity).

Wangari Maathai - We must not give up

Why was my womanhood not celebrated?

When I was 16, I began to write a novel about Wambui, a girl who was born with a rebellious spirit. In my story, I depicted Wambui as a girl who constantly questioned and defied gender norms. Her grandmother was constantly lamenting that Wambui had inherited the rebellious spirit of her grandfather, and often wished that her younger brother, Kiarie had inherited it instead. She worried that a girl with a rebellious spirit would never find a man to marry her.

One of the highlights of the novel, was when at the age of 15, Wambui was required to help prepare for Kiarie’s circumcision party. Consumed with anger, Wambui got into a heated argument with her grandmother after refusing to participate in preparing or even attend the celebration. She reasoned that it was not fair that Kiarie’s manhood got to be celebrated, yet her womanhood was not. While her grandmother tried to explain that it was only natural to hold a party when a boy grows into man, Wambui contended that she too had grown into a woman, and deserved a party. She asked her grandmother, why the growth of her breasts and hips, as markers of growing into a woman were not celebrated. “I too, want the beauty of my womanhood to be celebrated.” she demanded.

Celebrating women

The novel was my reflection then of how female sexuality was handled differently compared to male sexuality. I was expressing my dissatisfaction and outrage with these differences. I had attended a few of these ceremonies where a small, timid looking 13 year old boy who had just undergone circumcision would be ushered into manhood. The speeches given in such ceremonies aimed at empowering the boy to take on the challenges and responsibilities of being a man. Every sentence of the speeches began with the phrase “now that you are a man” and this was followed with words that instilled courage, pride and authority. I contrasted with with my “now that you are a woman” speech, with was followed with words that instilled fear, embarrassment and domesticity.

While these 13 year old men would be showered with gifts and words of wisdom, I had never seen a similar event to usher a girl into womanhood. The passage to womanhood was a private affair, addressed in hushed and not so pleasant conversation often between a girl and an older woman. The passage to manhood on the other hand was a public affair, with pomp, colour and ululation. I hated the invisibility of being a woman; unworthy of notice or acknowledgment.

I hated the fact that the transition to being a man came with freedom, liberation and with mandate to take authority, yet for girls, the transition was the exact opposite. Being a woman came with extra policing, caution and ignominy. The growing bodies of girls were deemed evil, with the ability to “tempt men”, who were “naturally weak”. It is no wonder, many girls walked with a stoop to hide their growing breasts, or tied sweaters around their hips to conceal their growing hips.

My novel was my 16 year old way of saying that there is something wrong with the cultural valuation of girls and boys. It was was my way of saying that something is amiss with the way society handles the sexuality of boys and that of girls, and the messages that come with each. It was my way of questioning the undue pressure that these gendered messaged place on women and men. The pressure on women to be “proper”, to be care givers and to shoulder the heavier portion of domestic responsibilities. The pressure on men to be “macho”, unfeeling and in many cases to shoulder the heavier portion of financial responsibilities.

Weighed down

My novel was and is still my way of saying that we need liberation from the shackles and burdens imposed by society; burdens and shackles that keep men and women chained and weighed down; chained and weighed down by the yoke and pressures of gender roles and expectations.

As Nancy Smith says in her poem:

For every woman who is tired of acting weak

When she knows that she is strong

There is a man who is tired of appearing strong When he feels vulnerable

For every woman who is tired of being called ‘an emotional female’

There is a man who is denied the right to weep and be gentle

For every woman who feels ‘tied down’ by her children

There is a man who is denied the full pleasure of parenthood

For every woman who takes a step towards her own liberation

There is a man who finds that the way to freedom has been made a little easier.

A book for every crisis of my life

books animation

Every time I take a new book to read, I hope that it will be one that will engage my senses and emotions, consume my thoughts and heart away, and make it extremely difficult to put it down. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen to me that often. I have read many good books, but they often fail to grip me or rip me apart the way I expect, want or need them too.

In a desperate attempt to find that book, I have been asking myself, what kind of book will it take to give me this kind experience? I have experienced it, and I want to experience it again and again. So, I began to explore, what the books that had this effect on me, have in common, and I noticed a rather interesting pattern; each one, speaking to an identity crisis.

The first time a book totally consumed me was in my early teens. At that point in time, I was going through that period that changed me, overnight from being a girl to “a woman” who needed to be “careful” because of the “danger” that it presented. I was not supposed to “play” with boys, because “I would get pregnant, get HIV, drop out school, or try to procure an abortion, and probably die in the process or be barren all my life”. That was sex education 101, for me in a nutshell. My “new-found womanhood” was a source of fear, and one that had the potential to ruin my entire life. I had to be very “clever” and “careful” if I wanted to finish unscathed. This message was repeated over and over; at school, at home, and in the “Welcome to Growing Up” books that I was required to read.

In the midst of growing up and being impressionable, my classmate lent me a novel to read; my first Mills and Boon, which I read the entire night, suffering my first hangover, and luckily not an alcohol-induced one. That night I got my sex education 102, a potential eraser of Sex ed. 101, and a new lesson about the “other side of my new-found womanhood”. In six hours I was introduced to a world of fantasy with unrealistic expectations of relationships, romance and sex. What kept me awake that night though, was the fresh and exciting discovery that being a sexual being was not just about danger, pain and shattered dreams but also about desire, romance and pleasure. This potentially erased all my previous sex ed., had it not been for the determination of my sex ed. 101 teachers, who hammered the message as often as possible. The confusion that comes with the conflicting messages, and bias of both narratives is a story for another day.

mills-boon

The second time I was unable to put down a book was in my early 20’s. This time, it was Marilyn French’s book, The Women’s Room. I bumped into this book when I was beginning to seriously question gender norms, what it meant to be a woman, and why women were in many ways given “lesser beings” status. So, when I met these women in Marilyn French’s book, I had an instant connection with them. Fascinated by their determination to break away from the social and economic limitations that society had placed on them, I felt as if we were walking the journey together. The conversational experience I had reading the book, was phenomenal. I cheered them on, asked the same questions they did, laughed and cried with them, and told my story as they told theirs. After reading that book I declared myself a feminist, a decision and journey that has been both interesting and frustrating. Again, that is not a story, but stories for other days.

We can all do it

The third and sadly, the last time a book consumed me in my entirety, was Chimamanda Adichie’s book, Americanah. At that time, in my early 30’s, I was struggling with my identity as a black person, an African, a Kenyan, and wanna-be-citizen-of-the-world. I had been to Europe studying, coming back to Kenya with high expectations, only to be met by a country that seemed to have little regard for what I had to offer, and for its people in general. At the height of my frustration, I toyed with the idea of disengaging from my Kenyan roots. I justified my thinking and tried to erase my guilt by arguing that I had not chosen my country of birth, and therefore accorded myself the right to live and be a citizen of my country of choice.

Like the prodigal son, I packed my bags, and set off on a journey to a far-off land to seek better fortunes. Unfortunately, my country of “choice” was proving to be equally, if not more hostile than my country of birth.
It was at that point, in my small room in London, that I met Ifemelu in Americanah. A young woman who had left her home, in Nigeria, leaving Obinze, her long-term boyfriend and the one thing that mattered most to her in the world, only to find that America wasn’t as rosy as she expected it to be, particularly for a black person. Reading Americanah, I reflected on my experiences, and began to ask myself whether I was leaving the 80 % that my country offered me, to engage in an endless search for the 20 % that I was missing.

Chimamanda quote 1

Americanah, took me on a long ongoing journey. At that point, like the prodigal son, it directed me back home, physically. At the moment, it continues to direct me home in my heart and mind. I have many stories, again for other days, on my experiences and struggles on the journey to be Kenyan in my heart and in my mind.

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