She was only 13 Or maybe she was or 12, or 14 or 15 years old It does not matter, Oh it matters She was a child
I knew her as a class mate. An older girl, I thought. Sometimes I admired the older girls They seemed to have more confidence Or maybe not Tishala was not very confident The teachers made fun of her She was not “bright enough” in class The boys made fun of her, She was not ‘cool’ Classmates avoided her She was smelly Her confidence waned Poverty did not allow her to afford good perfume Or water to bathe everyday Or clean underpants every day And who took care of her? Did everyone not see She was a child
Tishala is pregnant!
Tishala is an embarrassment
How could she get herself pregnant?
Everyone seemed to ask
I got confused,
I did not realize anyone can get themselves pregnant!
Those terms were never used
She was to blame
Despite that she was a child.
The girl I knew,
Was a friend.
I did not visit her home,
or meet with her parents
But she was a friend
We were in the same class
Only that mattered
And she had a good heart
She made me laugh
That is all that mattered for friendship
I was a child
She was a child
Our friendship was easy
For we were children
Years later, realization dawned on me
She did not get herself pregnant
May be she was raped
Or maybe she was sexually exploited
In exchange for some perfume
Why did nobody mention this possibility?
Why did nobody treat her as a child?
Why did she lose her right to education?
Why did nobody mention
That she was a child
This year as we commemorate #16daysofactivism
I dedicate my thoughts to girls like Tishala
Girls who lost their life’s dreams without any support
I stand with her
I stand with girls struggling to claim a space
I stand with girls abused and rejected
I stand with girls who do not have someone to tell them
You are a child!
This girl that I knew,
Motivates me to do my part
She never escape my mind
It has been so many years
She is now an adult
Possibly with daughters of her own
Or grand daughters
For their sake,
I wake up each day
Determined to do my part
To make my little contribution
In the life of such girls
And to get inspired by the power of girls
I stand with her
And deserves to be treated
As a child
I quickly looked up from my phone to meet the deep gaze of this young girl. She hesitated at the door, then stepped in. Uncertain but bold steps. She looked fearful. She must have wondered why she had been summoned to the head teacher’s office. I saw myself in her. I saw many girls that passed through that school for years. The colors of the school uniform had not changed. I was reminded of how timid I was at her age. “How are you? I greeted her as I extended my hand. She shook my hand, smile almost appearing on her face, then it was gone. “Fine” she whispered barely audible. I looked at her torn sweater. Her creased dress. Her fearful face, almost teary. I was there for a positive mission, but it was not easy to get a smile on her face. Her voice quivered, and I wished I can hug her, but the hand shake seemed to have been quite a task for her, I gave her the personal space she needed. Listening to her narrate her day almost brought tears to my eyes. But I have learnt to not show pity when there are tears in the heart. She needs to see hope not pity. I smiled encouragingly, as I listened to her talk about her daily chores. She is not just a statistic, she has a name, a face, a life but let me call her Imani. Imani is a Kiswahili word for faith. Looking at her it struck me that those deep eyes reflect not just sadness but a lot of hope and faith that tomorrow holds a better future. This girl struck me deeply because I can see myself about 30 years ago, wearing the same color of uniform in the same school. My mission to my Alma Mater Mang’u Primary School in the rural Kiambu County in Kenya is not a task but a personal mission that I take seriously. I have walked and driven into the school gates with different categories of individuals, some not from the area at different times over the past ten or so years, and sometimes alone. Interacting with the girls and boys gives me different perspectives and every encounter leaves a mark. May be they think I am doing them a favor in mentorship, but I often feel it is the other way round, I am getting a favor of engaging with these girls and boys and sharing in their space, in their dreams. While different social and economic aspects leave the girls and boys in this and other public rural primary schools disadvantaged, the life of a girl remains precarious. Imani represented to me is the face of the girl in that school and other girls in the rural Kenya. It reminded me of the life I had as a girl and how other girls, now women experienced life back then. I kept reflecting on realizing how lucky I had been. Imani wakes up early in the morning to prepare her younger sister for school. She is the eldest child at home at only thirteen years old. She clarified that she is not the eldest as her 21 year old sister is married with two children and her older brother is away from home. In a rural household, there is always an ‘acting first born’. As a girl she takes over the roles of her mother sometimes. In Imani’s case, she is lost her mother at a young age, so she takes over the roles more times than not. Her father struggles to provide for the family and performs many of the traditional female gender roles. On many occasions, he wakes up and leave the house at the crack of dawn to seek the casual labor. He has no regular income, and the casual labor is often on the basis of “first come” so he needs to be there very early to ensure he gets a job. If he gets some work, he is assured of food for the family that day. Some days he is not lucky. Imani and her siblings have learnt to take a day at a time. They do not complain if there is no food. Well, hunger knows no boundaries, and for a young person the pangs must be even more severe. How can such a young girl learn to ignore hunger pangs? I silently wondered. “Well, sometimes there is only so little that I give my younger siblings and a little to my father so that he gets more energy to back the following day to seek some employment’ She added, her face looking more mature than her thirteen years. She fumbled with her hands, a young girl who has had to grow up too fast and already prioritizing other persons’ needs. Her future is pegged on decisions around her life and accessing education is one core need. It becomes tricky when her access to education is compromised or made difficult by experience in school, at home and her immediate environment. This is the story of many girls her age and the seemingly minor decisions can change their lifetime forever. Imani’s life can pan out very differently depending on the opportunities that are accorded her. I reflected back on girls I schooled with, and how some decisions changed the course of their lives. The earliest recollection I have is of this girl who was my classmate when we were in lower primary. Many years later, the image is still vivid because I was somehow linked in her story. We were about eight years old. A boy from the neighborhood was sent to pick me from home back to school. In the lower primary, we used to be in school until 1.00PM. My mother wondered what was the problem and the naughty boy said he did not know as he smiled sheepishly. I put back my uniform and ran back to school. I was summoned by a group of three teaches who asked me if I had taken money from the teacher’s purse. This girl who I will call Riziki had said that she saw me put my hand in the teacher’s handbag during break. I could not believe my ears! My head felt very hot and I burst out in tears. My family did not have any allowance for vices like stealing. It was the first time someone looked at me on the face and accused me wrongly. When I look back I believe the teachers knew she was cheating because they quickly dismissed it and concluded I was innocent. I do not recall what proof was there or Riziki admitted to it, but what I recall is how she was paraded in front of the whole school. Her mother was called and she went ahead to disown her and cane her in front of the whole school, “as an example to other kids“. The mother literally disowned her and allowed for boys to taunt her. It was the ugliest scene I had ever seen. I cried along with her, despite the fact that she had accused me. That was the last day for Riziki to be in school. I do not know what became of her, but I know life was not kind to her after that. She lost her dreams of making it in life, just because of one mistake. Was the money worth her lifetime dreams? I still feel bitter when I recall this incident. I recall in teenage years, girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy or embarrassment related to adolescent changes especially monthly period when they stained their dresses. It aches when I realize that those girls were around 13 or 14 years. At no time did the issue of them being children and having being sexually abused get a mention. The girls were termed as being “bad girls.” I recall countless number of girls who dropped out.
When I look back, I realize that I and several other girls narrowly escaped and many girls are not that lucky. Decisions by caregivers, parents, families, teachers and their own decisions and choices shape their future. I hope to walk with Imani a few more steps. I do not know what the future holds for her. I do not know what the future holds for the African girls. I do not know what the future holds for the girls in the world. What I know is that we have responsibility to walk with the girls, and enable them be the GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable and with that ensure that there is sunshine in their future.
I celebrate the girls who are waking up and finding a tiny smile, whatever their circumstances. I know they have what it takes to make a very bright tomorrow possible and create their feminine chiefdom. GirlForce: Unscripted and Unstoppable! Like my friend AW like saying, Girls rule the world!
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former”. Albert Einstein
I am so tired.
For quite some time I have not blogged. Blogging helps me unwind and it does not mean there have not been many things I want to unwind on. In fact, there has been too much, I am just tired. It takes me back to many experiences I have encountered and more, in particular, this young woman…
Many years later, I keep thinking, what happened to her life? Some experiences stick in the mind for years to come.
I have worked on different programs in the social work field, and encountered many women and girls, with diverse experiences. This girl comes to mind ever so often, because I feel like I let her down. I was a fresh graduate from college in my first job. It involved engaging in life skills sessions aimed at preventing HIV infections among young people. It was in the early 2000s when the rates of HIV infections was quite high and many cases of orphaned children. I was not trained in counseling then and obviously felt inadequate. Maybe I am starting with a disclaimer to explain my inaction, or my “not enough” action. While doing the life skills education sessions in one school, this girl came to me. . Let us call her Lakeisha. She wanted to share her experience and seek support. She was being sexually abused by her uncle. The uncle was a pastor, ‘well respected’ man in the village. Lakeisha was about 16 years old, in high school and an orphan. Following her parents’ deaths, the uncle had been ‘generous’ enough to take over paying school feels for her and her siblings and their upkeep. She was the first born and with four other siblings. The uncle was the well-off person in the family and they depended on him for their daily ‘bread’. Did I mention he was a pastor, and ‘well respected’ in the family and community?
With the little I knew then, I explored with her what options she had. Her main worry was that (1) nobody will believe her and (2) her siblings will be thrown out to the streets. What options did this young girl have? I spent some time discussing with her and she felt her options are non-existent. Her auntie was an only option and we explored if she could tell her auntie. However, she was not sure how this would work out since the only safe space was her maternal auntie who may have been seen to be interfering. She was not able to take the four children in as she was struggling herself. This girl had really thought about her options and felt stuck. We explored and I was feeling more and more desperate as the options became less and less. By the time we parted she wanted me to follow up with her but that was not possible. I was not likely to go back to that school. I suggested to refer her to someone that could walk with her but she was not comfortable with this or to speak with her guidance and counseling teacher. In other words, by the time I left her, there was no end in sight or a good enough avenue for her to explore.
Over 15 years later, Lakeisha crosses my mind. What happened to her? Did she finish high school? Did the violence stop? Did she ever report? Did anyone believe her? Is she even alive? What about her siblings, did the younger sisters fall victim to the same? Was the SILENCE EVER BROKEN? How many more girls was this man abusing? I feel sad even as I write this.
The reason this come sot mind so strongly right now is because of what has been happening in Kenya of late. It is clear that material and financial support is becoming a justification for much evil and this is specifically when women are the recipient. It is clearly misogynist thinking. It is the same thinking this man had to sexually violate his niece. He was paying school fees he had rights over her body! Many are wondering why this is a “gender issue”.
Stay with me in case you are wondering.
I am tired of what is happening in my country Kenya and many times as I try to put something down, words will fail me. I start and stop. I feel I do not have enough energy to engage in the issues. Since last year, there have been so many cases of women murdered by intimate partners. It is like every day you wake up to a new story. They have become stories. Statistics. Sensational past times that we engage in and forgets. Data. Stories that are told retold and we move on. They make news and headlines and then we move on. Even grosser, some people think it is something fun to do a ‘fun challenge’ around it! It is insanity. Is this what Albert Einstein had in mind when he said that humanity has a large threshold for stupidity? I cannot start to summarize the ‘stories’ that have been prominent in the recent past. Just thinking about it makes me feel so tired so I have been quiet about it. I feel like shouting at the top of my voice then wonder who is listening. I read comments on social media and I lose the desire to live in the country. Maybe if I disengage from Kenya it will hurt less?
As I was speaking to a group of women yesterday, and giving them an assignment to journal their experience I found myself questioning my writing block as I spoke. I have not been able to write, every time I think of writing I get too angry to put anything down. I decided to put action into my words. I am trying to find words on something that is so annoying it eats at my core.
This is what is most annoying. The script is the same.
A woman is murdered by a man known to her. Or the suspect is a man known to her. The stories that are spewed start justifying the murder on several stereotypes.
She asked for it…
One would think that by 2019 we have got over this. Blaming the woman. But no. All the cases involve blaming a woman for the murder. She is to blame because in one way or the other she provoked the man. He did not have a choice, in other words, he has no self-control. The woman should have known better to avoid whatever annoyed the man enough to cause the murder to happen. She should not have taken any money from the man. I have not seen any indicator that a gun was held to a man’s head for him to remove his wallet. In which world do we justify murder? Not in self-defense but cold murder? In Kenya, it is a thing. Patriarchy has a way of rearing its head to blame the victim and of late it has come to a new low. Many responses are ‘advise to young women’ to keep off men with money. It is very sick that the older person (the man) is excused and the young woman blamed. Many reasons are given to justify why the man murdered the woman.
He was taking care of her financially or took care of her financially …
This has been the most spewed excuse. Somehow there has been this accepted notion that if a man makes any financial contribution to a woman (real or imagined) then he has rights over her liberty, her body-mind, and spirit. He gets the rights to her and if she says no, then he owns her and can take away her life. And many will not bat an eyelid with diverse expressions of this notion. First of all the same human beings that are justifying this will be up in arms if any woman expresses a desire not to have bride price as a ritual for their marriage. I do not share the opinion with many people on bride price with the “it is an expression of appreciation” line and all. I respect those who love the practice for whatever reasons. This is my way of looking at it. The main difference between the so-called “man was taking care of the woman financially” and the current practice of bride price is that in the latter the family of the woman, not the woman herself benefits from the monetary and other material ‘appreciation’. Is it any wonder that many men will feel justified to have a right over the woman’s body, sanity and liberty just because they contributed some materials for her? If contributing finances and materials is enough justification for murdering her if she does not toe the line, there is no reason the same will not be said of bride price. There have been many cases where “but I paid bride price” is used. So much for an “appreciation gesture.” That is very clear in my head. That does not mean it should be or it is justified in any way. It just means that there are many misusing the different practices to further subdue women. I recall we were having lunch with some group of women and men and a discussion on gender came up. I expressed my shock when waiters give back the balance to the man even when the woman had paid the bill. One man who had been expressing how gender sensitive he is and how he practices it in his home and workplace said “it is surprising that nowadays we have men who allow women to pay bills. In our days we would mobilize as the man at the table and pay the bills.” He could not see his contradiction. Well, there would be others like him who will not hesitate to say a woman should not pay a bill but will go ahead and call the same woman a ‘gold digger.’
I have seen many comments online that imply that if a woman has received materials from the man then it opens door to the possibility of violence. This makes it very warped up thinking in a society where the exchange of gifts (like bride price) is sanctioned and treated with high regard. It is the double standards that support one thing and at the same time uses the same to blame the victim.
Back to the financial aspect brought up in these murder cases; it implies that any money that one gives must be paid back by having the person on the receiving end having no say over her life. Since I started working, I have used the money, my hard earned money on many people. I contributed to the education of several children within and outside of my family. Do I have a say over their lives because of this? Absolutely not. I cannot even ask them to be my house worker or nanny during their holidays. I do not own them! They do not owe me. In fact, some of them are no longer in touch. There was no time that anyone put a gun over my head to remove a shilling from my pocket. If I take out my wallet and pay for a bill, pay school fees or medical bills it is well and good. There is no way that translates to ownership over other people’s lives. On the other hand, in such cases, this would be a mutual relationship where each person is having a benefit of whatever they get from the relationship. It is insane to equate material and financial support to rights over someone’s life. It is a gross violation. On the other hand, none of us know the nitty gritty of the relationships and the dead person cannot give their side of the story. For all we know, the stories are fake. But the tellers of the stories know how to get sympathy. I am tired of living in a community that thinks “I gave her money, she did not pay back in kind, and she dies” is a logical statement.
Women are luring men …
This has been said over and over for ages it is even annoying to try and engage with it. I do not know the world where there is a category of human beings that are lesser than or equal to animals; they cannot control themselves and somehow another of the same species have the power to. The double standards are so rampant. One of the owners of this world is that even if the woman is about 20 years younger than the man, she holds more responsibility for her actions!
Boundaries and saying no is something I learned when I was a teenager but it seems many skipped that class.
Lastly, while I feel exhausted emotionally and physically, I am encouraged by the category of women and men I see on social media who are condemning these kinds of attitudes with the kind of terse language they all deserve. The horrible attitudes seem to dominate, maybe because it is shocking to imagine there are some human beings with that kind of reasoning, but I take encouragement from knowing there is the category that is on the humanity path. Maybe there is some hope in humanity. Maybe a few of us can keep at it, keep pushing even when it is so very hard. There are many good-willed Kenyans and the world condemning these heinous acts. With all understanding, there is a lot of “supposing she is your sister or daughter”. The personal is political so it is a bit easier to put things into perspective when we empathize or own it. However let us remember that a woman does not have to be A SISTER, A MOTHER… FOR HER TO HAVE RIGHTS. SHE IS A HUMAN BEING. FULL STOP.
Let us say NO to violence because she is a HUMAN BEING. Let us get tired of these pretense and misogynistic tendencies.
“From a distance, the world looks blue and green and the snow-capped mountains white….
From a distance, you look like my friend, Even though we are at war…”
So the words of the (once) popular song go.
I have mixed feelings about traveling by air, sometimes I wish that there are options for flying and not water. There is an assurance in feeling your feet are on the ground, not floating in air or water. Long road distances are not appealing either nobody has discovered the alternative yet. There is a kind of vulnerability and surrender that one is left with when flying. When the plane gains speed on the runway, my mind hums, “no turning back”. take off feel so final so you surrender and get swallowed into the skies, as you stare at what you are leaving. When on the ground, the skies are a welcoming, tranquility. The clouds are a maze of soft and warm cotton wool seamlessly gliding in a rhythmical dance. I enjoy gazing at the clouds. More correct, I used to enjoy. There never no longer time to gaze at the skies these days. Call it adulthood! There is much fun when you are pre-adult and with less care of the world.
As a child, I spent hours staring into the skies, sitting or lying on the ground, I watched the skies as clouds danced and slithered to meet each other. There were different images as my imaginative mind could create. When lying on the ground staring at the skies, the clouds look calm and peaceful. From a distance, there is perfect harmony. That is until you are up in the skies and you appreciate the bumps that the clouds cause. When flying clouds are no longer gorgeous, no matter how alluring they look from the ground. Instead, they are menacing.
The most magical moments when flying is when you are almost landing, low enough to see the ground but high enough you enjoy the scenery. No matter which place you are landing in, if not a water mass looks beautiful. If during the night you, the bright glistening lights will greet you. The cities look very organized and peaceful. The green vegetation looks serene. Even refugee camps look organized and homely. From the skies, you do not see any unruffled feather, but when you land life changes!
The blaring horns, busy people running and moving in different directions, dry hungry land welcome you. There is organized chaos at best. The reality sinks in, that what looked perfect from a distance is not as perfect. On a recent trip, watching the enticing scenery I realized, it is the same with life. From a distance, things look more put together and sometimes getting the ‘inside story’ serves as a reality-check moment.
This is not a pretense, but that not everyone will be privy to your inside reality while other times people prefer to keep up an appearance. In other cases, the short moments spent with people does not offer the chance to scratch beneath the surface. Children are a perfect example. When one says they slept like a child, many parents will roll eyes and wonder “which child?” Many children who seem very peaceful at one time but brats in another moment. Many children sleep very peacefully for few hours, and when they wake up, the whole household and in some cases neighborhood is treated to a screaming show.
As adults, we have learned more skills in hiding behind the curtains and letting the world see what we are happy to reveal. I enjoy listening to people’s stories, understanding the journeys they have undertaken in life. It is always revealing when I hear the behind-the-scenes stories. When looking in from outside, some individuals look quite settled and unruffled that it is easy to imagine that they have had everything handed in a silver platter. That is one of the reasons that I enjoy reading biographies, as this enables one to see the human part of a person. Some families, marriages, jobs look like the perfect fir yet when we hear the inside story, it is no longer bliss. It is like watching a finalized theatre play. The many hours put in place before the D-day are unknown to the audience, as actors effortlessly rehash their lines. The ‘shoes you walk in’ are unknown by many people who may think you are having it very easy. It is only when we peel the outer layer that bonds are formed and true friendships thrive. It is that moment that we appreciate that things are not always as they seem.
I still want to admire the scenes from a distance. I enjoy watching the sceneries and the beauty they represent from a distance. I want to receive the meal at the table in a nice restaurant without seeing the mess in the kitchen with sweaty cooks and oil spills. One sure way of losing one’s appetite is peeking into a restaurant kitchen! I give it to the restaurants with a semi-open kitchen. Last year while on a work trip I was in a guest house that left a lot to be desired. The place looks beautiful and well-kept from a distance and being a new facility where the paint has barely dried, it looked perfect. However, all was not well but what broke the camel’s back was entering the kitchen. Luckily we could move from the guest house to another facility. Some things are better left to be admired from a distance.
However, I want to be able to peel masks with those who are close to me. I want to know not just what makes one tick, but the tears behind the smile. It takes a lot of strength and trust to be vulnerable. We are not perfect and feeling that undressing the masks will not be judged is life-giving. That is what makes life interesting!
Despite how things look from a distance, there is a story.
“A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes. When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound. We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” ― Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
A morning in the village is beautiful. The cockerel will crow. A dog barks. The cow makes its presence felt and the village slowly wakes up. Rarely noises of blasting car horns and noisy cars that seem to be determined to spell “pollution” in the urban areas. Of course if your home is near a main road, this is a different story. There is always a ‘prefect cockerel’ that starts the choir, and some lazy dog picks it up. If you are in my mother’s house, the loud noise of the radio will be part of the “wake up” nudges. Eventually people start getting about their business while greeting each other on the way, mostly with a handshake. It is considered bad manners to wave to people in the village. You shake hands and exchange niceties which usually go like “oh you are going to school.”
It is not a question but a ritual. You need to confirm what everyone is up to, so even if you are in uniform and school bag, and it is 6.30am you answer pleasantly “yes I am going to school.”
In the village, we minded each other’s business. A neighbor will call out when passing by. This is an important ritual because if this normalcy was broken, it may be a pointer that someone is not okay. My mother tells us of a time when she had injured her leg early in the morning. She could barely step out to take some water and bathe to go to hospital. When a neighbor called her in the usual morning greeting, she alerted this neighbor to her rescue. That was the life when growing up.
In the village everyone knew everyone within several kilometers radius. The neighbors are probably relatives or have known each other for many years. If you made a mistake on the way, some neighbor would easily punish you. That was usually with a pinch. She (mostly were women, as many men would work away from the house) would then go ahead and inform your mother and that meant a second punishment. The best case scenarios was when she punished you and she kept mum about it. You would not dare report that someone punished you, to avoid a follow up punishment. This was mostly (not always) done out good will not malice, but malice could not be overruled.
In the village you knew which kids to play with and where not to venture. It therefore made it easy to leave children at home without necessarily having an adult care taker for the day. If there was an emergency a neighbor would easily step in. Incidentally I don’t recall there being emergencies. May be when my younger sister fell into hot water and scalded her hands. My mom had gone to condole her neighbors, as the best man in my parents wedding had passed away. My mum went for the evening prayers and left us children at home with my elder sister in charge. We had cooked githeri and my older sister was at the age where she could be trusted with the responsibility removing the pot from the fire. Somehow githeri would be cooked for longer than necessary. There was a process where it would be left in the earthen pot to linger a while long after everyone had had their feel. The water (or is it soup) would be strained much later and reserved for the cow.
My little sister (now adult) liked hanging on the door playing. She did not grow up to be a bus conductor, but she practiced! As we told stories late into the night she slipped and her hand fell into the hot water. May be it was not an emergency as we kept it secret, soothed her to sleep till morning when she woke up and my mum was shocked to see the scalded hand. We were good at keeping secrets! You can imagine the shock my mother got when my sister woke up. My sister did not even wake crying at night! That is how ‘disciplined’ we were! That incidence reminds me how wonderful it is to be a child, none of us thought it was an emergency. She was eventually taken to hospital.
While getting into each other’s business can be overwhelming, it made the village life quite communal. One had people to depend on even when they were not relatives. People easily gathered for a meal or tea, without prior planning. It was easy to call up on relatives when one needed support or a favor, but to call up on persons you are not related to and know they will be there is a treasure. This is something one often misses when living in the urban. I barely know my neighbors, and for those I know it is not beyond the greetings (and WhatsApp’s). Even in the village, the real village life has been interrupted by technology. However, we crave that togetherness, and I find that among my circle of friends calling each other ‘my village’ when we mean “being there for each other.” I have therefore come to appreciate a lot this level of sisterhood in different phases in my life. No matter where I am, this sisterhood village has come to my rescue.
When I fell and fractured my leg in 2014, I was in Yei South Sudan away from my family and close networks. A friend I had known for some years who happened to also be working there at the time represented my village that time. She took care of me, I forgot I do not have my relatives with me. Some few weeks before she had fallen ill and I only found out in the evening when the house worker we shared informed me. I rushed to hospital and I remember asking her “why didn’t you call me, don’t you know I am your mother, sister here”. After that we shared contacts of our relatives. Little did I know, I was the one who would need a ‘mother’ few weeks later
My work requires travel, and there is peace in knowing that some friends or my sisters will pop in and check how my baby is doing. While I will keep in touch via phone with the nanny, getting an assurance from a friend has added strength. The first time I was to travel and leave the baby I was very anxious. When talking to my friend, she started asking me precise schedule to see how it worked with her schedule, I was not imagining that she was offering to come and stay in my house while I travelled. That was a gesture that I will never forget, it reminded me that I have more sisters than the ones I grew up with. Three of my close friends would often find themselves in the house at the same time, and that was very heartwarming and reassured me that despite being many miles away, all was well. It was like ‘tea parties’ were being held in my house in my absence, what else, could I ask for?
It is not easy to retain the village support that we grew up knowing. Life has changed in many ways, we have become more engaged in diverse lives and we may not see one another as often. The nature of work that was common in the village was around the homes, while now everyone is trying to beat the traffic morning and evening. But, we can call, have a lunch, tea, talk, laugh and make life more bearable. We get so busy that forwarding funny videos and images has become the way of life. Often times, we meet and we get shocked to realize we have not seen each other for years. With internet nusu ya kuonana we stalk each other’s pages on who got married, got a baby, travelled…we feel we know what is happening. That does not quite capture it. Sitting down over a cup of tea, and laughing is very different from ‘liking’ posts online. There is such power in shared laughter, shared meal, and shared time.
There is never enough time to do everything that we need to do. Chinua Achebe put it quite aptly “A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving …We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.” It is precious when people gather together, and may be the village wise men and women knew this more than we realize. The community cohesion and family ties were strengthened when people sat together. I used to watch my mother go for the merry-go-round group ‘tea meetings’ quite often. My late grandfather understood this concept only too well.
Many Sunday mornings, we woke up to find one of my cousins at the door. He would have two messages, one for my father “Grandpa has asked you to pass by, as there is a goat to be slaughtered after Church”.
He would then turn to us, the children “Grandpa has asked that you all come for goat eating in the afternoon”.
Let me introduce you to my late grandpa. He was the husband to five wives. Imagine that each wife had a child, like one too many. Now imagine those children had children, and that was the family that would gather for a goat. Sometimes it was actually just one goat! You got a little tiny piece of meat, but going there was not optional. We obediently went for goat eating every so often. We even started calling my grandfather’s place which we popular referred to as Gichagi (village) as Gichagi kia nyama (the village of meat). Village was a colonial concept of putting many households together before this became the name of “rural area”. No wonder we referred to my grandfather’s homestead as gichagi. It was where we gathered. Of course the term gichagi has not become known as shags, we almost think it is an English word
It is only in adulthood that we started thinking back and realizing that this was not about the meat, but about being together. My grandfather did what he needed to do in getting his large family cohesive. While logistics may make this so difficult in the modern world, I strongly believe there is a place for the sisterhood village. Every once in a while, we can afford to come together. We can still mind each other’s business within certain boundaries.
I am the child of the universe, striving to leave foot prints, however faint they seem. A step at a time.
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Every so often, we want to go back to the village. We go to the village for holidays, weekends or Christmas breaks. There is something about village life that is appealing, serene and inviting, but only if you are not living in the village! I don’t think those who live in the village from January to December get the same feeling of awe. May be it is the difference between the often hassles of urban life that makes us miss the village. But somehow we want to be in the village for short periods of time, and those in the village want to escape the village life.
I have been thinking about the joy of being a ‘villager’. This implies, belonging to a group, having people around. It is no wonder that with some close friends we keep reminding each other about being “a village’ and getting to remind ourselves that we can building our small villages in Nairobi. It got me musing about village life, the good, beautiful, the bad and the ugly.
I grew up in the village and I loved the experience. That is lie, I did not love everything. In fact I hated most of what it meant to grow up in the village. It is only later in life that I got to appreciate joys of being brought up in the village. Growing up in the village meant household chores. The task of having to catch chicken to shift them in the morning and in the evening was particularly troubling for me. It must be the chore I hated most. Not exactly hate, more like fear. My mother would assign my siblings and I specific number of chickens each. There were different cages, where one cage allowed the chickens to get sun shine during the day while another one kept them safe during the night. I don’t remember catching any chicken. I don’t recall how, most likely my siblings have some story around how I escaped that. Most likely I swapped the chores with someone. Catching a chicken that is flapping its wing is something I don’t plan to do any time soon. It gives me a weird feeling. Like goosebumps…chicken-bumps? There must be a name of some phobia for flapping wings. It is even worse to hold a tiny chick. It is so delicate and soft. I like chicken when served as a meal. I will comfortably make a meal from a chicken as long as its wings are not flapping. Dead.
I recall after form four when I was taking care of my late sister’s kids. My late sister Jane passed on some weeks after my form four exams, leaving behind young kids. I took care of them during that pre- university period. Their dad shifted them from the rural home where they had only moved a year before back to Thika. One of the uncles was taking care of the rural home and as a reward he made sure to bring the farm products. One day he brought this large cockerel! Alive and kicking! He happily dropped the cockerel in the house and he was on his way.
I was meant to cook for my nephews, which was not a problem. But the cockerel was alive and kicking. Their dad (my brother in law) was away in a training so I was the young head of household that week. I felt very mature then, surprised to realize I was barely 19 years. The uncle thought he had done us a huge favor, not knowing the dilemma he had created. We kept the cockerel in the kitchen area, tied with a string. Chickens have a habit of being very silent if they choose to, you can forget them. Wait until they get scared and start flapping their wings and making noise. In Africa the cockerels are used to tell time as they crow at a specific hour. There is also a saying that kuku wa shamba hawiki mjini (the village chicken does not crow in town) so I don’t recall if this one obeyed that rule. I only recall wondering how to get rid of this cockerel soonest possible. I had two options. Wait for my brother in law to kill the chicken over the weekend or kill and cook the chicken. If I chose to wait that also meant the chicken would poop around the house, and who cleans? You guessed right. Me. Option two was to kill chicken. There is no way on earth I would kill a chicken.
I hatched a plan. My seven and eight year old nephews would do the work. This is not child labor, it is called socialization. They were very excited. See, it was not child labor! I knew the theories of rearing and attending to a chicken, we did that a lot in the village. I knew how to make the chicken into a delicious meal as long as it was not alive and kicking. My plan was therefore to have the two young boys hold the chicken as I tied the wings and legs very tightly. They then went outside the compound and cut the poor thing’s neck. I had instructed the boys to cut it very fast and completely separate the head and wait till it stopped flapping around. We were to do this in a humane way… or rather chicken-caring way. I could then take the process from there, and we had a wonderful meal. And some two boys were well socialized.
Years later I had a second attempt at a live chicken. I worked in Nakuru and we had gone to work in a neighboring district. Everyone was buying chickens so I was not left behind. I knew my younger sister was in the house so I assumed she would do the necessary. I was wrong, she had me as a role mode. I ended up taking the chicken to a friend’s house as a gift. The friend did not know this gift was by chance…but it does not matter, right?
That was my last attempt with alive chicken. Luckily, many chicken sellers have figured out that customers prefer chicken just ready for cooking. I don’t think I missed much for not learning the particular skill in the village.
I am the child of the universe, striving to leave foot prints, however faint they seem. A step at a time.
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Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.
“Motherhood is the greatest thing and the hardest thing”. Ricki Lake
It was a beautiful Sunday morning. Sundays mornings are usually beautiful. Serene. It is like the weather knows it is a Sunday and even if it rains, the day has a sunny demeanor. May be because there is less traffic in Nairobi. Less pollution unless you neighbor some Church with blaring noise. I have never understood why they do this. The megaphones outside the Church preaching to everyone who is not interested in the preaching. Anyway, as usual, I had plans to start the day with Sunday Mass, but his plans…well he had different plans. I ended up spending part of the Sunday Mass time outside the Church when my terrific two son decided there was more interesting stuff outside. Despite the accommodating section for lactating mothers and young babies in the Church, he was uncooperative.
“Enough is enough.” He said …through tantrums.
He wanted to play, not pray. Sometimes, most times, he is more cooperative. To be fair to him, after some rains that week, the grass was so green, alive and inviting, sort of calling to be enjoyed. It was truly a beautiful day to be outdoors, but the wrong timing. I resigned myself to the fate as he explored. That is where I met this lady, fellow mom in a similar situation. We got talking as her daughter and my son discovered the surroundings. The two children were about the same age. Well, may be the two young ones had planned it all along! Children really get adults talking.
Somehow the issue of travel came up. Her profession demands travel as part of the everyday roles. She mentioned the challenge of having to travel when her child was about seven months old, and so stopped breastfeeding. We ended up talking about the balancing act of being a mother and a professional when the children are too young to understand. This is a shared concern for many women in particular. I started travelling when my son was 13 months old. I had planned for it, but that did not make it easier. Sometimes there is a sparkle in the drab. This was an easy way for getting him off the boob. He had reduced breastfeeding and the travel sealed it. He stopped breastfeeding and he forgot about it. For some mothers, this is a struggle. If I was not travelling I had no idea how long he would have breastfed as that decision was off my hands. I think he had already had his fair share anyway.
As a parent, one often has to make tough decisions around the different roles that one plays. Travelling and leaving the family is not easy, yet this is often required of many parents, in employment or business.
“How do you manage?” I often get the question.
I do not have an answer. Just doing what I got to do and getting a lot of support in that. I grew up with an ever present mother who worked in the homestead. But, my dad worked and resided in Thika, coming home over the weekends. I doubt if anyone ever asked him how he managed being away from the family five (or sometimes six) out of the seven days in a week. That does not mean that the men do not necessarily find it difficult to leave the families, but the world has accepted men as the species that work away from the home. Not so for women.
Many professionals have had to make decisions around various issues related to work and their parenting role. Travelling away is a sometimes quite tough. The anxiety of leaving one’s family, more so when there is a young child, almost robs one the excitement of exploring a new place. When the time difference is many hours apart, it becomes even trickier. You want to hear the positive message when you call, “we are doing well.” That is a standard reassuring response. Sometimes I wonder if it is rehearsed and ask many questions to verify.
The first time, I travelled away from my home for work after my baby was born was difficult. I was away for two weeks and every day felt like torture. This was quite different before I became a parent. It was easier to stay away for longer. This was a different experience. Despite occupying myself with the tasks at hand, I practically counted days, every morning and every evening. I felt like my heart was being torn apart. I kept wondering what his little mind is telling him. Was he feeling abandoned? I ached to be back. When I arrive back home, he was confused. He looked at me and became so emotional, tears welled in both of our eyes. May be he thought he was dreaming. As he gets older, his reactions are different. He will clap and run for a hug. That is easier to manage.
In some situations, the work environment does not support the roles of being a parent. Some women especially face the challenge of biased employers or supervisors or colleagues. During our earlier working days immediately after Campus, my friend was working in a government office. In those days maternity leave was quite short. She was expected to be in the office from 8.00 am to 5.00PM. There was no allowance for the lactating mothers to have more flexibility back to work. Her supervisor could understand her need to go home earlier. In those days breast pumps were not quite known and acceptable in Kenya. She had a rough time struggling with painful breasts every day and literally fasting to reduce her milk production. Ironically she had so much milk. At one time her supervisor told her to “find out how other women manage”.
While we have gained quite some steps in getting more women to the offices, getting the offices accommodative to women is still a struggle. Many offices are buildings without a soul. There are also beautiful stories of how many employers have made strides in making the working environment more humane. One should not have to choose and feel that the multiple roles are in conflict.