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Reflections

Choices in my Lifetime

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Choices in my Lifetime
Photo: Zimbabwe flag (Shutterstock)

In my lifetime I have so far missed two critical turning points in the country of my birth, Zimbabwe.

The first event was Independence Day on 18 April 1980 which marked the beginning of our freedom from colonialism. Legend and a few grainy video clips and images show that the day was full of ecstatic celebrations with the legendary Robert “Bob” Marley playing before a capacity crowd, punctuated by promises of a better Zimbabwe for all from Robert “Bob” Mugabe. I missed that day because my parents decided to given birth to my elder sibling before me, making me a born-free and him nothing that we have a term for. I was born into this ecstasy, with my parents, just like everyone else, hopeful of a bright future full of options for their children. From an early age I was told of how we had come out of the liberation war to be a free country with abundant opportunities and for many years, this nostalgia for things I had never seen and his continued eloquence on the need to fight neo-colonialism spurred on my love for Bob.

It took most people many years to realise that even though some of us were born-free, the country’s freedom was born anaemic and has forever been unwell since that day the new multi-coloured flag was raised and the Union Jack replaced. It took me the end of university and numerous years of non-yielding job searches to realise the disease was too far advanced to make me a free person, despite my being seen as a born free. One cannot be blamed for this blindness to the rot. We the born-frees were weaned of choice with phenomenal and unending propaganda about the beauty of our land even as it lay destroyed. Secondly, “that which afflicted our Freedom had been deceptive; an illness that did not show itself at first, choosing to do so only when it was too advanced for us to do anything about it[1].”

For years the disease had shown itself in the crushing of non-conformist and opposition voices and devouring those of its own who have dared show signs of being different to the status quo. It took a seriously ugly form when it led to massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s and country-wide in 2008. Even then, it never looked to the masses like it was a dictatorship that would one day show its full flame-lily bloom and so some still believed in our freedom. It was therefore not surprising that even after all the signs and symptoms of a sick and dying freedom had been shown, we still believed that the man who had sold everyone the Zimbabwean dream on that day in 1980 still had what it took to bring a Zimbabwe that was free for all.

In a shocking result for the previously vibrant opposition parties led mainly by Morgan Tsvangirai, I was one of the people who gave Robert Mugabe a new mandate in 2013. The vote had marked the end of my previously held abstinence from voting and I would soon regret my choices when I realised that the manifesto that promised among other things 2.2 million jobs was nothing more that the disease giving us temporary mental reprieve but like always, no real change. Again, it may be because after the 2008 election violence, each of us secretly knew that we had no other option except to endorse a vote whose outcome would not be affected by our own voting patterns.

I again rued my having chosen to vote for a 90-year old when he, satisfied that nothing else could remove him from power began, to hint at that he would not be retiring anytime sooner or later. This, coupled with a growing presence on the public sphere of his rabid wife Gucci Grace, appointment of relatives in top public posts and a flaunting of wealth by his two young boys, Robert Jnr and Chatunga, showed growing symptoms of the disease morphing into not only a dictatorship but also a family dynasty. But if I still had any blind love for dear old Bob, increasingly wobbling through his speech and walk and now on character too, it was all lost on 6 November 2017 that he fired Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Vice President and his once trusted junior. While I could admit that I had a slight liking for Emmerson, it was the realisation that we had now entered a stage where choice would be non-existent, that chaffed me off the most.

For two weeks or exactly 3 Mondays thereafter I could neither work nor do anything productive while I pondered every possible exit strategy out of the country. It was not like I had any choice anymore if I had to give the same hope to my children as my parents had fed me while I grew up. While in 2013 I had hoped, maybe foolishly so, that once voted in Bob would redeem his legacy by appointing a younger successor within his party, I was now clearer he had never intended to do that. It was now apparent to me that Bob was the silent disease, the anaemia that had bedevilled our freedom from the day we rid ourselves of colonial rule.

In those two weeks, I became irritable, spent my whole time arguing on Whatsapp groups and eating just a little enough to keep the dying hope on life support. And yet in those two weeks, the most productive thing, at least according to my conflicted born-free-self happened. A military intervention which was unofficially dubbed a “coup not a coup” and officially running under the banner Operation Restore Legacy was led by Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga on 15 November 2017.

For days on end, I walked aimlessly in town just to see the army tanks parked at various government institutions. I listened to the coup speech endlessly to convince myself that maybe for once an antidote for our disease had been found. The words “Firstly we wish to assure our nation, His Excellency, the president of the Republic of Zimbabwe and commander in Chief of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Comrade R G Mugabe and his family, are safe and sound and their security is guaranteed. We are only targeting criminals around him who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice” spurred me on even as talk about Mugabe refusing to resign rang louder and louder and the optimism in the masses of a breakthrough shrank smaller and smaller.

Finally when the deed was done and the affliction that had been with us for 37 years was declared gone, for once did I see my people regardless of their colour or tribe, genuinely celebrating the end of another era. I know it is never a wise choice to celebrate a coup but I had no choice as it meant the end to the disease as I knew it. Many have told me that the military intervention marks the end of any civilian choice, especially free and fair elections and I only nod in agreement, too spent to argue with them or tell them that, I have never had any choices all my life so far. And while I can never vouch that the disease didn’t leave dregs of its venom in those who took on after it, I have chosen optimism over everything else.

Now, I must state that I missed the second major event in my country, which was the inauguration of Emmerson Mnangagwa on the day 24 November 2017. My friends who insisted that we attend together since I seemed so much to be touting for the man were disappointed to hear that I had decided to spend the day away from Harare with my family. What I could not tell them was that I had no choice but to be home, trying to make a second generation born-free who would maybe have a different story from mine to tell about choices. My parents taught me to hope and I will live by it.

[1] From the story Our Freedom first published in Weaver Press’s Anthology Writing Lives, 2013.

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Lawrence Hoba is an author, entrepreneur and intellectual property professional based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Reflections

Just Do It!

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Just Do It!
Photo: Joanna Nix on Unsplash

This ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series was born out of a desire to continue the conversations springing out of the ‘Too Early For Birds: Brazen’ theatre performance in Nairobi in July 2018. TEFB-Brazen was a mix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history – freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri; democracy activists Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior who brought down Lwanda Magere, the legendary ‘Man of Stone’ in Kenyan folklore. The story of each hero was narrated by a corresponding mirror character on stage. The ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series seeks to explore the idea of brazenness, what it means in our daily lives, whom the idea of brazenness privileges or erases, and the place that brazenness has in imagining freedom. 

 

* As told to Christine Mungai

 

A few months before Too Early For Birds: Brazen was due to be performed, the writers of the show – Aleya Kassam, Laura Ekumbo and Anne Moraa – invited a number of women for a pre-show reading of the script, to see how it landed and what could be improved. I attended the reading, and brought my mother along.

The reading got underway, evoking frank conversations about the struggles that women face – at home, at work, everywhere really, as we fight to stay alive and sane in a society that constantly works to degrade and diminish us. My mother listened, patiently as she always does, and then said something that surprised the group – that she was struck by the fact that women in 2018 were facing the very same struggles that she was battling forty years ago.

My mother, Lucy Wanjiru, is now is her 70s. She told the group how she raised my four siblings and I as a divorced woman in the 1970s. Which, as she pointed out was not the kind of thing done at the time. But she was different. She’s the kind of mother that had the “sex talk” with us openly, and answered all our questions as best she could. She was the first to take me out, to teach me what alcohol did to my body, and how to handle it. She bought me my first miniskirt.

Someone asked my mum whether she knew any gay people “those days”. She said yes, we knew men who did “women things”. And that there were girls who “disappeared into some corners with other girls”.

Was there a backlash? Were they ostracized? Was there the same stigma as today?

“Not really,” she said. “It was understood that those girls were not ‘for marriage’.”

And then my friend Nini asked my mother, “Did it occur to you that you could be in a relationship with a woman?” She answered: “Unfortunately I’ve never been attracted to women, but if I was, it would have been a great arrangement.” That blew everyone’s mind, and they all burst out laughing. But my mother meant it.

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I’ve been thinking about that conversation in the weeks after TEF Brazen, about the things that time changes, and what it doesn’t change. My mother sharing her experiences from forty years ago mattered to the people present that day – it reassured them that they were not alone, that others have passed this way before. But it was also a reminder that the forces against us as women are resilient, frequently shape-shifting into more modern versions of the same old oppressions.

I ended up watching Brazen with my mother, as well as Martha Karua, who’s had a distinguished career in public service, Justice Martha Koome, judge at the court of appeal and Marilyn Kamuru, advocate fighting for the implementation of the two-thirds gender rule. It was a veritable cross-section of women representing different generations of Kenyan brazenness.

It made me realize that we need those cross-generational spaces that allow us to access those memories, that let us know that this too shall pass. And for those who have gone before us, it matters that someone is listening. That someone will read the Hansard and retrieve what you said, like they did for Chelagat Mutai in the performance. That someone will quote you, will re-tell your story to little ones one day.

At what point does a girl become a woman in her mother’s eyes? I was lucky that my mother spoke frankly to us, gave us an anchor to hold on to, and helped us find a way to make sense of the world. For too many women however, it is happens too late, too abruptly, or too tainted by the contradictions of life.

I asked my mother that day, “At age 35, you were running a business, running a home, and raising five children by yourself. With all of society’s forces against you, how did you do it?”

She said: “You just close your eyes and get your work done.”

That’s Brazen.

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Reflections

Gonna know we were here

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Gonna know we were here
Photo: Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash

This ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series was born out of a desire to continue the conversations springing out of the ‘Too Early For Birds: Brazen’ theatre performance in Nairobi in July 2018. TEFB-Brazen was a mix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history – freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri; democracy activists Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior who brought down Lwanda Magere, the legendary ‘Man of Stone’ in Kenyan folklore. The story of each hero was narrated by a corresponding mirror character on stage. The ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series seeks to explore the idea of brazenness, what it means in our daily lives, whom the idea of brazenness privileges or erases, and the place that brazenness has in imagining freedom

 

I recently found myself in a room with the mother of my auntie’s husband who we all call Cucu. Having lost my biological grandparents, this sweet lady—who, at 98, has always been old to me—was fascinating to observe. Cucu sat in a corner, singing gospel songs with her feet elevated. She was snug and warm and aged in that good way; seen the world and sure of her bedtime.

I thought about the Kenya she met in 1920. A colony filled with fear, hunger and violence. Though I can almost hear Ciru’s character in TEFBrazen chime in, “kinda like now”, I wonder what uncertainties coiled in the belly of Cucu’s mother as she looked down at her daughter. As a woman, I feel certain the same dread extends across each generation facing a hostile world that needs unmaking: Will they survive? Will they thrive?

Not enough to make it.

This is where we need the radicals and their rage.

They find the words, the exact colour and stroke, the perfect verse and tempo, the opening, the safety, the fearlessness, the cunning, the voice needed to challenge the world. March 16th, 1922 was Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru’s time to be Brazen. She rallied a crowd of 7,000 agitating for the release of Harry Thuku, a political activist fighting against the colonial government.

They say that right there, outside Central Police station, Nyanjiru stripped naked, faced down the bayonets and yelled, “Take my dress and give me trousers! You men are cowards! What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there. Let’s go get him!”

For author Grace Ogot, being Brazen was deciding to publish work in both Luo and English when she realized there was a dearth in work by East African women writers at the 1962 African Writers Conference. Her fellow attendee, Rebeka Njau went on to write a one-act drama that unequivocally condemned female genital mutilation. The Scar was published in 1965 and is the first ever play written by a Kenyan woman.

A decade later Rebeka would rewrite her award-winning debut novel Alone with the Fig Tree into Ripples in the Pool with a queer protagonist, Selina, a married woman who falls for her husband’s sister. In a moment of reflection Selina reveals her motivation: “I have discovered that a woman must fight her way in this cruel man’s world. This is what I’m doing now.”

And women needn’t be pioneers to shake things up. Daring to be different and refusing to be cowed or shamed is just as empowering. It is evident in how musician Akothee, the self-proclaimed ‘president of single mothers’, has made her Instagram account an island of ungovernability. That honesty with which socialites such as Bridget Achieng – featured on a recent BBC Africa Eye documentary – speak candidly about their lives and the cost of choices they make.

Brazenness is in the very bones of the Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Programme. This organization is a haven for Kenyan sex workers. It also incorporates women who have sex with women (WSW), women using drugs and, bar hostesses. What’s fantastic is that they offer training to sex workers as paralegals which helps them in defending themselves on the streets, in the back of the council vans, and in the courts.

When women refuse to be made invisible, they are able to question status quo. It is a struggle but there is glory in being alive this way. When transwoman Audrey Mbugua challenged the Kenya National Examinations Council to change the name on her certificate, she demanded to be seen for who she was. She won.

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When filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu took the Kenya Film Classification Board to court for banning her film Rafiki, she wanted to give Kenyans a chance to see two young people—who happened to be female—fall in love. She won and made over three million shillings to boot.

But it isn’t about winning. It’s about having the audacity to point out an injustice and not back down. In 2016, lawyers Marilyn Kamuru and Daisy Jerop together with the Center for Rights Education and Awareness led a petition against the Chief Justice and the National Assembly to dissolve Parliament. The Constitution is clear. Everyone ought to be sent home for non-compliance with the two-thirds gender rule. The petitioners openly declared “there is no democracy without women’s meaningful representation in the national legislature.”

How powerful is that?

Yet and still, not enough make it.

Nyanjiru was the first to be felled by bullets that day.

*Liz was gang-raped on her way home from her grandfather’s funeral.

Jackline Mwende’s husband chopped off her arms.

This is still the world we live in. Where our bodies are viewed as disposable, our fate inevitable and our triumphs erasable. That is why I enjoyed Too Early for Birds – The Brazen Edition so much. It hit all the right notes: truth, homage and genius. We need this kind of inspiration. We need our joys and pains documented. We need to grieve. We need to imagine new ways to be free. This is how we survive. This is how we thrive.

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Reflections

EMPTY ARMS: The story of Kenya’s broken maternal health system

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EMPTY ARMS: The story of Kenya’s broken maternal health system

This ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series was born out of a desire to continue the conversations springing out of the ‘Too Early For Birds: Brazen’ theatre performance in Nairobi in July 2018. TEFB-Brazen was a mix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history – freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri; democracy activists Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior who brought down Lwanda Magere, the legendary ‘Man of Stone’ in Kenyan folklore. The story of each hero was narrated by a corresponding mirror character on stage. The ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series seeks to explore the idea of brazenness, what it means in our daily lives, whom the idea of brazenness privileges or erases, and the place that brazenness has in imagining freedom. 

 

The pain

The morning of 3rd November 2013 is still so clear to me, almost five years later. I remember waking up at 2:11 a.m. in so much pain I could barely stand. I remember waking my husband who was sleeping next to me. I remember how calm his voice when he said, “dress up, let’s go to the hospital”. I remember what I wore – a green dress with black floral patterns. I remember touching my belly and wondering why it felt so hard. I remember my husband driving like a crazy person, ignoring every red light on the way to Nairobi Hospital. I remember how the emergency area of the hospital looked dreary and depressing. I remember the relief I felt when I heard my daughter’s heartbeat but then a twinge of anxiety when the sonographer said her heart rate was higher than it should. I remember the next nine hours clearly, up until noon, when my water broke and I pushed my baby girl into the world. I remember seeing her tiny body on a tray and hearing the doctor say “I am so sorry she didn’t make it”. Then everything from there is a blur.

The people that came to visit us in hospital were very kind, but for the life of me I cannot remember any of the conversations we had. A few pastor friends stopped by and prayed. I had trouble closing my eyes though. I was sure if I closed them, the darkness in my heart would overwhelm me. The only thing I remember about the days that followed is my first shower. I stepped out of my bed, legs shaking and eventually made it to the shower. And I touched my belly and there was nothing where my baby bump had been. And I sobbed in the shower, wishing I could die. But I didn’t. And at first, I was deeply disappointed with God for letting me live. But I went home and experienced so much love from friends and family. I remember Timo and Lo (a couple who lived near us) coming to our house with food. That was the first night I laughed since my daughter died. And my journey of healing began.

Seeing in colour

A month after coming from hospital I wrote about losing our daughter on my blog. I had resigned from my job. So here I was, unemployed, with no baby to look after. The blogpost was my way of trying to understand what had happened to me. Then, I felt, if I just wrote it down, it would stop having so much power over me. And the writing helped. I felt lighter – the kind you feel after a good cry. But soon after I received numerous calls, emails and messages from people who had lost a baby or knew someone who had. I don’t know why I did it but I reached out to these people. Here I was, still raw from pain, listening to other devastating stories of loss. For some reason, holding hands with these parents, crying together and encouraging each other started me on my healing journey. Somewhere along the way my heart was strengthened. At some point I started to see in colour again. And though some nights were long and teary, there was a new hope in my life.

I started Still A Mum officially in October of 2015. It is a not for profit that provides psychosocial support to parents who have gone through miscarriages, stillbirth and infant loss. In the three years I have been doing this I have met over 850 men and women beaten down by the death of their baby. Broken by the lack of support from their family. Angry because of the myths their neighbours have about why the baby died. I have met couples that have lost an eight-week pregnancy and people dismissed their loss and called their baby a “mass of cells” not knowing that they had been trying to get pregnant for six years. I have met university students who were terrified when they found out they were pregnant, and even considered abortion, but decided to keep the baby. Then sadly lost the baby. And this baby, not wanted at the beginning, but loved over time brought them such sadness when they were no more. Every year we plant trees to mark Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day in October and my heart is so full to hear a man tell me, “Thank you for giving us a chance to plant this tree in memory of our baby. This is the first we are speaking about our son since he died.”

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Sure, my life took a detour I am so grateful for – from a career in tech to running Still A Mum. Half the time I feel like I have been thrown to the deep end because I am not a counsellor, yet I am here to offer comfort to grieving parents. Of course, I often feel boggled down by the high numbers of pregnancy and infant loss. We are barely scratching the surface and it breaks my heart to know there’s a woman who has lost a baby and has no one to walk with her. Yes, I have missed the glamour of employment life, and the security of a paycheck. But that passes when I meet a mother I have counselled and she’s laughing again. When I run into a mum who tells me that they have recovered from a loss and are even thinking of having a baby again, I get overwhelmed with joy. That’s being Brazen.

***********

The broken health care system

That being said, every day I come face to face with Kenya’s broken health system. Perennially, I see how much more work needs to be done. Did you know that Kenya has 23 stillbirths for every 1000 live births (the rate is 10 for Mauritius and Seychelles, the safest places to have a baby in Africa, and just ten in the US and UK)? Did you know that in Kenya we define stillbirth as the loss of a pregnancy from 28 weeks while developed countries it is from 20 weeks? That means that in those countries a baby born at 21 weeks can make it?

Do you know how many hospitals in Kenya can handle a birth emergency? How many health centers have incubators? Or even a theatre for a basic caesarian section birth? Did you read about the mother who lost quintuplets in Kenya last year? I went to visit her in Oyugis and saw how devastated she was to bury five babies. Five babies! And why? Because she could not go for antenatal clinics because the nurses were on strike, and so assumed she was pregnant with only one baby. On the day when labour started she thought she could handle the birth at home, with a midwife. Until she delivered two babies and the midwife saw there were more. And she was rushed to a hospital in Oyugis where she delivered the other three. Who had to be moved to a hospital in Kisii because the first hospital did not have incubators for the preemies. Eventually because of the movement and the cold the three babies died. And just like that a woman lost five children! That is our health care system.

But that is not what riles me most. I am most angry about how Kenyan hospital staff treats mothers and fathers after the loss of their baby. During the support group sessions I have heard some of the most devastating stories I’ve heard in my life.

I went into labor when I was 23 weeks pregnant. The nurse that came to my bed said “mama, huyu mtoto akizaliwa atakufa tu”. She said that because the baby was too young their chances of survival are almost nil. All I could hear was that “atakufa tu” statement. It was so callous. I didn’t know I would be experiencing a lot worse. As soon as I pushed the baby out, the midwife lifted my son and threw him in the trash can as I watched. Soon after, I started to throw up because my blood pressure was really high. Without missing a beat, the midwife handed me the trash can she’d put my baby in so I “stop messing her floor”. Can you imagine how I felt throwing up on my baby?! I had nightmares for months. – Joan*

I lost my baby at 36 weeks of pregnancy. My daughter died in my womb about 24 hours before I came into hospital. “Mama, hapa hakuna heartbeat” The sonographer said while staring at the monitor. Then I was sent to the maternity ward and nobody explained anything. I just saw nurses setting up the drip and putting it in my hand. A few hours later I went into labor. After delivery when I asked if I could see my girl I was asked why I would want to see a dead child. Then I spent the night in the maternity ward – I could not sleep hearing all the babies crying yet mine was dead. It was the most traumatizing thing I’ve ever gone through. I demanded to be discharged the very next day. – Ruth*

I stayed in Newborn ICU (NICU) with my son for 6 weeks. Every day was fighting a new battle. Some days were good, some were tough. One day he’d be doing well the next he’d be fighting a new infection. Because of the bill that had already accumulated my husband and I had decided I would be commuting instead of sleeping in the ward. Most days I just slept in the car. Six weeks in I was exhausted both physically and mentally. I had cried until I didn’t think I had more tears. I had prayed, desperately asking God to take my life instead and spare my son. I didn’t know if I could take more bad news. Then on Thursday May 4th 2017 I walked into NICU and saw a group of doctors and nurses surrounding my baby trying to resuscitate him. Not more than five minutes after I walked in, the machine stopped beeping. Immediately they set my son aside and put another baby into the incubator. They didn’t even wrap him up. They just left him there naked and cold. – Cynthia*

I hear these stories so often and each time it breaks my heart. I meet women who doctors have ignored their calls for help, or the midwife disregarded information they gave that would have saved their baby’s life. I listen as fathers narrate how they paced the corridors outside the theatre only to be told their babies died. And how painful it was for them to break the news to their wives. Our bereavement care is almost non-existent. Our health care is totally devoid of compassion. Medical practitioners leave medical school knowing how to diagnose a patient’s illness and prescribe medicine. They know how to conduct difficult surgical operations. But they are caught flatfooted when they have to break bad news to a patient. They are devoid of empathy. And I understand that most are overworked and already doing more than is required, but a little compassion is required. Saying “I am so sorry for your loss” goes a long way.

I know we can do better. The situation definitely feels bleak but we can start to fix it. Every day we can change systems that don’t work and introduce some new ones that do. Every day we can get feedback from patients and see ways to improve. We don’t have to have world-class facilities to start seeing change – we can be more compassionate and humane and not belittle the loss of a baby. We can start where we are and visit a bereaved parent. And hug them. That’s Brazen.

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