“Not until you have discovered what is worth dying for is life really worth living.”
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela
Reminiscent of Freire’s analogy of liberation as a painful childbirth and while the evocation of ‘Mother’ can be suspect as witnessed in disempowering narratives of women who must carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, it interests me that people in South Africa as well as continental Africa and the Diaspora referred to departed Elder, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela as Mother of the Nation, Mam’Winnie, uMam’Winnie, Mama Winnie or Mama Africa.
I hold‘Mama’ in esteem and context as an embodiment of the ‘Source’ and ‘Force’ that brings forth life. The life of a person, a people or a nation.The life in the ‘Fruit’ of the struggle for freedom and human dignity – liberation.
I first heard of Winnie Mandela during my teenage years. I simply knew of her then as the late South African Freedom Fighter, Nelson Mandela’s wife. It wasn’t until my young adult years that I started developing a deeper understanding of her role as a Freedom Fighter and Liberation Leader in her own right.
Everything I knew about Madikizela-Mandela was based on numerous stories told by local, regional and international media over the years, often portraying her as a highly contentious leader on a personal and professional level.
Deeply polarizing perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela continue to emerge following the news of her death on Monday, April 02, 2018 at age 81. People in South Africa and across the globe have eulogized this revolutionary leader in a variety of ways creating what feels like an emotionally charged, ‘love-you-hate-you-shut-up’ mosaic of ‘raw-ripe’, ‘bitter-sweet-sour’and in-between, powerful depictions – as if in competition for voice, space, light and life.
The concept of the cycle or continuity of life unfolds as the world mourns this revolutionary. She continues to inspire global narratives that are forcing many to ‘look’ at her life’s trajectory as a liberation leader – in life and death! A dynamic reflecting a duo-extreme and of shades in-between depending on what we ‘see’ when we ‘look’. A symbolic,’narratives tag-of-war’strives to cement what Sisonke Msimang and others have called Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy.
Based on what I have read, watched and conversations with people on and off social media, I have been struck by the varying descriptions of Madikizela-Mandela. Some of the words and phrases I have come across describe her as defiant, resilient, fierce, fearless, spirited, strong, brave, unbreakable, courageous, out-spoken, bold, passionate, resilient fortitude, flawed, militant, charismatic, radical, firebrand, despicable, complex, violent, murderous, corrupt, terrorist, tarnished, bully, kidnapper, Mandela’s ex-wife, among others.
In some cases, these words hinge on a one-sided view of a wonderful, loving and beloved liberation leader or a cold-blooded, corrupt politician and adulterous murderer. Some have drawn their perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela from both ends of the spectrum while others remain conspicuously silent. Silence is a form of communication.
Zukiswa Wanner called out what she termed, “pseudo-intellectual attacks” some people are “writing about this complex woman” noting in a one of her Facebook posts, “On Mam’Winnie: If the black man is always suspect, the black woman is always guilty. And I ain’t got time for those who push the latter narrative, thank you”.
Rasna Warah called out “white-media vilification” of Madikizela-Mandela and the hypocrisy of a global patriarchal double-standard which ignores prominent male political leaders’ real or perceived transgressions yet takes “all gloves off when it comes to Winnie”. Warah also noted, “Winnie Mandela was no doubt a deeply flawed human being. But which South African can claim to have remained completely untouched or undamaged by the extreme violence and blatant racism of the apartheid era? If anything, we should admire Winnie Mandela for refusing to allow the apartheid regime to crush her fearless spirit – a spirit that could be bent but which could not be broken.”
Zukiswa Wanner reminded her fellow citizens in South Africa, “There is no historical record of men in the ANC or Pan Africanist Congress who raped their comrades, who stole resources donated by our anti-apartheid allies for those in camps in Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, and suffering the consequences for doing so”.
Wanner continued, “Instead, our collective vilification has been towards the one person who suffered more than most in the last 30 years of apartheid because she was a woman who did not behave as we expected. What we have is a record of Madikizela- Mandela being asked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to apologise for her involvement in Stompie Seipei’s murder. Jerry Richardson, the “coach” of the Mandela United Football Club, was sentenced to life for the teenager’s murder. Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory in the assault of Stompie. Her sentence was reduced to a fine and a suspended two-year sentence on appeal”.
An excerpt from one of Stella Nyanzi’s Facebook posts on Madikizela-Mandela, “Her beauty, strength, courage, resilience, out-spokenness, defiance, militant charisma and radical fire often inspired me to stand tall in difficult times” … and… “yet her reported human failings also shook me to the core because they were outright vile”. Nyanzi resolved her multiple and conflicting perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela noting, “the greatest attribute was her beautiful complexity as a human being” who was “full of contradictions that make her life a grand enigma for inquiring minds. She was neither perfect nor pure evil. She was a huge paradox comprising several smaller paradoxical puzzles. Her tenacity and resilience astound me.”
Some people have praised and acknowledged Madikizela-Mandela’s contributions and position as a frontline leader in the liberation struggle in South Africa. Swift rebuttals and ‘clap-backs’ to local, regional and global media outlets emerged citing deliberate attempts to erase and minimize her role and stature as a liberation leader by referring to her as “anti-apartheid campaigner”, “anti-apartheid crusader”,“anti-apartheid stalwart”, Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife and anti-apartheid activist”, “flawed heroine”, among others.
One cannot help but wonder why Madikizela-Mandela was loved by many but also detested,by some, perhaps in equal measure. As I reflect upon the myriad ways Madikizela-Mandela has been portrayed by different people, the Social Psychology concept of ‘person perception’ that explores how we form impressions of one another comes to mind.
Social Psychologists believe that ‘person perception’ attributes various “mental processes” to how we form impressions of one another and how these, influence subsequent conclusions, judgements we make about people, and the way we interact with them. iresearchnet.com indicates that forming impressions of other people can “occur indirectly and requires inferring information about a person based on observations of behaviors or based on second-hand information.” It also explains that we can form impressions of other people “more directly and require little more than seeing another person.” The website concludes that direct and indirect types of person perception “provide a foundation from which subsequent judgments are formed and subsequent interactions are shaped”.
When we form our impressions of others through “indirect person perception” our “general perception of a person is the product of inference”. This means that “many of the personal attributes” that “we may want to know about another person (e.g., whether the person is loyal, honest, or contemptible) are not directly observable”.
These “attributes or traits must be discerned—either from observing the person’s actions (actually watching the person behave in a loyal or honest manner) or from interpreting information provided by a third party (what a roommate conveys about a person or what the experimenter reveals)”.
According to iresearchnet.com, “personal attributes that observers notice about another person need not be inferred because they are directly observable and are therefore noted immediately”. These personal attributes include categorical judgments about other people such as their sex, race, and age. This process prompts the questions; “What sex? What race? and How old?” are “likely to be among the first impressions that observers form of others”.
Perceptions: A Journey
Reflection on what informs my personal impressions, perceptions and conclusions about Mandikizela-Mandela find root in a journey that started during my teenage years where my initial knowledge of her was simply, Nelson Mandela’s wife, based on what I read in the media.
As I matured into young adulthood and developed interests in social justice, my evolving consciousness enabled me to grow my understanding beyond my teenage view of her as Nelson Mandela’s wife. Since I did not know Madikizela-Mandela, personally, to form personal impressions of her through observation, to for instance infer whether she was loyal or honest, I therefore utilized “indirect person perception” to form impressions of her based on “information proved by a third party” – the media.
It is therefore important that I continue reflecting upon the validity of the third-party information that has influenced some of my perceptions of her therefore broadening the scope of sources that corroborate or challenge the ones I have relied on in the past. As an outsider to South Africa it is also important that I listen to voices from within on this matter, but I cannot make assumptions that every voice that I hear from South Africa will be accurate.
Most importantly, I must also seek to learn what Mandikizela-Mandela says about her life and contributions to the liberation struggle, in her own words. Her book 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, a diary of her days in solitary confinement for 18 months, the documentary film Winnie as well as Alf Kumalo and Sukiswa Sukiswa Wanner’s book 8115: A Prisoner’s Home are great sources to add to your reading/viewing list.
My reflections have helped me pay attention to how stereotypes and cultural assumptions we hold related to the “direct person perception” dimensions of race, sex and gender can influence our impressions of one another. These intertwine within an interplay of culture and the dynamics of power.
The way power is expressed and experienced from a race, culture and gender perspective can influence our perceptions of one another. Afua Hirsch explored some aspects of how racial bias and sexism have shown up in some obituaries, “The death of Madikizela-Mandela is another opportunity to choose between a narrative of white supremacy and the one that overthrew it. If the media coverage of her death is anything to go by, this is, apparently, a deeply controversial choice”.
Patricia Hill Collins’ “domains-of-power heuristic” offers a compelling framework for analyzing power that considers the complexity of intersectionality. Collins posited, “power relations can be analyzed both via their mutual construction, for example, of racism and sexism as intersecting oppressions, as well as across domains of power, namely structural, disciplinary, cultural and interpersonal”.
According to Collins, the structural domain of power consists of “public policies that organize and regulate the social institutions such as “banks, insurance companies, police departments, the real estate industry, schools, stores, restaurants, hospitals and governmental agencies”. Madikizela-Mandela’s struggle for justice touched on all these areas of power that discriminated against Black and Brown South Africans.The questions become; do I believe that all people regardless of race or gender have a right to equal access and opportunity to these critical resources, social services and facilities that help foster basic human dignity, nourishment, wellbeing and development? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perception of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who defended these rights?
Collins argued that “when people use the rules and regulations of everyday life and public policy to uphold social hierarchy or challenge it, their agency and actions shape the disciplinary domain of power”. Madikizela-Mandela resisted the apartheid system’s rules, regulations and public policies that discriminated against Black and Brown South Africans. The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the idea that all people, regardless of race or gender have a right to be protected from rules, regulations and public policies that uphold social hierarchy? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perception of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who championed this cause?
Collins further explained, “the cultural domain of power refers to social institutions and practices that produce the hegemonic ideas that justify social inequalities as well as counter-hegemonic ideas criticize unjust social relations. Through traditional and social media, journalism, and school curriculums, the cultural domain constructs representations, ideas and ideologies about social inequality”.
“Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one.
The man or woman who emerges is a new person,
viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction
is superseded by the humanization of all people.
…the solution of this contradiction
is born in the labor which brings into the world this new being:
no longer oppressor nor longer oppressed,
but human in the process of achieving freedom”.
Madikizela-Mandela challenged systems of domination that propagated social inequalities through an apartheid-inspired educational system, media, ideas and ideologies that include patriarchy which positioned women as less than, less deserving of opportunities, resources, being treated with dignity and respect and judged on a different and higher set of standards than men. Zukiswa Wanner reminded us, “Our patriarchal and puritanical brains, as men and women, relegated her to an ex-wife who cheated on our revered Saint Nelson while he was in prison.”
South African women have come out in large numbers to defend Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy in what they perceive as attempts to erase her contributions to the liberation struggle. As a Black woman and liberation leader who opposed the apartheid system and all it stood for, relentlessly, she suffered at the hands a sophisticated and vicious Security Branch smear campaign that as Shannon Ehbrahim reported,was designed to “discredit and isolate her”.
The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the social institutions and practices that produce ideas and ideologies of domination “that justify social inequalities”? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who criticized “social institutions and practices which produced hegemonic ideas that justified social inequalities?
Collins argued that the “interpersonal domain of power encompasses the myriad experiences that individuals have within intersecting oppressions”. Madikizela-Mandela and others in South African suffered the indignities of apartheid. Many of them lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and justice. While my goal isn’t to portray Madikizela-Mandela as a helpless victim of apartheid power transgressions because she was a powerful force to contend with, along with others, she was jailed, banned, harassed, detained, held incommunicado in solitary confinement, often denied food, basic feminine sanitary items and at times denied access to the medical attention and legal counsel she needed.
The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the dehumanizing acts of brutality that were unleashed upon Madikizela-Mandela and others by the apartheid regime’s power excesses? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who along with others, suffered the apartheid regime’s power excesses?
“A new world will be born not by those who
stand at a distance with their arms folded, but by those who are in the arena,
whose garments are torn by storms and whose bodies are maimed in the course of contest. Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation and even defeat”.
Nelson Mandela in a letter to Winnie Mandela, June 23, 1969
We know that Madikizela-Mandela endured the yoke and brunt of the dehumanizing whip of apartheid, stoutly, and in all her humanness as an act of unapologetic resistance, a site of undying hope bringing forth a new world from the abyss of a protracted and odious struggle to uphold human dignity.
Leading social change requires leaders who show up. Showing up is a critical first task and test for leaders of change. A leader who shows up can recruit and inspire others to also show up in support of the desired change. The social change process requires people who show up and are not afraid to stand up to be counted. The social change process is messy and unpredictable. While it requires planning, strategies, structure, resources and action, the leader and the people must understand that it is emergent. Madikizela-Mandela’s commitment to the cause of social justice was undeniable because she showed up and did so, authentically.
I use the term authenticity here to mean she was committed to showing up as herself. She was not afraid to be herself even in the face and risk of physical and emotional injury to her person. She led change through action and unwavering courage while acknowledging her full humanness as she suffered the pain of the struggle. Her passion to serve her people while showing up, authentically and unapologetically, defined her leadership.
We were uncomfortable with a person who lived by her own rules
and refused to reconcile and join the mythical rainbow nation that we wanted to believe in.
She continued to live in her Orlando West home. She continued to attend functions,
when she wanted to at a time it suited her, and she continued being unapologetic
about who she was because she knew — though we chose to ignore it — she suffered to get South Africa to its present state.
Leading social change through action means navigating outside the comforts and context of ‘armchair revolution’ but within largely invisible peripheries, trenches and valleys that know the pain and suffering of the oppressed. Madikizela-Mandela did this and for the long haul, despite the heavy hand of a dehumanizing apartheid machinery.
We were all caught up in that war of liberation
Self no longer mattered, country came first.
When they were incarcerated, on hindsight, they looked after our
leaders because from then on, the violence in the country was untold.
We were the cannon fodder.
We were the foot soldiers
We were vulnerable
We were exposed to the viciousness of apartheid.
One may wonder, what inspired Madikizela-Mandela, a young mother in her twenties to join the liberation struggle?
“To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity”.
Through her leadership, Madikizela-Mandela drew the world’s attention to the situation in South Africa and this could not have been achieved through lip service. The passion and courage she embodied were grounded in the values that she held dear. Her personal conviction and commitment to the values of racial, socioeconomic, political justice and equality, fairness and democracy were the path that illuminated possibilities and action for liberation, dignity and a “fuller humanity” (Freire) for all people in South Africa.
“My flesh is nothing more than sea shells washed up to the coast
by heavy waves of stormy political seas, my soul like the sea will always be there.
I would have been filled with shame if I was unable to get up and defend those ideals (that) my heroes and our patriots have sacrificed their lives for”.
Winnie Mandela in a Letter to Nelson Mandela, March 08, 1970
I end my reflections noting that paying tribute to Madikizela-Mandela by acknowledging her great contributions to humanity through her leadership for social justice does not mean that we chose to ignore her humanness and humanity. She was as human as each one of us. She did what she did, when she did and with what she had. We are grateful.
Only she, walked in the shoes she wore and those of us who have no idea what it was like to live and stay alive in what Madikizela-Mandela called a “war of liberation”, can only imagine.
I choose to pay more attention and listen to the voices of my South African sisters who have a deeper grasp of who Madikizela-Mandela was. I hold them in care. Deeply grateful to ‘Dada’ Zukiswa Wanner who has been kind and generous by sharing her insights on Mama #Winnie.
In attacking Madikizela-Mandela, MondliMakhanya in an article
this past Sunday attacks all of us who love our people and our country unstintingly. He attacks all of us who are human and fallible because humanity is about the possibility of fallibility.
He attacks all those of us who hold other black people with respect,
whatever our disagreements with them.
Makhanya attacks us all because #WeAreAllWinnieMandela.
And to uMam’Winnie, as the children would say, we did you dirty.
May we be kinder to you in death and may we learn to protect each other and
our country to ensure that all South Africans are treated with the dignity that they deserve.
With the dignity we did not afford you.
Hamba kahle, mkhonto.
‘No love lost: What Winnie hate says about us’
Rest in Power Departed Elder
Nomzamo Winifred ZanyiweMadikizela-Mandela
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic; 30th Anniversary Edition
Like a Building With a Large Red X: The Stigma of Divorce
Where do you start when you only went to school up to Class 5 and you belong to a culture where women have no right to ownership of land, or livestock, or anything else except clothes and jewelry?
In the Borana and Gabra communities, garob is a slur used to describe divorced women, who are ostracized by the community and blamed for the ‘failure’ of their marriages, regardless of what their husbands did or did not do. This is the reality for many women in Kenya, not just those from these communities. I spoke to two women, Halima and Zamzam, whose friendship is seeing them through this most difficult of circumstances. Here is their story, in their own words.
“It never crossed my mind that I would end up this way. The truth is, no one ever knows exactly what turn their life will take, only Allah knows. Playing in the dusty streets of Sololo, Marsabit County I never imagined myself that one day I would find myself in Wing B on the 8th floor at the Kenyatta National Hospital.
As a Borana girl, I was assumed to be ready for marriage once I had my first period at the age of twelve. Soon after, suitors began to approach my family with offers of marriage, and two years later, one with the ‘right price’ came looking and the deal was sealed. In the fortnight leading up to the wedding, all the older women around me had much to say about the do’s and don’ts of marriage. Overall they made it seem like it was such an honour to be married. What made it even more memorable was that my dearest friend, Zamzam Guyatu, had just got married three months earlier, though further away in Garbatula, Isiolo. I was eager to become a wife too.
My husband was ten years older and I counted myself lucky to be his only wife. On our first night in marriage, he had a lot to tell me but heavily insisted on one particular rule – no interaction with garobs. Garob in Borana and Gabra means a divorced woman. The name itself carries a negative connotation and just like a stench, no one wants to be associated with them. It was their fault that their marriages did not work out. I was instructed that on seeing a garob headed in a certain direction, I should go the opposite way, lest I become influenced into being a ‘bad’ wife. My husband didn’t need to convince me much, I wanted to have nothing to do with them.
In the extensive list of advice that my aunts gave me, perseverance ranked high. My husband liked to drink, and when he was drunk he would hit me, blows and kicks in the name of ‘discipline’ for taking too long to open the door at 3a.m. But I held on to hope that he would change, all I needed to do was to persevere. Vumilia.
By the time I was giving birth to my third child, I had run out of excuses to give the neighbours for the bruises on my body. I wanted out, I wanted the beatings to stop. When I confided in my mother of the painful and harrowing experiences I had been going through, and proposed divorce as a choice, her reaction was one of pure disbelief. She told me marriage is a sacrifice, that I had to keep things together so that we could be provided for, that I needed to keep my honour intact. Most importantly she said that the last thing she ever wanted to see was her daughters ‘lighting two fireplaces’ (i.e. being promiscuous) and that she had raised us to be anything but that. Divorce, in her mind, was synonymous with promiscuity and immorality.
My husband became more and more of an alcoholic, which meant he was spending most of his income on drinking. It meant that he was not providing for our needs at home. I had had enough and decided to report the matter to the community elders. This came as a shocker to many who were left wondering where I had gathered such strength and confidence to report my husband before the elders. Only a handful of women would dream of daring such. To my disbelief reporting him to the elders further worsened the situation. I was rebuked by my husband, alongside family members from both sides, for airing our dirty linen. He even went ahead to marry a second wife as a way of punishing me for my ‘disrespect’.
By this time financial commitment lessened to zero, he stopped coming home and before I knew it I had been totally neglected. We would have starved were it not for the pennies I gathered from moving around the wealthier homesteads of Sololo as a mama nguo. Needless say it was a tough and rough time, and I threw in the towel. It was time for a divorce! It was now me and my kids versus the whole world. I was now one of the garobs I had been taught to detest and avoid. My mother, in her sadness and disappointment, reminded me of her admonition: ‘don’t light two fire places’. There was nothing to say in return, but my spirit was high. I was ready to move on even though my previous identities of in-law, friend, agemate, niece or neighbour were all eclipsed by one name – garob. That was all I was now.
By asking for the divorce I had already convicted myself of being a terrible wife who could not take care of her marriage and lacked contentment. Appeals to my husband for the children’s upkeep brought replies like, “You thought yourself smart by getting the divorce, now why don’t you use the same smartness to take care of them.”
They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade out of it, but what do you make when life gives you nothing? Where do you start when you only went to school up to Class 5 and you belong to a culture where women have no right to ownership of land, or livestock, or anything else except clothes and jewelry? Women themselves are owned and their ownership changes from that of their fathers to husband. You have no source of income, security or status if you are neither under your father’s or husband’s roof.
The easiest way to secure a future for your kids is to get married again. But here again, you come face to face with ruthless stigmatization. For the Borana and Gabra, attempting to marry a garob is no different from buying a building marked X in red by the Kenya National Highways Authority (KENHA). The fact that one is divorced marks them for life, and the women are thought to be forever defiant and disrespectful.
I met Ahmed Kimani and he gave me hope. He had come to Sololo as a trader and opened a shop where I frequently bought household items, and we became good friends. He had converted to Islam seven months before my divorce and this made us even better friends. I admired his hard work and determination in business. Ahmed was looking for a Muslim woman to marry, but with tribalism being the devil that it is, no one wanted to give their daughter to a charer (someone with hard kinky hair, as he did). I felt as if my prayers were being answered when he offered to marry me with my three children. I was twenty-one and did not want to be lonely for the rest of my life, thus with lots of enthusiasm, I agreed to his proposal.
A week after his proposal, Ahmed grew cold feet about the marriage. I would walk into his shop with a smile, only to meet a gloomy face. I gathered that when he told his friends and fellow traders about his marriage plans, they warned him to stay away from ‘trouble’. The talk of my disrespect, defiance and discontentment swirled around in his mind until he turned around his earlier decision. It was heartbreak untold.
Overwhelmed by the stigma, I took the ten-hour journey from Sololo to Nairobi with my three children and just a yellow polythene bag containing our clothes. I hoped to get a job in the city to better the lives of my kids who were now entirely my responsibility. A distant cousin, Rukiya, had agreed to host me in Eastleigh till I could get myself together. Rukiya introduced me into the miraa business and in two months I had moved to Kariokor, living on my own. I used to walk to Pumwani to buy khat at a wholesale price for resale. With rent, food and school fees all on my shoulders, the little income from miraa wasn’t sufficient, and I had to look for another way to make ends meet.
Securing a job in Nairobi is no mean feat. I was desperate to provide for my children, and so I turned to sex work. At first I only did it during the last week of the month so as to raise rent, but then it advanced to a daily job. My single room house served not only a home but also business premises. The income from both businesses brought stability, but it came at a cost. Though the younger kids Galgalo and Boru didn’t really know what was going on, Rufo was old enough to notice the different ‘dads’ I brought home daily. I still wonder what she thought about it. It is a conversation I dread having with her.
Three years into the business and raising my kids comfortably, I have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and the symptoms are getting worse. I have been in and out of Kenyatta National Hospital. It is getting the best of me and I feel it’s all crumbling down. I am most worried for my kids but I know my friend Zamzam has my back. She and I have been through so much together, ever since those days when I admired that she had gotten married. To some, I made a terrible choice and yes, maybe I did, but only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. I had to do whatever I could otherwise my children would be sleeping hungry or we would have got kicked out of the house. They have been fed, housed and educated from the work that I do. I pride myself in the strength and courage that I had to say no to an abusive and depressing marriage, though it came along with an unfair price. But no matter – I am paying the price with my head up high.”
“In the three times a week I come to check on Halima, I can’t help but keep reminiscing on what we have both been through. If it wasn’t for Halima I honestly don’t know where I would be. I have been living in her house for the past nine months, taking care of her kids alongside my two daughters. This is Halima’s sixth month in hospital; I come to the ward to clean her up, bring some food and most importantly add more firewood to the flame of hope in her heart for mostly we garobs only have each other and no one else.
I was married off three months before Halima and left for Garbatula in Isiolo. Miraa ruined my marriage. Nothing was closer to my husband’s heart than alele (red-brown khat). Perhaps things went south when he came across taptap (a tablet-like drug that stimulates consumption of khat). This took a hit on his financial commitment to our two daughters. The more khat he consumed, the less money we had for our daily needs. He also became less active in bed and I wondered if he really loved me.
Numerous attempts to save my marriage through dialogue and involvement of third parties proved futile. I had lost my dad when I was six, and my mum through the help of my paternal uncles, saw me through to marriage. I was about to walk out of my marriage when my mum passed on. Overwhelmed by the sorrow, I shelved the idea of divorce, but only for a while. With time I realized that it would only take a miracle for my husband to change course, and I wasn’t a miracle-worker.
After my divorce, just like Halima, the stigma was toxic and raising my two daughters on my own became an uphill task. My in-laws took our separation as a joke and ridiculed me that how could I, an orphan, be able to raise two kids on my own? To them, it was just a matter of time before I would go back with my tail between my legs begging them to take me back.
I was out to prove them wrong. News of Halima living in Nairobi came in handy and with my childhood friend I found comfort, away from the harsh and unfair world. I joined her in the miraa business despite hating it for contributing to the fall of my marriage. Life can take a toll on you especially if you are poor, uneducated and alienated as we were. But I choose to be patient and trust in Allah that things will be better.
I am preparing to go to Qatar for work as a domestic help; I’m just waiting for my passport to be out. At least in Qatar I can make a better income. I can be able to secure a future for my kids and Halima’s. Her children are my responsibility now that she is not able to work. I know it might be hard being out there, but I am lucky to have this chance that many other garobs don’t. It is a blessing. Probably a way out.”
Garobs are victims of a patriarchal system that condemns women into putting up with unhealthy marriages with the fear of never getting married again and their children suffering out of neglect by fathers. In Kenya there exist affirmative action funds for widows and persons living with disabilities, but what of neglected and abandoned groups like garobs? It is high time that they too are empowered.
Ultimately we must understand, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, that cultures are man-made. Cultures don’t make people. People make cultures. And we can change.
Walking on Eggshells Into an Empty, Judgmental Faith
In the Bible study I attend in one of the mega-churches in Nairobi, not once have I had instances where the Bible verses we discuss reflect on the issues we face in life. It is instead a quick pasting on of solutions, which fall apart in the face of daily living.
I got ‘born again’ some time in 2009, a few months to August when I was supposed to join college for my undergraduate studies.
The message that I had been born again came as good news to my father, with whom I had been having a difficult relationship with while I was in high school. In fact, he had initially objected to my joining a university as a self-sponsored student, since I had failed to attain the points that would see me join a government-sponsored student.
His argument was that my record in high school as a rebellious student and my ‘lack of focus’ was all because I had dropped out of the Christian Union while in school, that this to blame for my poor results. And so, I had to pay for my sins.
So, when I got saved, the news came as a relief to him. He would occasionally use me as an example to my sisters. Being born again also came as a relief to me at the time, because it helped me mend some of my broken relationships.
I continued with this newly acquired status to college, where I practiced my Christian faith with much pride and gusto. Soon, I was thrust into the top most leadership position in the Christian Union while still in first year, a feat not achieved to many people.
But my reason for writing this article is to demystify some of the biblical teachings I was exposed to as a child, throughout my youth, and even now as I work on becoming a better man. These teachings in my view only worked towards instilling in me a guilty conscience and a judgmental attitude that could only see others for the sins they committed, and how unworthy they were for the gospel and the saving grace of Christ.
Consequently, these Christian teachings, also failed to mold me into the man I was to become, but instead forced me to become something that was only appealing to my parents, our Christian family friends and my Christian friends. Deep down, I had struggles with identity issues and esteem. And in the process of trying to live on the straight and narrow, I also lived a double life, full of guilt and hypocrisy.
I was raised in a Christian home, where both my parents were born-again way before we were born. My exposure to this religious way of life therefore started as far back as I can remember.
In Sunday school, we would be taught memory verses, most of which we recited in front of the congregation during services, to much applause. During open-air services hosted by our church in the town centre, we would occasionally be asked to recite these verses to the audience. And therefore, to my parents and peers, we were model children, brought up the right way and in the fear of the Lord.
But what I do not recall are instances where we were taught how we could navigate some of life’s toughest phases. My problems began at adolescence. Science says that it is at this stage where one starts to experience changes in their body, mind and emotions, as they transition through puberty and later into adulthood.
All I was taught as an adolescent was that interacting with girls and having them as friends would lead me to sin. What I was not taught was how to love myself, practice self-control and create boundaries. How I wish I was also taught how understand my body and the changes I would experience. Instead we were merely bible-slapped on the consequences of befriending girls.
The problem I have with the Christianity that most practice today, and even the one I was exposed to as a child, is that it lacks wholesomeness. The teachings are either meant to guilt-trip us into behaving in a certain way or judge others for not practicing the same faith and living by the virtues we ascribe to.
Growing up, my father – in an attempt to instill in me what he then believed, and still believes are Christian values – considered sexual sin, drinking alcohol, as well as smoking cigarettes and bhang as some of the biggest sins one can commit against God. And to drive his point home, he would use his brothers who were heavy smokers and drinkers, as the bad examples that I should not emulate. His examples would also include some of our neighbors.
The issue with this approach, as I would later learn in life, is the fact that instead of my parents guiding me through life based on the teachings of the Bible, only pointed to me how sinful others were. And that to become a better Christian, I should never emulate them. My moral compass therefore, was that I should focus on what they were doing wrong and try not copy them. The idea was to create in us the perfect Christian, devoid of sin and flaws, who would grow up to become model adults.
While it is worth noting that these warnings kept me away from ‘bad company’, my struggles were on whether these practices borrowed from of anything in the Bible. We focused so much on what the Bible says so little about, if we are to be honest. It also sparked in me questions of what grace and forgiveness was all about. I wondered if it was in our place to determine the fate and destiny of others based on their present circumstances.
The Bible in fact, teaches us that all have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God. All I was told and taught was how sinful others were, and not how I should live based on the teachings of Christ.
My father, in this endeavor, had become the moral judge of who was committing more sin that the other. While it was not explicitly clear to me then, now I am beginning to question whether he had the moral authority to judge others, given the many flaws that I experienced first-hand and saw in him.
My childhood, as I had indicated in a previous article published here, was marred by violence where my father at any slightest provocation, would beat all of us including my mother. Therefore would it not have been right for him to make peace with my mother first, before pointing out the sins of others, just as Jesus teaches us not to point the speck of sawdust in our brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in our own eyes?
And beyond the teachings in my household, this trend also extended to the churches we attended. Back then, while growing up, the Christian gatherings we were part of were closely knit ones, where everyone was regarded as family. But if my memory serves me right, my parents moved us many times from one church to the other, simply because of differences in ideology and even principles with the leadership of one church.
Often times, these differences would split the church almost in the middle and would be fights over money or the exclusion of a part of the congregation because they were not of the same social class as the rest. What then, does that teach a child like me growing up, about the fact that before God all are equal before irrespective of their status in the society? It was certainly not practiced in the churches that we were a part of.
What of the teachings of the Bible that implore on husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the church? Yet for me, all I witnessed growing up was a father beating up my mother even for the simplest of mistakes like putting too much salt in food or coming home late.
It is worth noting that I still believe in God, and religiously so. I say my prayers and go to church. But the problem I have with the Christianity of today is the hypocrisy I saw growing up, and that it has become so irrelevant and out of touch with the realities of modern times.
I recently had a conversation with a friend with whom I fellowship with in the same church about why men in church do not date or marry women in church and vice versa.
Her reasoning, and mine too, was that part of the reason why people in church opt to date and marry outside is that our Christianity lacks authenticity. The church has become a place where one cannot be vulnerable about their struggles in life. We have become judgmental, to the extent that one would find it hard admitting that they struggle with say jealousy, depression or even addiction.
Most Christians, especially the born-again lot, have also increasingly become detached from the realities of life. Some of them, based on the teaching that ‘two cannot walk together unless they agree’, would rather not associate with non-believers, lest they become contaminated by the sins of the world.
Our teachings in church, in my view, have failed to speak to the problems that we as millennials face, like struggles with esteem, identity, building good and lasting friendships and relationships, dealing with the pressures of life which have been magnified by the advent of social media, just to mention a few.
In the Bible study I attend in one of the mega-churches in Nairobi, not once have I had instances where the Bible verses we discuss reflect on the issues we face in life. It is instead a quick pasting on of solutions, which fall apart in the face of daily living. It makes me wonder what the very essence of the church is if it cannot be the place where one finds solace and refuge, where the broken-hearted go to find healing. And especially to my agemates, millennials, who have been judged and ridiculed for the life choices we have made, from careers, to social and even political inclinations. What has the church got to say to us, about the life we find ourselves in?
But what I did not realize then was the fact that my salvation was one that I practiced with guilt, and the fear of not wanting to fall into temptations and sin. The result of this is I always felt like I was walking on eggshells. And part of this fear is what had been instilled in me by my father, and my failure to live the Bible on my own, make mistakes, ask for forgiveness from God, and soldier on.
I never experienced a childhood of forgiveness, or seen forgiveness practiced, even in the Christian Union that I served in. Committing a sin would expose one to a life of ridicule and judgment, especially from the conservative Christians with whom we fellowshipped together and to whom sin was not to be tolerated, no matter what.
In my capacity as an executive committee member – the senior most leadership position in the Christian Union – I was in charge of a small group of young, vibrant, urban and born-again men and women. But more often than not, we would clash with more conservative members of the fellowship.
These frictions would be about the slang language that this group used, their type of music, which mostly included reggae and rap music, their dress code, which included women wearing trousers to church, among others. But surprisingly though, while some of these conservative Christians maintained their reputations until they graduated, some would later be accused of cheating, having multiple relationships, while others were involved in pre-marital sex that they abhorred and preached against.
So while I am in no way trying to cast the first stone, instead I want to understand the intolerance and hypocrisy. Why is it that some who were adamant about the preaching and practicing ‘the born-again life’ still happened to fall short of the glory of God?
I still maintain that I am a child of God, a Christian and a faithful one at that, but who still drinks alcohol and parties once in a while. The problem I have with these ‘born-again’ demands is that they are mostly for self-gain and self-righteousness. In my view, many preachers, Christians and churches today would rank very low on living lives that are Christ-like, which the Bible they carry around and profess teaches.
My belief is that Christianity, just as Jesus taught while on earth, should be one that speaks into the issues and problems that people face, lest all we do is Bible-slapping people and guilt-tripping them into living lives devoid of fulfillment, purpose and love.
When Shame Kills: Cervical Cancer and Fear of the Vulva
Even for those who are educated, it is still uncomfortable as we are taught to regard parts of our bodies as ‘bad manners’. We grow up embarrassed, fearful and ashamed of ourselves and at no point is there a shift to include these parts of our bodies in conversations, even as we mature.
Through the blinds, a dull gleam illuminates the room. The tension in my shoulders begins to dissipate as I sit down to go through a pre-counseling session before my pap smear. I made the decision of having the test done early this year, though it’s taken months to actualize it. I have made two appointments and cancelled them both. The first time was because I hadn’t timed the appointment correctly – you are supposed to have a pap smear about two weeks after the start of your last period and I wasn’t in that time frame. The second time I just couldn’t go through with it; having gone through sexual assault in the past, the test was intimidating and I was afraid to stir up old ghosts.
For months I was trapped by indecision. From what I had read about the pap smear tests, there is nothing graceful about it, but I knew it was important to have it done. Finally I showed up for my third appointment.
I was oblivious of my vulva until the age of 20; I mean, I knew it was there but I really didn’t think about it, or my reproductive system in general, except through feelings of shame. In school we are taught about our reproductive system but usually teachers just want to get through the material and don’t want to answer questions, and so becomes relegated to a kind of blurry knowledge – sort of familiar yet without certainty.
That year I was 20, a friend shared a TED talk video and something the speaker said stuck with me, (I’m paraphrasing) women always feel they owe someone their beauty, their sexuality and body, but they never own it; we are the stewards of our bodies, not its beneficiaries – a truth I could identify with. I wanted to reclaim that for myself and I had to start somewhere. But I had many layers to shed – the fear, and shame, most of it irrational, that my body, my vulva especially, was somehow gross and shameful. This is a reality for many, if not most women. These fears were heightened by the fact that I had been sexually assaulted some time in the past.
When I was setting up the appointment for the third time, I made sure I was very specific that my preference was a female medical officer, though I did not divulge why and they assured me that it’s okay. I got to the hospital just a few minutes past noon, though I was up way earlier. I had spent most of that morning juggling between thoughts like does my vulva look right and am I really ready to have a stranger look at it. The sun was blazing that morning as I walked to the hospital, which made the walk seem even longer; a part of me wanted to back out, but somehow I made it there – anxiety, nerves and all.
In the waiting room, a medical officer asked me what brought me in, and when I told her I wanted a pap smear she seemed startled, but quickly cloaked it with a smile. She explained that women my age rarely voluntarily come for screening unless when mandated by a doctor. There was no queue ahead of me so I walked into the doctor’s office. After the usual introductions she also asks me if I have been referred by a doctor. I tell her I haven’t, but she doesn’t make a big deal about it. She goes on to brief me on the things I need to know – a pap smear is not a test for cancer but a test that can detect abnormal cells that could result into cervical cancer. So if abnormal cells are detected, then they could be treated to prevent cancer from developing.
I am led to a space behind a curtain and asked to lie down. The doctor puts a pillow behind my back and tells me to place my feet on peddle-like structures so that my legs are raised and apart. I’m telling you, there is no more vulnerable position for a woman than on her back with her legs open, and this reality sinks deep even as I try to find something to focus on to distract myself. I have this powerful desire to run away, or to disappear.
She says it will be just uncomfortable – the famous phrase doctors use to understate pain. She gets the speculum, the device they insert into the vagina in order to view the cervix and keep it open. She tells me a cotton wool-tipped brush will then used to collect cells from the inside the opening of the cervix. The cervix connects the vagina and the uterus; its function is to produce cervical mucus that changes in consistency during the menstrual cycle to prevent or promote pregnancy. It also acts as a physical barrier between the vaginal canal and the uterus.
Are you ready? she asks. Of course I wasn’t, but what can one say at that moment? I had come this far. I know doctors and nurses have seen it all, yet this does little to abate my nerves. I focus on my breathing to relax the muscles; she says this will ease the discomfort. I mention the assault just as she is about to insert the speculum. She empathizes, promises to be gentle and tells me to forgive and forget. I start thinking about that, forgiving and forgetting, and while engrossed in my thoughts I barely notice when she starts inserting the speculum. She’s patient and gentle though it all. I keep apologizing what the waves of anxiety hit me; she listened to me and made me feel very safe. When it is all over she tells me that there can be three results – “normal” which means negative for abnormal cells, “inadequate” meaning the cells could not be viewed and so another sample is required within a period of three months, and “positive” to indicate presence of abnormal cells which could be mild, moderate or severe.
The test results were negative, and that was not the only thing I was thankful for. I was grateful for having such a patient and understanding doctor, she made me feel comfortable to ask questions and it never felt like a fuss to her.
According to GLOBOCAN 2018, Kenya has a population of 13.45 million women aged 15 years and older who are at a risk of developing cervical cancer. The current estimates indicate that every year 5,250 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 3,286 die from the disease. Cervical cancer is rated as the second most frequent cancer among women in Kenya, and leading cancer among women between ages of 15 and 44 years. About 9.1% of women in the general population are approximated to harbor HPV-16/18 infections. The human papillomavirus accounts for 99.7% of all cervical cancer and HPV is sexually transmitted. But it is treatable and can be vaccinated against thus greatly reducing incidence of cervical cancer. The current estimates are that only 12% of the population at risk have gone through screening and contributes greatly to the high mortality rate. Screening allows for treatment in the asymptomatic precancerous stage; early treatment is highly effective. At the advanced stage – when most diagnoses in Kenya are done – treatment is difficult and expensive, the chances of cure are low.
In my native language, there is no word for cervix; even the words that do exist for the female reproductive system have been sexualized making it clear that the female body is seen from a male gaze. Women too have internalized this objectification; the language used in reference to the vagina or vulva is made to seem vulgar making it a very uneasy conversation to have with someone who is not literate. Even for those who are educated, it is still uncomfortable as we are taught to regard parts of our bodies as ‘bad manners’. We grow up embarrassed, fearful and ashamed of ourselves and at no point is there a shift to include these parts of our bodies in conversations, even as we mature.
Language is extremely important especially when you need people to focus on a particular issue. The flippant way the female reproductive system is regarded is a huge problem. There is also the culture of how slow or apprehensive we are about prevention mechanisms, which include medical checkups. We have been socialized to only go to health facilities when you are feeling unwell and so if you consider yourself healthy, most of us think it is unnecessary to go for a screening. But the reality is that a checkup could save your life, as most of the life-threatening diseases when detected in asymptomatic stages can be treated and cured.
For women especially, our bodies remain mysterious, with some parts regarded as gross, leaving us anxious about how we look in them rather than how we feel in them. You will think with a generation that grew up with the wave of body positivity and empowerment, the percentage of women between the ages of 25-35 years going for screening will be the highest; sadly the opposite is true.
Any woman who has ever had sexual intercourse is eligible for an annual pap smear; the target population for screening is women aged 25 to 49 years. Older women aged 50 – 65 years are still at risk of cervical cancer and can therefore receive screening every five years, according to Kenya National Cancer Screening Guidelines 2018. The success of a screening program depends on its achieving adequate coverage, in this case of 70% of women nationally. But a majority of women I talked to had no clue where these services are being offered or what the costs are. As I was preparing for my pap smear I discovered that the tests are available in all public health facilities at no cost, though I was very fearful of getting the test done in a public hospital due to the disrepute of services rendered.
The truth is you do not wake up one day and suddenly have a new appreciation for your body. It is a process and some of your perceived flaws would probably never go away; it is only when you embrace them that they stop lurking in the shadows and consuming you. You might think you are alone in battling insecurities, but we all go through it. The wall that goes up in the fight against screening for cervical cancer will come down when we overcome perceptions and attitudes about our bodies.
The test is definitely one of the least preferable things I have done, it was anxiety inducing and uncomfortable. But I would do it again because I know those few minutes could save my life. There are so many ways to make the test easier, you could go with a friend to hold your hand, ask for a smaller speculum to be used, or a plastic instead of a metal speculum. You could speak up when is too uncomfortable or painful, have a session before you have the test and have your concerns addressed, bearing in mind no concern is too silly or small. Ultimately we have to re-examine our relationship with our bodies, so that women can stop dying of ignorance and fear.
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