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Reflections

maWinnie: Lessons in Feminist Approaches to Storymaking

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maWinnie: Lessons in Feminist Approaches to Storymaking
Photo: Felix Dlangamandla

It was a gathering of women. Mothers, sisters, daughters and wives of black male ex political prisoners. They had been gathered at Cowley House, Cape Town by the Robben Island Museum to share and document memories and stories of their Journeys to Robben Island Maximum Security Prison.

Cowley House, became a remarkable haven for those, whom under very difficult and often brutal circumstance were granted permission to travel and be in Cape Town for the sole purpose of visiting loved ones on the island. An arduous journey. It required bureaucratic application processes; permissions from various authorities including Prison Services, permission from Homelands authorities to travel, permission to be in Cape Town or the Western Cape, accumulating the funds to take a bus or train of some means of transport to the Cape…and finding accommodation in which to stay overnight. Many of the women had themselves served under house arrest and detention, been brutalised by the apartheid state in its attempt to break the spirits of those who chose the path of resistance and or, whose family members had done so.

(I recall so vividly tata S, an ex political prisoner and survivor of the Lesotho massacre, with heartbreak laced in each of his words and silences, explaining just how it shattered him to see his wife in the prison visitor space after many years of separation. She had been starving as he, the main breadwinner was no longer able to support the family. And so emaciated and skeletal she had somehow found a way to visit him and reassure him of her support.)

maWinnie agreed to participate at the gathering on one condition. On arrival at Cowley House for the Women’s Reference Group, she drew us aside and requested a quiet private meeting space. She said that, as her story was already very well documented, recorded and shared within the public domain, she wanted the day to be about the other women who were present, not her. She impressed upon us that the women had stories which were layered with hurt and humiliation and that possibly, the greatest hurt was being ignored by history.

And for the duration of that day’s exchange, I observed maWinnie, gently and compassionately deflecting attempts to defer to her. Calmly prodding and reminding each of the women gathered of a particular incident or event which had taken place on their journeys. And most of all, I observed how she kept silent, attentively listening.

There are a number of lessons and affirmations which remain invaluable to me to draw on and reflect in practice as a feminist ‘memory maker’.

Firstly, how disciplined and comfortable silence grants permission for others to speak and share intimate stories of pain and hardship. That even though the Listener or Observer may have book knowledge or an idea of ‘the Story’, it was important to remain silent and have the Speaker albeit slowly, painstakingly tell their own story. This takes great discipline. The ability to be quiet and trust that the process of storytelling will unfold as it should. And on that day, it most certainly did.

Secondly, that ‘standing down’ from power and influence vested in one as an individual, institutionally or historically, for whatever reason, is a necessary step in putting together the intricate narratives of the collective. That merely ‘saying’ that one is there to listen and understand is not enough, it needs to be a conscious practice. And requires the ability to recognise the power vested in one as an authority or knowledgeable one. And I continue to wonder about this as we see standoffs between groups, the creeping in of that nefarious combination of power+judgement into discourse and relationship. And the discomfort of living within contradictions and questions, as opposed to answers found within ideology alone. As the day progressed, and the stories unravelled, it became clear that the individual stories made up significant parts of a whole. That what appeared to be quite ordinary was in fact rather extraordinary. And that what appeared contradictory was complementary.

Thirdly, I was struck by just how much maWinnie was an Archive and clearly consciously so. She was a formidable memory bank of stories, places, people, events and emotions. And that her ‘paying attention’, being wholly ‘present’ requires a certain kind of Listening for and in between words and silences.She was able to gently remind someone of an incident and a reaction to an incident as if it was not a decade or two past. I still wonder whether in the poverty of our her-story making process as a nation, is this absence of the emotive or visceral or rather, an inability to read it when it is present. And that the damage done by the exclusion of women’s stories is more harmful because of history’s form which attempts to erase feeling and emotion.

Fourth, that being kind, gentle and compassionate are parts of maWinnie’s whole. That the formidable, fiery and sassy is not a juxtaposition or contradiction thereof. That living in the landscape of the ‘whole’ story, whether the individual or collective requires an ability to hold opposites in unison, and thus to include the seemingly irreconcilable. She suggests to me, that living life whole requires living within contradictions and finding a space for the unresolved. I cannot imagine what the “not knowing” when her husband, partner, comrade would be released did to her soul. I do know, that when 27th April 1994 came around, many of us walked to the polling stations as if in a daydream. The reality or realness of something which was spoken of in hope fuelling slogans such as ;”Freedom in our Lifetime” too overwhelming to comprehend on any rational level.

And in storytelling and memory making – being able to hold these unresolved questions and contradictions, however tentatively or tenuously – reveals the Truth in ways which awaken Hope and Imagination.The polar opposite to this would be a shutting down or closing off and stagnation which half – truths provide[1].

As I contemplate once again, how the very act of remembering and living the legacies of those, such as maWinnie requires us to gently and with respect, interrogate, investigate and possibly represent, the values and principles they lived by in our very rendering of their memory.

 

 

[1] We see this in countless exhibitions or memorialisation projects where half-truths about World War One and Two largely exclude the participation of people of the South and so the absence of stories; of the Mende, the deepening desire for Freedom from colonial rule, the place of women in science and technologies which aided the war efforts and so on, reiterates prejudice, racism and abject misogyny which at least parts of these war efforts was attempting to stop.

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Deirdre Prins-Solani is a Memory-maker, Storyteller and Archive. She activates ideas on how best to safeguard stories, spaces, knowledge and cultural practices which are oft-neglected or found on the margins. She believes that cultural heritage when interrogated and understood along with Silence can contribute to sustaining Livelihoods and meaning-making.

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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