The representation of women in political leadership globally hovers around 20% of most governments, parliaments, heads of state, according to United Nations documentation. Between 1995 and 2015, there was approximately a “major” 10% increase (from 12-22% parliaments; 12-19% executive branch; 6-18% cabinet ministers. According to The World’s Women 2015.
A few factors contribute to this blatant underrepresentation. Women are seldom leaders of major political parties, which are instrumental in forming future political leaders and in supporting them throughout the election process. Gender norms and expectations also drastically reduce the pool of female candidates for selection as electoral representatives, and contribute to the multiple obstacles that women face during the electoral process. The use by some countries of gender quotas has improved women’s chances of being elected. Yet, once in office, few women reach the higher echelons of parliamentary hierarchies
So how does Winnie Mandela fit into this framework. Clearly she was a leader not so much of her political party (African National Congress) but of the people, a grassroots organic leader. And clearly as well, she was betrayed by that same movement, from gaining the political power to make changes at the state level; and in part by her then husband, Nelson Mandela as he became president of South Africa. Still in my view, she functioned as a kind of shadow or alternative president, and definitely rejected the mythical “First Lady” paradigm with its expectations of a certain compliance.
This mythology of the first lady has been substantially challenged recently by the presence of black women, who are historically the anti-thesis of the idealized white female identity historically aligned with service to white male patriarchal power.We can say as well that Winnie Mandela, like Michelle Obama in the United States, presented images of beauty, strength in her physicality, and presence as a black woman and an unabashed sense of personal style but above all an amazing love for family and community and people in general.
For women, like Winnie Mandela who end up having to resist that compliant construction, instead there is a deliberate construction, as I have argued elsewhere, of a “selfin resistance to colonial/patriarchal order.” This is resonant in the idea of leaving (or staying with) the ‘Great Man.’ As other women who were married to world leaders reveal, such a decision is always fraught with drama as the subsequent activities are still always carried out in full public view. So in many ways, though their relationship ended after his release from his twenty-seven years imprisonment as a political prisoner, Winnie had left the “Great Man” emotionally, although she continued to support him politically.
The life of Winnie Mandela and the end of that relationship for example is illustrative. Although Winnie Mandela had waited 27 years, it was not a passive waiting. Throughout the years, she tirelessly advocated for her husband’s release, created a movement in her husband’s name which in many ways almost destroyed her given the activist choices that were made in the face of the world’s last and most horrendous system of oppression – apartheid — was not seen still as having given enough. Recent filmic documentation from agents and operatives for South African government intelligence agencies reveal that they wanted her as far from Nelson as possible as he was being groomed for the presidency and once he became president. In fact it is even clearer now that the apartheid state launched a campaign to malign her, through creating and placing horrible stories about her in the media which were then circulated worldwide and worse still through placing their agents in her security service who committed criminal acts attributed to her. For her part, Winnie functioned and aided the military wing of the ANC as one of its soldiers technically providing support for those engaged in armed struggle. She became the voice of resistance and consistently grew in confidence, in service and in articulation of the goals of South African liberation as outlined in its Freedom Charter. The attempts to discount or trivialize her contributions, based on sexuality provides proof that women as leaders are more often evaluated in terms their sexuality than by their political contributions unless these are recovered and made meaningful by other thinking individuals.
Since patriarchy is so entrenched in societal thinking about women’s roles in political leaders’ lives, one of the ways that women have accessed power is through marriage to a “great man.” At times, they are ones who help to cultivate them along the way. Still, these women’s contributions are always minimized in order to reduce them to the role of appendages. However, in all the professional-political marriages I have studied, the wife has a particular skill set that allows the man to take his leadership to the next generation. In the Winnie Mandela case, she reports that Nelson called on her to help fund raise. While this was clearly an ulterior motive to get to meet her, he clearly recognized a certain sophistication and competence in her bearing and in her delivery of social services to her community, which he realized right away would make her the ideal partner for someone in his situation.
The Winnie Mandela case reveals the fact that black women have continuously exercised leadership in many different ways. This leadership has tended to be subject to historical erasure given the ways that histories have been written to privilege white/male power. So, until her passing, some members of a new generation in South Africa indicate that they were not taught about her contributions in the ending of apartheid.
Men who were leaders of major nationalist movements throughout the 20th century often had wives/women who were ideologically in tune with their various projects. Winnie was clearly one of these women and excelled I believe even beyond Nelson’s expectations. Winnie Mandela says in Part of My Soul Went With Him:
“So there never was any kind of life that I can recall as family life, a young bride’s life, where you sit with your husband and dream dreams of what life might have been, even if we knew that it would never be like that”
“I knew when I married him that I married the struggle, the liberation of my people.” (65).
Thus we see that there has been a consistent pattern of women contesting their exclusions, challenging attempts at dispossession and asserting the parallel right to occupy leadership positions, particularly when they have the credentials, experience and ability to lead. Since women’s contribution in twentieth century activist movements was often taken for granted, it made it easy for them to be written out of history in relation to the men in their lives. But in the Winnie Mandela’s case, we see a deliberate set of actions to defy being written out of history: an awareness of the place of black women in society; a conscious assumption of a political role in the liberation of her people.
Generic organic leadership of activist women like Winnie Mandela remains still further away from recognition. But I think Winnie Mandela created another leadership paradigm. Her trajectory without Nelson charts the activism generated by the understanding that the rights of women are fundamental to national rebuilding following the ravages of corrupt and violent male leadership.
This discussion has paid attention to the ways in which women like Winnie Mandela have written political leadership into existence and therefore have contributed to an ongoing understanding of some of the world’s current social problems as they pursued a range of cultural and intellectual advances. New and continued questions remain about the nation as a masculine construct, created for the benefit of male leadership. We continue to ask: What new institutions and leadership paradigms, especially in Africa, have really been created to take us into the future?
In her speech titled “Being a Black Woman in the World” delivered in Chicago, Illinois, for the V103’s Expo for Today’s Black Woman, we get a direct sense that her ideological orientation shaped by the black consciousness movement had a women’s rights component, indicated as follows:
“By inducing pride and dignity in Black people, the Black Consciousness Movement demanded of Black people to become their own liberators, thus expediting the subjective prerequisite for liberation. An important aspect of the Black Consciousness Movement was its location of the possibility of change within the Black community. This lesson applies to Black women wherever they are.”
Winnie Mandela, while identified as the wife of Nelson Mandela became the primary activist on the outside from 1962-1990, during the 27 years of his incarceration. So lets us raise in closing a hypothetical question: What would have happened in terms of delivering more progressive gains to black South Africans if Winnie Mandela had become the president of South Africa instead of Nelson? We will never know now. Perhaps state power corrupts and one is never able to achieve all that is expected when one takes formal political office. This is one possible reading of what happened to Nelson Mandela, when, as an elderly man, he became president after years of incarceration. So while we are happy for his release, still in a final assessment, we can say that in the same way that Nelson was denied this leadership for 27 years, by the white power structure of apartheid and then groomed for leadership in a way that would create a compliant process of transfer. For those same twenty-seven years, by contrast, Winnie Mandela a woman, denied the formal recognition that she deserved as the leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, nonetheless functioned in my view as an alternative, organic president, and as a consistent critic of the failures of leadership evident in South Africa still.
Recognized as perhaps the most significant woman who exercised leadership at critical junctures in her country’s history, perhaps staying outside of the official political structures, while experiencing the same pattern of hardship, denials, great pain and a series of trials and tribulations, that black South Africans experienced, gave her a different relationship to the larger community of South Africans and world citizens. One can see a certain poetic justice in her being named “Mother of the Nation.”
A George Floyd Moment and the Reality of Being African in China
To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Eric Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system that denied him a duty of care.
I was at a trendy French salon in the heart of Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighbourhood organising a photoshoot for the magazine I work for. The model on the shoot was a young Russian woman, our photographer Chinese and the owner of the salon was from France. As we went about prepping for the shoot, I noticed a little girl cowering behind one of the stylists. She appeared anxious. I was concerned, so I tried to get closer to find out what the matter was only for her to jump back and let out a shriek.
She told one of the Chinese stylists that a scary, ugly black man was looking at her. It took me a moment to realise it was me she was talking about. I am not sure whether the child and the stylist both assumed I didn’t understand Chinese, but the stylist proceeded to extol my virtues to the inconsolable child, saying how nice I was, how cool my hair looked, and telling her that she had no reason to be afraid of me. But the child repeated the same thing over and over again. I was black, ugly and scary. That coloured the rest of the day. I picked a corner in the waiting area where I had little chance of bumping into the little girl and stayed away from the styling area where the model was having her hair and makeup done until it was necessary for me to be there.
In Kenya, I had become used to the crippling ethnic profiling that was part of my life because of my last name, and the comments made about my appearance, my skin tone, or my facial features which were deemed undesirable or not conforming to those of the people from my ethnic group. I had learned to navigate the stereotypes, working to dismantle those that worked against me, while embracing the positive ones as a rudder towards growth. In this clash of numerous cultures, I had an identity. I could find my bearings easily, and remain grounded. But leaving Kenya confronted me with a whole new identity. I was no longer a Kikuyu guy from Nairobi’s Eastlands with all the baggage that came with that. I was black.
I have come to learn that being black has nothing to do with my culture, and very little indeed to do with my skin colour. It is a global metric by which my worth as a human being is measured.
China is not the easiest place to be black. It is a country with a long history of colourism amongst its own people and against outsiders, and a tendency to push towards homogenisation. Therefore, being black creates a visceral reaction among many locals which results in xenophobic and racist sentiments. Being proudly African, in whichever way that exuded from me, was quickly met with incomprehension at best and absolute disgust at worst. Why would anyone wish to be black, African and proud of it? I encountered a broad definition for people who looked like me, an extensive catalogue of black, ranging from the mildly acceptable, to the tolerable, to the unacceptable.
I have been told that I am not as dark as “real” Africans. And I have seen relief sweep across people’s faces when they realise that I am not from Nigeria. To be dark and Nigerian is to embody a negative stereotype both within and outside the black community. People tend to cling to those of their nationality, forming chat groups on WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp, where they share their stories of racism and offer support to each other. For the chosen few who are welcomed into African American circles, the situation is no better as conversations and sentiments almost exclusively centre around the Black American experience in China and around the world. Many African Americans I have encountered in China, though proud to be affiliated with Africa, are often ignorant of its peoples and its cultures. It comes then as no surprise that when the Black Lives Matter movement started getting traction globally, Africans were expected to show solidarity, yet the conversation about what it means to be black and African in a country like China is not a single story.
As an African who identifies as Kenyan in China, my cultural and national identity are subsumed by a greater racial-cultural one. In North America in particular, being black represents an entire culture of Afro-descendants. Such broad identities leave no room for ethnic, regional and national identities from Africa. I have often been engaged in conversations with African Americans in China who automatically assume our lived experiences are to a large extent similar if not entirely identical. They refuse to engage with the notion that, as someone from a majority “black” country, my experiences of systemic oppression are not within the context of race. The man at the top consolidating power for himself and his cronies isn’t white but black. The face of oppression in my experience is my own.
And this subsuming of my cultural and national identity is adopted by the Chinese community, where the parent identity of people who look like me is African American, and so it is my job to align myself with that identity as much as possible if I hope to survive. China acts as a petri dish for how the world is stratified, not only along racial lines but along national identities as well. Towards the tail end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, Chinese landlords in Guangzhou province systematically targeted African tenants, making unfounded claims that it was they who had and were spreading the virus. This was despite ample evidence to the contrary. The fear had been sparked by the growing number of cases imported into China before the borders were closed indefinitely. A negligible number of the imported cases were attributed to foreigners returning to China, and fewer still were attributed to Africans. This however didn’t stop the evictions, leading to a public outcry both in China and in the rest of the world.
However, to a large extent, African Americans were not singled out. This is because, according to popular belief in Chinese society, “blacks” from America and Europe are better. They can be trusted more. The hierarchy of races in China is ordered from the top in this way: white English speakers, white Western Europeans, white Eastern Europeans, white South Africans followed by Black Americans, South Americans, black South Africans, East Asians, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, blacks from the Caribbean and, at the very bottom, the African, the generic term for sub-Saharan Africans. There is a premium placed on being from countries classified by the Chinese government as Native English speaking countries. These are The UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa. It narrows the pool of potential candidates for the highly sort after English teaching jobs in the country. Since there is little else in the way of jobs for foreigners in China, anyone who has passable English jostles for the few opportunities. Often, African nationals from English speaking countries are passed over for these types of jobs, even when the employer is willing to hire illegally. Some Africans resort to claiming American or South African nationality, a fact which angers Americans and South Africans in China, as they claim such individuals soil their national reputations.
A recent revision of the Chinese Greencard application process, which sought to make it easier for highly skilled professionals to gain permanent residence in China, laid bare the fear of the African. Chinese netizens took to Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and other Chinese platforms to express their displeasure at the possibility of an influx of foreigners into their land. The outcry took a decidedly dark turn as Chinese nationals expressed their displeasure at a possibly blacker, more Africanised China in future. Africans are already stereotyped as unhygienic, disease-infested layabouts, and the possibility of their being granted permanent leave to remain in China was more than many could contemplate.
China’s perception of people of colour is largely informed by the media. Stereotypes played out in TV shows and reinforced by sports are held as gospel truths. All African Americans are therefore either gun-toting gangsters, or tall pro basketball players, while Africans, especially Kenyans, are incredible marathon runners motivated by the need to run away from lions since we all come from the Maasai Mara. The African is an alien other in the Chinese consciousness. I have had to resort to showing photos of Kenya, of Nairobi, videos of the hustle and bustle to prove that I come from a city just like any other in the world. That phenomenon is not unique to the Chinese. I was once in an argument with an African American friend of mine about where Kenya was located in Africa. He insisted that Kenya bordered Nigeria and could not be dissuaded. Not until I showed him a map but even then, he fell back on his “American innocence”.
The stereotype of Africa as a disease-ridden, famine and war-ravaged continent is still taken as the gospel truth by many in China. There is an unwillingness to engage with the “masses of African people” who populate Chinese cities and study in Chinese schools. This misconception that all Africans are poor has spawned the belief that all Africans are economic migrants to China, constantly taking advantage of the Chinese government’s generosity in the way of the scholarships extended to seemingly undeserving African students, while Chinese students allegedly continue to go without. But these are the same scholarships extended to other Asian, European and South American countries, with the key link being the bilateral agreements forged between China and countries far and wide. Oftentimes, the students on these scholarships only receive them on the condition that they return to their countries of origin upon graduation, because Chinese-educated Africans are a greater asset to the Chinese government back in Africa. In actual fact, investing in African students is investing in China’s future. But your average Chinese citizen will be oblivious to this fact, instead choosing to vilify African students and the merchants who are a direct source of capital for Chinese businesses.
To exist as African is to exist in a state of apology. The proximity to whiteness that African Americans and Black South Africans have spares them the inconvenience of negative stereotypes. Africa sends some of its best and most brilliant to represent them in Europe and Asia. The African who does not fit into the negative stereotype becomes an exception to the rule rather than an example of what Africa has to offer. It means that in a society as stratified along racial and national lines as this one, the few opportunities available to foreigners in terms of work and education are measured out in relation to one’s proximity to whiteness. The African remains at the bottom, a position from which he is still expected to be gracious and grateful.
This ignorance is exhibited not only by the Chinese against Africans in China but also by African Americans and Europeans, who display a lack of interest in fully engaging with my story of blackness. This is particularly ironical considering the overwhelming support which Chinese netizens have shown the Black Lives Matter movement in America, with the protests in America and across the world receiving massive airplay on national Chinese news outlets.
When tenant evictions started happening in Guangzhou, however, it was through friends and families abroad that most found out what was happening. The horrific racism against Africans did not receive any news coverage beyond the government’s denial after international news outlets started reporting about it. The same government that called racism in America a social ill remained silent as its own citizens shared racist, xenophobic sentiments against Africans evictees in Guangzhou.
Anyone, regardless of race or nationality, can display a geographical ignorance of the world and the peoples that inhabit it. But this classification of nationalities and races by Chinese society has ensured that certain groups achieve and maintain superiority over others. The “Native English Speakers”, whether black or white, possess that thing so desired by China’s nouveau riche; to become an English speaker and thus attain the ultimate status of upward social mobility and be welcomed into the Anglophone world, portrayed as the world of the accomplished.
Africa is a massive continent with a population of 1.4 billion people. We come from 55 countries that are as distinct in their populations as they are in their cultural compositions and heritages. To some extent, one might describe African nations more as confederacies of distinct ethnic groups under various national flags rather than a united body of Africans.
Every crisis presents an opportunity. As African Americans confront systemic racism, Kenyans are also turning their attention to our own political history. In various WeChat groups, Kenyans in China are engaged in fervent discussions, expressing their political hopes for the future. It is to these groups that Kenyans turned when their situation was dire in places like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, receiving help from fellow Kenyans when the Kenyan embassy was slow to act. And it was to these same groups that those stranded in China—unable to afford the Sh80,000 airfare for repatriation—turned for donations when they were told in no uncertain terms that ndege sio matatu, you shouldn’t expect to catch a flight as you would a minibus taxi. In Kenyan WeChat groups, members are spoiling for a revolution of some kind. We all want change, but it falls apart at the seams when mention is made of tribe or political party affiliation. Yet we know that our silence and our refusal to engage with issues of social justice, equality and corrupt systems will not save us.
A disturbing event recently took place that fully encapsulates the terror of being black and African in China. In Kenyan and African groups across the country, people began sharing the photos and videos of Eric Jackson, a Ghanaian man who was turned away from four hospitals due to fears that he had COVID-19. A hospital eventually took him in but it was too late. Jackson died while undergoing treatment. He died of cardiac arrest. Videos of Jackson’s agonising last moments, and of his corpse on a gurney at what I speculate to be the entrance to a morgue, were a stark reminder of our place in this country. It was a terrifying manifestation of the Chinese rejection of our colour and our race. In one of the videos, his friend is heard pleading to be let into the hospital in fluent Chinese but the guard at the gate refuses and sends them away. He is heard asking, “Is this not a hospital? Do you not treat sick people here?”, and getting no response.
This incident knocked the air out of my lungs. To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system denying him a duty of care. In the Kenyan WeChat group, an outpouring of grief was followed by an important question; even if Jackson was dying of COVID-19, did he not deserve to be treated? Had he been a Chinese national, or even white, would he have been turned away? COVID-19 was the pretext for medical professionals to not only shirk their responsibility, but for individuals to go against that very human instinct of preserving a human life under threat. Jackson was denied medical help because to them his black skin and his origin meant his life wasn’t worth saving. Jackson wasn’t worth fretting over, and his death was not a loss. His friend’s desperate pleas, in their own language, did nothing to weaken their resolve.
We all recognised in that moment that Jackson was us and we were him. That could have been my dead body on a gurney somewhere in the south of China. Those could have been my final moments captured on short WeChat video clips for the world to see. That could have been my life devalued and ultimately lost because I was born black and African.
For Men’s Eyes Only
The evil power we wish to keep safe and to ourselves as men it seems, is the power to use the bodies of women for our own inconsiderate ends. We must begin having conversations about rape. Friday afternoons will have to be about more than just football. We need to talk.
Friday afternoons are for football, everybody knows that. There is a soccer pitch along the road that connects Manyanja Road to Umoja Estate that I sorely miss. I travelled to ushago in early March to wait out the pandemic and took my football boots with me. My mom’s farmhand Lemuel* and I dribble and pass the ball on the lawn in the afternoons sometimes.
On the day we went into town to buy the football, Lemuel accepted Jesus Christ as his personal saviour. He had gotten himself in trouble the week before that. My mother had found him outside the property, in the bushes growing next to the nearby primary school. He was courting a young girl of school-going age. He is about twenty himself. My mother found the girl’s younger sister waiting with a pile of firewood Lemuel had cut for them. The guilty betray themselves I suppose. When the girls saw my mother approaching, they ran. My mother ordered Lemuel to pack his bags immediately. He was out of a job. I watched him drag his feet as he walked back inside the compound, tears welling up in his eyes.
The week before Lemuel was found with the girl in the bushes, I had interrupted a transaction between them, although at the time I didn’t realise that that is what it was. I had heard rustling behind the fence near the chicken coop and on going to investigate, found her standing by the corner of the homestead, waving at Lemuel. I was on the inside, so she didn’t notice me until I asked loudly,
Itimo ang’o kanyo? What are you doing there?
Ne amoto’, she ventured weakly before walking away. Fetching firewood.
Lemuel had been pruning the Grevillea trees along the fence and when I went outside. I saw that he had cut one branch and thrown it over the fence. I walked up to him and asked him about it.
Nyako no ne kwaya mana yien, he explained. The girl was asking me for firewood.
To ka yien e ma okwayo, opondo e tok chiel nang’o? If it is firewood she wanted, why was she hiding behind the fence?
An akiya. I don’t know.
The task of fetching firewood often falls to young girls and puts them in the crosshairs of property owners. I didn’t think much of it then. Only after he was caught with her did I begin to see that his position here gives him power that he can exploit. And to understand my full responsibility as his friend and employer.
Lemuel’s life has not been easy, no doubt about that. He lost his mother to illness as a child and grew up being shuttled between relatives. A few years in one home, a few more in another. He never had a chance to go beyond primary school. He has had to work. His father is what we jokingly call in these parts a terorist—no spelling mistake there. Tero is the notorious custom of wife inheritance as practiced in Luoland. It means his father has been absent even from his own home and children, mostly living in the homesteads of the widows he terorises.
Lemuel has a curious mind though, always asking questions and cracking jokes. Lately he has been trying to learn English. I gifted him a book and a pen to help. It is now full of drawings, including a rough sketch of the plan of a semi-permanent one-bedroom house. Whenever he goes home, he does what we call lawo nindo—chasing sleep. He spends a few nights with this cousin then a few nights with another. He intends to build a house when the pandemic ends and is saving money to buy the materials. This time Lemuel dodged the bullet; for now, he is still working for my mom on tenuous terms as she decides his fate.
News of hundreds of thousands of young school age girls getting pregnant after falling victim to acts of rape committed during the COVID-19 lockdown came about a week after Lemuel’s transgressions, as he was settling back into a regular routine. It came on the radio just as we sat down to dinner. My mother asked me to turn up the volume. And then she turned to Lemuel.
Be iparo gik ma nyocha awachoni? Mago to ang’o?
Can you remember the things I was telling you about the other day? What are those?
Koro iwinjo gik ma timore?
Do you hear what is going on?
Saa ni nyathi ma timo timbego manyo ich, omanyo korona, to be omanyo ayaki!
Right now a child engaging in such behavior is looking for pregnancy, Corona, and HIV!
Be uneno situations ma nyithindo kete ji?
Do you see the situations children put people in?
Lemuel, usually full of funny observations about news stories on the radio, knew to keep his mouth shut. He got an earful indeed. Lemuel tried to catch my eye across the dinner table but I did not interfere in their conversation. It reminded me of myself, making mistakes as a child and getting on my mother’s wrong side. It struck me too, how hiring a worker on your property makes you responsible for their actions. Lemuel is now my mother’s responsibility, like I once was.
After supper that night, as Lemuel prepared to wash the dishes and I prepared to feed the dogs, he commented on my silence. He calls it kukula neno when he is berated.
Eh ndugu, in iweya ka akula neno kenda ma ok iwach kata gimoro. Saa moro iremaga.
Eh brother, you let me get quarreled alone without backing me up. Sometimes you fail me.
It is at moments like these when men affirm each other in misogyny and violence. I wanted to break that cycle for him. We have our way of talking to each other.
Onyali kabisa. Kendo go ne nyasaye erokamano ni mathe e ma ne oyudi chieng’ cha. In di sani in achiel kuom jokma oland ni omiyo nyithindo ich go. Kendo in di ne oluong nyaka nyingi e radio.
You thoroughly deserved it. You better thank God it is Mathee who found you that day. You would have been announced today as one of the people impregnating children. In fact, they would have mentioned you by name on the radio.
Aaah, ndugu. In be saa moro iduoka chien. An timbego aseweyo.
Aaah, brother. Sometimes you take me backwards. I have quit those habits.
Though he denies having any untoward intentions, we all know that if my mother had not found him when she did, that girl last week might have been one of them. I can hear him complaining still as I head for the kennels. For his sake, and for the sake of young women everywhere, I hope he is listening. I know it will take more than small talk.
Fast forward to last Friday and I’m dribbling the ball near the fence that borders the eucalyptus when I hear cracking sounds from across the fence. I go to the fence and try to peer through the thorns. I see a shape, bent over the rocks among the trees doing something on the ground. They are on the property without anyone’s knowledge or permission. I run to the gate and out along the fence to see who they are, and what they are doing on the property.
Turning the corner of the fence I come upon a teenage girl, 16 at most, with a small pile of dry sticks in the crook of her elbow. She is trespassing, gathering firewood. She is startled and starts to bolt but stops at the edge of the grove of trees because there is a climb and she still has the wood in her hands. She turns to face me, cornered. Her knees are shaking and her eyes are wide with fear. The news of those hundreds of thousands of pregnancies from the radio the night before comes back to me.
Kenyan government officials are famous for knee-jerk reactions to social problems, reactions that most often involve criminalising underprivileged youth, especially young men, and exacting violence upon them as a form of deterrent., Speaking about the shocking statistics, Ezekiel Mutua was quick to blame popular Kamba music. However, in the weeks that followed, a DCI officer raped a woman being held in police custody in Embu and police officers in Isebania in Migori County illegally detained a 12-year-old girl who had been raped by her father, also a policeman. Popular Kamba music still?
Whenever the perpetrators are the police or older male figures with some power and influence, officials like Mutua can’t seem to find the words to speak out against them. Their authority on morality, like police authority to perpetrate violence, is most present and powerful when underprivileged youth are its targets.
Our political culture and the letter and intent of our existing laws also play into this equation. Activists have renewed calls for the abolition of many current forms of policing and punishment following the brutal murder of George Floyd in the United States and among the many points being made is the observation that much policing work is intrinsically oppressive.
The law seems to place its enforcers and property owners—who also make up most of the political leadership and are mostly men—in a position of having “more human rights” than those who are less fortunate, and women. So one of the first questions a rape victim is often asked when reporting a rape is, “What were you doing there/at their house (on their property)?” As though being on someone else’s property or on public land for whatever reason makes you less human and your body more deserving of violence and abuse.
It is thinking that has justified countless violations and endless police harassment of the poor who are arrested and often brutalised merely for existing in a public space. The rich and powerful seem to be freer to move at all times of the day and night. This issue of legality also crossed my mind as I stood before that young girl in the eucalyptus grove. Was she to blame for our encounter? Should anyone be blamed for trying to survive? If anything untoward had happened to her during that encounter, it should be me that would have been to blame.
It may well have been in a situation exactly like the one I found myself in that Friday afternoon that led to Lemuel’s meeting with the girl he was caught with. A situation of unequal power and great vulnerability, a result of structural inequality. A situation where one’s choice of action could have devastating consequences for the life of another. Lemuel certainly understands this. When I asked him what he might say to a young man such as himself facing a similar choice, he didn’t hesitate.
We nyathi sikul otiek sikul. Mano e gima anyalo nyise.
Let a schoolchild finish school. That’s what I can tell him.
So I know he understood the huge risks that his choices could have imposed on that girl’s future. I believe that all over the country, , similar encounters are happening every day and with greater frequency due to the lockdown. And men like Lemuel, like the police officers in Embu and Isebania—and like me—keep choosing to harm young women and girls for mere moments of selfish pleasure. Simply because we can. We must do better, as individual men and as a society.
Banning works of music and targeting violence against mostly underprivileged perpetrators will not achieve anything without quality sex education that equips society with the understanding of why crimes such as rape and sexual harassment are harmful and wrong. I believe that instead of deterring crime and violence, such actions create and cement a concept of “otherness” in the psyche of many people and convince them that they are a different demographic (from the rich and powerful), to whom the law applies randomly, illogically, and disproportionately. And they express this by developing a relationship with the law that is performative—only being lawful when consequence is imminent.
Criminality, especially where it relates to property laws and the rights of others, is seen as a normal and necessary part of survival. This has been the status quo, the normal, for so long that this culture has permeated all of society, especially in leadership and political circles where policy is made. The poison has spread to the heart.
It seems that even though men are willing to see the victims of police violence as people with rights who are deserving of humanity and respect, we simply refuse to do the same for women in relation to sexual violence. It is easy to hate feminists and to say they exaggerate when they say men are this or that. What is difficult it seems, is to stand in front of a vulnerable young girl or woman and to see more than female flesh. What we do not seem to want to try is empathy. To put aside male sexual desire and imagine the human life within the body of a woman. The soul. To think of her as someone with hopes, dreams, parents, siblings, friends, children, a future.
The evil power we wish to keep safe and to ourselves as men it seems, is the power to use the bodies of others, especially women, for our own inconsiderate ends. And judging by the number of rapes perpetrated by male family members and friends against female victims, it seems this imperative matters to men even above family ties and friendship.
That afternoon as I saw the young girl off, it became clear to me how easy rape can be for anyone with property and power. How easy for those policemen. How easy for Lemuel. How easy for me.
The men who abuse girls and women are family, close friends, neighbours. They are breaking bread, smoking ganja, reading this article with us. They are playing football with us. They are you and me. We can do the most good within our closest circles, with ourselves and with each other. And we must, because it is becoming ever clearer that the only reason we have not been doing it thus far, is because far too many of us are also part of the problem. We must begin having conversations about rape with fellow men, it is urgent. For me and Lemuel now, and hopefully for you and your friends, Friday afternoons will have to be about more than just football. We need to talk.
*Lemuel’s name has been changed for reasons of confidentiality.
Religion and Emotion in the Time of Coronavirus
When the coronavirus came calling, many Christian communities set themselves apart and declared that they had special divine protection, with some claiming the virus to be a hoax or that it could be defeated not by science but by faith and supernatural means.
I first started taking sports seriously when I transferred from Kilimani Primary School to Loreto Convent Valley Road. In my old school I had been comfortably mediocre, an indistinguishable lump of existence. I had very little sense of myself and tended to drift with the crowd. And I was definitely not known for any sporting prowess despite the school having an excellent sports programme, typical of the schools which had been the preserve of white settler children under Kenya’s colonial apartheid system. At Kilimani I remember chasing after my friend Esther Musundi, a gifted runner, whom I could never catch. As for team sports, hockey, rounders and netball, I never made any team. The other girls were quicker, bigger and more skilled than I was. I avoided hockey like the plague to avoid being murdered by a powerful girl in my class who could hit the ball harder than any of the senior boys. It was at Valley Road that I discovered that hitting a ball harder than anyone else was not playing hockey.
My class of 24 girls had five non-whites, two of whom were fellow Africans, and these two avoided me as if I carried a contagious disease. On that first day at LCVR, my new school, I arrived early and picked a seat right in the front of the class. I was feeling self-conscious in my brand new too-long, too-baggy uniform, which was a weird indeterminate colour, neither light blue nor light green. And then, the owner of the seat arrived and, speaking in an assertive tone, sent me to the back of the class to sit next to another African girl who appeared to have accepted her place on the margins. In the six years we were at school together, I never saw that girl step out of her place even once. She had drowned and lived submerged in an ocean where she could never be anything but wrong.
And so, within the first hour in my new school, my sense of self had been attacked in those ways that were inevitable for an African child sent to desegregate white spaces. In early 1970s Kenya, these white spaces were dominated by an often vicious settler class engaged in a futile game of defending their shrinking territory in a newly independent African country.
At my new school, I attempted to consolidate what it meant to be rejected and consigned to the periphery. But unlike the many other times when I met such moments with acquiescing silence, something came over me, and instead of acceptance, I started to plot my revenge. I remember thinking “They will know me”. The rejection and discomfort I experienced in my new school literally woke me up and for the first time in my life I became aware of myself as a distinct entity with preferences, feelings and opinions. The upshot of my new-found resolve was that I stopped being mediocre. And, much to my surprise, became really good at sports.
But there was something that bothered me about sports at LCVR; before every match the nuns would pray for victory and to strengthen their prayers, they sprinkled holy water on the team. As I closed my eyes during these prayers I had questions. Why would God choose our team to win and not our opponent? Did God have favourites? And why call on God for help in a hockey match when South Africa was not yet free? I never dared voice these doubts even to my friends in the team. Giving voice to my thoughts would surely damn me. Back then I still believed in an angry Old Testament God, a God who sent plagues and spoke through burning bushes and whom I was trying hard to stop from striking me dead with bolts of lightning for my many blasphemous thoughts.
It is now 2020 and many decades since I left LCVR, and the year which was supposed to be my best year yet, has screeched to a halt. On 13 March 2020, Kenya like most of the world shut down, grounded by the coronavirus pandemic which started in Wuhan province in China and has now spread its killing spree to the whole globe. The response to stem infection and death rates is being informed by what China did to stop it and includes a raft of measures approved by the World Health Organization (WHO); total or partial lockdowns, sanitising common spaces, washing of hands and use of sanitisers, wearing of masks and testing, etc.
Most people have accepted the restrictions imposed on them by governments and recognised that they are necessary to minimise infections and deaths. However, some communities and countries have taken a contrarian approach and chosen not to adopt any of the measures that have proven to be effective. I am interested in the ways in which some members of the global Christian community have responded because, at least on the surface, they remind me so much of how the nuns at Loreto Convent Valley Road prayed to secure God’s favour for our team before a match.
When the coronavirus came calling, many Christian communities set themselves apart and declared that they had special divine protection. They wanted to continue with their normal lives including gathering for church services. Yet the early lesson from a church in South Korea contradicted this assertion of religious immunity to the virus. One month after South Korea had its first infection, congregants and other members of the population in the vicinity of the Shincheonji Church of Christ in Daegu accounted for 5,080 cases of COVID-19 out of a total of 9,137 known cases by 25 March 2020. It was this infection that pushed the government to introduce policies to isolate the virus from the uninfected population. The government tested more than 200,000 members of the Shincheonji Church across the country and found that thousands tested positive. In response the government went on to mandate rigorous inspections at public gathering places deemed to be high-risk and then it closed schools and public spaces, and banned sporting events and large gatherings.
When the virus was first detected in South Korea, the founder of the Shincheonji Church, Mr. Lee Man-Hee made the claim that the epidemic was caused by “. . . the evil who got jealous of Shincheonji’s rapid growth”. That was until his church became the hardest-hit by the virus; he at least had the decency to get down on his knees and apologise.
In Kenya, the government responded to the coronavirus by closing schools, introducing a curfew and a partial lockdown, restricting movement in some counties, banning large public gatherings and testing. The Christian community in the country protested and on 20 March 2020, three pastors went to court to challenge the directive banning church gatherings. In the suit, the pastors acknowledged the measures put in place by the government to stop the spread but argued that precisely because of the virus, their congregations would be seeking solace in churches. The courts upheld the government’s ban.
But despite this ruling, there were still clergy who were flouting government efforts to control the spread of the virus in Kenya. In Meru, Nathan Kirimi, a pastor at Jesus Winner Ministry Church, defied the main leadership of his church by refusing to suspend worship services in his church and even scoffed at the sanitising and handwashing directive. Even mainstream churches like the Catholic Church in Kenya did not immediately comply. In late March 2020, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops was still insisting that services would continue because the church is a “focal point of prayer where you will find solace and strength from God”. The government in Kenya had to stand firm to prevent many churches from not following the directives against mass gatherings and in some cases, congregations took matters of safety into their own hands and simply stayed away.
Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli’s response to COVID-19 was typical of some of the Christian faithful. Tanzania’s president is a staunch Catholic and he insisted that the virus could not survive in Tanzania because the country was under the protection of the blood of Jesus. To strengthen this protection Magufuli declared three days of national prayers and even in early May 2020, he was still urging people to attend services in churches and mosques, saying that prayer can “vanquish the virus”. President Magufuli has Increasingly engaged in rhetoric and conspiracy theories opposing all measures proposed by the WHO and trotting out anti-Western propaganda. But the virus is not human and will not be manipulated into ineffectiveness. Tanzania’s infection rates have started to spiral out of control, surpassing those of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.
In the United States Christian communities took a similar stance with some claiming the virus to be a hoax or that it could be defeated not by science but by faith and supernatural means. In late March Rodney Howard Browne, a Pentecostal pastor in Tampa, Florida conducted two full-house services at his River Church. Other American pastors have made equally outlandish claims, Kenneth Copeland a Texas-based preacher claimed that the coronavirus was a weak strain of the flu, and that fearing the pandemic was a sin.
“Fear is a spiritual force. Fear is not OK. It is sin. It is a magnet for sickness and disease . . . You are giving the devil a pathway to your body”. Today the US accounts for the highest number of infections and deaths in the world.
The human tendency is to create ourselves as God’s chosen and to be anything else is unconscionable. I observed this inclination as my relatives took on Christianity. As they related to the Christian faith in prayer and in other forms of devotion, it was easy to mistake them for the Chosen. They retold the stories of the Old Testament as if they had been passed down by ancestors who had accompanied Moses on his quest to secure their freedom from the Pharaoh in Egypt. But COVID-19 is unforgiving. As the South Korea example shows, those Christian communities which have responded to the virus by declaring themselves immune have made their congregations vulnerable to infections by disarming them and rendering them helpless.
Let’s go back to those prayers offered up by the nuns for our hockey team back at LCVR. At face value, those prayers and that holy water may have implied that we could bestow on ourselves the position of being God’s chosen hockey, swimming and tennis teams and that we did not need to work for our victories. But that could not have been farther from the truth. our success was a product of hard work. Loreto Convent Valley Road was a small school with very little land. We had just four tennis courts and a practice wall, we had no hockey pitch of our own and we had to walk twice a week to the Public Service Club to play hockey. But what we had was Sister Carmel, someone so passionate about sports and her girls that it was difficult to escape her passion.
We practiced relentlessly throughout the term and even during the holidays. Sister Carmel, a small Irish nun, was the architect of our success and she literally chased us onto tennis courts when we were not in class. She made sure we came early in the morning to put in practice. We were expected to be on the tennis courts at break time, at lunchtime, after school and during any free lesson, whilst school holidays found us in tennis camps run by coach Anne Greenwell. It was not surprising that LCVR became established as a place of sporting excellence for tennis, hockey, table-tennis and swimming such that in 1978, Kenya’s team to the All Africa Games included six teenage girls from Loreto Convent Valley Road: Susan Githuku née Wakhungu, Betty Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie) Helen Pegrume, Kate Cruikshank, Gail Cruikshunk and Ingrid Ronsky.
The coronavirus pandemic is happening at a time when the world is connected by a communications network that allows ordinary citizens to escape their borders and literally eavesdrop on other countries. In this interconnected world it is possible to identify the factors that are leading to success or failure in fighting the virus and as I scan the world, I see that leadership is a determining factor. Just like sister Carmel at Loreto Convent Valley Road, those leaders who prioritise their people are being effective regardless of the resources at their disposal. Examples include Rwanda, Seychelles, Namibia, Lesotho, Finland, Georgia, Uganda, Mauritius, New Zealand and Germany. Conversely, leaders who have focused on the economy or their re-election prospects, or are simply disinterested, are relying increasingly on rhetoric and conspiracy theories in an effort to distract their citizens from the relentlessness of COVID-19 infections and deaths. The presidents of the US, the UK, Tanzania and Brazil have distinguished themselves in using this approach and it is not surprising that the numbers in those countries are growing exponentially and that at this time the mighty United States leads the world in COVID-19 infections and deaths.
What do you see when you peep into Kenya?
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