If a doctor were to diagnose millennial marriages, he would find them diseased, plagued by forces of nature beyond their control. These three anecdotes illustrate the three biggest challenges that millennials are grappling with in marriage.
In December 2014, I accompanied a friend to Embu, in Eastern Kenya for a ruracio (A traditional Agikuyu and Aembu wedding ceremony). It was a well-attended ceremony that brought together two traditions (Luo and Aembu) with a dash of modernity, given my friend had defied his family rejection of the woman’s position (due to her ethnicity) – reveling in love and idealism of the youth and urbanization, to marry across ethnic lines.
The two had been living together since graduation, two years before, and the ruracio had been accelerated by an inevitable pregnancy, so the man had to ‘make things right.’ But they were married in every sense of the word upon the blessing of her parents after the Christmas Eve ruracio.
They were meant to live happily forever. However, forever did not last six months.
In a dramatic, if not disturbing discovery, it turned out the child was not his. The DNA results devastated my friend. They ‘divorced’, with no chance of remarrying.
At 27, life had served him one of the most brutal blows. My friend went into depression, taking to alcoholism, sleeping around, seeking solace in church before he could sober up a year later.
Not sure what became of the woman, except that she was 26, and was to be a part of growing number of single mothers under 30 in the country.
Is that the end for the two? We can assume that they may attempt to get married in the future.
A few years back, one of my closest friends fell out with a woman he was cohabiting with (more like kicked out of the house).
They were about the same age; however, the girlfriend joined the university earlier by going through the ‘parallel program’. My friend waited for two years and a government stipend before joining the public university. She graduated way ahead of him, and by the time my friend was finishing his undergraduate, she was through with her masters. A parallel program averaged two and half years compared to a regular program that took four or five years and could be imperiled by a strike by students or lecturers.
She got into gainful employment, rose through the ranks in her organisation, and continued to support her man for two years before she got tired of the man’s jobless status and dumped him. My friend is not the first man to be dumped or left because of his dim economic prospects.
Lastly is the case of Jeff Nyongesa*. When his wife requested his indulgence and permission for a night out with the girls, he grudgingly consented. They have a six-month-old baby, and the agreement was that she would be home by 11 pm. She was not home by midnight, and on calling her she didn’t answer her phone, and worse she switched it off (or it ran out of charge). Seething, he called her mother and all her authoritative relatives and raised a storm, spelling it out in black and white that he was not happy with ‘their daughter’s’ conduct. He says gleefully, this ‘tamed’ her.
In the first instance, the problem is adultery gone wrong. The second instance is an increasingly common problem, as we are hit with economic recession; many young men are jobless, underemployed—stuck in jobs that can hardly sustain them, let alone a marriage. It has aptly been called a mancession-where more male-dominated jobs are lost compared to female-dominated ones during a period of economic difficulty.
Understandably, men can provide for their unemployed wives, but for women, the support often comes tethered to an expiration date. And there is enough anecdotal evidence to support this. Undeniably, there are exceptions, but largely found among the ranks of older women with cultivated patience and not so much among the younger peers.
Women world over, while empowered and economically secure, are socialized to still desire a man who can provide, and the male status is linked to the role of a breadwinner. So dire, that in America, Trump’s election was largely attributed to the scores of unemployed men in America’s Rust Belt, who have lost their jobs to technology, or factories having been shipped to China or Mexico.
In a poll conducted in the US and published by the Harvard Business Review, ahead of the 2016 American elections, it emerged that even the thought of earning less than their spouses made men vote for Trump. Intuitively, men know what it means when a woman earns more.
A study done more than a decade ago and published in the journal of Biology Letters confirmed as much:
Men prefer younger women due to their higher fertility, while women prefer older men due to their wealth and high status, which makes them good providers for the offspring.
Nyongesa’s case is a barometer of shifting cultural mores. As millennials, we are in a contradicting transition. As an Anthropologist, Paul Omondi (of the University of Nairobi) pithily puts it…
“A modern, educated woman can go to her job during the week, attend a chama meeting on Saturday, go drinking and dancing on Saturday night, go to Church on Sunday, and still make time for the family.”
All her aspirations are antithetical to traditional African socially prescribed expectation of a woman’s place in marriage.
We are stuck with an outdated ideological construction of gender. Men have resisted conformity to conventional feminism ideals that preach: what is sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander, hence the false sense of emasculation.
For all the progressive nuances and liberalism millennial men may have cultivated and displayed, if a poll is run on what men expect in women they want to marry, their expectations will correspond to the traditional expectations their fathers’ generation. Women want a better version of their fathers for husbands: sensitive, available, liberal and preferably financially well off.
Both sexes are disappointed that neither is living in the traditional paradigm.
A brief history of Women Empowerment
Nobody should fault women for wanting it all. It was a necessary moral choice to empower women so that they can be active participants in the economic development.
The journey to gender equality started in 1975 at the UN Conference on Women. National governments acknowledged women as the missing link in national development and economic success. The authors of this paper, argue the intentions to empower women were good, the opportunity cost of not empowering women without involving men had socio-economic and political risks. The plight of the boy child in Kenya was not part of public discourse for nearly three decades until about a decade ago when Maendeleo ya Wanaume led by a dubious Nderitu Njoka surfaced and tried to articulate the problems of men in the wake of the gains accrued from women empowerment.
The Eurocentric education we inherited after colonialism altered our indigenous worldview in favour of the Western way of life. African women long suppressed by patriarchy would benefit from this education, and 40-odd years later since we started involving women in economic development, our country’s GDP grew from $3.25 in 1975 to $ 75 billion in 2017, but not without socio-cultural consequences.
In education the gender gap reduced over the years to 59 percent for men and 41 for women by 2015, according to the Nation Media’s Newsplex investigation. The gap is still shrinking, and career levering courses such as nursing, medicine, dental surgery, environmental studies, biochemistry and pharmacy are attracting 57 percent women compared to 43 percent men. And the Constitution of Kenya 2010 empowered women even more, with the two-thirds gender rule, giving them access to more opportunities both in the private and public sector.
Education has had multiple benefits, shaping societal attitudes to an extent vices such as gender-based-violence, female genital mutilation, deadbeat dads are actively discussed in society and the law, while slow, is now responsive, bolstered by the civil society mainstreaming of human rights issues.
Our mothers and their predecessors were forced to endure abusive marriages, some getting infected with HIV by promiscuous husbands, forced to stay by societal expectations, their choices limited by poverty, since men were the privileged breadwinner wielding all the social clout.
Education helped the society to stop frowning on single mothers and divorcees as it happens to the forerunners like Wangari Maathai and Martha Karua.
It has created an environment where women can thrive and have a bright future where their choices are not dictated by marriage.
In 2002, Mwai Kibaki took over as Kenya’s third president and the following decade witnessed an unprecedented growth, and expansion of the Kenyan economy, opening doors of educational and career opportunities to a wider previously ignored female demographic.
Following the adoption of self-sponsorship in higher education, in the 2000s, the expansion and the proliferation of several universities, more students previously cut off from university admission pegged on bed-capacity (notoriously at 10,000 for more than a decade.) This has churned out nearly 50,000 graduates each year in the last decade according to the Ministry of Education. Nearly 40 per cent of these graduates are female.
The jobs markets that exploded after Kibaki took over, were mainly in academia, marketing, banking and real estate (and the expansion of the Civil Society which addressed some of the most pressing issues affecting women and children) creating a friendly job environment for female career progression.
Coincidentally, throughout the 1990s, the Structural Adjustment Programs killed the manufacturing sectors as many industries were privatized, often subsequently run down. Examples are abound such as Kenya Railways, several textile industries grounded by the importation of second-hand clothes that sabotaged the whole chain of production. The postal service, Telkom, Public Works, farming lost out to privatization and once vibrant towns such as Kitale and Kilgoris in Transmara all but died.
Women may have joined the workforce, but they still lag in formal employment. According to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics, efforts to bridge the gap have been paying off. As of 2016, men still hold 65.5 % (1.68 million) of the workforce compared to women, 34.5% about 880,000. The gap is being closed considering more women than men are taking up Masters and PhDs, according to the Ministry of Education. One MoE official said the affirmative action had helped women access education and this presently reflects in the workplace in the corporate sector as more women take up managerial jobs.
As millennials, we witnessed our fathers losing their jobs and their breadwinning roles and the logic of two-income families sunk in properly during the SAPs years. Indeed women aspiring for education was with the hope of bringing something to the table and among millennials a job (or the prospect of getting one) is usually a key consideration in marriage.
And we have education to thank for opening doors to more women, making them eligible for marriage in the present tough economic times.
But education had other effects.
Education in its socialization effect also exposes women to limitless choices their mothers never had. Urbanization creates an environment for a woman who was under a tight leash of patriarchy to excel in cities. And with the liberalization of the media in 2002, access to the internet, pornography and Hollywood, it meant millennial women were no longer chained to the constricting and narrowly defined roles of their mothers’ generation.
With procreation no longer a pressing priority of marriage, women are free to chase academic and career dreams, or even their passion, until they are ready. Technology has enabled In-Vitro-Fertilization that has saved couples who can’t conceive, or those who are too busy. Further options of adopting, surrogacy, freezing of eggs, are all sipping into our society and those who can afford are already embracing these new approaches to parenting.
Men, maybe out of moral consciousness or fear of being exposed as deadbeats on social media or legal coercion have become more responsive to the children of their estranged wives or exes. And many modern men are open to the idea of co-parenting. This makes single parenting less of a stigma.
For those averse to marriage, getting a child ‘out of wedlock’ is not the social crime it was two or three decades ago. Older women who find it hard to find a spouse can go to a sperm bank or can get into an arrangement with a man to supply the sperm and support, if needed.
Nowadays it is no longer what the children need, but what the parents want.
When women do not have to be economically dependent on men, and they have options of conceiving a child, not necessarily in the confines of marriage and this choice can change relationship dynamics completely.
Traditionally around the world marriage was a logical arrangement for procreation, economic and social cohesion.
The present economic, social and cultural environment for the first time since Industrial Revolution means we must alter that definition. Women want an equal footing in marriage and men have to readjust accordingly. Marriage now, according to Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel in an Atlantic article, is based not on duty and obligation but on love and affection.
And millennials prefer life in the cities and towns to the villages. This too has western implications on our societal mores. Life in the city affords one anonymity and access to sex, food, security in their terms.
In cities, women have a bigger pool of sexual and sensual talent to pick and choose. Sexual liberalism is evident.
In the bygone era, where most women were destined to be housewives, there were binding social conventions and women were expected to practice uncompromising fidelity. But at the workplace, with frequent traveling to conferences, business-related excursions sex has become casual and transactional. Now, everywhere women look, there are available men, who can offer everything they want, but not necessarily in one package.
We live in a time and in a society that has embraced the romance idealism defined through the Western cinematic universe. The relational power men held is no longer absolute and these societal changes are redefining gender relationships at a rapid speed. The ground has moved, the old ways have fallen apart and we know not where to turn.
From sex to money, men no longer have the monopoly to the things that they used to ‘control’ women. This means in the future marriage will become a contest for equality, with no spouse hoarding the power to control the other.
Choices Millennials have to make
Millennials marry on need basis. Women have choices; they can go to school, pursue career without the encumbrances of marriages. When they marry young, they still have a choice to navigate, despite the obligations of motherhood. With the leverage of personal income, most women now have the capacity to own property, changing the dynamics of matrimonial property ownership that are often the subject of ugly succession woes. As this Nation article and many others have shown more and more women are players in Nairobi’s real estate market.
Me, on the other hand, will take longer to marry as long as their economic prospects are dim. Presently, the age of marriage has risen considerably to 28, tittering towards 30.
Most men still pine for the good old days of control and women can no longer conform to old gender order. Women want freedom, are ready to break the rules (if only to revenge on their adulterous husband) even as societal rules are kinder to a cheating man, as opposed to a woman. In fact, in my opinion, even women are finding monogamy to be too constricting. Millennial women have a higher likelihood of abandoning a marriage that does not serve their interests, as they tend to make more individualistic decisions that alienate them from obligations to the extended society.
What does the future look like for the millennials adulting?
Serial monogamy might make sense. Polygamy is not economically viable anymore and proselytizing Christians have made monogamy the only moral choice. More marriages will be undone by infidelity and the dwindling economic fortunes of men. Women no longer have to stay in an abusive relationship or one that is in emotionally or sexually unfulfilling relationships. Men will find themselves being thrown out and will have to learn to either shape up or pack up.
Single-motherhood will cease to bear the social stigma previously attached to it. And the rising age of marriage means individuals will be looking for companionship as opposed to the material or procreational aspirations of the youth.
But serial monogamy is predicated on experimentation. Once the first marriage is broken, people are afraid of the second trial, but will nonetheless experiment until the idea of a right person shows up.
“These days, many of us are going to have two or three significant long-term relationships or marriages,” predicts psychotherapist Esther Perel.
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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