It has been 11 days since Eliud Kipchoge broke the World marathon record in Berlin, Germany. We are at Eldoret Sports Club, a convoy of vehicles is assembling to take him for a grand homecoming of the running king in Eldoret town centre. Eliud is lean, sinewy and nondescript in casual clothes. He wears a dark polo shirt, running shoes and a branded cap.
He stands, a lonesome figure watching the proceedings. With the vast Eldoret Sports Club fields behind him, he is like a pensive groom psyching himself amidst the fuss at his own wedding. Eliud is not big on the fanfare. When he broke the world record, he sneaked back into Eldoret, almost unnoticed. But as the brand ambassador of Isuzu East Africa, he knows that he has to go through the paces of being a sports celebrity. Today he receives a brand new double cabin pick up. Eliud is keenly aware that he belongs to the people of Nandi, Uasin Gishu, the Kalenjin Nation, Kenya and to the world of sport.
His words are measured. His tone of voice low, and demands the rapt attention of a congregant in the presence of a respected padre. Sports journalists have warned of Eliud’s crisp responses and his zen-like presence that deflates the exuberance of an eager interviewer seeking easy sound bites.
The previous evening at the 64 bar, Eliud had met a party of event organizers who briefed him on the next day’s proceedings. 64 is a decently designed sports bar with a series of private enclosures that surround an open area with a large drop-down screens just like a sports arena. The lead organiser Dancan Muhindi had warned that Eliud is a stickler for time. We arrived 15 minutes late to find him seated alone in one of the cubicles ordering a cup of tea.
To say Eliud is humble is an understatement. The power of Eliud’s humility emerges like a gust of hot air from an open sauna door, yet he is under no illusion of the weight of his celebrity. As a consummate professional, he treats all who seek his attention with a measure of respect that demands reciprocation. Dancan runs him through the elaborate programme and he raises no concerns. Caleb the PR liaison, warns him of the Kenyan media obsession with race earnings. “The money question is going to come up because the local press have not spoken to you post-Berlin.”
He brushes off the concern as he smiles assuredly. “It is more about performance, not money”.
Eliud holds a PhD in the art of maintaining a low profile. Even in his home town Eldoret, he cuts such an ordinary presence running his errands unnoticed. When prodded by BBC journalist Lynne Wachira about the absence of any celebration after his return from Berlin, he replies nonchalantly, “ The best celebration moment was when I crossed the finish line”. 30 plus million Kenyans celebrated his win. That was enough. There was no need to stretch the festivities. He finds the razzmatazz off-putting, “Celebrations can be distracting. I try to control those thoughts so that they do not interfere with my training”.
At 10 am at the Eldoret Sports Club, Eliud hops onto the back of a screaming red Isuzu Momo pick up. With raised suspension and high profile tyres towering above the rest of the cars in the convoy, Eliud’s small frame, is akin to a man riding an elephant through the streets. A police outrider with a blue flickering light, leads the convoy as it snakes into Eldoret’s mid-morning town centre traffic.
People stop to stare at the raised car in the middle of the convoy trying to make out the fuss. A man in the lead picks up screams into his microphone like a town crier, “There he is, the one in the dark blue T-shirt, the one you have seen on your screens, the champion of the world, Honourable Eliud Kipchoge”. Crowds stare, for even in Eldoret, the land of champions, Eliud is not instantly recognizable. The car that Eliud rides atop of is initially getting more attention than the champion himself.
As the caravan enters Eldoret’s town centre, a group of women in aprons, arranging empty maize sacks burst into a spontaneous cheer. Eliud smiles brightly and gives them a thumbs up sign. Drivers and passengers lean out of their windows, trying to catch a glance of the figure causing a traffic jam. Slowly, people start to recognise him and petrol station attendants, boda boda riders, watchmen and market loaders, run to the edge of the street to greet the King of the road. Camera phones are trained on him, Eliud just smiles and waves gently, trying to acknowledge those who shout out his name with full eye contact. Even riding ostentatiously in a showy car, the sense of his humility is apparent.
Humility is a family trait, confirms his older brother Wilson. Eliud is only bullish during a marathon race contest where his victory is predetermined and he bursts to the front like the bossman he is, leading from gun to tape while racing against the clock.
The caravan returns to Eldoret Sports Club after about an hour of raising a ruckus in Eldoret town centre at times bringing it to a standstill. In tow, is a multitude of friends, admirers, county heads, ordinary Kenyans and a small group of street boys who ran alongside the convoy in delight all the way to the club from town, a distance of 2kms.
Eldoret Sports Club comprises a single colonial building, painted white with a streak of blue that stares out at rugby, football, volleyball and cricket pitches. The club was started in 1930 as a space for white privilege and it still stands defiant as a British colonial relic. It contains a snooker room and the sign to the toilets is still labelled ‘cloakrooms’. A legacy of sports that was white as its exterior walls, has faded. Club rugby and cricket died in Eldoret by the late 90s as athletics rose like a phoenix to rule supreme.
A comedic MC keeps the gathering lively as a host of guests speakers heap praises on Eliud’s accomplishments. When Eliud eventually gets up to speak, the gathering laughs as soon as he says he going to give a short speech. He is man of few words in a literal sense. His keynote address is sub 3 minutes. He is generous in his gratitude to his sponsors for the gift of a new car, to his family for their support but he laces his short speech with his now hallmark wisdom quotes.
“Champions do not become champions when they win an event”.
He is sharing the moment and stage with his athletic family, those broad shoulders he stood on to reach dizzy heights. When Eliud trains, he is only one among a gang of up to 30 elite runners. There might only be room for one winner on the podium but it takes a team to produce a champion.
“100 per cent of myself is nothing compared 1 per cent of the whole team.”
Over 20 Elite athletes representing three decades of distance running excellence are in attendance. A number who hail from Eliud’s Nandi County. The most recognisable are Ezekiel Kemboi 3000m steeplechase Olympic gold medalist popular for his cartoonish celebratory dance antics and Glady Cherono, the Berlin marathon women’s three-time champion. The rest of the company is also world class. They are either Olympic medalists or world marathon and cross country champions.
The achievement list of this cast could run a few pages long. Richard Limo, Valentine Kipketer, Hilary Sambu, Meshack Koech, Philemon Rono, Sally Kipyiego, Anthony Maritim, Amos Kipruto, Laban Korir, Mike Kigen, Geoffrey Kamworor, Conseslus Kipruto, Augustine Choge, Emmanuel Korir, Brimin Kipruto, Elijah Lagat and Patrick Sang. They are Eliud’s extended family in more ways than one.
Seated on the high table is Eliud’s coach and mentor, Patrick Sang who won silver medals in all World 3000m majors and his assistant, Coach Richard Meto who predicted Eliud breaking the World Record after his winning performance at 2017 Berlin marathon. Elijah Lagat who won the Berlin marathon in 1997 and the Boston marathon in 2000, helped Eliud get his first passport.
Augustine Choge, the 3000m Junior World Record holder describes Eliud as a fatherly figure even though he is only two years his junior. Brimin is his training partner and calls him a brother. Geoffrey Kamworor proclaims Eliud as his mentor. He wore Eliud’s shoes for good luck and won the World Cross Country Half Marathon in 2017. Gladys Cherono describes Eliud as a village mate.
But it is Patrick Sang whose fate is seemingly entwined with Eliud’s. Eliud’s mother was Sang’s nursery school teacher and they hail from the same Kapsisiywa village. Sang talks about Eliud like a proud father. He recalls Eliud’s humble beginnings. He remembers a persistent young man, who would ask for his training programmes. Eliud kept returning months later after implementing the programme and demanding a new one. Sang would forget who the adamant young man was. “And who are you?” he would demand, and the polite Eliud would reply, “ I am the one you gave the training programme to, and I won the nationals. Now I want you to train me. I am also your neighbour back home”.
In 2002, Patrick Sang and Eliud began the journey that would lead to the world record after joining Sang at the Global Sports Management camp in Kaptagat. It is for this reason Sang describes Eliud as a visionary, a man with the uncanny ability to dream up an audacious future and put in the work to achieve his dreams. Patrick Sang was a three-time silver medalist in world majors never winning gold. Elijah Lagat reckons that Eliud, like a good son, has become what his athletic father was meant to be.
What’s in a name. Eliud’s mother, Janet Rotich, gave her youngest child the name Eliud, a Christian name from the Bible, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. It means God is my praise. In the science of numerology, people named Eliud have a deep inner desire to lead. The destiny analysis of the name Eliud is packed with virtues. Wise. Firm. Destined to be rich. Resilient. Pragmatic.
The name Kipchoge among the Nandi people of Kalenjin means, of (prefix Kip) the granary (choge). Janet Rotich claims no special premonition for choosing that name. He was not named after his famous namesake who also hails from Nandi county. The illustrious Kipchoge Keino was the first of the great runners that Kenya has produced. A two-time world record holder, Kipchoge dramatically won the 1968 Mexico Olympic gold in the 1500m race leading by 20 metres. Suffering from gallstones, he ran 2 miles to the Olympic stadium after his bus got stuck in traffic, registered just in time and carried the gold. Kipchoge Keino was the greatest distance runner of his time and if truly a name contains symbolic power, the name Kipchoge could not have landed on a more appropriate heir.
In the year 1984, when Eliud was born, Steve Jones from the UK held the marathon world record at 2:08:05. In 2003 as an 18-year-old Eliud announced his presence to the athletic world in 5000m in Paris IAAF championships. He upset world champs and favourites Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele. In that same year, his countryman, 34-year-old Paul Tergat broke the world marathon record in Berlin with a time of 2:04:55. Sixteen years later, Eliud Kipchoge would break this world record in Berlin also two months short of his 34th birthday.
Eliud says, “No human is limited”. He should know for he has spent his career shattering the glass ceiling of limits. Conseslus Kipruto, the reigning Olympic and World champion in the steeplechase is a witness to Eliud’s phenomenal spirit. “When Eliud says he will deliver, he delivers”. It all depends on what you choose to believe about human limitations. Perhaps a hint on how Eliud makes the impossible a reality can be found in a quote from a book that left a lasting impression on him titled “ Who moved my Cheese” by Spencer Johnson. “ What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
But the motivational business fable only scratches the surface of Eliud’s spirit. Maybe some clues can be found in Nelson Mandela’s favourite poem Invictus by William Henley that ends with these powerful lines, “ I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.
Running is a mental sport, and talent is nothing without mental fortitude. Eliud knew he was going to break the world record at the 30km mark at 1:26. This is because he had run that race countless times in his mind and in training. “You can only run what you have run in training”.
Eliud has been watering his tree of discipline for two decades now. I recall a quote that I had read in a feature article where he says “Discipline equals freedom.” He tells me with an uncharacteristic seriousness bordering on irritation of a teacher reprimanding a student for missing the obvious truth of a repeated lesson. “It is not just discipline. It is self-discipline. That means going against your impulses. Don’t be a slave to your impulses. Then you are free”. That self-discipline has produced 9 marathon wins out of 10 and a world record.
What next after 2:01:39 in Berlin? Is it time for retirement like Usain Bolt? Those who know Eliud intimately like Patrick Sang and Augustine Choge state without the slightest hesitation that we are yet to see the best of him. During the Nike Sub 2 marathon attempt, he missed the mark by a mere 25 seconds. On his Facebook cover page banner is the time 1:59:59 and it stares at us like the audacity of hope.
A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.
My sister Nyanzi,
I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.
I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.
We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.
When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.
It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.
So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?
Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.
It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.
You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.
For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.
Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.
You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?
Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.
Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.
In care and love,
A Letter To Stella Nyanzi: The Revolution Lives in You
I want, like you, to steadily and surely offend anything that stands in the way of freedom, of liberation, of love, of justice, of truth, of humanity. Let me be rude, let me be all these things, if all they are trying to say is that I am free, unbound.
My sister Nyanzi,
We grew up on folktales and stories that spoke on the value of truth, of clarity, of assertiveness. We read about scheming animals always having to face the consequences of their actions, while those characters that upheld the truth were the examples that we were meant to emulate. Yet, somehow, these stories were supposed to remain suspended in our minds, perhaps as pieces of entertainment. No one wanted a truth teller, especially not a primary school going child. I have gone through most of my life being called rude, difficult, entitled or spoilt, by aunties, by cousins, by teachers, and by neighbors who cautioned their children against associating with me. Most of my life, I thought there was something wrong with how God made me.
Why did my teachers punish me for speaking truth? Why did I go home, my body tender from a caning because I asked the teacher to explain the logic behind making students kneel on gravel? Why did my cousins whisper behind my back, saying that my opinions were rude, that my parents had spoilt me, and that I was too entitled? I questioned a lot, yet I did not see any other way to live. I knew the truth to be good, even when it seemed a heavy weight on my heart. Each one of us owes ourselves the truth. The truth is our duty. It is my duty, a duty that you have taken on and stood by, even when the very ground is threatening to betray you.
I am writing this after returning to Kenya from a visit to Uganda less than 24 hours ago. I thought about you a lot during my stay there. I thought about all the Ugandans who have lived their lives silencing themselves, their truth, their pain, their desires, their ability to want to imagine freedom because of fear, fear not born of themselves, but of tyranny, from the ways in which their society has dealt with ‘rude’ individuals. I saw children going to school, with heavy bags and tender spirits. I thought of all the stories, the theory, the language they are being taught about morality and truth, knowing that they are probably being short-changed. I thought about how they are being taught that truth depends on who holds the power to instill fear.
Are the children being told that truth is silence? Are they being told that truth is folding the pain in their hearts into smiles? Are they being told that truth is accepting state and religious terrorism? Are the children carrying fear in their heavy bags? Are they rushing home to be cautioned against following in the footsteps of Dr. Stella Nyanzi? I thought about your multiple arrests, and how that has been weaponized to further silence, to further disregard, and to further trample on the possibility of individual and collective expression. What do the children think when they see you on television? What do they say about you in their private conversations?
It is no secret that we live in a world that rewards complacency. The systems we live under: economic, social, and political, are so fragile and fickle that they have made us scared of ourselves. Of course, all this is deliberate, to maintain control. We live under the giant lie that we get to choose. We choose which schools our children go to, what we will purchase, how we will spend our time, how we will interact with authority, what and how we teach our children, yet all this exists under tyranny. We have been robbed of our humanity, of our ability to make decisions guided by what aligns with truth, with courage, with kindness. That is why, Stella, the children are being taught politeness, one that will rob them of their ability to speak up in the face of injustice when they are told that they cannot love who they want to love, when they are told that they don’t belong, when they are told that their lives are not precious, when they are lied to over and over, when they are made to wait for their rights, when they are killed, when they are hurt, when their education is used to oppress them, and when their lives become small residues of what freedom might have looked like, when they are reduced to small ‘maybes’ and ‘could have beens.’
That is why many people may be blind to the importance of your protest, which is in effect, a protest to your protest. Is this the tragedy of having a heart constantly pursuing freedom?
When I first read about you, I felt so affirmed that I cried. When I saw you speaking, how you spoke, what you spoke about, I remember feeling small eruptions of heavy joy inside me amidst the pain of seeing how the state responded to you. I prayed for the courage to want, so intently and so intentionally, the kind of truth abiding freedom that oozed from your heart. I prayed that I am brave enough to bare it all in the face of millions of odds stacked against me. I prayed that I may never steer away from a life tied to imagining, wanting and working towards freedom, towards a life unbound by fear. They have used your truth to call you obscene, to call you indecent, to call you lascivious, and to say that you are profane. They say you hold no remorse, but why should you? They call you untamed, rude, vulgar, and reckless; they call you intolerable. In the churches, they are saying that you are sinning against god. In truth, all they are trying to say is that you are free. Unbound. Your spirit can never be contained. They do not have the language for any of this because they speak the language of fear. The voice of truth makes them afraid. Your life is testimony that freedom is possible. Unbounded freedom. Freedom that is safe from tyranny, freedom that tugs on the heart and forces you to run towards the what is right, what is eternal, and what is true.
So let me live a vulgar disrespectful life. Let me be seriously and gloriously profane. Let me be intolerable. Let the people say that no man will marry me. Especially that. Let me be disagreeable. Let me be a sinner. Unapologetically. Let me be ungovernable. Let me be untamed. Let me be unremorseful. Let me be untethered. Let my life insult them. Let me be offensive. Let my freedom live as critical evidence that truth exists, that it always sits sharp and intentional, between my joy and my pain. I am shameless. I am unafraid. I am a manifestation of defiance. Let my life be shaped by defiance and resistance. I want to steadily and surely offend anything that stands in the way of freedom, of liberation, of love, of justice, of truth, of humanity. Let me be rude, let me be all these things, if all they are trying to say is that I am free, unbound. Let my life be grandly disruptive. That’s what I want. Let us all be grandly disruptive, in our small ways, in standing up in our small pockets of possibility. May we be the embodiment of radical rudeness.
Manners always end up on the shelves, next to civility, collecting dust and making the silence louder. This is why the despots love them. This is why we are told to use ‘respectable civil channels,’ when that in itself is an injustice: to be told we will be heard by the very tools which ensure we remain unheard. You live in a country under dictatorship, under tyranny, under evil rule. So do I, so do so many people on this continent. They have arrested our freedoms, kept them locked up. They lie, they steal, and they laugh at us for wanting to live. They deny us belonging, they want to take away everything, our voices, the voices of the children, even before they break.
Stella, they want us to beg them. They want us to lick their feet, grateful for the smelly crumbs. They want us to crawl on our bellies, waiting for permission to sit on our buttocks, then to kneel before them, and then finally, maybe, to stand, when they will it, how they will it, for their benefit. I refuse. Let these tyrants sweat in terror at the mention of your name, let them tremble at the sound of your song, your poetry, your protest, your truth, your prayer, your defiance. Let all the despots shake and fear at the sound of our collective lament. Let peace be least of their experiences. Let them tremble. May they tremble.
I refuse politeness. I dedicate my life to unlearning respectability, because at the end of it all, divine freedom is fearless. It is not neat and pretty and dainty. It is rude, it is vulgar, it is naked, it is wild, it is unashamed, it is raw, it is profane, it is indecent. It is loud. It is demanding and disrespectful. It is you. You are divinely free, and they cannot take that away from you. The entire revolution has already happened inside you, and we get to experience that, from your life, your words, your work, hoping that we can meet you, where you are, in whatever capacity we can. You have taught me that when we are silent, we are more at risk of pain, of suffering, of living lives suspended on insubstantial strings of fear, always waiting on where our next small redemption will come from. You have taught me that the process of truth is rewarding, not in the ways in which the world rewards, but the ways in which the spirit rewards. The process is indeed the shortcut. It is the homage to freedom, to the channels between us and liberation.
So I am writing this to you, and to my 15 year old self, to my 10 year old self, and to the black children who will live after us. I am writing this to myself, before I accepted that I am brazen, before I accepted that nothing is wrong with me, that maybe everyone who called me rude for speaking the truth was just afraid and cowardly, because this world thrives on the fear of people. I am writing this to my sisters, to my mothers, to everyone who has housed silence and shame in their hearts. I am writing this to you, hoping that you can rest in the knowledge that there are so many of us who are holding your spirit, your soul, your heart, your dreams, in our spirits, in our souls, in our hearts, in our dreams, during this time and always. We stand in solidarity with you, with your defiance, and with your dreams of freedom. Your life has affirmed us in so many ways, and knowing that you live an absolutely unapologetic life has sustained the bulk of my ability to imagine freedom. I hope like you, I can show up as my highest, truest self, always. May your words continue to be the fuel that will sustain the fire that will consume all these tyrants, all these despots, all these oppressors, all these dictators.
Thank you for refusing shame, for refusing fear, for embracing love, for embracing the call of truth and freedom. Thank you for always showing up as your full self, thank you for making it possible to for so many of us to imagine other ways of living, of being. Thank you for your poetry, for remaining tender, for remaining you.
In love and solidarity,
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.
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