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Decolonising My Soul: My Journey to Reclaim African Spirituality

After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship.

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At 11 pm on Thursday, 20th October 2011, I turn the last page of Coconut by Kopano Matlwa, and I know that I’m not going back to church again. I don’t know what that means at that moment, having been a staunch Catholic, but I know that I’m not going back.

That night was the beginning of my now seven-year quest to discover, recover and live African spirituality. The quest has involved many locations and people – many of them not in Africa – and has helped me to re-evaluate and reconstruct a world that had come crashing down that night. It was not a direct or easy journey. People had many questions, especially those who had known me as the person who would constantly invite others to Mass, or who would confess the mortal sin of having skipped Mass. I didn’t have the answers, and I was making this journey far from home and without much (worldly) guidance. The crash that happened that night hadn’t left a map of where to go, much less where to begin, so I had to make the way as I went.

After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship. And as a researcher of the environment, I see the connection of these silences and the colonial enterprise, which forced a forgetting of an all-alive Earth, the ancestors and other un-embodied beings like nature spirits, and rendered the Earth as a space for domination. We’re all living with the ecological fall-out from this kind of worldview. I started asking myself: can we recover these ways of being, knowing and doing, and re-engage with the living Earth from a place beyond coloniality?

But back to the night of the crash. In the book I had just read, Fikile, a waitress living in a township, aspires to make it big and be white. She visits her grandmother, Gogo, and participates in her prayers that go on for several hours, a dramatic performance accompanied by wailing and sobs. Gogo moans the lot of black South Africans, the violence, the unemployment, the pain, the assault…The prayer was moving to read until I got to the end where Gogo inexplicably made peace with the God she was praying to, convinced that this God would resolve the issues and make a way. That jarred. This same God that she was praying to was brought by the same people whose coming caused the troubles she was praying about. And that was the end for me.

Walking into the uncertainty was not easy. For weeks and months after, I would scour the Internet trying to find apologies from the church for their hand in colonialism. There were none. Not even in that most progressive Vatican II Council where they finally decided that Africans singing in church and praying in their languages was okay. So I kept walking.

The questions propelling me were in the silences. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and even Buddhism, had some form and reality for me, I wondered what African religion was; I had never been told about it or come across it. I had grown up in Nairobi, or more rightly, in Ongata Rongai (yes there are people who’ve lived here all their lives), and without grandparents – they had died before I was born or soon after. I did not have much contact with any “rural home”. On both sides, family members had long been swirled into urban Nairobi pursuits. My brothers and I were third generation “uprooted” in a way. But I was sure that my people had had religious or spiritual practices of some sort. The question was how to find those out while I was studying in the United States. So I started with the one thing I knew I had: my grandmother. My grandmother died a year and seven days before I was born, and I feel she went to call me, the last of the granddaughters named after her. I began my quest by calling to her.

Soul Searching
I am…
Soul searching, seeking to find
Pieces of clay, mud and morning’s breath,
Evening light, sounds and fire stones,
The human warmth that makes me, me.
The touch of my cũcũ – and the others that I didn’t know-
Her stories by firelight, the food we might have made together.
I wish she had taught me to weave,
To warp and weft and tie the knots of this life’s kiondo.
My gogo’s spittle in blessing…
I call on it on this journey I’m taking,
To sound the depths of my heart
And avoid treacherous waters.

One of the ways I was calling her was through poetry. I had written poetry in high school but stopped when I got to university, so I began writing again. This time I was writing a different kind of poetry, one that was calling out to my ancestors, seeking a path, seeking clarity on where to go. I also began to do libations as a way of praying, without necessarily knowing the formula (there isn’t really; ritual is more about spirit than form, though form can carry spirit). I would call on my grandmother, and as I poured libations I repeated the one line of Kikuyu prayer I knew: “Thai thathaiya Ngai, thai”, a call for peace, in between my imploring: help me on this journey, I’m trying to figure my way back, I’m trying to learn these things, open the way for me, show me, teach me.

On the path of sounding out the silences, I started reading more writing by African authors. Up to that point I had been an ardent consumer of the so-called classics – William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the like. I had not encountered much African literature besides the mandatory high school set-books and I was thirsty for anyone who could tell me anything about African traditions. So I began a self-guided course on reading African authors, going to the library to look for fiction by Africans, asking for recommendations from friends and devouring all that I could find in between my classes: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chimamanda Adichie, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Okot p’Bitek, anthologies of short stories… As I kept reading, ways of thinking and worldviews (on women’s clothing, on prisons as justice, on men’s beauty) that I had never questioned began to fall away. Histories of Kenya’s colonial period, and of colonialism in the Americas, also helped me understand the world as it exists now was created and was not a matter of fact, unchangeable. Reading was a way of beginning to see with new eyes.

I also learnt how to cook, researching on indigenous African crops and trying out new things with traditional ingredients – a way of reimagining the old. Cooking was significant for me because I had always resisted learning at home; I was sure that I would then be expected to cook for my elder brothers. But away from my mother’s kitchen, I made my own world by experimenting, baking with nduma and millet, learning to make pilau, mahamri and mukimo and so on. That was also the semester I enrolled in voice lessons and began to sing in an a cappella group. In high school I had been labelled tone-deaf and asked to stand in the back and mouth the words during the inter-house singing competitions. In subtle internal ways, singing rearranged me, opened me up, and helped me to regain a sense of self and voice in the new becoming.

The following year, I travelled on a programme studying cities in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam, and I took the opportunity to learn from other traditions. I figured ancestrality and indigenous spirituality are not only African, and I could learn from different systems of connecting to and venerating one’s ancestors. In every place, I would ask people to tell me and show me how spirituality was done. In Brazil, my host-mum took us to an Umbanda temple, Umbanda is one of the major Afro-Brazilian religions syncretised from practices and beliefs of enslaved Africans taken to Brazil. I wasn’t there as a tourist spectator; I was there to learn and practise alongside others. At the temple, one of the practitioners broke out of the circle of the initiated worshippers and approached me to pray with me, something that my host-mum later said never happens. I took this as a confirmation that I was on the right path even though I didn’t have absolute clarity.

In South Africa I met an academic professor at the University of Cape Town who researched African traditional religions. Something he said helped me understand one of my difficulties with accessing indigenous spirituality in East Africa. He said that traditional religions in West Africa tend to be more public. There are shrines and priests and priestesses devoted to different gods and goddesses and you can go to them and learn. In East and Southern Africa, religions are more private and family-oriented. Even though sacred sites may exist, large community rituals are less common. So if you want to learn outside of family, there’s no place you can say, “Let me go there”.

Vietnam was fascinating because ancestral veneration is absolutely integrated in the culture. Houses have an ancestral shrine where family members place food and other items, food that we later consumed. Walking down the streets you are bound to see, and perhaps be shocked by, people burning money. Upon asking we found out that they were burning dollar bills (fake ones) to send to their ancestors in other realms. Seeing the seamlessness of these practices in daily life was useful and inspiring. In later years I have wondered what difference this holding on to indigenous philosophies and practices in East and South Asia makes compared to Africa’s seeming rush to black out her own.

When I went back to campus for my last semester, a bit less uncertain, I joined a dance group whose main repertoire was dances from Haiti connected to vodu, another syncretised African religion created from the mix of traditions carried by enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. I began to learn the history of the Haitian revolution, and to dance for the gods and goddesses (Lwas) of a tradition that sparked and sustained the revolution that birthed what was the first black republic in 1804.

Later that year, I continued exploring spirituality through dance when I travelled back to Brazil and began dancing the Orixás of Candomblé, yet another syncretised African religion. My host-brother, Dimas, was an activist and practitioner of Candomblé. Observing his practice in song, drum, dance and prayer, having conversations despite my struggling Portuguese, was special. The Orixás, or Oriṣas, are a deity pantheon in Yoruba Ifa tradition that embody particular traits and are often connected to certain nature elements. To this day I feel a great affinity to and respect for these African-based religions as they exist in and have been preserved and added to over time in South America and the Caribbean, and I continue to dance and teach these dances.

Travelling to Mexico afterward, I joined weekly Aztec/Mexica dances at the invitation of my friend Lupita (not Nyong’o; the name is common in Mexico, here short for Guadalupe) that happened in a public square under moonlight. In this dance that would last two hours or more, we saluted all six sides (North, East, West, South, up and down), danced the stories of different animal gods, and ended by claiming the continued glory and fame of Mexico-Tenochtitlan whose roots had not and would not be decimated.

The scroll reads: “Destruyeron mis hojas, cortaron mis ramas, cortaron mi tronco…pero mis raices jamás podrán arrancarlas. Netzahualcoyotl” – They destroyed my leaves, cut my branches, cut my trunk (some versions say burnt my trunk), but never will they be able to uproot my roots.

This declaration at the end of each dance never failed to bring tears to my eyes, as it explicitly recognised the violence of colonialism, and declared the continued resilience of a people’s spiritualities and ways of being. The sense of community and welcoming amongst these dancers was also beautiful. After each dance we would gather and share food, gratitude and updates from the week. In participating in all of these dances I recognised that these were not my traditions, but were traditions that had similar tenets and elements as the tradition I was trying to get closer to. Dancing became a vehicle to reach my people. Vodu, Candomblé and danza Mexica-Chichimeca connected me to my body and my spirit, and then through that reconnection, to my ancestors, because my ancestors are in me and I am in them.

I went back to South Africa and this time had the opportunity to meet with a sangoma for a bone reading. He was recommended to me by a colleague who had struggled for years with debilitating depression that no doctor or medicine seemed to be helping with. She went to the sangoma as a last resort, figuring, “well nothing else has worked”. I had just one question for my ancestors: am I on the right path? My ancestors said yes. They said keep going, keep asking and finding out.

Considering I was due to move back to Kenya, I had one question for the sangoma: who in Kenya can I speak to about this, where can I go to continue to deepen this journey? He gave me a four-part prescription to formally introduce myself to my ancestors and pilgrimage to their lands. He also gave me the name of a woman also on her indigenous spirituality path and who works with communities to revive their ecocultural practices for freedom and well-being. When I met Wanjiku she introduced me to a tens-of-thousands-year-old African cultural and spiritual tradition in the form of African rock art, a heritage that had been unknown to me up to that point. Meeting Wanjiku was also a relief because I now had living proof that it was possible to live one’s African spirituality in East Africa.

San* rock painting in the Dâures Mountains, in what is today Namibia. Image source: Trust for African Rock Art/David Coulson

At home, I was met with the same barrage of questions that my friends had thrown at me when I first left the church. I came back without a job or money (a no-no if you’re coming from abroad), having left the church, and having dropped the three English names my parents had given me at birth. None of this went down easy for them, and the pushback I experienced was so intense that at one point I wasn’t speaking with one of my parents. My parents have never really come round to this new self that I am. They think I am lost, and they still try and get me to go back to church. But I am known for my stubbornness.

It’s been seven years and I’m at the point now where I introduce myself as a practitioner of African indigenous spirituality, no longer afraid to show up in my fullness. Africa, ancestrality and the Earth are a core part of who I am. When the crash happened, I thought I would have to go through the rubble picking piece by piece, and evaluating what is useful to keep and what is not. Along the way I have done a lot of reconstruction and reimagination, picking up and discarding. Much has been embodied, and has happened in doing: libations, writing, singing, dressing, dancing and cooking. My journey has also had lots of gifts along the way – of knowledge, instruments, conversations, practices, movements, songs, rituals, food, and connections. All of these elements were researched, reconnected to, reimagined, reconstructed, and welcomed into, and form a part of my practice today.

I’ve also learned to engage with nature spirits and recover the ontology and practice of a living Earth that is integral to African cultures. Like sitting in a garden. Like speaking to whoever is around me – animal spirits, plant spirits, water, rocks, all allies in the journey to reconnect to self, to ancestors and to Earth. Paying attention to animal messengers. Giving thanks to and paying full attention to my food, to water, to air. I have learnt to salute new lands that I travel to and acknowledge the land as sovereign and alive. I have learnt to listen and sing songs and dance dances that are gifted through such interactions. And the journey continues.

For my Master’s dissertation in African Studies last year, I researched what African ways of being, knowing and doing have to offer for healing and thriving past colonial wounds and today’s continued coloniality. I wanted to think about ideas and practices that are beyond a governance centred on the colonial state, beyond justice practices that are restricted to a Western model retributive justice, and beyond a view of the Earth that only sees her as dead resources to be exploited.

Still, in reading and engaging with post-colonial academic African works, I kept having the feeling that we have not yet gone far enough. We have not yet taken the jump to imagine complete freedom, and the absence or transformation (not reform) of some of our shackles. We have been hard at work decolonising our minds for several decades, but I see less work to decolonise our bodies and even less to decolonise our spirits and restore a relational philosophy and practice in relation to our ecologies, societies and unembodied relations.

It takes some courage to step forward and declare certain things when all around you there is reluctance to hear that or see that, but that is the medicine required for these deeply troubled times and spaces we’re in. My ancestors tell me that this is medicine necessary for Africa today, and that the Earth and all who make home with her require it.

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Wangũi wa Kamonji is an independent researcher, dancer, writer and facilitator of regenerative presents and futures rooted in African lifeways. She is hearth keeper for the collective Afrika hai that researches, reconnects to and reimagines indigenous Afrikan knowledge and practices for regeneration. She is based in Ongata Rongai and blogs at wangui.org.

Reflections

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?

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Like a Building With a Large Red X: The Stigma of Divorce
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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.

Halima Qabale

“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.”

Zamzam Guyatu

“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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Reflections

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.

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Walking on Eggshells Into an Empty, Judgmental Faith
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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.

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Reflections

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.

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When Shame Kills: Cervical Cancer and Fear of the Vulva
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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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