My relationship with second-hand clothing a while back was very intense. By 2011, I knew the second hand Gikomba clothes market in Nairobi like the back of my hand. You could blindfold me, put me anywhere in the market and I would know exactly where I was. I knew most of the vendors by name, and—despite my severe allergies—still got an amazing rush rummaging through piles and piles of clothes, because I would find the most incredible pieces. As I sorted through mountains of shirts—each costing Ksh50—my parameters for making decisions changed; at that price, it’s not really about cost any more, as it so often is with racks of new, ready-to-wear clothing.
I would pick a shirt for particular reasons—not for its colour, but the buttons, or how the sleeves fit. It is here that I begun to find myself stylistically. These open-air stalls were far more accepting of my curiosity than the air-conditioned boutiques we had in the few shopping malls in Nairobi back then. These stalls have been—and still remain to a large extent—the places where most of Nairobi’s and indeed Kenya’s fashion trends begin. It was here that new trends popped up first. If cigarette pants were in, the second-hand stalls would ride that wave way before any retail outlets in Nairobi did. The people who wore mitumba (used clothes) were actually the most fashion-forward in the city. Mitumba vendors led these trends, because they always had first access to the best piles. I found amazing treasures there, like a black Calvin Klein overcoat, and a fur stole.
With my friend Jim Chuchu, I started a project called Stingo—an old Kenyan slang word for ’style’ or ‘mode’. The general idea with Stingo was to organize regular photo shoots around any ideas we wanted to explore as a group. Jim also called up some other friends: producer Lucille Kahara and makeup artist Kangai Mwiti. I was the designated fashion stylist. Since there was no budget for shopping, every piece we used was mine: ‘stylist’s own’. I had to cheat by casting models who were my size. We put out the images resulting from the shoots on the project website and on Facebook—this was in the pre-Instagram age—and the response was wonderful. There was such excitement around the idea of a group of Kenyans coming together to create such images. We kept shooting every fortnight or so.
However, visiting Gikomba market became tedious—I now noticed the flaws in the second-hand clothes: a small hole from an iron burn, a frayed hem. While I could erase or hide these in the final image, I was no longer satisfied with just being able to put together a look. I was becoming interested in the story behind the garments. This made us wonder: was Stingo a design agency, a modeling agency or an online magazine? Beyond composing, styling and publishing beautiful images, could we do more to feature local design, and help address some of the challenges faced by the designers around us? I stopped sourcing clothes for the Stingo shoots from secondhand markets, and began to dress models in original pieces that had been locally designed and produced.
One of the first local designers we featured was Sheila Amolo. I had met her at a small backstreet fashion show and I thought her clothes were stunning. I remember this one jacket she had made—it had beautiful peplum detail at the waist, long before such waistlines were trendy. I fell in love with it immediately.
We were overwhelmed by the response from our fast-growing audience: some wanted to collaborate with us, many wanted to model for the shoots, and others were excited to discover the very cool, new fashion designers we featured such as Blackbird and Blackfly, interested in buying their clothes. The requests by aspiring models were by far the most. Those we had already shot became incredibly popular online and were soon able to access a kind of instant celebrity status, based purely on these campaigns.
We continued to work with more designers, such as Kepha Maina. My interactions with him and other designers gave me a lot of insight into the fashion value chain in Kenya. I witnessed the development of garments from a concept to a toile, and eventually into a collection. The design process captured me: the time and effort the designers spent obsessing over the exact line of a collar or where to place a seam. It also began to bother me that I was working to create visual narratives and stories about my contemporary Kenyan fashion experience, but was not wearing clothes from local designers. After the shoots, I would fold the pieces neatly and hand them back to the designers. I gradually changed my wardrobe, moving away from affordable thrifted gems to pieces that had been designed and made by Kenyans.
By this point, the Stingo team had become very busy with other projects.
Kangai had started her own beauty channel, Lucille went to culinary school, and I was out of school and working full-time at a boutique hotel in the city, and Jim had partnered with our friend George Gachara on what eventually became the multidisciplinary space we call The Nest.
From the many interactions and conversations we had with designers, we realized that many fashion designers were really struggling with the distribution of their clothes. Since most of them did not have retail spaces and often worked from home, we sought to find a solution that was effective and that would not cost much. Jim, George and I designed an online retail experiment and called it Chico Leco. We stocked a funky, edgy collection; a mix of locally designed accessories with some one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. We preferred accessories because they were easier to obtain— and we didn’t have to figure out sizing. Because of this, they were a lot easier to sell.
We put together a selection of ankara button earrings from Otenge, ankara bow-ties from Anyango Mpinga and some feather earrings from Bizzy Lizzy. We later added a few retro sunglasses I picked up from a really old optometrist’s store in Ngara neighbourhood in Nairobi that stocked amazing vintage frames from the 60’s and 70’s. We also got a few brooches from an obscure antique store that stocked delightfully elaborate costume jewellery. Brooches are usually a thing that only older people wear, which is such a shame because they are so beautiful and such an easy way to accessorise.
We put everything in place, including figuring out mobile payment options and delivery solutions. When the website went live, we were so excited the moment someone actually bought a pair of ankara button earrings! Chico Leco was soon receiving many orders and we were fast learning how fashion retail business worked. Soon, we gained some courage and began selling clothing. We stocked some cigarette pants from Kepha Maina in black and cobalt. We carried cropped pants with ankara roll-up detail from Nick Ondu, and some crop-tops from Katungulu Mwendwa. Jim and George ran the store in between their day jobs, and I—with any minute I could spare from my full-time job—curated the catalogue.
Since the early Stingo days, we had been disappointed by the rather uninspired safeness of the fashion images that had populated the mainstream until then: nothing was really fresh, new or exciting. Our editorials therefore had a rather sexual charge, ranging from coy and flirtatious to unashamedly risqué. We were exploring our adult freedoms and stretching them to shameless limits—‘manufacturing desire’, we called it. We became increasingly aware of how powerful images could be, and the clear space for considered image composition in the marketing of fashion.
Chico Leco was the first of its kind at the time, establishing an online Kenyan retail space in the early days when e-commerce here was such an experiment. However, most of our customers still preferred to see, touch and fit the clothes—just like they would in a physical store—before making a payment. As a result, our sales were mostly the accessories and other one-size items. Realising this, we widened our selection with leather laptop sleeves and clutch bags from Rift Valley Leather and clutches from Adèle Dejak. We also commissioned wool snoods—in black, white and cobalt—from a local women’s group.
We encountered many of the problems faced by young brands: effective pricing, packaging, managing overheads and logistics, ensuring a consistent supply of high quality products, as well as finding enough storage space for all our wares, which we had to move between our homes. We would have liked to expand our product catalogue, but we had limited working capital and would strain our cash flow trying to buy stock upfront. We were also aware that the consignment model was not sustainable for the young brands we were stocking. After about a year of operations, these persistent challenges led us to the decision to take a break from the retail part of our experiment in order to figure out a better way to grow the designers and their product, as well as the fashion value chain.
In 2012, I left my job at the hotel to join The Nest with Jim and George, and we absorbed Chico Leco into The Nest as a program. We learned that fashion presentation was a recurring frustration for the numerous designers we were in conversations with. Many of them were growing disenfranchised with the model of fashion shows, as they are understood in Kenya. Designers are routinely asked to pay a fee to be included in the vast majority of shows, and these fees were often quite high—out of reach for many young designers, and without the certainty of any tangible returns or brand growth. The shows seemed to only benefit the event organisers, who would treat the runway as entertainment alongside dance and other performances.
Photographers covering these events were also not aware of the specific needs of fashion imaging, and would often shoot only the faces of the models, leaving out the clothes. Video coverage of these shows tended to focus on the general event. Therefore there was nothing that the designers could use for their own marketing after the show. We decided to use Chico Leco to address this, and our first project was a film project we called Chico Leco Presents. We called up some of the designers we had interacted with since the Stingo days and commissioned collections from them. In this project we carried collections from Katungulu Mwendwa, Sydney Owino and Zeddie Loky (Blackbird), Ruth Abade (Blackfly), Sheila Amolo, Kepha Maina, Wambui Mukenyi and Nick Ondu. I also challenged myself to create a collection alongside the others. I had dabbled in design since high school and through university, sporadically conceptualising and producing garments for myself, but never executing more than a few pieces at a time.
Referencing my multicultural background, I created a cross-seasonal menswear collection called Sun Seeker. It was an exploration of structures: fitted blazers worked in a variety of plaid suiting, slowly moving towards more relaxed silhouettes emphasised in light, richly coloured cottons. Working with a producer, a makeup artist and several models, the Nest team conceptualised and created short fashion films for each collection. We challenged ourselves to shoot eight videos in one location in a day and actually pulled it off!
We also wrote all the press releases that accompanied the fashion films. This was a necessary exercise in storytelling, designed to shift local fashion journalism from the use of vague adjectives such as ‘nice’, ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, and make stronger reference to the technical and design elements of the collections. We put the videos out on YouTube, and the result was very exciting. We got unprecedented press coverage— with much better language because they quoted and expanded on our press releases—and generated a much larger audience than even the biggest local fashion show could offer. Two of the short films in the project—Dinka Translation and Urban Hunter—screened in festivals such as the Fashion and Film showcase at the Guggenheim, and art shows in other countries. This confirmed to us that there existed far more effective tools for fashion presentation than were being used locally.
In 2015, we decided to have a go at another audiovisual fashion showcase, and this time we challenged ourselves and our designers to develop elements around an original narrative. We developed a short fiction script titled To Catch A Dream, then commissioned the designers Kepha Maina, Katungulu Mwendwa, Namnyak Odupoy, Ami Doshi Shah, Jamil Walji and Azra Walji to create pieces that would befit the fictional characters as described in the script. We also got additional complementary pieces from Ann McCreath and Adèle Dejak. It took about four months for the designers to develop concepts for the film, and produce finished pieces. After that, there were a few more months for pre-production, and four intense days of shooting in four different locations. We were incredibly privileged to have Ajuma Nasenyana play our lead character.
The resulting film allowed us to instigate conversations around the ability of Africans to access fantasy narratives in mainstream media, and ask many other questions beyond both fashion and film—particularly on the use of African languages in film (the film utilized six indigenous languages). To Catch A Dream went on to screen at numerous fashion and film festivals, and even won the Best Original Music award at the Berlin International Fashion Film Festival.
Many things have evolved in the local fashion industry since my early Gikomba days, when designer shop fronts were sparse, and local ones even fewer.
With a rise in cultural pride, Kenyan fashion is gaining visibility within the region, expanding possibilities for successful production and retail of local designs. There is a thriving industry in fashion support—bloggers, influencers and stylists; models who are becoming recognisable brand names; fashion photographers; overlaps between fashion, beauty, lifestyle and wellness; specialised fashion PR, etc. Conversations with government are also much more productive. They have become more open to the sector’s huge economic potential especially regarding job creation, and are figuring out how to chip in through policy reforms, as well as manufacturing and import subsidies.
Far beyond the commercial viability of the sector, I believe that fashion remains one of the most complex languages of human expression. It is capable of multidimensional communication by both the designer and the consumer, superseding seasons and trends. I have curated wardrobes for movies and TV series, as well as various design showcases and museum exhibitions, but in many ways, I remain a student of style, always rediscovering the immense power clothing and dress practice has to alter people’s moods, attitudes, the quality of their interactions and their experiences of their surroundings.
It is amazing to be part of expanding the collective imagination, as well as my own, with regard to how human beings occupy public space. With every new project I lead or am involved in, I am continually fascinated by and careful to harness the power of garments and their combinations to appease, honour, protest, subvert and transgress.
As part of The Nest Collective, we have continued to ask cultural questions through fashion. We have put together these ideas and images from a selection of emerging Kenyan designers who are contributing to the shifting aesthetic of our country. In this interrogation of what exactly qualifies as ‘authentically African’, we challenge narrow definitions of African design and showcase original, unencumbered thinking and practice in this challenging sphere. Not African Enough was our translation of a voyage into Kenyan contemporary fashion as an exploration of wider issues regarding Africa’s place in global cultural debates and dialogues.
Like a Building With a Large Red X: The Stigma of Divorce
Where do you start when you only went to school up to Class 5 and you belong to a culture where women have no right to ownership of land, or livestock, or anything else except clothes and jewelry?
In the Borana and Gabra communities, garob is a slur used to describe divorced women, who are ostracized by the community and blamed for the ‘failure’ of their marriages, regardless of what their husbands did or did not do. This is the reality for many women in Kenya, not just those from these communities. I spoke to two women, Halima and Zamzam, whose friendship is seeing them through this most difficult of circumstances. Here is their story, in their own words.
“It never crossed my mind that I would end up this way. The truth is, no one ever knows exactly what turn their life will take, only Allah knows. Playing in the dusty streets of Sololo, Marsabit County I never imagined myself that one day I would find myself in Wing B on the 8th floor at the Kenyatta National Hospital.
As a Borana girl, I was assumed to be ready for marriage once I had my first period at the age of twelve. Soon after, suitors began to approach my family with offers of marriage, and two years later, one with the ‘right price’ came looking and the deal was sealed. In the fortnight leading up to the wedding, all the older women around me had much to say about the do’s and don’ts of marriage. Overall they made it seem like it was such an honour to be married. What made it even more memorable was that my dearest friend, Zamzam Guyatu, had just got married three months earlier, though further away in Garbatula, Isiolo. I was eager to become a wife too.
My husband was ten years older and I counted myself lucky to be his only wife. On our first night in marriage, he had a lot to tell me but heavily insisted on one particular rule – no interaction with garobs. Garob in Borana and Gabra means a divorced woman. The name itself carries a negative connotation and just like a stench, no one wants to be associated with them. It was their fault that their marriages did not work out. I was instructed that on seeing a garob headed in a certain direction, I should go the opposite way, lest I become influenced into being a ‘bad’ wife. My husband didn’t need to convince me much, I wanted to have nothing to do with them.
In the extensive list of advice that my aunts gave me, perseverance ranked high. My husband liked to drink, and when he was drunk he would hit me, blows and kicks in the name of ‘discipline’ for taking too long to open the door at 3a.m. But I held on to hope that he would change, all I needed to do was to persevere. Vumilia.
By the time I was giving birth to my third child, I had run out of excuses to give the neighbours for the bruises on my body. I wanted out, I wanted the beatings to stop. When I confided in my mother of the painful and harrowing experiences I had been going through, and proposed divorce as a choice, her reaction was one of pure disbelief. She told me marriage is a sacrifice, that I had to keep things together so that we could be provided for, that I needed to keep my honour intact. Most importantly she said that the last thing she ever wanted to see was her daughters ‘lighting two fireplaces’ (i.e. being promiscuous) and that she had raised us to be anything but that. Divorce, in her mind, was synonymous with promiscuity and immorality.
My husband became more and more of an alcoholic, which meant he was spending most of his income on drinking. It meant that he was not providing for our needs at home. I had had enough and decided to report the matter to the community elders. This came as a shocker to many who were left wondering where I had gathered such strength and confidence to report my husband before the elders. Only a handful of women would dream of daring such. To my disbelief reporting him to the elders further worsened the situation. I was rebuked by my husband, alongside family members from both sides, for airing our dirty linen. He even went ahead to marry a second wife as a way of punishing me for my ‘disrespect’.
By this time financial commitment lessened to zero, he stopped coming home and before I knew it I had been totally neglected. We would have starved were it not for the pennies I gathered from moving around the wealthier homesteads of Sololo as a mama nguo. Needless say it was a tough and rough time, and I threw in the towel. It was time for a divorce! It was now me and my kids versus the whole world. I was now one of the garobs I had been taught to detest and avoid. My mother, in her sadness and disappointment, reminded me of her admonition: ‘don’t light two fire places’. There was nothing to say in return, but my spirit was high. I was ready to move on even though my previous identities of in-law, friend, agemate, niece or neighbour were all eclipsed by one name – garob. That was all I was now.
By asking for the divorce I had already convicted myself of being a terrible wife who could not take care of her marriage and lacked contentment. Appeals to my husband for the children’s upkeep brought replies like, “You thought yourself smart by getting the divorce, now why don’t you use the same smartness to take care of them.”
They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade out of it, but what do you make when life gives you nothing? Where do you start when you only went to school up to Class 5 and you belong to a culture where women have no right to ownership of land, or livestock, or anything else except clothes and jewelry? Women themselves are owned and their ownership changes from that of their fathers to husband. You have no source of income, security or status if you are neither under your father’s or husband’s roof.
The easiest way to secure a future for your kids is to get married again. But here again, you come face to face with ruthless stigmatization. For the Borana and Gabra, attempting to marry a garob is no different from buying a building marked X in red by the Kenya National Highways Authority (KENHA). The fact that one is divorced marks them for life, and the women are thought to be forever defiant and disrespectful.
I met Ahmed Kimani and he gave me hope. He had come to Sololo as a trader and opened a shop where I frequently bought household items, and we became good friends. He had converted to Islam seven months before my divorce and this made us even better friends. I admired his hard work and determination in business. Ahmed was looking for a Muslim woman to marry, but with tribalism being the devil that it is, no one wanted to give their daughter to a charer (someone with hard kinky hair, as he did). I felt as if my prayers were being answered when he offered to marry me with my three children. I was twenty-one and did not want to be lonely for the rest of my life, thus with lots of enthusiasm, I agreed to his proposal.
A week after his proposal, Ahmed grew cold feet about the marriage. I would walk into his shop with a smile, only to meet a gloomy face. I gathered that when he told his friends and fellow traders about his marriage plans, they warned him to stay away from ‘trouble’. The talk of my disrespect, defiance and discontentment swirled around in his mind until he turned around his earlier decision. It was heartbreak untold.
Overwhelmed by the stigma, I took the ten-hour journey from Sololo to Nairobi with my three children and just a yellow polythene bag containing our clothes. I hoped to get a job in the city to better the lives of my kids who were now entirely my responsibility. A distant cousin, Rukiya, had agreed to host me in Eastleigh till I could get myself together. Rukiya introduced me into the miraa business and in two months I had moved to Kariokor, living on my own. I used to walk to Pumwani to buy khat at a wholesale price for resale. With rent, food and school fees all on my shoulders, the little income from miraa wasn’t sufficient, and I had to look for another way to make ends meet.
Securing a job in Nairobi is no mean feat. I was desperate to provide for my children, and so I turned to sex work. At first I only did it during the last week of the month so as to raise rent, but then it advanced to a daily job. My single room house served not only a home but also business premises. The income from both businesses brought stability, but it came at a cost. Though the younger kids Galgalo and Boru didn’t really know what was going on, Rufo was old enough to notice the different ‘dads’ I brought home daily. I still wonder what she thought about it. It is a conversation I dread having with her.
Three years into the business and raising my kids comfortably, I have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and the symptoms are getting worse. I have been in and out of Kenyatta National Hospital. It is getting the best of me and I feel it’s all crumbling down. I am most worried for my kids but I know my friend Zamzam has my back. She and I have been through so much together, ever since those days when I admired that she had gotten married. To some, I made a terrible choice and yes, maybe I did, but only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. I had to do whatever I could otherwise my children would be sleeping hungry or we would have got kicked out of the house. They have been fed, housed and educated from the work that I do. I pride myself in the strength and courage that I had to say no to an abusive and depressing marriage, though it came along with an unfair price. But no matter – I am paying the price with my head up high.”
“In the three times a week I come to check on Halima, I can’t help but keep reminiscing on what we have both been through. If it wasn’t for Halima I honestly don’t know where I would be. I have been living in her house for the past nine months, taking care of her kids alongside my two daughters. This is Halima’s sixth month in hospital; I come to the ward to clean her up, bring some food and most importantly add more firewood to the flame of hope in her heart for mostly we garobs only have each other and no one else.
I was married off three months before Halima and left for Garbatula in Isiolo. Miraa ruined my marriage. Nothing was closer to my husband’s heart than alele (red-brown khat). Perhaps things went south when he came across taptap (a tablet-like drug that stimulates consumption of khat). This took a hit on his financial commitment to our two daughters. The more khat he consumed, the less money we had for our daily needs. He also became less active in bed and I wondered if he really loved me.
Numerous attempts to save my marriage through dialogue and involvement of third parties proved futile. I had lost my dad when I was six, and my mum through the help of my paternal uncles, saw me through to marriage. I was about to walk out of my marriage when my mum passed on. Overwhelmed by the sorrow, I shelved the idea of divorce, but only for a while. With time I realized that it would only take a miracle for my husband to change course, and I wasn’t a miracle-worker.
After my divorce, just like Halima, the stigma was toxic and raising my two daughters on my own became an uphill task. My in-laws took our separation as a joke and ridiculed me that how could I, an orphan, be able to raise two kids on my own? To them, it was just a matter of time before I would go back with my tail between my legs begging them to take me back.
I was out to prove them wrong. News of Halima living in Nairobi came in handy and with my childhood friend I found comfort, away from the harsh and unfair world. I joined her in the miraa business despite hating it for contributing to the fall of my marriage. Life can take a toll on you especially if you are poor, uneducated and alienated as we were. But I choose to be patient and trust in Allah that things will be better.
I am preparing to go to Qatar for work as a domestic help; I’m just waiting for my passport to be out. At least in Qatar I can make a better income. I can be able to secure a future for my kids and Halima’s. Her children are my responsibility now that she is not able to work. I know it might be hard being out there, but I am lucky to have this chance that many other garobs don’t. It is a blessing. Probably a way out.”
Garobs are victims of a patriarchal system that condemns women into putting up with unhealthy marriages with the fear of never getting married again and their children suffering out of neglect by fathers. In Kenya there exist affirmative action funds for widows and persons living with disabilities, but what of neglected and abandoned groups like garobs? It is high time that they too are empowered.
Ultimately we must understand, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, that cultures are man-made. Cultures don’t make people. People make cultures. And we can change.
Walking on Eggshells Into an Empty, Judgmental Faith
In the Bible study I attend in one of the mega-churches in Nairobi, not once have I had instances where the Bible verses we discuss reflect on the issues we face in life. It is instead a quick pasting on of solutions, which fall apart in the face of daily living.
I got ‘born again’ some time in 2009, a few months to August when I was supposed to join college for my undergraduate studies.
The message that I had been born again came as good news to my father, with whom I had been having a difficult relationship with while I was in high school. In fact, he had initially objected to my joining a university as a self-sponsored student, since I had failed to attain the points that would see me join a government-sponsored student.
His argument was that my record in high school as a rebellious student and my ‘lack of focus’ was all because I had dropped out of the Christian Union while in school, that this to blame for my poor results. And so, I had to pay for my sins.
So, when I got saved, the news came as a relief to him. He would occasionally use me as an example to my sisters. Being born again also came as a relief to me at the time, because it helped me mend some of my broken relationships.
I continued with this newly acquired status to college, where I practiced my Christian faith with much pride and gusto. Soon, I was thrust into the top most leadership position in the Christian Union while still in first year, a feat not achieved to many people.
But my reason for writing this article is to demystify some of the biblical teachings I was exposed to as a child, throughout my youth, and even now as I work on becoming a better man. These teachings in my view only worked towards instilling in me a guilty conscience and a judgmental attitude that could only see others for the sins they committed, and how unworthy they were for the gospel and the saving grace of Christ.
Consequently, these Christian teachings, also failed to mold me into the man I was to become, but instead forced me to become something that was only appealing to my parents, our Christian family friends and my Christian friends. Deep down, I had struggles with identity issues and esteem. And in the process of trying to live on the straight and narrow, I also lived a double life, full of guilt and hypocrisy.
I was raised in a Christian home, where both my parents were born-again way before we were born. My exposure to this religious way of life therefore started as far back as I can remember.
In Sunday school, we would be taught memory verses, most of which we recited in front of the congregation during services, to much applause. During open-air services hosted by our church in the town centre, we would occasionally be asked to recite these verses to the audience. And therefore, to my parents and peers, we were model children, brought up the right way and in the fear of the Lord.
But what I do not recall are instances where we were taught how we could navigate some of life’s toughest phases. My problems began at adolescence. Science says that it is at this stage where one starts to experience changes in their body, mind and emotions, as they transition through puberty and later into adulthood.
All I was taught as an adolescent was that interacting with girls and having them as friends would lead me to sin. What I was not taught was how to love myself, practice self-control and create boundaries. How I wish I was also taught how understand my body and the changes I would experience. Instead we were merely bible-slapped on the consequences of befriending girls.
The problem I have with the Christianity that most practice today, and even the one I was exposed to as a child, is that it lacks wholesomeness. The teachings are either meant to guilt-trip us into behaving in a certain way or judge others for not practicing the same faith and living by the virtues we ascribe to.
Growing up, my father – in an attempt to instill in me what he then believed, and still believes are Christian values – considered sexual sin, drinking alcohol, as well as smoking cigarettes and bhang as some of the biggest sins one can commit against God. And to drive his point home, he would use his brothers who were heavy smokers and drinkers, as the bad examples that I should not emulate. His examples would also include some of our neighbors.
The issue with this approach, as I would later learn in life, is the fact that instead of my parents guiding me through life based on the teachings of the Bible, only pointed to me how sinful others were. And that to become a better Christian, I should never emulate them. My moral compass therefore, was that I should focus on what they were doing wrong and try not copy them. The idea was to create in us the perfect Christian, devoid of sin and flaws, who would grow up to become model adults.
While it is worth noting that these warnings kept me away from ‘bad company’, my struggles were on whether these practices borrowed from of anything in the Bible. We focused so much on what the Bible says so little about, if we are to be honest. It also sparked in me questions of what grace and forgiveness was all about. I wondered if it was in our place to determine the fate and destiny of others based on their present circumstances.
The Bible in fact, teaches us that all have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God. All I was told and taught was how sinful others were, and not how I should live based on the teachings of Christ.
My father, in this endeavor, had become the moral judge of who was committing more sin that the other. While it was not explicitly clear to me then, now I am beginning to question whether he had the moral authority to judge others, given the many flaws that I experienced first-hand and saw in him.
My childhood, as I had indicated in a previous article published here, was marred by violence where my father at any slightest provocation, would beat all of us including my mother. Therefore would it not have been right for him to make peace with my mother first, before pointing out the sins of others, just as Jesus teaches us not to point the speck of sawdust in our brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in our own eyes?
And beyond the teachings in my household, this trend also extended to the churches we attended. Back then, while growing up, the Christian gatherings we were part of were closely knit ones, where everyone was regarded as family. But if my memory serves me right, my parents moved us many times from one church to the other, simply because of differences in ideology and even principles with the leadership of one church.
Often times, these differences would split the church almost in the middle and would be fights over money or the exclusion of a part of the congregation because they were not of the same social class as the rest. What then, does that teach a child like me growing up, about the fact that before God all are equal before irrespective of their status in the society? It was certainly not practiced in the churches that we were a part of.
What of the teachings of the Bible that implore on husbands to love their wives just as Christ loved the church? Yet for me, all I witnessed growing up was a father beating up my mother even for the simplest of mistakes like putting too much salt in food or coming home late.
It is worth noting that I still believe in God, and religiously so. I say my prayers and go to church. But the problem I have with the Christianity of today is the hypocrisy I saw growing up, and that it has become so irrelevant and out of touch with the realities of modern times.
I recently had a conversation with a friend with whom I fellowship with in the same church about why men in church do not date or marry women in church and vice versa.
Her reasoning, and mine too, was that part of the reason why people in church opt to date and marry outside is that our Christianity lacks authenticity. The church has become a place where one cannot be vulnerable about their struggles in life. We have become judgmental, to the extent that one would find it hard admitting that they struggle with say jealousy, depression or even addiction.
Most Christians, especially the born-again lot, have also increasingly become detached from the realities of life. Some of them, based on the teaching that ‘two cannot walk together unless they agree’, would rather not associate with non-believers, lest they become contaminated by the sins of the world.
Our teachings in church, in my view, have failed to speak to the problems that we as millennials face, like struggles with esteem, identity, building good and lasting friendships and relationships, dealing with the pressures of life which have been magnified by the advent of social media, just to mention a few.
In the Bible study I attend in one of the mega-churches in Nairobi, not once have I had instances where the Bible verses we discuss reflect on the issues we face in life. It is instead a quick pasting on of solutions, which fall apart in the face of daily living. It makes me wonder what the very essence of the church is if it cannot be the place where one finds solace and refuge, where the broken-hearted go to find healing. And especially to my agemates, millennials, who have been judged and ridiculed for the life choices we have made, from careers, to social and even political inclinations. What has the church got to say to us, about the life we find ourselves in?
But what I did not realize then was the fact that my salvation was one that I practiced with guilt, and the fear of not wanting to fall into temptations and sin. The result of this is I always felt like I was walking on eggshells. And part of this fear is what had been instilled in me by my father, and my failure to live the Bible on my own, make mistakes, ask for forgiveness from God, and soldier on.
I never experienced a childhood of forgiveness, or seen forgiveness practiced, even in the Christian Union that I served in. Committing a sin would expose one to a life of ridicule and judgment, especially from the conservative Christians with whom we fellowshipped together and to whom sin was not to be tolerated, no matter what.
In my capacity as an executive committee member – the senior most leadership position in the Christian Union – I was in charge of a small group of young, vibrant, urban and born-again men and women. But more often than not, we would clash with more conservative members of the fellowship.
These frictions would be about the slang language that this group used, their type of music, which mostly included reggae and rap music, their dress code, which included women wearing trousers to church, among others. But surprisingly though, while some of these conservative Christians maintained their reputations until they graduated, some would later be accused of cheating, having multiple relationships, while others were involved in pre-marital sex that they abhorred and preached against.
So while I am in no way trying to cast the first stone, instead I want to understand the intolerance and hypocrisy. Why is it that some who were adamant about the preaching and practicing ‘the born-again life’ still happened to fall short of the glory of God?
I still maintain that I am a child of God, a Christian and a faithful one at that, but who still drinks alcohol and parties once in a while. The problem I have with these ‘born-again’ demands is that they are mostly for self-gain and self-righteousness. In my view, many preachers, Christians and churches today would rank very low on living lives that are Christ-like, which the Bible they carry around and profess teaches.
My belief is that Christianity, just as Jesus taught while on earth, should be one that speaks into the issues and problems that people face, lest all we do is Bible-slapping people and guilt-tripping them into living lives devoid of fulfillment, purpose and love.
When Shame Kills: Cervical Cancer and Fear of the Vulva
Even for those who are educated, it is still uncomfortable as we are taught to regard parts of our bodies as ‘bad manners’. We grow up embarrassed, fearful and ashamed of ourselves and at no point is there a shift to include these parts of our bodies in conversations, even as we mature.
Through the blinds, a dull gleam illuminates the room. The tension in my shoulders begins to dissipate as I sit down to go through a pre-counseling session before my pap smear. I made the decision of having the test done early this year, though it’s taken months to actualize it. I have made two appointments and cancelled them both. The first time was because I hadn’t timed the appointment correctly – you are supposed to have a pap smear about two weeks after the start of your last period and I wasn’t in that time frame. The second time I just couldn’t go through with it; having gone through sexual assault in the past, the test was intimidating and I was afraid to stir up old ghosts.
For months I was trapped by indecision. From what I had read about the pap smear tests, there is nothing graceful about it, but I knew it was important to have it done. Finally I showed up for my third appointment.
I was oblivious of my vulva until the age of 20; I mean, I knew it was there but I really didn’t think about it, or my reproductive system in general, except through feelings of shame. In school we are taught about our reproductive system but usually teachers just want to get through the material and don’t want to answer questions, and so becomes relegated to a kind of blurry knowledge – sort of familiar yet without certainty.
That year I was 20, a friend shared a TED talk video and something the speaker said stuck with me, (I’m paraphrasing) women always feel they owe someone their beauty, their sexuality and body, but they never own it; we are the stewards of our bodies, not its beneficiaries – a truth I could identify with. I wanted to reclaim that for myself and I had to start somewhere. But I had many layers to shed – the fear, and shame, most of it irrational, that my body, my vulva especially, was somehow gross and shameful. This is a reality for many, if not most women. These fears were heightened by the fact that I had been sexually assaulted some time in the past.
When I was setting up the appointment for the third time, I made sure I was very specific that my preference was a female medical officer, though I did not divulge why and they assured me that it’s okay. I got to the hospital just a few minutes past noon, though I was up way earlier. I had spent most of that morning juggling between thoughts like does my vulva look right and am I really ready to have a stranger look at it. The sun was blazing that morning as I walked to the hospital, which made the walk seem even longer; a part of me wanted to back out, but somehow I made it there – anxiety, nerves and all.
In the waiting room, a medical officer asked me what brought me in, and when I told her I wanted a pap smear she seemed startled, but quickly cloaked it with a smile. She explained that women my age rarely voluntarily come for screening unless when mandated by a doctor. There was no queue ahead of me so I walked into the doctor’s office. After the usual introductions she also asks me if I have been referred by a doctor. I tell her I haven’t, but she doesn’t make a big deal about it. She goes on to brief me on the things I need to know – a pap smear is not a test for cancer but a test that can detect abnormal cells that could result into cervical cancer. So if abnormal cells are detected, then they could be treated to prevent cancer from developing.
I am led to a space behind a curtain and asked to lie down. The doctor puts a pillow behind my back and tells me to place my feet on peddle-like structures so that my legs are raised and apart. I’m telling you, there is no more vulnerable position for a woman than on her back with her legs open, and this reality sinks deep even as I try to find something to focus on to distract myself. I have this powerful desire to run away, or to disappear.
She says it will be just uncomfortable – the famous phrase doctors use to understate pain. She gets the speculum, the device they insert into the vagina in order to view the cervix and keep it open. She tells me a cotton wool-tipped brush will then used to collect cells from the inside the opening of the cervix. The cervix connects the vagina and the uterus; its function is to produce cervical mucus that changes in consistency during the menstrual cycle to prevent or promote pregnancy. It also acts as a physical barrier between the vaginal canal and the uterus.
Are you ready? she asks. Of course I wasn’t, but what can one say at that moment? I had come this far. I know doctors and nurses have seen it all, yet this does little to abate my nerves. I focus on my breathing to relax the muscles; she says this will ease the discomfort. I mention the assault just as she is about to insert the speculum. She empathizes, promises to be gentle and tells me to forgive and forget. I start thinking about that, forgiving and forgetting, and while engrossed in my thoughts I barely notice when she starts inserting the speculum. She’s patient and gentle though it all. I keep apologizing what the waves of anxiety hit me; she listened to me and made me feel very safe. When it is all over she tells me that there can be three results – “normal” which means negative for abnormal cells, “inadequate” meaning the cells could not be viewed and so another sample is required within a period of three months, and “positive” to indicate presence of abnormal cells which could be mild, moderate or severe.
The test results were negative, and that was not the only thing I was thankful for. I was grateful for having such a patient and understanding doctor, she made me feel comfortable to ask questions and it never felt like a fuss to her.
According to GLOBOCAN 2018, Kenya has a population of 13.45 million women aged 15 years and older who are at a risk of developing cervical cancer. The current estimates indicate that every year 5,250 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 3,286 die from the disease. Cervical cancer is rated as the second most frequent cancer among women in Kenya, and leading cancer among women between ages of 15 and 44 years. About 9.1% of women in the general population are approximated to harbor HPV-16/18 infections. The human papillomavirus accounts for 99.7% of all cervical cancer and HPV is sexually transmitted. But it is treatable and can be vaccinated against thus greatly reducing incidence of cervical cancer. The current estimates are that only 12% of the population at risk have gone through screening and contributes greatly to the high mortality rate. Screening allows for treatment in the asymptomatic precancerous stage; early treatment is highly effective. At the advanced stage – when most diagnoses in Kenya are done – treatment is difficult and expensive, the chances of cure are low.
In my native language, there is no word for cervix; even the words that do exist for the female reproductive system have been sexualized making it clear that the female body is seen from a male gaze. Women too have internalized this objectification; the language used in reference to the vagina or vulva is made to seem vulgar making it a very uneasy conversation to have with someone who is not literate. Even for those who are educated, it is still uncomfortable as we are taught to regard parts of our bodies as ‘bad manners’. We grow up embarrassed, fearful and ashamed of ourselves and at no point is there a shift to include these parts of our bodies in conversations, even as we mature.
Language is extremely important especially when you need people to focus on a particular issue. The flippant way the female reproductive system is regarded is a huge problem. There is also the culture of how slow or apprehensive we are about prevention mechanisms, which include medical checkups. We have been socialized to only go to health facilities when you are feeling unwell and so if you consider yourself healthy, most of us think it is unnecessary to go for a screening. But the reality is that a checkup could save your life, as most of the life-threatening diseases when detected in asymptomatic stages can be treated and cured.
For women especially, our bodies remain mysterious, with some parts regarded as gross, leaving us anxious about how we look in them rather than how we feel in them. You will think with a generation that grew up with the wave of body positivity and empowerment, the percentage of women between the ages of 25-35 years going for screening will be the highest; sadly the opposite is true.
Any woman who has ever had sexual intercourse is eligible for an annual pap smear; the target population for screening is women aged 25 to 49 years. Older women aged 50 – 65 years are still at risk of cervical cancer and can therefore receive screening every five years, according to Kenya National Cancer Screening Guidelines 2018. The success of a screening program depends on its achieving adequate coverage, in this case of 70% of women nationally. But a majority of women I talked to had no clue where these services are being offered or what the costs are. As I was preparing for my pap smear I discovered that the tests are available in all public health facilities at no cost, though I was very fearful of getting the test done in a public hospital due to the disrepute of services rendered.
The truth is you do not wake up one day and suddenly have a new appreciation for your body. It is a process and some of your perceived flaws would probably never go away; it is only when you embrace them that they stop lurking in the shadows and consuming you. You might think you are alone in battling insecurities, but we all go through it. The wall that goes up in the fight against screening for cervical cancer will come down when we overcome perceptions and attitudes about our bodies.
The test is definitely one of the least preferable things I have done, it was anxiety inducing and uncomfortable. But I would do it again because I know those few minutes could save my life. There are so many ways to make the test easier, you could go with a friend to hold your hand, ask for a smaller speculum to be used, or a plastic instead of a metal speculum. You could speak up when is too uncomfortable or painful, have a session before you have the test and have your concerns addressed, bearing in mind no concern is too silly or small. Ultimately we have to re-examine our relationship with our bodies, so that women can stop dying of ignorance and fear.
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