Toni Morrison said, ” Beginnings must do more than simply just start.” Thinking over the last two months and the changes in Kenya, I see so much more in her words. Sitting, phoning, lying awake late into the night, I thought of the real victims in the post-elections violence, women. Since we have determined that Kenya will never be the same, this year 2008 is a new beginning for us. We must decide how to approach Kenyans once again, and relearn how to talk around tribe and ethnicity, and of course politics.
I must go beyond my anger with the politicians, who have much more in common with each other and with mutual political survival, and focus on how to do something tangible to empower( note that I cannot really help the situation if I aim just to hand out things and words of kindness) If we have to start donating, then this beginning is not yet mature, because our co-operation for the humanitarian crisis in Kenya cannot end there. This beginning is a call to re-build. As an African, as a Kenyan and as a woman, my activism has barely begun.
My angst one night in January knew no bounds and reached a crisis when I heard from female family members, and while I was so relieved that are all well, caught myself about to sigh for relief, until I thought of the other women who went to women’s group meetings with my mother, my grandmothers and my aunts. Ruefully, I reflected on my own efforts and saw the stark reality that I was doing nothing but sitting at a computer reading the news.
It seemed obvious to an outsider, but I did not realize how powerful an African woman’s voice is in the call to action. The pictures and the presence of those women and their children who had been displaced kept me up at night and kept my eyes wet with tears. It dawned on me that there was nothing that I had done that qualified me for my safety, my travel and my education. Any of them could have been me, and it could have been my cracked heels that dodged arrows, machetes and my wails could have pierced the night sky at the loss of a child, a sibling, a spouse or a neighbor.
Come February first, I had not taken any real steps to do anything about the story, the one of the silent rape of women, blamed on their tribe, being in the path of a gang, and those attacks on men, forcibly circumcised or sodomized, that those were my brothers, were leaders, my countrymen. Living in a nation now, where there are still not enough women in leadership, I remembered all the great women who had served as my mentors, and as my teachers, who believed that I was good enough.
I remember going to visit a Kericho family who had hosted me when I was ten and on a school trip to Kericho. Or those women who eked out a living as in Mombasa and Malindi, whose livelihoods depended on the tourist visits in the peak season, who would be laid off from their jobs and have to take to the streets. I remember taking a fourteen hour bus ride both ways to Kampala and back to Nairobi last summer, when I passed through Eldoret and Kisumu and across the border to Uganda, and all at night, since I prefer to travel. Was it true that if I took the same trip now, I may be pulled from a bus and killed for being from the wrong part of Kenya? Woman, girl and child, my memories of a happier time were not, unfortunately, the same as those of the children taken out of school to return to their homeland, with not a shred of their tribe language to their memory. But the violence was not mine this year, I could opt out of it.
“The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women (1993) identified three main areas where violence against women occurs, namely in the family, the general community, and perpetrated or condoned by the State, clarifying that such violence can take physical, sexual and psychological forms.” The violence on ones emotional state has yet to find a scientific measurement that counts the level of abuse women take on a daily basis.
I believe that gender violence activism is the most under-reported effect of the recent violence in Kenya. Outside of Nairobi, where the harshest news emerged, amid the uprooting, women were still expected to continue their roles as nurturers and care-givers in the internally displaced camps. If she was the one who was from the minority community, she had to leave, and if he was the one who was a minority, he had to leave or worse yet, was beaten within an inch of his life, or killed. She still had to get up the next morning and fetch water and make a meal and take care of their home.
Was the violence perpetrated or condoned by the state? As policy makers debate these questions and broker peace, I am not alone in assuming that she did not have a choice as to whether the group of armed men could enter her homestead and ransack everything including her dignity and her body. Nor do I think that now, as the family sits in the camp waiting for the next inadequate ration of meals, that she can avoid the pressure to go and sell her body for a little more posho(ground cereal) for her baby. As I sit in my cushy seat trying to see who from the U.S is sending things in a container, I doubt that she can afford to wait for my secondhand clothes nor my canned string beans, or even sit to think about whether the peace will make our wealthy leaders more considerate, or not.
I doubt that the girl whose early marriage has been speeded up for more money to salvage the family will pen a letter to our overpaid members of parliament to buy her freedom, nor will the fresh wound of a newly initiated female genital mutilation(fgm) survivor cover the hole in her heart from the brutal rite carried out to prepare her for the new school year. Still yet, it is unlikely that the woman whose partner welcomes her return to their tent with a shower of patronizing slaps will stop because Kofi Annan and his team got our esteemed leaders to sign to a solution.
You can learn that one in three women is a victim of abuse. Yes, one in three,
If you do not know already, March 8 is International Womens’ Day, look for events in your area and attend.
If you have sisters, daughters, partners, spouses, mothers and other relatives, imagine how you would feel if anyone harmed them, and think about what has been keeping you from activism, from speaking to men about gender violence.
When you next read a story about Kenya, if you see a picture of a child, remember its mother, the siblings, and the future for a woman in rural Kenya today.
I dedicate this post to the women who have endured violence in war zones and conflict areas. Darfur, Bosnia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo and here in the United States