Who Do We Fight For?

The Storymoja Ideagasm this past weekend was one that left me thinking. As I boarded the ‘City Hopper’ bus heading towards Ngong road I had a lot of questions in my head.

I label myself a defender of women’s rights. A feminist. But who exactly am I fighting for? Do the people whose voice I claim to be, need my voice? Am I helping them or am I making their lives difficult? Or could it be that I am just helping myself?

I reached my destination close to 8pm in the evening. My family had all assembled at my sister’s house for dinner and all were wondering where I was. I explained that I had gone for a Storymoja thingy. ‘Thingy’ because you only give my mother a word like ‘Ideagasm’ when you have a couple of hours to kill explaining what you mean.

“Story moja huh? I will give you my story moja,” my mum promised me.

She honored her promise a few hours later after we had quenched our hunger and thirst. She started on a story about monsters who devoured some woman whose husband used to work far away in the city.

“Tell me about FGM.” She was leaning on folklore while I wanted the real stuff.

“FGM?” she asks

Kalenjins practiced FGM right?”

“Sure! We practiced FGM.”

She then told me a story. Her Story moja.

Back in the day, when a girl was considered old enough for marriage, she was circumcised and yanked into (Ok, maybe they gently tossed her with sympathy given what she had just gone through) a hut where she was to live for some time as she was fed and healed. She was thereafter, ready for marriage

It was, however. not uncommon for a man to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage and even settle the bride price while she was still in seclusion – I guess demand was high with some girls? Seclusion could take anywhere from one month (which was ideally the time required for her wound to heal) to one year. ONE YEAR! My reaction to this was: “Ile ne?” which was the closest Kalenjin words I could come up with for “What the hell?!” A whole year!? January, February…the whole 12 months?!

My mother patiently waited for me to get a grip before going on.

Should a man come and ask for your hand in your absence, your parents only had to say yes to the cows and you would be his wife when you were well enough to be someone’s wife. After healing from the mutilation, you would pack your bags and go to a man your parents had ingeniously selected for you. You had to believe that they had your best interests at heart and did not just dispose you off to spend your lifetime with a jerk just because he offered the highest bid.

One year! Forgive me, but I am still stuck on the one year seclusion.

My mum then told me the story of this specific young girl who went through pretty much the same ordeal. While this girl was inside the ka-hut, healing the wounds in her nether regions, wondering all the while about her future with her husband and the many children she was going to bear him – what else could she ponder about anyway – a man came along and asked for her hand in marriage. She was to make a technical appearance during the negotiation of bride price. A deal was struck and from that moment, she was considered the young man’s wife. She was fed and fed some more. She grew healthier and healthier (the word I really want to use is ‘fatter’ and ‘fatter’) for her prospective husband.

While still serving her time, something happened to the young man who had been pronounced her husband not so long ago. He was arrested for cattle rustling. Hehe…I laughed hysterically at this point, don’t know why I found this so hilarious. Young girl in seclusion, young man arrested for cattle rustling. He was to serve 5 years in jail. The young girl waited (faithfully) for this man she barely knew to get out of jail and come and take his place in her life.

Thing is, cattle rustling was an ego booster and it put a stamp on one’s manhood in a big way. Having been arrested, the young man held a lot of clout in the community. Time went by and the young man’s mother, now living with the young girl – her daughter in law – realized that time was running out. The young man’s mother knew that being the ish, one wife was not going to do him any justice. She therefore did what any mother would do at the time. She mobilized a bunch of elders to betroth another woman as her incarcerated son’s second wife.

I know!

They visited a certain family, whose daughter she had eyed for a while, I don’t know…weird? They proceeded with the bride price negotiations. This other woman was to be circumcised as well, and so she served her time in seclusion having become the second wife to the jailbird.

“It was nothing really. This happened all the time.” My mum said. Men could ‘marry’ another wife while their (first) wife was still healing. It’s not like he needed the first wife’s approval or anything.

Suffice to say that when the young man eventually got out, he was presented with two very healthy (ahem!) wives. Voila!

That young jailbird man was my maternal grandfather (RIP), and the young woman who had a co-wife shoved down her throat was my grandmother. My grandfather later added another wife to make three and they all lived their happily ever after.

This story from my mother told in a jovial, carefree mood did not do much to quell my thoughts about the ideagasm we had had that afternoon. I wondered, did these women feel oppressed at all? Did they know any other way of life? If not, who then decided that things needed to change and why?

I frowned, gasped and almost popped my eyes out unbelievably as I listened. It did not make sense to me that a man would ‘stock up’ on women just because he had the means. And that the same women were like pawns in a man’s world.

I wondered. When we fight for women, when we protest against certain ‘injustices’ as we see them, are we still doing so for that woman who is ok with having a co-wife because she believes that men are naturally polygamous? Are we still fighting for that woman who looks forward to being battered by her husband because then it will mean that he loves her? When we insist on having our voices heard, does that voice include the voice of the woman who lives for BDSM? If we fight for all women alike aren’t we infringing on the rights of those who have taken the face of oppression and made it part of their identity? Are we denying some woman her right to a co-wife? To a black eye, which according to her is a medal of love? Her right to sexual pain pleasure?

Still, I wonder.


First published on the Storymoja Festival Blog


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