Breathe me safe
Breathe me home
– Shailja Patel, Screaming
I am a political scientist. I have been studying the forms of power in the world for many years. Many very brilliant professors have taught me, but most of what I consider important was taught to me by my mother. She was a gentle and generous human being, a healer, but she also did not mince her words. She told me frankly and firmly that this world would often be hostile to me because:
The world did not like Africans.
The world did not like Black people.
The world did not like women.
I was all three.
I studied political science because I wanted to find out how the world had so arranged itself that it was hostile to human beings like me. I read many of the important books on how human society should organize itself. As students, we referred to this long tradition of Western political philosophy written mostly by white men as ‘Reading Plato to NATO’. With very few exceptions, these iconic thinkers demonstrated contempt towards Africans, Black people, and women of every skin tone. I read, for example, that Africans have no history (Hegel), that Black people are obviously a lesser kind of human being (Voltaire), and that women’s ‘nature’ impedes their ability to think (Aristotle).
I have read all the reasons that have been used to establish societies and systems in which an African woman would be at or near the bottom of almost any social and political calculus. This thinking un-homes me and people like me from the world, it refuses to acknowledge that human beings like me have contributed to the history of the world, and it negates and invalidates my humanity, my genealogy and that of all women, especially those who are African or part of the African Diaspora.
Although I strongly disagree with this way of thinking, I do not regret the years I spent listening carefully and seriously to the arguments of the Western male canon of social and political theory. It is necessary to know one’s adversary. This thinking is clearly my adversary. You only have to look at my physical being to see why. I weigh about 43 kilos with all my clothes on. I am 1.5 metres tall when I am wearing shoes. I am a middle-aged woman, but most 14-year-olds are bigger and stronger than me. I navigate this world in my body, that of a small black African woman born and raised in Nairobi.
This African woman’s body of mine is the one I was in while reading political theory for all those years. These African woman’s eyes, my own, are the ones I used to read the intricately worded insults to all my ways of being. An African woman’s hands, my own, are the ones I used to turn the pages of works by iconic thinkers who invalidated my being. This African woman’s brain was the one I used to confront, challenge, un-believe and try to un-build the thinking that has created a world hostile to human beings like me.
When I was away from Kenya pitting my mind against those of mostly dead white men, I wanted to come home. I wanted to be at home. I wanted to be again in a place where I did not need to spell my name on the phone. I wanted to be with those who remembered me from when I was a little girl. However, after I returned home, I began to see that as Keguro Macharia has said, ‘to be a woman in Kenya is to be repeatedly un-homed’.
This society refuses the right of women to be at home, as the increasingly frightening statistics on domestic violence show. All systems of oppression require daily iterations of an aggression that normalizes contempt towards the victims and creates a context in which more spectacular violence against the oppressed can occur. These repetitions of violence and violation against women occur across households in Kenya every day, every hour.
Women are not allowed to be at home in our Kenyan Home. Women are not allowed to be at home in our houses. Women are not even allowed to be at home in our bodies, although Article 28 of the Constitution of Kenya guarantees that ‘every person has the right to freedom and security of the person’. Women are persons, but women in Kenya do not have freedom and security of their persons. Here again is the consistent denial of my humanity and the humanity of all African women. Here at home in Kenya.
Shailja Patel has said that ‘our bodies are our first homes’. Perhaps it is because I live in such a small body-home that I understand so clearly the connection between individual embodiment and political events. Political events find reality in and on the bodies of human beings. We cannot escape our bodies. They are not only our first but also our inescapable homes. ‘The personal is political’ not only because one’s own actions are a part of the larger political landscape, but also because the larger political context is realized in and lived by specific and embodied human beings.
The negation of the humanity of another or group of others is oppression. All systems of oppression are similar in their frameworks of systemic and systematic injustice and in that the forms of violence they perpetrate on the oppressed take place in a cultural context that simultaneously encourages and dismisses the harm to its victims.
Kenyan women are constitutionally protected persons, yet many men use our bodies to teach us that we are inferior to them, or to express rage at the suffering the world inflicts on them, or to gain back their own distorted sense of a masculinity that insists that manhood is to be found in harming women. Kenya has produced a masculinity that encourages and covers up the transgressions against the human rights of women to be safe and to consent to what happens to our bodies. Kenyan men are allowed by other Kenyan men to grope us, to grab us, to rape us, to harass us, to harm us, to humiliate us, to dehumanise us, and to deny our own access to the sanctuary of ourselves.
Should a woman dare complain of this un-homing and un-humaning, vicious social punishments ranging from multiple forms of shaming and silencing by family and friends to intimidation and threats from strangers follow almost instantly. As Marziya Mohammedali notes, ‘this stance of victim blaming is something that is deeply ingrained in society, in many different cultures’.
The women of Kenya are, generally speaking, not included in the national desire for more freedom, less abjection, more dignity, less marginalization, more peace, and less violence. Many men want these things for themselves. These same men do not seem to realize that women are human beings and might want these same things for women as well as for men. I agree with Kennedy Kanyali that ‘if shrieking feminists have ever existed, it is on account of screaming the truth that refuses to be acknowledged so many times’.
Anti-woman violence happens in real lives, to real human beings. It devastates us. With Wairimu Muriithi, ‘We all know women who did not survive’. Even when such anti-woman violence and violation does not kill us or physically damage us, it buries us alive in the silence of pain and shame. This physical and psychic violence leaves lasting scars.
The women of Kenya want to be safe in our own body-homes.
The women of Kenya want to be safe in our own houses, our homes.
The women of Kenya want to be safe in our own home of Kenya.
The women of Kenya want to have a home in a political community that provides freedom, justice, safety, dignity, and respect for women.
If such a home is not to be found here, where should we go?
Wambui Mwangi is a post-colonial scholar, writer and photographer who lives in Nairobi. She has worked at the Goree Institute in Senegal and at Aga Khan University, Nairobi. She has taught in the political science departments at Vassar and the University of Toronto Her written and photography work have appeared in various publications worldwide. Follow her on twitter @wambui_mwangi