BY FLORENCE BETT-KINYATTI
I don’t know what feminism is about. At least not anymore. So much has been written about it lately that I’ve had to unlearn the little I was confident I had learned. I’m a student to feminism now, I’m at its feet waiting to learn from it what it’d be willing to teach me.
Feminism isn’t a good teacher, though. It doesn’t sound like it is. Feminism sounds feisty and hostile, like it would yell at me then whoop my ass if I as much as asked why the world today needs feminists. Aren’t we, as urban women, liberated already? Aren’t we freed from the oppression, in whatever form of oppression, the women before us faced? What are we fighting for anyway? Must I fight with you? Can’t I just sit it out on the sidelines then watch you fight for me? For us?
When I think about feminism I think about it in the lines of colonialism and fighting for what is rightfully yours. I think about it as one of those women-only movements that started in the 1900s. Then I picture it maturing into an academic concept. In the late 80s. Something that scholarly dons whispered about as they prepared curriculums and course materials in poorly lit staff rooms. It was governed by some old academic principles. Then, late 90s, it seeped from the campus corridors out into the streets, where it morphed into this cultural jamboree with its own anthem for equality of the sexes. Shifting ideals and emotions informed these anthems.
Now it’s a thing. It’s 2018 and feminism is an urban thing for the urban woman. It sits up there next to pop culture. It used to be enough to be an independent woman, now you must be more. You must be a feminist. We must all be feminists – all women and all men must be feminists.
I don’t know what female empowerment means either. Why, as a black female in urban Nairobi do I need to be empowered?
I’m a writer in Nairobi; I’m building my career as a writer out of a choice I made for myself, I’m doing this because I want to, because I love to.
I’m 33 and middle-class. I’m straight. I’m married to a man and we have a two year old daughter. I’m healthy and in top form, I don’t suffer any disabilities. I’m not overweight. I could try for public office and get nominated to… (OK, that’s just ridiculous, hahha). I’m educated and I’m smart. Not just book smart but also street smart. (I tend to tell myself this every day, that I’m street smart, so I’m not sure if it’s the truth or if it’s an illusion of truth I’ve fed my brain.)
I can eat whatever I want to in this town and dress how I feel; even ripped jeans that expose half my front thighs are acceptable; no one will ever undress me in public (I hope) and tell me to cover up my nudity.
I can speak how I feel, my self-restraint is informed by my maturity, respect for others and a nifty handbook of social etiquette. I can go to any nightclub I want to and dance to Wizkid however way and however long I want to. I can go to church and to the gym and to Toi Market and to Kamundia Butchery and to a polling station to vote… no place in this town is off limits because I’m a woman.
So why would I need empowerment as a woman?
Am I disadvantaged? I don’t think so.
Am I picked on because of my economic class, sexual orientation or race? Nope, I never have. Hopefully I never will.
Am I a victim of a missed opportunity because I’m a woman? No. Not yet.
Am I privileged? To some degree, yes, admittedly, I’m privileged.
Feminism and female empowerment, to me, means being able to make my own choices and living by those choices.
For me – as an artist, a creative, a child of Africa and a citizen of the world – what truly matters is that whatever you chose to do, you do it with all your heart. And with happiness and joy and kindness.
Do it with all your heart. Whether you are a woman leading a bloody revolution or fixing your family a pot dinner of beef strips, sitting at the head of a board approving annual budgets or tilling a shamba with your infant strapped to your back. Doesn’t matter.
Give to it 150 per cent.
Always chose to give it 150 per cent.
Being a woman means giving it 150 per cent.
No one recognizes your efforts or commends you for the job well done. But that’s what it means to be a woman – you get so much shit done in any one day and no one recognizes or rewards you for it. And that’s OK. It all has to be rooted in your heart and soul, right here (I have placed my hand over my heart and patted myself gently).
Otherwise, it’s easy to pack up and walk away from the life you obliviously chose.
I wrote that first part of the story weeks ago.
I wrote it before I’d gone into the rabbit hole online to do any research around feminism. It’s absurd, actually – I’m writing about not being a feminist yet I’m championing feminism.
Weeks have since passed. The World Cup came and is about to go away; I feel bad about missing out on the euphoria and being unable to feign interest in GB’s team, Croatia. I stopped running then I started running again then I stopped again. I redrafted my quarterly goals. I got new glasses. I discovered a new writer. The number pad on my laptop stopped working on some days, other days it does. My niece turned 10. More people subscribed to my YouTube channel. Will got a new job. The momentum of Craft It inadvertently slowed down. I’m overwhelmed, I consider getting a marketer and community manager.
Muna stuck a hair bead up her nose. She later learned how to pray and say ‘I don’t want’. Much later, she got bored of having me play her horse; I breathed a sigh of relief to the heavens – I was not only the horse that got on my hands and knees and took her around the digs, as if she was some uppity polo, I was also the horse that roared. Muna had made me a horse that roared like a lion. It was madness.
Nanny Viv began the countdown to her leave. She got a new hairdo and blushed like a little girl on the day that Nyongesa, one of the DRUNK riders, called my phone while she had it in her hands.
My Mummy visited from Kaplong. My Ol’Man’s other cow birthed, the second birth he’s celebrating this year; I don’t know if I should send his mpesa with a congratulations card or a bouquet of flowers. GB’s best pal lost his dad, we buried him. His cousin had a wedding on the shores of Lake Naivasha, we were late for it.
Tile & Carpet Centre launched its annual sale. KEBS confessed it’s a sham. Our sugar became poisonous. Rates of excise duty went up by 2 per cent.
I’ve put some more thought into the subject and I’ve read plenty about the different brands of feminism: Radical feminism (“the traditional family structure is sexist!” “Can’t I grow a baby outside my body?!”). Socialist feminism (“economics and politics give the man more power and more opportunities than it does to the woman!”).
Cultural and liberal feminism (“society is hurt by encouraging masculine behaviours! It needs a female essence in this male dominated world!” “There must be sameness of the sexes in society!”). Black feminism (“I’m a womanist, the black woman needs to be freed from oppression!”). I feminism (“a woman is responsible for her life, her status and her choices!”).
I’ve used more exclamation marks in this story than I’ve ever used in my entire writing career. Feminism is raucous, aye?
Anyway, my point is, the reason I have choices as an urban woman and I’m able to build a life around these choices is because women before me have fought for me to have these choices and live them out.
I’m a consequence of feminism.
My little privileged life here is a consequence of feminism.
It would be unfair, disrespectful and ungrateful of me not to acknowledge and extol this.
I may not have known what feminism and female empowerment is about, but now, for the first time in my life, I have seen and understood what gender inequality is. And how it impacts me as an urban mum and career woman living in Nairobi.
I’ll illustrate this to you in an analogy.
Pay attention, folks.
Imagine it’s 2012. Kibaki is in office and Willy Mutunga has taken all sexiness out of the earring stud for men. NYS is yet to be birthed. Zuku fibre is about to change the way we consume home internet. No one comprehends yet the juggernaut Netflix will become, DSTV still believes it’s the best thing Kenyans will ever have aired on their TVs.
The people who’ll do it haven’t invented happy socks yet and men are still rocking box front shoes. (Except GB, he’s Kikuyu and has sharp shooters that can slice open your femoral artery in the blink of an eye; they’re shoes but they’re also weapons of mass destruction; no thug dares mug him.) Wide-leg pants for women are being phased out, the cigarette style will dictate pants and skirt trends for the second half of the decade.
I take my first – and last – international tour as a single girl. I travel to Cape Town. It’s probably the best 10 days of my 2012. It’ll haunt me for many years to come that I didn’t sample their local cuisines or go out into the town. This trip to Cape Town is also the last time my passport gets stamped by immigration security.
‘Django Unchained’ is released (I almost fall out of love with Leonardo Di Caprio because of his role in this movie). ‘The Avengers’ also comes later in the year (we don’t know yet that ‘The Avengers’ will lead us to ‘Black Panther’ and, ultimately, yum yum, to Chadwick Boseman. It’s a good year because of this. A really good year.) (We totally dig you, Chadwick Boseman!)
One loose weekday that December, as my niece catches some Nickelodeon Junior on mid-morning TV, I learn about a show called ‘Dog With A Blog’. I chuckle, like the dog does, because I’m thinking about starting a blog.
‘Scandal’ airs its pilot that year. I don’t give it much attention because I think Kerry Washington is too emotional to be the lead. The show runs eight seasons in to 2018 – I don’t catch an episode again after the pilot. ‘Men At Work’ also premiers in 2012. I love everything about it because it’s a show about creatives – well, men, writers and photographers – who work at a magazine. The show runs three seasons to 2014 and crash lands to its finale. I never forget Milo Foster.
Just A Band is still a local boy band and later that year release what will be their third and final album; no one knew it would their final album. If we knew probably more people would have joined us that rainy November night at KICC grounds for their album launch. The album came as a drop card that I still keep in my wallet, it’s next to my Press Card.
2012 is also the year I’m 27. GB is a few years older than I am.
Now imagine that he and I are on a racetrack and are standing at the start line. We are readying ourselves to run a marathon of this thing called life. We’re both geared up in the same track suit and running sneakers. Our paths ahead are paved in the same way. We’re both in form to run this marathon. The gun goes off, poww!
We start the marathon.
We’re pacing ourselves because it’s a long race, you don’t want to tire yourself out too early. You gotta keep it steady. He’s running his own race, I’m running my own. Life carries on as we’re running – we both sit professional exams, he later takes plenty others that I don’t; we get promotions at work; we have our own opinions; we read more or less the same amount of material from books and newspapers; we each start our own personal projects outside of work.
At 28, I leave my career to start another one. I stumble for a few months, years, struggling to find my footing again but I keep running, I never stop. I don’t know it at the time, but making this choice to start my career over on my own terms will give me the strength to circumnavigate the hurdles that are inevitably waiting ahead, in my path only.
Because of this stumbling, GB has now covered plenty more miles than I have. But we keep running. Together. I know in my heart that someday this difference in miles will even out in its own way.
In the year I’m to turn 30, in 2015, I turn to GB and tell him, “I need to slow down.”
“Because I’m carrying our bloody baby in my bloody womb!”
He ignores my filthy language and says, “Sawa.” He hastily adds on second thought, “But I won’t stop running. I’ll keep going. You’ll find me wherever you’ll find me.”
“Sawa,” I say. “Don’t mind me. You keep going.”
And thus, without any of us realizing, the gender inequality has begun. It has begun because of my ovaries. Because of my decision to have kids and become a mother.
I start to slow down as I muscle my way through first trimester nausea and lethargy. It’s frustrating. My energy returns in second trimester and I get some more running done. My focus shifts from the running to the person I’m carrying inside me. I can’t wait to hold her in my arms and tell her how much I love her. On quiet lonely days, I worry about my growth as a writer. Third trimester checks in and I’m a sitting duck. No, a whale. I’m a sitting whale.
My life pauses. It’ll be another eight months before I unpause it again. What this effectively translates to is that my creative career has paused for 17 months – a year and five months.
And what does GB do in these 17 months? Because he’s thoughtful and caring, because he’s a man and he’s wired to protect and provide, he says to himself, “Because this woman I love can’t run, I’m going to run for her and for our baby.”
So GB runs for three. He covers more miles, he gets ahead. And while at it, he grows sharper, wittier, more resilient, more intelligent, more opinionated, more business savvy and more travelled than me. It irks me sometimes, this fact of our present lives. Sometimes I envy him, other times I want to be him. Most times I’m proud of him. I never resent him.
We’re in 2018 now. Three years since. We’re both still running.
I don’t know when I’ll catch up with him. I don’t know if we’ll ever be peers again.
What I do know, for certain, is that I’ll have to pause my life for atleast 17 months for every baby he knocks me up with.
I’m writing this from a hotel room. Room #F6. It’s a home stay hotel in Kilimani. I’m not quite sure what ‘home stay’ means – is it a polite word for lodgo? Because this place is technically a rendezvous for Nairobi folk to conduct their dalliances. My room overlooks the parking lot – it’s only noon and it’s almost full.
I didn’t wake up this morning with the plan to spend my day holed up in a hotel room. It was a wild thought that crossed my mind as I was having a cup of tea at my desk.
I WhatsApped GB. “Hey
“Can you check me into a hotel for a day room?
“I’d like to nap and write from there.
“Someplace affordable but clean.”
(I texted GB all that in one instance. Do you know what really gets my goat? When someone WhatsApp’s me, ‘Hey’, then they wait for me to text back, ‘Hey’ so the convo carry on from there. Hahha. It’s 2018, man. Say what you want. And say it quickly.)
GB texted back and said, “Yeah
“Where do you have in mind?”
I typed back, “I can only think of KCH”
“Try Jumia,” he said. “And see what you get.”
I did. I tried Jumia Travel and got this Airbnb in Kilimani for 3K.
I’m here now. I just woke up from a two-hour nap. Solitude has never tasted sweeter.
You must be wondering why I’d go to a hotel room to nap and write.
Well, I came here to write because I’m sometimes overcome with such bouts of boredom that it paralyses me. It isn’t fatigue as much as it’s my mind craving for a change of environment.
I can’t go home to nap because we have this little person who runs the streets during daylight hours. Her name is Muna. She’s two and a half years old. And she has the sense of smell of a feral creature hunting in the savannah. Muna will return with Nanny Viv from playing with her friends outside and as soon as the door is opened, she’ll poke her nose in the air. She can sniff me out from a 20-mile radius. What’s fascinating is that she has a small nose, cute as a button, it’s not a large wide African nose, it’s not like her father’s.
There’s no where I can hide in that digs where Muna won’t sniff me out. Take our bedroom: If I leave the door open, she’ll swing in at any moment and catch me at my desk hiding behind the door; if I shut the door then she’ll know I’m in there, she’ll bang and bang and bang the door and scream out, ‘Mummy, opening door! Opening door, Mummy!’ for ten minutes straight.
So yeah, I’m screwed either way.
I have to go to a hotel room to catch up on my sleep and to reflect and write. That’s what happens when you get kids. You understand that lodgos and two-star hotels aren’t just for daytime dalliances.
They’re safe havens.
I just finished reading this book my good pal recommended. ‘I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman’ by Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron did two things for me: One, she made me laugh a good one. I don’t remember the last time I woke in the middle of the night to read a book from my Kindle under the comforter of our bed. Read and cackle helplessly.
Two, Nora Ephron allayed my fears about the number of times I’ll have to pause and unpause my writing career so I can mother my children. She showed me how it went for her. I’ll tell you how it’ll go for me, Inshallah: I’ll parent through my 30s and into my mid 40s. I’ll build some tu small biasharas around creativity that’ll keep my ageing brain youthful and crisp. I’ll write my best work in my 50s.
God willing, by then, Muna and all her siblings will be out of our house and they’d have taken away the inequality they brought with them.22