‘Minam! (Not her real name) Minam!’ called her mother. ‘Njoo hapa! Utaoga saa ngapi? Enda ukaoge. Mwanamke mgani hataki kuoga? Msichana mkubwa Kama wewe uko karibu kupata bwana hebu pita hapa!’ (Come here! What time will you bath? What woman doesn’t want to bath? A big girl like yourself about to get a husband you better pass over here!) There were other women around and that’s not a problem however following that conversation I realized all they wanted was she take a bath earlier because it gets colder in the evening.
I was home taking a stretch when I heard my neighbor call out to her daughter like that and I am sure she is not above 12 years of age but admirably, admittedly very responsible for her age in a generation like today. At the same time, she’s just a child who wanted to play to her fill then take her bath later. But her mother’s statement got me spinning 1. What did she do? Was that necessary? It’s like 3pm she’s just playing can’t she? 2. Was there not a better way to express that you’d like her to take a bath earlier because it’s colder in the evening? What does her bathing earlier got to do with the possibility of her bagging a husband in future and damn she’s not over 12!
This got me thinking very long and hard about matters equality, cultures, the power of our words, gender roles, age set systems and how we raise children expecting them to be a certain way but children just simply live by the principal of monkey see monkey do. We truly have a long way to go. This might have been a small, maybe even at the moment insignificant incident but I couldn’t help but imagine what seed is planted in this girl and many others. Can’t we teach our children domestic responsibility, hygiene etc for responsibility’s sake and let life take it’s full course?
I am a boy 5, 9,13 or even 16 don’t tell me boys don’t cry because why shouldn’t they? Don’t they get hurt? Don’t they have tear glands? Tell them it’s okay but you must rise up. Be real, own your emotions, deal with them. If you fail to do that you encourage toxic masculinity, you breed grounds for mental disorders and emotional detachment. Result is the society will suffer including that someone’s daughter-or yours, you keep telling cook, bath because – man’s validation.
I am a girl 5,9,13 or even 16 don’t tell me down girl. Women shouldn’t be too outspoken or opinionated because who will marry you? Don’t tell me wash dishes, cook, do laundry, take a bath because I don’t want someone’s son sending you back home because your mother/parents didn’t teach you. Hello! I am 5,9,13, 16 whatever for crying out loud! Why are we even having this conversation? Yes! Like any other person out here, I occasionally do dream of that time I will have my own home, spouse, children and more. But can’t we for now not make me feel like all I shall ever be is an object to be validated by someone else.
Tell me that I as a female am different from my brother. We have different and unique abilities that can only be performed by either of us respectively. That we are not in competition but on a journey of partnership, collaboration and co-existence. None is lesser and doing certain things more common to the other doesn’t make me less of a man than can my sister more of a man. Call us to the kitchen, to the laundry room or even by the river side and streams to wash. Lets go recycle coal together for a day when gas might not be there. Take us to the market, teach us how to recognize the healthier fruit and veggies or even some days accompany either of you to work on your dress down Fridays maybe let us know and appreciate what you have to do everyday because you are preparing us, giving us survival for the fittest skills on this jungle called life. That one day we might have to explore the jungle on our own and only return home for the briefest of visits or that maybe you will exit the jungle for good to explore the galaxies and the rest of the universe in forms we won’t be able to interact with as usual. Tell us you are equipping us for a better next day. Tell us we gotta get skills to support each other and that it is okay and normal that one day someone’s son might not have the money and if I or someone’s daughter brings in the money, he doesn’t become less a man and I don’t go announcing it among my fellow women. Tell him, maybe she will earn more than you one time but it’s okay because you remain partners and can still breathe because what you have together is bigger than any money can buy. In your lives as guardians and parents then show us how and what it means to co-exist,partner and raise a family. We learn from that you know? Much better than you telling.
Once we have learnt every skill we can get going into the life jungle alone. There, we are bound to meet other monkeys and perhaps we will find one that’s crazy enough to want to swing on the same branches and trees as we do or sometimes be the elephant searching for the closest pool and mad just to roll over, splash water for the sake of it and just sometimes want to run through different bushes just because other times we also do enjoy different things but can still agree to agree or to disagree maybe even discuss about the jungle leadership.
Now that was at home. How about in school? When I was in Senior Primary and High School I was quickly thrown into multiple Student Leadership spaces I didn’t vie for or want but neither given the option to opt out of. I was told it was a unanimous and irrevocable decision by both teachers and student body. I thought that was insane. To be honest, for the longest time, I thought that was some kind of bribery if not blackmail (long story for some other day). Like where in the world is there no option for exit or decline? This is beside the point the real story is here. I observed with increasing concern how the teachers structured student leadership posts and today, I now realize these are cultural, social, patriarchal (of course nothing wrong with positive patriarchal or matriarchal societies). You could clearly see the interplay and structure of how student leadership roles were expected to run in mixed gender schools (which is where I have attended my entire life). There seems to be a predetermined script that read ‘When choosing the overall school captain/prefect/president (whatever title your school used), there will be 4 positions 2 males 2 females. Equality you know. The headboy and his assistant then the head girl and her assistant. However when they are fulfilling their duties there’s an unspoken rule that says regardless of the fact that they doing the same things just giving both genders a face and equal voice the boy is the chief and if he coughs you sneeze.
I didn’t want the position of School Captain in my senior years. I knew what it meant, what sacrifices I would have to make. I also knew the moment I got confirmed, I automatically assume a responsibility and knowing me, the moment I commit to something I will give it my whole, best and sincere self and when I quit, I quit. But all I wanted was peace and quiet hey I was a senior!
Sitting in that staffroom surrounded by the teachers in what really was a forced and hilarious (in my opinion) interview where I was determined to fail. I said, I am not ready for this all you want is an equal representation? Great. So nominate a male and a female and I will nominate these two for forwarding. Let the students decide. I thought we could have the head captain as either gender and their deputy as the opposite gender. There. Done. We didn’t need four posts after all they will lead a full school students board of probably not less than 20 others considering we were not a huge population it was doable. But no it was what it was. (Reflect on our political leadership and see how we end up having huge unnecessary public wage bills).
To me, it spoke volumes about perceptions on gender roles and capabilities. Yes we elect these people because they have capacity but still are quick to undermine the females in the same spaces. My wonderful deputy and I, later mentee and colleague had a fantastic working relationship and needles to say we crossed shoulders with the boys a few times. Once a male junior student who was also in the board approached me after the school bi-weekly parade and said ‘you know, it’s like husband and wife this headboy – head girl thing‘. Hold, pause and drop. Say what now? Listen here buddy I am not married and neither of the seniors is my husband. This is a school okay? We are helping to run an institution and here things run professionally. Our talents gifts and capabilities put us here to serve. Not our attractions, searches and rings. Definitely not searching okay? On that note we shall have the board’s capacity building session something on character education and development. A guy can’t go off on you just because somebody – a girl, said something and happened to be right. So that’s supposed to be humiliating so there should be a ‘bring the tough girls down campaign’.
It’s sad to note this is escalated into the professional spaces and public civil leadership. Women might be given big titles but when in the board room especially if they are the youngest they are reduced to flower girl functions. Take the minutes do this and that but it’s clearly not even in your job description. When you are young male or female you will go through professional space patronization however when a female, it’s worse. A number of times in my professional spaces I’ve encountered this. Once in a team, I felt one of the guys wanting to take advantage of me. Clearly I was the youngest and supposedly the most ‘inexperienced’ maybe. I don’t remember what the conversation was but someone decided to go off on me because I knew what I wanted and I was not going to compromise.
Unfortunately, that was a fellow young person albeit male. He said, ‘I pity your husband or boyfriend. Is this how you are with him?‘ Woah wrong statement brother, wrong statement! First you are not my husband or any of those things secondly, he has no bearing in this situation thirdly this is as a professional space. You will learn to respect every sister for who they are as we are here on good merit. You ain’t married to any of us and if you want to engage with your wife sorry we ain’t her. Four you are not my spouse’s advocate. Stay clear. Thankfully the other guys supported telling him off. It’s later that I learnt many times they defended the girls without our knowledge simply because they respected us for who we are and we did respect them too. We were a team. Outside work come let’s talk. Other times they let us fight our battles and have the fun of referee.
Another time I was by job description supposed to run certain roles not anything clerical no offense to those that do this it’s wonderful function without which there will be problems. But because I was again, the youngest so I’m supposed to be tech survey etc and maybe female, in a board where I should have been able to participate more actively, I was occasionally requested by those my parents age to help take the minutes, ‘you know you do them so well we should learn’. And because we respect age, me then picks pen and notebook or request for that laptop so I can auto transcribe because no way am I doing double work I’m busy elsewhere…ahem-ahem! Let the young ones learn. Anyone who does this knows its not easy to make contribution, make a presentation and still keep up with recording what everyone else is saying.
In another forum, I was requested to run mobile survey interviews. The language, tone and inconsideration by which the request was presented to me had me politely declining even though I had pockets of free time. I knew what to do and how best to get the information. I could have helped for the sake of helping. So I said I’m sorry sir I would love to help but as you know I sort of moved to nursing full time palliative care for my mom. It was the truth but I at the time did not feel like having a full conversation of roles JDs etc and some people can be sensitive. Besides, it’s not my obligation to say yes to everything especially when it’s not my duty but should I say yes, then I’m helping you just don’t make a habit of it.
It’s unfortunate that even in single gender circles, the younger ones often get subjected to such patronizing situations and I realize if it’s not gender, it’s our social-cultural hierarchy. Age set and age group systems. They just play out in different forms. Probably why some of our leaders feel entitled to public positions for life. Telling them to take a break is a rude thing. Almost like reminding them their age and the fact that they are much closer to the ancestors than you are. That things can be done differently without them being wiped off. Reverse mentorship is not a concept they take as it’s considered an insult. When did the ear grow bigger than the head you know. We are yet to embrace the fact that we can co-exist respectfully forward and reverse learn as far as our ages go. At the same time, embrace gender equality which unfortunately, when mentioned today its construed to only mean a crusade for female issues rather than a forum and space for both male and female to learn from each other, grow together and co-exist.
The journey is long. From go take a bath or cook because what man will…to how we teach public leadership right from school, into our professional spaces and now our age systems. We have to reset.
I hope we come to a place where my brothers can defend and speak up for me because I am me and I can do the same for them because they are them. That we can work together because we are better together. That the older can listen to engage the younger and vice versa without either feeling offended but more like a joy ride of passing the button and showing the pride and lesson from their past achievement and hopes and dreams for the future generations