Photo by Charles Nyiha
"The world is like a Mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place."
The different faces of what we call African cultures fight within me. I am in love; deeply, happily, consumed by love at one time, when presented with particular things—yet at other times I realize how I, we, you, they, have been ravaged, undone by it.
When I am in love, the love fills me up so naturally and so wholly, and I can only laugh, scream, cry…
I can’t contain myself when faced with the weight of the magic of African cultures. There is nothing that cannot be cured by Swahili/Congolese rumba. Or play me Première Gaou early on a Sunday morning when I am weighed down by work I do not like to do, by failure, by hurt, by lethargy, by life, and good glory, I forget, I forget everything. I am moved to tears because of the wonder of the gift of culture I have been given, this curious, immense, healing power. I know, somewhere within me that I can never be fully destroyed, because of the simple existence of art, of culture. Ask me why I live for art, and I tell you it is for my very subsistence, that art has healed me, it has renewed me, always. Nothing matters. Nothing matters when you hear the music.
And are there other things of wonder? The sound of my mother gossiping in Luhya, her laugh, that joy, the sound of my father’s Luo, reminiscent of my proud, self-assured grandfather, the smell of Busia, the smiles of my people, the protection with which my uncles look at me, ugali ya kusiaga, I am a woman of the tribe.
Yet, sometimes our cultures drain my soul, drain me of power. This could be in little things, such as the unnecessary formality in family; how conversation is arranged such that the father speaks first and the rest only in allowed turns, how sometimes the mother has no voice, how the brother is not allowed to be seen in the kitchen. It could be how a child’s headache is linked to her disobedience. I could tell you of a child whose headache is linked to things she wishes she could tell her mother, father, but restrictions in cultures allow only a certain respectable number of things to be discussed. What ails the child is of the most impure brand of stuff, per culture, but surely, shouldn’t the only thing that matters be that it is hurting the child, or giving her joy or just that she would like to speak?
It could be in other seemingly little things such as that many of our cultures are not cultures that allow for questioning. I will tell you, too, of the 19-year-old ‘child’ who must worship his father’s god in the way his father prescribes; hypocrisy for respect. He is not allowed to step back, breathe, and get to know this god in a true way, to know for himself if there might be something real there—he is only to sing hymns loudly with the guests, and pepper his speech with unbelieved praises. He is not refuting the existence of his father’s god (much less disrespecting his father) by his need to get to know this god for himself.
It could be in the constant regard of the child with suspicion, when the child is only ever trying to be good.
And then there is the more heart-breaking. I look at the newspaper and I see stories of what our world could do to women, and even men. A woman’s hands were chopped off last month by her husband for being allegedly barren. She had wanted to leave her abusive marriage but her pastor asked her to stay. 8 years ago another lady’s hands were chopped off by her husband because she did not tell him that she was putting up a rental house. 16 years ago on my birthday a lady was doused with acid and set ablaze by her husband when she tried to run from a house he had locked her in. 33 years ago, a lady’s eyes were gouged out by her husband because he was angry with her for having five daughters and no son. The lady begged the court not to jail her husband because her children would suffer due to her inability to provide for them any longer. The man was jailed for seven years. Seven months ago, a lady had a knife lodged in her cheek by her husband. She had said earlier that she could not leave him because of their children. 8 years ago, another lady was slashed in the face by her husband and her child beheaded after he claimed he did not father the child as the baby came later than the expected date of delivery.
What to do then, with this glorious yet terrible world?
Are our demons absolute depravity or could the roots of them be found in bits of our cultures? I don’t know. I don’t know. I am in ecstasy and I am in pain. In many ways, our cultures free me, you, them, us, but in many ways, we need to tear down a lot of what we hold dear. We cannot stand in only one place when we want to see, truly, the African (or otherwise) cultures, and I would say, let us take a look.
This and the rest of the stories of violence against women in this paragraph are available in more detail in The Standard on Sunday, a Kenyan newspaper, of the 7th of August 2016