What I remember about that night were the sounds. The scraping of the bed being dragged across the floor. The insistent pounding of fists at the door. The thudding of my heart echoing in my ears. The muttering of prayer tumbling out of my mouth in a stream of whispering.
They had come after me.
Earlier that evening the driver of the matatu I was travelling in kicked us out slurring, ‘nimechoka. Tokeni.’ Though we tried to protest, his erratic swerving had left us jittery and we felt we were safer walking than being at the mercy of this drunken driver. So several hundred metres away from Oyugis, we started walking. I was on my way to a funeral and was carrying a huge white box overflowing with flowers, stuffed with the wreaths I had been asked to bring from Kisumu.
The walk is a blur to me, but I remember taking solace in the fact that there were other women around me. Along the way, the crowd thinned and I became conscious of two men walking too close for comfort. Oyugis felt menacing. It was past midnight. The streets reeked of cheap brew and pent up frustration. I walked into the first lodging I could find to get a room and as I closed the door, I saw the two men again lurking in the corridor.
They had come after me.
I spent that night curled up in the corner of the room with the bed propped up against the door…just in case. I had heard what they had said.
‘Leo tutaonja muhindi’
I remember feeling really thirsty, my mouth sticky and heavy from panic, but too scared to drink anything in case I needed to leave my room to go to the common bathroom. I remember the scent of roses from the wreaths filling up the room, as if to assert beauty in the face of menace. At some point they must have gotten bored and left.
That night shook me to the core.
It was a stupid thing to do, travelling in a matatu at night as a woman on my own. Yet you really only have the luxury to think that this is stupid if you come from a space of privilege. For most women in this country, the idea of this being foolish is an indulgence. Travelling alone in a matatu at night is how you get home.
I write this from a space of privilege. From the ability to drive to where I am going and for the most part to control the surroundings I am exposed to. From the ability to wind up my car windows and lock the gate in our compound. From the ability to earn a living where my body is not at the mercy of people around me.
Every single damn day I think about the possibility of being raped. Not a day goes by when I don’t come home and thank God for keeping me safe.
Not a single day.
I think about it when I am walking to the car, keys clutched between my fingers, ready to use as a weapon if needed, wondering which body part would be most effective to stab if I am attacked.
I think about it when I am walking in town, fearful of being dragged into an alley way, considering what would make for a quicker escape; running in my high heels or kicking them off.
I think about it when I am driving home at night, my eyes darting to the rear view mirror always aware, always looking, wondering if it ever happens, how will I numb my mind to protect my soul.
I think about it when a stranger greets me on the street, and I don’t know if a response will be misconstrued as an invitation, or if silence will be interpreted as tharao that deserves aggression.
I think about it when I decide what to wear each morning, worried that my skirt sliding up or my bra strap showing will somehow insinuate to a man that he can take what he wants.
I even used to carry condoms in my handbag, with the irrational notion that if I was assaulted, I could negotiate with the rapist to wear a fucking condom. As if rape is reasonable. As if I could tell him I had HIV and this was to protect him. The thought of him saying ‘me too’ …..
Yes. This is ridiculous. I get it. But is it? This is what goes on in women’s minds all the time, and I know I am not alone. Every day I wake up to the horror of another woman being assaulted, and another, and another. Every day. Every single day. How can we function as a society where half our population walk around every day terrified of being attacked?
In the last two weeks four women have been publicly stripped and assaulted. Their dignity ripped into long shards that will never be able to be put back together again.
Someone filmed the whole thing.
Someone else put it online.
Others shared it.
Her humiliation became a hashtag.
It gave birth to a bold movement, a stance where Kenyan women declared #mydressmychoice and refused to be silenced, invading the public space with their bodies. And this is a good thing. But for me the conversation is not about my right to wear what I want, it is about my right not to be assaulted. For any reason. Ever.
And. I know if this happened to me, I wouldn’t want the moment my humanity was ripped away immortalised on the world wide web. And so as we shared, as we commented, as we got angrier and more resolute, we perpetuated her horror again and again and again. She became a symbol. We forgot she was human. Or maybe we refused to see that she was.
I have been quiet over the last few weeks, trying to process, trying to make sense of all of this, trying to find a way to gather the strength. I am tired. I am so tired. I am tired of crying for all the women whose voices are hoarse from screaming. And I am scared. For us.
Audre Lorde said,
‘We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.’
I don’t know how. But as Wandia Njoya in this powerful piece says,
‘This is a time of reckoning for Kenyan women’
And through it all, I keep asking myself, how did we get here? I suspect we always have been in some form of ‘here’. I think about the policing of dressing that is part of so many mother daughter relationships, the perpetuation of decent dressing, as I wrote about here,
‘You will realise, women have taken this role on, the education of shame, as a survival mechanism. They know that women have to look out for women, teach girls how to behave in a man’s world. Shame is self-defence.’
We take it on ourselves, because let’s face it, for the most part, we have only ever had each other. I will never forget, two years ago after a performance of The Vagina Monologues at the Karen Country Club, an elderly Kenyan women stood up visibly shaken and asked,
‘What are we doing wrong that we are raising boys that become men who rape?’
We take it on ourselves. The guilt. The responsibility. The blame.
In the same performance, another passage was recited that has stayed with me;
‘I am over the passivity of good men. Where the hell are you? You live with us, make love with us, father us, befriend us, brother us, get nurtured and mothered and eternally supported by us, so why aren’t you standing with us? Why aren’t you driven to the point of madness and action by the rape and humiliation of us?’
Yet something is changing. I am seeing it around me. Women are saying enough is enough. And men are starting to speak out too. But always with a disclaimer. It’s seems to always be.. ‘this must stop, it could be your mother, your sister, your daughter’….How about, ‘this must stop. Full stop.’ Because I am a human. Like you. Or do our lives only matter in the context of our relationship with a man? What is it going to take for you to see us as humans, fully and wholly?
In the tradition of Kenyan women getting ready to do what must be done, I am tying my lesso around my waist, and encourage you to do the same. We have a lot of work to do.
What can you do?
November 25th marked the beginning of 16 days of activism to eliminate violence against women.
Educate yourself, follow #16days on twitter and here , contribute to the conversation, listen to the stories, agitate for change, take strength from the voices speaking out and make yours heard, because as Zora Neale Hurston said,
‘If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you liked it’
Speak out especially if you come from a space of privilege, because you can. Amplify the voices of those who cannot be heard, the voices of those who are forcefully silenced, the voices of those who are hoarse from crying.
Make a stand. A country is made up of human beings like you and I. Each of us lives within a community. The most potent power you have is to influence the people around you, in the spaces you inhabit. Make a stand. It starts with each individual saying no. This is not acceptable. We refuse to live like this anymore. This is how societal shifts take place. Slowly, gradually, incrementally, individual by individual saying no, by our words, by our actions, until the reality we live in now becomes a distant memory, a warning to future generations of what used be, and what can never be allowed to be again.
Even as I finish writing this piece, an e-mail comes in.
A three year old girl was raped. By two men. For four hours.
We have cried until our hearts threaten to leap out from our chests.
We have screamed so loudly and for so long we felt we were going insane.
We have gotten angry, our blood frothing up with the bile from the evil we see.
We have reasoned.
We have pleaded.
We have begged.
What more can we do?