The Elephant in Kenya’s Room

Brenda Wambui
20 February ,2018

We, the people of Kenya, claim to recognize the aspirations of all Kenyans for a government based on the essential values of human rights, equality, freedom, democracy, social justice and the rule of law. We also claim to promote the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, equity and freedom; and state categorically that our state shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth. We lie.

In February 2018, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) launched the Women and Men in Kenya booklet, contrasting the status of women and men in Kenya when it comes to population, health, education, employment, governance, domestic violence, decision-making, and Persons with Disabilities (PWDs). As at 2016, Kenya had an estimated 22,498,000 women and 21,870,000 men (making the total population 44,368,000). According to this estimate, women form 50.71% of Kenya’s population.

However, according to the booklet, women provide 80% of Kenya’s farm labor and manage 40% of the country’s smallholder farms, yet they own only roughly 1% of agricultural land and receive just 10% of available credit. Despite bearing the burden of pregnancy and child rearing, fewer women than men across all age groups have access to family planning messages through radio, television and newspapers regardless of their level of education. Despite this, women bear the burden of contraceptive use, with uptake of the male condom at a measly 0% in North Eastern region, 2% in the Coast, Eastern, Central and Rift Valley regions and 3% in Nairobi, Western and Nyanza regions, while that of injectables (mainly Depo Provera which has been proven to have several health risks for women, such as increasing the chance that they will contract HIV by 49%) for example being 19% at the Coast, 2% in North Eastern, 38% in Eastern, 22% in Central, 27% in Rift Valley, 28% in Western, 29% in Nyanza, and 24% in Nairobi.

362 out of every 100,000 women who give birth die as a result of complications of pregnancy and child bearing. An overwhelming 37% of childbirths are at home, coming second only to deliveries in public hospitals at 46%. The conditions at public hospitals are dismal, and childbirth at home is dangerous. Women who give birth at home rarely have access to a skilled healthcare worker. The reason Rwanda was able to reduce maternal mortality by 77% between 2000 and 2013 is because of the increase in skilled providers (especially midwives) during childbirth. In 2010, 69% of the child deliveries in Rwanda were by a skilled healthcare provider.

It bears repeating that we have yet to pass the Reproductive Health Bill since it was tabled in 2014, yet it aims to provide for the recognition of reproductive rights, set the standards of reproductive health, and provide for the right to make decisions regarding reproduction free from discrimination, coercion and violence. The Bill aims to promote women’s health and safe motherhood, rapidly and substantially reduce maternal and child mortality rates in Kenya, as well as ensure access to quality and comprehensive provision of health care services to women and children. So much for our commitment to SDG 3, which aims for the achievement of good health and well-being (one of the ways is through reducing maternal mortality) and SDG 5, which aims for the achievement of gender equality.

When it comes to diseases, more women than men have been diagnosed with non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Women across all age groups and levels of education also have lower comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS (which is a communicable disease) than men.

Men have higher levels of enrollment in all levels of education overall than women. This gap begins in secondary school, where it is slightly under 5%, and grows significantly in university where it is around 20% in public universities. The booklet does not state the cause, but possible reasons include early marriage and teen pregnancy.

Fewer women than men (up to 10% fewer) also apply for and receive loans for education in public universities. There is a 20% gap between men and women when it comes to enrollment in technical institutions, and a 10% gap when it comes to enrollment in TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) Institutions.

The situation is even starker in employment: Men are employed at almost double the rate of women in modern sector employment, where workers are 66% male and 34% female. In wage sector employment, men are employed at over double the rate of women in agriculture (the workforce is 67% male and 33% female), manufacturing (the workforce is 84% male and 16% female), and wholesaling (the workforce is 77% male and 23% female). In public administration wage employment, the workforce is 64% male and 36% female. The only wage employment sectors where there is almost parity are the education sector (the workforce is 53% male and 47% female) and service activities (the workforce is 48% male and 52% female).

Despite the existence of the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act (2015), women continue to experience high rates of abuse, mostly at the hands of current partners (57% of women who have been abused were abused by their current partners) and former partners (24% of women who have been abused). Almost 40% of women aged 15 – 49 have experienced physical violence (for men, it is under 10%), almost 15% of them have experienced sexual violence (for men, it is under 5%), and almost 35% of them have experienced emotional violence (for men, it is just over 20%).

Our Constitution states that women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural and social spheres. It also states that not more than two-thirds of the members of elective public bodies shall be of the same gender. This has yet to happen, and legislation enforcing this constitutional requirement has yet to be passed despite the Jubilee party having a parliamentary majority and constantly claiming it is committed to the empowerment of women. Across most public and elective posts (such as MCA, governor, deputy governor, senator, member of national assembly, cabinet secretaries, diplomatic corps, Supreme Court judges, and Court of Appeal judges) women are fewer than 33.33%.

The situation is even worse in the private sector. Over 80% of the members of boards of private sector companies, chairpersons of these boards; directors in the registered companies listed at the Nairobi Securities Exchange and the chairpersons of the boards of these listed companies are men.

Women experience high levels of crimes against morality at the hands of men. Men commit up to 80% of the reported crimes against morality (women commit slightly over 20%), and are the key perpetrators of rape (over 80% of all reported rapes, including that of children, are committed by men). Men also commit 80% of all homicides, robberies, theft, offences related to drugs and other criminal offences. Because of this, men account for slightly over 80% of the prison population.

So much for the boy-child being left behind.

These figures paint a stark picture. They explain why Kenya’s Gender Equality Index is 38%. We still have light-years to go before we can live up to the ideals embodied in our Constitution. We have to close the gender gap across all areas: in employment, in healthcare, in education, and in payment for their work (women in Kenya earn 38% less than men on average). We have to strive to end violence against women, and we have to guarantee the representation of women in public and private institutions. Until then, when we claim to promote the values that underlie an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, equity and freedom in our Constitution, we lie.

The F-word: The Place of Feminism In Contemporary Kenya

Brenda Wambui
19 September ,2017

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) on the topic “The F-Word”: What is the Place of Feminism in Contemporary Kenya?

“Patriarchy, in many ways, is the primary form of oppression. Its victims comprise half of the world (there are 102 men for every 100 women on the planet) and it transcends all other forms of discrimination – be it on race, religion, education, social class or sexuality. It is pervasive – transcending time, all social strata and affecting all societies. It is the most universal form of oppression.”

All Animals Are Equal

Feminism is a movement whose goal is to end patriarchy and achieve the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. This means that before society, and before our institutions, we should all be seen as deserving of the same rights, freedoms and opportunities. Feminism as a movement has had multiple waves, and many believe that we are living in its fourth wave, which is introspective and focused on the personal being political. The fourth wave is focused on intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw.

Intersectionality recognizes that we have intersecting social identities that then dictate how we are treated in society. These identities determine our oppression and discrimination, or lack thereof. Your sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ethnicity, nationality, age, mental/physical (dis)ability and illness, religion and so on all intersect and overlap, contributing to your social position, thus dictating the level of oppression/discrimination you experience. As StaceyAnnChin said, all oppression is connected.

The fourth wave, however, has also seen the rise of “choice feminism.” Many times, people will state that “feminism is about choice” but I find this assertion dangerous. First, choice feminism assumes that women have unequivocal rights/freedoms, which we all know to be untrue. The choices women are able to make in our society are limited by our oppressive attitudes, cultures and institutions. It is like being in a prison with the option of staying in your cell or going outside for some sunshine. You may have a choice on what to do, but you are still in prison.

Second, by centering feminism on choice, we forget all the structural oppression women face. Choice feminism acts as a distraction, by focusing on the oppressed as having the key to ending their oppression – if only they make the right choice(s). Which is dangerous, because yet again, it assumes that they have unequivocal rights/freedoms. Which then enables victim blaming – you are earning less because of your choices, not because of the pay gap. You are being abused by your partner because you picked the wrong partner, not because of a culture of violence against women. It dovetails nicely with this tired statement: “women are their own worst enemies.” This focus on individual “choice” also conveniently prevents movement building and collective organizing, which are necessary for us to end patriarchy.

Third, it creates the assumption that the more choices one makes, the more freedoms one has. Again, this is a falsehood, but it is one that is easy to miss because of how well it dovetails with neo-liberalism. This assumption is what enables beauty brands to use feminism to sell cosmetics and apparel brands to sell T-shirts that read “This is what a feminist looks like” or “We should all be feminists.” Yes, you look good in these products, but this does not get us any closer to dismantling the patriarchy. It only makes us feel good and puts money in the pockets of neoliberal capitalists.

The most distracting thing about choice feminism is the slippery slope arguments it enables. Suddenly, we are caught up in arguments about whether taking/sharing nude photos is a feminist choice. Whether marriage is a feminist choice. Whether starring in pornography is a feminist choice. What makes a good feminist. What makes a bad one, and so on. Meanwhile, the patriarchy remains untouched – unbothered. The status quo is upheld – power remains largely with men, and women remain objects as opposed to becoming subjects.

Yes, feminism is a choice. But not all choices are feminist. Nor do they have to be. [I asked the audience: if I, a feminist, decide not to shower, is that a feminist choice?] The oppression of women is a collaborative effort between the society and its institutions. This is why the 11th Kenyan Parliament, in which President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Coalition had both a senate and national assembly majority, was unable and unwilling to pass the two-thirds gender bill [which is a constitutional requirement.] The 11th Parliament was unconstitutional. So is the 12th, but the country doesn’t care, because it reflects the attitudes we hold towards women in Kenya.

Which is why the feminist movement is necessary in this country where women are considered secondary citizens, undeserving of public and political space. Where rape culture (in which rape and sexual violence, typically against women, is considered the norm/tolerated/excused) is rampant. How does rape culture manifest itself in Kenya? Through genital mutilation, through sexual harassment at work and on the streets, through violence against queer and trans people, through domestic and intimate partner violence, through dating violence (that women experience from men interested in them), through emotional abuse, through sex trafficking, through femicide, through child marriage, through sexual violence (such as rape, stripping and assault), and through technology assisted violence (such as online bullying and threats).

Our feminism, first and foremost, must target the end of rape culture and violence against women. Why? Because it is intended to limit the extent to which women can participate in society. It is intended to keep women small, and in their place. They can only go as far as men will let them. Venture any further and what happens? Violence. Which is why women politicians are permanently being threatened with rape, stripping and other forms of violence. Why they have to have more security. Why their entourages are heckled and even stoned. It is also why men harass women on the streets, and why the go-to threat for many men towards women is “we will rape you.”

Our society, and most around the world, privilege men and masculinity while penalizing women and femininity [which is why the LGBTQI community experiences similar violence]. Privilege is a special right/advantage/immunity granted to a person or group of people simply by virtue of belonging to said group, not because they have done anything to earn it. How do we deal with male privilege in the Kenyan society?

For women and femmes, I believe the answer is intersectional feminism. Flavia Dzodan aptly said “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.” If we let intersectionality guide us, wonderful things happen. We expand our scope and make our movement inclusive. People live more fully due to this inclusion/recognition, and more voices join the fray. We realize that there is no one-size-fits-all feminism, as such feminism would erase and exclude (given the ways in which we are different/hold multiple identities, focusing only on common ground would be harmful.) When we include race, class, ethnicity, sexuality and other identity markers in our feminism and feminist analysis, we strengthen the movement. It is no longer about those who already occupy a disproportionate amount of space posturing as if they are being inclusive while ceding nothing.

For men, I believe the answer is the destruction of toxic masculinity. Patriarchy places a premium on the masculine while penalizing the feminine. Which is why the institution of “real men” exists – real men don’t cry/show emotion, they don’t raise their children (they babysit), they don’t cook or clean, they make more money than their female partners, they are uncontrollable beasts in the presence of women, and so on. This institution is toxic, and it exercises its power through the patriarchy. It restricts the amount of space available to women and femmes as well as the men themselves, and it is up to them to destroy it as allies, and increase this space.

Right now in Kenya, the most pertinent feminist issue is representation, because women make up more than half of Kenya’s population yet we are barely represented in our institutions, especially public ones. The feminist movement and its allies here need to educate, agitate and organize (credit to Dr. Ambedkar) to ensure that the gender two-thirds bill is passed, and that our public institutions are constitutionally constituted. Even when we achieve this goal, we need to continue to fight for equal representation, because (#WeAre52pc).

Opening Up

Michael Onsando
12 September ,2017

If there is a way I have failed my masculinity, it has been by way of omission.

I keep returning to this idea of toxic masculinity. I keep returning to the correlation between toxicity and survival – this still remains too complicated a strand for me to begin to understand, let alone write about. But I’d like to attempt to start somewhere. Especially in this time when we think about what “healthy” masculinity looks like. How can we talk about healthy masculinity before we begin to look at the things that create this toxicity to begin with?

We’ve heard it said many times – we start off so well and then delve into forms of toxicity. These things have been explained away, a lot of this hides under “boys will be boys.” How do we begin to unpack the things that get in the way between (us?) men and ourselves? Many words to say ‘Yes, the patriarchy hurts men – but how?”

I begin with Mark Mason:

“When prodded by Robbins, his reasoning for wanting to kill himself was that his life insurance policy would pay enough to support his wife and children after he was gone, whereas if he stayed alive, his family would be saddled by debt and left broke. When Robbins threw out the obvious point that while his kids would grow up with financial stability, they wouldn’t have a father, the man calmly asserted, “Yes, exactly. That’s the idea.” (…)It’s not just that he thinks his kids would be better off with money than with him, it’s that he believes his only value as a person is his ability to make money.”

Before I say anything on that I’d like to stop by Brene Brown. In Rising Strong (listen here) Brene talks about shame and she speaks of meeting a man who said the following statement:

“We (men) have shame; we have a lot of shame. But every time we reach out we get the shit beat out of us. And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those boyfriends; my wife and three daughters, who you just signed those books for? They would rather see me die before I fall off my high horse.”

Vulnerability is messy.

There’s no other way to put it. There is little cleanliness or space for tiptoeing around one’s vulnerability – particularly when it comes off the back of years of suppression. This is what many men deal with. This becomes increasingly complex when we remember that nothing happens within a void. That unlearning toxic behavior first begins with identifying this behavior within oneself.  Especially because the habits we try to understand  – the things we try to catch – are fleeting. Coming up against our own histories of what weakness is and venturing into a world that is quick to shove one back in their shell it makes sense that we quickly unlearn vulnerability. And, once vulnerability is unlearned it becomes harder to tolerate in others (who are you to speak? Haven’t we all managed to suppress this?)

But this isn’t even about vulnerability.

In Mark Mason’s essay quoted above the man in question sees his value as his ability to make money.  So much so that he imagines his own death would have no impact on those around him outside their loss of financial status.

These are the stories we are told.

The patriarchal narrative – find a good job, make money. The more money you make the better a woman you’ll get. The position of a man is not to have emotions, but to provide and solve.  Money is often the solution. The position of the man is to have money and to provide security(in an abstract way – whatever this means can be shaped depending on what’s going on). And make decisions of course – decision making is key.

This is not something we did not already know, but I’d like to think about the kind of environment that is created by these rules. What forms of hearing and unhearing are developed towards this end.  If, for example, a man is to be stoic in the face of even the fiercest of emotional assaults, what parts of himself need to die for him to be who the world needed him to be?

I’m trying to think again, from the place that a child is a child. We come into this world with both our hearts and minds open (for the most part). What experiences do we learn?

When I first came into this idea of feminism I was astounded. In many ways it gave me the language to connect with parts of myself. In many ways it gave me the language to disregard my own pain. Now I find myself trying to understand just what this intersectionality looks like. I ask this particularly because this was around the time I was out of work and really trying to define value for myself. And the things that were given to me as indicators of value were being branded as toxic – or damaging. The instinct to protect, for example, is one instinct that constantly comes up against the need for agency. Protection many times means denying one the ability to make their own choices (I know where this roads leads and it is horrible, so I refuse you to go down it). And working through these issues needs one to be vulnerable enough to admit what is going on – (perhaps my masculinity refuses to allow me to see you at this time) and for that vulnerability to be received and understood as opposed to slammed shut. Perhaps this is why I keep going back to what happens when truths collide. Is there space for more than one form of vulnerability at a time? Or must it happen in turns, allowing negotiations of truths as people work towards a common truth?

Even as I write this I wonder if there is such a thing as a common truth.

So maybe not a common truth but a truth that accepts the multiplicity of truths. That accepts the fact that all we have to go on is the information we have. And all that we are doing is using the information we have to navigate the world to our own forms of freedom.

So maybe a question today – even as we demand that people be open and vulnerable, are we making a space for it? Or do we continue to insist that people give us weights that we lack the tools and capacity to carry?

Revolutionary Type Love

Michael Onsando
11 July ,2017

“The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free

But you live with the fear of just being me

Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be

No harm for them, no harm for me

But life is short, and it’s time to be free

Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed”

  • Gloria Carter, Smile.


There are many things that are up for debate. But one thing we all seem to agree on is the necessity of love. We need love. Which is why I found this whole idea of revolutionary type love interesting. Why did love also need to be finessed? What was wrong with the ordinary brand of love? This leads us to challenge what we have seen as ordinary, who that excludes. And how those excluded find home, find voice and center themselves. Perhaps this is why when Kawiria Mwirichia brought six queer photographers together they described the project as a project whose “main purpose is the acknowledgement and celebration of Queer love and the Queer individual.”

It is this idea of the queer individual that I would like to start with. And to do this I will focus on Awuor Onyango’s work. Awuor tried to create using Focault’s interior ‘androgyny and hermaphrodism of the soul that which created the homosexual out of the sodomite, a kind of Kenyan queer semiology.’ It is difficult to read through this without drawing thinking of humanizing. Making human, making whole. And it is difficult to take that away from the Facebook post I saw earlier this morning of a gay man proposing to his partner, and the hundreds of hate comments under it. How would humanizing queer people look like in such a space? What does working towards that mean for the individual and how does it affect the choices they make? Aptly named, “Visibility is a Trap,” the five part series does a lot of work around showing bodies and giving them a form of intrinsic power. None of the revolutionary loves she shows are working against anything external. Rather her subjects always seem to yield themselves. Perhaps in here is where we begin to see the humanizing work, the owning of the self and of the body.

The exhibition room itself feels warm. The walls are draped with yellow and red cloth. All the windows are closed and the light is set low. Along the floor the paths are mapped in Khanga. The net result is warmth. ‘We even wanted to put pillows on the ground but then we were afraid people would fall asleep’ Kawiria says, chuckling. And it did put you at ease, the second you walked in. And looked at the first exhibition, which was Faith Wanjala’s work.

Her photo series was about the individual finding their light, slowly shifting from being able to connect with oneself to being able to connect with an other. In many ways this series echoed the work of Mal Muga, who used his space on the wall to talk about vulnerability in gay men. In both scenarios the subjects first had to deal with themselves before being able to deal with another. This is not to say they were the same though. Faith Wanjala’s work focused on the self. Trying to show how one must come to themselves, and their own light before sharing or partaking in the light of another. Meanwhile, Mal’s work seemed to focus on how one must trust the other that they are giving themselves to. He demonstrated this taking inspiration from the Japanese form of bondage art known as Kinbaku.

Maganga decided to show queer love in its everydayness. He captured intimacies that lead me one to question – why are all these things happening indoors? Why not on the street?  It’s Hand holding, sharing a meal, hugs . The banalities of being in a relationship and how they look. His work, he hopes will “humanise queer people and see that LGBTIQ relationships aren’t only just about sex,” something that Neo Musangi does not shy away from in their work. Not necessarily sex, but this idea of the phallus and why it is at the only way we seem to be able to imagine gender.

Wawera Njeru, on the other hand, decided focus on Dennis Nzioka. Dennis Nzioka is an activist and has been on the forefront of the queer struggle in the country. Towards her celebration of him she captures his tattoos and in two images tries to explore this idea of the lone wolf. A philosophy that Nzioka himself lives by.

The thing that most appealed to me about this project was the diversity of ideas it offered. In a space where to be queer is often equated to sex, as Maganaga explores, the project gives life to this idea of diverse ways of being, of allowing ourselves to be, and of allowing others to be. And this is important in a space where love has been so strictly defined. Perhaps this is the revolutionary type love. Love that allows other to be in different ways.

To Revolutionary Type Love ran from May 18th to June 3rd 2017.A sequel is expected in 2018. Find them on Instagram here.


Flower Girls, Girlfriends and Sexist Discourse: The Politics of the Two-Thirds Gender Bill

Guest Writer
20 December ,2016

by Wendy Okolo

The African Human Development Report indicates that African countries make up four out of the top 10 countries with high levels of women representation in parliament. These four countries are Rwanda, Seychelles, Senegal, and South Africa. It comes as no surprise that Kenya is not part of this progressive narrative (if the ongoing debacle on the gender bill is anything to go by).

The deadline to enact the bill passed on the 27th of August, the same day The Saturday Nation released grim statistics on women’s representation in top public institutions and the political space. According to these statistics, women occupy 26% of President Kenyatta’s Cabinet, while 37% are principal secretaries. The judiciary, argued to be doing better, comprises 39% women. At a quick glance, this looks like a promising gain, though we can’t pop the champagne yet: equal representation is still a mirage.

A closer look reveals that a more women work in the lower courts as compared to the higher courts, an indication of gender bias not only in ranking levels at the judiciary, but also a strong hint to the gender dynamics at the broader social context. Only 32% of the Kenyan population thinks that implementation of provisions on inclusion of marginalized persons is a priority. Thus, it is little surprise that we have made no progress on implementation of the bill.

Numbers always tell stories – through what they show, or what they hide. Here, they show the prevailing situation in as far as measuring the progress of inclusion of women in politics goes. Numbers can also be useful in representation. A good example is the use of quotas to increase the numbers of women in political spaces. This is what the bill aims to achieve – to set a minimum for the number of women that should be included in politics.

Somehow this approach seems to be failing in Kenya, whereas it has been fairly successful in Latin American countries, such as Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia. Closer home, Rwanda serves as a good example. Yet, before we get excited about the success of quotas, it would be naive to assume that quotas in themselves are effective in addressing the complex problem of inclusion of women in political and public institution spaces.

Certainly, there are wider systems that affect the efficacy of quota systems. A number of studies have shown how characteristics of a country’s electoral system shape the success or failure of quota systems. Structures that that need to be put in place for quotas to succeed. For example, the level of explicitness in setting measures to increase representation of women, measures that make it more difficult to exclude women and active participation of civil society in monitoring implementation of quotas. Scholars have also argued that complementing quotas with public policies create deeper transformation.

Women’s collective galvanizing is useful for creating more room for women to maneuver in political and public institutions. Studies have demonstrated how women’s social movement has been significant in advancing progressive social policy issues, particularly in regard to including women in the political agenda. What is verifiable from these studies is the complexity of inclusion. It is never just about percentages and quotas – there are stories that shape these numbers and stories that influence the success rate of quotas. These are the stories that tease out interesting questions for gender practitioners, because they tell the enabling/disabling factors to inclusion. The inclusion of women in politics and public institutions is a process that is necessary but with no easy solutions – a silver bullet approach simply does not cut it.

In the case of Kenya, there is a history to the lethargy in implementing the gender bill. It is characterized by lack of political good will and the endorsement of internally induced patriarchal structures evident in the sexist discourse in political spaces. Male members of parliament have been on record for rejecting the gender bill on the rationale that this gives room for “people to nominate their girlfriends.” The bid to push the gender bill was lost an account of male parliamentarians who argued that the bill was retrogressive to democracy, and that, passing it was tantamount to giving women free seats.

In a separate report, The Saturdays Nation’s City Girl describes the gender bill as a move instigated to give women unfair advantage. She refers to the sitting women leaders as flower girls who make no substantive contribution in the political space. Her view of women parliamentarians as flower girls is not isolated – male members of parliament have been known to refer to their female counterparts accordingly. These gendered nuances obviously shape the inclusion/exclusion politics of women in the political space.

Not much attention is given to them because they are the story behind the numbers that we see. This flower girl and girlfriend discourse asserts the notion that public space is the space of men. A space structured according to gendered norms and any attempt to transgress these norms is met with strong resistance, or sometimes covert resistance as is the case with MPs boycotting the vote. The vital role of women as equal contributing partners is downplayed by sexist discourse and this has very direct implications of the number of women who enter these political spaces.

The fact that women’s rights to equal representation in the political space and public institutions need to be recognized should not have to be emphasized. As it is, Kenya positions itself as a democratic state, yet the truth is that it cannot speak of democracy without having gender democracy. The gender bill needs political goodwill to get through, but more importantly, its enactment and implementation will require male goodwill that reads against the grain of sexist discourse.

It is important to have men stand in support of women to push this bill through. It is essential that men be part of the change narrative that speaks against sexism and includes more women into the political space and public institutions.

Wendy Okolo is a feminist and a gender specialist skilled at gender analysis and mainstreaming. She is interested in gender inequality, with specific focus on power relations, women empowerment and how these shape social dynamics across various sectors.  

Open Letter to an African Writer

Michael Onsando
8 November ,2016

Dear Friend,

I know this letter may come as a surprise to you. And I do not blame you. I have been largely absent. However, I think that I need to talk to you about this thing you call identity, with particular respect to how you insist that it is founded within culture.

It is urgent that you cease to use the words “culture,” “identity,” “African” and such to avoid dealing with the real problems that are facing society right now. I listened to you as the feminists came out to try and create a space. I heard you talk about culture of violence against women.

I said nothing.

I listened again when you appropriated the queer struggle. When you wrote that article body shaming women. Even when someone tried to break it down for you, I was there. As you decided that the problem is the militancy of feminists. That they just came at you. As if their emotions were spontaneous and without reason. A thing that happened and we can’t explain why. Even though you knew what you were doing.

Still I said nothing.

I listened again as you insisted that rape only happens because she was drinking, or dressed inappropriately, or out at the wrong time, or something. You seemed so set on telling women what not to do that you forgot to tell me, and your other brothers that, perhaps, we should try and stop raping.

Even then, sadly, my mouth was shut.

I read as you wrote those articles. The ones that told men how to keep their women financially. Those articles that defended this “culture” and said that women should spend their time in the kitchen and not adopting silly Western principles like feminism. I even read the people who commented on your articles in agreement. Patted your back, saying that all these feminists need is a good man to discipline them. I read all this with increasing worry.

And still I had nothing to say.

So you must understand the urgency with which I write this letter. You have been pushing me to write it for a while and I have always had an excuse not to write it. There was another movie to watch, another book to read.

There was always more time.

Now, there is none (to be honest, there never was) so I will ask: Who made you guardian of culture? Who decided that you will be the person that exists to make sure that this culture is never forgotten? And, have you ever stopped to ask yourself what kind of culture this is that you are guarding? This foolhardy following of an oppressive culture needs to stop.

And it needs to stop now.

You need to listen. We have let a lot slide over the years, I’m not sure we will anymore. You are now someone who has a voice, and an audience, and so the things you say travel in ways you can’t even begin to imagine.

I know this is not easy to hear. I never said it would be. However, there are some things that need to be said. First of all, that disrespectful stuff you say, stop. Whenever you think of a sentence that starts with the word “Women” think very hard about it before you say it. And, even then, don’t.

Second, which should have been first, read. Any feminist thinking you can get your hands on. If you are not a reader as you once were – and even if you are – it is also very important to listen to the women in your life. And by listen I don’t mean pause for them to talk while waiting for your turn to speak, I mean actually listen to what they are saying.

Third, that thing you do where you refuse to listen to victims is toxic. Do you have experience with assault? Do you know how hard it is to come out – knowing the amount of shame that lies in your future? Do you know how much lives in the economies of “paid”?

Fourth, rape is NEVER the victim’s fault. I don’t care if she was walking in the middle of the street naked – it is rape culture that we need to stop. And, eventually rapists. Yet, even within this paradigm, understand that women need to live because rapists are out there. Since we are talking about rape, let me add that rape jokes are not funny. Ever.

Finally, I’ve not covered everything (or even the major bases really). Nor am I perfect by any standards. There are many feminist blogs out there. Everyday feminism  is a good place to start. But to his closer to home Wambui Mwangi, Shailja PatelBrenda Wambui, Aisha Ali, Cera Njagi, Gathoni and many other women meticulously document and examine thousands of micro-aggressions. Every day. Remember that culture is cultivated. We are only as a people who we as a people decide to be.

If you take nothing else from this letter, remember to listen. Privilege is a real thing, and you have it. And, because you have it, you may not always see it. This means that every so often, you will be wrong – and that’s fine too.

What About the Men?

Michael Onsando
9 August ,2016

It feels like somewhere along the creation of metaphors the truth was lost.

Which is to say that the truth can be hidden in plain sight. What’s right in front of you may actually be what is happening. Occam, a philisohpist by nature but, I believe, a poet at heart, had a theory: when presented with a problem, the simplest solution is often the correct one.

So what, then, are the facts?

  1. That when everything starts it will take a while before it stops.
  2. That the problem, often, with ripples is that they create other ripples, and
  3. That speaking can only  be a problem for those that are yet to find a voice.

But, of course, the problem with voices is that they resonate. And a collection of voices echoing each other can often be heard as a thunderous blast. What began as a whisper bounces off other whispers. And those who are yet to find voices of their own echo pain that is not felt. For everyone must speak of pain, but how do you speak to something that you haven’t known?

Pilipili usioila, yakuwashianini?

Swahili Proverb

This, of course, presents another problem – is it then that one can only speak of pain that they have felt? Of their own pain? How does this speak to the pain of vulnerable communities? How do we navigate those who would not be heard, who would be lost in the sea of sound?

Amplify (verb): Cause to become more marked or intense.

The common cuckoo bird is a brooding parasite. As soon as it is ready to lay its eggs it finds a nest full of eggs, pushes an egg out and then lays a similar looking egg through a process known as mimicry. As soon as the egg hatches it methodically pushes any other eggs/birds out of the nest so that it can monopolise the food that is being provided. The cuckoo doesn’t join to share or to participate – the cuckoo joins to take and make it’s own – to appropriate.

This is why the distinction between amplification and appropriation is so important. To amplify is to point at a problem and say, this is a problem – these people are talking about their problem and we need to find a way to address it. To appropriate is to say that you too are subject to a pain that you are not. That you too are part of a struggle that has nothing to do with you.

Which begs the question – do struggles need to be inclusive? O,r is inclusion the beginning of the dilution of a struggle? The more loosely the frames attached to a struggle are defined – the harder it becomes to actually know what a struggle is about and address the issues within the struggle. Feminism, for example, becomes a struggle about how the patriarchy is oppressing women – everyone yes, but women in particular. So the question becomes where does the discussion to release men from the patriarchy sit?

Feminism, I think, has been a gift – and feminist philosophy has given us language and frames to grasp and struggle with a certain problem. To be able to read about sexism and point to certain pain points within the patriarchy. It’s a blessing to how we think critically about the world and an important tool towards the liberation of women. But, if the problem lies within the patriarchy and how it is set up then, as it has been said, it is up to the people within the patriarchy to find better structures.

But this can’t be an isolated effort, right? Just like any other structure and any other movement there must be an organization of sorts towards actually making it better – and I’m not talking about an NGO or a community project – I’m saying there must be a discussion about men and the patriarchy by men. And it needs to be actively organized.

Because if the patriarchy also hurts men – as we (and “not all men”) have said for a long time, then men must begin to vocalize the ways in which the patriarchy destroys them. Then there needs to be organized thought around it, and debate and analysis – this is the only way this structure, that we seem to have agreed is demanding more of us than it should – can begin to be deconstructed. To demand that feminism make room for men is to demand that an apple tree gives you guavas. No matter how dire the need for guavas, you might need a different tree.

Feminism is built on the backs of years of emotional labor and analysis by an entire movement.  It is built on people who have thought about what they felt and held it up against the larger scheme of things to truly understand where the pain is coming from. Then they gave it a language so that they could express it. And now it is being expressed and amplified, as it should.

There’s a problem and it needs to be fixed. That’s about it – but to demand that this space, designed to cater to women, make room for others is to lay your egg in another’s nest.

You want to understand how the patriarchy hurts men then look inside men, find the pain – analyse it and begin to talk about it. Find others and figure out how to stop it. But don’t think that sitting down and making fun of the people who have known what their pain is about will help you alleviate yours – it won’t.

Of Men In Checked Shirts and Little Children

Guest Writer
19 April ,2016


This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Murugi Kagotho

I met him the other day, this man. He was dressed in his characteristic faded yellow checked shirt that now looked overly worn, brown khakis, and the hat I had grown so accustomed to seeing. I met him the other day, 13 years later, and this time round, I looked him in the face, with no fear. He seemed taken aback, intimidated in fact, and though for some reason my words failed me at the moment, I am sure that he knew he was no longer in control.I had regained my ground – and intended on keeping it.

I must have been around 11 when I saw him for the first time, this man. Walking home from school, I noticed him pass me by then suddenly stop. I could feel his eyes on me for a long time, but being young and naive, it never struck me as particularly strange. This was until I saw him the next day, standing obscurely hidden along the road as if waiting for something, and that something turned out to be me. He stared and stared at me this man, day after day, until he finally gathered the courage to start trailing me. He followed me home. Close, but not close enough to raise any suspicion from anyone. And that was when my instincts made me realize that this checked shirt may lead me to my grave. I remember running home and frantically telling my mum what was going on, and true to say, when we stepped out of the house, we could see him standing at the corner just peering in the direction I had just ran to. My mother never got a good look at his face.

Not to say that he never stopped following me, but after that, my mother talked to the shop owners, who were our friends, about it, and every time I thought this man was watching me, I would slip into a shop and stay there till the shop owner called my mum or had someone escort me home. Needless to say, this man was so obscure that my attempts to describe him to anyone always proved unproductive. It’s as if he did not exist except in my mind, and there, he existed for the sole purpose of filling me with fear. I was lucky that he did not take it any further.

And so I met him the other day, this man. 13 years later, still looking exactly as I remembered him, albeit run down by life. I bet he recognized me at once, recognized how much I had grown and how much of a woman I had become. I bet he recognized the fearlessness and the confidence I was now shoving into his face. I was now grown enough to confront him.

I stared him down, this man, on behalf of all the little boys and little girls that men like him find easy prey. I stared him down on behalf of every little boy and little girl whose innocence has been taken advantage of by a perverse stranger. For every little boy and little girl who is unaware of the men and women around them with intentions that are far from good. For every little boy and little girl who has to live in fear because their parents are not around enough to listen to what they have to say about the man that grabs their hand every day after school. I stared him down on behalf of our little boys and little girls whose childhood has been shortened by the need to be wary of the life around them; of the things they hear and the things they see. I stared him down so that he would know that he had lost the battle and the war, and that he could no longer use his power to intimidate and scare me as he once had.

I may not have spoken a single word to this man in the checked shirt, but he understood every single thing I had intended to say, and the next time I meet him, on behalf of every little child out there, be sure that my words will not fail me.

Murugi Kagotho is a multipotentialite, and an excessive capitalizer of letters and hyphenator of words. Follow her on Twitter.

This essay was taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, Ha!Kuna Matata, which is on security in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

What About The Girl Child?

Brenda Wambui
22 March ,2016

Two weeks ago in Bungoma County, twenty girls from Chelebei Secondary Schoolgirls in Mt Elgon were confirmed pregnant after a routine check by the school when they returned from the December holidays.

Their deputy principal, David Emachar, blamed the girls’ parents for not closely monitoring their children’s activities and whereabouts during the holidays, saying “we have tried our best through guidance and counselling sessions and it is unfortunate that such still occur. We ask the parents to come and support our efforts by monitoring the children’s movements.”

Parents, on the other hand, blamed the school for letting the girls down. They felt that since they were busy working hard so as to fend for their families, the school should have taken a more active role in preventing this occurrence. This shows how these poor girls’ lives are affected by the intersection of multiple problems, such as poverty (which leaves their parents unable to spend as much time as they would like monitoring their children), lack of reproductive health education (our legislators continue to hold back the Reproductive Health Bill from becoming law, yet it would ensure children such as these at least understand their bodies, that chances of them being taken advantage of by adults are reduced, and that when disasters such as this one occur, they can receive the best care), and perhaps worst of all, being a girl child in Kenya and having to face sexism from every possible source in their lives.

One of the residents interviewed said that these girls typically had to walk long distances to and from school, and they get waylaid by boys from neighbouring schools and areas. Many parties agreed that such cases would be fewer if the schools had dormitories. The deputy principal added “We are shocked by this incident, it has proved to be very much expensive to us because we are forced to offer guiding and counseling sessions and also inviting different speakers to talk to them so that they can accept their status and carry on with their education.” As if it is a burden to offer sex education and/or guidance and counselling to these girls. This feels like victim blaming at its worst.

What we have here is a failure to recognize this for what it is: sexual abuse of minors. The fact that the girls have to be kept at school to be safe from other (male) members of their societies is saddening. That the onus is on them, as children, to be “guided and counselled” out of having sex with boys/men from their societies, as opposed to strongly warning these boys/men against statutorily raping these girls (if they are minors, which they likely are, they cannot consent, and this automatically makes it statutory rape as opposed to sex), is even more so.

Just this week, it was reported that five school girls in Migori County had been impregnated by boda boda drivers. One of the pregnant girls, who is only 14 years old, said that since she was under the care of her relative (who is a boda boda driver), she had no choice but to follow him to the sugar plantation every afternoon. Many of the girls wanted to drop out due to being ridiculed by their fellow students, and other villagers. This shows the culture of victim blaming we have perfected in Kenya. It also shows that these people are desensitized, do not consider what happened as rape (most times, these girls have no power in these situations), and somehow think of these girls as adults as opposed to children who deserve to be taken care of by everyone in their community.

The 2015 National Adolescent and Youth preliminary report found that teachers and boda boda drivers were mostly to blame for early pregnancy cases, which then result in school drop-outs and early marriages. Other reasons include unsafe sexual behaviour, drug abuse, poverty and parental negligence.

The survey that informed the report found that teenage pregnancies are linked to level of education, with a majority (36%) of teenage mothers aged between 15 and 19 (either mothers or pregnant with their first child) having only completed primary school. 33% had no education at all, 19% had not even completed primary school, and only 12% had completed secondary school. This is a vicious cycle that ensures that this continues to happen, because these women are likely to raise these children in poverty, and girls coming from such homes will likely fall prey to the same kind of sexual abuse their mothers did.

Lack of reproductive health education was pointed out as a key reason for these pregnancies, alongside lack of community engagement. The report says that “Teenage mothers face a greater risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth. The young mothers are prone to abort, which can also lead to death. They are also likely to suffer from poor mental and general health, considering the stress they undergo.”

It is time we stopped lying to ourselves using anecdotes that the girl child in Kenya is well off, or as some would say, “being prioritized in favour of the boy child,” who does not face challenges of the same magnitude. One key to ending the cycle of poverty in Kenya is putting an end to the perpetuation of sexual abuse against young girls, ensuring they receive a good education and have a shot at bettering their lives, and the lives of those around them.

As Barack Obama said, “They are issues of right or wrong in any culture. But they are also issues of success and failure. Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximise their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports centre: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”

On the Shoulders of Broken Men

Michael Onsando
8 March ,2016
  1. Bothered by my constant crying my aunt shows me a book “real men don’t cry,” I want to be a real man.

I stop crying.

I don’t understand why real men didn’t cry. I’m just told they don’t. The only thing worse than not being able to be a real man is being a girl.


One of the most telling characteristics of masculinity is its aversion to emotion, or forms of emotion. In many ways the idea of being a source of strength, or at least perceiving oneself as one, makes sense. If people feel that no one can hurt them while you’re around, then they will hang around you more. The man who cannot be cracked is valuable because he cannot be cracked.

But what happens when you have a large chunk of people working hard to show that they cannot be cracked? Eventually they begin hitting each other. Trying to show that the other is lying. Trying to prove that they are the only ones in impregnable armor. They are the hardest to crack.

It’s then not only vulnerability itself that becomes preyed upon but any sign that shows that vulnerability is possible. Suddenly, it is important to not just look like the most guarded, but the most dangerous.

Eventually even just looking like refuses to cut it.

Brene Brown, in a podcast about shame and vulnerability (listen here), talks about how she learned about shame in men. After years of research focusing mainly on women one man came to have a conversation with her after a talk. This is what he told her

“We (men) have shame, we have a lot of shame. But every time we reach out we get the shit beat out of us. And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those boyfriends; my wife and three daughters, who you just signed those books for? They would rather see me die before I fall off my high horse.”

A friend once admitted that she wouldn’t know what to do if her dad cried. That this would change her world view. He is, she said, a source of security, of safety and him lacking security would mean something to her.

She didn’t define what the something was. I don’t think it was a thing she had thought of defining.


In front of the bathroom mirror, my father cries. The mirror gradually disappears.

Or, in front of the bathroom mirror, my father cries. His reflection disappears.

Kweli, Views of My Father Crying, Again.


I’m struck by the unbecoming that happens in these two lines to the father that cries. It is as if, by crying, something must be broken; be destroyed. This essay is not about tears. They just insist on being a strong metaphor for something else.

Brene Brown continues:

“If you show me a woman who can sit by a man a real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show a woman who: a) has done her work and b) does not derive her power from that man. And if you show me a man who can sit with a woman in deep struggle and vulnerability and not try to fix it but just hear her and hold space for it; I’ll show you a guy who has done his work and a man who doesn’t derive his power from controlling and fixing everything.”


It is impossible to read this paragraph without taking note of how strong the gender binary is in the language. Still, there’s something to be taken from it about masculinity. To be always above and away from things is to be unfazed. To be unfazed by things is often read as the ability to handle/alter the course of whatever things are happening. It is to be okay. To have handled and lived through something before. The only reason I wouldn’t run around in panic if a monster started tearing up town is if I had dealt with monsters before.

To be in control of oneself is often seen as being in control of their environment.


  1. My grandfather dies. He was a real man. Standing by his grave I try to be a real man, I try not to cry. The tears tickle at the edges of my eyes.

In shame I run away.

In the farm I steel myself. I do not cry.

Sokoro would be proud.


  • Unlearning the man


But what happens when things that happen that we have no control over? It’s easy to brush things off and imagine them as inconsequential. However, as things often do, they find a way to make themselves back to you. Having not admitted to having control the first time it becomes increasingly difficult to admit to this lack of control. The longer we are afraid and unspeaking, the less likely we are to speak. The less we speak the more we begin to look upon those who do with disdain. As if somehow, by expressing themselves they are performing a disservice to us (who don’t) and they must be silenced.

Basically, the more we silence ourselves, the more we learn how to silence others. Because the voices of others will only awaken the voices inside ourselves that we have long since learned to ignore. After a long time of pretending we can’t break even hinting to the idea that we can is jarring.


Cause we represent a truth son,

that changes by the hour.

And when you open to it

vulnerability is power.


Eventually even breaking is seen as lashing out. To break when you are not supposed to break is to awaken the breaking in others. Or, to rephrase, to feel is to remind others of their own capacity to feel. If your armor is cracked then the myth of unbreakable armor breaks.

Deconstruction of the entire construct of masculinity begins with deconstructing ourselves. It is not about breaking down some imaginary notion that exists far out somewhere in the confines of critical theory and essays with footnotes. Instead it turns out that the real work is, mainly, on the inside. Which is a lot harder and, dare I say it, a lot more scary as well.