Two weeks ago, an audio surfaced on WhatsApp, and later on Soundcloud/Twitter/Facebook of a man named Morris (pronounced Mollis by the woman in the clip due to the influence of mother tongue) having sex with a woman despite her repeated pleas for him to stop in two languages, and her saying she was tired and had surrendered. This is repeated severally throughout the recording, and the woman sounds genuinely pained.
Imagine my surprise when I came online to find Mollis being touted as a don for what was most definitely rape. Men were all over claiming that Mollis was their hero, and a man to be emulated, while some women were saying that she was having too much fun, or just couldn’t handle “some good dick.” Some people came out and said that she sounded like she was in pain, and that she had withdrawn her consent severally, hence it was rape, and Mollis was a rapist.
The backlash was unbelievable. We had people, mostly men, saying that it couldn’t be rape, because earlier on he’d told her that she had a good vagina and she said “thanks”; because what was she doing in bed with him if she didn’t want it; because, apparently, consent cannot be withdrawn mid-sex. Once you say yes, in their misguided opinion, you can’t change your mind. They forget that a woman has the right to withdraw consent midway into sex, the same way any human being has the right to change their mind and this has to be respected. To fail to recognize this is to dehumanize women. I was astonished at the number of men who may have done these things and not recognized that they were rapists, and the number of women who may have had this happen to them and failed to recognize that they had been raped.
Rape is sex without consent, plain and simple. When one of the parties involved in sex is unwilling or unable to consent, then no matter the circumstances, that is rape. We imagine rape to be something that happens along a dark path when a woman (or man) is waylaid by a group of strange men, or a single one, and amidst tears and fighting, is pinned down and violently penetrated. What about the woman who is taken out for drinks by a man, and then after she has one too many and is unable to exercise her right to consent, he forces himself on her? What about that married couple, when the woman is not in the mood but her husband makes her have sex anyway, and she is too afraid to voice her unwillingness/anger because of fear of physical abuse, or “sabotaging” the marriage? What about that ten-year old boy whose first sexual encounter is with the house help? To limit our definition of rape to the stereotypical image earlier mentioned does a great disservice to many, and causes them great pain.
To avoid the perpetuation of this cycle of pain, we should not just seek consent (that is, an affirmation that the person you want to have sexual relations with also wants to have sexual relations with you). We should take it a step further and seek enthusiastic consent – don’t just seek passive agreement to sexual relations, seek enthusiastic agreement – make sure the person is as psyched about the sexual activity as you are. They should not be impaired or unconscious. We have been told severally that “no means no” but this is no longer enough. It’s not just about being told no/to stop, it’s about getting a definitive, enthusiastic yes. The problem with the “no means no” school of thought is that it leads people to say that the concept of consent is confusing. It leads to people seeking to avoid a “no” as opposed to getting a “yes”. What if someone does not give a definitive no?
Here’s my school of thought: “No” means no. “I have a boyfriend” means no. “Maybe some other time” means no. Sometimes, even “Yes” means no, when the person being asked doesn’t have a real choice in the matter. Anything other than an enthusiastic yes is NOT consent. Why is this so important? Because women have been taught by society not to be direct for fear of being offensive or being attacked, so several times, a woman may not directly say no when she does not want to have sex. There is a fear of saying “I do not want this. Stop. No.” And even when they do this, as the woman Mollis raped did, they are not taken seriously. It is assumed she just can’t handle the dick. She’s secretly enjoying it. She’s moaning and crying because of pleasure, not pain. On the other hand, men have been taught that they have to work hard for sex – pursue, coax, plead – until they get it.
I want to believe that most people do not want to be rapists, but we must remember that we are surrounded by a culture that supports, and sometimes even encourages rape. Rape culture is a culture in which sexual violence, including rape, is trivialized and normalized. It shows itself through blaming the victims of sexual assault/rape; Emily Buchwald in Transforming a Rape Culture adds:
“…a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself…In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable…However…much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.”
This culture is so persistent, that people think of it as “the way things have always been/will continue to be”. Thus, we can make jokes about sexual violence, create memes, support celebrities like Bill Cosby and others who have been implicated in multiple rapes, and blame the victims of rape/sexual assault because surely they must have somehow brought this inevitability upon themselves. We forget that most rapes are committed by ordinary men who look just like our friends/brothers/fathers/cousins, because they are surrounded by a culture that okays rape and sexual violence. Perhaps accepting this is too painful for most of us, because it would mean that we are somehow complicit. But we are.
Rape culture is what allowed a police officer to strip search a high school girl two weeks ago, and when she found her with contraband in her underwear, allow pictures of her breasts and private parts to be photographed. These photographs then spread on WhatsApp yet again before going viral on social media. It leads us to believe that she was a “bad girl” and somehow deserves to be shamed for her behaviour. It is what leads people to share nude images of a minor, with such glee, without her consent (please remember that minors according to the law cannot consent.) It is what leads an officer of the law, alongside a photographer who should know better, to think it is okay to use a girl/woman’s sexuality to shame her for bad behaviour. These incidents show how Kenyan women, regardless of age, continue to be abused sexually and denigrated in the public eye with no reprieve.
Our troubling attitude towards sex and sexuality as a society is further seen in this story, published in the entertainment section of one of Kenya’s largest newspapers, in which a taxi driver had sex with his wife against her doctor’s warning, and woke up to find her dead after they stopped because she was in pain. Several jokes and puns are utilized in the story, such as “Act of rod” and “gland to gland combat”, trivializing the fact that a woman died from having sex with her husband after his insistence, ignoring the doctor’s warning. After she started gasping and becoming weak, begging him to stop, he just rolled over and slept. He did not rush her to hospital. When he reported the matter to the police, they dismissed him, telling him they were in no mood for his jokes, and that he should solve his bedroom problems without involving them. This is all after a woman died due to sex.
Something has got to give. We can, and must, change our attitude towards sex and sexuality as a society, or else more people will continue to be victims of sexual violence. We must begin to educate ourselves on how to have safe, pleasurable sex that does not create any victims. We must stop looking at sex as something a woman owes a man, and that he must take at all costs, such as rape or death. Instead, sex should be viewed as something two consenting adults agree to participate in for their mutual pleasure. We must stop shaming women for enjoying sex, and stop teaching them to be coy, because this enforces what men are misguidedly taught – that no means maybe, and that maybe can be turned into a yes if you persist long/hard enough. This way, sex is not something men take from women, but something they share. How hot would that be?
We should create and encourage a sex positive culture, where sex is not a dirty thing. One in which people are not ashamed of their sexuality, and instead embrace it and encourage others to embrace their own; where people are able to communicate their sexual needs to their partners in a safe/open environment. One in which both having sex and not having sex are considered okay. One in which we teach members of the society about their reproductive health and encourage them to take it just as seriously as the health of the rest of their bodies. We should focus on ensuring that all sexual activities are consensual; enthusiastically so.
“Yes!” means yes.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
by Aleya Kassam
A heart attack is supposed to loudly announce its arrival. Bark orders with a gruff voice. Stomp into the room and raise hell.
You are supposed to be alarmed to it, by the clutching of the chest, sweat dripping down the face, a wheezing for breath. Dramatic. It is not called an attack for nothing.
The last thing you expect is for it to sneak up like a cowardly thief, slyly stealing a piece of the heart and leaving only a whisper of a footprint in its wake.
Mama had a heart attack, but we don’t know when. They found the remainders of its shadow in one of the multitude of tests they did.
It could have happened whilst I was cutting her nails, that day when she winced in pain.
It could have happened when we were giggling at the dinner table, my affectionate Grandpa having just laid a fat kiss on her cheek, and she rolling her eyes at his sentimentality.
It could have happened when she was asleep in her chair, feet encased in her fluffy slippers, her favourite Maasai blanket wrapped around her frail shoulders, eyes closed, the only sign that she was still alive, the gentle rising and falling of her chest.
She is back in hospital. Her heart is damaged and her lungs are gasping at the effort of taking on the load of an exhausted heart.
She coughs constantly, a grating sound, like her lungs are scraping onto her insides for dear life.
Her dementia has gotten much worse. Her brain, starved of oxygen, has retreated to places she knows well. Memories that are vivid. It stays there for hours.
The first sign of her brain’s betrayal came several years ago. As a family, we sit together each evening for our daily prayers, and mid-recitation Mama started making mistakes. Our eyes sprung open, and we would look at each other and giggle. Having been scolded as children whenever we made a mistake, we took great delight in adult imperfection.
It should have struck us as unusual. To falter with words that you have memorised and recited every day since you were a child. But we were far too distracted by our glee.
Then she started forgetting our names, saying every other family member’s name before she happened on the right one. Still, we found this amusing. We teased her about it. Mama is renowned for her wicked wit, and we assumed she would find it as funny as we did.
I wonder if we would have noticed the look in her eyes, perturbed, confused.
The dementia was a shape shifter.
It started taking on the visage of habitual forgetfulness.
What day is it today?
What did we eat for lunch?
Where is your father?
The questions became so predictable, we had a notebook with the answers already scribbled down (she is very hard of hearing), and would flip the pages, pointing to the relevant answer.
We did not stop to think that if we found this frustrating, what it must have felt like for her, to forget even the mundane.
Beyond the forgetting, we started noticing something more sinister. She would get stuck in the maze of her history.
We must get home now, before the school closes. We should not be here so late at night, it isn’t safe for two young girls to walk home when it is dark.
Thank God you are home, beta go and tell your brother Nashir (my dad), that there is food on the stove. I am so tired. I am going to rest my eyes. Tell Nashir I will wake him up for school tomorrow.
Don’t touch any boys Aleya. Don’t you know you can get pregnant if you touch boys? Remember Khatun, remember how her mum beat her outside mosque, calling her kutari (bitch). It is because she touched a boy. Don’t even touch Khatun, it might spread to you, and you might also get pregnant.
It would happen before she fell ill. Before a cold. Before an infection. Before the flu. A wave would come over her, washing over the present, coating it with thick impenetrable layers from the past. It became our measure for if Mama was falling ill. We would notice a cough, or a sneeze, and we would start scratching at that layer, testing her.
What is my name?
What is my relationship with this person? (pointing at my mother)
Where are we now?
It became a more reliable test than taking her temperature.
We didn’t stop to think how any of us would have felt if we had six people huddled around us, peering down, firing out questions, waiting to pounce on the slightest mistake.
We cracked jokes. It became our coping mechanism. If we didn’t laugh, we would cry.
So when Mama always brought up her brother in law’s name during these spells, my sister and I would giggle, tut tutting with conspiracy, we theorised that perhaps Mama had a lifelong crush on her brother in law. What if one day, a forbidden secret slipped out of her mouth? A secret love tryst? What a scandal!
Or when she was stuck in her childhood years, her whole demeanour would take on the unselfconscious freedom of a kid, and swinging her legs, she would widen her eyes and tell us to beware of the Mzungu’s Hallelujah flowers that they used when burying their dead, as that is where the ghosts of the spirits reside. She would stick her tongue out at us, and pluck the inside of the top row of her teeth with the nail of her thumb, making a splatting sound, the childhood symbol to say ‘I am your friend.’
It is incredibly precious. To get a glimpse of what she must have been like as a little girl. It feels like discovering treasure.
Then it stopped being the extraordinary, and became the ordinary. Somehow, this uninvited guest that had lurked in the corners, took centre stage, began to control her life more. It was bossy. It was loud. It was unreasonable. It was the seventh member in the Kassam household, and by far the most demanding.
Its constant presence changed our lives. It hovered over every minute of our lives.
Finally we stopped to think. We reminded ourselves that Mama was not her dementia. That it was like a veil that we had to see through, to find the granny we loved so much.
The granny that used to read the newspaper cover to cover every day, stopping to ask us about words she didn’t understand, predictably picking the awkward.
Woman chops off Man’s Genitals.
Aleya, what are genitals?
Or the granny that would put on her white tackies, hair perfectly coiffed and hair-sprayed, to walk around the neighbourhood every evening in her bright print dresses.
Or the granny that would tell us maru loi na pee (stop drinking my blood), as we ran around the house as kids, throwing powder on the floor so we could slip and skate about.
Or the granny whose smile was literally like a big bear hug around your heart.
In all of this, we learned not to reason. We learned that the rules of logic did not apply. We learned patience. We learned to stay with her, in the memory, in the wave, in the emotion she was going through. We learned not to judge. To just be.
But sometimes we forget.
Yesterday at the hospital, she was stuck in a horrific place. She lay in the hospital bed at Accident and Emergency, insisting on the curtain remaining open, eyes transfixed at the scene in the room. The shop was getting robbed, and she was in the middle of it. Experiencing it for hours. Screaming at me, to get us out. Get us out. Get us out. She grabbed the metal bars on either side of the bed, trying to move them.
She looked at me with accusing eyes. What was wrong with me, why was I not getting us out of there?
She threatened me, pleaded with me, cajoled me, tried to persuade me, and when all else failed, started to heckle.
A woman with 86 years’ worth of heckling experience is not to be messed with.
I relented. I thought maybe if I played along, it would give her some comfort. I pretended to use all my strength to move those bars aside. I grunted and wiped my brow. I squeezed my eyes and sighed heavily in frustration. She bought it. Almost.
Have some courage Aleya. What is wrong with you? If you can’t even muster this much courage at such a young age, how do you expect to pass your exams?
My granny has a warped sense of how old we all are. She is still completely impressed that I can drive.
After several hours of this, I thought perhaps if I stop responding, she may calm down. So, I am ashamed to say, I ignored her.
She looked at me, eyes brimming with betrayal.
You are just going to leave me here like this?
This went on for another couple of hours.
I cracked. My eyes filled with tears. Part despair at my inability to help her. Part loathsome self-pity.
She scoffed at me.
Huh. You are the one crying, and I am the one trapped here in this nightmare!
Reality is such a slippery thing. The things we know to be truth. Absolute. How dare they turn around and slide through our fingers? It is frightening. The mind can be a terrible, terrible thing.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s third e-book, (In)Sanity, What Crazy Looks Like: Security in Kenya, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
Editor’s note: I’m thinking about what it is to read this essay and think of the several iterations of violence that have happened since Westgate. What does it mean to live with the presence of this present?
by Mugo Muna
“So all those people in Westgate should get therapy?” he asked.
“Why not?”, I responded.
“Even if you managed to get therapy for all those people,” he said, “what are you going to do after the next incident?”.
He had a point. After this incident, there would undoubtedly be others. Matatu Madness. Insecurity. Natural disasters. These are all real threats that could bring distress and misery back into people’s lives.
He explained that because of these constant occurrences, you would need to be in constant therapy to just keep on living. So instead of living such a life, Frank thinks it’s better to come up with your own way of managing and just press onward.
Or simply: just deal with it.
This solution sits poorly with me. But I have my own coping mechanisms.
Whenever I am in a big shopping mall and everyone is happily walking about, I’m still thinking about how poorly the security guards search people coming into the malls. I’m thoroughly convinced that I will be caught in an attack at some point. Because of this certainty, I’ve decided that I am okay with losing a leg. Either leg. Just leave me with the ability to sit in front of a computer and churn out words. That’s all that is needed. But I doubt the aggressors would be so kind and listen to my pleas. Nevertheless, I have come to terms with it.
Okay, I am underplaying my acceptance a little bit.
Not only is the leg loss okay, but I have also been mentally designing the prosthetic that I would have made for me. It would need to be something that mimics the function of the lost leg but the form would be radically different so that you wouldn’t think that it was a real limb in the first place. Think chrome and jagged edges.
But that’s crazy! Right? These shouldn’t be the thoughts running through my head, which I admit, but they are present.
A friend of mine recently returned to the States after working in Kenya for a little over two years. Her friends said that she was acting strangely and that she should go and see a therapist. Upon visiting the doctor, she was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
She later made the claim that most of the people she knows who come back to the States after being from Kenya also end up with PTSD. At first, this statement can seem a bit hyperbolic. Because it could be interpreted as saying that everyone in Kenya has PTSD, which is ridiculous. Then I remembered that I’ve never seen as many dead bodies as I have in my time here in Kenya, and it is impossible to really know how those snapshots of suffering affect a person. Can you really be okay after seeing a recently deceased human being? It changes you. Maybe not immediately, maybe not intensely, but there is a break between your past and present self. And what about the second time and the third time? What does this compounding of experiences do to a person? So maybe there is something to that post traumatic stress thing.
But just being aware that something is wrong is not the same as dealing with those sensations. My aunt once said, “if it is your day, it is your day, but don’t jump up looking for bullets.” On one hand this is fairly sound advice about bullet evasion. On the other hand, it is a really fatalistic approach to dealing with your emotions. I hate this idea of giving up all my agency and just seeing where the chips land in the end. Is there a more proactive approach? Can these feelings of helplessness be combated instead of accepted? What options are available? How do you deal with it?
Despite all these questions, I find it impossible to talk to people about my mental state here in Kenya. Often after hearing a traumatic story, someone within the group will utter the phrase that grates against the fiber of my very being. A collection of words whose frequency is irksome but persists nonetheless.
This is Kenya.
A statement that is suppose to summarily explain and codify the experiences that we intake every single day. It is an expression that is both meaningless and offensive. Just because the lived sensations do not equate to the ideal does not mean that we must blindly accept the present. Such a brief assertion serves as a catch all to end all discussion about a topic. It is a phrase that shuts down any dialogue and engagement with the emotional core of the situation. And does its continual use speak of a fatigue of discussing these experiences. That it is easier to heap the blame elsewhere than to confront those troubles? Do the people using this saying truly believe that it is a satisfactory way to explain someone’s experience? Whether or not people truly accept the ethos of the phrase, it serves as means of terminating rather than furthering any meaningful dialogue.
Beyond that single statement, it is difficult to talk to people about sensitive emotions because it can feel as if they are listening not to empathize or support but simply to share that story with someone else. Waiting for all the juicy details so that a transcript of my words can be passed on. Of course this motivation doesn’t describe everyone, but it taints the way conversations unfold. That lingering fear of being talked about. Of other people, snickering in secret over your honest outpouring to a not so confiding friend. Because of this fear of being talked about, I modify what I say and tend to emphasize the positive things going on in my life and neglect to mention the more negative. Call it pride. Call it snobbishness. Call it whatever you want. But I am more likely to talk about a night out dancing than my continual sadness caused by my breakup. So I end up sounding cool but still mull over the same thoughts with no catharsis.
As my buddy George told me, “You guy. You better kill that story. They could tell someone. Who will tell someone. Who will tell that girl you are interested in.” Ultimately, being talked about isn’t about being embarrassed, but also a fear of losing standing in the general community. With so much to lose, it is often easier to just keep those thoughts to yourself.
Which is crazy given the levels of community engagement in this country. We have community support like I have never seen. My cousins’ house burnt down, and the outpouring of support and love that his family received to have the house rebuilt is astounding. I mean who needs 4 sofa sets? But that community support and love is not enough. Of course it is welcome. Of course it is comforting. But there is a limit to what you can share and how open you can be with a group of people. My cousin talks about the outpouring of support, but he doesn’t talk about the fear he had when he was fighting the fire. He doesn’t talk about the thoughts that cross his mind when there is a surge in electricity, the fire was caused by some electrical problem in the house. Maybe these things don’t bother him. Maybe they do. But I doubt he will start talking about his fears of another fire right after receiving another sofa set for the house. And that’s the problem. It’s that willingness to be vulnerable. That willingness to show the flaws around your life that is lacking and inevitably is harmful to our own psyches.
Being open has its risks. Ridicule being the most fearful at least for me. I don’t want to reveal my innermost insecurities only to be laughed to my face after getting the courage to talk about them. Fortunately, I have a group of friends who I feel comfortable sharing my own insecurities and doubts. But not everyone is that lucky to have a support network that they can truly depend upon and what is our solution for them? Keep putting on airs? Keep on keeping on?
And not all people will cope in the exact same way.
I think I cope with my experiences by writing. Whether it is simply writing an email to a friend to detail the foolishness that I have just witnessed or typing out my own deeper, more troubling thoughts, writing is a catharsis that can’t be provided by any other medium.
This does beg the question on how are you suppose to deal with trauma? How are you suppose to deal with those complex sets of emotions caused by some black swan event?
I think we have to be more open with one another. Yes life in Kenya is hard, but that doesn’t make your emotions and experiences any less valid or real. We can’t continue to stigmatize those who are struggling with their own mental challenges.
Imagine the relief just from hearing some else talk openly about the aftershocks they experienced from a traumatic experience. That feeling to know that you aren’t the only person trying to figure out how to keep moving along everyday. That you aren’t the only one who gets pulled back into those moments and it feels like you can’t escape it in the present. For the walls of perfection to be let down, even for a moment, and for imperfection and flaws to shine forth for the rest of the world to see and scrutinize.
“What do you think they are going to do with the Westgate building,” I asked recently.
“They’ll probably just refurbish it and reopen the mall,” my friend responded.
I don’t know if I like that thought. Just to add a fresh coat of paint to the veneer of our suffering. We can’t keep rearranging the emotional furniture in our minds. There has to be a realization that mental health is as important if not more important than our physical health. You wouldn’t hesitate to go the doctor when you feel something is wrong with your body, but when you can’t move on after a shocking event, you just hope that time will help you forget?
This is Kenya. This is the how it is, but not how it should be. Let’s talk about our fears and anxieties since silence isn’t really working.
Mugo Muna is the founder of Bora Wear, a company that makes belts that matter. Follow him on Twitter.
“Please listen to Sauti Sol’s latest song Nerea. So done with it.” A close friend sent this message to me on Tuesday morning last week. Later in the evening, I watched the video with yet another friend. We were both irritated, and it has taken me a week to decide why.
The song is from a man to a woman he impregnated called Nerea. He is imploring her not to abort her pregnancy, citing that when a child is born, God also brings “his/her plate”, meaning that God provides, and that should she not want to raise the child, she can give it to him to raise it instead. They also provide a list of the people the child could grow up to be like, such as Lupita Nyong’o, Raila Odinga, Miriam Makeba, Barack Obama among others.
This makes it easy to write off the song, as it is based on a series of bad arguments. I was convinced that someone had paid them to sing this song, or, that they were doing it to go viral.
Sure, the child could grow up to be great, or he/she could become Hitler, Idd Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, or Bloody Mary. Appeals to God are also not a good place to start, seeing as everyone has their own views on God – religion is a poor base for an argument that is supposed to be universal. The idea that the only reason women get abortions is to avoid raising the children or because of lack of support from the father is incomplete. Yes, in some cases, this is true; however, the costs even before birth are astounding. The cost of delivering a child at many hospitals in Kenya exceeds KES 100,000, and this does not include the numerous tests and checks that happen beforehand. Delivery at public hospitals may be free, but the quality of those services leaves a lot to be desired. It is expensive to carry around another human being for nine months: if one is young and unmarried, it leads to shunning and shaming, as well as the potential for abuse from partners. The woman’s mobility and ability to work and earn are also reduced. It is also likely that she could die while giving birth. Giving the child up to the father after birth, or for adoption, does not solve these issues.
It may be argued that the song is merely the opinion of six men, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and if we don’t like it we should just accept and move on, or ignore it. Unfortunately, the song has become the basis of a timely debate in Kenya over pro-choice vs pro-life arguments, reproductive health, and the rights of women over their bodies. As much as I would love to ignore this song and pretend it never happened, it did. I also believe that people are not entitled to their opinions – they are entitled to informed opinions, which should be challenged if they get in the way of other people’s lives and well-being.
The topic of abortion is emotive, and rightly so, because it cuts across several human phenomena: religion, sexual intercourse, gender/sexuality and policy. Several conversations have been had about women and the rights over their bodies, the rightness/wrongness of abortion, whether it should be legalized, the rights of the man in case of a pregnancy, and how these interact with religious views. However, one conversation that we are not having enough, which I feel is the most important one, is on reproductive health. What about Nerea? Sure, we know she wants to abort her pregnancy. But do we know why?
As at 2012, it was estimated that over 450,000 women terminate pregnancies each year in Kenya. In 2012, nearly 120,000 women sought medical assistance due to post-abortion complications. Almost all of these abortions are carried out in very unsafe conditions. More than 70% of the women who seek post-abortion care are not using any method of contraception prior to becoming pregnant. Among the women who sought post-abortion care in health facilities, 64% were married or living with a partner, 27.8% had never been married, and 7.5% were divorced. 16.5% were girls aged 10 – 19 and 31.7% were aged 20 – 24. Unsafe abortions contribute to 35% of all maternal deaths. 43% of births in the preceding five years were also reported by women to be unwanted or poorly timed.
Why are so many women finding themselves with unintended pregnancies?
I believe that our poor reproductive health practices are to blame. Women are either ignorant of their options, or lack access to contraceptives. Indeed, contraceptives only have a 46% prevalence rate in Kenya, and unmet need ranges from 26 – 78% in many parts. This can largely be attributed to misinformation: many people believe that contraceptives lead to deformed babies, drastically reduced sex drive and promiscuity. Despite major efforts towards family planning education, these myths still prevail, and lead to women and their partners making poor choices, or no choices at all, regarding their reproductive health. Over 30% of women have never discussed fertility issues with their partners.
I believe that we have been focusing our efforts on the wrong conversation. See, once a woman is pregnant, the zygote/foetus is in her body, and no matter the man’s or society’s view, she alone makes the ultimate decision since the zygote/foetus resides in her body, and directly affects her health, well-being and livelihood. It goes without question: a woman’s body is her own, regardless of the circumstances. A person’s body is all they can actually call their own on this planet, hence the concept of bodily integrity.
Even when someone is dying from the loss of blood or a failing kidney, the people who can donate blood or a kidney have to consent to doing so, even when it is a life or death situation. No one can force them to do it, no matter what we think is right. In the same vein, organs from a dead body cannot be taken without the person’s consent while he/she was alive. Even corpses have bodily integrity. It therefore follows that ultimately, no matter what we say or do, pregnant women will have the final decision, and no amount of burying our heads in the sand can change that. This is why this argument is called pro-choice, and not pro-abortion. One does not have to agree with abortion, one simply has to recognize that the choice belongs to the woman in question, and that they simply have no control over it.
If people want to stop abortion, it would be wise to turn to methods that actually work. Rather than wait until we get to the stage of reproduction where all we do is fight based on pro-life vs pro-choice, religion, among other arguments, we should focus our energies on ensuring that women do not have to make this decision.
The biggest problem in Kenya when it comes to reproductive health is an information problem, followed by access to contraceptives, as illustrated by the statistics above. We should ensure that we teach people from a very young age about safe sex, and provide affordable contraceptives for those who are sexually active. Many young people are sexually active, and ill-equipped to handle it, with very little sex education beyond what is touched upon in biology classes. This leads to many unwanted teen pregnancies. We also cannot continue to castigate women who abort while railing against contraceptives and opposing sex education for the young, especially through our religious institutions.
Religious institutions often claim that their opposition to contraceptive usage is rooted in the belief that sex is for marriage, and that people who are married should be able to enjoy the “full benefits” of sex without using contraceptives. This creates a rather idyllic view of marriage and the sexual environment within it, which we know to be false: 64% of the women seeking post-abortion care are married or living with a partner. This echoes the HIV/AIDS statistics that have the highest rate of new infections in Kenya among married people. Why are the marriages that these institutions so strongly root for as a safe sexual environment so unsafe? Is it because of false expectations and misinformation? Is it because of the demonization of sexual pleasure? Deep introspection on this, beyond cries of “We are living in the end times!” may prove to be a better endeavour for religious institutions.
It is clear that laws against abortion, which Kenya has, do not stop abortion. They simply make it illegal, thus more unsafe for women, leading to many deaths, and in the case of survivors, many injuries, because of resorting to dangerous and painful methods to end their pregnancies. The quality of these services is usually poor due to the lack of regulation, and even when women experience abuse during the procedure, they cannot report it because it is illegal. The number of abortions is not lowered by this stance – the only thing that happens is that more women die because of it. It would be far better to decriminalize it (note that this is different from legalization; it simply means that the criminal penalties attributed to an act are no longer in effect). In countries where abortion has been decriminalized and contraceptive use is steady/rising, abortion rates reduce dramatically, and the injuries/deaths resulting from it drop as a result of regulation.
It is important to have women’s voices at the front and centre of this debate, as it primarily concerns them. Yes, it is important that other voices get heard, and yes, we may not like what they have to say, but to fail to put “Nerea’s voice” at the centre of this debate is akin to white people calling a conference to discuss black people’s issues but not having any black people speaking. It is preposterous.
Sauti Sol and Amos & Josh did not set out to sing a song about safe sex and reproductive health, but perhaps such a song is much more needed in Kenya at this point.
I’ve been asked often what depression really feels like. The defiant part of me refuses to answer these questions. To dwell on a violence is sometimes inflicting a violence on the self. To be forced into repeatedly justifying your humanity can cause you to doubt it.
(if everyone says I’m not here, am I?)
Another part of me is obsessed with the idea of finding the words to describe it. With the idea of finding the words to talk about the force that keeps you in bed for days straight. The force that sits you in the darkest corner of the darkest room, the voices insisting “you are nothing.” It’s not easy to write about depression. I still haven’t found the words.
But there are some words. I’m going to try and weave a narrative here using some emails that I sent to a few close friends late last year. I was, at the time, right in the middle of a depressive period. I’d like to make it clear that the emails are largely unedited. I’ve kept all personal bits out and only shared my side of the conversation. The words are as were shared in private.
I still don’t think any of these emails has found the words. But they are from a place of truth with a promise of safety.
“A part of me is wondering if the ferguson protests will grow and morph. But then I remember the neoliberals aren’t willing to let profit fall for anything. So instead I sit here in my dimly lit room. On good days I get work done. On bad days I wonder why I haven’t died yet.
This is not about depression.”
Sometimes the emails I wrote went to thousands of words. I have written very many metaphors for pain.
Other times the emails were short. One reads:
“I’m feeling okay. This is a new sensation. I’m clinging to it.”
The thing about it is, you can’t really know when it is coming. Even as I write this I know it will come back at some point. I wonder if it will come with as much viciousness or if it will have grown wise and patient in its old age.
“A post on tumblr ” I feel like I’m drifting into a permanent state of exhaustion.” I resonate with these words so deeply that I wish I had written them myself, so I share them with a friend. He tells me the problem is my feminism. I should just leave this “human rights stuff” and go make some money. (A few days later another friend echoes the same words. He insists that what I need in life is a “real job” I’ve wasted enough time being a writer. He further insists that the fact that everyone knows I want to write will slow down my job hunt. I started this as an aside it has now taken over the paragraph – I will stop).
I’m not sure I know how to exist anymore. Staying where I am seems dangerous, moving, in any direction, seems dangerous. So I spend most days in bed, unable to edit, write and, sometimes, eat.
I don’t know why I’m writing this email. Some part might be a cry for help. Another might just be me needing a space to speak. There might even be other reasons that I’m not aware of.”
“I like your tree analogy. I’d like to imagine that I’m that tree that twists and turns and forges my way to the light.
I don’t think I am.
I’m more likely the tree that tries but is trampled on by passing horses. The tree that wanted to live – but didn’t.
I’m defeated today.”
The odd thing is, having just got my book out, I should have been happy. As an artist the release of new work is meant to be exciting. Especially when it’s received and discussed. Still somehow nothing could undo the weight. I carried myself to social functions out of obligation. I did just enough work to barely cover whatever bills I had – and even that was a bit too much at the time. I couldn’t be bothered to try and do better because it was easier to just let go.
“Chicken little said the sky is falling.
This seems important to this conversation. I don’t know why, but it does. Maybe it has something to do with the impending nature of little’s warning. The sky, now falling, poses and immediate threat that no one else can see. Maybe it the hysterical nature of the call, the “please believe me.” The “we have to leave now.” There are things in chicken little’s life that apply to me. There are things that don’t.
Taking care is easier said than done.”
Neil Hillborn says “this is not to say you aren’t special, this is to say thank god you aren’t special.” I’ve been thinking about these words I’ve been dwelling on them. So maybe this is why I wrote this. Maybe it isn’t.
“in the absence of truth there is confusion; the essence of truth”
– Reggie Watts
The thing about such essays is that expect action points, solutions but the truth is I have none. Only a couple of emails and life. There are no answers, there is only life. Chimamanda reminds me that depression passes but all the stories of people who didn’t make it remind me that it stays as well.
Take care of yourself.
This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s second e-book, (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like, which is on mental health in Kenya and is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.
by Anne Moraa
This is true – if creatively so, if only emotively so, if only my truth. I can only write it now, years later. Yes, there will be numbers and data, and you need to know them, but this isn’t about the statistic. This isn’t about the fact. One of the hardest parts about depression is the inability to explain it to those who do not know.
This is for those who do not know.
Midnight. I am watching some DVD and holding it in.
3:00 am. Time moved fast. I just kept hitting play and the next one and the next one. I love when time passes me by like this – it means another day has passed and I have not killed myself. Congratulations.
I fall asleep – I don’t know when.
I don’t dream when I am in deep sleep. I dream enough awake.
I wake up.
It is 11:40 a.m. My phone blinks too bright. I fall asleep.
It is 12:37 p.m. I contemplate opening the curtains. There are slivers of sharp sun. I know people out there are working. I have work. I can’t do it. There is too much time in the day. I will myself to sleep.
It is 12:48 p.m. There are 13 missed calls and 5 messages. I won’t open any of them. I made the mistake two days ago of picking a call from an unknown number. In my sleepy haze, I was tricked. The boss found me. I made up some excuse that neither of us believed, and it was the jolt I needed to get the job done. But that kind of lightning energy is shockingly brief, and it burns, I am telling you, it burns. I was singed from those days ago and too weak to carry on. I remember I used to work hard and was inspired and talented and striking.
Remember? What happened? Six months ago you were…rising. Now? There are 13 missed calls and 5 messages and the numbers collapse in on me like boulders and I cower from the phone under the covers thinking that if I hide it will go away.
It is 1:03 pm. My stress has subsided. I am wholly indifferent. I think that may be worse.
It is 1:29 pm. I am starving. I should eat. There is food ready in the fridge. I have a fridge. I have food. Half the country lives on less than a dollar a day. There are people starving every day and I am certain, no more than an hour’s drive away someone is starving to death. I am ashamed of myself. I remember that I am privileged. I remember that I went to good schools and have a loving, supportive family.
I have no reason to be sad.
I remember crying on graduation day, but only to myself because I was meant to be happy. I remember how I felt then, and now. I feel a kinship with the students who kill themselves post KCPE/KCSE, gazing into the endless future and knowing that every road leads to failure. I was never that brave. I had a good upbringing. I should be happy.
But I am still hungry. And my legs cannot move. I push the duvet off of me. I look at my crusty toe-nails and cannot remember when I last showered. I should shower. I should eat. All I have to do is stand up. Simple, stand up. Kill Bill plays in my head. She, the lead, willed her toes to move after years in a coma. Muscles atrophied and all, she willed them to move. I can move. I will move. I feel her pain. I went to the doctor a few weeks ago because I had odd burning pains in my legs, as if I had been running marathons all day. He said inactivity leads to such pains. He asked me if I exercise. I consider this daily movement, the sweat-pouring exertion of effort I must make in order to stand, intensive exercise. But I lied. I said I exercise moderately. I smiled. He prescribes B vitamins. My toes still haven’t moved. My stomach rumbles. The effort to move my toes feels more than the effort it would take to starve to death. I close my eyes and lie to myself that I am asleep. My sleepless dreams are many. I am sitting in a cage and I have the key, and I have the lock, and I lock it myself. I lock it, and no one can pull me out, it’s safer in the cage. There are 100 birds around me, flying high and wide and furious into the sky, and I can’t quite keep up with them. They are flying so fast and high and I don’t know how they do it, I don’t know how.
The exam is about to end, and everyone else is done and it’s the last two minutes and I am furiously scribbling but my pen ran out of ink ten days ago. I am weeping by myself and it feels amazing. A baby grabs onto my leg with the grip of a hyena’s jaw and doesn’t let go. It’s screaming “Nataka maziwa mama, nipee, nipee!” and I try to nurse it but my breasts are bone dry. I am powerful beyond measure but the power cripples me so I crawl. My sleepless dreams are ratty thoughts running in mazes, bumping into each other and, starving, ripping into each other and gorging themselves on my malnourished blood.
It is 5:00 p.m. I have tried on four outfits. I took a quick shower and hastily painted the scabby toe-nail. They can’t tell in the dark. I need to look professional but casual, effortless but purposeful. I need to be put-together. My friends can tell I am off. They know it. I know they know it. They give me the courtesy of pretending not to notice, but carefully peel themselves away. They are having coffee without me sometimes, and I understand why; my conversation is stilted because my ratty dreams don’t segue well into conversations on horrible bosses and beauty and men and living life actively. I think they are meeting even today – one was delightfully vague about the time. She said happy hour but I heard the others warm laugh in the background – not mean or exclusionary, simply warm, because I am not there to cool it down. I will meet them after and they will pretend it was a spontaneous meeting and I will pretend I was too busy to come over. We understand each other.
It is 6:21 p.m. This stretch of road curves down to a steep incline. Brambly bushes barely cover the dry, hard ground. The car leans towards the incline – it would be so easy after all, another tragic accident, no one to blame – but I steer it back. Not really because I am afraid to die (I have toyed with the idea, I have).
It is 7:38 p.m. Everyone is talking about work now, and school. There is a boss who is slightly too sexually aggressive and another who gave a weeks’ worth of work and expected it to be complete in like 1 day? Can you imagine! Of course it was finished, of course I did it but eih. It moves smooth back and forth between them. I used to be in the middle of that but now…
“My boss is insane. As in that stress! Ngai! Kwani who does he think he is – at least Anne you are just hustling by yourself.”
“Yeah its work though trying to get things off the ground. Sent a proposal out today.” [LIAR]
“Yeah, well not sent, but you know, worked on. It takes so long, so much time. But [LIAR] I have been working a lot on my writing and poems and stuff [BIG FAT LIAR], editing them out and memorizing them and stuff. As in that inspiration is flowing [LIAR NO ONE EVEN BELIEVES YOU KNOW] and…yeah, between that and the errm…proposals… so much stuff [LIAR LIAR STUFF FOUR TIMES IN ONE RANT LIAR LIAR THEY CAN TELL LIAR LIAR]!”
I am not altogether certain if I said those words out loud. Conversation blurs after this. I cling to the words “Proposal’ and “Stuff” like a canoe and paddle in a seamless sea.
It is 10:37 p.m. I wish I could find an excuse to leave. But then they’d know I am faking it. It’s not that it isn’t fun, it is. It’s not that I don’t like them, I do; I love them. They are my friends and sisters and soul mates and they are amazing and wonderful. That’s the problem; they are amazing and wonderful. They are living their moment. I am hovering above myself, judging harshly.
Midnight. I am dancing and tipsy. I am pretending to smile. I am not sure how much longer I can keep my lips stretched this way.
Anne Moraa (@tweetmoraa) is a creative writer, editor, performer and all round word-obsessive. Exploring various forms, her poetry has been commissioned and performed at venues from Kenya to Scotland and she is presently studying for her Creative Writing (MA) in Fiction, as well as being a founding member and Director at Jalada.
To read more such essays, download our book (In)Sanity: What “Crazy” Looks Like.