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.

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