Life in Kisii, Kenya: Of men & women

The fourth blog in my series about life in Kisii, this one talks about men and women. In the past six weeks, I’ve heard some disheartening stories and observed saddening behaviour of men towards women. This post is not cheerful but it’s an important one for me because I want to draw attention to the topic. Things need to change for women all over the world.

Before you start complaining about me stereotyping or being too harsh, please read the whole post. I am not exaggerating and to be honest, even just one incident of sexual harassment is one too much. Also, I will not apologise for writing this and standing up for women, their rights and equality. I am fully aware that not every single man in Kisii, Kenya, Africa, the World behaves or thinks like those described in this post. I am also aware that this sexiest behaviour exists in other parts of the world and that cruel customs like wife beatings happen elsewhere such as in India. So I am writing this post on behalf of every woman that has ever been wrongly treated, sexually harassed, beaten, shamed,… in the hope of giving them courage to stand up to this kind of ill-treatment and gaining the independence that allows them break free of men that suppress them.

It all started during my first days in Kisii when I walked through town with Kenyans from my programme. I knew I attracted a lot of attention to me simply by having white skin. Kids smiled and shyly asked me how I was. Women asked if that was my own hair and if they may touch it, amazed by how soft it was. Men whistled, called me ‘baby’, one even forcefully grabbed me by my arm.

Ever since I have had to walk through town with one deaf ear, ignoring whistling and sexist comments as rude as “I want to f*** you”, and walking a few paces faster to get away from guys following me. No means no. I am NOT your “baby”. If I don’t reply to you saying “Hi”, leave me alone and get on with your life. Unfortunately, I have experienced this kind of behaviour on a daily basis here in Kisii and on my 30 minute walk from home into town, I would normally get unwanted attention from around five guys. Annoying, to say the least.

So now on to the shocking part. Yes, it gets worse.

Last night, I chatted with my host mum about life in Kenya and how it is different from life back home in Europe. She was preparing Ugali, the Kenyan staple made of maize flour and water, and asked me to take over stirring the heavy mass. She laughed when she saw me struggling to turn it and her next comment startled me.

“In my husband’s family, all the girls needed to know how to prepare Ugali and if you couldn’t or you let it burn, you would get heavy beatings. Do your men beat their women?”

It’s not like I didn’t know that in parts of the world, in certain communities, beating women is still a normality but hearing it from my host mum, right there, right then, it shocked me. Getting a beating for letting a pot of Ugali burn… She went on saying that the men in the family have the right to beat even their sisters-in-law when they are making a mistake or “misbehaving”. She said the only time you’d defend yourself or speak up is if you wish to be killed. It didn’t sound like she was joking. It sounded like these women simply accept their fate. She asked me if women in my country are protected by the law against wife beatings and I said that yes, of course, men would go to prison. It does still happen that men beat their wives but it certainly is punishable by law and more than just frowned upon by society.

I had once witnessed how their house girl, who they have taken on from a friend and send to school in exchange for her working the house, was beaten with a wooden stick because she let the little boys play with the dad’s laptop.

Maybe not directly related but it appalled me so much, I have to share this: I was told that women, in this day and age, are still burned alive if they are believed to be witches. The last witch executions in Europe took place until around 1800. How is this still happening today? Here is one report of such witch burnings in Kenya.

The value of women and girls has also revealed itself in other instances. For example, when my host mum told me that women in Kenya are not considered worthy if they haven’t born you any sons, only girls. That they will continue to have babies until they give birth to a son. Also, that boys are often sent to better, more expensive schools simply because they are boys and as such seen as smarter, more capable and more worthy.

Sexual harassment and abuse needs to stop. We can’t accept domestic violence. I’m hoping for some considerable change to happen, with all my heart. For girls to receive the same standard of education, the same chance in life. For them to become strong, independent women who don’t need to rely on men.

We can do this, girls!

Have you ever heard any such disheartening stories? Any customs in a society or community you wish you could put an end to immediately? Or hopefully, you have a brighter story to tell? Share in the comments below 🙂

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