Sunday, September 27, 2015


The world is a messed up place. There’s no shortage of flawed people and things to point fingers at and express dismay about. Once in a while, doing so is worthwhile. By identifying problems and talking about them, we can sometimes fix them and make the world a little bit better.

The problem is that we often get caught up fixing other people and things and forget that we are just as flawed. And so we end up with the theologian who claims to be morally opposed to violence but is able to rationalize the particular forms of violence he is involved in perpetrating. Then there’s the uber-arrogant woman who gives her colleague a lengthy, public dressing down “for being arrogant” and somehow manages to convince herself that she is the epitome of humility.

It is easy to marvel at the stupidity/immorality/incompetence/corruption/laziness of “that person” or “those people.” The really hard bit comes when one has to put oneself under the microscope, magnify all the idiosyncrasies/failings/limitations, and endure an uncomfortable amount of scrutiny. It is difficult but it has to be done. Because, honestly, if we don’t hold ourselves accountable or seek to improve ourselves, who will? 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sexual Assault and Gendered Stereotypes

Lately, I’ve been coming across articles that address cases of gendered violence where the victims are men. The most recent piece I’ve read is “When Women Sexually Assault Men,” by Livia Gershon. The thing that strikes me most about the article is its emphasis that we often dismiss the idea that a man has been sexually assaulted because of the stereotypes that we subscribe to. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the same holds true for our dismissal of the idea that a woman has been sexually assaulted:
THE NOTION THAT SEXUAL assault of a man by a woman is impossible, and even laughable, rests on the same gendered assumptions that are also used to downplay assaults on women by men. Even after decades of feminist activism, many discussions of sexual violence still center on telling women to stay sober and be cautious around men. The ideas behind that advice—the image of men’s sexual desires as constant and all-consuming and of women as the gatekeepers to sex—also makes it impossible for many people to imagine men as victims. If men are always seeking sex, and frequently shot down by disinterested women, then they should be grateful—or at least not traumatized—by any kind of sexual attention from a woman. Taking sexual coercion against men seriously gives us even more reason to fight against those stereotypes.

These stereotypes have an impact on male victims of sexual assault and on their likeliness to report their experiences:
Men who experience sexual assault or other violence by intimate partners are less likely than women to report the incidents to the police. They frequently think no one will believe a woman sexually assaulted them, are embarrassed at not being able to fend off an attack by a woman, or harbor fears of being perceived as “gay” or not masculine for not wanting to have sex, Struckman-Johnson suggests.

For me, this particular article is valuable because it touches on something I’ve been thinking about: the idea that men and women are radically different, enshrined in the title of a popular book, “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” I haven’t read the book, but I have noticed how quick people are to grab on to the idea that men and women are so dramatically different that we have to learn each other’s “languages” and ways of thinking in order to better understand each other.

Of course there are differences between men and women, based on biology and on the ways we have been socialized (and it follows that there are further variations based on culture, class, and other factors). But I think that, in our eagerness to emphasize these differences, we’ve been too quick to sweep our similarities under the carpet. By denying our similarities, we make it more difficult to recognize that other people have the capacity to feel disempowerment, pain, and shame, as we do. So we allow ourselves to diminish their experiences of discrimination and trauma, claiming that they can’t be as bad for “those people” as they are for us.

I’m also starting to think that the tendency to emphasize our stereotyped differences is a way to avoid seeing ourselves and others as individuals. If we can put everything down to the rationale that “men are this way” or “women are that way,”, then we don’t have to recognize that people are individuals who subscribe to philosophies/belief systems and have personalities and the right to choose what kinds of situations to get into. Ultimately, this makes it easy to avoid examining our own behavior and motivations and taking responsibility for them. 

Quoted in the article by Livia Gershon, Struckman-Johnson puts it well. She points out that stereotypes about women’s and men’s sexuality make it possible for female perpetrators to rationalize their sexual aggression and minimize the traumatic experiences of their victims:

 “Because of the idea that men are sexually oriented and wanting it all the time, it kind of lets them off the hook,” she says. “They get to assume they’ve got a ready and willing partner here who would just love to have sex with them. That is not the case, that’s denying individuality, it’s denying personality, it’s denying people’s rights to choose their sexual situations.”

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Questions Folks are Asking in the Wake of Obama's Recent Trip to Sub-Saharan Africa

A blog post with the title, "3 Ways In Which Homosexuality Is Kind Of Creepy," pretty much summarizes some of the arguments that many have made against homosexuality in the wake of Barrack Obama's recent trip to sub-Saharan Africa and his statement on the need to uphold the human rights of gays and lesbians. Below are my responses to a few of these arguments:

“But what I don’t get is how a man could possibly find another man sexually attractive. Honestly, that’s like the Six Million Dollar question I’ve had to grapple with all my life, and by that I mean since I discovered that girls were kind of nice to look at and to touch and to kiss and to…”

  • I’m not sure why you’re grappling with this particular question. It is a fact of life that some people feel same-sex attraction. I imagine it has always been that way. You may disagree with it, but I’m sure nobody’s expecting you to take responsibility for other people’s sexuality. You don’t have to agree with it or understand it to recognize that others will enjoy consensual sex with other adults as they choose. It seems to me that the issue here is failure to recognize your own individuality and others’ individuality. We are not all one person. Live and let live.

“This formed the background on the call by Hussein to African nations to decriminalize homosexuality, and grant gay people the same basic human rights accorded to non-gays. This has predictably opened a whole new can of worms, with many Africans telling him to restrict his gay loving agenda within the United States, of which he is the president.”

  • I think there’s a huge difference between asking people to decriminalize homosexuality between consenting adults and asking them to recognize gay marriage. The U.S. is not about to pressure anybody into recognizing gay marriage. If they tried to do that, they would open themselves up to outside pressure to recognize polygamy. I’m also willing to bet that, right now, most LGBT people on the African continent place a greater priority on assuring their physical safety than on walking down the aisle to exchange vows. Now, I am curious about where you stand on the fact that gays and lesbians are subjected to unprovoked violence and discrimination in our nation and other African nations on a daily basis. Because that is the real issue that Obama was addressing. Many African politicians and religious leaders conveniently avoid addressing the violence. And too many ordinary citizens allow them to do that.

“For example, I have no qualms about mob justice. In my book, if a thief is caught in the act, kill him dead. No apologies.”

  • So let me get this straight, you’re basically saying that if a poor, four-year-old kid who has not had anything to eat for days steals a tomato from a greengrocer’s, he should be stoned or burned to death? Also, what if somebody lied about catching somebody else in the act of stealing (something that happens pretty frequently in Nairobi)? How would you know who was lying? Do you honestly believe this is a progressive position?

“Now, when you have two men doing it with each other (please note that I shall not be referring to lesbian sex for aforementioned reasons), no little babies are expected due to the serious lack of a womb, ovaries and other baby making equipment necessary for a successful conception.”

  • Even if you acknowledge unfertile couples, you’re still arguing that they should not have sex because “it takes procreation out of the equation.” You’re also arguing against family planning, the use of condoms, and the very conservative idea that sex strengthens the emotional bond between a loving, married couple. The argument that all sexual behavior must have procreation as its ultimate goal is not reflective of reality.

  • Mind you, it is not desirable for every human to have children. We have limited resources in our respective communities and have already damaged the natural environment to accommodate the burgeoning human population (case in point, Mau Forest). There may, theoretically, still be room for more people on earth, but it won’t last forever. Very highly populated nations like China and Egypt are already grappling with that.

“Now, picture this: if everyone were to suddenly find their inner gay, how long do you think it would take for the human race to be extinct?”

  • I don’t think this is an effective argument against homosexuality. It’s parallel to arguing that some kids should not be allowed to have white collar aspirations because, if we were all white collar workers, nobody would be a farmer and we would all starve to death. Now please be honest, is Barrack Obama or anybody else really arguing that heterosexuality should completely be replaced by homosexuality?

“Please excuse my ignorance, but how exactly does this work? Doesn’t this make for some pretty messed up kids who have no concept of the distinction between male and female?”

  • The only way to find the answer is to look for it. Look for articles and videos about the subject. There are plenty online, some narrated by people who were raised by gay couples. And don’t just limit yourself to reading or watching people who share perspectives similar to yours.

  • By the way, you come across as very sheltered if you honestly believe the only legitimately recognized form of marriage globally is one woman + one man. There is such a thing as polygamy, which can take the form of one man and several women. And, in some parts of Asia, there are communities that encourage women to marry more than one man (all of them brothers to each other). According to your argument, all kids from such families are totally messed up and there's little hope for them.
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.  

Monday, June 24, 2013

Violence and Accountability

Lately, there have been many media reports about rape incidents and the public’s responses to them. So discussions of victim-blaming, what it constitutes, and why it is wrong have been making a regular appearance in various electronic magazines and on discussion forums. The discussions that have made the most sense to me have been those that have emphasized that rape is an act of violence and domination.

As many have already pointed out, there is too much of a tendency to think of rape as a sexual act, and to therefore explain it away as a “normal” response to a victim who was “asking for it.” I have often heard the argument that, if we were talking about any other form of violence, or if the rape victim was male, people would not be so quick to resort to victim-blaming. I don’t agree with that, though. In fact, based on what I have seen and heard over the years, I think that more and more people are inclined to view vulnerability as something to be detested and dominance and power as ideals. It is very much evident, not just in the way they talk about rape victims, but also in the way they talk about other individuals or groups of people who have been subjected to violence, systemic or otherwise.

These are learned attitudes. They’re not just pulled out of the thin air. That’s why I absolutely agree with those who say that we have to educate youth and adults to regard rape as unacceptable and to hold rapists responsible for their actions. But I think the education has to be broader than that. It really should address our attitudes towards violence and victims of violence as a whole.

An article on RHRealityCheck discusses precisely this issue, referring, at some length, to the violent sexual assault of a 13-year-old boy, the use of euphemisms to disguise the violence that was done to him, and the subsequent scapegoating of the boy and his family by residents of their town. The boy’s story is told in greater detail here.

I find it very troubling that the town turned away from the boy when it seemed evident that the violence he was subjected to was part of a ‘tradition.’ This form of sexual violence is likely to have been done to other boys, and probably will be done to yet others – the town residents’ sons, brothers, cousins, nephews, grandsons. So why isn’t the first instinct of these people to protect the boy? Also, where on earth did the boy’s attackers learn how to rape a younger boy? This is not the behavior that anyone in their right mind expects of teenage boys. Were they themselves victims of similar attacks in the name of “hazing”? The article raises very troubling questions about the types of communities we’re living in and about our safety and the safety of those we love. It makes it pretty evident that violence and victim-blaming are problems that we need to address now.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

On Partington's "War on Kwani?"

Yesterday’s Nation features an article by Stephen Derwent Partington, “War on Kwani? marks the death of literary engagement and rise of spite.” The article spotlights Kenya’s ‘literary wars,’ and highlights the regular cycle of criticism that some Kenyan academics direct against the journal Kwani? and those associated with it. However, the article does more than that: It can also be read as commentary on inter-generational conflict in contemporary Kenya.

Like many, I have read a good amount of the literary criticism in Kenyan newspapers over the past few years. And, like them, I have noticed that a disproportionate number of the articles consist primarily of academics taking pot shots at people who dare to create, particularly those in the Kwani? camp. Little is constructive about much of this criticism. In fact, as far as I can tell, most of it goes along the lines of: "Unlike us, the younger generation has failed to create anything worth acknowledging."

This is noteworthy in a nation that has preserved political power in the hands of one generation in its 50 years of independence. In every walk of life, older Kenyans cast doubt on the ability of those younger than them to carry on old traditions or build functional new ones. Interestingly, they never seem to realize that, if the younger ones are really as mediocre as they claim, then that reflects on them as mentors: They can't have done a good job teaching and mentoring if, as they claim, there is no talent in the younger generation.

I think it is definitely worth our while to ask ourselves why our elites (cultural, political and otherwise) have such a hard time handing over the baton to those who come after them. Why are they reluctant to nurture and support budding talent? Fortunately for us, Stephen D. Partington has taken it upon himself to attempt to broach this subject.

My favorite excerpts from the article follow:

“How quickly we forget? How quickly we return to valorise the theories of the very colonisers whose culture worked to oppress us many decades ago? And how spitefully we do it, relishing our role as the New Imperialists? The lazy complaints are all the same: our Kwani?-types are ‘young’, they don’t consider literature’s ‘grand themes’, they are ‘urban-not-rural’ — yes, the right-winger, Leavis, loved his organicism — they do not write according to the classic Aristotelian structure of ‘beginning, middle and end’, they are ‘popular’, they fail to submit to the censoriousness of gate-keeping ‘university experts’, they care about ‘minorities’, they are ‘vulgar’, they don’t use ‘pure linguistic forms’, they do not promote ‘traditional morality’.”

“In short, our ‘new moral formalism’ is a new conservative cowardice, an anti-reform return to the snobberies of the past when and where we could as a middle-aged middle-class mix with our own and choose not to see the slums, the young, the poor, women, and all those others whose vulgarity offends us. And while we might, in the best of worlds, hope that our academics might rise above the simplistic, petty awfulness of elitism and go ‘public’ as intellectuals, it is clear that we cannot rely upon them — or, at least, we can no longer rely upon many of our so-called ‘literary intellectuals’ to show the solidarity with us that their forebears did. Instead, we can expect the silence, in effect a turning away, that we saw from them in 2007-2008. They have not only thrown us to the wolves; to them, we are the wolves, the disgusting young who would bite and rip at the mythical glory of the world they believe we should inhabit. But we do not inhabit that world. Yet. And the Kwani?-ites know it.”

Two things stand out to me here. First is the fact that our contemporary elites have adopted the language of our one-time colonial elites. Second is their silence when faced with harsh Kenyan realities that they have surely had a hand in creating or perpetuating. You know what all of this tells me? It tells me that our cultural, political and other elites have two favorite pastimes: criticizing those who came before them, and criticizing those who follow in their footsteps. But they will not even acknowledge their own part in creating the status quo; and it doesn’t seem to occur to them that they should put themselves under the microscope.

If somebody were to ask me what our biggest challenge as Kenyans was, I would say that this was it: the inability of those at the helm to subject themselves to the same level of scrutiny they subject others to. Predictably, most of us follow suit. It is no wonder that we continue to perpetuate the injustices and inequalities that were set in place during the colonial era.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The little things do matter.

Every time I hear the words “Kenya Vision 2030”, the cynic in me bursts into life. Kenya Vision 2030 is a development program envisioned to take the country to middle-income status by the year 2030. The details of the blueprint are lovely to read. Who wouldn’t want to see all the great projects come to fruition? But, the voice in the back of my mind keeps telling me to set the grand images aside and look at the little things.

I think it’s great to dream of being bigger and better, but to turn the dream into reality, one must address the little details. For instance, industrialization and an improved transportation sector (presumably including commuter trains) are highly dependent on a reliable electrical supply. But what reliable electrical supply is there to speak of if, every time it drizzles, neighborhoods experience power blackouts for hours? How can one even start to make improved overall health and healthcare a realistic goal when safe drinking water is not available in our taps? Mind you, many do not even have access to tap water. Instead, they are reliant on boreholes, springs, rivers, and other water sources which may very well be contaminated.

While we’re on the subject, what hope is there for a nation whose various branches of government are not able to coordinate with each other to make a decision as simple as choosing an election date that won’t set students, their parents, and teachers back in significant ways? It is this last point that I want to focus on in today’s blog entry.

An article in today’s edition of the Standard online makes the alarming announcement that the national elections, which are due to take place during the first term of the school year, will cost the Kenyan taxpayer at least KSh15 billion. Rather than holding the elections during the school holidays as has been the norm, the decision makers decided to hold them at the beginning of March. Because schools will be used as polling centers, students will have to pack their bags and return home before the term is through. They will miss hours of coursework, and may not be able to make up for this lost time over the subsequent years. Furthermore, according to Juma Kwayera, the author of the article, “the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) is expected to hire teachers, who will have to withdraw services to be trained in time to handle the polls as returning officers, presiding officers or clerks.”

Now, heed these words carefully: “whenever there is disruption in the education calendar, the country never appreciates the hidden costs that are never receipted such as bus-fare, pocket money and service delivery. According to the Ministry of Education, enrolment in secondary schools stands at 3.6 million students, out of which more than three-quarters are in boarding schools, hence will need contingency money, besides bus-fare to travel back to their homes during elections. Parents with children in primary boarding schools will have to cough up more funds as a result of the interruption by elections.”

The article goes into further detail: “A conservative estimate puts the minimum average each student in secondary school will require at Sh500 for a round-trip ticket. This translates to more than 2.7 million students in secondary school alone incurring over Sh1.5 billion in total while primary school pupils Sh2 billion, which cost is passed to parents.”

We are not a nation of tycoons. We’re talking about out-of-pocket expenses that are not going to be compensated for by any government program. Those most likely to be affected are students who attend public schools and their parents. In other words, Kenyans from most walks of life and at almost all income levels will be affected. Keep in mind that the cost to the nation quoted above does not take into account the loss of productivity/ man hours for parents, students, and teachers alike.

The same article points out that the teachers’ strike late last year, which disrupted the academic calendar, had a noticeable effect on student performance in the national KCPE performance. Primary school students at public schools did not perform as well as they should have in the national exam.  An expert cited in the article, Kenya Institute of Public Policy and Research Analysis CEO, Eric Aligula, asserts optimistically that the effect of the election dates on education is not likely to be major unless it “becomes persistent.” In my opinion, he is a tad too optimistic. Any disruption of this nature is bound to have unforeseen effects, and many of them will only become apparent in the long-term. A ‘little’ problem, such as two weeks of absence due to illness when foundational coursework is being covered, can change a child’s academic trajectory dramatically. How much more damage are the larger-scale disruptions due to the elections likely to cause?

All I can see is the tremendous amount of waste that is sure to result from some terrible decision making at the level of government. And I can’t help thinking that the same kinds of bad decisions are being replicated in different sectors nationwide. Surely, as long as such factors are in play, how likely are we to reach our long-term goals for development? We must first learn to crawl, walk, then run, before we can think of signing up for a marathon.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What way forward for Americans?

Today everybody seems to have an opinion on the Republican loss in the Presidential elections. So I’m going to jump onto the bandwagon: First of all, I don’t think the loss came as a surprise. The Obama campaign worked long and hard, and they had a long-term strategy. They were also largely consistent in maintaining that strategy, even when faced with criticism from pundits on the left. The result: they did their swing-state math just right and were able to get enough support to win the electoral votes in the most crucial states.

The team behind Obama plays politics like a game of chess. Almost every move they make fits into a larger strategy and anticipates the likely Republican responses. And they have studied their quarry pretty well: their predictions are usually right. The mistake that the folks on the Republican side make is to consistently ignore this fact. They have always portrayed Obama, a true centrist if there ever was one, as a liberal on the far left, acting to fulfill some ungodly agenda. So many of the attacks they have directed at his initiatives and positions have been strawman fallacies. In other words, the Republicans have often had to first distort his policies in order to oppose them.  

This strategy would have made sense in a world where the Republican and Democratic parties were drastically different. In the real world, however, all it does is make rubbish of the Republican’s own policies. You see, under Obama, the Democrats have adopted several ideas that were developed by conservative thinktanks or proposed by Republican politicians, and they have made them work. And if all that the Republican Party can do in response is to oppose these ideas, then they are effectively rejecting conservative principles.

As a consequence of their actions, the Republicans have maligned various conservative policies and initiatives and declared them communist or un-American (by virtue of their having been implemented by a Democratic president). So what conservative alternatives exist for them to promote or adopt? None, really: not pragmatic ones, anyway. Obviously, the Republicans can’t reach to the far left for alternatives. Doing so would require them to embrace socialism (which is apparently anathema to them). So in the end, they are left without a definite direction. In name, they are a conservative party with conservative values. In reality, they have somehow managed to separate themselves from compassionate and pragmatic conservatism. They can no longer claim the brand of politics that used to unite the disparate entities within the Republican Party. So a leadership vacuum has arisen within the party. In response, the different voices within the party are clamoring for dominance.

Within the Republican party, you have the Religious Right, the Tea Party, and the Libertarians, just to name a few of the more prominent tendencies. So the Republicans don’t have a unified political agenda. That is precisely why they ended up selecting Romney to represent them. He was really the only sane guy left standing when all was said and done. But, at the same time, they hated the things he stood for as a “Northeastern liberal.” The party had to perform some creative acrobatics in order to embrace him as their presidential candidate.

The phrase “only in America” comes to mind here: Where else in the world would a party go through the long, drawn-out process of selecting a presidential candidate then spend the entire campaign pushing back when he tried to speak positively of his own record (presumably the record that inspired them to select him)? Where else would that presidential candidate select an “authentically conservative” vice-presidential candidate and prevent him from talking about his actual record (the one for which he was chosen)? This was the problem throughout the campaign period. Whenever Romney tried to be honest, he was shot down by the more extremist voices in his party. Whenever he tried to toe the line and sing the accepted conservative tune, he ended up looking like he was willing to buy into whatever was expedient at any given moment. And then there was Ryan- the poor guy. He was supposed to be a conservative genius, a policy wonk, but he was reduced to repeating meaningless platitudes.

And what about the other folks in the party? Well, they worked day and night to recreate a platform around which their people could unite. That was why outrageous statements and legislation surrounding female reproductive health and rape kept on popping up all over the place. Race and religion were also deployed because, when there is nothing else to unite a group of people with opposing agendas, you can always rely on the ethnic clarion call to bring them together. The result of these efforts was to disenchant a large number of potential pro-Republican voters. The party was left with a predominantly older, white, Christian, male base. The funny thing is that many Republicans are walking around in the aftermath of the loss, holding on to the belief that they lost votes because 50% of Americans “want free things.” Honestly, that is the most intellectually lazy conclusion I have ever heard. I understand why the Bill O’Reillys of the world sing that tune. But I can’t help but marvel at the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who have taken it as the gospel truth. It is as if they were on an entirely different planet during the entire campaign process (one during which their party undermined its own candidate).

Of course, the result of all of this is that the Republicans cannot offer a true political critique of many of Obama’s policies. For a genuine critique of the Obama administration, one has to look beyond the dominant two-party system to some of the other parties: The Libertarian Party, the Green Party of the USA, the Socialist Party, and others. These are legitimate American political parties. Some of them even fielded presidential candidates, a number of whom were included on the ballots of various states. But these parties get next to zero mainstream media coverage. So it’s not a surprise that most Americans believe there are only two legitimate lenses through which to view American politics: the Democratic lens, and the Republican lens. This presents a bunch of problems: As the two mainstream parties have tended to shift rightwards over the decades, there has been no dominant party on the left proper to present a balance. So the overzealousness with which the Obama administration has used drones to perform so-called surgical strikes in other nations, for example, has been largely unremarked upon.

Americans have a tendency to live too much in the present moment. For instance, there’s not too much along the lines of long-term thinking going on where the national economy and the environment are concerned. It is widely recognized that the American deficit must be addressed, but the American public does not seem ready to scale down its largest expenditure: its overseas military efforts. I often ask myself when the American nation as a whole will finally realize that it is more important to ensure that its people can afford to meet their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter and healthcare) at home than to dominate brown folks in their own countries. In addition, there is little public dialogue on issues such as climate change and its impact on communities nationwide. The political parties that have actually put these issues on their agendas have been locked out by the media, presumably because they would “steal away” some of the Democratic or Republican votes. Ultimately, it is the American public that has lost from the exclusion of these voices.

I really don’t think the Republican loss is the most relevant news item of the day. The party was bound to lose. They set themselves up to lose by failing to develop a coherent agenda, and they essentially helped to energize voters on the other side by voicing support of misogynist and racist policies and actions. The most relevant issue of the day should be the question of what lies ahead in the long-term. When are we going to start addressing the concerns that have been raised by America’s marginalized parties?
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.