Monday, October 15, 2018

"Not up to Par"

I remember being in high school in Kenya and, on two separate occasions, having a male schoolmate walk up to me and either tell me he didn't like my hairstyle or it was not up too par. The key word in that sentence: male. Did I mention that the schoolmates in question were both black?

My sin: my hair was unrelaxed. Whether it was neat and tied back or in neat braids/lines, it was apparently a problem. Hair was not hair unless chemicals or extreme heat had been used to straighten it. There were "approved hairstyles" for the middle class. And they were so well-known that even the boys knew what was acceptable and what wasn't. I remember some others asking me if I was saved because, apparently, that was the only rational explanation for not relaxing one's hair: a religious injunction.

Imagine I was just okay with my hair as it was. In the same way that I was okay with my skin as it was. There was no compelling reason to change them radically, no conviction on my part that if I used relaxer (or bleach), a new Jerusalem would descend to earth. I also wondered why people felt that girls and women had to straighten their hair (or lighten their skin) when boys and men of the same species, with the same genetic heritage, didn't seem to have the same rule hanging over their heads.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Other People Exist and Their Voices Matter

A brief conversation I had this morning has me thinking about one of the things that is wrong with a significant number of the people who belong to our upper classes and our political elites. A decent number of the folks who rule us and their relatives and friends seem to believe that nothing exists but their experiences and perspectives. So, to them, the fact that there is plenty of misery in Kenya at this precise moment is something that can be elided over, dismissed as a minor inconvenience. It's not them who have been experiencing the misery, so they don't want to talk about it. Some of these folks actually seem to think that Kenyans have been enjoying five golden years, if we are to believe their words. And when they encounter criticism of the regime or their favorite politicians, they experience a meltdown.

They  remind me of all those people who come out guns blazing when people criticize a recently deceased politician who caused untold misery to thousands or millions when he lived. They say, "Think about his relatives. Imagine how they would feel if they read these words." And that's a valid point, of course. Their relatives and friends are human beings whose experiences and feelings matter in the scheme of things. They have lost a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend. They are experiencing grief. I respect that and their right to mourn. But, having said that, don't the feelings of the relatives and friends of their victims matter too? If your father was illegally gunned down by a shooting squad because he was an inconvenience to the regime, don't you have a right to express anger about the man/woman who okayed that execution or the man/woman who helped cover it up and protect the killers after the fact? Don't you have a right to be angry when people describe that man or woman as some saintly figure who brought prosperity to the nation?

Now, by the same token, if you are living in a country where injustice prevails and brutalizing poverty hobbles the majority of the population, do you not have a right to be angry about the status quo? Do you not have a right to criticize the men and women responsible for that, whether or not they are good fathers/mothers, donate to the church, or cry when they're sad?

Do people really understand that power is a huge responsibility and that when you gain political power and/or economic power, your capacity to influence society negatively or positively increases exponentially? Do they understand that the actions or words of a man or woman with power can make the difference between life and death for a miserably poor man or woman who has never met him/her? Do they understand that when you pay someone a salary to serve you as an elected leader or as a government employee, he/she is actually accountable to you? If you paid a mechanic to fix your car, you wouldn't make excuses for him if he brought it back to you with the original problem unfixed. If your children's school hired an alcoholic with a suspended license to drive the school bus, you wouldn't calmly accept it. So why is it that people expect others to be accommodating of those who do the equivalent to thousands or millions of citizens?

These are the questions that I ask of my Kenyan brothers and sisters who think that their comfort in their tribal cocoons and upper class haunts absolves them of the responsibility to acknowledge that other people exist and their voices matter.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"African men do not talk about kitchen issues in public."

Someone wrote a comment to this effect in response to a post by a man about the elevated prices of maize meal (a Kenyan staple): "African men do not talk about kitchen issues in public."

Now, under normal circumstances, I would have dismissed the comment as the silly opinion of one person. But these were not normal circumstances. To see what I mean, check out this article, which was published the other day:…/Hey-were-men-we-dont-discuss-the-…

As hard as it is to believe, it appears that a noteworthy proportion of Kenyan men actually subscribe to this way of thinking. The sentiment was obviously designed to silence those who would criticize the government of the day. But it points to a larger problem in our society: People are actually conditioning themselves to be stupid in the name of preserving "African culture/masculinity."

What kind of society tries to censor people who want to express concern about the accessibility of food, one of our most basic needs? We're talking about food, not an afternoon of golf in a country club. Without sufficient access to affordable food, people experience malnutrition and some die. These people include the most vulnerable among us: children. Yet some among us are actually telling men to shut up as some of our people face starvation or struggle with malnutrition because it is the "manly" thing to do.

You know, there's only so much we can blame our politicians for. At some point, we have to accept that we, the people, are the worst kind of idiots.

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.