Two months ago, Wambũi Mbũgua (formerly Wambũi Otieno) and her husband Mbũgua celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary. The article (“Till death do us part…” published by Daily Nation on Thursday October 9, 2008) published to commemorate their wedding must have caught many by surprise as its author intended to rekindle a controversial issue which refuses to leave national scene. I still wonder why it is that we as a community cannot let the couple quietly enjoy their life together without the plying eyes of hyper-curious public. Remember the media-hype that produced a torrent of condemnation for the young man opting to take a woman the age of his grandmother? The “out-of the norm” marriage did not only shock members of the family but it also left the whole nation reeling. Some in an attempt to explain or make sense of the “unusual” event, interpreted it from a materialistic point of view; the young man was acting blind because of material wealth he would inherit once Wambũi passes on (but with the uncertainties in Kenya, none can guarantee that between the two, Mbũgua would be the last one to “kick the bucket” because of his age.) Nonetheless, it is the misogynists who had their field day. With virulent and sexist condemnation this group dismissed Wambũi as an opinionated radical who has no respect for culture or morality. The group, which was overwhelming male-dominated, laughed-off the event and predicted that the young man would soon find out that the marriage was a set-up, and once he came to his epiphany, he would sprint out of the marriage as fast as he came in.
Despite previous brouhaha, the couple is now five years in marriage, happy and going on with their lives. Yet still, even with the wedding now behind us and the sensational media having nothing else to report about the couple, it is no denying that the decision to marry must have been tough on both Wambũi and Mbũgua. Understandably, we can as well see why Wambũi’s children were so upset with her that they could not show up for the wedding. Notwithstanding, several questions still remain unresolved. What is the true definition of marriage? Is marriage a public affair or private one? What happens when societal or cultural expectations are disregarded? What brings ultimate happiness? What is the place of women in our modern society? Are women entitled to same privileges that men have when it comes to death of a spouse and choice of who to marry? It is with the first and last questions that I am interested in, at least for this post.
The traditional definition of marriage is a union of two human beings, female and male joined in holy matrimony. Some Christians would add that the union’s primary importance is procreation and that true love is the single most important ingredient for marriage to happen. Marriage is a gift and a mandate, at least from a Christian perspective. Consequently, family becomes the foundation on which to build a strong society. Some also argue that morality cannot be seen in any other way apart from family. Wambũi and Mbũgua say they have found true love. As a matter of facts, Wambũi confesses that she cannot imagine how life would have been like if Mbũgua did not come into her life. When the question of children is posed to Mbũgua, he stoically says that one does not need children to enjoy marriage. In Mbũgua’s perspective marriage is not just about procreation, it is relational. In essence, their marriage perfectly fits the definition of marriage. But one may be forgiven to ask, in cultures where the dominant force is male-oriented and patriarchy shapes morality, what is the place of women when it comes to making marital decision? Does a wife have the same right as the husband on whether to marry or not marry, should one of the two die? Is a woman entitled, in the event of such a scenario, to decide whom to marry irrespective of age? Further, what is the place of single mothers who have been left to raise their children without the father-figure due to social as well as economic conditionings of the world today?
When it comes to the issues of marriage and place of women in society, most African societies leave a lot to be desired. We continue to stubbornly impose decisions on women regarding such important matters as marriage and family. Perhaps this may explain why some in our societies act so violently whether verbally or physically any time a woman (or women) decides to go against culturally scripted expectations of whatever kind. In many of our societies we have men who use untold violence against women because they are intricately trapped in the false sense of machismo. They dread the thought of having women taking their rightful place in society. Let us call it what it is - fear of losing power and control. Acclaimed writer Toni Morrison says that violence has two sides; one of its sides is physical and the other is mental. She asserts that violence indicates a laziness of the mind. This is where people who do not want to use their brain resort to force and violence in order to cow their victims to submission. I want to relate an episode as an example of what in my opinion is indicative of the fact that most of our societies are still controlled and dominated by misogynists.
I was about thirteen years old when this happened. In those days my mother used to send my brother and I for errands. The errands that I liked most were those that required me to go to Ndũnyũ ya Karatina. One morning, mum sent me to buy paraffin. Paraffin was a precious commodity: we used it for almost everything; cooking, for our lantern, sending the Safari Ants packing and other pests controls, helping kindle our jiko among others. Poverty did not afford us the luxury of “misusing” such a precious commodity. There were nights we would use gĩchinga to light the house in order to conserve the little that we had - a real way to conserve energy but not without the risk of reducing the house to ashes if the gĩchinga was carelessly handled.
Anyway, this particular morning, as I approached the market, I saw a crowd of people, mainly men congregated and sheering someone on. The few women that were there were either crying or pleading for mercy. Out of a boy’s curiosity, and of course with desire to be ahead of my siblings on latest “news”, I squeezed myself through the crowd. What I saw shocked me. Lying on the ground was a woman crying and begging for mercy from her male assailant. She was evidently drunk. From the shouts and condemnation of the assailant, I gathered that she was supposedly a malaya who had robbed her ferocious accomplice his hard-won quid. The man was asking for his money back, albeit through a beastly attack on an unarmed drunken woman. The scene of a half naked woman bleeding and begging for mercy, made me very sick. I did not like the scene, particularly the crowd of men who were sheering the man on, telling him to teach the woman a lesson that she will never forget. I felt sick and sneaked my way out. After a short while, I was so sick that I started vomiting. At the time, I cannot say I was mature enough to comprehend or concretise all that was going on, but it was an appalling sight. I never shared the episode with my siblings for I could not bring myself to. After a week, the impacted of the event subsided but not without leaving an indelible mark in my mind.
I do not pretend to understand fully the experiences women undergo in our societies, but neither do I need to be a feminist do identify with the pain and sufferings our sisters have to bear, mostly in muted silence. The episode narrated above is an example of what many women go through whether as individual women or on a national scale as in Zaire Congo, or internationally. Obviously, I am not ignorant of the progress that we have made as societies in empowering women, but as I write women and girls continue to be raped indiscriminately in Congo Zaire, in Internally Displaced Peoples’ camps in rural Kenya and in other places of the world. Even as we demand for more stringent laws to curb violence against women, we equally need to relentlessly challenge some of the culturally scripted views on women. As men we need to realise that machismo, is another way of saying that we are daft. We ought to learn to be quick in using our brain more than our hands or mouths when it comes to dealing with women who have every right to live without fear or violence. Is anybody listening or reading?