I was thirteen when I came to Nairobi for the first time. I had just finished my KCPE exams; a little boy with dreams bigger than his appetite and a passionate distaste for dental hygiene. My mother dropped me at my aunt’s place, where I stayed for two months before I went back to Kisumu. At that tender age, I did not know what it meant for the man of the house to go away over the weekend and come back on Monday evening. I did not care about the mini-scuffles at night coming from the master bedroom any more than I cared about my teeth. The morning after was marked with grim silence from my aunt. It was one of those days when she did not want to be disturbed.
As far as I was concerned, I was a visitor in a fairly modern home with normal issues. It was not until the last week of my visit, just before Christmas when it happened. We heard the noises. The phone rang. I heard my mother’s name being mentioned. Then came the sound of something being pounded, followed by a cry – a gutted, wounded cry.
That night, for the first time in my life, I saw a man beat up his wife. He is not a small man, my uncle. He towers over six feet high and is moderately built. That alone makes him a bad motherfucker. But that is not all. At that moment when his rage erupted and he no longer had empathy left in him, his eyes took a red hue; couple that with his black tinted skin and what you have is a nightmare pummeling his wife into submission for unknown reasons.
My little cousin scampered under the bed, and I followed him. At some point the fight was brought next to the bed and then my aunt fell. Her defenses had been breached. And so she gave in to the gleaming boots that she polished every morning as we watched helplessly.
It has been almost a decade since then. My little cousin is now in the sunset years of his high school term. Blimey! I do not know how old he is now, probably sixteen. A confused young man with a deep voice and raging hormones that flare up every time a cute woman crosses his view. He called me the other day to tell me that daddy is at it again.
I did not know what to say.
Here is the thing. I lived in that house for two months and from my interactions with my uncle, I would say that he was a man stuck in a past era. The kind who holds on to the belief that members of the family should not eat before the man (read lord) has been served. He pulls rank over what is watched on the telly. He is impatient with things he considers frivolous -and that list is lengthy- and he does not take kindly to being questioned about where he was over the weekend. Worst of all, he is violent, who settles argument by setting one’s cheeks on fire. He roars at his son when he cries because that is a sign of weakness. His expression of masculinity is harmful to his family’s wellbeing.
I try and understand his context. Was giving your woman a good thrashing just about what it took to sit with the lords of men during his time? He is a jaluo like me, and legend has it that during his days of yore, culture opined that disciplining your wife was a husband’s right/ gesture of undying love. If that bears a modicum of truth, then I pity him and his ilk; it must have been so tedious to show love to a woman.
Come to think of it. All that energy and sweat spent on tying down a woman (and the women of those days were not ati softies, kwanza well-fed lunjes and luos mamas) and knocking out the living daylights out of her. All in the name of chivalry. Hell, by these standards, I am thankful to the old American movies for showing lazy bums like me another way to a woman’s heart: vodka, flowers and compliments.
The tragedy is that men like my uncle are not an anomaly. They are many who refused to board the bus to the present age: men who are unable to reconcile with what the world has turned into. Men who live to put women in their place.
When my cousin called me to say how fed up he was with his father’s chronic rages and how his wanton anger had turned their home into a house of horror, I had nothing to say. My thoughts were swirling. How would ever know the concept of a father’s love? Was his own recourse to turn against his father or flee? Had we been internalize to pass off bad behaviour as culture?
At barely 17, he is constantly trampled in a conflict involving the two prime figures of his life. He cannot bear to see his mother suffer and he is clear that his father’s aggression is wrong. Yet, he is unable to do anything about it. There is still an ingrained respect for the father figure, the kind that teaches one their place in the hierarchy. Maybe it was too complex to understand. I could relate.
I look around me today and it is impossible not to notice the recent spate of gender based violence, that have turned men into ogres in the eyes of our women. One is left to wonder where to see the beauty of being a man in such an ugly set of circumstances. It is confusing. It is a hard pill to swallow.
Women say they want to be treated as our equals, and many have bled to make it so. But what happens when say a girl offends me? Am I supposed to treat her the same way as I treat men who offend me?
Let’s take for instance Mwende walks up to me and says something smart about my broken front tooth, or drops the s at the end of my name and calls me William. That offends my sensibilities. If I let it go because Mwende is a woman, then that would be gender discrimination, right? Because if some Onyango dude did that, he would not see that left hook coming.
So why should I not extend the same courtesy to Mwende? If I do, and God forbid someone was pointing a smartphone at me at the time, clips and images of me will be circulated to the entire world, and I will be the asshole of the year for not letting Mwende off the hook.
All through my life ever since the day I hid under a bed to escape my uncle’s fury, I have been looking the other way when a woman is struck. Most of the time it is because it is none of my business and silence is usually a very easy option. Many men, young and old, have kept silent for far too long when they needed to be heard. Lips sewn with strings of indifference. Our silence allowed gender based violence to continue unabated and now the assault stalks our women in public and private spaces. This silence fed a wild dog which is now in the wind, tracking our scents. Now women walk about worried that their choice of dress might get them ravaged by an unruly mob in the streets of Nairobi. No one is spared. Not even our little girls or grandmothers.
And that is it is on me…on us. We stand accused, rightfully so.
So I tell my cousin the truth. I remind him that his mother may have missed out on kisses and hugs, but he (my cousin) did not. I also tell him that being a man is not easy these days. That some Mwende will one day mispronounce his name and that shit will pain him. Mwendes will always do that, and God help you if you marry one, because many a time she will get to your goat. However, what really makes us men is not how hard we strike the lips that kiss us at night, but how fast we roll back our sleeves and walk away from the Mwendes of this world. I know it is cheesy to channel my inner Kenny Rogers, but the truth is you do not have to clench your fist to be a man.
I tell teenage cousin this, praying that his father’s fury is not an inheritable trait; that his future will not be a replay of his Father’s past. I tell him this hoping that he is man enough not to criticize things he does not understand. Things like his parents’ marriage.