This Saturday I strolled to my barber’s kiosk as I normally do. It is a warm morning, although it is not exactly sunny. My mind is preoccupied. I am trying to craft a string of comebacks for the barber’s partner. My barber is a Manchester City fan, and his partner is a Manchester United fan. Now, I am not a football fan. The reason is simple: 90 minutes is an awfully long time to be seated watching football. I mean, that is enough time to read 30 pages of an interesting book. Plus, most of the matches happen at night, and I love my sleep. I only stay awake past 10.00pm if I am held captive by a book, or if it is a Friday and Ely Band has kept me in Church past 9pm or if it is a Wednesday and I am writing a particularly stubborn blog post that drags on past midnight. Yea, some blogposts are particularly difficult to write.
But for the purposes of conversation, I keep myself updated on matters football. 20 minutes is enough time to read about all the matches, study analyses, and cram match reports. And by Saturday I am usually set for the conversations at the barber shop. God bless Goal.com. My team of choice is Manchester City. And during the week, it had been thrashed by Barcelona. So I knew my barber’s partner would not give me peace. And that is what kept my mind occupied as I walked.
But just before I get to the market where my barber’s kiosk is, I see a commotion. There is a crowd of people surrounding a gate. There is a police van and several cops milling around, including an inspector who is trying to address the crowd. There is also a woman who is shouting desperately. I cannot see her properly because she is hidden by the crowd. The man walking ahead of me slows down and turns to me:
“Nini inaendelea hapa?”
“Hata mimi sijui,” I reply.
“Hii lazima ni maneno ya shamba,” he offers, and goes on to talk about the perennial land problems in many homes.
Walking further down, we see household items thrown near the fence. Pieces of beds. Kerosene lamp. Stuff wrapped in paper bags. Old mattresses. More paper bags. Kitchen utensils. Basins and buckets. Et cetera. Then I remember I have a friend who lives in that area, and so I pick up my phone and ask her what drama is about. She tells me that the woman is being evicted because her step-brother sold the land she was living in, and the purchaser had come armed with a court order to kick her out. And the step-brother was already dead.
Now, I don’t know the woman. And my friend wouldn’t know beyond what she told me because she is not a native either, she and her husband have just rented a house in the neighborhood. But having grown up in the village, it is not hard to imagine what could have happened. She might be a widow, a wife of a late son in the home. Or she might be a single daughter of the home. I mean, grown up women are often not wanted in their own parents’ homes. Especially by their brothers and their wives. Because they are meant to get married and go away.
But our lady (let’s call her Wanjiru) probably didn’t get married. Perhaps she got a kid early, and the guy vamoosed. Heartbroken, she swore never to get married and concentrated on raising her child. Or maybe she did get married, but her marriage broke down because of any of a million reasons. And because her father is a good, church-going Presbyterian, he takes her in. He even shows her where she can build a house and bring up her children.
“Haha ni kwanyu Maitu, horera,” (This is your home, Mother, relax). She is his first born daughter, and therefore named after his late mother. So she constructs a wooden house and gets on the business of bringing up her children. She buys a sewing machine and gets a kiosk at the market, where she spends her day repairing clothes. When she is lucky, she might get an order to make wedding clothes. Or uniforms for a local academy. But you see, culture is culture, even for a Presbyterian elder. And culture dictates that a man’s heirs are the sons. Women do not inherit their father’s property. And Wanjiru’s father has just one son, with his second wife, who he married after his first wife succumbed to breast cancer many years ago. But he is a good man, and he loves his daughter. So he calls his son one day.
“Muthuri, when I am gone, you will be the head of this home, you know that?”
“Yes father,” the son replies.
“Please take care of your sister and her children. Treat her like part of your family,”
One day, the old man collapses in his house. He is rushed to Kenyatta National Hospital. Diabetes gets the better of him, and he dies two days later. That is when problems begin for Wanjiru. Her step-mother starts singing Kikuyu songs about women who cannot keep husbands. She sings loudly as she sweeps the compound, and as she hangs clothes on the hanging line.
One day, Wanjiru’s 10 year old son sees her on his way home from school and greets her.
“Good evening grandmother,”
“I am not your grandmother. Your grandmother is there,” she says, pointing to Wanjiru’s mother’s grave. “Or tell your mother to take you to your father’s mother.”
The boys is shocked and runs to tell Wanjiru. Wanjiru smiles and pats him in the head and tells him to go and get himself a mug of uji. But deep inside she is troubled. She has noticed the hostility in her step-mother. She has also seen the cold aloofness her brother has been treating her with since her father died. And she has never gotten along with her sister-in-law.
Then her brother goes down with Pneumonia and dies. His wife and mother start spreading rumours that she is the one who bewitched him so that she could take the land. She takes it in her stride, but cries herself to sleep every night. Because it is not true, yet everyone in the village is believing it. She is even being excluded in chama meetings. And even in church, the women have begun shunning her.
Then one day strangers come to her house. They say they have been sent by the owner of the land she is living in and instructed to tell her to leave because he wants to start a greenhouse on his property. She calls them thugs and tells them that the owner of the land is her late father and she is going nowhere. So they leave. Nothing happens for a while. Until one Saturday morning when a police van comes. There is also another van with strangers. Young men.
They show her a court order authorizing her eviction. They tell her that they bought the land from her late brother and that they want to utilize their land. She is stunned. Her head is spinning. Suddenly a lot of things start making sense. The strangers her late brother used to host. His sudden wealth that had seen him construct a brick house. He had even acquired an old Toyota salon car. The same wealth that had upgraded her step-mother and sister-in-law’s wardrobes. Before she can make sense of it, the young men are removing her items from her house and ferrying them outside the gate. She tries to stop them but she is restrained by the Police. All she can do is shout and wail. Her daughter starts crying but she has no time to console her. And her son is watching with silent bewilderment. Because he has never seen his mother crying in public. But Wanjiru doesn’t care about looking strong now. Because her erstwhile stable life has suddenly been caught up in a quicksand.
Of course, like I said, I do not know what was going on this Saturday. But this is an illustrative scenario of what may have happened. This scenario is a typical one in many villages. As I slept on Saturday, I thought about the woman I heard shouting. Where is she now? Where would she spend the night? Could she afford to rent a house? Would any of her relatives or friends take her in before she stabilizes? Would help be denied to her because she refused to sleep with a would-be benefactor? Or would she cave in and shed her virtue so that her children could get shelter? Or would she sleep outside and be raped by some thug? Is there any hope for her daughter either, in case she has one?
We have some powerful women in the world today. Theresa May. Angela Merkel. Hellen Johnson Sirleaf. Christine Lagarde. Perhaps after November 8th, Hillary Clinton. But the truth is, this power is yet to trickle down to the average woman. Especially at the home, where the destiny of a woman is still seen in many places as marriage. So she is not in the equation of inheritance. Sure, brothers fight over property. But they fight on the premise that one brother cannot be allowed to inherit more than the others. But the sister lacks this premise, because it is understood that she is not supposed to be there in the first place. She should be in her matrimonial home. Yet even when she gets married, her problems are far from over. Because, if per chance her husband dies, her in-laws will lay claim to the property and leave her destitute. Because she came with nothing. It doesn’t matter whether she helped him build an empire. Even if she had been earning more than he did. Or her husband might kick her out of her matrimonial home, to give way to a younger lass, and she finds she is no longer welcome in her father’s house. In the more bizarre cases, sons and their wives are known to disinherit and evict their own mothers, following the demise of their fathers.
Education has certainly helped. More women are able to defend their rights. And many men have embraced the fact that women are also human, and need to be treated with dignity. Many men are leaving their property to their wives, daughters and granddaughters. Many husbands are protecting their wives from greedy uncles. But these are the enlightened few. We are not there yet. We still need to change our attitude towards women. And this includes subtle attitudes that hidden within, that come out once in a while when the tongue slips. You know, like when you are fighting with your sister and you “accidentally” tell her to get married and leave you in peace. Even women need to change the way they think about themselves and each other. And by the way, here I am not even talking about equality. It is about humanity. A human being is a human being, whether she has breasts or he has a beard. And the thing is, sex does not make one superior, or inferior, as a human being.