Celebrating East African Writing!
I would go into a commentary about political and social evils after having to go through Du Bois’ works for my school assignments. My mind however is rather occupied by half-formed thoughts that keep bombarding my mind with the mumbling assistance of a rather cynical friend. Friend, I say, with wary reservation, because I am loathe to such examination as might reveal unpleasant truths. So here I am shying away from examination and jumping onto the wagon of radical complaint.
A few weeks ago, after an attempt to write a commentary on socio-cultural disintegration in Kenyan society, I dared ask an uncle what he thought of the same topic. Under the muiri tree, under a bench constructed by uncle for his mid-morning daze, I listened as Uncle went on and on about his childhood. We were soon joined by four gentlemen just about the same age as Uncle. One I call Gichai because the very first thing he says every time he walks into Uncle’s house is, “Bring the tea.” The other three I vaguely recognize as distant relatives.
Here I was, a young woman, aspiring to be a writer, listening to five men in their 60′s debate amongst themselves the reason things have gone downhill in the last four and a half decades. One man firmly blamed the white colonialists for all the trouble. My uncle blamed the victimized attitude since adopted and kept 45 years after independence. Gichai blamed religion, the Christian religion especially, for changing the socio-cultural fabric that held societies together. Another man insisted that it wasn’t Christianity that caused the problem but the Church institute itself. The last man, short and wiry with smoke stained teeth, crushed his cigarette, spat at the fallen leaves to his side and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Uhinga.” One word, spoken in Kikuyu, and that is all he said. No one spoke for a full minute. When they did speak it was about the cabinet that had taken so long to be unveiled.
I looked to my Uncle frantic for a translation of the word that was clearly not in my mental database of Kikuyu words. Uncle reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a Sportsman wrapper, then reached into Gichai’s shirt pocket and pulled out the pen that had bled its ink on Gichai’s shirt. He wrote on the wrapper and handed it to me.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the word as:
a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially : the false assumption of an appearance of virtue or religion
Somewhat confused at this point, I allowed myself to bring up the topic to my cynical friend. He pointed at religious hypocrisy and sexual pretentiousness. Before I could form my protest, Mr. Cynicism( I got the spelling right that time) told me that African culture has over the last 5 decades been intertwined with religion, Christianity in particular, and that the human identity is hinged on sexuality. So there really is no way to discuss hypocrisy without touching on religion and sexuality.
Now this is the point where I would usually retreat to safety. These thoughts have however plagued me long enough. I need sleep tonight so I am going to share my thoughts.
Religion in itself is not a problem. Religions offer spiritual satisfaction depending on how they are accepted and with what measure of trust and faith. Religions offer a sense of identity in the practices, routines and boundaries, which interestingly fill up a part of the human identity. I personally feel that even the most atheistic person practices a form of religion in as much as has a set of beliefs and maintains some ethical and moral boundaries and expectations. So where does the problem begin?
I went back to my Uncle under the muiri tree. Gichai, as was not uncommon, happened to be present on that day too. I asked them both what they thought.
Uncle listed a whole array of issues that bothered him. From the woman down the road who felt herself more righteous than anyone in the village, to the Reverend who preached fire and brimstone but was having an on-the-sly with the young Sunday school teacher. Gichai pointed at near fanatic fundamentalist religions, pausing mid-sentence to look at me accusingly, then moving on to discuss issues of uniform differences.
Uniform differences? Gichai, I am told read some Social Science at Makerere. What he meant was that even though we do draw a part of who we are from institutions and societies that we identify with, it is only natural that everyone of us will be different physically, mentally and psychologically. He quickly points out that he has strong respect for certain rules and boundaries with regard to acceptable behavior but feels that the rules should be set with an honest, unpretentious view of the real nature of a human being.
That brought me fast and hard to the issues of sex and sexuality.
As far back as I can remember, sex has been presented as something shameful and horrid. Before I could understand the connotative references of tabia mbaya and usicheze na wavulana, I was certain that sex was a horrid monster living in the world behind the bushes.
It turned out to be a monster, alright, but it lived in the apartment behind the church. When I did finally figure out what sex was, I was bleeding and in pain and the pastor was warning me that if I told anyone, he would kill my mother. I believed him. After all, he had taught me something I had not been taught by anyone kinder.
Moving from that first impression has been plagued by shame and anger and ludicrous misinformation. I find that I am not alone in this. All the women who do dare discuss this with me describe curiosity veiled in a lack of information, misinformation and warnings hardly understood but almost always based on some form of religion. The fortunate ones get their education in fumbling gropings with the boy next door all the while terrified that if one of the grown-ups finds them it will be chastisement and possible beatings.
While this is happening, what are the grown ups doing? I think of Shaggy’s music video that displays quite interesting behavior in a church. Or Kanye West’s and John Legend’s music video which has the Reverend getting carried away in the highs and the lows of the voluptuously defined woman who belongs to someone else. Praise the Lord, someone got here before I did. Except that here on this side of the globe, the ogling and the pretentious sermons followed by gropings in the dark are very well hidden behind harsh judgements and denunciations of those who are too ‘evil’ to be ‘holy’.
How much easier would it be to discard pretentious notions of self-righteousness? Then we would be less plagued by sleepless nights of self-loathing. Even less bothered to judge anyone but focus on dealing with life as it really is.
I am not advocating for total lack of moral restraint or the discarding of ethical principles. I am hoping for a more honest appraisal of human nature and societal situations.
If I can accept myself as; very imperfect and very likely to make mistakes or at times lack proper moral judgement, and at the same time very human with natural inclinations that can be acceptable within the limits of my own principles, societal norms and if I chose religious expectations; I am less likely to let myself be drawn into the self-loathing that is translated as intolerant denunciation of another person’s choice of lifestyle and faith. I will be free to love and accept myself, tolerate and respect other people, and I hope to be of more use as an educator and caregiver for the young.
What wonder that every tendency is to excess,- radical complaint, radical remedies, bitter denunciation or angry silence. Some rise, some sink. The criminal and the sensualist leave the church for the gambling hell and the brothel…the better classes segregate themselves…. form an aristocracy, cultured but pessimistic, whose bitter criticism stings while it points out no way of escape. W.E.B. Du Bois
Juliet Maruru lives and rambles at http://www.jmaruru.wordpress.com