Held at the French Cultural and Cooperation Centre (FCCC), the fora–A celebration of the written wordA series of debates and presentations on feminine literature by authors, literary critics, literature dons and arts and culture experts took place : Women in focus through literature and art–brought two guest scholars.
Dr Geetha Ganapathy-Dore and Prof Chantal Zabus were flown in from the University of Paris XIII in France to share their experiences with Kenyans. The sad point about the event was that the only female literary giant who addressed the modest gathering was medical doctor Margaret A Ogola. Grace Ogot, the author of the first novel (Promised Land, 1966) in Africa, did not attend. And neither did Rebecca Njau nor Asenath Bole Odaga. Even then, their writing formed the basis of the debates and discussions of the five-day event (October 13-17, 2003). The issues of gender and culture in Kenya, the conflicts between tradition and modernity in the writing of women authors, and trends in feminine writing, took centre stage. While Prof Monica Mweseli, a literature don at the University of Nairobi, presented a paper on :The role of African women in culture: a look at her portrayal in the works of Okot P. Bitek, Dr Ogola’s presentation was titled, “A view of Kenyan women and disadvantaged persons”.
Other speakers were Prof Helen Mwanzi (Tradition and modernity in Grace Ogot’s writing), doctoral student Alex Wanjala (A comparative look at the cultures of Kenya and Senegal through Coming to birth by Marjorie Oludhe Mcgoye and So long a letter by Mariama Ba), Prof Ruth Kibiti (Issues of Gender and culture in Kenya), Prof Chris Wanjala (Who is afraid of women writers) and Atieno Okudo (Developing a reading culture in Kenya).
Dr Ganapathy-Dore’s “Indian women directors and their contribution to the art of cinema: Gurinder Chatha’s Bend it like Beckham” challenged Kenyan women filmmakers never to give up but emulate their Indian counterparts who, despite the odds stacked high against them, have gone on to succeed. She advised Kenyan women to seek funding and distribution networks from European Development Fund, European Commission’s support for African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and collaborate with Women Make Movies in the distribution of their productions. Although the US$1.3 billion Indian film industry had begun in 1896, cultural, social, financial and political reasons had locked out women directors till the 1980s. Even then, women had had to fight nail and tooth for this.
Prof Zabus: The growth of African women’s autobiography as a genre was very much an intellectual exercise. After her introduction that Western female self-writing or autobiographies had only acquired body over the past two decades of the 20th century, the professor said that of Africans had emerged in the 1970s along with feminism of African manufacturing such as ‘misovirisme’, ‘feminitude’ and ‘womanism’. But that was as far as useful information could go. Prof Zabus then launched into the reasons that led to this: joys of motherhood, barrenness, defloration, menarche, lactation, menopause, and patriarchy such as polygamy, rape, domestic violence, prostitution and patronymic ownership of the female body in the larger African libidinal economies.
At times, she said, the African female body ‘can be so alienated that it seeks solace in prostitution, often held as the ultimate form of female autonomy.’ Her extensive elaboration on rape, infibulation and defibulation using the autobiographies of Somali Waris Dirie (Desert Flower, 1998 and Desert Dawn, 2002) and Guinean Kesso Barry (Kesso: Princesse peule, 1987) was not well received with many people walking out of her lecture that looked much like an analysis of Dirie’s books. It was felt Prof Zabus had confused the gathering for scholars of literature. She presented Waris Dirie, fashion model, UN ambassador and courageous spirit, a remarkable woman born into a traditional family oftribal desert nomads in Somalia, who endured female circumcision at five years old, ran away at twelve through the desert in order to escape anarranged marriage to a 60-year-old man, and famously discovered by a fashion photographer while working as a cleaner in a McDonalds fast food restaurant in London.
The vision of Cultural Attache Jean-Pierre Volia has made FCCC the leading cultural agency in Kenya
In her address, Prof Mwanzi had tackled the conflict between modernity and tradition in the writing of Grace Ogot. Anchoring her argument on The old white witch, The white veil, and Elizabeth short stories, Mwanzi showed how the male is ‘a cultural sell out’ while the woman is the custodian of culture. Unlike the latter, the former is ‘ready to abandon his culture for a chat.’ Before yielding to a man’s demands, the don contented, the woman should always find out what her gain is in the bargain. The woman stands to lose out most whenever things boomerang.
While men are portrayed as ‘ardent embracers of modernity with all the hypocrisy and wickedness that go with them’, women go it alone to observe and preserve culture. In all the three stories examined, the centre of each character is the genitalia, the care and respect it must receive and the threats it faces. The stories further extolled the traditional woman’s awareness of the central role her sexuality plays in her life; the potential it has and the power it can wield when it is properly used. A treasure, refuge, and temple, its destruction is tantamount to the destruction of the woman
Although a little disjointed, Alex Wanjala’s paper–among other issues– dwelt on issues like effect of rural-urban migration on African culture, effect of Western education on African women, and effect of traditional attitudes to polygamy, childlessness in marriage, and the girl child. Looking at Senegalese and Kenyan societies from the eyes of Mariama Ba and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, respectively, Wanjala said these authors had ‘had the privilege of being members of the traditional society, and the new society that emerges in the post-colonial period. They are, so to speak, the spokespeople of the African woman.’ While establishing intercultural relations between Kenya and Senegal, Wanjala said, he had also attempted a comparison between the pre-colonial cultures of both countries besides looking at the effect of colonialism on their women.
One had the feeling that Wanjala has not done his homework properly on the paper before presenting it. While Okudo talked generally about what the National Book Development Council of Kenya was doing in helping popularise the reading culture in he country, Dr Ogola argued for the critical analysis of cultural practices. Paradoxically, Ogola noted, women are the custodians and also victims of culture. “This guardianship of culture is closely linked to the guardianship of the life force or the flame of life- symbolized by the guardianship of the hearth,” she said. “No one understands better than woman the danger of being culturally unrooted.” Only women tend to be rooted enough and spiritually calm enough to guard culture, the life force that gives people, identity and meaning. “Women must continue to burn incense at the altar of culture and all persons not subscribing to any particular set of beliefs, norms and mode of being must indeed remove their shoes and approach other people culture with deep reverence and desire to first understand: for it is true to forge a cultural identity takes a thousand years, pain, joy, tears and battles fought together,” Ogola said as if she were a priest leading worship. She lamented that women in Kenya and Africa appeared to be under siege as security and respect reserved for women of yore has dissipated.
HIV/Aids is killing women by droves, and disinheriting and driving them out of homes when their spouses die. Though the main caregivers of dying spouses and relatives, women receive little care whenever they fall ill while younger women are being infected with the virus as older men turn to them in he hope of escaping the virus from older women. “Certain cultural practices that were meant to give protection upon spousal death or to give identity and prepare women for the rigours of marriage have now become veritable death traps,” Dr Ogola observed. Calling for intervention, the paediatrician said she did not believe in legislating against culture as doing so not only drives certain practices underground but also makes them more pernicious. “With shoes off, and with reverence in our hearts, let us seek to understand and intervene creatively to slay the dragon of subjugation of women, while strengthening the expression of valuable cultural identities,” she said.
She added that intervention should be done ‘with our shoes off and hands folded in reverence and our hearts open to understand why a people cling to cultural practices which we may think’ in our lack of understanding as perverse or even dangerous.’ People do not will fully harm themselves, she argued. Otherwise ‘they would die off as an ethno-cultural unit.’ Dr Ogola’s was the shortest paper delivered yet it readily connected with the audience. In his presentation, Prof Wanjala commended FCCC for organising the forum and called for more fora ‘to discuss the technicalities of creative writing.’ He however did not hesitate to add that Kenyans ‘have no real hang-ups about which writers are put into prominence in literary and cultural criticism.’ All writers, whether male of female, face similar problems ranging from non-paying publishers, or lack of publishers for creative writing as most publishers ‘compete among themselves to capture the money the Ministry of Education can offer to the exclusion of creative writing books.’ Pioneer writers in Kenya, he said, were women like Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley. Wanjala, a literature professor and literary critic, presented a provocative but incisive paper that educated as it informed. He noted that war is waged on women and other minority groups in Africa by traditional and national dictatorships that spring out of culture. ‘African women make the vast majority of the disenfranchised population in Africa, the starving, and the wretched.’ Tradition being the cardinal source of women’s expression and slavery, Prof Wanjala contented, women cannot be emancipated without tackling culture. Wanjala analysed the writings of Rebeka Njau, Dr. Margaret Ogola, and Grace EA Ogot in detail and those of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, and Micere Gothae Mugo in passing. He also mentioned how two manuscripts.’The power base’, and ‘A big woman’ by Kenya’s famous novelist, essayist, theologian and poet David Gian Maillu portray women.
Monica Mweseli, Helen Mwanzi and Alex Wanjala
While ‘The power base’ is a play revolving around a deposed former despotic president, ‘A big woman’ is about a non-governmental organisation woman activist who does everything in her power to achieve and maintain success at the expense of her family. After defining culture as the basis upon which decisions are made in society, the caustic Prof Kibiti “a self-confessed gender activist” said culture was oppressive and objectionable to women because it is owned and controlled by men. Culture provides rules for social behaviour and other characteristics while gender ‘a subset of culture’ looks at social relationships between men and women. Both, however, are intertwined.
Indulging with abandon in academic idealism with examples of cultural practices that demean women drawn mainly from America’s Howard University, it was almost annoying to hear her heap praises on social aberrations like a 60-year-old woman ‘marrying’ her 28-year-old domestic servant. This act of Edith Virginia Wambui Waiyaki Otieno taking advantage of Peter Mbugua had outraged the nation and stolen headlines in international media. To Prof Kibiti, Wambui is a heroine fighting for gender equality and rights of women! Prof Mweseli’s address condemned the hypocrisy and immorality of Western societies through P. Bitek’s Lawino. P. Bitek presents Malaya (prostitute) as being persuasive, sophisticated, knowledgeable, realistic and unashamed of her deeds. She is tender, loving, and intimate with her kindness surpassing that of a wedded wife. The humour and morality of Malaya put moralists to shame!
The closing reception of the four-day artistic and literary event was around an exhibition of paintings by Kenyan women artists.