Review by Ogova Ondego
I Laugh So I Won’t Cry
Women in Kenya, says a new book by American writer Helena Halperin, have a lot to teach the world about courage and generosity. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
When American teacher Helena Halperin first came to Kenya in 1989 to teach English, biology, history and social ethics at Shamoni Secondary School in western Kabras, Kakamega District, few would have suspected that 17 years later she would have a 350-page book from her interaction with women in the East African nation.
Staying with the family of Margaret and Peter Obonyo for 14 months, she says: “My favourite activity was sitting with any neighborhood woman in her kitchen and talking about life.” She ended up interviewing subsistence farmers, beggars, prostitutes, office workers, market women, herders, business executives, and community activists in mud huts, market stalls, and corner offices, giving these women a voice to paint an intimate portrait of love, loss, faith and survival in places where women are still finding their voice.
Impressed by the resourcefulness and courage of women in Kenya, Halperin says, she returned to the country many times between 1995 and 2003, travelling around and interviewing women of various ages, ethnic groups, and ways of life guided by variables like race, ethnicity, age, marital status, number of children, education, economic circumstances, and means of livelihood. As to why she did not end up with a book on her own life in Kenya, she says, “I wanted to write something that wasn’t just a colonial view of Africa, but a book inspired and told by the entire spectrum of Kenyan women. I am amazed that so few books out there celebrate the life histories of these courageous women.”
Christianity, according to the self-confessed American feminist Halperin, is given as the reason for many changes of custom, even those, like earlobe stretching, which are not clearly related to Jesus’ teachings. Elders may resent innovations that look like rebellion but accept an innovation that is justified as a consequence of Christianity. Even when someone is quite consciously imitating an attractive novelty, she writes, it may be more tactful to explain her innovation as accommodation to Christianity.
Many women speak well of arranged marriages and the protection bride price accords marriages. The go-betweens know the prospective couples well and they know best which people to unite. Love matches lack in commitment when love gets strained. Giving away one’s daughter free may indicate she was not valuable. Bride price signifies recognition and not ownership of the woman by the man. Almost everyone agreed the disappearance of dowry was bad: that it weakens marriage bonds as girls do not persevere because dowry is not paid; parents are ashamed to approach each other to settle any disagreement between their children as they do not know each other; husbands desert wives because there is nothing to hold them back. Bride price protects a woman because parents are involved. Elders will only arbitrate in a marriage if they also sat to negotiate dowry.
According to the book, physical appeal is one of the qualities women in Kenya look for in a prospective husband. Such a man should be handsome, black, and tall. He should love the woman and give her companionship, besides sharing similarity of background, religion, degree of devotion and have the ability to provide for her needs. Although modernisation is good, it nevertheless has disrupted village gatherings and naming systems, created conflict, produced widespread ambivalence and concern, and a sense of powerlessness among people. The shift to money economy and increasing poverty have both contributed to a decline of inter-family socialising and increasing isolation. It is harder, often impossible, to support relatives who face misfortune, and the social contacts that created solidarity are disappearing. Halperin notes that “Relations between African Kenyans and Asian Kenyans are often tense.” Despite colonial oppression of blacks by Europeans, Halperin notes, “there seems to be far more hostility toward Asians than toward Europeans.”
Although almost a definitive publication on women in Kenya, repeated references like “replacing the increasingly corrupt government of President Daniel arap Moi that had held power since 1978”, “During the later Moi years getting a government or parastatal job almost always required a bribe and connections”, and “For the first forty years of independence, 1963-2002, Kenya became increasingly corrupt, earning a rank of 96th of 102 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, tied with * Indonesia and leaving only Angola, Madagascar, Paraguay, Nigeria and Bangladesh as more corrupt. Relentless looting of public funds impoverished the great majority of citizens, leading to widespread hunger”, reeks of the prejudice, arrogance and ignorance associated with many western reporters working in Africa. It shows the writer as lacking in objectivity as she mixes her own views with those of her sources in a book she claims to be the voice of women in Kenya. For instance, she writes: “the government squandered the initial euphoria by reneging on some vital promises” and “Oh Zildah, truly life can be hard! I do not expect you to grow fat, but I hope you will be able to eat to satisfaction”.
She also makes some a serious error in claiming that Mwai Kibaki was the leading opposition candidate in 1992 presidential election although FORD-Asili leader Kenneth Matiba was the one who came close to beating Daniel Moi who nevertheless trounced Matiba, Kibaki and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Other inaccuracies are when she refers to mitumba (imported second hand clothes) as mitumbo, and to Luyia Okhukhwesa (marriage by abduction as okhukwesa which she then says is a Dholuo word, rendering korogocho as korogosha, Murang’a as Murang’aa, and Kalenjin as Kalejin. Besides proofreading that could have corrected the above highlighted mistakes, one also feels Halperin’s book would have benefited from some tighter editing. For instance, editing would have prevented things like “My youngest son, my third born.” says You people leave us alone, He has read a lot about Europe, so he says, “European families don’t force their children to give”, ‘accomodating’, ‘plowed for other families’, By standard four many had already dropped. “I was able to go school”, “My husband he has never used a condom”, “wove and sold sissal ropes”, and “He had a lorry and properites” from getting into print. This is especially so as a book like this one with a long shelf span is supposed to be written, edited and proofread by many people.
Granted, some comments are marked as “author’s comment” but then her other comments are interspersed with those of the women she interviews to the extent that the reader cannot draw a line between her voice and that of the women she is writing about. Although this is supposed to be a publication on women in Kenya, the author appears to have spoken mainly to educated women in down Kenya: Western, Nyanza, south Rift Valley, Nairobi, and Central provinces, leaving out the often marginalised women in northern and north eastern provinces except, perhaps, the few she spoke to in Wajir. But then there surely are women in Mandera, Moyale, Lokitaung, Lamu, Kilifi and Kwale? Sweeping statements like Kenya is full of desperados ravaged by AIDS, poverty, prostitution, institutionlised violence against women, bossy, slave-driving, libidinous and polygynous men who run harems of at least three women, make its acceptance objectionable.
Helena Halperin: ‘In most Kenyan communities traditionally parents arranged their children’s marriages. As young Kenyans become more mobile, they often find their own partners, and may move in without the traditional rituals. Mothers hope their daughters will marry and worry about them if they do not.’
She appears to have relied on only a handful of educated women as the source of her information, especially a woman she refers to as Omina Oruko. The writer admits that well educated women are heavily over-represented in this book since her contacts in each community was a woman who spoke English. Generalisations appear to work against this book. For instance, she uses Kenya as a representation of the vast 53-nation African continent. As all of Africa’s major patterns of living are found within Kenya–camel herders and cattle herders, commercial farmers and subsistence farmers, international jet-setters and street-corner beggars’–Halperin contends that her book aims to introduce the continent through the prism of the East African nation.
While this contention may be excused, the following statements that not only belittle the intelligence of readers but also insult Kenyans and those who know the country well, cannot:
1. In Kenya, many husbands regard their wives as property, and both men and women commonly believe that a woman should be ‘under’ her husband.
2. Physical abuse is common and accepted by many as normal.
3. Men are neither expected to help with routine farming, nor obligated to provide money to meet their family’s cash needs.
4. Many women think beating is a routine and eternal problem, nearly as much a fact of life as the sunrise.
5. Marriage exists to protect property and ensure the orderly inheritance of land, herds or other assets, not primarily for emotional support.
6. Spouses may love each other but enduring closeness is rare; men look to other men for companionship just as women do from other women.
7. Through formal initiation and informal men’s conversation, boys are taught to treat women with little respect.
8. Traditionally, all Kenyan ethnic groups practised polygamy.
9. A man who fathers many children is respected. In western province, three wives are common.
10. In Kenya, you cannot go far without seeing adverts for Trust, a brand of condoms. You don’t have to look long to see skeletally thin people, or people with multiple large lesions, and everyone has lost relatives to AIDS.
11. For millions of women, selling sexual favours is a dreaded last resort.
12. A child who lives with his or her grandparents is adopted
13. Kenya is filled with desperate people
14. Michael Wamalwa, former vice-president of Kenya, died of AIDS in September 2003
Published by Africa World Press, Inc in February 2005, I Laugh so I Won’t Cry: Kenya’s Women Tell the Stories of Their Lives is nevertheless engaging for general readers as well as scholars. The recommended retail price of this soft cover book (ISBN 1-59221-304-9) is US$30.