By Fred Mbogo
Published July 16, 2013
The 2010 constitutional changes in Kenya are meant to have inspired a shift in the worldview of a hitherto predominantly patriarchal society. Under it, womanhood has been re-imagined. The Kenyan man is waking up to new realities like affirmative action, land inheritance, equality in marriage, sexual harassment and gender balance at work.
The growing nervousness, for the men at least, on the place and meaning of woman in Kenya is best captured in the use of honorifics. “Mrs”, “Miss”, and “Ms” no longer carry the straightforward meaning they used to have. It used to be obvious that a married woman should be a “Mrs”. It is still fashionable to be a “Mrs” since it indicates marital status which, to many, is important. The idea that one is married suggests an aspect of functionality, normalcy, and social correctness.
But, increasingly, there are contentions as to whether a woman should belong to a man; a husband, for example. The idea of a woman giving up her maiden surname, belonging to the father, for the husband’s has been questioned too. In a sense these are problems faced in the quest for self-definition since naming kills an aspect of one’s story; herstory!
Surnames suggest ethnicity, for example. They give an idea of whose daughter one has been before marriage. For this reason there is an increasing use of hyphenated surnames. Wanjiru Maina-Kibet, for example, gives the impression that Wanjiru, a daughter of Maina, is married to Kibet.
The problem then is how to honour the hyphenated. For instance, what implications are there in the etiquette expressed: Mrs Wanjiru Maina-Kibet? The uneasy matter to live with, for some men, is the failure by some women to take up their—husbands—own surnames; the refusal, in a sense, to belong to the man!
When Wanjiru Maina, for example, refuses to take up Kibet’s family name, it becomes harder for her to get the honorific Mrs, as Mrs Wanjiru Maina, since the impression created is that Maina would be her husband. But isn’t it even more complicated when Jane Mumbi Maina drops Maina as well in preference for her own middle name, Mumbi?
The new constitution of Kenya has brought in a new governance system with the post of Deputy President. While the President’s wife is referred to as “First Lady” the Deputy President’s certainly cannot be “Second Lady”. While logical and sound, the title is easy to misinterpret and to lead to faux pas as far as protocol is concerned. At the same time, the constitution seems to have envisaged that the President of Kenya, when male, will always be married to one woman. There seems to be no room for several “First Ladies,” although in Jacob Zuma’s South African case, writers with etiquette have afforded all of his wives the “First Lady” title. In that case it is impossible then to have a specific “First Lady.” This, then, is the best example of how “new” or “progressive” western-styled constitutions in Africa are struggling to assert themselves. They seem to be alien to cultural ways of life in many cases.
Popular culture has tended to deal with honorifics through parody. Benga musicians, for example, single out “mwalimu teacher madam” as an interesting character. She is not your average lady in a township but rather a woman of means. She transcends the definition of womanhood by marriage as she seems capable of finding her way around without the help of a “minder” that a husband would be.
In Jamnazi Afrika’s song, “I am not sober”, the lead singer gives a list of friends that he wants to thank and buy beer. In that list, most of these friends are men. Among the handful women on the list is “mwalimu teacher madam” who is thanked in as similar a fashion as all other men. There is a suggestion then that she is not as ‘normal’ a woman as the rest. She in essence is ‘masculinised’. The fact that she is often at the bar or beer club on her own suggests that she is in charge of her own destiny; she does not report to anyone about her whereabouts. She therefore blurs the imagined gender line, she being female but enjoying freedom similar to that of men in a patriarchal society.
In Vioja Mahakamani, Kenya’s longest running sitcom on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation Television based on court drama, the male characters are portrayed as being disillusioned by the power held by the female judge or magistrate in court. Many characters find themselves calling the judge by the respectable African “mama.” That often earns them some rebuke from both the lady judge and the male prosecutor. These characters cannot understand why “mama”, such a culturally respectable title, is unwelcome in court. How is it that a respectable woman cannot be “mama”? They cannot even call her “madam” the usual title of respect for a lady of high status. They must call her “Mheshimiwa” (honourable), which is so far removed from their thoughts.
Justice Richard Kuloba, who has been a professor of law and judge in Kenya as well as being a writer of note on Kenyan law, points to the problem encountered by lawyers while addressing women judges. In his book, Courts of Justice in Kenya, he argues that women judges do not mind how they are addressed. The tacit agreement seems to be that you may call the judges anything as long as your title reflects their marital status (where married) and also that they are judges. That leaves room for wrong address when the said lady judge is unmarried. Some of the titles Kuloba has heard include: “My lady,” “My ladyship,” and “Madam Judge.” He also has heard hilarious titles from lawyers such as “My fair lady,” and also “the charming lady” on the court’s corridors.
There are references to “Mrs Dr” or “Professor Mrs” within the Kenyan academy. These create interesting problems as they are most often exaggerations. The references occur in social places and some official functions alike. Marriage is still carried as a badge of honour among many women in Kenya. It therefore might not be strange to hear titles given in jest but taken seriously such as “Mrs MP” or “Mrs Senator” which capture both the office of the lady in question and the marital status.
Fred Mbogo, PhD, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya. He holds a Master’s degree in Dramatic Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.