The war at home

In 2007, a then little-known Kenyan man, Nderitu Njoka, announced that he would be launching a non-governmental 0rganisation called Maendeleo ya Wanaume (Development of Men). The mission of the NGO, according to the release, was to ensure that men are cared for in old age and to campaign for boys as has been the case for girls, especially school-going ones. A noble-sounding cause if indeed Njoka was going to act on it.

Unfortunately, 10 years later old men are still being thrown out of their homes and having those homes burnt by scheming younger relatives, purportedly for being warlocks but in fact just so the younger family members can own or sell their land.

It is no better for the school-going boys who are the other reason Njoka founded Maendeleo ya Wanaume either. While primary school education has been free in Kenya since 2003, those who fail to obtain the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education end up falling through the cracks, while those who manage to pass and go to secondary school, still have to contend with school fees.

For three years when I had a column in Kenya’s biggest newspaper, Daily Nation, I received many emails from the latter’s parents, strangers all, informing me that they read me and could I help pay school fees for their children. These were, I would imagine, the young men Njoka’s organisation and other men who agreed with him should have been assisting. No word from him in this regard.

We saw him helping abused men to report their cases at police stations when there was a surge of domestic violence in Nyeri, where husbands were cut on their faces or had boiling water poured over them by their wives. That Nyeri was in the news because the idea of women beating their husbands was considered abnormal by society and not that women were not victims of the same domestic violence, seemed to have gone ignored by Njoka.

But this should not have come as a surprise. In setting up his organisation, Njoka, it would appear, was less concerned about the welfare of male children or elderly and more focused on seeing a Kenya where men appear to be under siege. Men like Njoka would have the world believe that despite the fact that female genital mutilation is still a thing and inheritance laws are skewed against widows, men are disadvantaged.

They would have communities believing that feminazis, as they call women’s organisations, are empowering young women at the expense of young men despite the fact that there are still more girls dropping out of school for lack of school fees or due to pregnancy as a result of statutory rape by their teachers. And yet even as they believe this, they have no desire to make the situation better for the poor, besieged boy child.

Instead they want women to do that work for them. Or if not, stay in their lane as subservient beings according to “African culture” and “the Bible”. In an interview in Global Press Journal on August 25, 2013 Njoka is quoted as saying: “Man is commanded to rule over woman. The woman is supposed to give birth and take care of children. But since most women do not want to take their rightful place, families are in conflict.”

In Kenya, the attention that Njoka gets almost seems to be comic relief for the media and its audience. With only 50 men who are members of the closed page of Maendeleo ya Wanaume on Facebook and still operating a briefcase NGO for men under siege, it appears the only people who take him seriously are his wives and the few men who follow him.

And yet I could not help feeling that Njoka would be taken much more seriously in South Africa than he is here. I say so because I have seen a variation of what Njoka said above from posts by South African men. We know or know of women in abusive relationships who have been sent back to the abuser by their families because they should “qinisela”.

In townships and in suburbs, lesbians get raped by the male friends they drink with. They are lucky if they survive and are not killed for it. And all across the South African landscape, even when the violence is not physical, it exists emotionally or verbally.

Despite what rightwingers would have you believe, as I have found out from conversations with friends, this ownership of women’s bodies and spaces cuts across the races and economic brackets. The violence against women in many different ways is rife among South African men qha.

The articulate brother at your book launch, who speaks feminist theory and quotes bell hooks, could probably be beating the woman he is in a relationship with. The man who works at an NGO, who has all the statistics on gender-based violence, will forcefully kiss you at the door to your hotel room at a conference after offering to walk you so you can be safe. The suit in corporate will make sexual innuendos to a female colleague which are said to be “jokes” and which the woman must laugh at or else she is perceived as humourless.

The male politician will have no qualms commenting on a female politician’s looks or dress sense instead of the content of her presentation in Parliament to hoots from everyone.

The petrol station attendant pumping gas in a woman’s car will ask for her phone number. As will the municipal cleaner sweeping the street near a woman’s townhouse or the window cleaner at the hotel you are vacationing.

When my friend Siki says on social media that “we are scared of you all”, guys please do not come to us with #NotAllMen.

Rather, ask yourself whether you have violated a woman’s space, silenced her voice in any way or watched it being done by your friend or brother and not done anything.

Because you see brothers, you do not have to kill us and burn our bodies like what happened to Karabo. You do not have to correctively rape us because we love other women. Dismantling patriarchy starts with the small stuff.

So if you still want to know when I am moving back home, here is my answer:

I live in a heck of a flawed city called Nairobi. I have stated some of its problems with women above. Women are marginalised in politics. Pentecostal pastors give talks on how to please and keep your man to desperate housewives but never to men on how to keep the wives happy.

Here, too, like Johannesburg, women have been stripped of their clothes at matatu stages because their skirts are too short.

But it is here that, when that happened, another woman who was at the stage started beating the perpetrator with her sugar cane and her and other people, men and women, frog-marched the man to the police station and helped file charges. That, to me, is ubuntu.

Here, I am a writer. I am not a black woman writer. Then there are the seemingly little but important things. I am able to walk from my local at midnight alone without fearing that I am going to get cat-called.

When harassed on the street, it’s my neighbourhood mad man Ongono with “You don’t speak Swahili. You are from South Africa. Will you buy me a beer?” But he says a variation of this to my partner and my son.

My impressionable 12-year-old son who has been here since he was six thinks men like Nderitu Njoka are a joke rather than normal. If I were home, I fear, the opposite would be true. So hold on a while on that welcome home party. Call mine an exile from toxic masculinities. Meanwhile, I shall do what work I can with brothers like Siphiwe Mpye and Eusebius Mckaiser until I feel it’s safe to return where I can walk on the streets of South Africa freely as a woman.

I recognise how privileged I am to be able to escape a South Africa which seems to be at war with women. Many women are not as lucky.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African writer who has lived in Kenya since 2012. She is the 2017 African judge of the Commonwealth Short Story prize

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

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