In Support of Shailja Patel: A Call to Grief for Caroline Mutoko

Why was the world I know, a part of which I have dedicated my life and breath, a world that Shailja Patel is persistently interested in changing indifferent when she cried that her body was assaulted? Why is my voice where it is? What happened at PEN Kenya and PEN International that nobody would answer letters regarding a member saying that she has been assaulted by a member? Why was the PEN Kenya President unable to answer a single letter from a former concerned member on the matter?

Is silence and simply no answer to letters that seek to inform or find out ways of dealing with these matters to be shelved in silence? Surely not. Does it make sense to applaud a Snowden and then do this? Why then, are we defending, or why am I defending freedom of expression on local and international podia? Do organisations not breathe with their former parts or members? Not that anybody would have said guilty as charged immediately, we were prepared to wait. But not to silence a voice that expresses pain of assault.

We know how to wait for court cases police and all. But this immediate mistrust of the victim who cries and support of those whom we know is questionable. How do we treat women who voice out abuse? How much are we hiding? If we are indifferent? Do we then have any moral authority to defend anybody against any oppressive regime? Any prisoner? Why did we not have a policy in place, not for condemning but at least for listening with openness to one who cries foul?

I had to assess all my voicing and I have retreated into silence and deep self-examination for going this way, nothing can hold. Not our work, not our word, not our cohesion against the oppression of women or anybody. The first oppression of expression in the body of a woman, begins with the restriction of her body, in abuse, in mutilation of any form, in those dos and don’ts that make her think from childhood, that she had to keep silent because if she speaks out, everyone will ridicule her, not listen or call upon friends to laugh and question. Taunt. Whereas from law all we ask of is justice, from society we must ask, especially for women, for an urgent response to their first reaction to abuse whether we think it is real or imagined.

The fact that we want to believe they only imagined is far outweighed by experience which shows most women will not speak out. The fact that we are quick to believe that women only, or often, imagine abuse speaks volumes about our own indifference and understanding of power relations. A measure of the health of our society is in how we reach out to the vulnerable, a standard measure of our civility. Nobody can convince me today, no matter the seeming loudness of activist women and of feminists that women have passed the threshold of being considered non vulnerable. Not in their own families, not at war time. Not in globalisation or big business success, not in the simple market places or rural zones, not in the cities.

This matter as in the matter of all rights is one for the gentleness of eternal vigilance, we need people who hold the candle that burns or the tiny wick in a koroboi, little lamp, waiting for the return of a daughter at night, always with thoughts about her security and integrity. Ever listening deeply, carefully, before waving away even wavering thoughts said in stuttering words.

Aya de Leon

mutokoFeminists are often characterized as angry, but underneath it all, we’re heartbroken. Our hearts break every day for the brutal mistreatment of women and girls. We weep for the lives lost, bones shattered, spirits crushed. Those of us who are black women mourn often. We wail for the unsolved murder of two sex workers in Florida, hog tied and dumped by the side of the road like trash. We sob for the black woman who bested not one but three young male rappers at a new years eve party, and what should have been her victory became her lynching. We grieve for women’s losses and for the indifference the world shows to our losses, and the policies and institutions that pay lip service to concern about us, but consistently allow, reinforce, support, or exploit the brutality against us.

Recently, in this blog series, I have been grieving the…

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Letter to Addis ©

Letter to Addis, Why I shout what I know.. Wake up call to women, wake up call for democracy… be crazy, Africanize it before they tread on you again!

In December 2005 I returned from a two week contract in Addis Ababa on Human Rights with great anxiety all through the flight. Who was going to rid Africa of abusive and repressive patriarchy? Meles Zenawi was 50 years old. Sellasie still worshipped by many as the lion of Judah long gone, he and Jomo Kenyatta were dictators of their times. I demand recognition of plus and minus. Addis is a peaceful city, at least it was then. I could walk at midnight dressed for the season’s heat, not the men. Nobody, they assured me would touch me. And yet there were 75 000 people in various prisons because they voted for the Opposition. And always in the background the story of a singer called Ted whose car, a Mercedes, was responsible according to the police of all the chaos of the city. He had to be celled. He had sang a song of freedom. But of course it was not the music that was the problem. How could it be? Addis. The dancing and eating of njera was a consolation. Good safe restaurants. Even now I find them in any city of the world. But among those imprisoned was Mesfin the founder of the Ethiopian Human Rights Organisation. Our training was on Human Rights. It took more than five days to make anybody talk to us. They looked at us like pictures. They wondered at the magic of Kenya. The freedom. The Maendeleo s ya Wanawake, women waking I liked to think of it. An unstoppable movement. Grassroots. But long raped and hijacked by politicians. Still the potential was there and could be shown as a role model. But Addis, I could walk free at night. I from Nairobi had the inborn fear you get of having heard of something called ‘ngeta’ even if you had never experienced it. As a woman you probably had seen worse right at home. In Addis they told us how it was possible to speak out on abuse of human rights in a meeting and to go home and find the remains of your relatives on the gates waiting for you. Because freedom was so dangerous. I bought an Ethiopian Cross that the Airport. I wore it. I was trembling for a nation so even as the customs men asked me to stay with a smile, saying that I must have been from their land before, I was eager to go back to Kenya. But I was furious. Kibaki was sitting in power still calling me kumbafu. I wondered what happened to our love. They said he was sick after an accident. But if you are sick, how does Wanjikũ know power falls sick? At the airport, I quickly bought a Safaricom scratch card as I used to call it. Freedom to call. It was not possible from Addis, freedom to text. In Addis, Internet was slowed down. Any message you sent out brought the round fainting circle to your eyes forever. And then it faded. Especially if you included BBC and this is what I was doing for even though I was on a private contract I am a writer and I knew and felt and read that the imprisonment of so many was not out there in reports. And I wished for a younger president whose blood would beat with passion for a continent. Now tell Uhuru Kenyatta that I read Ngugi wa Thiong’o in a newspaper eagerly waiting for the people born after independence to show us the new Africa. I told him nothing is younger than freedom nor older and values. Now tell him that I am already tired of a certain age I see not just returning, but confirmed in power, and him. “Early results showed the opposition with a big lead, sweeping all of the contested seats in the capital Addis both in the race for parliamentary as well as local government. By the afternoon of 16 May, the opposition claimed it was halfway towards winning a majority in the national parliament with only about a third of the constituencies reporting complete results. Later that day, trailing badly in the preliminary report covering just under 200 seats released by the National Election Board, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced that it had won more than 317 seats out of 547, while conceding that opposition parties won all 23 seats in the capital city Addis Ababa. The two major opposition parties, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the United Ethiopian Democratic …”