At the end of 2007 I had the opportunity to go to Kenya. If you’re into political history, you may remember that this was a horrible time to travel to Kenya. But, I went anyway. There are many stories to share from that journey, but there’s one in particular that’s been on my mind lately due to recent political comments about women.
Women have kind of always gotten the raw end of the deal. I wonder when it started. Who was the first man to decide, “We are better, we are superior, we own you”? Superiority confounds me. Why do people have the need to feel better than and make others feel less than? There’s enough to go around – we can choose to live in abundance, not scarcity. But, that’s not how the majority of the world lives.
When I was in Kenya I got a small glimpse into the lives of women who (I assume) knew very few, if any, men who offered signs of abundance to them. I saw women who were held down, literally and figuratively. I don’t know their names, but I feel like their stories need to be told. I think we need to know about the struggles real women are facing around the world today. More than the elimination of “locker room talk” or cat calls from the car driving by, I want to see the elimination of ownership and physical abuse to women around the world.
We had a free afternoon and one of our hosts told us there was going to be a wedding in a nearby village later that day. We thought this would be a great cultural experience and a good way to fill our afternoon, so we started walking through the bush to get to this remote village far away from where we were staying. As we got closer we could see the sticks lined up creating a fence to protect the huts and other small structures. When we walked in, it was apparent that none of the children, and perhaps few of the adults, had ever seen white people. Some children ran away frightened, others just stared. I stared right back as I saw a young boy, maybe 5 or 6, carrying a freshly cut goat head across the path. We were all seeing something new.
We were told that when one big event took place in a small village like this, they would often add other rites and rituals to the agenda. The spiritual leader lived several villages away and it only made sense to combine it all in the same few days. So, while everyone was waiting for the bride to arrive, a few other things were taking place too. Just in front of us was a small hut that looked very dim inside. I heard who was in there and what would take place. I couldn’t make myself go in, but another traveler did and this is what she told me.
Inside this hut laid a young woman, probably 12 or 13 – maybe younger, I’m not sure. She had been drugged so her eyes were rolling around, unable to focus on anyone or anything. Her community still practiced female genital mutilation. Before being drugged she probably knew what was going to happen later that day, thankfully, at this time she had no idea. So she lay there unknowingly waiting for someone (often this is performed by older women) to come and cut her, destroy her. Yes, I am judging. No, I am not being culturally sensitive to their customs. Why? Because what they did to her was wrong, it was unfair, it was horrible. Later, when I was in a bigger city I sat outside a shop and started up a conversation with a Kenyan man. I told him about what was happening in this village and he was appalled. He told me that those in the larger cities are very much against FGM. However, it was hard to regulate this in small, isolated areas far from the main cities, so the practice continued on.
Someone, along the way, thought – this would be a good thing to do to another human being – to a woman, to lots of women. And then whoever that person was, ingrained this practice into women who believed that it was a good thing to do to their daughters and granddaughters. Someone believed that a woman who could experience pleasure the way her body was created to, was a dangerous woman, so they took the pleasure away. Where did our world go wrong? Why does humanity believe we have the right to do such things to other people? Where did the fear come from?
It took along time for the person to arrive to perform the wedding and then the “ritual.” As I sat there under a tree drinking a room temperature Coke in a glass bottle, waiting for the bride to arrive, all I could think about was that girl lying in the bed. I’ll confess – I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to hear her. I wish I could have done something for her, but I knew I couldn’t. I wasn’t there on a mission to save – I was invited into this village to experience and learn.
I wish I hadn’t been so scared to face her – to see her and touch her. I wish I could have looked her in her wandering eyes and told her that she’s bigger than this. I wish I had had the strength to sit there and hold her while she waited. But I didn’t and I couldn’t.
The whole reason we made the journey out there was to witness a wedding. After waiting hours (“Kenyan time” is a real thing!), the bride finally arrived. I was surprised to see how young she was – 16. She left her village earlier that day with one chest containing all her belongings. She was accompanied by her father, but she left the rest of her family that day, unsure when or if she’d ever see them again. I suspect her chest contained her dowry as well. This wasn’t a marriage of love or friendship. I don’t think she had met him prior to that day. This was a marriage of financial exchange. Essentially she was being sold. This isn’t anything new. It still happens every day around the world. Sometimes the couple learns to love each other, other times they just learn to survive.
As we walked out to a field, I felt like I was in a National Geographic magazine. The bride was covered in beads. Her beautiful dark skin made all the more eye-catching with necklaces and fabric created by her tribe. She stood there in between to her soon-to-be husband and the best man. He was a man, she was a child. Nearby but not in the pictures was his first wife. She looked older, but I suspect she was still in her late teens or early twenties. I didn’t know how to behave. This wasn’t like any other wedding I had attended. The women weren’t smiling. The man looked proud. There was a big crowd standing around them. Words were said and some time after that it was all over. No big fanfare or a kiss to seal the vows. She was now his. This girl, who years before, was probably in the same position as the one still lying on her bed back in that dark hut, now anticipated her wedding night. A night, I presume, that didn’t bring the anticipation of excitement or joy but instead searing pain. You see this is unfair, right? You see how women are still treated around the world and you feel pain in your heart too, right?
When I observe others cultures, I do my best to be respectful and non-judgmental. However, there are times that I think judgment is required. There are times in my own culture and society that I have to say enough. This is all about respect – respect of women, of their bodies and minds and, most importantly, our humanity. We weren’t created to be used and talked about and abused. We were created in the image of God. Every single person on this earth now and then and forever – we were all created in the image of the one who created us – whoever that may be. No one has the right to take that away from us – no one has the right to tell you: you are less than. No one has the right to call you names or touch you inappropriately or perform “rituals” on you.
There are a lot of things going on right now that make me sad and scared. The name-calling and the email “leaks” – I have no idea what to believe. I can’t figure out the truth about most of it. But, I do know that I don’t want my nieces growing up in a world where someone in power thinks it’s okay to grope women or judge them based on their looks or call them names. Things are a mess, that’s clear. What’s not clear is that we’re fighting for more than power – we’re fighting for our dignity as human beings.
These two women I’ve written about – I’m so sorry I don’t know their names – they deserve better. Women deserve better. Men deserve better. Humanity deserves better. We’re in this never-ending cycle, from the beginning of time. It feels a bit hopeless and even fruitless to try to make things better. But, I do believe we can make it better. One person at a time. When we tell our stories, we give others a chance to tell theirs too. We just need to keep telling our stories and connecting with one another, with those different from us, with the hope that one day, someone will hear your story and decide on a new path, a path that leads to life, not death. So, I hold onto that hope. Maybe if we hold onto it together, we will find that new life, a place that’s a little less unfair for all of us.