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For the love of God, STOP: On stereotypes, the church and Africa

It is too early in the year for the type of ignorance being peddled about Africa by some church affiliated folk in the name of missionary work. In this era of Google and social media, why do people insist on clinging to that false image of Africa? You know, the country ravaged by disease, poverty and war where people live in anything but buildings? In a time when information is literally at people’s fingertips, is it that difficult for one to educate themselves about African countries? Sure, you don’t have to know everything about all 54 of them but knowing that Africa is NOT a country is a solid first step. It’s not a hard concept to grasp guys.

I came across an article titled “First Presbyterian Church recreates rural African town.” The church, which is in Gainsville, Georgia, was scheduled to have a “Life in an African Village,” event this past weekend. According to the article, the event was geared towards teaching children in the area about daily life in a foreign country and missionary work. Because life is the same in each and every village across the continent…ha! The children would “build makeshift huts, listen to African drumming and sing African tunes…” How would they build the huts, you ask? Well, when I initially read the article, there were pictures of cardboard boxes open on the side with hay on top. I think that is how they were planning on doing it. The pictures have since been taken down. I wonder if it’s because they finally did some research and realized that that is not how huts look. Or maybe not. A girl can hope.

If that’s how they think huts look, you can only imagine what they told the children about living in a village. Only heaven knows what they said about the African culture that people love to define in ways that align with their personal interests. The guest speaker and performer at the event was a Zambian man who was also in attendance at the same event last year. Ala! Didn’t this depiction of Africa bother him!? Or did he say something about it last year and the organizers just didn’t listen? But then again, there is always that one African patting these we-will-misrepresent-Africa-because-we-have-decided-that-our-version-of-Africa-is-more-accurate-than-reality types on the back.

Then there is an American woman who went to Kenya on a mission trip and didn’t fall in love with the country. Why? Because she didn’t see poverty nor encounter people who don’t speak English, as she had expected. Yes, this happened, as written on her blog. Her entire post is condescending and made me question the motives of her mission trip. I guess we now know what happens when savior complex and superiority complex thrive in an individual.

The woman’s post will make you believe that people go on mission trips to delight in seeing poverty and feel good about waving their invisible alleviate-the-suffering-of-the-locals magic wand.  Seriously, how else can you explain this excerpt from her blog post?
My heart was prepared for dirt floors.
For dirty laundry hanging everywhere.
For kids that were half naked and covered in bug bites.
People who couldn’t speak English.

not this.

Eh!? You would think that when someone plans to go on a trip to a country they have never been to before they would do research on said country. Isn’t that just the common sense thing to do? Clearly she couldn’t be bothered with all that. She had created this image of Kenya in her mind and that is much more important than the reality on the ground.

Who gets discouraged by not seeing poverty!? Shouldn’t that, I don’t know, ENCOURAGE  you!? Shouldn’t it make you realize that the images you see in movies and commercials are completely distorted to push a certain agenda? Shouldn’t it make you want to change that and present accurate images of the country? That could become your mission, no?

It seems that this lady was so set on jetting in, tiling the dirt floors, washing the dirty laundry, clothing the half naked kids, putting balm on their bug bites and of course teaching Kenyans English.  While we are at it, why would dirty laundry be hanging anywhere? Because cleanliness is only reserved for wealthy folk and those from the West or? Oh, where would we be without her blessed heart and those of others like her?

Why spend all the time, money and effort to go to a country if you are hell-bent on forcing it to fulfill your stereotypes? How much good can you do for people if you are struggling to accept the fact that their circumstances are not as you expected? Is it not possible to spread His message where dirt floors and half naked children are not involved?

That blog post is both ridiculous and disturbing. This had been said before and evidently, we need to keep saying it. Kenya, and Africa as a whole, doesn’t need to be saved. What we need is non predatory partnerships, among others, to fuel our socio-economic growth and political development.

So, if you are going to teach children about mission work and Africa, please present the continent accurately. It’s the least you can do given all the resources available at your fingertips. Perpetrating stereotypes is lazy and a disservice to all involved. Avoid the reenactments too. There are plenty of pictures of huts online…no need for hay and cardboard box tricks. If you are going on a mission trip, research on the country you are going to. Leave your ignorance, prejudice and pre-determined uninformed solutions at your house. Interact with people, find out what their community needs and how you can be of help.

Highlights 2014 (Celebrating Kenyan Women)

(This list is not in any particular order and neither is it exhaustive…just 10 (-ish) moments that came to mind today)

1. Lupita Nyong’o’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar win…
Lupita Nyong'o Win

…and her acceptance speech…

…and her recent speech at the Massachusetts Conference for Women…

…and the numerous times she owned the red carpet, the pavement, the airport entrance/exit and social media.

2. Okwiri Oduor’s Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story “My Father’s Head,” and her interview with Arise News.

Okwiri Oduor has also written a novella “The Dream Chasers,” that was highly commended by the Commonwealth Book Prize in 2012. She is currently working on her debut novel…I’m over here waiting for it with a cup of chai masala!

Side note: Two other Kenyans have won the Caine Prize. Binyavanga Wainaina in 2002 for “Discovering Home,” and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor in 2003 for “Weight of Whispers.” Oh, book recommendations alert -> Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust.

3.

my dress my choice

#MyDressMyChoice was started as a response to the stripping of women in the name of “decency.” Active and passive perpetrators of this form of violence against women claimed that stripping women teaches us not to be “indecent” and to dress “respectfully” while upholding our “African values.” Seriously!? How much stupidity does one’s brain have to be cloaked in in order to even think like this!? Please, we all know violence against women is about power, control and intimidation, among others. Enough is enough. It’s time to put an end to violence against women.  Salute to all the women who organized and participated in the protest against these heinous acts.

4. Diana Opoti celebrating 100 Days of African Fashion was amazing. She showed all of us just how fabulous African fashion is and the phenomenal level of talent designers across the continent have.
Follow her on Instagram @dianaopoti for pictures of her different outfits as well as designer details, you know, in case you decide to rock out 2015 in statement-making African fashion.

Side note: This was my favorite outfit, not that anyone asked…ha!

5. Captain Irene Koki Mutungi became the first African woman Dreamliner Captain. She was also the first female pilot at Kenya Airways. Inspiration is her, for sure.

Irene-Koki-Mutungi

6. This picture of an all-women Kenya Airways flight crew. Definitely using Kenya Airways next time. Well, if I am guaranteed that I will be on their flight…ha ha ha ha #disclaimer.

crew

7. Tegla Loroupe wins the 2014 Billie Jean King Contribution Award. Like many, I heard the name Tegla Loroupe before I fully grasped exactly what running a marathon and breaking records entails. She is not only a marathon legend but also an advocate for peace, women’s rights and education. Not to keep all her winnings to herself, she started the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation.

8. Evelyn Watta won the Sport Reporting Award in the 2014 CNN Multichoice African Journalist Awards. She won for her story “Inside Senegal’s Mythical Wrestling Heritage.” Hmmm…to think that there are people out there who are constantly coming up with ways to pigeonhole women. Meanwhile women are out here broadening your world with their words and award-winning stories.

9. The Wangari Maathai Peace Park is now under construction! Yes, it will be open to the public and according to the Green Belt Movement, they hope to have a library in it one day. I hope this is the start of many more parks with libraries throughout the country.
Also, I love the Google doodle of Wangari Maathai, below. It’s from 2013 but it’s timelessness landed it here.

wangari maathai

10. All the Kenyan warrior women who are constantly fighting/advocating for our rights. You are the reason we will have a better Kenya for women. You are an inspiration to many of us. You are everything and then some!

Shedding Culture

How do we go about doing away with aspects of culture that have and will never be beneficial to us, individually as well as in our different communities? This is especially difficult amongst African communities since “culture” is the invisible cloth that we are reluctant to take off. We cling to culture and constantly use it as justification for carrying out violations, especially against women.

One of Uganda’s daily newspapers, New Vision, published this interview with an upcoming female musician who was also the runner’s up in a Coca Cola sponsored singing competition in 2013.  It is evident from the initial questions that the young lady is a go-getter and has accomplished a lot as a result.  However, the interview took a turn for the sad when questions about relationships were asked. The lady’s responses were disturbing and heartbreaking. It is scary to know that there are many more African women who share  her sentiments.

When asked  whether she would leave if her man hit her: “If he hit me for the right reason, I would stay, but if he hit me over something flimsy, I would leave. I admit sometimes we do things that make our better halves angry. They are human too. When people get angry, they do things they can regret. I would still forgive him. My parents hit me since I was young, but do I hate them? No.” And what would this right reason be: “Maybe if I went out all night and didn’t pick his calls and then I was rude to him (which I am never), I would take the beating.”

Eh! Is there ever a (right) reason to hit a woman? The correct answer is NO, NEVER.  The fact that someone has somehow found a “right reason” is baffling to me. Equating being disciplined by one’s parents to being hit by a man is startling and an indicator of some of the negative aspects of culture that we need to rid ourselves of.

People are still steeped in the women should be “disciplined” belief. This is something that has been accepted and even considered part of many African cultures for years. It is considered normal, you know, just like breathing. Men have historically been taught that, as the authority in the home , it is up to them to ensure that people in the house toe the line, especially their wives/girlfriends/partner. A woman is considered a minor who has no business pursuing any of her interests without her husband’s/ man’s consent.

Despite all the progress that women’s rights movements across Africa have made over the years, this particular aspect of our collective culture stays the same. The opinion of the Ugandan lady in the interview above is just one example. How many of you have, or know a young African woman who has, been told that attaining higher education will make her intimidating to men? Will result in her not finding a husband? Because African men are not interested in women who are more educated than them or earn more than they do. “You can’t be too independent, no African man will want you,” is a statement that I have heard.

African women today are still expected/taught to bend over backwards and work overtime to appease the men in their lives. If the relationship fails then it’s your fault young African woman. You should dress to impress your man, keep him interested…pull out all the stops so that he doesn’t stray. You can aspire to be anything you want as long as your ambitions leave room for the man to be the head/leader. You should always cook…it’s a woman’s job…the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach after all. You can’t go out all night with your friends and not pick up his calls…how else do you expect him to show he cares if he can’t keep tabs on you? Oh, he hit you? Well, he was just “disciplining” you…your ways need to be corrected from time to time…you know how we women can get. He hits you because he loves you and wants you to be the best version of yourself…yeah, sure, as long as that best version stays under his thumb and learns to respond to his every whim. So what if he is unfaithful?…you know how men are…they get tempted easily…forgive and move on. You can’t leave because he is cheating or hits you every now and then…good men are hard to find my dear.

It’s all very disturbing especially when you hear/read about a young lady buying into these notions. It’s sad to know that such beliefs are being, and by the looks of it will continue to be, passed on from generation to generation. How then will we enact societal change? How will we, once and for all, do away with this cultural bondage?

Touch Me Not

This is not about the plant…although it could be…in some alternative universe.

A few weeks ago, while leaving the club (had to be right!?), a man grabbed a lady’s hand while trying to talk to her. She pulled her hand away and simply said, “Don’t touch me,” as she walked away.The man appeared puzzled and shouted that he just wanted to wish her a good night. “Don’t touch me though. I don’t like people touching me,” she said while glancing back.

The scene was all too familiar to me, as I have seen it many times before, unfortunately. I have also had the displeasure of going through such experiences. Why do some men feel the need to grab a woman’s hand so that they can talk to her? Is it really necessary? Do you think that grabbing my hand will make me suddenly want to stand there and have a conversation with you? I really have tried and failed to understand this move. Personally, when someone grabs my hand, I immediately get alarmed. That feeling heightens when the face attached to the hand is that of a stranger, which is typically the case. I always pull my hand away, yes in a this-hand-belongs-to-me type of way, and then walk off. On days when I am in a generous mood I typically say, “Don’t touch me,” accompanied with an eye-roll. Yes, eye-roll, because it is very annoying to be minding your own business and then someone decides to grab your hand all in the name of wanting to talk to you.

Seriously, if you want to talk to someone do just that. If they respond, good for you. If they don’t, then good for you too…it’s not the end of the world. Grabbing someone’s hand shows that you think they should/have to respond to you, and if they don’t realize that, then holding them hostage will make them respond. Really, men…you have the right to speak but you do not have the right to my response and I have the right to not speak/respond.

I have never seen a man doing this to another man though. “Hey sir”…grabs hand…”Can I talk to you for a minute?” Yurp, I am yet to see this happen. Why? Probably because you might get knocked in the eye for grabbing a stranger’s hand. So why do it to women? Just STOP! If you think we owe you a conversation (or anything really), you have another think coming. While we are at it, you might as well wipe that shocked/ surprised/ did-you-just-brush-off-my-advances?/ how-dare-you-reject-me-in-all-my-glory? look off your face.