Archives for September 2016

Some women should never bear children, and it is okay to say so.

Had I the capability, I would deny some women the ability to bear children. I know. That is a cruel thing to say. I am still figuring what makes me tick but I know this one thing for sure. For as long as I live, there will never be a stronger urge that engulfs me like the need to protect a child.I have always felt that their sheer innocence and helplessness should move any human being to keep them safe and loved. They could be my nephews, niece, my husband’s love child, a neighbour’s… it does not matter. Peculiarly enough, I have been in conflict with women over the wellbeing of their children. Surely, they would now what is good for the kids, right?

baby1

When I want to design and participate in the tailoring, she wants attention

As a journalist, not all stories that I take interest in are published. The story may not have met the editorial threshold:  not be enough facts to back up the accusations being thrown thereabout; sources changing their minds and decline to talk to me; an editor may not be convinced that story is worth telling at all. One thing remains though: I cannot rub some images off my mind. I still remember the cry of a little boy in Kisumu’s Russia referral hospital who had lost his penis in the hands of an angry step parent; while riding my bike through Rangwe early one morning to follow up TB stories, I remember seeing a girl who I thought was barely four carrying such a huge bucket of water and shivering. But the incidents that punch in the gut the hardest are where a child suffers such great and sometimes irreparable harm in the hands of those with a sacred duty to protect them: their biological mothers. Normally, people around this child would have raised the alarm to the authorities already, but Kenya’s weak systems have very little regard for children. They would leave that child in custody of the mother as they look for a “sustainable and multipronged approach to make the system ok”.  For as long as the system is damaged, I wager, the babies will remain there. The society does not do anything because Kenyans think all women love children. 

The truth is, some do not. I do not have statistics to quantify my statement but when postpartum depression or any other mental illness is ruled out, there are mothers who would not be moved to joyful tears by their offspring at all. They are incapable of giving the nurturing and devoted patience that a child needs. They cannot handle the adjustments that come with being a mother like less sleeping hours or the anxiety that comes with the baby being sick. Does that make them evil? Not at all.  What makes it evil is a woman knowing that she does not love children and go on to give birth to one to meet some selfish reason. It could be status. Others have children as a ticket out of their economic misery. Go to the children’s court where you will be shocked at how loathsome greed is.

A childless woman in Kenya is an incomplete human being. Just look around. Even women consider women with children that are not biological as “not mom enough”.  I remember posting on Facebook asking mothers to take their babies for vaccination to protect the little ones from diseases that science has managed to conquer. A mother of two, and I should add a Christian, commented rather cruelly “na wewe utazaa lini?” (Swahili for “and when will you give birth?”). It was like because I did not have my own, I was not supposed to comment about their wellbeing. A woman who has managed to separate sexual intercourse and procreation because children are not in her to-do-list, is pilloried with named like “too educated”  or be seen as being punished for a sin she committed like aborting or being promiscuous. She will be considered unworthy of any respect or love for passing up one of woman’s evolutionary duty. The media is awash of stories of the dangers of delaying motherhood. I am not a gynaecologist so I will not enter into that argument.

There is  even a study by Satoshi Kanazawa, a psychologist from London school of Economics, which said that said maternal urges drop by 25 per cent with every extra 15 IQ points a woman garners. In his book The Intelligence Paradox, there is a chapter titled “Why intelligent people are the ultimate losers in life”. The opening statement of the aforementioned chapter groups women who decide not to have children with ignoramuses. He writes: If any value is deeply evolutionarily familiar, it is reproductive success. If any value is truly unnatural, if there is one thing that humans (and all other species in nature) are decisively not designed for, it is voluntary childlessness. All living organisms in nature, including humans, are evolutionarily designed to reproduce. Reproductive success is the ultimate end of all biological existence”

Maternal instinct is not innate in all women. Some women damage children verbally and physically without batting an eyelid, and should not be allowed near them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging that. In psychology circles we would argue about the use of the term “instinct” or “drive” interchangeably. Either way, something instinctive or one that drives a human being insinuates that it is automatic, irresistible, no training is needed to acquire it and it is unmodifiable. So when maternal instinct is missing in a woman, no amount of social approval, money can drill it in her. I was listening to writer Elizabeth Gilbert on Oprah and she was explaining her decision not to have children that there are three women when it comes to motherhood: the natural mothers, the auntie team and those we do not want near babies. every woman should search within themselves and find out where they belong. For now, I am in the auntie team. Where do you belong?

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How women can use a short,and art,to resist Kenya robbing them of their femininity

Last year, while covering a function in State House, I was infuriated that there were so many tables between me and the “vantage position” from where I would listen to the president and take pictures and little videos with my phone for the paper’s social media pages. After a little thought, I took my heels off and while supporting my petite body with my hand on the table,I jumped over it. My male colleagues looked at me mouths a jar,  shocked with their heads shaking. Then last month, my godfather and I were arguing about whether we will get to a social event we were invited to on my bike or not. After allowing me to express my concerns about the traffic—more like throwing a tantrum— he said calmly: “I need you to be a woman today Vero, something female”.  I frowned. Surely, everybody can see that my chest is bumpy and there is a great distinction between where my waist and little behind is! What did he mean by telling me I needed to be a woman… something feminine?

That month, pacing in my empty house, trying to come up with some philosophical reason for designing the clothes I was going to have at my launch, I found myself admiring my friend Sandra Ruong’o. Sandra is very accommodating. As we run a company together, I will yell at her “well your Koffi Annan moment cost us another client” to which she will calmly respond “and everted a war”. She is tender, approachable and always has a kind word even to our friends suffering from inflicted wounds. I guess the one-word-for-many for her character is “feminine”. So I made a short-suit with her in mind. You can peruse through my Facebook page here and see more designs.

Sandra wearing a Verah Okeyo suit. PHOTO/Lameck Ododo(Odo Gallery)
Sandra wearing a Verah Okeyo suit. PHOTO/Lameck Ododo(Odo Gallery)

You can still see her legs, the soft linen blouse in the coat but it is still a suit tailored like a man’s.

Feminine Sandra wearing a "masculinely" tailored short suits PHOTO/Lameck Ododo (Odo Gallery)
Feminine Sandra wearing a “masculinely” tailored short suits PHOTO/Lameck Ododo (Odo Gallery)

The deeper I thought about “feminine”, I appreciated the history in it: in the Victorian era, curtsying and wearing floral dresses -among many other ridiculous qualities- made a woman the most eligible spinster; to 1960s in the revolution when words like “feminism” took such polarized connotations that women started defying the idea that there is a singular way in which women should be. So powerful was the rebellion that Hollywood started casting lead sword-swinging-gun-corking female characters in action movies. Women were not damsels in distress needing rescue by Rambo anymore.

Let us transpose this topic to Kenya. In this country, a tout will grope a woman’s buttocks so intrusively and the men around will take videos as the woman gets humiliated and later share that on the social media. Men will stop a woman on the streets for a handshake and should she refuse, they will call her unpalatable names. These men will hide behind “I was drunk” which makes you wonder why the intoxication never persuades them to harass fellow men. Enter boardrooms and you will find women earning less than their male counterparts yet put in a lot of work than the men. I was reading Wangari Maathai’s “Unbowed” and it surprised me that in the 70s, Kenya did not give women house allowance.  Growing up in Kenya forced me to take cues of survival and ruthlessly competing in a world of inopportunity for us. I learnt, not to cringe at insults like “you whore”, but respond back and ask the man whether he would be a bull enough should I give him the chance to lay me. I learnt to be combatant to defend myself and those who the society will not stand up for. I became so self-sufficient that I fix my bulbs on my own and climb the roof to mount aerials as well. I ride a motorbike to work in Nairobi’s vicious traffic! If you asked anyone around us, they would describe women like me as “independent”. My little brother’s friends say I am “cool”—whatever that means— because whenever they come home, I will give them a run for their money in the basketball pitch.

Think about evolutionary biology with me for a minute. You see, we all have these two elements in us, male or female.  For instance, I can only operate on my masculine side as a journalist, the same way a man can only hold his baby on his feminine side but these needs to be at an appropriate balance. As a woman I can be 20per cent masculine and 80 per cent feminine. However, in my case, as with many Kenyan women who do not suffer fools, my pendulum has swung so far to my masculinity that I have difficulty accessing my femininity, the God given thing that makes me woman enough to couple or even be a mother. Kenya makes us women so ruthlessly competitive that we are so drained in the evening we cannot be the safe containers on which a man or a child can deposit their love and affection. Life grows in a woman. We are receptive and soft… God created us with a vagina for God’s sake! We are naturally wired to nourish, to be the healers to those around us. To do this, we need to let go a little. That is a thought so terrifying to a Kenyan woman because the moment she lets go of her defensiveness, she will be denied a promotion she rightfully deserves at work. Her husband will walk out on her and leave her with children and no property. The man, or her family, she loves will use that affection she has against her and make her feel foolish for loving.

So I found a cure to seat my feminine queen to co-exist with my
masculine side at a proper balance, by paying attention to my arts. Are you artistic? I am very artistic that sometimes the doctor has to prescribe me something to calm brain down when designs of clothes, sentence structures for stories and tunes of songs float therein demanding my attention at 1 am. Using my music writing let me demonstrate to you how art will teach you to be feminine. One, music teaches me to get in touch with portions of me that I do not like. Music that can grab your attention, is born from an emotion like the fear of
being abandoned, the joy of falling in love that you lose
yourself…those are loathsome to me because it means I am admitting weakness.

Two, music teaches me to surrender and have tender patience,a virtue that does not come naturally to me. I have to cooperate with the musical notes. I have to let the tune carry me on an ecstatic high then bring me down to an emotional low. Sometimes the music is so stubborn not to want that acoustic guitar I want to insert in that verse. I let it take my hand and lead me, sometimes against my will. More like the way you want to slap your daughter’s cheeks and she smiles and against your will, the anger dissipates. The same way, you want to whip him then he kisses you and all your detailed plans of the whipping vanish. I have learnt to listen to just to one minor chord seeking to be sustained amidst the clattering noise of the drums, keyboard the same way you will listen to your baby’s cry for attention amidst her rebellion and bad grades.

Lastly, art has taught me to express yourself and what I am, unapologetically. After making the music, I will put it out here for it to be judged by Kenyans on Twitter, sometimes so unfairly by ignoramuses who cannot carry a tune but as an artiste, I will say “I do not care what you think about the piece, that is what I was feeling then”. More like telling your child you love them and that for that reason everything they do is your business. Or telling a man you love them and you do not care whether he thinks that makes you a wimp.

Let us toast – here is me grabbing a bowl of porridge— to being feminine

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Boy,is she treating you like that? Well blame her father

It is 1 in the morning. I have not blinked an eye and it does look like that is going to happen soon. So I am singing loudly to Donna Summer and Seal’s chemistry-laden version of Seal’s Crazy. As I shake my head to the pulsating drum beat, I am looking at the pictures of my latest designs. I like the way I look in this red dress. I’ll be damned! Is it me, the dress, the photographer or the camera? You can check the designs in my Facebook page here and buy a piece.It looks awkward to say, Verah Okeyo wearing a Verah Okeyo but I am wearing my own design PHOTO/Lameck Ododo from Odo GalleryIt looks awkward to say, Verah wearing a Verah Okeyo but I am wearing my own design PHOTO/Lameck Ododo, Odo Gallery

I promise I'll get models who smile better for the next collection PHOTO/Lameck Ododo,Odo Gallery

As my brain struggles to slow itself down from overdrive 500kilometres-per-hour mode that it is on now, a thought stands erect on my mind: that story I wrote about antimicrobial resistance needs a sexually transmitted infections angle. Maybe that will foster some public discussion on the magnitude of the danger of drugs losing their ability to cure. As I am thinking of the lead to take on the story, my phone vibrates. It is a text from my friend. Her date ended badly. Again. I know where this conversation is headed. It will metastasize into what her father would or not do. Bluntly, I would tell her to put her big girl pants and other dismissive statements. Today, I refrain from that because I just remembered how my own father affects how I perceive people on a daily basis.

My father—may his soul rest in eternal peace—was an uneducated class three drop out who wore nothing else on his lapels except his big generous heart and integrity. Working in the flower farms in Naivasha, Mr Okeyo watched the perks of being educated through his Dutch employers. Unable to afford the newspaper daily, he would go to his employer’s mansion to get magazines and old newspapers which he always brought home for me read. I am now working for the paper I started reading those days. There is an older editor whose writing I disliked then and it tickles me today when we meet in the lift and I crack jokes about his 1998 articles.

In the late 90s, my father and I spent our evenings in the quiet environment Naivasha ambience like disgruntled lovers. We listened to Mukami Gioshe’s voice –or was it Bill Odidi’s?—on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) as we criticise each other on singing off key. I would have those magazines sprawled in front of me on the concrete floor. Once a week, he would ask me to join him to listen to Chris Kubasu on KBC TV’s In search of An answer. “These people are smart they must be saying something important”, he would say. Occasionally,he would ask me to translate some parts that escaped his little grasp of the English language. Not once, but many times, I would watch a boring documentary about the history of the company he worked for—Sher Agencies, then the world’s largest flower producer but now under receivership— and because I had to obey him, I would sit and listen to him explain why the flower stems were refrigerated in that particular way among many other things. You can imagine how important this background is to me 20 years later when I am assigned to write about how the collapse of this company has affected livelihoods and ecosystems.

So back to our memories. The television was, of course,a Greatwall black and white TV with that hideous detachable “coloured” screen. Once in a month, the old man would buy me a music tape—the very first one was Shania Twain’s Come on over in 1998, and Celine Dion’s Let’s talk about Love. To this, add many Congolese bands like Soukous Stars, Madilu System and my native Luo bands like Collela Mazee, Omore Kings…Damn those old times. Do they bring up children the way they brought me up?

At 29, I am appreciating that while living in the modest estates in the flower farms in Naivasha, as the daughter of a peasant worker, I had access to the latest copies of OK! Vogue, Reader’s Digest, Vanity Fair, The Times and other high end magazines. I am not certain I would afford them regularly at a go now even though I am on salary now. Therein, I read about everything from medicine, commerce, psychology, fashion, philosophy… hell even quantum physics. The knowledge, subconsciously gathered in those books and magazines, give me such insight right now when I report about the older versions of the characters therein. The books and magazines uprooted my mind from the remote tracts of land in Naivasha and perched me inside designer Karen Millen’s shop in London; into the musicianship and troubled relationships life of Veronica Lourdes Madonna Ciccone; into the palace of the late Princess of Wales distress over how the British media covered her life from the affair the prince had with Camilla Parker; into the discussions tables in New York as the United Nations talked about Aids bleed the economies of Africa from the deaths the morbidity.

There is nothing going to Tribeka and dancing to “Bend over”. Nothing at all. I just would not know what to do because my vision of a man listened and danced to Madilu System’s Jean and did all he could to leave me a better human being. The only way he knew was giving me books.

*Excerpts from my memoir.

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