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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