(What I Got) Out of Africa

A Brief Peace Corps Experience Told in Short Breaths and Countless Letters

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Muiwek Women's Group

Lately, I’ve been attending women’s groups meetings. As a public health “expert” I am not really sure what I can do to help local groups trying to start up their local businesses, but I’m there as a resource nonetheless. The meetings can be frustrating. The language barrier is a definite problem as the people always speak in Kipsigis—the mother-tongue of the area—and a translator is a rare find. Despite these seemingly important problems, I find myself at these meetings more than I’d like to be. As a bored volunteer, you must take whatever work floats your way.

A women’s group made up entirely of women is a rare find—even more elusive than the translator. One such group is the Muiwek Women’s Group. The volunteer before me had worked with them closely to help them write proposals for the funding of a water tank for their posho mill. Posho mills grind the corn and wheat into flour. Without a water tank, the process is quite laborious. Having a white person at any event is quite an honor and the women wanted a muzungu to dedicate the tank.

As I walked up to the group that morning (about a half hour late as dictated by custom), the women began singing in Kipsigis and clapping their hands. I was embarrassed by the show of attention—after all, I was not the volunteer who helped them raise the money. I was, however, white and American, sufficient reason to celebrate. I smiled and attempted to clap along in rhythm as best I could. I looked at their dark, wrinkled faces. I realized each deep crease held some sort of wisdom gained from their years of experience. I suddenly felt in awe of their strength, which seemed to radiate out with every rhythmic clap and step. I felt much younger than my 22 years. Most of the women were missing teeth and a few women had none at all. One woman had on glasses (a rarity, as most eye problems go untreated) with lenses so thick she looked like an insect. All of them wore brightly colored headscarves that I knew covered shaved, gray heads.

After the dedication ceremony (wherein I cut a small piece of yarn wrapped around the tank and made a small speech about the importance of community), I began to talk to some of the women about their group. Begun in 1977, these women have been working together for almost thirty years and have become quite successful. They’ve managed to open their posho mill. They own their own store. They’ve bought land for their communal shamba and sell the produce at local markets throughout the Bomet District. They’ve even purchased land in another neighboring district that is rented out to farmers.

A man walked up to me and introduced himself in halting English as the chairwoman’s son. A younger woman about my age, probably the daughter of a member, added in a hushed tone that this man was born the same year the women had decided to bond together as an official group. “And look at how old he is now,” she smiled.

I smiled too, and for the first time, I truly understood why the elders in Kenyan culture are accorded so much respect. In a land where death traditionally lurks around every corner and in every crevice, you are lucky, indeed, to obtain your wrinkles and lose your teeth. Each of these women had evaded death through countless pregnancies, bouts of malaria, malnutrition, Rift Valley Fever. But I realized their power and knowledge stemmed from something deeper as well.
The strength these women possessed was not only individual, but a collective power as well. These women had found power through togetherness, through their very femaleness. In a world where women never have the upper hand and misogyny is the rule of the day, these women had managed to gain power. Individually, they would never have the strength and accomplishments they together can claim.

Women in Kenya continue to amaze me. The female is the backbone of this nation, yet they are accorded little respect. Almost all manual tasks from planting to water hauling, from cooking to mud-hut building, from childbirth to child rearing—all of it falls on the very sturdy shoulders of Kenyan women. I haven’t quite figured out the role of men within Kenyan society, and I don’t believe Kenyan men have either. I am sure the average Kenyan man has a function beyond the sperm necessary for the continuation of the species, but I have yet to stumbled across it. My fellow volunteers have discussed the role of men, and have yet to come to a final conclusion, but the general consensus is that as hunting as a societal role was phased out, a newer definition of “man” has yet to be delineated. The Kenyan man is left, without a defined role and place within the more modern structures of society while women continue to shoulder the brunt of the work as tradition dictates.

Women have a bond stronger and deeper than anything I’ve experienced or understood before. They put the Ya-Ya sisters of the bayou to shame. The women hold each other up, spend hours in each other’s kitchens, even nurse each other’s babies. In fact, the very structure of traditional Kenyan marriage supports the female bond. Polygamy is still predominate amongst rural Kenyans, but let me tell you—I’d be the first to beg for a second wife if I had to run a household Kenyan-style.

I’m not saying that squabbling doesn’t occur or cattiness is non-existent, but rather that women in this society to some level realize that they do not have the luxury of in-fighting. There exists an unspoken understanding between women and even I, as a Western female outsider, benefit to some degree. When I cram onto a crowded matatu, I’ll hold an unknown mama’s bag so she can make more room for her four watoto (children). She smile and an understanding will pass: “Here we are, in this together, this role of woman.” At such moments, I probably feel as “Kenyan” as I’ll ever actually be.

The women of Kenya are teaching me more than how to make ugali and sukuma weki. They are teaching me the power of unity. In a culture of individuals from which I come, I take for granted my ability to do alone. I forget that “doing” has different meanings across borders and that it is not always an individual action. And sometimes, simply “being” has more power. I’ve always considered myself to be a “woman’s woman” preferring the company of women to male companionship. But until I came here, I never fully recognized what women together can accomplish simply by providing a place to be.

Although I’ll probably never need my girlfriends to physically nurse my babies, I’d like to believe I can take this understanding of being home with me. I’d like to believe that my girlfriends and I can revel in our wrinkles and the knowledge that with every crease and line comes a wealth of knowledge and wisedom. I hope that we learn the power of togetherness and grow together over the years, through marriage, divorce, babies, illness and death. I want to fully appreciate my friends’ faults and strengths and know that without them, I’d be incomplete. I hope we realize that alone we are just individuals, but united, we have strength that surpasses the imagination. However, I do hope we have all of our teeth.


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