I Am Wongo, Hear Me Roar!!

Disclaimer: I understand that the women’s rights movement has made leaps and bounds in America and in the world over the past few decades, but there are some areas where “old fashioned” rules still apply. This blog is in no way a critique of women’s rights in Kenya, as I have nothing but my individual experiences to formulate an opinion with, but it is a simple fact (at least by my observations) that the men remain the dominant sex in Njabini. I have certainly encountered a number of strong women who I have immense respect for in this village and who I will miss dearly upon my return to the states next month. I would be proud to think that I have left even a fraction of the mark on them that they all have on me.

Volunteers and Flying Kites staff members who come for any significant length of time often end up the recipients of a Kikuyu (the tribe of the people in Njabini) name by our Kenyan staff. The names assigned to each person serve as a representation of their personality, character traits and mannerisms. For example, our executive directors have names that translate to “hard working woman,” “strong woman” and “strong man,” or something along those lines. Sarah’s name, gkenya (pronounced k-kenya) means “always happy, always smiling.” I waited in anticipation for the first month of my stay here to be assigned my Kikuyu name, wondering what traits of mine stood out most to our teachers and matrons. Halfway through December, I got my answer.

Before I go into detail about my Kenyan name and what it represents, I think it’s necessary to first give a little background on the circumstances that led to my naming (think of it as a preemptive defense). During the month of December, we were doing some renovations on our new centre in Njabini; basic things like painting, sanding, scraping and varnishing. We had a crew of about 15 men every day for a few weeks in helping us with the work; I made it about 4 days outside in the blazing heat before I abandoned any effort at modesty and donned my gym shorts (and it’s not exactly like my old Diadora soccer shorts are immodest); I don’t think the looks I received from the men were necessarily ones of admiration and appreciation, rather, they were looks of scandal and disbelief. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that as a guest of a country you should adapt to it’s unofficial dress code and standards of behavior while in public, but I was on Flying Kites land under the blazing sun – what would you have done?

In addition to my eyebrow raising style of dress, I stood out for a myriad of other reasons; while there were a number of women present every day, they were responsible for the cooking and childcare; I was the only one who was up on the ladders painting, sanding down the furniture and scraping the windows along with the men. I didn’t think twice about getting my food and sitting down in the dining hall with everybody else at lunchtime, in fact it didn’t even register to me that I was the only woman in the dining hall meal after meal. Our matrons and teachers were busy cooking and serving, and I just assumed that they ate outside on the lawn because they preferred it to the crowded dining hall. So one day I asked them why they always sat outside and why don’t they sit inside with me so that I have someone to talk to. They looked at me as if I had just suggested we all go sneak behind the house and smoke a joint. Upon asking after the reason for the look on their faces they said, “inside, with…the men? No, we couldn’t do that.” I asked if it was because they didn’t want to or because they couldn’t to which they replied, “It’s just not done here.” Well that’s just silly. So I told them that the next day I wanted them to sit with me at lunch if they wanted to; they protested a bit, but I could tell that they were excited, if slightly nervous, about the prospect of breaking the “rules.”

Another issue that had bothered me over the course of that first week was the fact that every single man, except for the Flying Kites employees (Teacher Paul, Teacher Francis and Wombugu) ate like 2 year olds, leaving the 6 inch circumference around their plate a veritable minefield of leftover rice and beans. Not only that, but as soon as they were finished eating, they (again, Flying Kites employees excepted) would get up from their chair and saunter out of the dining hall, leaving their clean plate and messy table for the matrons to go in and take care of. This behavior, while just irritating at first bordered on rude after the first few meals, as I watched (and assisted) the matrons in cleaning up the tables littered with plates and food scraps post-meal. Around the same time the matrons and I decided that we would start eating together in the dining hall, I decided that the men needed to learn some manners.

The following day, as we sat down to lunch, matrons and all (the reception wasn’t nearly as bad as they had been anticipating, in fact, the men barely registered their presence as they shoveled spoonfuls of food into their mouths) I got up from the table and passed through to the kitchen. A moment later I arrived with a large, empty serving pot (these babies are school cafeteria sized), placed it on the table at the front of the room and proceeded to announce to all present that they could put their dirty dishes in the pot when they were finished. The half of the men who understood English looked at me, mouths gaping in disbelief, thinking that they had misheard me; Flying Kites employees started nervously laughing (kind of one of those “oh no she DIDn’t” laughs), astounded at what I had just said, and the non-English speaking men all proceeded to get up and line up before the serving pot, thinking I had told them to come and get seconds.

Needless to say, about half of the men ended up getting my meaning and depositing their empty plates in the pot, but it didn’t take long before word got around. Later that afternoon, amidst peals of laughter, I was given my Kikuyu name: Wongo.

Apparently, Wongo was one of the first women leaders of the Kikuyu people; legend has it that she would make men lie down so that she could sit on, and walk across their backs. From the stories the matrons and teachers told me about her, I have gathered the impression that she was a bit of a castrating bitch. I know that the name Wongo refers to that very same part of my personality, however, I don’t take offense to the name; rather, I like to think it is a testament to my strength and capabilities as a woman. I am fully aware that a part of the reason I was given this name is that I have no filter, no sense of tact and I refuse (not because I’m trying to be difficult but because I just don’t think of the fact that some of the things I’m so used to doing on my own may not be “done” here in Kenya) to conform to traditional gender roles in this country. It’s not that I mean any disrespect to the Kenyan people, but it’s a tribute to the way I was raised that I don’t defer to men on big decisions or tasks, regardless of the male-dominated environment I may find myself in.

We all, and you may, laugh about what it means, but a big part of me is proud of the woman I’ve become. After all, Wongo was a leader, and you don’t become a leader of an entire tribe by being meek and hesitant. You’ve gotta take the good with the bad, I suppose.

So anyway, I’ve been Wongo for a few months now, the matrons laugh when I try to get them to join me in dance parties to cheesy 90’s R&B songs (the only ones played on Kenyan radio stations) in the kitchen which I sing along to at the top of my lungs or when my sailor mouth gets the best of me temporarily. I say what’s on my mind, and I think for the most part the matrons and teachers appreciate that part of my personality (or at least I’d like to think so!). A recent encounter with the Nairobi police that nearly led to my arrest (totally not my fault, I was bailing out my driver Kenneth – totally not his fault either – and got a little testy with the officers) has reinforced the name in Teacher Francis’ eyes, and he now addresses me as “Great Woman” when I call. Needless to say, I have not disappointed those who named me… Yesterday I was found myself in a situation where I was proud to be Wongo – she-bitch and all.

Flying Kites recently acquired two “new” Land Rovers; by “new” I mean new to us, as they are circa 1981 and stripped of any modern accoutrements (except seatbelts, which we insisted on adding), however I feel safer in these vehicles than I have in any other deathtrap I’ve ridden in thus far in Kenya. I think it’s a testament to Land Rover that nearly 30 years later these babies are still going strong. They are built and sound like tanks, and I’d sure as hell rather be in the Land Rover than any car that might dare mess with it on the road. Anyway, there hadn’t really been a reason for me to learn to drive either of them, as when they arrived in February we had a volunteer who took over the school bus route when Wombugu was otherwise committed and served as our second driver when we took trips as a group. However, over the past month, with two cars and one driver, we have often found ourselves short, so Wombugu has been literally forcing me to drive the cars.  When he’s taking me down to town, more often than not, he will stop the car halfway, get out, and say “drive.” If there’s one thing you learn right away here at FKLA, it’s that you don’t say no to Wombugu. As he pointed out, if you can drive in 8 inches of mud, you can drive in anything. So I’ve had a bit of experience in the cars over the past month or so, but always with Wombugu and other adults in the car. However, more recently, I’ve become a bit more adventurous with my driving excursions, and have successfully completed one or two small scale trips. While there’s no way in hell I would take the car beyond the Njabini town line, I’ve become pretty confident in my driving ability.

However, driving alone on smooth roads and driving alone on just monsooned on roads are two totally different rodeos. I didn’t really have much of a choice yesterday afternoon, however, when Wombugu called and said he needed me to come to town and pick up the small vehicle, as he was already in town with the big one and couldn’t very well drive both. On my way out to meet him I saw little Hannah and impulsively asked her if she’d like to come along. While I was looking forward to the quiet walk with my iPod, I thought it was about time I spent some one-on-one time with my namesake. Plus, she’s the oldest girl and often gets no recognition for it, so I thought it would be a fun treat for her. Little did she know what she was signing up for when she readily said yes and grabbed her sweater.

We had a nice little walk down, during which she confided to me that all of the other children were now going to say that I only loved her; honestly though, with 14 kids, you gotta expect that you can’t make everyone happy all the time. Anyway, we made it down to the far side of town with only a few hiccups – getting gawked at by every man woman and child as we casually strolled hand in hand – and met up with Wombugu. We both laughed upon seeing the looks on the faces of the passerbys as the gates to the garage opened and I pulled out in our mini-tank with little Hannah riding shotgun. I’m not sure I can properly articulate the feeling I had as I drove through the mass of people that is Sunday in Njabini. I knew it was totally ruining my “cool” image, but it was so hard to keep the grin off of my face as I maneuvered through the streets, so proud of myself for not stalling out or hitting a donkey and/or small child along the way.

We made it the mile or two to the back road that leads to our centre (on particularly rainy stretches, the back way, while longer, is often drier, or at least flatter) with only one or two stall-outs and were almost home when we encountered a rather massive roadblock. Just up ahead we noticed that nearly the entire road was blocked by a cabbage-filled lorry stuck at a 45 degree angle in a particularly muddy spot. The men gathered around the truck turned my way as we approached and I nearly laughed out loud when I saw the looks on their faces. I would venture to guess they were thinking something along the lines of “oh man, we’re going to have to ask a muzungu WOMAN to help us out. I’d rather spend the night here!!” Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I can guarantee that their first thought wasn’t: “oh, awesome a muzungu woman is here to save the day!!!”

The men came up to the car and asked if I could lend a hand un-stucking the lorry. Having been the recipient of some Good Samaritan car pushers when I’ve been stuck in the mud, I felt it was only fair to reciprocate. They linked the two vehicles with a steel bar and I proceeded to throw the car in reverse, rocking the lorry back and forth with the momentum. The crowd that gathered as this little show progressed was cheering on the little engine that could as the cabbage-filled lorry tilted precariously to the right. Much longer story short, the truck ended up being beyond helping, so I was able, with some assistance from the men (they probably felt like they were redeeming what was left of their masculinity by helping to push me through the narrow, muddy ravine afforded between the lorry and the fence) was able to pass by and continue home.

Haulin' the lorry

I was glad that little Hannah was with me for this adventure; she was so impressed with me and it gave me such a sense of pride that I was able to serve as a role model for this promising young woman. She commented as soon as she got back in the car (I may have confidence in my driving abilities, but not enough that I would subject an innocent young girl to any consequences that might arise from me hauling a 3 ton vehicle): “Auntie Hannah, you’re such a good driver!!!” Regardless of the fact that the lorry remained stuck in the mud behind us, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. In one short hour I was able to inadvertently teach Hannah a valuable lesson: don’t ever think you can’t do something simply because you are a woman. And don’t let people tell you that you’re not able to because you’re a woman. And certainly don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not proper or that it’s frowned upon to do something, only because you’re a woman.

Our girls are lucky, as they have a steady stream of female role models who they can look up to as they mature, not least of all Justine and Leila who were able to provide our children with their new lives and the unlimited opportunities that come with it, 3 years ago. There are a million and one things that I hope our children remember and learn from me (and maybe a few choice 4 letter things I hope they don’t…) but I hope that above all, my time here can impress on these 7 girls that they are just as important and capable as their 7 male counterparts, and that they should never feel limited by their gender in anything that they do in life (except maybe peeing standing up – let’s leave that one to the men).

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4 Responses to I Am Wongo, Hear Me Roar!!

  1. smed says:

    Love this post, Hannah! “Your namesake” – hahaha. Keep up the good work!!

  2. Mom says:

    I knew it was a good thing for you to learn to drive stick. Hannah Wonga Wesley…it kind of has a ring to it. Keep up the good things you are doing and give Hannah (and all the girls) a hug from me.

  3. Dad says:

    Weep, weep. I am very proud of you and what you are doing.

    • Kihara says:

      I am a Kikuyu person who came across your blog. Firstly, I
      want to congratulate your organization for what you are doing in
      Kenya. You show alot of courage in your story and even if you may
      not know it, those little girls (and women too) learned something
      from you. About you Kikuyu name: they named you after Wangu wa Ma
      Makeri, a Kikuyu female chief (circa 1850-1936) who ruled with an
      iron fist. Although Kikuyu has a strong matriarchal aspects in its
      clan system, ruling was dominated by males, therefore, I am not
      sure how Wangu came to power. However, it is rumored that she
      literally sat on the backs of men, who would be on fours.

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