Lucky Dip: Binyavanga WainainaI

An extract from a short story, Discovering Home by Binyavanga WainainaI, from the collection : Ten Years of the Caine Prize for African Writing, published by the New Internationalist

I particularly liked the impressions of powerful strong women in this story. It is a great contrast to the many stories of women’s disempowerment or weak, oppressed African women. The main woman character in this tale is strong, smart and capable. The women are also not presented in as sexy or alluring. They obtain their power through other means, in the same way as a man might. They do not use their ‘feminine charms’ to win men over.

The main character Eddah has political power as a member of a political parties, economic power by asserting control and ownership of her husband’s resources as well as setting up her own business and physical power by acting together with other local women. She also has essentials provided to her via a garden which men tend for her and from a shop owner with whom she has an affair.

Indeed, these women possess most of the characteristics sought after by development projects for gender equality or women’s rights : political participation or participation in decision making and generating alternative forms of income. The methods used to accrue these forms of power may not be the most orthodox, yet it is difficult not to admire the strength and resourcefulness of these women and particularly Eddah who defies a system which could very well be considered intended to suppress her.

Here are the extracts which show some of the strong female characters.

“I met Eddah when she had just married Ole Kamaro. She was his fifth wife, 13 years old … I remember being horrified by the marriage – she was so young! … ( A) few years of schooling were enough to give Eddah a clear idea if the badc tenets of Empowerment. By the time she was 18, Ole Kamaro had dumped the rest of his wives. Eddah leased out his land to Kenya Breweries and opened a bank account where all the money went. Occasionally, she gave her husband pocket money.

Whenever he was away, she took up with her lover, a wealthy young Kikuyu shopkeeper from the other side of the hill who kept her supplied with essentials like soap, matches and paraffin.

Eddah was the local chairwoman of KANU (Kenya’s Ruling Party) Women’s League and so remained invulnerable to censure from conservative elements around. She also had a thriving business, curing hides and beading them elaborately for the tourist market at the Mara. Unlike most Masai women, who disdain growing of crops, she had a thriving market garden with maize, beans, and various vegetables. She did not lift a finger to take care of this garden. Part of the co-operation we expected from her as landlady meant that our staff had to take care of that garden. Her reasoning was that Kikuyu men are cowardly women anyway and they do farming so-oo well.

Something interesting is going on today. There is a tradition amongst Masai, that women are released from all domestic duties a few months after giving birth. The women are allowed to take over the land and claim any lovers that they choose … I have been warned to keep away from any bands of women wandering about. We are on some enourmous hill and I can feel old Massey Ferguson’s tractor wheezing. We get to the top, turn to make our way down, and there they are: led by Eddah, a troop of about 40 women marching towards us dressed in their best traditional clothing.

Eddah looks imperious and beautiful in her beaded leather cloak, red khanga wraps, rings, necklaces and earrings. There is an old woman amongst them, she must be 70 and she is cackling in toothless glee. She takes off her wrap and displays her breasts – they resemble old gym socks.

Mwangi who is driving, stops, and tries to turn back, but the road is too narrow:on one side there us the mountain, and in the other, a yawning valley. Kipsang, who is sitting in the trailer with me shouts for Karanja to drive right through them:

“DO NOT STOP!”

It seems that the modernised version of this tradition involves men making donations to the KANU Women’s Group. Innocent enough, you’d think – but the amount of these donations must satisfy them or they will strip you naked and do unspeakable things to your body.

So we take off at full speed. The women stand firm in the middle if the road. We can’t swerve. We stop.

Then Kipsang saves our skins by throwing a bunch of coins onto the road. I throw down some notes and Mwangi … empties his pockets, throws down notes and coins. The women start to gather the money, the tractor roars back into action and we drive through them.I am left with the picture of the toothless old lady diving to avoid the tractor. Then standing, looking at us and laughing, her breasts flapping about like a Flag of Victory.