BY JACOB OKETCH
This book by Munira Hussein is both engaging and captivating. The stories are told in the I narrator perspective and this foregrounds their authenticity to the reader. For the first time, I have read stories set in the northern part of Kenya and thereby had a glimpse of the lores and mores of the people from this region.
Although it is the last story that is titled “unfit for society”, all the stories depict a situation which aptly captures that title in the sense that the author has sharply focused on what is wrong with most of the cultural foundations of people from the north. The stories paint a melancholic atmosphere in the lives of the young people who are trying to find their place in the society. The theme of suffering and repression is vividly captured in the stories.
Take for instance the issue of early marriages. We learn from the stories, the stranglehold that parents have on their daughters when it comes to their betrothal. Girls have no say when it comes to whom they should marry. Instead, it is the father in consultation with the elders, who decide who is suitable for the girl. The place of women in decision making as far as marriage is concerned is nonexistent. The patriarchal system among the northern Kenya people is oppressive to women and girls.
It is this patriarchal system that makes young girls in the community to be vulnerable to sexual abuse at a very young age. Matters are not helped by the fact that the abuses are perpetrated by close relatives such as uncles. As such, girls are stripped of their dignity at a very young age and they grow with no confidence at all. Perhaps, this explains why majority of girls from Northern Kenya do not feature prominently in good academic performances among girls, across the country.
It is rare to find creative works that focuses on terrorism in Kenya. The story about the guy who dies in the Westgate terrorist attack evokes memories of the traumatic situation that loved ones of victims are subjected to. The helplessness that accompanies such a tragic event comes out very clearly in the story. In a way, such stories keep the memory of such events alive and this ensures that the populace remains alert to the possibility of a recurrence of such heinous acts.
It is noteworthy, from the stories, that the way a person evolves from childhood largely depends on the environment that they grow up in. The sorry situation of young men from Northern Kenya who never get to grow beyond their place of birth is notable. The seedy trading centers where these young men while away their time as they chew khat is an indictment of a society that does little to propel its young men to personal development and growth.
The family set up, according to the stories in this collection by Munira Hussein, is so imbalanced that the man of the house lords it over the entire household. The cruelty visited upon children is demonstrative of the chokehold fathers have over their children, particularly girls. The author is brave to pen scenarios where children are violated physically by their father and the mothers silently watch for fear of reprisals. It is sad that the only course open for such mistreated women is divorce which is shunned by the community. The level of violence meted upon married women is something that should not be acceptable in the modern society. Indeed, by the accounts of the narrators in the story, the right of women in this kind of society is a kind of pipe dream.
Education plays a key role in emancipating women and girls from the kind of society depicted in the stories in this collection. As the narrators aver in some of these stories, a woman is capable of charting her path devoid of the inhibitions that the patriarchal society plants in her way as long as she is committed to education. The fact that girls are able to leave their place of birth and mingle with other girls from other communities in far away schools offer them an opportunity to unshackle themselves from the retrogressive dictates of their communities such as sacrificing education to be married off to old men thereby ruining their future.
This collection is a testimony of the power of the pen to call out the atrocious behavior of some members of the society who get away with vices that can be checked. Take the example of a character in one of the stories, uncle Latif, who rapes his niece at the tender age of nine, is a homosexual and also pretends to be a strict adherent to the Islam religion. One can imagine if there are numerous of such characters in this society. When their hypocrisy is spectacularly exposed in a work of art such as this, there is hope that such unacceptable behaviour can indeed be checked. The veil of secrecy that belies such vices, as pointed out in this collection, could be what actually makes them thrive.
The boldness with which the author tackles the societal challenges that women and girls face in communities in Northern Kenya is quite laudable. In many Muslim communities, women are literally voiceless. In the modern age, where every voice ought to matter, this is unacceptable. The status quo thrives because few women are ready to stick their neck out there and speak out for fear of victimization and reprisal. Hence, the author has demonstrated that it is possible to call out perpetrators of violence against women and girls, female genital mutilation and those who demean and debase women generally, anywhere in the world, regardless of race, religion or any other prejudicial circumstance.
Writer is author of the poetry book Aphorisms and Poems of Light