My mother is a beautiful woman. I remember being a teenager, grappling with identity and self-esteem issues, and looking at pictures of my mother in her twenties, wondering how I got so many things from her, including a temperament that had created a chasm between us, but not her beauty.
There’s a picture of her in the Maasai Mara that I found particularly enraging. She’s in baggy, jungle green pants that still accentuate her curves somehow.
How is that even possible? Who is that beautiful in clothes so baggy and a land so bare?
That picture in a lot of ways has been a marker to the stages of our relationship; over time I have come to view her not just as my mother but also as a woman. That has meant using her-in some ways-as a lab rat on womanhood. To my shock, you can’t always be beautiful in an environment determined to strip you bare.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found out that I don’t always agree with the kind of woman my mother is.
As a woman trying to navigate and find my place in the world, I often find that I need to call my mother and ask her for advice but I can’t because I realise that as arguably naïve as I am, there are things I wish she would have done differently, not just for herself but also for me.
That picture has slowly transformed into a cautionary tale, a reminder to not let society strip me of my agency.
In hindsight, my problems with my mother started long before I was a teenager discovering herself, stealing an identity from a woman who inadvertently was hell-bent on denying me it.
My mother has always commented that out of all her children, I gave her the most hell. On the surface, that doesn’t really make sense especially because as a sixteen year old, I would have let you walk all over me if you could just leave me crumbs of love in return. But also being a firstborn who spent the first five years of my life in abject poverty, just my mother, me and a sister too young to understand or remember it, I guess I was less inclined to have my sense of independence stifled by the one woman who knew the consequences of giving it up.
See, when my parents got married, my father decided my mother didn’t need to work anymore.
That arrangement only worked right until I was born. Afterwards, with my father being gone for work, my mother and I struggled to survive in a one-room house that didn’t have water or furniture. This means that I was often left in the company of neighbors while my mother looked for food and water.
As it so happened, I had to endure more than one kind of abuse, multiple times.
Eventually, things did get better and we moved to join my father, but even then I had to hide and eventually block-out trauma that on some level I believed I wouldn’t have gone through if my mother hadn’t given up her financial independence.
As young as five years old, I knew my independence was the one thing I wouldn’t let anyone take away from me.
And I’ve gone through life making sure I don’t follow the same path as the woman I know who let it happen.
But the beauty of growing up is you eventually begin to see things from your parents’ perspective. I now realize that her decisions that I am trying so hard to avoid, were not made in a vacuum; that the power dynamics were never in her favour. She like every other woman, is a victim of a system that was created to disenfranchise her; to simultaneously deny her the means to wealth and make sure that her and her daughters bore the grunt of the resulting poverty.
Feminization of poverty is the phenomenon in which women experience poverty at rates that are disproportionately high in comparison to men. According to UN Women, as at 2015, a majority of the 1.5 billion people living on $1 a day or less are women. Of all the people in the world living in poverty, 70% are women.
Feminization of poverty isn’t just about a lack of money, it is also about how women in general are denied fundamental human rights and access to services like health and education. That coupled with the oppressive structures in place, the poverty and trauma are passed down generations of women, who to make matters worse, are conditioned to survive and uphold these oppressive structures.
While the cultures in Kenya were wildly patriarchal and women were treated as property whose ownership was transferred from one man to another (father to husband), the feminization of poverty as we know it in current society can be traced back to colonialism which came with western patriarchy.
Women in African communities worked; they always had a means to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, even in the absence of men. Western patriarchy dictated that women stay at home and not participate in their economies. And with the men either abroad fighting the white man’s war or in exile fighting the war at home, women and children were plunged into poverty and despondence.
We know African women are resilient.
We fought and we survived.
My mother often tells me about my grandmother, who had to take care of seven children after my grandfather died. She describes a childhood that I know continues to be a microcosm of lives of many women.
She talks about not knowing how their school fees would get paid or if they’d have enough supplies for school and I always found it strange considering my grandfather was a rather influential man, wealthy even.
How is it that his family would be left so badly off?
How is it that his death would leave one family barely getting by and the other, so well off? Hell, my step-aunt was a member of parliament at the time.
It is common knowledge that polygamous families often don’t see eye to eye. But far worse than familial contempt, my step-aunt is a representative of the kind of woman that makes it in a patriarchal society.
If anything, patriarchy needs that woman; the woman that survives and succeeds despite these odds. This woman, more often than not, upholds the patriarchy.
She is a figurehead used by the patriarchy to gaslight other women;
"it’s not the system that is geared to disadvantage you, you’re just lazy and not nearly as resilient as this woman"
Your oppression is an illusion and a direct consequence of your unwillingness to rise above it. Meanwhile, this woman is championed as a symbol for women empowerment even though they rarely do the work to earn that title. And even when they try or even go as far as identify as feminists, their feminism is very much performative and male-centered. It bends and compromises and ensures it never ever disrupts patriarchal structures. This woman continues to bankrupt women even though her success is built and dances on the backs of these women.
But what we often forget is this woman even with all the hurdles she had to jump through, is often privileged. I am sure my step-aunt had to work twice as hard as her male opponents when she was running for the parliamentary seat. But I also can’t deny that having a father that was influential and well liked in that area helped her case.
In the seven months since my graduation, my family has had to struggle to understand, let alone accept, my decision to not pursue a career in Actuarial Science.To add insult to injury, I am trying to become a writer, such an uncertain career path.
I do understand where they are coming from.
The adults in my family come from a generation of people whose education served as a privilege that accorded them upward economic and social mobility. It must be frustrating for them to watch me abandon a career that is assumed to be very lucrative.
As a part of what I would like to believe is their journey to accepting my rather radical decision, interventions have been held.
One particular intervention (with my father and my uncle) started as a conversation to understand my decision but ended up being a not-so gentle coercion, and a promise to look for a job related to Actuarial Science forced out of me. As the meeting drew to a close (mostly because of my stubborn unresponsiveness), the two men inquired if we were in agreement. I remember thinking, “I live in your house, the power dynamics are not in my favour, I can’t possibly disagree with you.”
Later on it dawned on me how acutely aware I was of the power dynamics even in familial relationships. I was talking to two men whose hearts were in the right place really, but even then, I couldn’t bring my guard down because I knew that as a woman, and a millennial, they inherently had power(and pre-conceived bias) over me.
I gave them generic explanations for this career change.
To them, not wanting to pursue a career that I absolutely cannot stand and wouldn’t derive any fulfillment from must have seemed like some radical, entitled millennial ideology.
But what I really wanted to say is;
I don’t know how yet, but I want women to have access to opportunity.
I understand that privilege determines how far you go in life and I want a society of women to have some level of financial privilege.
I want a society of women that will have something besides poverty to pass down to their daughters.
I can’t explain it, but I don’t think doing risk management in some office in Upper Hill is going to cut it, not for me at least.
Words by Clarie Gor. Clarie is a writer from Kenya, and you can follow her writing journey on her blog, here.
You can also follow her on Twitter @_mis_behave