“ni watho wanaku ucio?”

the voices of women victims of the violence have almost faded away
–Rasna Warah

Rituals from my childhood: introductions are central to Gikuyu sociality. When we’d visit new homes, we’d narrate ourselves. With few exceptions, women would narrate stories of conversion: they would testify to their faith.

“My name is [Christian Name] and I met the Lord in this year. Since that time, my life has been like this and like that.”

Often, this testimony would end on a benediction, a wish that those who have not yet been blessed in this particular way would one day have “a story to tell,” “a testimony to give.”

What might it mean that these women wanted other people, especially women, to have “a story to tell,” “a testimony to give”?

One too-skeptical reading might be that these women were so trapped within the genre provided by ethno-patriarchal religion that they could not imagine themselves outside of it. They could only narrate themselves within very narrow parameters. And, in fact, given that so many of the narrations drew from the same template, it’s tempting to dismiss these testimonies as unoriginal and uninteresting. One heard so many of them delivered in the same form so often that one grew bored, uninterested, able to anticipate and mimic the form of the telling. I want to linger on these testimonies for little bit, to see what was happening, what kind of space and imagination they inhabited.

In a way I can only recognize now, listening to these women’s testimonies taught me how to listen to women. One could not interrupt these testimonies—no interjections, no calling to other responsibilities, no editing. One had to sit in silence, to give space and reverence to this narrating self, to this unfolding life. No husband, no child, no friend could pull a woman out of this story as it was told. Given that so many women’s lives are structured by interruption, this telling of a sacred self provided an interruption-free space.

These stories of a new self were deep acts of the self-making imagination. If the stories had a “before,” it was a short before, a before leading to a “break.” And while the break with the “before” was significant, it was only as the start of a new path. Key to the testifying self was the sense of a still-unfolding self and present: “now, I walk with Jesus every day. And he teaches me every day.” To invoke today’s very fashionable language: the self was imagined as a process, as a self-in-formation, as a self-in-communion, as a self-in-community. These women had thought hard and continually about the labor of being embedded within communities, about the selves-in-community they had been before conversion and about the selves-in-community they were and were becoming after conversion. This was a testifying self, a self with a still-unfolding story, a self responsible to the story it told, responsible to the story it had told, responsible to the story it would tell.

Each telling was an act of accountability to those who heard the telling. It was an ethical promise: one hearing the narrative could reasonably re-call the teller to the promise of the narrated self. One could say, “are you acting as your story says you should be acting?” This was not, I think, to accuse a narrator of hypocrisy. Instead, at its best, such reminders recognized the narrating self (the narrated self) as a self-in-formation-in-community. One hearing the story was called to participate in the ongoing labor undertaken by the self-in-community. One hearing the story was enjoined to participate in the community work of this unfolding self.

Women’s conversion stories were community stories: community-unmaking and community-remaking stories. Stories about having found a place within and outside of ethno-patriarchy to have a story of the self, a story distinct from the hetero-patriarchal world in which, as Wambui Mwangi puts it, the word for woman is “silence” and the word for wife is “outsider.”

If do not, now, remember each of those stories, told to me in Kiambu and Muranga and Nyandarua, in Woman’s Guild functions in Kariobangi and Loresho and St. Andrew’s, during lunches and teas and dinners, at weddings and births and funerals, I recall the shape of those words, the force of their world-making, their training me how to listen, how to take up language, how to imagine the self before the break, the self at the break, and the self always in formation.
I return to the memory of these stories, the memory of women speaking without interruption, the memory of women creating and sharing selves-in-formation, at a time when it seems women’s possibilities for speaking against ethno-patriarchy are shrinking, at a time when women can only speak as victims and survivors. And, in speaking in those forms, attempt to seek redress from systems invested in keeping women as victims and survivors.

As Wambui Mwangi and Melissa Williams discuss, women are threatened by banal misogyny and killing violence in peacetime and during conflicts, in the private space of the home and in public spaces outside the home. Women are threatened in digital spaces and in non-tech spaces, as they undertake the most ordinary of activities and as they perform acts requiring immense skill and talent. Women are threatened when standing still and when trying to move.

Because women taught me how to listen, I’ve been paying attention to how ethno-patriarchal and, more generally, patriarchal violence against women is privatized. A woman is permitted to confess violations against her by men to other women, who are trained to offer comfort and to repair damage. She is allowed to be a victim and a survivor, encouraged to be resilient, and enjoined to be silent about patriarchal violence. You can cry out in the night as your husband or partner is beating you, but during the day you protect your home and your relationship.
From Wanjiku Kabira’s A Letter to Mariama Ba, a story:

Auntie Wanjiru was a freedom fighter in the Mau Mau war of independence. She was one of those women who protected freedom fighters, fed them, fundraised for them, did shopping for them, kept them moving, and also took beatings and torture on their behalf. Auntie Wanjiru remembers that day when the colonial soldiers came to her house to look for the money that the Land Liberation Army, alias Mau Mau, had given her to keep. Her husband was in the house. She was seven months pregnant. Two British soldiers and several African homeguards beat her until she could hardly move.
. . .
I told you that Auntie Wanjiru was seven months pregnant when the colonial soldiers and homeguards beat her almost to death. This baby was born healthy and grew up to be a beautiful woman who became a professional nurse. She was married to a man who was a wife beater. One day, Wanjiku, for that was the girl’s name, arrived at her mother’s house bleeding all over. She collapsed at her mother’s door. Auntie Wanjiru, who was given to theatrical behaviour, stood outside her door and screamed for help.
. . .
From her house, Auntie Wanjiru picked up a whip that she used to keep under her bed as a weapon of defence in case thieves came in the night. She hopped into a bus and went to her daughter’s home. At that hour, she knew that she would find her daughter’s husband asleep and so she walked right to his bedroom. Without any warning, she started whipping the startled man. She whipped the man mercilessly telling him that if the girl had survived the beatings of the colonial soldiers and homeguards when she was in her mother’s womb, she would survive the beatings of the devil of a husband like him.
. . .
From her daughter’s home where she left behind a subdued son-in-law, Auntie Wanjiru went to the chief’s office and applied for divorce on behalf of her daughter, Wanjiku.

“I want a divorce for my daughter,” said Auntie Wanjiru.
“You can only ask for a divorce for yourself,” said the chief.
“Do I look like I would need a divorce?” Asked Auntie Wanjiru.
“All I am saying is that the law does not allow you to get a divorce for someone else,” said the chief.
“I can see you are also a man; you don’t know what I am talking about. You can’t understand the pain of a mother so all you can say is nyenye, nyenye, nyenye,” she sneered. “The law says this and the law says that. Why did the law not protect my daughter? If she dies, will the law bring her back to life? Anyway, I don’t need this law. I need my daughter. You can keep your papers and your law. I will carry out the divorce myself!” Auntie Wanjiru shouted.

“Woman, what is wrong with you? I am just telling you what the law says. You can’t carry out the divorce yourself!” the chief exclaimed.

“Who says I can’t?” Auntie Wanjiru retorted.
“The law,” said the chief, authoritatively.
“You chief, stop talking to me about the law. I don’t recognize a law that does not protect my daughter; ni watho wanaku ucio? (What kind of law is that?) Keep it to yourself!” Auntie Wanjiru screamed.

Because I had learned to listen to many Auntie Wanjirus, as they screamed, “ni watho wanaku ucio,” I knew how to listen to Luce Irigaray:

If we continue to speak the same language to each other, we will reproduce the same story. Begin the same stories all over again. Don’t you feel it? Listen: men and women around us all sound the same. Same arguments, same quarrels, same scenes. Same attractions and separations. Same difficulties, the impossibility of reaching each other. Same . . . same. . . . Always the same.

If we continue to speak this sameness, if we speak to each other as men have spoken for centuries, as they taught us to speak, we will fail each other. Again. . . . Words will pass through our bodies, above our heads, disappear, make us disappear. Far. Above. Absent from ourselves, we become machines that are spoken, machines that speak. Clean skins envelop us, but they are not our own. We have fled into proper names, we have been violated by them. Not yours, not mine. We don’t have names. We change them as men exchange us, as they use us. It’s frivolous to be so changeable so long as we are a medium of exchange.

Listening to many Auntie Wanjirus, to the shapes of their testimonies, to their acts of self-making, to their performances of self-in-formation, I had started learning to ask, “ni watho wanaku ucio?” What law is this whose rules preclude hearing women’s voices? What “due process” is this conceived by patriarchy, shaped by patriarchy, fetishized by patriarchy, designed to protect patriarchy?

Learning from many Auntie Wanjirus, I had learned to question what seemed to be the only positions open to women: victims and survivors.
My tongue remembers the shape of women’s testimonies.

As the son who accompanied his mother to her meetings with friends—across various women’s groups—I grew up listening to women’s world-making, world-imagining conversations. To the particular ways they slid in and out of spaces designed to exclude them. To the energy with which they planned and traveled and celebrated and created.

When I grew old enough for it to matter, my mother provided stories for the women I knew as my friends’ mothers: they had been to such and such a school, they had pursued such and such a career, they had accomplished such and such. She honored them by insisting each one had a story.

Against the ethno-patriarchal demand that women could only exist as victims and survivors, my mother taught me to listen for the story, to listen to women’s world-imagining and world-making.

Before I ever encountered Wanjiku Kabira, my mother had taught me to ask, “ni watho wanaku ucio?”
This post started with a quotation from Rasna Warah—let me conclude on it. What if, instead of asking women to be accountable before an unresponsive law, we imagined a law accountable to women? Imagine a scene where all the testimony-giving, self-in-formation, world-imagining women demanded that the law provide an account of how it had made women’s lives more livable, more possible, their words assume weight and value. A world where it would be impossible to speak of women’s voices fading because they would be our ethical foundations, our ethical imaginations. A world where violence against women would never have a chance to be imagined as banal or casual—where violations against women were understood to shake the very foundations of who we claim to be. Not a world composed of victims and survivors—those refuges of silence—but a world of self-in-formation witnesses, testifying to build better worlds, better self-in-community relations.

I end with Audre Lorde, who is still teaching me how to listen:

The sun is watery warm
our voices
seem too loud for this small yard
too tentative for women
so in love
the siding has come loose in spots
our footsteps hold this place
as our place
our joint decisions make the possible
I do not know when
we shall laugh again
but next week
we will spade up another plot
for this spring’s seedling.