Did I hear a women empowerment conference is being held in Kenya? Can I get an invite? Can I gatecrash?
This conference evoked in me memories and encounters with women empowerment across two continents, two regions. Women empowerment issues can be emotional, I will try to be objective but can’t promise.
Between 2001 and 2007, I lived in America’s Deep South, specifically in Mississippi. It was an encounter with a cultural shock, beyond what you read in textbooks. The biggest shock was not the superhighways or skyscrapers. It was not the historically black universities years after civil rights movements. It was not the vastness of the USA, a continent masquerading as a country. It was not the America you will never see in the media and movies like homeless men and ghettos.
It was the power of women among the black community. To an African brought up in a society where man ruled unchallenged either at home or as a dictator at the national level, that was unsettling.
It was more unsettling to me because I grew up in a polygamous family. Having authority over two wives and over a dozen children was my first encounter with men power. When my dad coughed as he walked across the yard at night my mum could easily interpret the cough. It could mean chicken for dinner or a great evening full of stories on my dad’s past from his failure to get drafted into WWII to seeing an aeroplane in Kenya around 1927. In workplace and homes, men have traditionally been power wielders, cheered on by traditions.
In Mississippi, men appeared cowed and powerless. In conversations and even the way they walked and interacted, they appeared fearful of something. That was a complete contrast to Kenya. Where did their power go? Who took it?
In the classroom, I found men missing, from undergraduate to PhD. And they were not administrators or professors. I got the hint on their whereabouts; watching TV reports on crime and prison statistics. One black (African American ) lady asked me to take her to see her brother in jail, as part of weekend fun. I did not. My African American brothers thought I was not man enough because I had not been to jail!
A decade after leaving the USA, and visiting 40 states, I have witnessed and watched as power slips from men in Kenya. I never thought what I saw in the US Deep South would happen in my country and in my lifetime. The roads to women empowerment in both places are paved with trauma. In Deep South it is slavery. In Central Kenya, it was the Mau Mau.
Legislation has ensured more women in elective posts. Do you know two-thirds gender rule was implemented in county assemblies? As many women are nominated to ensure two-thirds gender rule. How are they selected?
At the national level, that has stalled. Today, I see men carrying babies and cooking. I hear one indicator of a romantic man is his ability to cook. More women are getting to corporate boards and higher education. They own property and good jobs. They always shadow my Uber (Ractis) on Uhuru highway during a traffic jam with their V8 and X6.
Economic and political empowerment is not free. From my observation and conventional wisdom, empowered women are finding it hard to get “quality” men to marry them. And you can guess right, more children are being born out of wedlock. It was rare when we were growing up. Fines and ostracization made many girls marry and raise children. We seem ill-prepared for the unintended consequences of women empowerment.
Single parenthood and alcoholism in Kenya mimic what I found in America’s Deep South. When buying bread in a convenience store at 7 am, I found my African Americans brothers buying alcohol. I had the privilege of living in a ghetto, unknowingly because the housing standards were better than Kenya’s middle-class estate.
Why has Kenya become Americanized so fast? We largely copied the USA constitution but the culture of women empowerment and feminization of men was least expected.
Women empowerment is far ahead in Central Kenya than elsewhere. An early encounter with capitalism and education played a role. The power of women in this region is best espoused by their children’s surname like Kamau Njeri or Kinuthia Wairimu. This is culturally unprecedented. If a man can’t name a kid, what other power does he have?
What is subterranean is that women empowerment seems to go with poverty. I felt that women in poor states in the USA are more empowered. Central Kenya where women are empowered is too mired with poverty, only a few men and women are rich.
Forget the stereotype. It has been speculated that women empowerment is a Trojan horse. Through women, men in the regions where women are empowered are kept in “their place.” They are no longer a threat to political and economic power wielders.
Maybe I am suffering from illusions, but Central Kenya has given us three presidents -all men. Will women empowerment finally drain political and economic power from this region, slowly, in a whimper, not a bang? Was women empowerment the Trojan horse that attenuated black power in the USA after the civil rights movement? Will it do the same in Central Kenya?
Women empowerment is a great idea and I support it but the unintended consequences are often ignored. Broken or dysfunctional families drain the energy out of men and women and slow down the economy. Those in problematic marriages can testify.
I have noted with concern the bitterness among the black men in Deep South and Central Kenya. Both have reacted in the same way, crime and alcoholism. We make matters worse by shunning them in jobs because can’t be trusted labelled as alcoholics or crooks.
Check the leading Asian economies like China, Japan or Korea. They have very few kids born to unmarried mothers. They have strong families. I am a great admirer of women empowerment if it will lead to more stable families. It should not lead to discrimination and ostracization of men. Women empowerment should not be a pyrrhic victory for our sisters.
-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi School of Business.
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