The African woman is neither a mirror image of man nor a slave. She feels no need to imitate men to express her personality. Her work, her own genius, her preoccupations, her way of speaking, and her manners mask an original civilization. She has not allowed herself to be colonized by either men or male culture

Albertine Tshibilondi Ngoyi

 

When Uhuru Kenyatta was sworn in as Kenya’s fourth head of state on Tuesday 9th April 2013, he made a number of eye-brow-raising pledges in his inaugural speech, two of which caught my attention. The first was the laptop policy for all Standard One students and the second was the commitment to abolish maternity fees within his first 100 days in office.  The laptop policy is controversial enough as it is and we are all waiting to see how or whether it will work out. For the time being, it is the second pledge I wish to speak about.

Whereas I will be the first to admit that it is not the first time in Kenya’s history we are treated to far-fetched promises, I have to confess that providing free maternity services stands out as a definitely pro-women choice as well as a resounding “yes” to life.

Thanks to the late Dr Margaret Ogola, (2 June 1958 – 22 September 2011), the plight of the African woman has become a topic that is very dear to my heart. Dr. Ogola; pediatrician, mother of four and medical director of the Cottolengo Hospice in Nairobi for HIV-positive orphans, wrote a celebrated novel called The River and the Source which won the Commonwealth Best First Book prize in the African region and the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1995. It became such a renowned novel that it was selected as the secondary school English curriculum set book between 1998 and 2001. As if that was not enough, due to public demand, it has come back into the curriculum this year. It deals with the story of four generations of women. In my modest opinion it is a must-read for anyone who would like to understand the undefeatable spirit of the African woman.

African womanhood in Ogola is no sugarplum. It is complicated, burdensome and dolorous, which is not to say that it does not have its moments of grace.  Being a physician and a mother, she focused her energies on laying bare the complications that beset motherhood. One of her main worries about the AIDS crisis for instance, was the way it fell disproportionately upon women. She bemoaned the disquieting reality that in Africa, most women are considered men’s property and lamented the fact that, as a result of social customs such as wife inheritance, in which a husband’s oldest brother inherits his widow, women are dependent upon men and thus less able to protect themselves from infection. Moreover, when family members are infected, it is the woman who cares for them.

Despite all these complications, it is clear in her novels that the woman is the heart of the family and that the family is the corner stone of our societies and culture. In a speech she gave in Beijing at the World Conference on Women by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) entitled The Dignity of the African Woman, she gave a number of down-to-earth solutions to the problems women face in Africa which I believe the Uhuru Kenyatta administration could greatly benefit from. Among other things, she said:

  1. The training of traditional mid-wives should be re-introduced and strengthened as they deliver 80% of the women in Africa.
  1. Investment in the training of middle level health care providers who can reach more women at the grass-roots level.
  1. We need to recognise fully the irreplaceable role of parents and the family in educating and in forming children in matters of sexuality, with recognition of and with full respect for African culture and religious beliefs. While recognising that there are some undesirable aspects of our indigenous cultures, we must not abandon it whole-sale in preference for imported Western values, which are unclear about important issues like family and gender.
  1. Given that poverty has broken down traditional African social structures that surrounded sexual promiscuity with taboos, only “massive public education” followed by changes in behaviour holds real promise in the fight against HIV/Aids.

There is a mysterious correlation, I believe, between the richness and fertility of the natural resources of our continent and the character of the African woman. Vis-à-vis other continents, there is something unmistakably feminine about Africa’s “personality” which explains her attraction, her beauty, her fertility, her vulnerability….

An Ethiopian Proverb says that “One who plants grapes by the road side, and one who marries a beautiful woman, share the same problem”. This proverb brings out on one hand, the fact that beauty is always open to abuse while on the other hand it brings out the folly of exposing what is precious to the four winds. One could say that perhaps Africa’s exploitation is one of the high prices we have to pay for this beauty but I think we must insist that such abuse or misuse need not necessarily happen if we build “fortresses” around our “vineyards”. If men for instance, whose mission it is to be strong, protect and cherish the women in their lives, those women will be capable of coping with any crisis that confronts them. In other words; to be pro-women is the easiest and most natural way of safe-guarding a culture of life.

It has been said that there is in every woman an emotional need to feel that her beauty is appreciated. A gracious word of gratitude, a sincere compliment, a timely reply, a tweet … can oftentimes raise a woman’s dying spirit. It may seem like idle trivia to some that when on 4 March 2013, Google honoured Miriam Makeba – nicknamed Mama Africa – (On the 5th anniversary of her passing on) with a doodle on the homepage, accolades came pouring in from Twitter. There could be innumerable explanations for such an outpouring of affection. For me, it is one more instance of the undying legacy of the African woman.

Robert Odero is a staff member of Strathmore School in Nairobi, Kenya.