I am not sure if I am the ‘chopping’ one yet, but let’s chop some academic context to the subject of Nyeri women and men in reference to the social media outcry.
First, Nyeri is a stereotype. This is a problem of all Kikuyus (and even other tribes) and so my use of Nyeri is in reference to every Kikuyu. Growing up in Nyeri and having relatives in different parts of the country, I have witnessed this challenge among many families, in Meru, In Eastern, in Rift valley, in Kiambu, but mostly among the Kikuyu community. The first assumption I make in my argument is that the Kikuyu were the first and majority recipients of economic development (capitalism I would say) during and after the colonial period.
My theory: A structurally adjusted generation, but culturally constrained
I have always imagined the challenge of Nyeri women battering their husbands as something that is of contemporary society, and not of their past. In the late 1980s and early 1990s when the structural adjustments took toll on Kenya, it is mainly the economies in central Kenya (of the majority Kikuyu community) that were hard hit. Historically, Central Kenya was the source of a huge percentage of the Kenyan GDP. Most of the cash crops are grown here, but the sector collapsed overnight leaving most of them without a livelihood. They were among the first to be educated, and so most of them too worked for the government, and with retrenchment, most of them were sent home. Being the majority beneficiaries of what I call colonial goodies (education, health, religion), they too were more healthy and thus increased in population. However, with the structural adjustments, eventually, what happened is that fathers were jobless and without income and so started to rely on their wives (who mostly worked on the farms or small businesses) hoping something will come along soon. Which never did.
On the other side, the early 1990s of globalizing the ‘third world’ (sic) was the period of women empowerment, and the Nyeri woman too benefited. She was empowered and taught to become financially independent in tough economic times. It was especially important because the development community had somehow pictured that the man was educated and employed (even though this was diminishing and the woman remained on the farm). But what these globalization ‘scandals’ did not manage to change (and which is now engrained in the complexity of Nyeri women vs. their men) is the cultural implications of an empowered woman and a seemingly disenfranchised man who is hopefully waiting for an opportunity to rise again. The rift began.
These marriage and families bore sons and daughters (the ones currently fighting) who witnessed a hardworking mother and wife who was trying to salvage a marriage by the only means she knew how because the husband had lost the means; but they also witnessed a father and a husband who was becoming desperate by the day always hanging out at Mung’etho trying to figure out life. As mothers worked harder to build their homes through merry-go rounds, Chamas, and the like, the fathers went deeper and deeper into a depression and succumbed to the cheap drinks down the road. In a family and community setting, sons may take up after their fathers, and daughters after their mothers, or what is most prevalent in their society. This is very true for the Kikuyus of this generation. What we see on the new these days is that the battering and battered generation of Kikuyus believe in the institution of marriage.
Refocusing our critic
In a society where it is no longer a taboo to divorce or separate, or even become a single parent, why do these men and women remain in dysfunctional marriages and resort to such behaviours? Should we then perhaps be examining the expectations of marriage institutions in such contexts? Is it true that it is a problem of only the men and not the women? Is it really true that it’s the structural adjustments that should be blamed for the collapse of the society? I have read elsewhere that this challenge goes as far back as the reallocation of land to the Kikuyus post the Mau Mau war. Men who were supposed to acquire land after returning from the ‘forest’ never did, and that was the beginning of their disenfranchisement. It has also been speculated by others that it is an issue with the culture of the Agikuyu, traditionally Wangu Wa Makeri was already a powerful woman enslaving the man. So perhaps we are witnessing the comeback of the all-powerful Agikuyu women. Maybe, but then we need to ask why then are these women chopping the pivotal body organs of these men? What I always wonder is, why does marriage remain the institution under which most these women fight their husbands? They marry these men even when they know they may not play some expected roles in the marriage. Why?
As well all make a fuss about these issues and criminalize every Nyeri woman, I wonder how many of us observe the same challenges in our communities and can relate these issues to the socio-economy. I wonder if we also think of the current generation of children we are bringing up and the kind of space they are being socialized into. If you are a parent, are you teaching your child, both boys and girls, the real meaning of life in the twenty first century? And the expected roles of husbands and wives in a marriage institution? Some of us think it is all right that we are the working middle class who can afford one or two house girls who take care of our children. But I don’t know who much we think about the impacts of this new parenting model on the future of those children. We are growing up in a generation where parenting is commoditized; how shall we expect these children to become adults with certain values if all we feed them is commoditized and plastic?
And it’s not just parenting at the family level, and even at the school and community level. Whereas gone are the days when even your neighbour would discipline your child, do we also allow our schools and the government to facilitate poor parenting? Our failures to question what our kids learn in school, the character of their teachers, the policies of our government, all these add to the challenges of a future generation. Therefore, we are not immune to the Nyeri woman. More Nyeri women are growing up right in front of our eyes. Shall we allow them to chop us off too? Our choice.