My mate Macharia ( Mash) is a runner. The kind of man who carries running shoes on a holiday and spends an easy weekend off, doing a half marathon. I used to hang around him hoping I would pick up his good exercise habits but nowadays, I dread his phone calls. He has become that voice of conscience that nudges me out of my sedentary existence.
Like all seasoned runners, Mash has his neighbourhoods mapped out. He knows what roads have the best running paths. The paved ones, the traffic free ones and the scenic ones with mature trees. He knows how to time a run too. To start out before dusk before visibility gets poor and return through lit roads and free of ankle sprain. He knows the best loops with the right amount of hills and flat ground to make a run bearable.
One evening, he called me out. He had started his run two kilometres down my road and hoped I would not chicken out of a “polite” 5km run. I have my pride and he found me warming up outside my gate.
We took the usual easy-run route but at the T-junction, he turned into a road jam packed with evening traffic snaking up a steep hill. Mash attacked the incline, all in stride without switching gears. I watched him pull away with ease. Left with no choice, I shifted down to my lowest gear and retained him in my sights, focusing on keeping my heart from seizure.
A triple lane highway was at the top of the hill. One had to sprint across it in peak traffic because Nairobi drivers are determined to keep pedestrians fit. On the other side was a dusty murram road, under construction and none of the landscapes were familiar.
After 50 metres, we merged onto a perfectly paved road, with no traffic and lit streets. All along it were manicured hedges and tree cover. No dust. No car fumes. A runner’s boulevard that stretched over a kilometre. Two female joggers passed us in quick succession. Mash turned back looking pleased, “You know a neighbourhood is okay, when it is safe for women to jog at night”.
It was a correlation I had never made. Mash has a pre-adolescent daughter. An awareness of safe spaces for his girl remains top of mind. Too many public spaces are no longer safe for unaccompanied women and girls, even in broad daylight. It is a social privilege many men in Kenya do not fully appreciate.
Public space navigation that men take for granted, is not as straight forward for women. We do not look out for gropers when we enter a matatu. We do not wonder how to cross the street to avoid a gang of approaching construction workers scanning us over with leery eyes. We do not travel in pairs when we take a taxi from the night club, just to be sure. Or check up on our girlfriends to make sure they got home okay. We certainly do not think of rapists on a late evening jog or when the car stalls at night.
I recently gave a lift to three women from a funeral in the village. All middle aged women with young grandchildren, reflecting back on their lives and the scars they bore. The conversation in the back seat moved from family rivalry undertones that played out at the funeral to aching bodies, battered by hardship. The youngest of the lot, who I placed in her late thirties, complained loudest about old age.
“Some of these pains are from my husband, especially my lower back. He used to work on me properly”.
The next woman added as matter-of-fact,
“Mine tried but I set a precedence of running away. I cannot handle a beating”.
They laughed as the last reflected
“Lucky you, I had never really considered that option. I wizened up much later when I stopped being afraid of him”.
These were just ‘normal beatings’ that were part of the occupational hazards of getting married to a true son of the soil.
Even the most casual glance through the news headlines, reveals female bodies served up as targets of wanton brutality from cruel men.
The husband of Jackline Mwende, a 27 year old woman from Machakos, is accused of chopping off her hands and slashing her head and neck with a panga for not bearing him a child since they got married. This is the reality in varying degrees of thousands of silent domestic abuse victims negotiating daily, in their marital homes for safe refuge and passage from gender abuse.
Their only crime. They complained and they were women.
A society where a woman can lose her life because of her man’s impotency is one that has forgotten the value of life. We have a serious domestic violence problem in this country and we cannot keep asking women to respect their vows and forgive.
You do not have to wait to get a daughter before you can understand the urgency of granting women the same rights to safety that men have always had.
You’ve got to learn to get up from the table when love’s no longer being served.
I will tell what freedom is to me: No fear.