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Slay Queens, Socialites And Sponsors: Sexual Violence in Kenyan Society

“Justice, Justice, Justice for Sharon Beryl Otieno and baby Sharon”.

Sharon Otieno’s mother Melida Auma declared raised hand whilst wearing a stoic expression in her final emotional sendoff for her daughter on the 20th of October at Magare village in Homa bay county. The constant drizzle throughout the funeral service reinforced the solemnity of the occasion. It was one month and two weeks since the kidnapping and brutal murder of the seven month pregnant Sharon Otieno, the hitherto unknown student from Rongo University.

The heinous murder shocked the country and the story hogged the headlines for weeks.  On the 4th of September the mutilated body of Sharon Otieno was discovered lying in the open next to a thicket on the fringes of Kodera Forest in Homa Bay. A farmer named Moses Ongili of Ogero village stumbled upon Sharon’s corpse while herding cattle and raised the alarm before filing a report at the Oyugis Police station.

The autopsy conducted by Government Pathologist Johansen Oduor revealed the grisly details that lead to her death. Sharon sustained eight stab wounds seven on her person and one directed at the foetus in her abdomen. Discarded condoms were found around the scene of crime and the story of her murder went viral on social media and all news outlets. Fingers were pointed to Migori Governor Okoth Obado who was named a person of interest, following his romantic involvement with the murdered student. The married Governor admitted to an affair with Sharon and acknowledged impregnating  her as the specifics of the torrid affair were splashed in the gossip pages. Sharon was 26 years old when she died.

On 9th September, the lifeless and naked body of a 22 year old woman identified as Dorice Musiya is found by two women fetching firewood in Kakamega forest. A rope is found next to her body. The story receives a single mention and scant attention as subtext to the more salacious headlines around the Sharon murder. Dorice Musiya is soon forgotten.

Eleven days later on Thursday September 20th, the body of 29 year old Monica Kimani is found by her brother George Kimani after her breaking into her flat in the Kilimani neighbourhood of Nairobi. Monica had gone uncharateristically silent barely a day after arriving from Juba, South Sudan. George finds his sister dead in the bathtub, her head dangling, severed from ear to ear. Her mouth is covered in tape and her hands and feet are tightly bound. The water in the bathtub is still running.

On September 24th Joseph Irungu Kuria aka Joe Jowie is arrested as a key suspect. Jowie who is engaged to well known TV journalist Jackie Maribe drags her name into ongoing investigation. Ms Maribe is subsequently arrested on September 29th as an accessory to murder. The details unravel, a story that has all the markings of a Netflix crime drama. Monica is buried at her family home in Kairi village, in Gilgil on September 28th. Her father, Paul Kimani cries for justice for his murdered daughter.

Both cases become sensational media stories and trending topics on social media. They become compelling spectacles with the toxic mix of sex, scandal, fame, power and crime. The stories are teased out and milked for their sensational value. The public gobbles up the minute details of the developing story that moves into court dramas with the eagerness of fans binging on a drama series  intrigued by the spectacle of a violent death involving famous people.

With the economically depressed country conditions, exacting a toll on the livelihoods of the ordinary citizen and never-ending political power plays divorced from the living reality, the murder of two young women linked to prominent personalities creates the perfect diversion and the media runs away with the story. In the weeks that follow, the news pages are filled with obsessive details of their personal lives, the spectacle of sex and a succession of conspiracy theories.

Public commentary on Sharon and Monica’s death, begins to highlight what is viewed as a social problem. Both young women who hailed from humble backgrounds are framed as overnight successes enjoying  opulent lifestyles through unclear circumstances. Moral lessons drawn from the incidents lean towards a refrain to young girls. “Avoid dirty old men” “Young girls, please forget easy money and be safe. Stay away from sponsors”.

Coincidentally, at the end of August 2018, two days before the death of Sharon, BBC Africa released a provocative lifestyle feature titled “Sex and The Sugar Daddy” that profiled three young Kenyan women as a window into a transactional sex culture that has become pervasive. This sponsor culture draws a sexually attractive young woman into an intimate sexual affair with a wealthy older man in exchange for financial benefits. The inter-generational transactional sexual affair known as the sponsor culture is not unique to Kenya. Similar patterns are attributed to the Blesser and Mentorship cultures in South Africa and Nigeria respectively. The BBC feature tracks the three young women talking openly about their pursuit of happiness financed by wealthy benefactors.

BBC Africa correspondent Nyasha Kadandara had contacted me for an interview while doing research for her piece. She wanted to know my views on the roots of the ‘socialite’ culture and the impact of TV shows such as Nairobi Diaries that tracks a group of young women living glamorous lifestyle with sex and high life served on the menu, heavily inspired by the “ Keeping  up with the Kardarshians” reality series.  My quick response was that it was nothing new. The sugar daddy phenomenon has been with us since I was a child in the late 70s and early 80s. Young women had always been warned of ‘dirty old men’.  The marked difference was the normalization of such inter-generational affairs as a result of the slandered ‘loose women’ who had turned the shame on its head and now owned the tag with tenacity and pride.

Nairobi ‘socialite’ celebrities Huddah Monroe and Vera Sidika came to public attention under the sneering veneer of a contemptuous public, shamed as personalities with questionable morals. They brazenly lapped up the free publicity and turned their notoriety into savvy personality brands that are now mainstream media staples. Vera Sidika and Huddah Monroe are today caricatured as success stories, made in media, and cited by many young women in the BBC feature as inspirational figures.

In a follow up story to the gruesome death of the two young women, the Nation newspaper ran an arresting headline, “ Butchered So Young: Victims yet to find justice”. The stories of 10 young women whose murders made national news within the last year came with the rider, that if you are a young and upwardly mobile female, you could be at risk of falling victim to a cold blooded murder, a crime of passion. The disclaimer appeared again. Young ladies beware. The Big Bad Wolf lurks these streets.

In our media culture, there is rarely any condemnation of the men abusing power and sustaining these inter-generational sexual transactions. It appears much easier to blame the victim.  It is a narrative that borrows from the European fairy tale of the Little Red Riding Hood of a young naive girl who is lured into bed by the big bad wolf.  What is never said, perhaps because it is plainly obvious is that, the nature of the big bad wolf is to prey on the vulnerable. This is now the established sexual double standard. Blame the victim for getting in harm’s way. She should have known better. Wolves will always be wolves.

The validity of sexual violence claims made by women in Kenya is subjected to three dominant frames. The victims are subjected to a male gaze. Was the violence exaggerated by a man-hating feminist claim of patriarchal privilege?  Is the violence justified within the moral lens of religious values i.e. Honor killings? Is the violence consistent with assigned rights of a woman within a skewed African cultural context? This victim blaming frames shed some light on how difficult it becomes for a woman seeking justice in a sexual assault case.

The sexual violence that results in death is  a social problem that has a long history in this country. The recurring patterns of men who hold some level of power sexually abusing and murdering young women has been a headline press staple since the 80s. In 1980, there was a murder case involving US sailor man Frank Joseph Sundstrom of Coventry, R.I who confessed to killing a commercial sex worker Monica Njeri and got off with a fine of $35 that he reportedly did not even pay before he fled the country. The story was a front page spectacle.

In 1983 the high court in Mombasa found James William Tyson a white American sailor innocent of murdering Lucy Kabura a Kenyan bar hostess. The trial was front page news for several days and to date, Lucy Kabura’s murder remains unresolved. Owaah blog details a list of unresolved murders of young women all involving rape and death and a mysterious male power broker who was never brought to book. Captain Judy Angaine, Julie Ward, Careen Chepchumba and Mercy Keino are all names of victims who became famous after death.  Almost 4 decades since, the script has not changed and the list of families demanding justice continues to lengthen.

These stories play out in media and are served as entertainment. The subtext of all these stories is that the female body has since been commodified and an entire economy has grown out of the exploitation of erotic capital. It is passe nowadays that sex sells everything including air fresheners with curves.  Looks based discrimination is normalised in media. Popular media female personalities are celebrated for their physical attributes. The callipygian ideal for women is an recognized feature of sexual desire. The images of professional women we see in media are hypersexualized and the cultural norm in our social media spaces is an unrelenting pursuit of sensuality.

The message young people hear and see is that eroticism is an investment in self.  To raise one’s sexual potency is a privilege and a currency that can be translated into real material benefits. The evidence is broadcast. Divas rule. The revenge of the slay queens. The tyranny of socialites. The poster girls are feted and condemned in the same breath but in the fine print, we find the recurring warning, Flirt responsibly.

The avoidance of sexual assault is a personal responsibility. On the other hand, men are socialised to relate to sexual violence as the wages of sin. The female body is a sexual object that has being commodified to be purchased, governed and disciplined by its owner.

Kenyan society has since the advent of the post colonial state established a sexual hierarchy of ‘good girls” and ‘bad girls”. The good girls are broadly known as wife material, socially coded to operate within morally sanctioned boundaries of socially approved sensuality. The bad girls are  malayas or prostitutes. Anyone who does not meet the narrow criteria of respectability becomes a bad girl, to be despised, feared but secretly admired and desired for her brazen attitude. In the end , the bad girls are not meant to succeed for they endanger the natural social order.

Sexual slander is the weapon used to undermine the uncompromising woman’s reputation. It has never been enough to the stop the bold ones and progress in as far as women advancement in this country has always been the domain of bad women. Grace Onyango. Wambui Otieno, Wangari Maathai, Phoebe Asiyo, Charity Ngilu defied the odds to blaze a trail for many. Kenyan poet and writer Aleya Kassam ran a critically acclaimed series in a Too Early For Birds stage production titled ‘Brazen’, on pioneer female achievers in Kenya who remained unbowed and stood for what they believed and often paid a heavy price for sticking out their necks. The series played to a sold out theatre giving historical context to the forgotten women who remained brazen in attitude and deed.  There are tons of untold stories of pioneer women who shatter glass ceilings only to die quietly from internal bleeding caused by glass wounds.

Every time these gender prejudices realities are highlighted, they are dismissed as feminist propaganda. We live in social gendered order that places gender relationships as competition, a battle of the sexes. If women gain, men will lose. When men lose, it is because of women rising.  These narratives have become fairly established and prevent the interrogation of our gender dynamics beyond these inherited rivalries.  Therefore, when a female commentator raises the troubling spectacle of femicide, the counter response is what about the extra judicial killings of young men in Mathare and Dandora. “ Why are we not talking about the boychild?

The policing of female potential and lives by a capitalist-patriarchal system is not some wild conspiracy by lesbian leaning feminists with foreign funding engaging in hashtag activism. The cry for the plight of the girl child is not just another NGO-nized funding buzzword. The #MeToo movement is not just some American white privilege concern envious of male power. The threat of death and women need conscious allies who do not minimise their concerns.  It does not mean that we do not care about the plight of boys and must therefore adopt an #AllLivesMatter counter stance to defend our own sense of vulnerability.

Those on the receiving end of hate and prejudice are often advised to be humble and persevere. Don’t provoke their anger, the victim is reminded for the blame will lie squarely on you. It is deeply encoded in our social context and power relationships at all levels. We are sometimes unable to contextualise the social systems that run on abuse and exploitation. It is much easier to pass the buck down the line and in our primed for conflict gender culture, too many women find themselves backed into a corner screaming for their lives while all around chastiste them for crying wolf.

Sex in Kenya is now a commodified product, sold over the counter. In the last few decades we have evolved from a society of conservative prudery to one of lusty open liberal sexual attitudes.  In 1987, popular Kenyan TV soap Tushauriane seemed set to revolutionise local production standards. The show was funded by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of birth control activism in the third world. The Tushauriane script written by Felix Osodo and directed by Greg Adambo displayed production values far above the KBC standards of the day. The show was extremely lean on sexual content by present standards but a few episodes in Tushauriane was banned by President Moi for its ‘sexualised content’ which amounted to a single kiss on screen.

Times have changed. In contemporary Kenya, shows like Nairobi Diaries a Kenya reality series that premiered at K24 TV follows the alluring and controversial lives of a cast of TV vixens (socialites), is considered common fodder. Kenyan’s most celebrated writer Binyavanga Wanaina is openly gay. Leaked social media nudes are a standard celebrity faux pas. The most popular morning radio show by Maina and Kingangi dishes out saucy details on sex and relationships and the biggest Kenyan movie in 2018 (Rafiki ) is a story about a taboo same sex love relationship between two young women.

There appears to be an individual ideology that celebrates sexual liberty akin to our own low grade sexual revolution. It feels like freedom and walks like freedom until a new sensational story of another young girl who was sexually violated and murdered turns into a media spectacle.  Maybe as many have said, freedom is an illusion that comes at a price. We are resigned to the reality of living with unjust legacies and the repeated evidence that access to justice is a privilege of wealth and status doled out at the mercy of benevolent oppressors. The privileged allies who should rally and speak up for the victims in the varied quests for social justice are largely absent and mostly muted.

As a society we have to move from this narrow idea of only demanding justice when it directly benefits us. Sexual violence is not a woman’s problem. It is a societal problem and demands the active participation of men as conscious allies in the struggle for a just society for all.

Assassinated Burkina Faso leader Thomas Sankara articulated this ideal best.

“The revolution and women’s liberation go together: We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or out of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the revolution to triumph. Women hold up the other half of the sky”.

The men of this country must add their voice and condemn sexual violence in all it shades for the wolves and hyenas show up dressed as men.

“Justice for Sharon, Justice for Monica, Justice, Justice”.

 

Article first published at theelephant.info

SLAY QUEENS, SOCIALITES AND SPONSORS: The normalisation of transactional sex and sexual violence in Kenyan society

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist. The blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.

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