Men & Women of Kenya and the Blame Game

(Disclaimer: I was only in Kenya for 2 weeks for a vacation and am not at all an expert on Kenyan culture. Here I am simply reporting on some of what I saw and heard during our visit.)

While in Nairobi our friend Mary suggested that we visit the Kazuri Bead factory, located in a suburb called Karen. Mary was working that day so Isaac drove us there. Kazuri employs about 150 women who make handcrafted ceramic beads and pottery, which are exported all over the world. As we drove up to the factory at 4:30 PM the women were just getting off work, and made an amicable group as they walked out of the gate in their colorful clothing, chatting and laughing together.

Kazuri’s shop was still open and a young woman working there offered to give us a tour of the factory, even though we wouldn’t get to see the women at work. The guide’s name was Eliza and in contrast to the more typically reserved Kenyan women I had met, she was animated and friendly. She was short and rounded, with a beautiful hair-style of long braids gracefully wrapped around her head. She told us that the factory had been started in the ‘70’s by a British woman who wanted to help provide much-needed, stable jobs for local women. The factory, which is a Fair Trade collective, also provides healthcare for all the women and their immediate families. All of the women working there are single mothers. There are over 300 women on the waiting list to get a job there, Eliza told us.

As we looked at their giant clay mixer and the pug mill, I asked Eliza, “Are there so many single mothers around here?”

“Oh yes, there are.”

“Why is that — is there a high rate of divorce?”

“No, we have a problem here with our men — it’s not like your good men you have in the U.S.

“Unfortunately,” she sighed, “our Kenyan men are no good. Too many of them are alcoholics and they don’t treat the women well.”

She had a lot to say about the problems between men and women. Every time we thought she was ready to go on with the tour, she would suddenly turn around with more to say on the subject.

“What happens is the woman is young and falls in love with a man and at first it really is love. But if the woman gets pregnant the man often will not help at all, or even deny that the child is his! Or, if he does marry her, soon he starts to not treat her well. She is expected to cook for him, clean for him, take care of the children… and often she works a job, just as the man does. He doesn’t help at all with the kids but does whatever he wants and the woman cannot say a thing.”

She turned back toward the mixer, saying, “We used to import our clay, but now we have a local source of clay near Mt. Kenya, so that is much better, and cheaper.” She started to walk toward a low building, then stopped and turned to us.

“The man can stay out late; he can get drunk. The woman cannot drink alcohol because it reflects very badly on her. No one wants a woman who gets drunk, but in a man it is fine. Women are very disadvantaged here. And if the woman complains or doesn’t do everything he likes, then he will just find someone else, because men are hard to find and there are always other women waiting to grab him, and they will.”

She said that American fathers are much better, helping with the children and sharing the responsibilities more equally. She said that in the factory, while giving tours, she had seen American and European fathers voluntarily take a baby to change its diaper. The women in the factory were astounded by this. A Kenyan man would never do that, she said; he would consider it beneath him.

She turned again to continue the tour, and then turned back again. My husband Alex and I watched her, interested to hear what she would say next.

“Women are not free here. They cannot express themselves;they cannot do as they like; they cannot dress as they like,” she said heatedly.

“I’ve noticed that women here dress very modestly,” I said.

“Yes, the women must be modest; they must stay covered up.” She looked at me and said seriously, “Don’t ever marry a Kenyan man.”

“I’ll remember that,” I said, smiling at Alex.

She led us to a low building with long tables where, during work hours, over 100 women sat making beads, painting slips on, and eventually glazing them. It looked like a pretty good place to work, especially if you could chat with your friends all day. And especially compared to many of the alternatives in Nairobi.

The kilns were running at one end of the building, tended by two men.The kilns were only fired after work hours, because otherwise it would get too hot in the building, Eliza explained. I looked at the two men sitting in chairs and wondered if these were examples of the drunken, misogynistic Kenyan men she’d been telling us about.

After we walked out of the building I joked, “Don’t worry, I won’t tell those men what you were saying about them!”

“Oh, they know already! Nothing I said would surprise them — they know it is all true!”

After we had shopped in their gift shop, we thanked Eliza for the illuminating tour, gave her a tip, and went back to the car where Isaac was waiting.

Once we were driving I said to Isaac, “So all the women working at Kazuri are single mothers.”

“That’s right.”

“And when I asked our tour guide why there are so many single mothers around here, you would not even want to hear what she told us about Kenyan men!”

“Ah, it is true,” he said reflectively, “…But that is what the women say, and there is another side, because the women play a part, too.

“First of all, the young women should not be so free. They should at least know to use protection until they are ready to have a child. (Note: I have no idea how accessible contraceptives are to Kenyan women.) Also, there is a saying, that before marriage a woman is good and sweet, but afterwards she grows horns! So it is a blame game, you see, and neither side is wholly innocent.”

I asked if it happens very often that a young couple who accidentally gets pregnant will go ahead and get married. “Sometimes that does happen, but usually not, because often the boy is very young and not prepared to care for a family. To marry your daughter to someone like that… would be to throw her away.”

So we get a little peek behind the social curtain here. And of course this conflict between men and women is one played out all over the world. I told Eliza: it’s true that American men share more of the household and childcare duties now, but it’s been a big change that’s happened gradually over the last 40 years or so.

Later I got a chance to talk with a Kenyan acquaintance, Caroline, about what our Kazuri tour guide had said, and she agreed. She said that many of the men are terrible drinkers. She said that they are not lazy and if they have a job they will work very hard at it, but after work they go out and spend their money on drink and don’t help their families. She herself is a single mom with two kids and they live in a one room shack in one of Nairobi’s large slums.

Just looking at people going about their business, I would never guess that there are so many men who are big drinkers, or the type of men who would neglect their families. Mostly what I see are men working hard, moving with purpose, being polite. I’ve seen hardly any men just hanging around, looking listless or drunk. Also, I’ve seen not a single instance of street harassment here, which is in striking contrast to U.S cities. And in Kenya you see a LOT of activity on the sides of the roads,because it seems like almost everyone is outside almost all the time (at least during the day) and the roadsides are busy, endless marketplaces.

I wonder if urban life and the breakdown of traditional family structures have led to this epidemic of single moms. It used to be that polygamy was the norm (and is still quite common), where a man would have two or three wives and live in a very structured compound with his family, within the village. I imagine in this scenario the women were still subjugated, but at least they had the structure of family and community to help support them and their children. I also wonder how it changes the structure of village/family life when these single women move back to their home villages with children and no man to help support them…and how often they are welcomed back to their parents’ bomas (homesteads), since it used to be that the woman always moved to her husband’s boma.