Machakos, my beloved “home” County, has recently been in the news, and I should be feeling proud and elated, as I often do, whenever my 1970s residence is mentioned. But my main feeling just now is sorrow and concern.
Machakos recently hit the headlines with the startling report of some 4,000 teenage girls there getting pregnant in the past four months, according to the Children’s Department in the County. Our prophetic brother, Dr Ezekiel Mutua of the Kenya Film Certification Board suggested that this tragedy was traceable to contemporary Kikamba pop music, which, he says, is full of vulgarities and obscenities. Such music, according to Bwana Mutua, ends up objectifying women and girls, reducing them to sex “things”.
Ndugu Mutua said that his opinion was based on research data, and he quoted samples ranging from the lyrics of Kikamba songs through the gestures of the performances to the names of the bands themselves. They all seem to advocate and glorify crude, naked, animalistic sex. I will not print any here.
But you know me well enough to realise that what is happening at my Machakos doorstep is enough to make me see red. After all, girls were the main reason I lived in Machakos. It is intolerable to think that a girl, like those students of mine who abundantly enriched my life, should be abused, defiled and left loaded with a pregnancy.
I acknowledge the validity of Ndugu Mutua’s observations. Constant exposure to vulgarity, obscenity and pornography, including linguistic crudity, fundamentally affects the thought and behaviour patterns of people, especially young people. In my own field of literary and linguistic awareness, this is supported by what is called the performative and pragmatic aspects of language. We all know that language does not only say things. It also does and performs things. Moreover, it is intended to do things. The Waswahili say, “Maneno matamu humtoa nyoka pangoni” (sweet words draw a snake out of its lair).
That said, however, the Machakos pregnancy epidemic cannot be blamed entirely or even primarily on pornography and vulgar Kikamba musical performances. Indeed, my colleague Abigail Arunga squarely addressed this issue earlier this week, pointing out that the main and obvious culprits in this crime are the defilers and rapists who violate and impregnate the girls.
The “pregnandemic” is a many-sided problem. Weaknesses like our hypocritical refusal to educate our children on reproductive health, rampant substance abuse and the endemic suppression and victimisation of women are only a few of the many heads of the monster. We will revisit some of these one of these days, since the Machakos explosion is obviously not a one-county headache but almost certainly a national one.
Some thirty-odd youths, for example, with four girls among them, were recently arrested at a chang’aa and sex orgy in Kisii County. Only the other day, I was writing about the Kakamega teenage mothers who were getting a second chance at school. Indeed, singling out Machakos and Akamba music may smack of old-fashioned stereotyping.
But back to the power of language to influence behaviour, I would like to conclude with three simple but potentially effective suggestions. The first is silence. The second is negotiation, and the third is “no”. We will only say a few things about each.
Silence is a part of language. Our dear Waswahili, once again, say “kimya kingi kina mshindo” (too much silence has a rumble). I guess our modern counterparts would say that silence speaks louder than words. This is where I suggest that our silence must be broken. Why do clean and clear-minded people, presumably the majority, always remain silent in the face of thuggery, obscenity, indecency and immorality?
In the debate mentioned earlier, people said that the obscene lyrics are played regularly and loudly in public service vehicles. Why should a whole busload of passengers just remain dumb in the face of this violation of their rights and sense of decency? Why should they not tell off the culprits and even threaten to walk out of their vehicles? This is what I call disastrous “inoracy”, the fear and the incapacity to speak up for our survival.
Proper mastery and practice of speech skills will also lead to effective negotiation skills, which are the only acceptable approach to all relationships, including sexual relationships. I have said before, and still believe, that most of the teenage pregnancies in our society, whether among age-mates or cross-generational, are as Arunga calls them, the result of defilement and rape.
In other words, the sex from which the pregnancies result is rarely negotiated or consensual. For the girls it is dumbfounded and often terrified surrender to the brute force of the importunate male, and to the animalistic boy or man, it is just “grab, chop, palaver finish,” as they say in Pidgin. But of course for the girl this is only the beginning of a nine-month and even lifelong agony.
This, indeed, is where we come to the girls themselves, and to the famous “no”. Though not frequently heard today, the truth remains that “no” is the original and most powerful oral contraceptive ever invented by humanity. Easier said than done, I know. But it is the road we must take.
It means educating our young people, both female and male, to fully respect themselves and to respect one another. The main roots of promiscuity are sexism and low self-esteem. Our progress to a new society must embrace and practise an education with the core social value of recognising and respecting the dignity and rights of every human being, regardless of sex, ethnicity or social class. Only in a society where women fully and confidently value and respect themselves and only associate with men who fully and genuinely respect them can we expect to see rational and safe sexual relationships.
My Machakos girls and I made a pact in 2015 to play a major role in putting a worthy female President in State House within my lifetime. Ni kuseo!
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]