I grew up in a largely peaceful environment. My mother kept saying real men don’t hit women. She even had a t-shirt printed out and wore it till it faded and eventually, as all t-shirts do, found its place as a cleaning rag. But the message was home.
Through the years of lover’s tiffs including one time when a girlfriend attempted to get physical, I never raised my hand. That’s how powerful my mother’s indoctrination was. To date, I have never hit anyone.
When Daudi Kabaka was busy singing "Pole Musa," a man was busy clobbering his wife in the name of love. We used to sing that song all the time when we were kids:
‘Musa nimevumilia sana
Musa nimevumilia sana
Kupigwa pigwa kama mimi punda
Na sura yangu imeharibika
Na ngumi zako za kila siku Musa
We knew that the man in the song was violent, scarring his once-flawless wife, but what we didn’t know was that the conversation would haunt us for decades.
In the 80s and 90s, word on the street was that if a man hit his woman, it meant he loved her. It doesn’t make sense now, but you know how indoctrination works –you repeat something over and over until it becomes the irrefutable truth.
I remember a distant relative saying “Just beat a little. Don’t break the bones. Two slaps to keep her in check should be enough.”
The first flat that I moved into in Umoja estate had interesting characters. One night just before I retired, I heard loud screaming that was followed by the sound shattering and some banging.
I switched off the lights and TV because I thought it was a robbery in progress and if they saw my lights, they’d come for me.
Next came the shouting. A woman was telling her husband to stop hitting her or she would call the police. There was a struggle, and the woman demanded that she be given her phone.
I opened my door, then several neighbours opened theirs. The woman was now fleeing her house with her husband hot in pursuit. We caught him just before he ran out of the gate.
Here’s the thing: the woman did not leave. She didn’t even call the police. Later, when we asked, she said the man had just come home drunk and because his food needed to be warmed, he got angry at the delay.
She had two children and was jobless, where would she go?
It is a reason I have kept hearing over the years. From the outside, we keep telling them to leave. From the inside, they know they need to save themselves, but there is the other matter of economic leverage that men, for the most part, hold.
Although it is not an easy choice to stay, an excuse to keep holding on is never too far away.
Some will go to church, where they will be told that God hates divorce and ‘there is nothing that prayer cannot solve’ and ‘pray for your husband. He is your prayer responsibility. Don’t let the devil win.’ And the women will go back home to another night of violence, and cry themselves to sleep.
Some will have to rush to hospital with broken bones, a chopped hand, a bruised face. According to UN WOMEN, almost 40% of married women have experienced physical abuse. Another report published in 2014 by the National Crime Research Centre says that five in every 10 women of the ages 15 to 24 believe and accept that men have a right to beat up a woman for one reason or another.
And some will die.
Years of patriarchy have seen women continue to get denied opportunities to be economically empowered. In turn, they decide to persevere the hostile situations if that is what it takes to have a roof over their heads and their children provided for.
They stay, fully aware of the risks at hand, but without much of a choice.
It is not easy to change a mentality that has been formed over the years. I recall a conversation that happened back in high school:
“Imagine you had a girl in bed. Your hands are all over her body and then just as soon as both of you are naked and you are on top of her, she changes her mind. What would you do?” someone asked.
“I swear I’d finish what we started,” came the reply.
Fifteen years later, I have never forgotten that. There was no one in our environment that taught us better.
I had to unlearn all the poison after I realised how permanently damaging abuse was. I have met women who would not sleep with the lights off because they still have nightmares about things that happened years before.
Violence is not power. Violence is what you are left with when you have no ability to think. It is a show of physical strength and nothing else, which is just stating the obvious because men are generally physically stronger, so what are you proving?
The only way to effectively reduce incidences of gender-based violence is through the power of gentle persuasion, through showing the picture from a survivor’s eyes, through saying ‘Real men don’t hit women’ until it becomes the irrefutable truth.