Munira Hussein still has the ‘book’. It is a 200-page handwritten tome titled Nights of Doom she authored in her last year of high school at Kaaga Girls in Meru. “I wrote it after a friend told me, ‘You have talent, you can write’. At the time, I hadn’t really pondered what ‘talent’ entailed or if I would ever get published," she says.
Slightly over a month ago, she released her first book — Unfit for Society. As the title suggests, the book is an unflinching, disquieting take on society, religion, life, love and the veils we wear to ward off our true nature. Perhaps most importantly, though a work of fiction, the 160-page, four-story book throws open a window into the realities of life for girls and women in northern Kenya, a predominantly Muslim, patriarchal-structured region. And for Munira, a purgative, healing gift for herself.
“There is a lot of me, my experiences in the book,” she says.
Munira grew up in Majengo, a settlement outside Marsabit town, the firstborn in a family of four. Her father was a madrassa instructor while her mother worked as a high school teacher. Hers was the typical Muslim family, with great emphasis placed on decorum and piety.
But as she grew up, Munira realised that not everything was as it appeared. The perfect image she held of life was shattered after a close relative sexually assaulted her when she was in primary school.
“I felt like I had lost a piece of myself. I couldn’t tell anyone, you know; certainly not the family because this is the perfect person,” she narrates. “How do I stand and accuse a man of God?”
The encounter and its aftermath shadowed Munira as she joined secondary school and lingered on for much longer as she entered young adulthood.
Once a vivacious girl, Munira grew reclusive and quiet. She poured her thoughts onto a journal, wrote poetry and kept to herself.
In person, Munira is diminutive, beautiful and friendly, but will get tigerly in a minute especially when talking about women empowerment and rights. In a span of a month after she finished high school, Munira received three marriage proposals.
One of the men even flaunted his wealth to try win over the young girl.
“He said he had a nice job, a car and also promised to pay for my university education,” says Munira, growing furious at the temerity.
“No! I don’t need your support. I have my goals.”
Though fiercely proud of her roots-her father is an Oromo of Ethiopian origin while her mother is Borana, Munira is peevish of some of the reactionary cultural practices still prevalent in her society.
Some of her age-mates, she says, were carted off to marriage when in Standard Four. “It’s shocking how women are treated; it’s like you have no voice and you just go along,” shesays. “I don’t want to be confined.”
Though she selected Microbiology as her first option while in secondary school, Munira, who recently finished her university education at Kenyatta University, later discovered that writing came naturally to her.
“At the time (2013) there wasn’t much information about the avenues one could explore in writing; like blogging, editing,” she explains. “I picked Microbiology because I loved science, particularly Biology.”
While in college, Munira sought out writing opportunities, becoming a copy editor for the university magazine. At the same time, she joined Writers Guild, a club that nurtures writers.
“I discovered there were many options in the writing field,” she says. “At Writers Guild I gained a lot of experience through blogging, writing more and editing.”
Munira’s dedication paid off. After an announcement of the new education system for Kenya, Longhorn Publishing firm offered her a job creating content for text books for the department of Literacy and Indigenous for Grades 1, 2 and 3.
In 2016, Munira was commissioned again by Longhorn, this time developing content for secondary school English set books for the South Sudan education curriculum. “I learnt to juggle my studies with my writing,” she says.
At the time she was also working on the manuscript for Unfit for Society. She approached several publishers, but the progress was glacial or the terms disagreeable.
Using her savings from the Longhorn assignments, Munira decided to take the plunge and self-publish.
“Publishers sometimes tend to hold your work. Yes, self-publishing is expensive, but I chose to and it is paying off,” she explains, adding that her huge fan base on social media has helped push sales.
Despite its take on taboo subjects including female circumcision, Unfit for Society has helped Munira gain sizeable renown back home in Marsabit, an opportunity she plans to leverage to empower others. “I want to be involved more in my community, especially in promoting literacy,” she says.
“This will include (setting up) libraries, getting young people interested in reading and writing. The literacy levels are so low; I’d like to change that. Our young girls should be in school, not raising families when it’s not time.”
She hopes to bring others — individuals and corporates — on board to help champion these causes.
Still, she realises there is a long way to go. Recently, she visited her grandmother. After the courtesies the old woman leant in and asked Munira the eternal, near-obligatory question: “When are you settling down with a man? I need grandchildren, you know.”
The ghosts of that long-ago sexual assault still haunt Munira.
“I felt so much hate for myself and generally towards human beings because I felt I had been neglected,” she says looking back.
But captive she is not. In a scene in the lead story — Unfit for Society — which lends the book its title, visitors checking on girls who have just undergone the female cut ask about their welfare.
They ask in the local tongue, “Billa irra aftani? (have you survived the cut?)", to which they answer, “Ya amn (we have survived)".
In many ways, Munira has survived. She looks back at her ordeal, and that of many of her age-mates who sadly never survived — those who wanted to pursue their dreams but instead found themselves victims of stifling dictates.
She wants to hear girls in the future say, “Ya amn” — not to the question if they survived the razor blade, but to all the major hurdles that threaten to saddle them to a life not of their own choosing. “Ya amn, we have survived.”