Recently, a friend told me about another friend’s story.
His father left him and his siblings in Kisii one Sunday morning to go to Mombasa and never came back.
Years later, their mother raised money to go and bring him back, only to find that he had married a younger woman, with whom he had had three sons.
And she had abandoned him with the children. Our friend’s mother took him back, along with his three sons, and raised them like her own.
“What was wrong with women from that generation? Why were they doormats? I don’t think there is a woman today who can take such a thing,” my friend wondered at the turn of events.
His view of the woman of yesterday couldn’t be further from the truth. I say this because my grandmother, Esther, born in rural Kenya in the 1930s, is the strongest woman I have ever known.
For a good part of her life, Esther was a mother and a chief’s wife in Kirinyaga. Then, when all their children were almost out of the nest, at about the time she expected that she and the love of her life would now grow old together like they had often discussed, he decided he wanted more children, so he started all over again and married another wife.
Of course she was angry and hurt. Like any woman finding herself on the receiving end of such betrayal, she felt wronged.
However, she did not let this anger consume her. Esther did not throw a fit or spend every waking moment plotting how to make her husband miserable.
She didn’t sit around moping and feeling sorry for herself. She got out and started a business.
This woman, who had been a stay-at-home mother all her life, dusted herself off, went out and looked for a gap in the market.
When she found it, she threw all of her focus and energy into it. She refocused all her energies into her newly found passion and spent the next two decades buying edible produce from the greener parts of the country and selling it in the dry parts of eastern Kenya.
Along the way, she healed. She made memories there. She built friendships that are alive to date. And she made tonnes of money.
I have heard young women being advised at bridal showers and weddings not be weak like the women of the yesteryears.
The truth is that the Kenyan woman is not weak. I don’t think she has ever been. They say that literature is a true reflection of society.
Kenyan literature from two or three generations ago was written around strong female characters. A good example is literature by Margaret Ogola, who was also a medical doctor and educationist.
In her first, and arguably most popular novel, The River and the Source, Margaret clearly illustrates the strength of the traditional African woman.
Before colonialism happened and land ownership became a man’s thing, before Disney waltzed into our lives with cartoon characters that filled the heads of our women and girls with the idea of the hapless damsel in distress, women pioneered both food and livestock farming.
The traditional African woman’s spiritual, economic and social efforts can’t be ignored.
The women who came before us didn’t have much to work with. There was no support system, not even family, especially for those who were seen to be breaking away from the norm, women who made unpopular decisions.
I have heard stories of women who, after fleeing abusive marriages, were sent right back to their husbands by their families.
There was no place for an adult woman who had not been claimed by a man. For most, even the money they had in their pockets came from a man.
The circumstances around them might have been less than accommodating, but these women were not doormats. They did not have that defeatist mindset. They just didn’t have many options.