I rock up to Muthoni Likimani’s expansive Loresho home, looking forward to an evening of plotting revolutions, burning bras and dancing round fires howling at the moon. That is kind of what you expect from someone whose books have such fiery titles as Fighting Without Ceasing, Passbook Number F. 47927, What Does a Man Want?, They Shall Be Chastised, and My Blood Not for Sale, right? Not just the titles.
A woman of many firsts and with a list of gobsmacking achievements, Muthoni Likimani was right at the centre of the country’s nascent women’s liberation movement, representing Kenya at the historic Mexico and Beijing women’s conferences, conclaves that were the subject of much controversy at the time. And then there has been her groundbreaking work centring women’s contributions in the Mau Mau war.
The afternoon, however, plays out as the extreme opposite of what I expected. We spend it sipping hot mugs of tea and discussing the decline in social values, the importance of the early missionary church and the future of Kenya.
Muthoni Likimani is widely misunderstood. Written about prolifically in newspapers, books and academic theses, she has been presented as a teeth-baring Amazon, a wild, rebellious harridan. What she is instead, is a nurturing mother, warm, patient, and all-embracing. It says a lot about our society that we have only conflated strength with fighting rather than with nurturing.
To an extent, the confusion is understandable. What Does a Man Want? captures the lament of women across generations and cultures, as they attempt to contort themselves into shapes that will ‘satisfy’ their men.
It is the book’s genesis, however, that reveals Muthoni’s true nature and intentions. It was not borne out of feminist rage, but empathy at the loneliness deserted wives faced after independence.
“Women suffered so much during the Mau Mau war, left alone with children, doing forced labour and surviving under home guards. When we got independence, some of the men that had been in detention camps became big men with big titles and they forgot about their older wives, going for flashy young girls and their secretaries instead. That’s when I asked myself, surely, what does a man want?”
Born in Kahuhia, Murang’a, in 1926, Cucu, as she is referred to by everyone, turns 94 this year. The mother of three daughters, numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, she has lived a rich and vibrant life.
An educationist by training, she fell into broadcasting and later set up her own highly successful entrepreneurial ventures in publishing and public relations. Even now, she is in extremely good health, moving about with no need for walking aids, hearing aids or eyeglasses. Her memory is sparkling clear and her curiosity about life just as strong as ever, evidenced by the very precise questions she puts to me and her daily newspaper subscription.
As we talk about contemporary society and the ongoing gender wars where questions on the role of women and men in relationships are waged, Muthoni reserves particular harsh criticism for women. She, for instance, believes that the single-mother and dead-beat-dad ‘epidemic’ is a problem of women’s own making.
“Ukipata mimba, shauri yako.” (If you fall pregnant, it is upon you). Women cannot allow themselves to be free around men without thinking of what might come out of it. This was not happening when we were growing up. It was embarrassing. It is indiscipline and it’s caused by lack of guidance during upbringing.”
Her views on this are quite unexpected and disorienting, and when she avers that she neither considers nor calls herself a feminist, I am left even more baffled. She has been mistranslated to us. She is not a soldier in the trenches, she is a defender of the system’s walls, albeit possessed of the courage to suggest changes to the masonry.
More awaits to make my jaw gape. Muthoni does not support the agitation for the two-thirds gender principle in Parliament. “Women should move beyond talking and complaining at a distance, they should just be confident and go forward. Stand. Have confidence. The majority of voters are women. If they are women and if they like you, people will vote for you.”
Indeed, Muthoni’s attention is less fixated on the state of women in society and more on the state of the Kenyan social fabric. She highlights the shift from family values to material items and power as something of a concern.
“There have been so many killings and a lot of dehumanisation. This week, a husband and wife decided to kill their child. Is that normal? If an 80-year-old woman in the village is agreeing to be used by evil people to hide kidnapped children, how materialistic have our minds become?”
She believes that the lack of societal guidelines is to blame.
“The violence against women, the killings, they are here because the society right now lives without any guidelines. How much time do parents spend with their children? How many wazees take rides or walks with their sons and talk to them about life and the responsibilities of a man? Fathers are too busy making money to purchase more land; mothers are also out there at work. Money is the new god.”
Muthoni’s analysis of the role the early church played in ensuring restraint within the society is apt, even if cultural critics will not so easily forget how it also erased large aspects of traditional culture. It points to the need for social engineers of the day to reflect on new modes of ensuring that social relations are structured and systematised, so that instead of people’s energy’s frittering away into unhelpful fights and wars, it is channelled towards a defined end.
In the meantime, while Muthoni appears to have deserted what allegedly was her earliest constituency — women — she promises that she has something good coming for them.
“My next book, if God gives me the strength to complete and publish it, is the woman’s story. What Does a Woman Want?”