Wearing earrings hardly more ridiculous than donning a wig

Sunday June 12 2011


I wore a nose-ring long before it became fashionable in the West.

I had my nose pierced when I turned 18, perhaps to symbolise my coming of age.

But what I did not know then was that my nose-ring would be the cause of much panic at American airports.

As a student in the United States in the 1980s, I was routinely searched by immigration officials at Logan airport in Boston.

When it happened for the third time, it dawned on me that the only reason I was being searched so thoroughly was because US immigration officers assumed that my nose-ring was some kind of code for drug smugglers.

This was the pre-9/11 days when drugs, not terrorists, were public enemy number one.

I decided to remove the ring in my third year at university just to ease my passage through immigration.

But upon my return to Kenya, nose-rings had started to become fashionable so I had my nose pierced again.

Yet nose-rings have always been fashionable in other parts of the world, particularly in Asia and in some parts of Africa.

Women in northern India and Pakistan have been adorning nose-studs for centuries.

In Africa, both men and women have been piercing their bodies for decorative purposes for the longest time.

Here in Kenya, Pokot men used to wear aluminium nose pendants. Maasai men wear necklaces and anklets.

Some tribes in Mali and Cameroon also believe that ornaments placed in the nose, ears and mouth protect them from evil or supernatural forces.

So when did body-piercing become so abominable in Africa?

The advent of Christianity on the continent had a lot to do with it as did British colonialism, both of which imposed dress codes on the natives in order to “civilise” them.

Hence, today, you will find African men wearing woollen suits and ties even in countries with sweltering climates.

Kenyans suffer from this syndrome more than other Africans. At international conferences, I can always spot the Kenyan from miles away.

He will be the one in a suit. His West African counterparts, on the other hand, will be seen in gorgeous and elaborate African attire.

And until Nelson Mandela made the printed shirt fashionable, our MPs wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a khanga.

The question of what one can or can’t wear is one that has recently surfaced in France, where girls in public schools have been forbidden from covering their heads.

Head-gear has always been a sensitive issue in certain religions, particularly Islam and Sikhism. Sikhs are required by their religion to grow their hair and wear a turban.

But thanks to Osama bin Laden, many have had to cut their hair in order not be mistaken for an al Qaeda operative.

And now in Kenya, we have made a mountain out of an ear-stud. The person nominated to be Chief Justice happens to wear an ornament in his ear.

As far as I know, wearing an earring in this country is not illegal. So why the hullabaloo?

I believe it is because conservative Christians have given more meaning to the stud than it deserves. They are not so worried about the stud than what it symbolises.

Dr Willy Mutunga has admitted to be a follower of Islam and African religions.

God forbid if our chief justice has a religion other than Christianity. And even worse, that he believes in African traditions and religions.

If those are criteria for not holding public office, then I will probably never be nominated.

I wear a stud in my nose, and I am an agnostic who gave up on organised religion years ago when I realised that religious leaders, like the rest of us, could be immoral and flawed.

Organised religions also do not appeal to me because they tend to discriminate against women. I believe that the power of God resides in all of us and no one religion has a monopoly on that power.

I want to rely on a secular and just judicial system that protects me against evil forces. If Dr Mutunga can do that, then he is my man.

And the first thing I would want him to do when he is appointed is to ban judges from wearing those ridiculous wigs.