A running joke among my girlfriends whenever any of us is going out on a date with a new person is: “Are you sure that this guy is not a serial killer?”
Not very funny, is it? But the reality of the risks that follow us and the ways in which we have to make adjustments to keep ourselves as safe as we can while navigating everyday life border on the ridiculous. Laughing at the absurdity of it all is an act of defiance.
For men, the worst thing that could happen on a bad date is that the person they are meeting is rude, or that there is no chemistry, or that their advances are rejected, or that they have to pay an exorbitant bill and they are broke.
For women, however, going on a date with a man, especially one we know precious little about, could be the last thing we ever do. So we have learnt to Google potential dates extensively and mine as much information as we can about them before we agree to meet them.
A solid online presence is good (LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are the unsung heroes of due diligence). Zero Google hits is bad. What kind of person is completely anonymous online in this day and age? It might not be worth it to find out. Mystery might be sexy but it is also dangerous. We know better than to go to a guy’s house on a first date, not because of some imagined morality question, but because the stakes are impossibly high. He could be one of those men who think that the mere presence of a woman is consent for sex. But worse, he could be a killer. So we carefully choose a public restaurant that is easy to access, preferably somewhere we have been before and know at least one of the wait staff. We never know when we might need saving.
On the day of the date, we make sure to text the guy’s picture, his full name and the location of the date to our friends. Afterwards, we call our friends to rehash the date but more importantly, to say that we got home safe.
As a single woman in Nairobi, I have been through this dance more times than I can count. It is exhausting.
The contrast between how much mental preparation goes on in the mind of a woman when she is going out on a date compared to how little men have to think about these things is fascinating. One half of the population is forever on edge and on the lookout for potential threats. The other half gets to go through this world self-assured and oblivious. It must be nice.
All this to say that women are good at being careful. We have been careful our whole lives. It is a fulltime job. Our mothers drilled that lesson in us the moment we sprouted breasts. The world has shouted itself hoarse telling us to be careful about where we go, what we wear, who we meet, what we do. We listen and act accordingly. But sometimes, despite how careful we are, these men kill us anyway: Lydia Nyaboke disappeared after she went on a first date with a man she met on Facebook, only to turn up dead a few days later. Her date strangled her to death with her bra.
Sometimes the men do not strike immediately. They lull us in to a false sense of safety. They wait years until we have trusted them and have married them and have had children with them, and then one day they strike and end our lives. That is what happened to Beryl Adhiambo Ouma, whose husband beat her for hours before finally strangling her to death. Or they might never even get a chance to date us at all, which, bizarrely, only fuels their entitlement to us. So one day they buy an axe, waylay us outside our place of work and butcher us to death in broad day light in front of a crowd, as happened to Ivy Wangeci, the medical student from Moi University.
On Thursday evening I attended a vigil at the University of Nairobi organised in honour of all the women we have lost to femicide. As I sat in the crowded tent and listened to Youth and Gender Affairs chief administrative secretary Rachel Shebesh read out the names of the women who have been killed in recent years and the circumstances of their deaths, I felt a rising anger at how the “be careful” sentiment puts the onus of our safety firmly on us. The lie sold to us is that if we act a certain way, if we are good and don’t stay out late, if we don’t dress skimpily and attract attention, then we will be okay. Yet the overwhelming evidence shows there is nothing a woman can do to assure her safety.
I can’t help but think our mothers have been wrong all this time to tell us to be careful. This message needs to change. Stop telling us to be careful. Just tell men not to kill us.
The writer is a feminist and a communications and advocacy specialist at the African Worldlife Foundation.