Wiathi is my mother’s word. It is a word she repeated so often that it might be called talismanic. A word she’d repeat to me at night, when we were alone, in those still moments when world-altering revelations emerge. A word she fed me, carefully, constantly, relentlessly, because she knew—as mothers always know—that I would need it. That I could build a world around it, shape my dreams through it, imagine a somewhere else, not here, because of it.
Wiathi means freedom or self-determination. My mother learned this word as a girl in colonial Kenya. She gave me this word under Moi’s tyrannical regime. I claim it for this moment, for the worlds it opens, for the dreams it sustains. I claim it for #mybodymyhome, a campaign against sexual assault. I hear my mother’s voice whispering, “wiathi,” feeding the political imagination needed to re-make the world. Feeding an ethics of care and compassion. Teaching me that freedom matters, makes matter, materializes.
Wiathi is my mother’s word.
Wiathi was my first lesson in feminism: feminism was a freedom dream fed to me by my mother. Later, I would discover the word in other Kenyan political writers, mostly men, but wiathi remains a tether to my mother.
In my mothertongue, in my mother’s tongue, in the tongue my mother gave me, #mybodymyhome is a campaign about wiathi.
Shailja Patel says, “Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.”
Shailja Patel’s statement seems self-evident, so obvious that it need not be said.
Yet, it’s uttered in a context where the Leader of the Majority in the National Assembly, Hon. A.B. Duale, opposed and trivialized a Bill against domestic violence, saying, “We do not want to create laws to manage our bedrooms and sitting rooms. We have more serious issues to do with terrorism, food insecurity, the devolved system of government, among others.” How often the life-giving, life-sustaining space of the home is dismissed as “minor,” “trivial,” “irrelevant.”
Hon. Duale’s colleague, Hon. Mulu, argued, “in the Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question. . . . To us, we cannot term sexual abuse as violence.” Women’s consent is purchased in a transaction: 3 goats for a life of “yes, master.” Three goats to buy a woman’s will and desire.
He pushed his case for “cultural exemptions” by claiming, “In some cultures, it is a demonstration of love when you do a bit of beating to your wife. . . .if you do not do it, you are seen not to love your wife.”
During the same session, Hon. Angwenyi contended that marital rape cannot exist: “We are talking about somebody you persuaded to move from her parents’ home to your home. When she moved from her parents’ home to your home, that was when she accepted you. Therefore, every time you need that thing, she should accept.”
The debate harkened back to 2006 debates on the Sexual Offenses Act. In those debates, Hon. Angwenyi argued, “In [Western] countries, a man cannot look at a woman and admire her because he will be accused of sexually molesting the woman with his eyes. Therefore, he turns to a fellow man. Is that what we want to develop in this country?” To counter this homosexual panic, he asserted a husband’s rights to his wife’s body:
I can imagine the scenario. I go at home at night and, maybe, I have taken one or two glasses of wine. By the way, I take them around here. I feel that I am in a good mood. Then my beloved partner says: "No!" I try to attempt a little more. Then she says I have raped her! She runs out crying: "He is trying to rape me!" I will be imprisoned for five years! Would you countenance that in this House? Would you countenance the idea that you can rape your wife? I have paid dowry for my wife and we are formally married. I cannot rape her by any chance.
Over and over, a chorus of male voices assert, with confidence, their desires, their needs, their demands, their rights. Their claims to women’s bodies, women’s desires, women’s everything, emptying women of consent and will. Over and over, the male voices will say it’s wrong to kill women. Anything short of that, well, that’s negotiable.
Faced with such certainty, one might cower, hide away in the screaming silences where injury flourishes.
Wiathi is my mother’s word. It is a shield. An armor. A dream. A campaign. An ethics.
Against the confidence with which patriarchy claims women’s bodies: wiathi
Against the arrogance with which women’s violations are dismissed: wiathi
Against the contempt that dismisses women’s voices: wiathi
Wiathi is a tongue-training word, a dream-generating word, a line-in-the-sand word. It’s a word I reach for on unquiet nights, on imagination-starving days. Wiathi is a mother-word, a life-word.