A slender, dark-skinned, seemingly exhausted policemen stops our car somewhere along the Mombasa – Nairobi highway. He asks to see my driving license. I reach for my handbag, pull out my wallet, extract the document and hand it over to him. He flips it open, gives it a cursory glance and says, “I want you to give me your own licence.” I reply, “That is my driving license, would you like me to show you my identity card so that you can confirm?” He responds in the affirmative and I oblige. He looks at my identity card, and repeats that he wants to see my own documents. I’m confused. I start to explain, “See… I am the exact same person in those documents. I was 18 years old when I got those. I also cut my hair.”
Stereotype – a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.A light bulb goes on in his head. Finally, he bends his head to look into the car, sees past my fabulously dread-locked female passenger and laughs out. “Ooh, okay. I thought you were a man!”
I don’t blame him. I’ve got very closely cropped hair, I wear no make up, no jewelry and have one of those faces that would not be defined as feminine. I’ve not conformed to that image of weave-wearing, flawlessly foundation-powdered, perfectly eye-browed, water-proof lipsticked, enviably manicured look that is the image of the modern woman.
In this, as in many other ways, I seem to disappoint. I’m told I was born into a toilet. I don’t know how true that is. So there I was pushing into the world, oblivious to the havoc that my inconvenient timing and gender would bring. Luckily, she, despite sensing what the birth of a second daughter would mean, nevertheless had the ability to separate issues. And so she endeavoured to save me from becoming a statistic – one of those who’ve lost their lives as a result of diarrhea. I lived, and grew like a weed, until I got that physique that makes traffic policemen confuse me for a male specimen – a fabulous one, no doubt.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened… when it dawned on me that just by being born, I had already been a disappointment. That this birth, though joyous in its own right, would set in motion a course of events that was completely out of my control and no fault of mine, but which would influence the kind of person I would become.
From that point on, I knew that life could never be as it was. I had the revelation that I’d have to endure men’s advances with a smile, no matter how uncomfortable I was. I’d have to pretend that I didn’t like boys, and make sure I didn’t get myself knocked up. And then one day, I’d have to make excuses for why I was not yet knocked up.
I’d have to fight harder for everything I got, for every forward movement I made, or any movement for that matter. I’d have to act like my successes were not my own. It’s called humility and grace. I should be smart but not too smart lest I’m labelled a know-it-all. I should earn money but not too much because riches could chase away potential suitors. I shouldn’t acquire stuff of my own, because who wants an arrogant woman who thinks she doesn’t need him? I’d have to develop multiple personalities for someone: perfect wife material for the potential in-laws, dream girlfriend for the boys, sex goddess, professional dinner host, mother hen, ferocious lioness…
I realized that I’d have to prove myself in odd ways that made no sense to me. I’d have to sit around and listen to silly jokes, laugh coyly as if they were hilarious, and then laugh at myself for laughing coyly. I’d be expected to shut up when my heart screamed to be heard, and cry when what I wanted to do was punch. I’d have to sit at home and knit booties when all I wanted was to get roaring drunk at a party. I’d even be expected to accept that if I didn’t meet any of these expectations, I deserved whatever was coming my way, and there’s little chance it would be good for me.
I’d disappoint myself by doing all these things.
One day, I imagined my mother holding on to me desperately as I attempted to slip away from this earth as unobtrusively as I’d entered it. And I saw the nurse, whose name is Mary, appearing out of nowhere to save my life.
I’m a lucky woman. I still walk here. Earthling, flying on a technicolor carpet through the realm of dreams. I am what I am. See me as you wish, and I’ll see myself for what I really am.
Happy International Women’s Day.