We often speak of ourselves in imagery of motherhood. We see our nationhood through feminine prisms, such as “Kenya our motherland.” Elsewhere our poets have taught us to think in terms of “Mother Africa.” At the best of times, we are fecund with celebratory thoughts of the trope of motherhood. Uganda’s Chris J. C. Wasike is the author of a brilliant essay titled “Feminization of the Ugandan nation in John Ruganda’s The Floods, The Burdens and Black Mamba.”
Wasike’s striking essay attempts to understand his country through the female characters in the plays of one of East Africa’s most successful playwrights. He demonstrates how – through the voices of Ruganda’s female characters, their bodies and sexuality – we can come to grips with “the complexities, contradictions and constructions of the Ugandan nation, especially during Idi Amin’s dictatorship.”
Wasike observes, “The trope of mother Africa is equally fluid and problematic.” He recalls that the motherly image of our continent was floated by poets like Senegal’s late founding president, Leopold Senghor. Yet men have not always been honest in usage of this image. Wasike reminds us of Florence Stratton’s argument that men usually use this metaphor to draw bipolar gendered distinctions. Is this symbol “conventionally patriarchal”? Does it work against the interests of women seeking – both implicitly and explicitly – to exclude and exploit them?
The argument has been made that this masculine imaging of womanhood seeks to create vistas of landscapes that should be explored, discovered and exploited. In this context, is the woman’s body objectified as a curious “thing”? Is the “thing” to be hunted, captured and savoured – this nubile female “thing”? Conversely, can the trope of motherhood be turned on its head to challenge patriarchal dominance? The springboard of this thought resides in the reality that motherhood is the cradle of life. Biblically, we read in the Genesis story of creation, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all living things’ (Gen. 3: 20).
The preeminence of motherhood cannot be challenged. Chinua Achebe tells us in Things Fall Apart that the Ibo people say, “Mother is supreme.” In the real world, we know that it takes one woman a whole year to bring forth one life. And even this is only for a limited phase in her life. The man, conversely, can produce thousands of lives in a year throughout his adult life. That is if he is lucky to find willing partners – but we know he has sometimes used brutal force!
The preciousness of the woman as a mother, nurturer, guardian, teacher and role model is uncontestable, however. Contrariwise, the dispensability of the man in these contexts is obvious. Of course I recognize the plethora of arguments against this statement – with varying degrees of validity, some of which are nonetheless driven by pure machismo and are outright nihil ad rem. I will not go there.
More to the point, however, is the need to agree with Mineke Schipper and Mariama Ba, as read by Wasike, that women (should) “no longer accept nostalgic praise to the African Mother who, in his anxiety, man confuses with Mother Africa.” If we agree further with Wasike that “gender is a set of lived and embodied realities” do we get closer to an appreciation of the contradiction between masculine sentimentality about Mother Africa on the one hand and the treatment of the mothers of Africa on the other? Do we, indeed, get closer to waking up to the reality that gender is not synonymous to women?
My country Kenya has a constitutional law on gender. It says that no gender shall constitute more than two-thirds of elective or appointed positions in public service. The constitutional law goes on to authorize Parliament to make another law that will actualize what the Constitution says. Moreover, Parliament has been given a period of five years within which to make this law, with an extension of one year. Six years from 27 August 2010 when the Constitution was promulgated, the two-thirds gender law must come into being. If this does not happen, any citizen can petition the courts to dissolve Parliament.
Kenya keeps missing the boat of enacting the two-thirds gender law. Of course a significant number of male MPs support the effort to make this law. We must hail these progressive gentlemen. Their numbers, however, fall below the constitutional threshold. This week only 199 of them voted for the Gender Bill. They fell short of the required number by 33 votes. Those who voted against the Bill, put together with those who neither rejected it nor abstained would be enough to push through this Bill.
It is also instructive that a huge number of other members were absent at the time of voting. This is curious, seeing that on the same day Parliament made a constitutional amendment, giving members immunity for “any wrong things they may do in good faith.” If “in good faith” MPs refuse to enact a law on the two-thirds gender requirement, do they enjoy immunity against being sent parking? Is this law constitutional? Should it have even been allowed for debate in the House?
Back to the point is the need for Kenya to go beyond nostalgic praises to the African Mother. If we should even assume that the gender law is about women, then is it not about our mothers and our daughters whom we love so much? Even if we don’t love our spouses and female colleagues, can’t we do it for our daughters? Come on gentlemen, do the noble thing. Please come out on Thursday next week to vote for this Bill when it comes up again. Do it for our motherland and for Mother Africa. Please, do it for posterity.