African culture believes that a child belongs to the entire village. That is why after high school, when I started dating, my then-boyfriend could never walk me past a certain point. See, the distance between his home and mine was small. In normal circumstances, he should have walked me half-way, so we had the same distance to walk alone.
But, in our case, we had to make a distinction between where his village started and where mine ended. See, even though our homes aren’t that far from each other, there was a clear distinction between the environments we grew up in. His side was where the tall apartments were; mine was a combination of family homes with mabati rentals. On our side, there were only four stone rentals.
There was stream right opposite my aunt’s gate, that is where my village began So, because young love takes all the opportunities it can, I would never risk my aunt seeing me with a boy, much less one that would hold hug me so generously.
Every day, after a hangout, which would be on his side of the village, we would walk, all the way to the stream, and I would tell him goodbye. I never had to explain it, and eventually, it became automatic, that is, until one day when he lost his mind and came singing “Pale Moonlight” outside my father’s house.
My first relationship, the only relationship I claim, was characterised by hiding, I couldn’t fathom the idea of being seen with a boy, not after all the warnings to stay away from them. Not after all the lacking sexual education that told me that walking with boys was a crime punishable by pregnancy, never AIDS or STDs.
My village was so keen on evading shame and embarrassment, so they warned of the visible impact of being with boys and men. My health and well-being didn’t matter; they cared about themselves, their image.
So, although I was of age and was ready to have a boyfriend, I had to hide him. I had to do it secretly because I didn’t want to shame myself in front of my village. That village that taught me shame. As you would expect, this lack of sexual education led to some terrible missteps, especially because the boy was 3-4 years older and more experienced.
We didn’t have anything in common; he was older, freer, bolder, and different. He had tattoos; he had a house, some money, and so many other things I wished I had. So, at least three times a week, for about 5 months, I had an escape.
I never wanted to go out, but he was an extrovert. I just wanted to sit in his house, watching movies, and eat junk. Sometimes he would go out with his friends and leave me there; I loved how his place was calm when I needed everything to go silent.
Although we were different, he provided what I needed, he fed me, he liked me, he was kind and gentle with me, and he gave me whatever I needed. I didn’t need much, just the freedom from the expectations and responsibilities my village placed on me.
He was a form of rebellion for a girl who couldn’t dare stay out past darkness. My dad said that the night belonged to hyenas, he was right, in all ways, but I loved darkness. I loved its power to make me invisible, to allow me to hold a boy’s hand without fear of rebuke.
That is why when I missed a government admission to a public university, I decided to look for a school somewhere away from my village. I looked at many places, but the minute I walked into the University of Embu, I knew that was where I wanted to go. I called my dad after my first visit, and like the wonderful support system that he was, he consented.
He had to pay double the amount he expected because we had agreed that I start with a diploma, but the school was offering a degree. He was okay with that; he would have given me the world if he could.
After moving away, the long-distance issues were not worth it, so my only-ever boyfriend and I parted ways.
I have talked about why Embu is my home, and it has a lot to do with the freedom it gives me and how that freedom allowed me to be myself. I learnt to love who I was without societal restrictions, without worrying about what auntie you’ll bump into.
As time goes by, I have learnt to embrace who I am, and I wouldn’t go back to a place of judgment for anything. I am bolder and freer. This self-expression seeps into my writing, teaching, and living, even on social media. My self-awareness has allowed me to fight for students who were being assaulted and sexually harassed.
The problem is, while I know that acts like this are for the greater good, hence why I am okay with losing a job or two, if my freedom will free someone else, there are still hindrances. Every day, whenever I post anything, especially a photo with anything my now broader village deems unacceptable, I have to get ready for the “you are a teacher” reminders. Every time, like clockwork, someone will remind me what my profession is, because they assume that is who I am.
I am tired of reminding them that while I am passionate about teaching, and I give it everything I have, it is a career. I understand that this is one of the professions the society considers “respectable.” Still, my freedom does not allow me to bow to the respectability of a village hell-bent on holding up structures that oppress and abuse people.
When we say it takes a village, the focus should be on diversifying experiences for children so they know they can be anything they want to be. We should be telling them to look around and imagine whatever life they want. That there is nothing that can restrict them.
The village you raise your children shouldn’t remind them of the awful restrictions that tell them they were born to be poor, or limited in their sexuality and autonomy. You need a village that reminds them that there is no one definition of smart, that everyone was given everything they need to navigate this world. That by embracing who they were essentially meant to be, they will understand why they were put on earth, what their purpose is.
These villages will empower children to dream big, and believe in themselves, and their successes in life will trickle down to society. Maybe then, things wouldn’t be so horrible.
As beautiful as this is, some don’t want it. They want to maintain the status quo. They want to remain in fear, and two things drive this.
First, these gatekeepers of oppressive villages benefit from the problems. They the fathers who defile their daughters and mothers who protect them. They are the teachers who say high school students seduced them. They are the husbands who rape their wives because they paid dowry. They are the wives who cut their husbands’ penises, because, apparently, a man is only as good as his performance in sex and providing. These gatekeepers thrive in the chaos.
Alternatively, those who want the villages to keep suffocating and injuring people are those who are jealous that they are not as bold or as free. Those who say I was beaten, so I will beat my children. They claim the society is working, that they turned out okay even after not being told they were loved, or hugged, or listened to. They believe a father should be feared; a mother should be humble.
They are bold enough to remind us that single mothers raised them, but just like the village they grew up in, they will boldly disrespect single mothers in their generation. I turned out okay, they say, they keep saying it, reminding us that rebellion will not work.
So, either way, no matter what fuels their passion in restricting other people, the result is the same. They tell us who to sleep with and love; they remind us that a woman’s body should stay hidden. They tell us that women must want children; they tell us to wait and see the child-fairy change our minds about wanting children.
They remind us that while being an adult means freedom; we still have to abide by some expectations.
They tell teachers that they are role models, that we should behave because children are looking up to us. They tell us to cover up, not make sex jokes, because teachers don’t exist beyond their profession. They don’t understand how we can be two people in different situations, how my outside outfits do not reflect the ones I wear to class.
They say they don’t want funny teachers, because the only way kids perform is if they are grumpy and sad. It’s a mystery how I keep getting results without disrespecting the children in my care, or making them feel miserable for being complete human beings.
While this might be a shared sentiment in this restrictive village, and many people agree with the notion that a teacher should always be an all-time role model, I don’t. I know that while they structure the displeasure in my freedom as having everything to go with my career, ultimately, it’s about keeping the oppressive and abuse structures in place.
That is why these limitations are also applied to creatives, even though they are supposed to be as free as the gods who inspire their work. That is why they are quick to cancel someone as talented and magnificent as Chimano.
The freedom to be yourself doesn’t make sense to them. The village has told them of a god, one that holds people back, one that strikes his children with thunder for being who they created them to be. So, they don’t understand how those who go against this god aren’t burning and perishing. They need freedom to be worth ridicule.
But life isn’t a religious story told by a biased preacher who wants your tithe. It is not a shower of blessings if you send 310 shillings. We grow, we discover that we are one with the gods and that we are as free as they are. And we embrace the essence of who we were intended to be.
The good thing is that once you get to a point where you feel at home, it is unlikely that anything will deter you. So, the village gate-keepers camp on the socials, they watch on the street, and they condemn freedom.
They want, with everything in them, for everyone to be boxed up and conforming. So, they remind us that we are role models, and we cannot be role models in who we really are. They don’t want us to teach freedom, they want the progression of fear, and I refuse to be a reference point for what a woman, or a teacher should be. I want anyone looking at me, especially children, to know that being true to yourself is the best thing you can do for yourself.
The stand of those who have experienced the beauty of freedom is a problem for the village gatekeepers, so they insult, and demean. They attack intending to instill fear and remind us that freedom should be expensive, but we know that while it is, that is a price we are willing to pay.
This predicament has one solution, as the idea of a village continues to grow, it is time to diversify what a role model should look like. It is time that we gave children the chance to be themselves without fear. Without worrying about which uncle or aunty will snitch on them. Without having to hide who they are. We need to create an environment that has one boundary, that for respect for others and doing good.
I read somewhere that our responsibility is to help others, and in case we can’t (or don’t want to, because that is also a valid choice), we don’t harm anyone knowingly. I agree.
While I understand that it takes a village, I also know that those villages we grew up in were not working. They were hell; they made us fantasize of escape. They made others kill themselves, others got into bad marriages and were abused, or worse, killed.
The villages want silence so they can thrive; freedom is too loud. But we refuse to go back to places that hurt us. Those that broke us and made us feel unimportant. They told us that we were only worth something when we looked a certain way or had certain things.
We refuse to be perpetrators of oppression for the next generation; we will not be complacent. We will not trade in a day in life where we can love every part of our bodies and essence so that more children grow up believing that their dressing could cause rape.
We will be free for our sake and that of those children you tell us about. Instead of fear, we will teach freedom; we will tell them to wear what makes them feel good about themselves, to love whoever makes their soul feel most alive, to make choices about their bodies without fear.
However, if you want to keep the oppression going, that is also a choice, and those are your children, but you will have to do it without us. We refuse to change who we are for anyone, let alone children who aren’t ours. All we can do is hope that in case they grow up to realize that the villages are not their cup of tea, that they will be able to leave and start living.