The Right Kind of African Woman

by Livoi Wendo

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

The first thing I learnt when I started to explore the world of feminism was to be yourself.  I spent a large amount of my teenage years looking at models and wishing I could dramatically alter my appearance, my lack of enthusiasm towards ‘traditional feminine pursuits’ and the plain awkwardness of being referred to as a teen who should have been a boy because of my interest in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. As the number of opinions increased around me, I was distinctly made aware of some sort of gold standard of womanhood I needed to attain. Feminism’s message of self acceptance was a particularly life affirming  for the teen who didn’t seem to fit. I had been waiting for a sign that I didn’t have to perm my hair to be beautiful, that I didn’t need to hide my ‘loud’ personality to be more feminine. .I was thrilled to learn that I could take hold of my identity and claim my right to be treated equal to the next person. I was especially pleased at the idea that I could finally put to rest trying to be the right kind of African Woman.

Who is the right kind of African Woman? She is immaculately dressed, her mannerism are punctuated with just the right amount of polite and respectful; she is the zenith upon which we epitomise African women. Beneath her sparkling exterior lies a woman who knows how to keep a good home, a woman who pleases her husband, takes care of her in-laws and raises her children impeccably.  You see her pictured walking miles to provide water for her family. You see her face in the local magazines alongside her household.

She and I were never meant to be.

The exact moment I knew I didn’t fit the mould was during a family meeting, we were sitting down to lunch when my Aunt remarked “ Livoi, I don’t know what kind of man would marry you! I’m sure no African man would marry you, especially since you don’t seem to know how to keep a home!”  I was deeply embarrassed, thirteen, awkward and feeling very out of place when mixed with my cousins who were chapati making champions.

I had spent my youth opting out of cooking to garden with my father, jumping through hoops to avoid babysitting and generally, avoiding any overtures from my mother to ‘nurture my feminine side’.  As I got older, my lack of domestication was evident; it was seen in my wonky ugali, my preference of pets over babies, and my general independent streak.

At 16, I was a feminist and to many, I was also un-African.  I struggled to mesh the two; I didn’t want children (and I still don’t!), I wasn’t keen on marriage, my cleaning skills were at an optimum level, but ugali wasn’t coming to the plate.

Feminism made me more aware of the world we live in and the disparities between genders fueled by ‘culture’ and ‘correctness’ . The standards applied to women and men varied consistently, in terms of appearance, mannerism and the rights afforded to each. Often these disparities were justified as being right or meaningful on the basis of culture. The justification in letting a man ‘take care of the females’ was brought  up when a group of sisters was disinherited out of their father’s will on the basis of gender. I remember visiting our village and hearing of the girls who had insisted on FGM, lest they be seen as ‘less of a woman’. Growing up, I was made aptly aware of how my appearance needed to be ‘acceptable’ lest I invite attention. I realised how futile this attempt to keep women within certain bounds was, when I was openly cat-called at 10 years by a man far older than me .

As I explored my feminist learning, I began to reshape my understanding of the African woman. I  saw her insistence on educating all of her children. I saw her strength in contributing towards forming society and participating in framing communities.  I noticed her drive to succeed, the power she held in her hands and I began to realise we had her all wrong.

The African Woman needed feminism, just as feminism needed her. The strength embodied by the African woman should not be constrained to her capability for domestic labour or her resilience in patriarchal injustice. Her thoughtfulness should not be reserved only for taking care of her husband, her children and the rest of society. Her generosity should not just be measured through the lavishness of her lunch spread.

In my understanding of Feminism, the African woman became more than just the number of children she had raised; she became the future of her nation. No longer would she be “so and so’s “something”, she had an identity beyond her interactions and relationships with others.

I looked up (and still do) to writers like Chimamanda Adichie and Ama Ata Aidoo , women who wrote about the African woman in her full complexity. No longer one dimensional, but an evolving character. My ideal kind of African woman turned out to simply be the one I turned out to be.