By Wanja Njiriri
My name is Wanja and being Kenyan I have been immersed in tradition. As a member of the Kikuyu tribe, I was raised in a rural community that values tradition and respect for our cultural heritage. Our tribe has a strong connection to the land and our agricultural practices which shape our social organisation and sense of identity. The Kikuyu have nine traditional clans, each with its own leader, or “muthamaki,” who is responsible for maintaining the laws and customs of the clan. Hence my first language is Swahili, making English my second language.
The Kikuyu culture also has strict gender roles, with men primarily responsible for agricultural labour and women responsible for domestic duties. This traditional division of labour is also reflected in our marriage system in which men are allowed to marry multiple wives. Despite these traditional roles, our culture also values music and dance as an important part of our celebrations and rituals. The Kikuyu have a rich musical heritage, with traditional instruments such as drums, flutes, and stringed instruments. These instruments are often used to accompany traditional dances, which are performed to celebrate occasions such as births, weddings, and harvests. Growing up in a rural Kenyan community, I was surrounded by the rich culture and tradition of the Kikuyu people. These experiences have shaped my understanding of the importance of preserving and valuing cultural heritage, and have instilled in me a deep appreciation for the customs and practices of my people and other cultures.
These days I identify as a feminist and an avid community mobiliser who supports collective action through rallies, marches and peaceful protests. The book ‘We should all be feminist’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has had a huge influence on me. It speaks to the need for feminism and equality, not just for women but for all people. I found her writing to be persuasive, powerful and honest. She is an advocate for gender equality which I find inspiring. The book is an eye-opener on my own gender biases, power and privilege. It enables me to think critically on gender roles and social power relations in our society. It has taught me to be an ally of the feminist movement and speak up for women’s rights.
My favourite quote from the book, “don’t think of marriage as an achievement or a milestone”. Chimamanda encourages women to view marriage as a choice made from a place of love and commitment. In her opinion, marriage is not a measure of success or failure, but rather a personal decision that should bring joy and happiness for those who choose to be married. In Kenya, marriage is often seen as a milestone that all women should achieve.
The words that come to my mind when I think of myself as a feminist: kind, compassionate, free-spirited, fiercely independent, driven and resilient. I am also determined to make a difference in people’s lives through acts of kindness, respect and dignity. Other people would describe me as an outspoken feminist fulfilling her life’s purpose to challenge the status-quo that perpetuates and reinforces injustice and inequality against underrepresented and disadvantaged groups.
As a woman, I have experienced sexism in various contexts throughout my life, but one of the most memorable instances occurred during a job interview in Kenya. The sole interviewer, a man, not only undermined my education and qualifications, but also made derogatory and sexist comments about my appearance. He stated that he wasn’t impressed by my “papers” and likened me to “Instagram models,” suggesting that I was not intelligent or accomplished enough for the position. Throughout the interview, he continued to make micro-sexist comments that made me feel hopeless and powerless. I couldn’t walk out of the interview as he held so much power over the potential job offer, and I felt trapped in a situation where I was being disrespected and belittled.
When I returned home that evening, I wrote an email withdrawing my application without revealing my reasons. I felt that my qualifications and abilities were being dismissed, and I was unable to give him feedback on his behaviour due to fear of retaliation. This experience highlighted to me the reality of everyday sexism and how it can be deeply ingrained in our society, even in professional settings. It also made me realise the importance of speaking up and advocating for oneself in the face of sexism and discrimination.
Should we maintain all traditions if they promote sexism? I believe that it is important to approach the topic with a nuanced perspective. While preserving traditional practices can provide a connection to the past and help to celebrate cultural identity, it is important to recognise that some traditional practices may be harmful and should not be continued. For example, practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage are harmful and should not be perpetuated. On the other hand, traditional practices can be valuable in preserving indigenous knowledge, such as traditional agricultural techniques, health remedies, and folk songs and plays. This traditional knowledge can be used to inform modern strategies and practices, which can be beneficial in many ways. My identity is Kenyan and I am proud. But I now realise that I should critically evaluate traditional practices, weighing up the value they bring as well as the potential harm they may cause. Then I can make a conscious decision of whether to continue or discard them. It is my identity afterall.
The best advice I received was on my 21st birthday — “life is what happens to you while you are busy making plans.” This statement resonated with me because it reminded me that life is unpredictable and that things won’t always go according to plan. It made me realise that it is important to be highly adaptable and to embrace both the good and bad days that life brings my way. This helped me to become more flexible and open-minded in my approach to life. Instead of getting stuck, I have learned to roll with the punches and to take things as they come. This helped me to become more resilient and to handle the challenges that come my way. It helped me to appreciate the present moment more instead of always focusing on the future and what I want to achieve. I have learned to take in the beauty of the present, appreciate my cultural roots, learn from the past and to enjoy the journey, rather than just the destination.
My name is Wanja and I am a Kenyan feminist.
About the Author:
Wanja is a multi-disciplinary gender practitioner with over 10 years of experience in development. She specialises in rights-based programming, using a feminist perspective to examine gendered power relations in natural resource management, governance processes, and policy reforms. With two Master’s Degrees in Gender & Development Studies and Power, Participation, and Social Change, Wanja has experience in project management and implementing community-based conservation projects such as ecosystem-based climate change adaptation, integrated water resources management, biodiversity conservation, forest management, and landscape restoration. She also conducts Gender and Social Inclusion analysis to address development challenges related to natural resource management, governance, climate change, and sustainable energy. Wanja has strong analytical skills, produces high-quality documents, and conducts action-oriented research for project development, policy reforms, and advocacy campaigns. She is also experienced in IRB Administration.
Includovate is a feminist research incubator that “walks the talk” by employing people from marginalised groups, women and those with disabilities. Includovate is an Ethiopian-Australian social enterprise consisting of a consulting firm and research incubator that designs solutions for gender equality and social inclusion. To know more about Includovate, follow our social media: @includovate, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram.