Growing up in a deeply patriarchal society does something to you. You come to expect violence, either the explicit physical kind that leaves women dead, or the more subtle emotional and psychological kind that takes a lifetime to undo.
Still, when Meru Governor Kawira Mwangaza stood before the Senate last week to defend herself from impeachment, even those of us who grew up in Meru were shocked by the recordings of the egregious misogynistic attacks that have characterised her term. In case you missed it, Tigania East Member of Parliament Mpuru Aburi was recorded making thinly veiled rape threats against Kawira, in public, to the loud cheers of an animated crowd.
In the shocking videos played at the Senate, Mpuru is seen using a kibiri, a traditional stirring stick typically used to cook porridge in Meru, to demonstrate sexual violence, saying that Kawira should be penetrated with it as she has “defeated men”. The MP has even gone a step further and built support for what he calls the “Kibiri Movement”, which can only be perceived as a collective threat not just against Kawira, but women in general, as a way to keep them in line.
These videos are difficult to watch. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be Kawira, the subject of such rabid misogyny, watching as a sitting MP calls for rape as a way of settling political scores. No wonder she broke down in tears, unable to make herself repeat what Mpuru was saying for the benefit of those who do not understand Kimeru. It was jarring, but not new. Meru does misogyny like nowhere else.
Kawira Mwangaza made history when she won the Meru gubernatorial seat in last year’s election. She beat seasoned male politicians to clinch the highest seat in a county that has only once elected a female MP since independence, save for those elected to the office of the Woman Representative, a position created by the 2010 constitution to increase the number of women political leaders. Kawira won that seat in the 2017 election and used it to propel herself to higher political ranks.
For the governorship, she ran a ruthless grassroots campaign that won the hearts of voters for its dedication to eradicating Meru’s often overlooked biting rural poverty. She presented herself as a down-to-earth politician in touch with the common mwananchi’s interests, often ending her campaign rallies by removing jiggers from people’s feet and donating cows to the poor in the villages she frequented. She styled herself as the antithesis to then sitting governor Kiraitu Murungi’s seemingly elitist approach to governance. It was a smart strategy and it worked. Kiraitu stood no chance when the votes were counted. Kawira won with a landslide, and she has been paying for it ever since.
Twice, she has been impeached by Meru’s Members of County Assembly, who level allegations of financial impropriety and nepotism against her, claiming she is using her position to create posts for her relatives without following due process. They also accuse her of bullying her deputy governor and naming a road after her husband, Murega Baichu. Her relationship with her MCAs and her deputy seems to be hostile and contentious. She has yet to gain their support, and it would surprise no one if they impeach her yet again.
Twice, the Senate has saved Kawira. But not even her political prowess and connections have spared her rabid sexual harassment and chauvinistic attacks from opponents. This most recent impeachment hearing has laid in stark terms the true nature of Kawira’s political struggles. She is not being persecuted strictly for failing to uphold county laws and perform her official duties as governor. Her biggest crime is that she is a woman who dared defy Meru’s deeply entrenched patriarchal politics, ran a good campaign, and won. How can they possibly allow her to govern in peace? She has been called a prostitute who has made a mockery of her current husband by not siring any children with him. Which is why Mpuru has said that he will use the kibiri to impregnate her.
Right from childhood, Meru culture teaches boys a disdain for women and girls. One of the most common ways this shows up is in the widely held belief that boys are not supposed to do household chores after they’ve been circumcised, which usually happens after they finish primary school. Circumcision marks the end of boyhood and the beginning of manhood, and it comes complete with a house separate from the family home as a way for the initiates to assert their independence and dominance. It becomes sacrilege for the boys to enter their mother’s kitchens after becoming “men”, and household chores are left to women and girls. Historically, this was done so men could take up duties as warriors and protectors of the community.
But today, it only serves to turn boys from playmates into little lords that girls must serve. I would know, I lived it. By the time I was in class 3, I was cooking for the whole family, running home from school to wash dishes and ensure that supper was bubbling away on the three-stone fire before it got dark. Meanwhile, my four older brothers, then teenagers, whiled away in their little house a few metres away from the kitchen, listening to the radio and playing cards and draughts, their triumphant yells reaching me as I blew on the smoky wood to ensure that the fire did not go out.
Growing up in Meru taught me that boys hold a status that would never be achievable to girls or women. It also taught me that leadership is traditionally the preserve of men. The ruling council of elders, the Njuri Ncheke, famously refuses to admit women into its ranks. It is little wonder that outside of the Woman Representative position, the last time Meru elected a woman to parliament was when Annarita Karimi Njeru won the Meru Central parliamentary seat in 1975. It is also not surprising that she was forced out of politics before she could even serve out her full term. More recently, a friend recounted how a few years ago, a woman who ran for councillor in her neighbourhood was called “gakenye” by her opponents, a slur meaning uncircumcised woman.
It is unsurprising, then, that Mpuru would have the audacity to stand before a crowd, in full view of cameras, and threaten a sitting governor with rape. While the general sentiment in Meru is that he might have crossed a line, not one politician from Meru, or any member of the Njuri Ncheke council, has come out to condemn him. Mpuru now claims that his words were taken out of context, that the videos were edited, and is demanding an apology from Kawira for lying. He is threatening to report her to the police and sue her for defamation. People like Mpuru are emboldened by a country that sees women leaders as an affirmative action nuisance, and a community that is happy to keep its women in the kitchen, literally.
As women, we shall continue to challenge this kind of misogyny, even just for the historical record, if for nothing else. Let the annals of history show that in the face of gross violence, women continue to stand up for themselves and fight the patriarchy. I hope Kawira serves out the rest of her term with dignity and pride. And at the next election, should she decide to run, I hope that the people of Meru come out and prove that once again, they are better than the chauvinism and cronyism that has defined their politics for decades.