In the middle of a conversation with a friend the other day, they mentioned the unique "African condition"—that inescapable set of circumstances created when you are both African and living on, rather than off, the continent.
Days after this conversation (when I announced to the shock of everyone that I was taking a solo trip to Kenya's coast), I started to think of the equally unique 'woman condition' as I imagined my brother, three years younger and many inches taller than I, saying that he was going to Mombasa and not a single person batting an eye. But of course, who would be concerned about a young man heading hundreds of kilometers away on his own? He was a man after all. Capable. Secure. Safe. And I? Well... I had inherited that incurable condition of being born biologically woman that loaned itself to a lifetime of anxiety and worry over my safety.
A strange thing when you consider that the greatest threats to our safety, as women, are the very men whose safety we do not fret over. When was this bargain made and who sat at the table trading one for the other?
I rented an Airbnb, boarded a plane, hired a few ubers, and made it to Mombasa. On my second day, wandering up and down Nyali Beach, the wind stroking my skin and my feet leaving their mark in my wake, the Woman Condition reared itself again. What would otherwise have been a casual stroll down a pretty stretch of the universe was turned into a series of conversations with lone and accompanied men who fancied my time and felt themselves worthy suitors. It didn't matter that I was neither seeking a suitor nor that I might have one awaiting me at the end of this stretch of sand, the only thing that mattered was that I was present, alone, and attractive. I had fulfilled the requirements for the easiest job ever and here they were ready to employ me into their desires.
I am always polite, except when I am not.
"Jambo mrembo" [Hello beautiful]
"Nilikuona nikasema lazima nikusalimie. Naweza tembea nawe kidogo?"
[I saw you and said to myself, I have to say 'hello' to her. Can I walk with you a little?]
"Hapana, niko sawa mwenyewe," my Swahili still shaky after many years away.
[No, I'm fine on my own]
"Lakini dada, unajua nilikuona nikasema lazima nipate kukujua."
[But sister, you know, I saw you and said, 'I have to get to know her']
"Aha, lakini nikopoa. Nataka kutembea pekee yangu."
[Sure, but I'm fine. I'd rather walk alone]
Have you ever bartered before? I have. Many times over and not just in the market. On this beach, the tide still low, the crabs still doing crab things in the salty water, I bartered over my time, as these men tried to convince me that despite my reservations, I did indeed want to walk with them, go swimming with them, or get to know them in some way or the other.
I in fact, did not.
When I eventually lay down my kikoi to stare into the azure blue (where the procession of suitors never ceased to flow even as the tide came in) I set to a freewrite on what it means to be a woman or to be of the unique set of circumstances that is the Woman Condition:
"The condition of the woman is one that bears the weight of all society—it bears the weight of its births and deaths more fully than anyone else. The children having been delivered from its womb, such that even in death, the umbilical cord still follows them from grave to life.
The woman bears all of man's spoken and unspoken desires, whenever and wherever she is; responsible for taming both her desires and their's. She is at once fuckable and at the same time expected to be lacking in lust, her desires not permitted the heat of the men around her. Further, she carries the weight of violence in her bones and in the bruises on her face because there is no one as endangered as the girl child or the woman who dares imagine her life as her own, or in defiance of male privilege.
She is responsible for the home while being denied the wages to rightfully own it and see her dreams of it to fruition. She is emotionally self aware, completely absorbed, always present and all knowing where men are permitted to forget their surroundings and leave their inhibitions wherever they are.
Being woman is double consciousness like Du Bois could never have imagined. For after woman, you are still many other things, but being woman remains the most inescapable of those."
Feature Image: Michael Soi artwork, The Women in My Life, on display at the Circle Art Gallery, Nairobi.