Sunday March 24 2013

Beauty and the cultural beast

By Tee Ngugi

‘No man is an island’, the adage goes. But it might as well proclaim, ‘No village is an island’, for news of the “Campus Divas for Rich Men” facebook page reached even our village. If there had ever been any doubt of the truth in the saying that a poor man faces an uphill - if not impossible – task in attracting a beautiful woman, it should have been put to rest by that advertisement by a group of women at the Nairobi University. But it had only provoked much controversy in Kenya and in Africa, and raised once again a heated discussion on morality, individual freedom, modernity and culture.

So when one of the architects of that project - let us call her Ruth - visited our village- we were all very eager to hear, as the saying goes, from the horse’s mouth.

Ruth - her pretty head poised on a stately figure - was a stunning beauty. The skin on her bare shoulders and arms - smooth as ebony and coffee coloured - shimmered with droplets from a late morning drizzle. She wore her hair in thin braids that fell about her neck, and her smile, as Old Nyati would say after she had gone, delighted the spirit. Even my mother, herself a famed beauty in her youth, and one not given to platitudes and humbug, thought that Ruth’s beauty was sparkling.

My mother and I were sitting in our verandah one morning having tea when she appeared like an apparition at our gate. At my mother’s invitation, she sailed inside the compound and joined us on the verandah. Not trusting myself to speak, I let my mother to do all the talking.

“I am a student at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and I want to spend a few days in your village to craft a response to criticism of my group.”

As she sipped her tea, she explained, without any self- consciousness, the purpose of her group. “We believe we have the freedom to choose how to live our lives,” she said, her palms open and her head leaning to one side.

On the way to Old Nyati’s house, I chose - in spite of Ruth’s attempts to engage me in conversation - to keep my own counsel. Old Nyati, a man who had travelled the world and, if his tales were to be believed, had fallen in love in fifty cities in thirty countries, conversed easily with Ruth, even telling her of his ill-fated love affair with a rich plantation owner on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

“By the time I proposed to her,” Old Nyati said chuckling heartily, “she had fallen for a swashbuckling Eritrean who claimed to be a descendent of the Queen of Sheba. I was heartbroken… but so is the way of the world,” said Old Nyati. “Love can be cruel to a man without a name or means…” He paused, and for a while - just a little while - I thought I saw a yearning expression come over his old face.

Then recovering quickly, he held Ruth by her hand and said in his usual convivial voice: “So you see, I understand you and your friends…”

On the following days, many of us would find ourselves in Ruth’s compound, debating her project and all kinds of issues.
“The rich men, sister, are they not married?” A young man asked one evening as we sat around a fire in Ruth’s yard. “Are they not using you?”

“No,” said Ruth, “we judge the situation from our perspective. We get what we want….” A woman in the gathering brought out the question of morality and culture. “Are we Africans not losing our morals…our culture?” She asked petulantly.

As Ruth replied, arguing that morality and culture needed to be interrogated, I could not help but agree with her. Culture in Africa had become a defence for practices and customs that undermine efforts towards gender equality: Female genital mutilation, early marriages, wife inheritance, etc.

The motivation behind traditional culture of any country is the irrational fear of free women; fear of the idea that women should be able to choose how to live their lives without reference to cultural dictates (and men).

“Look,” said Ruth, “we Campus-Divas-for- Rich-Men find it laughable that we should be called immoral in a country that not so long ago had specially built torture chambers, that allowed imprisonment without trial, whose leadership can steal and impoverish a generation, where we still vote on tribal lines even when doing so goes against self-interest..”

As I watched her talk, the fire lighting up her intoxicating features, I regretted being a poor young man from a remote African village.

The author is a Monitor contributor
based in Nairobi.