I now partly understand the stuggles of woman in Kisii and it’s important to share these experiences – No sugar-coating!
“How’s Kisii Qiarna???”, “Kenya must be amazing!”,”OMG I bet your having the time of your life!!!!???”
These are the questions I tend to see come through my WhatsApp from friends and hear via calls from family. To be totally honest I’m genuinely having the best time. But I’d be lying if I sugar-coated my experience and painted a picture that everything is going perfectly. When I was a prospective volunteer awaiting my flight to Nairobi and looking through the Balloon Ventures blog, the vast majority of stories I read, understandably, were of volunteers gushing purely over all the “FUN FUN FUN” they were having. But I do feel that this leads to a completely one sided and inaccurate picture of the realities of volunteering in Africa- particularly for girls. I’ve been here now for nearly 2 months and I feel as if I have now begun to partly understand the struggles women face over here in Kisii. I feel it’s important to share these experiences. No sugar-coating.
My first lesson came fairly quickly- that wearing a dress, skirt, shorts comes with MASSIVE consequences. “Hey Baby!”, “Sister come here”, now I know most UK girls will be used to some catcalling but good God the scale at which I heard these things shouted at me whenever I wore a dress was incredible. Then came the touching, tugging it still blows my mind that some men think they can just grab you whenever they please (and that can be said in Kenya or the UK…) I remember turning to Edward a ICV on our walk home exclaiming” haven’t some of these men seen a woman before??”, as we walked further home Edward was actually approached by a man who introduced himself as the community leader, Edward translated back to me that the community leader basically wanted me to go straight home as there were rumours that some of the local men in the area weren’t happy with what I was wearing and some of the local women selling clothes even came up to me to offer me more clothing.
My dress was knee length but Edward politely told me that young girls like me should cover up more. I felt so strange hearing this advice, as if I deserved to be pulled and touched simply because I choose to wear a dress in immensely high temperatures. Effectively I was being told that it was my fault. And to some extent I suspect it was. My naivety and lack of research into what was respectable for women to wear meant I put myself in uncomfortable situations but it still was shocking. I now cover up so much more to the point that I’m often uncomfortable as it’s just so hot, but it’s just so much better feeling safe.
I have also learnt the significance of walking with a male. It sounds so horribly old fashioned but sadly when your with any male the leering, shouting tugging does truly reduce. For instance, when walking with my former host brother Harry or even the random guy I walked with this morning, Joffrey, who introduced himself to me and asked to walk me to work (btw girls thinking of doing Balloon, don’t be surprised with the amount of requests for your number you receive out here) everything I believe when walking with a boy is much safer as the leering (mostly from boda boda drivers stops). I believe if your seen as a ‘taken’ woman there is automatically a increased level of respect towards you. It does feel so unbelievably backwards to actually have to depend on a male for safety especially growing up in a generation of young girls being encouraged to follow the ‘I don’t need no man’ mentality!
I don’t mean this to be depressing or put any girls off applying for the programme. I can wholeheartedly say the positives and good memories I’ve made already outweigh the few bad experiences I have faced. I’ve met some great people and have learnt so much about myself. And remember this is just my own experience many of the girls here in Kisii definitely don’t seem to have gone through the leering as much as I’ve faced so perhaps I have just been unlucky. To be honest I think I’m a rather strange case, myself being a black girl and not a white mzungu I believe means I’m not seen as the godly symbol of western wealth and therefore I do think that has contributed to me receiving a different sort of harassment.
Yet I certainly don’t believe the experience of women here is all doom and gloom. I see women take roles here in Kenya I haven’t ever seen before in the UK. E.g. I see most women owning small businesses, I see women here carrying vast amounts of weight in their hands which may sound unimpressive but in the UK I know for a fact if I were to place a massive sack of rice on top of my head I’m certain someone would approach me and ask to help, fearful that little old me couldn’t possibly carry such a thing (which while true!) I think indicates a difference in thinking between here in the UK vs in Kisii, in terms of how physically strong they assume women to be.
Overall Balloon has taught me so much and I can’t emphasise how much I encourage anyone even thinking about the programme to stop thinking and just do it. Yet I do believe it’s vital that girls understand that your experience might not be all bubblegum and roses and some hiccups might occur. I guess it’s all just one big culture shock at end of the day…
Qiarna Bondswell, ICS Volunteer, Kisii, Kenya June 2016