Monday, August 13, 2018

I can survive everything

Verah Okeyo

Verah Okeyo is a journalist with the largest media house in Kenya: The Nations Group. She covers science with a particular concentration on the environment and health. She is well travelled with the peak of her career being covering the 70th United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2015. As a trained musician and tailor, she occasionally writes about arts and culture, and often finds admirers and admonishers engaging vocally with her on social media. Esha Meher writes her story out, in the very words with which it was told to her. 

I am a carefree soul, known for my terrible memory. I live in London at the moment. I hold a record in locking myself out of the house without keys, losing pieces of jewellery, cellphone and fear that someday I will board the tube and forget where I was headed!

My nephews always crack jokes at me saying “Auntie one day you will forget us in the market.” A health journalist by profession, but what makes me happy are moments I spend sewing and playing.

What does it take to be an ideal woman? A question that I have dwelt over, for the past 30 years of my life, being greeted by a new answer at every point. My childhood was spent mostly on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya where my love for nature and the environment was born. The other portions were spent in rural Homa Bay county in the southern part of Kenya where women’s healthcare was a luxury.From a young age, I got the feeling that if I did not cook, wash, clean and yet look presentable during and after the ordeal, I would be returned from my husband’s house!

With a countryside full of teenage pregnancies, contraception still remained a matter of theory.  When I grew up and went to school,I started speaking out against these things.  That was not well received. Questioning things that have been a given fact since forever. I believed that womanhood and the rights that come with it, is not a taboo that needs raised eyebrows. It is a matter of identity, inherent to us, to be defined, shaped and limited only by our preferences and choices.

When we spot a nice souvenier at a store, we often get it as a gift for someone special. Or we heave a sigh, wishing that someone somewhere would have the exact same thought, and it would magically land up in our drawers or table tops. No, don’t do that. Don’t wait for that someone. See, a pretty thing? Gift it to yourself. Accomplished something? Take yourself out for a coffee. Sharing quality time with oneself, is not a sign of loneliness. For whoever, taught us, self love was a crime, girl, we need to get over it.

They say my story is that of a struggle against society, against the institution of patriarchy, against family and loved ones. I wouldn’t quite say so. If you ask me, I would say it was one for life and independence.

Being fierce and upright in values, was a gene that I inherited from my mother. Rosemary Akinyi Okeyo was a midwife by profession. She travelled in the most remote parts of my village to ensure women delivered in hospitals because somehow they needed that permission from their husbands. However, she soon realized, that the problem was not of lack of knowledge or shortage of pills. The problem was not of reproductive health awareness, it was a case of delegated agency. Women in rural Kenya could not step out of the house and go for their monthly check ups, without the permission of their husbands. “I couldn’t come for the check up, because we have been having guests for the past month, and my husband doesn’t think it right for me to go”. 

“Another child? Well, my husband does not want me to take the pill”. Among statements like this, Rosemary fought on. She soon became a villainous figure in the village and was hated for her work and strength of personality. Strangely, my father always had my mother’s back in all her endeavours. A dutiful wife and a strict mother, society often murmured at her marriage to my father Charles Okeyo, a man with little formal education. To date, I can understand what my mother saw in my father. He was a man of great values.  In a time when his peers held on so much to being “the head of the house”, he allowed his wife and his daughters to be who they wanted to be. My mother was very pragmatic in how she raised us and ran her home.

I still recall the day she came back home, sat the children across the room, and decided to have the talk. So, Verah, Boys, today, I will tell you how babies happen. Wait. What? Has she completely lost it?! But years later, today, as I report on maternal mortality, death rates due to STDs and teenage pregnancies as a result of skewed power dynamics, I understand her fears and concerns for her children. She had ignored the alleged impropriety and societal taboos, to educate her children, and empower them with knowledge. As cases of child sexual abuse are today haunting the corners of the world, I realize that the first distinction of a good touch and a bad touch was taught to us, at a time when this day could not be easily foreseen.

My mother lived a short yet eventful life, which saw its end under questionable circumstances. And true to the bond of love, her husband too, passed away exactly a month later . I do not know how they died. I was too young perhaps. Some say they were poisoned, some say, they died of HIV. I do not know, till date, what it was.

For me, the struggle now began officially. To gain admission into a prestigious public school, one had to be a student of merit. I studied in Kenya’s best girls’ school at that time (Bahati Girls, Nakuru) as long as I performed well in academics and extracurricular activities such as sports and arts. My journey to that school, my stay in it and how I came out of it reminds me that education for a girl in Africa but one that she has to jumps so many hurdles for.It starts with just institutionalized belittling of your efforts to grow.

In my teens, I remember this one incident that changed the way I saw people and learnt the value of trusting the wrong ones. There was a teacher at school whom I really admired. One day I wanted to coach the lower classes in my alma mater after completing my secondary school and managed all As in my sciences. I thought I could help as I waited to join the university.

I cannot forget the steps the woman went through to humiliate me, for daring to imagine that she and I could even walk in the same corridor as equals.But I did not give up. I graduated, getting a degree in education and subsequently journalism. 

Life came a fill circle the day I was called by my boss to help out a lady. “Madam, Verah is the best science journalist in our newspaper, just have a chat with her!” And, what a pleasant surprise. That day, karma paraded before my eyes. I still do not know why my teacher had taken a strange pleasure in calling out on me. Why being rebellious for a woman was considered to be such a sin, that a school girl had to be humiliated and reduced to tears. But years later, things had changed. The feeling of having achieved when naysayers mock every attempt of yours, is sublime indeed.

The newsroom is one of the most trying and unfair places on earth, but also very exciting. It won't be wrong to call it a reflection of society. Rife with segregation, power dynamics and sexism, the race continued to demonstrating “justice” in society. As a single woman in the newsroom, one is propositioned multiple times none of which could be torn down aggressively because “we all need friends to survive in the media.” 

I must say it is the place I learnt the art of not voicing my opinion and indignation at everything. That sometimes the most abhorrent person as an individual but really good at what he does in the newsroom is better off an ally than an enemy.As a woman, I had to learn to navigate that sexist environment  in a less aggressive manner as I wait for things to get better.

They say journalism is tough. And journalism for women is specifically tougher. Standing in the field for days and nights, through the sun and storm covering general elections or mob violence, we choose between saving our health or sometimes our life and protecting our field notes or camera and the footage in it. We make ‘friends’ in those parts of the city, where no person with a family would venture and at the end, we hear theories which trace our promotions (if and when they come) to our abilities of seduction or physical features or appearances. Hah! I have lived through them! And man, I will continue to live through it.

As a journalist you also have to prepare for online trolling, calling you names on social media for stories they do not agree with how you covered. I have learnt to take it under my stride becauseJesus didn’t die on the cross for me to be scared and sad, man! Journalism also tries you as a woman in ways that are different. You report on children and women who are going through issues that makes you ache for them as a mother or a sister would her own blood. It gets very difficult to be objective under such circumstances.

I found myself in this situation when I lost my only sisterto HIV after years of her being abused. I lost her to the culture which normalized subjugation of women. Yet, there was nothing I could do, then. Even in fighting for her children who she left after that, I was surprised that the same issues my mother was facing in the 90s when I was a young child running after her in the village were the same I was facing. The fact that I was not married made me a wrong parent as opposed to the same family that abused her to her grave.

I have been awarded many time for my reporting in gender, science environmental and youth issues and this somehow encourages me to stick to this career.

It also adds to my credibility, and I can assure you that this growth came from those sexist individuals who I chose to keep at a distance but not in my usual “get out of my face” style.

This is not to say, there wasn’t a single soul who held fort for me. I still fall back for support on my superiors  who have become like father and mothers in that field.

Now that I have mentioned mother and father, my definition of family comes to my mind. Family can be people who are not even related to you by blood.

I have a foster family who, strangely, come from another tribe that normally does not get along with the tribe that I come from.They sheltered me when I was homeless, sticking up to me when situations were tough and believing in convictions of covering stories which would otherwise rustle up political feathers.

Most importantly, family (whatever definition you have for it) is important in a job and a life such as mine. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by what I see. My employers would offer counselling but nothing beats a supportive family when you cannot gather the strength to get out of bed, traumatised by your own memories of what you see in the field.

The times have passed and I am now completing my Masters degree in Global media and communication from the London School of Economics and Political Science. I cannot wait to go back to the field as a reporter and apply all the theoretical things that I learnt in school.

Note: When asked about not wearing enough warm clothes, Verah responds in her usual form:
“Man, I have survived three presidents of Kenya, what is this winter then! I can survive everything. Trust me on that!”