Wambui Otieno: She belongs to Kenya

Published on Pambazuka News, Sept. 26, 2011.

In this special issue of Pambazuka News we seek to bring to the fore the layered nature of Wambui’s life and the opportunities it in turn offers to understanding the social, political and economic factors that are contested, influence and shape Kenya … Through these pieces we gain some insight into how the brazen defiance of one woman captured the imagination of a nation, writes Awino Okech. ‘Love or hate her, you could not ignore her. 

What’s in a name? For most of us, our names are signifiers of our heritage and the multiplicity of identities that course through our veins each day. They may be clear indicators of which ‘group’ we ‘belong’ to, our connections with others by birth and through other forms of partnerships. Names tell a story about the circumstances of our birth or offer commentary on a period or a political moment. They may also tell the story of those who birthed us. However, names can also transcend these very important boundaries and on their own generate multiple discourses based on rumour, conjecture, reality and myth. Your reputation precedes you – is a statement that aptly captures what I refer to here.

Wambui Otieno the name (she was also known by many other names) and in turn the person – has captured the imagination of Kenya and the diaspora in diverse ways over decades. While many may not have met her, her name is instantly recognisable and is accompanied by multiple narratives about nation building, gender, sexuality, ethnicity that in and of themselves have generated wide ranging public and academic discourses [1] … //

… It is not the act of marriage, freedom or choice (which are important) that are at issue here. It is the associated ideas of virility, hyper-sexuality and phallo-centricism that are continuously to linked to certain forms of ruling[3] masculinity and thereby legitimised that interest most scholars who analyse the public’s response to the Wambui–Mbugua union. These responses and the discourse it has generated reveal that expressions of sexuality that do not cohere to ‘acceptable’ femininity and are not performed in relation to dominant masculinities are constrained, surveyed and demonised and not simply because they are transgressions that undermine the social organisation of power. Actions such as Wambui’s especially when ‘performed’ in public destablise ruling forms of masculinity that are critical to sustaining political power bases.

References have been made in the Kenyan media to Wambui as the ‘last moran’, ‘a warrior’, ‘male daughter’[4] suggesting that reconciling Wambui’s public defiance requires a retreat to masculinity and a reliance on stereotypical forms of masculine power as a route to understanding and ‘accepting’ her actions. The corollary is that Wambui was not your ‘typical woman’ – she had more ‘man’ in her that overshadowed her feminine self. Obviously, if Wambui’s actions were an indicator of hyper masculinity in a woman, they did anything but endear her to the ‘boys club’. Instead, her actions re-affirmed her femininity in all its complexity including re-marriage in her sixties, when most women her age are both de-feminised and de-sexualised … (full text and Notes 1 – 5).

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