Dr. Wandia Njoya is a lecturer and Department Head of Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University, who earned her PhD. in French from the Pennsylvania State University in 2007. She is an African feminist who goes against the grain of sexism and African stereotypes. Through her blog, Dr. Njoya explores a diverse range issues including leadership, education, and African womanhood. Read on for her interview with Ayiba’s Joy Mwaniki.
You just got married! Congratulations! What has been the biggest surprise of married life so far?
I know! Thank you! My biggest surprise is how much I’m enjoying marriage.
You decided to forgo a conventional wedding dress. Why? How did you come up with your ensemble?
Forgoing a conventional wedding dress just happened. On one of our dates, Chris said in passing that he used to tell people that he’d like to wear jeans to his own wedding, and people would reply that a woman who would agree to that doesn’t exist in Kenya. So I think having a wedding dress made in denim was my way of saying that that woman exists, and also my way of defying the world and saying miracles do happen. Over the years, we had both been told that marriage and other dreams we had were not possible, so the dress was also my way of saying “yes we can,” or “our dreams are valid.”
Some might call that a revolution of self-love.
I don’t think it’s my revolution, but the revolution of our ancestors and our contemporary greats. Some people would prefer a clean African history where we were all communal, loving each other profoundly even in polygamous settings, and such simplistic tales which are usually told by men to reinforce dictatorship and colonial patriarchy by baptizing it African. But reading the great thinkers like Cheikh Anta Diop, Malcolm X, Micere Mugo, Nikki Giovanni, Frantz Fanon, and many others made me realize that we Africans must own who we are joys, sorrows, scars, triumphs, contradictions, consistencies and all, and not call each other “slaves,” or “colonized sell outs” before we mourn our pain and acknowledge our collective and personal injuries. It’s more than a revolution of self-love – it’s a revolution of affirming we are human.
What do challenges do modern African women face when it comes to marriage?
Oh dear. I can’t comment on marriage because I’m not a month married yet. But I know and have lived the challenge of being single. The challenge of people making ignorant comments about you putting off marriage, because they have no clue how many times your heart was broken, and how many times you were willing to settle for anything but by God’s mercy, it was the jerk—not you—who didn’t want to stay. Or the challenge of people saying you’re too educated or articulate to get an African man, why not look for a white man, essentially setting the bar so low for African men and thinking that it’s a compliment to the men. The challenge of marriage for both African men and women is that we’ve let people normalize oppression, bullying and exploitation as “African,” and Africans come into the marriage expecting exactly that, and thanking God if it doesn’t happen. It was Thomas Sankara who said that African women are so disempowered, they treat marriage like a lottery where they gamble and hope for the best. Real African men should consider such a situation unacceptable, because it essentially says African women don’t believe in them. And if we women don’t believe in our fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands, who will?
Why should women (and African women in particular) go against the norms of marriage?
It’s not the norms of marriage we should go against but against the norms of oppression. Marriage and oppression are not synonymous, despite that being the experience of many people. We can choose to follow the norms which affirm us, and we must reject the norms that are oppressive. And we decide that in love and freedom. For instance, in East Africa before colonialism, the gifts given to a girl’s family were meant to seal a relationship between two families, before there was a monetary and global economy. Now the gifts have become exploitative (forget what the Kenyan bourgeoisie say about the gifts not being a purchase of the bride), and are discouraging young people from humble backgrounds from getting formally married. So we decide which norms to keep based on love and freedom.
How do you think African women fare when it comes to the subject of marriage equality?
The problem isn’t where African women are placed—it’s with the template which informs contemporary African marriage. In Kenya, for example, the model for relationships comes from our politics, where leaders are selfish, exploitative, where they rape public coffers and our environment, and then after every cycle they insult us by asking for our vote and telling us that their exploitation of us is beneficial to our tribes. Unfortunately, many men model marriage on that framework and relegate women and children to the humiliating position to which the men themselves are relegated as citizens. That’s why the revolution must be to change the way we Africans think about power, responsibility and freedom, both within our marriages, and at the social and national levels.
How do you feel abut women changing their names after marriage?
Women changing their names because they get married is not African culture. It’s a culture that came with colonialism. In countries like Ethiopia which were not fundamentally affected by colonial Christianity, and in African Muslim cultures, women retain their names. Women changing their names came from the colonial patriarchal imposition of surnames, where the government invested everything for a family in a single man. And the surname wasn’t simply a name; it was tied to ownership of land, access to education, jobs, money and identification documents and passports. That is so similar to slavery where Africans uprooted from the motherland were forced to take their slave master’s name. That’s why we are now trying to undo the situation where men dispossess and impoverish their families because the title deeds and bank accounts, often bought with income earned by women, are in men’s names only.
My other issue with women’s names changing is that their lives become disjointed. There are several instances when my mother’s former classmates would tell me to pass on their greetings to my mum. And since it was disrespectful to address our mother’s agemates by name, I couldn’t ask the women their maiden names. So I would say go home and tell Mum, “you were greeted by Mama so-and-so who said she was your classmate.” For five minutes, we’d try and figure out who she was, since my Mum wouldn’t know the woman’s married name or her kids’ name. And many times we were unsuccessful at identifying who it was. I hope that whenever or wherever someone is looking for me, they would find me easily instead of trying to figure out my married name or my kid’s names. If commercial brands invest in a constant name which is easily identifiable, why not us?
My paternal grandmother, after whom I’m named, is referred to as Wandia. Never Mrs Njoya. I believe I’m like her, so I insist my name is Wandia. But if people want to distinguish me from others by adding my father’s name, my mother’s name or my husband’s name, that’s normal. In Kenya you find places and people with names like Kwa Maiko (at Michael’s), or wa Joji (of George) because somewhere or someone is always associated with someone else. The Governor of Murang’a county changed his name officially to “Mwangi wa Iria” (Mwangi of milk) because he was popularly known that way (I think he was in the milk business) and would have confused the electorate if he used his original name. The name Njoya (feathers, in Kikuyu), is thought to have originally been a nickname because men in my father’s lineage were known for their full heads of grey hair. So names evolve, and I won’t resist if mine does change, but always in love and freedom.
If you could change one law in Kenya, what would it be and why?
There’s one law I’d like not changed, but reinforced. On zoning in the urban areas. Every weekend I see Kenyans desperate for recreational space where they can walk with their lovers, play with their children, hold events, theatrical plays, arts festivals and sports tournaments. But our politicians don’t feel the need to enforce urban zoning because they spend their leisure time at the golf clubs or fly to the beach resorts. It’s completely annoying.
What inspired you to start a blog?
I started blogging in 2007 when Professor Tiyambe Zeleza invited me to guest write on his blog “The Zeleza Post.” The blog brought together African scholars commenting on current and global issues. When he first asked me to write, I declined because I didn’t want publicity. But the misrepresentation of African affairs in the media was too much for me to remain silent, so I started writing an article or two to provide another perspective. Soon I would hear from readers globally, so I figured I cant be doing that badly. When “The Zeleza Post” shut down in 2012, I transferred to my own site.
Also, the Kenyan university system doesn’t allow time or energy for the rigorous process of publishing in academic journals. We’re so busy justifying our existence, especially in the arts, that we rarely get the time required for systematic thinking and research. That’s why the most prolifically published academic authors in the humanities, like Godwin Murunga, Joyce Nyairo, Kimani wa Njogu and Evan Mwangi, are either working outside the academy full-time or working abroad. So I knew that if I’m to remain in the university, I needed to blog; otherwise I would never write.
You are also a teacher. How do divide your time between your teaching duties and your blog?
You’ll notice from the blog that I don’t blog as regularly as others. There are some months when I haven’t posted an article. So I actually struggle to keep up the blog. But I’m not too bothered about that because I know my articles are not easy reading, so they are not the type that one can write or read on a daily or weekly basis.
Who is your target audience of your blog?
My ideal reader would be black people worldwide because I believe we need a revolutionary way of thinking about our issues. However, my target audience has expanded to the global audience. My site is for anyone who is looking at a more human way of thinking of every day issues African peoples face.
What challenges do you face as an educator vs. as a blogger?
As an educator, I don’t have time to really teach the way I’d like to. Unfortunately, institutions in Kenya require much more time for processes that should otherwise be automatic, so I spend much time dealing with that. I also wish I had time and opportunities to mentor more graduate and more female students.
As a blogger, I have trouble with nasty comments, and especially when someone decides to attack my person instead of responding to the issues raised in my posts. And honestly speaking, I don’t like the publicity. I want people to interact mostly with my ideas and as little as possible with who I am personally. I wish I could blog under a pen name, but with the content I post, that wouldn’t have worked.
What advice do you have for new bloggers looking to identify their blogging niche?
Even though bloggers should write from their soul, they should still identify their ideal reader and target audience, and once they start blogging, they should see which posts are the most popular among readers and see if they can build on that area some more. Nonetheless, never lose your soul for popularity. As long as you write honestly, there’ll be a reader in some corner of the world who will get you.
Check out Dr. Njoya’s website here or follow her on Twitter.