Author TK Matunda as a young child.
“I have to go. I’m the first born,” my father states, arranging his papers on his desk.
“Don’t you have two older sisters? Why can’t they do the ceremony?” I ask.
After a long silence, my father quietly says, “They don’t count”.
I remember this scene all too well. It was late July, 2010. A couple days earlier, my father’s father had passed away. My dad and everything around him unraveled. Grandpa was in Nairobi and needed to be buried by his firstborn son. We were in Toronto although, at that very moment, I felt like we were right in the heart of Kenya.
His words stayed in my head, “They don’t count.”
His sisters don’t count. So does that mean I don’t count? I wanted to ask him, but I knew better than to start a fight.
I already knew what he meant. It wasn’t the first time stuff like this had come up. At nineteen, I was fully aware of the realities of my background. I knew that, in Kenyan culture, power and control were handed down the male branch of the family tree. Women, although necessary, were not given the same options and respect as their male counterparts.
My aunts had no significance in the burial ceremony. Their mourning was unspecial, contrary to my father’s, who was becoming the patriarch—the new leader to carry on the family legacy.
Women are not allowed a legacy.
For the longest time, this simple fact of life lodged itself deep in my brain. I compartmentalized it as a facet of Kenyan culture that both simultaneously applied to my life and didn’t. I am a child of immigrants—Kenyan in origin, but Canadian in culture—so the rules of my parents’ world only had bearing in certain circles. Those circles were not in charge one hundred percent of the time.
But they were still in charge.
I remember being five and seeing my mother clean, cook, study, and go to work while my father flew back and forth from Kenya. My mom used to tell us stories of him forgetting to pick us up from daycare since, for him, family was allowed to be an afterthought.
When I was eight, I took my first trip to Kenya. In a borrowed white Honda, we travelled deep into the mountains on the southwest side of the country. As I looked over the rolling hills of lush green tea fields where my parents spent their childhood, the car kicked up red iron-filled dust that settled at my feet. My parents told me that this land, their family land, is passed on only to sons. Daughters get married off for a dowry. Nothing in this beautiful landscape in front of me could ever be mine. I was to be a part of some other man’s wealth.
I remember being twelve and wondering why I was always sent to make tea while my brother was nowhere to be seen. Or being eighteen and so afraid, to go against the image that my family had of their obedient little girl, that I stuck out a four year degree in a subject that made me miserable.
They were still in charge.
For the first two decades of my life, feminism was just a word. It wasn’t a particularly good or evil word. For me, as a kid, the word conjured up sepia-toned images of the suffragettes, bra burnings, and hairy armpits. What those suffragists were marching for was steeped in the past and didn’t seem relevant to my life. Those fights were won and, to my knowledge, I was pretty liberated. I couldn’t see how my own world was ruled by systems of oppression.
I believed men and women should be treated equally and I thought I my actions reflected that idea. I would poke fun at the Kenyan way of doing things because it seemed so ridiculous, but— besides the occasional pointed joke—I never did anything to change the obvious imbalance. I rationalized away all the discrepancies I saw in my community or spoke with the other Kenyan women about it—always in jest and always in the kitchen. And I didn’t see a problem with making fun of the culture my parents came from.
When I first started reading feminist theory and learning how extensive the power system was, I thought back to my family. I thought about the Head of the Household mentality and all the ways patriarchal thinking had warped the branches of our family tree.
I became angry.
All I could see in my parents, uncles, and aunts was this poisonous thinking, ingrained deep in their actions and beliefs. I couldn’t make jokes about their habits anymore, but I couldn’t speak up either. Questioning their reasoning would be criticizing their culture and the traditions that were even more important as they tried to hold onto their identity in Canada.
I couldn’t openly talk to my parents about dowries or how every achievement in my life was coupled with comments on the increase of my bride price.
Tradition was tradition and it must be respected.
My parents and I seemed to come from different worlds. But, as I got older, I realized how much our worlds overlapped. In Toronto, we were a community of outsiders trying to establish ourselves in a new place. I remember hearing heated conversations at community gatherings about racial discrimination. The men would talk verbosely about being treated poorly for just being African. They would rant about being well educated, from good backgrounds, more qualified than their competition for jobs, but having to do minimum wage work as pizza delivery men and convenience store clerks just to make ends meet.
They understood what it was like to be persecuted for existing in a world that wasn’t built in their favor, yet they could not see how their own thoughts and actions impacted the women in their lives. They focused on the loss of their birthright to power and domination, and ignored their own role as oppressors to their own wives, sisters, and daughters.
But as our Kenyan community flourished in Canada, things did change. As a community, each family’s success was dependent on everyone else’s success. Women have always played a big role in Kenyan families. My name, Truphena Kemunto, honors two women: Truphena—my mom’s favourite grandmother, and Kemunto—my dad’s favorite grandmother. Both of them were fiercely respected matriarchs who changed the way women were educated in their communities. But their kind of change had to always be done artfully. Tradition was tradition and it must be respected. To be openly defiant was dangerous. Threats of beatings loomed around each corner.
Yet, as my family lived in Toronto for two decades, I could see my mother, aunts, and cousins enjoying a new level of agency. They were boldly taking charge of their lives, becoming new unimagined versions of themselves. It was disrupting the community in awesome ways. Some rules were disregarded. Women openly started doing what they thought was best and helping the whole community become more successful.
One of my aunts took a research job in Iqaluit, Nunavut, one of the northernmost territories in Canada. Another divorced her husband after years of domestic abuse. Another started teaching Swahili to the Canadian-born members of the community.
Feminism has many faces and must work in different ways, in different places. That’s something I only learned through the women in my family. Although most of them won’t admit it, they are feminists in their own right. They show strength, intelligence, perseverance, and solidarity on a daily basis.
Slowly, I’ve been able to be more confident and comfortably share my opinions. Now, at age 24, I can talk about the some problems I see in our lives that stem from power imbalance. With certain family members, I can bring up mental illness and alcoholism. Together, we take on the difficult task of parsing culture and traditions from anti-woman sentiments that hold us all back.
We sit around the oak table by the kitchen, cups filled to the brim with Kerecho God (the best brand of tea in the universe) sharing the latest events of our lives. The smell of mandasiii, a fried dough dish, fills the room. We will sit talking from when the room is bathed in sun until the moment we have to turn on the lights.
Having a space to discuss such topics is important and allows us to feel connected, yet it takes more than discussion for real change to happen. Breaking beliefs and habits that have been bred into you from birth is a long and arduous process that takes a lot of self-reflection and forgiveness, especially when they are so entwined with traditions that link back to a very important part of your cultural identity.
Figuring out how to apply predominantly Westernized feminist thoughts to an African background is a minefield. I always have to question how Western supremacist thinking is fueling my judgement and what are realistic actions that can help improve the lives of people in the community.
My journey towards understanding is just beginning. As I re-enter the storm of learning and unlearning, I hope that the Kenyan parts of my identity remain unweathered.
I know that, regardless of my birthright or lack thereof, I do count. Deep down, I know my father sees that too.
This essay is part of our podcast Growing Up Immigrant. Hear TK read this essay aloud, among other stories from children of immigrants, on the show: