Some article in the East African Standard caught my attention last week (Thursday 24th June 2009) ‘women Women team breaks myth to win boat race.’ This really caught my attention as I had not visualized a boat ride by a woman, let alone a competition! May be it is because I have not heard this associated with women. The paper went on to describe the joyful event that graced the community near Lake Victoria. Children, women and men cheered wildly as the teams rowed their boats in stiff competition. There was rhythmic drumming as the women paddled swiftly and vigorously. At the end of the one-kilometre boat race, Kasua Women Group from Gumbe, Samia District emerged the winners, defeating four other teams…needless to point out, male teams. I was impressed by the message that was sent out by these nine agile women aged between 20 and 45 yrs of age, the young and not so young I would say. They had not only broken the myth to participate in a sport considered to be a masculine sport, but had also excelled in the same.

Reading the article, I learnt that the competition was organised Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) at Siungu Beach, Bondo District. KMA used the occasion to educate local fishermen (yes ….men) on maritime safety.

"This water is our territory and I enjoy boat racing. I have engaged in it for the last three years," says Rose Oundo, a peasant, soon after rowing back to beach with her team at position one.

These women were racing in the greatest lake in Kenya, Lake Victoria that measures 68,800 square kilometres making it the largest tropical lake in the world and the second best fresh water lake. This is a very important resource not only for communities in this side of the country but also for any fish loving Kenyans. Boats and boat riding is associated with the main gainful activity in this lake and in the region where men do fishing for both small scale and subsistence use as well as an income generating activity. Fisheries sector is dominated by men at almost all levels and this domination together with lower status of women like it is in many cultures means that women have not benefited from this resource as they should. The participation and winning of women therefore in the race for me gives a very strong message to the women and girls, to the boys and the men, that, Yes we can.

I was not there to cheer these women, I wish I was! But I cheer them from afar since the step they have taken. The action will not only boost their own esteem but also of the girls who may have succumbed to the notion of ‘I cant do that…because it is not expected…” hence not living to their fullest. It will be a positive aspect to the socialisation of boys who may have been shown that ‘girls really cant…’. The gender division of roles has been so accepted in the society that it has been taken like it is inborn and natural. Recently, the Maendeleo Ya Wanaume popularly known as MAWE (Men Against Women’s Empowerment) gave some statistics on violence against men in the domestic arena. While the authenticity of the data remains for debate, one of the issues that they described as violence was men being ‘forced’ to undertake domestic roles that are meant for women!!!! While many argue that there has been a lot of empowerment of the girl and woman, the challenges remain rampant with the attitude of both women and men remaining unchanged largely. I was recently in a forum on reproductive health issues and one lady posed the question of “why don’t men also take precautions and also do family planning including permanent ones like vasectomy?” One gentleman jumped up and exclaimed “that is against our culture!!!”. The same gentleman thought that women can do any kind of family planning including permanently like Tubal ligation……this is not against anyone’s culture!!

While I like many of the cultural values, I also know that culture has been used to justify different behaviours and ‘going against’ this cultures has had many negative consequences hence there is need to rethink before claiming ‘that’s our culture’. Last week I learnt with sadness about Kate, a sister-in-law who has separated from her husband. Reason, she insisted on her first born daughter going to secondary school!! According to the husband’s family, their culture (not sure which particular culture since the two are from the same ethnic group but from different districts) doesn’t allow for girls to go beyond primary school!!! It doest matter that Kate’s brother was the one paying school fees. Kate herself never went beyond primary school as she got married early by her own choice, but she seems to have realised what she missed out, and is struggling to make amends.

Both men and women are sometimes or the other held bondage to some social cultural practices but have to learn when to break the ‘taboo’. The women broke the taboo and did the unexpected, so can we.