Agnes Tirop

In this file photo taken on September 29, 2019 bronze medallist Kenya's Agnes Jebet Tirop poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women's 10,000m at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Khalifa International stadium in Doha. Tirop was found dead on October 13, 2021 with stab wounds to her stomach in a suspected homicide.

| File | AFP

Sacrilege in Iten and the men’s perverted fear of strong women

What you need to know:

  • I speak plainly and bluntly, out of the profound sorrow and pain that has blanketed all of us over the past few days.
  • Agnes Jebet Tirop in Iten, Edith Muthoni in Kerugoya, two young, beautiful and powerful women athletes, are murdered, almost on the same day.

The proper study of mankind should be womankind. That is my variation on the opening of Alexander Pope’s famous verse composition, An Essay on Man. The English poet used “mankind” and “man” in the old-fashioned generic sense of all humankind, but I go back to the basic, gendered distinction between females and males.

The point I want to make, especially to my fellow men, is that we must make every effort to understand, love and respect our women. This is the only way we are going to ensure decency in our society and happiness in our relationships. Obviously, the process starts with understanding and respecting ourselves. 

I speak plainly and bluntly, out of the profound sorrow and pain that has blanketed all of us over the past few days. Agnes Jebet Tirop in Iten, Edith Muthoni in Kerugoya, two young, beautiful and powerful women athletes, are murdered, almost on the same day. The prime suspects in both these grisly crimes appear to be their male partners.

I am seething with anger and at the gross violations against two of my dearest passions, women and sport. Is nothing no longer tender, precious and sacred in this perverted world? The slaughter of Agnes Tirop in the athletic citadel of Iten raises the offence above a crime, into a sacrilege, a humanly unforgivable sin.

A highly respected sister of ours recently had a lapsus linguae (a slip of the tongue) that seemed to body-shame female footballers. We let that pass, in the light-hearted spirit in which it was made, and assuming that tastes differ and we do not argue about them. I confess, however, that a woman’s well-toned body, in disciplined, concentrated and controlled action, is the most uplifting vision and sight of which I know.

Tragedies of victims

I suppose I am not an entirely objective judge, as I admit that most of my waking hours, away from lecture theatres and theatre stages, have been on playgrounds and courts. Did I tell you of the “three Ts”, teaching, theatre and tennis, which sustained me through some of the most difficult times in my life? During the long university closure after the 1982 attempted coup, a few of us almost literally spent our days on playgrounds, practising, competing and coaching in our different disciplines.

“Tennis is as much about looking good as it is about playing well,” I remember telling one of my students, an Australian air hostess, who would come over to the club for a game during her “lay-overs” in Nairobi. That aesthetic approach to sport was always uppermost in my mind with all my player students, ranging from vivacious primary school kids to middle-aged diplomats and their consorts seeking a new pastime. One of my fondest memories is of coaching religious novices (trainee nuns) at a top-notch convent in Nairobi.

I have seen beauty in sport and sport in its beauty. So, you can understand my unbearable pain at seeing it being invaded, disfigured, violated and destroyed by animalistic chauvinism. I call it chauvinism because there is a discernible pattern in the tragedies of victims like Agnes Tirop or Edith Muthoni and their suspected predators.

Indeed, it is a long-running narrative in the athletic fraternity. When Ugandan Peruth Chemutai won Olympic gold in the 3000 metres steeplechase race at the recent Tokyo Games, some of her compatriots advised her to “avoid men like the plague”. That is not easy advice for a normal 22 year-old woman, and I was not surprised when, at the state welcome party, Chemutai turned up with her boyfriend, who helped her drive off in the fancy car with which she was gifted by the President.

The advice, however, was not fortuitous or trivial. It was, obviously, against the background of the experience of another Ugandan female steeplechase star, Dorcus Inzikuru. She was so frequently mistreated and abused by her partner that she was, at one time, forced to take the roof off her house in an attempt to evict the monstrous “husband”.

Successful women

The sad truth, anyway, is that such depressing incidents of conflict, violence and even death are frequent in our families and other relationships. We hear of some when they happen to our heroes and celebrities, but myriads of them occur among us ordinary wananchi every day. The main cause of the problem, in my view, is, as I hinted earlier, that we men have failed or refused to try to understand and respect our women.

The “macho” supremacist masculinism (“ubabe” in Kiswahili) in which our boys and men are raised is, ab initio (from the word go), a recipe for disaster, especially as far as our relationships are concerned. This phallocentrism, as the feminists call it, leads to the endemically male assumption that women are “things”, mere objects for our lust, pursuit, exploitation, use (and abuse), and eventual disposal. Men who go into relationships with this perverse programme to possess, control, use and discard their partners will stop at nothing, including killing, if or when their ubabe is confronted.

Successful women, whether in sport, business or professions, are strong women, ready to confront and challenge any aspect of reality in their lives. They are, obviously, in mortal danger when they find themselves in relationships with the kind of chauvinistic males that we described above. This, I think, is part of the massage of our sister Ama Ata Aidoo’s famous novel, Changes, which opens with a scene of marital rape.

The bottom line, however, is that we must change the mentality and social attitudes of the males in our society. From the earliest years of their lives, our boys and men must be taught and trained to regard and treat girls and women as their equal partners. Parents and teachers must consciously endeavour to inculcate on our younger generations those virtues and skills of reciprocal respect and articulate communication that are the bedrock of successful relationships.

The graceful race of life and love should never end in stabs, wounds and death.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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