It is Sunday. I am in Douala. The heat is sweltering. The walk from the hotel I am staying at and the venue of the conference I am here to attend nearly melts me. By the time I get there, the conference venue, my Africa’s Talking t-shirt is stuck to my sweaty back. I stand by an air conditioner, my back to it, to cool off.
My access to the Internet in this country has been intermittent, so when I get back to my seat and find WhatsApp messages coming in, my phone wholly commands my attention. I’m sucked into that virtual world.
I am part of a WhatsApp group for women in technology in Kenya. I read yet another account of a woman who has been preyed upon by a man in a position of power. A very powerful man.
“He mentors them, invests in them, harasses them. They are unable to speak up because they feel they owe some of their careers to him, and that these careers would be harmed, or have directly been told to not fight with an important man.” …her words.
I do not know this man. I have never even heard of him. I turn to my techie male friend seated next to me and ask him if he is familiar with the man. My friend, also a Kenyan, knows him. He informs me that the man has invested in several big companies in Kenya. We pull up his LinkedIn profile and scan through it.
My friend asks what brought this man to my attention. I tell him I have read a woman’s account stating that he has sexually harassed her. His immediate response… “Eh, these days you could just approach a girl to talk to them then wake up tomorrow and find yourself accused of sexually harassing her.”
This statement incenses me.
I challenge it.
We continue talking and my friend says that in situations like these, he prefers to stay neutral because there are two sides to every story.
Let’s backtrack a bit, I suggest, to Saturday night. Douala nights. The young and youthful amongst those of us attending the conference I was there for had decided to check out Douala by night. We were quite a number that went out that night. Maybe 12. I was the only woman. We were however later joined by 2 others, local friends of one of the guys we were out with. That’s not the point though. We went to a club that seemed nice, it was Halloween and they had gone all out on the decor. It augured to be a good night. We settled on a spot to sit at and ordered drinks. The music was good and I got up and started dancing, as did several others. One of the gentlemen we were with, a guy who I had met no more than 3 hours earlier and really only exchanged pleasantries with came towards me, cornered me and started grinding on me in a manner that made me very very uncomfortable.
I told him exactly that, that I was not comfortable dancing in this manner. His response, “This is how we dance in Cameroon.” In that case, I suggested that he should perhaps go dance with a Cameroonian girl who understands and is comfortable with this culture, seeing as I was not. Eventually, he let up and went away. He did much the same to a Cameroonian girl, one of the 2 that I mentioned joined us a little later and she seemed to enjoy the attention and had no problem with the dancing. The night proceeded.
The rest of the guys we were with, some that I knew from other tech events, some that have been my friends for a very long time, all men, all looked visibly uncomfortable to me as all this was going on, turning away, letting their eyes wander to the rest of the club. We all continued dancing though, acting as though nothing had happened, once Mr. Extra had gone off to someone more consenting.
We did not talk about it.
We did not acknowledge the incident in any manner.
I wondered if perhaps I was the one that was broken here. Was I just too uptight? Was I overreacting? It was after all just dancing, right? The awful feeling in the pit of my stomach suggested otherwise, but the other consenting-to-the-grinding woman made me doubt my stand.
Nonetheless, I danced on and tried to forget, acted like nothing happened.
Now seated at the conference venue with this Kenyan friend of mine, I ask him if he saw what happened that Saturday night in the club.
He says he did.
I ask him what he thought of it.
His response…“It is not something I would do.”
I insist, “But what do you think about it?”
“Do you think it was okay?”
“How do you think I felt?”
“Is it something you would do?”
His response and the conversation that ensues is basically…
It’s not something I would do.
I don’t think it was right for him to do it.
People are different, some girls might enjoy it.
Maybe that is how they do things in Cameroon.
The level of conversation really just deteriorates from there. I am angry. Fuming. I am finding it hard to string thoughts let alone words together. Neither of us is letting the other finish their statements without interrupting. Our voices are rising and we start to attract attention to ourselves in the conference hall. I tell him we should just stop talking about it. The level of conversation has deteriorated so much it feels to me as though there is no longer a point.
I then start penning this.
Now that I can put my thoughts in a semblance of order…here goes.
As you can tell, I have sat on this post for a good long while. My trip to Douala was in October of last year, 2017. Remember it was Halloween? That is when I started writing this post and for a long time I have not been sure if I would finish it and put it up on here.
Why was I not sure I wanted to write it?
Well, because it feels and/or looks so small, right? At least to me it sometimes does. Perhaps this one inappropriate dancing incident in a club was just that, a small thing.
But if it was, why am I still obsessing over it now? Why, a whole 3 months later, am I still burdened by this mental load?
The fact that for the rest of the week I still had to interact with this man in a somewhat professional capacity was unnerving. Every time I saw him, my defences would go up. I would feel on edge given what had happened earlier. I was afraid to be within his proximity, whether it was in the presence of others or not. I felt as though if anything happened, I was my own responsibility. I felt this way first because as the initial incident happened, everyone we were with saw it and did nothing. Second, because I was far from home. I felt as though if shit went down, even in the presence of others, they may as well have stopped and stared as I came to a far worse fate, and then later claim they were unsure of what to do. How to react. Wondering if it was even their place to say something. ARGH! I am getting ahead of myself.
I knew for a fact that this man did not respect me. I had been publicly preyed upon and now was expected to constantly be in the presence of my predator. Be civil. Pose for pictures with him. Act as though there was nothing amiss even as the photographer insisted that we at least try a little not to look like total strangers. Venture to perhaps even smile for the pictures.
The fact that he was an organiser of this conference and they were taking care of our expenses, which became another drama down the road, put him in a position of power. I did not know what else to do but silently bear it.
Let’s move on to the fact that the other woman he moved on to did not mind the grinding one bit. Here’s the thing…I am no prude. I am no stranger to grinding up in a club either. But context matters. If I had had some sort of relationship with this man, if I had known him perhaps for longer than the 3 hours than I had and we had exchanged more than just pleasantries, maybe I would not have felt so attacked and wounded. That is a big maybe. As it stood, he had landed in Douala hours before the incident and we had only just met.
Male attention does not equal respect. If anything, a certain kind of male attention offers a crushing sense of insignificance. His actions made me feel insignificant. As though I was an inanimate object he could look at, decide he liked and take for his own. As though my thoughts, feelings or opinions on the matter did not matter. As though all that mattered was he wanted me and he was going to get me and if he did not, I would be discarded in lieu of another shiny toy.
Objectification my friend. Objectification.
Next point, I have often thought back to this incident and dissected it and wondered each time what I would have liked the men around me to have done. Like I mentioned, there were 12 of us from the conference that went out together that night and more than half of the guys we were with are people that I had interacted with for a couple of days and had built relationships with. I knew for a fact that they had all seen what transpired and I was disturbed by the lack of…reaction. I have often wondered, what would I have had them do?
The truth is, I don’t know. I am proud of myself for sticking up for myself but I don’t know what I would have had the men present do.
I read a story once, about a woman who was walking to catch a train in a subway. It was a little late at night. It was also a bit deserted given the time and she was terrified because there seemed to be a dodgy gentleman following her. She met a couple going in the opposite direction as her, strangers, and greeted them as if they were old friends while in hushed tones quickly whispering that she suspected she was being followed and just needed the couple to pretend to know her for a little while, at least until the dodgy man lost interest and went on his way, once she was no longer an easy, isolated target. Of the couple she had met, the man didn’t get it. He was confused. His spouse on the other hand immediately understood, embraced the lady who was being stalked and proceeded to talk and act as if they were old friends when they had known each other for all of two seconds.
I do not know what I would have had the men around me that day do but I often wonder if the reaction of people around me would have been different if there were some women.
Let’s face it…most of the fears that a woman constantly thinks about never cross a man’s mind. EVER.
Male privilege my friend. Male privilege.
Now let us talk about my friend’s reaction to the news that yet another woman was accusing a man of sexual harassment.
“Eh, these days you could just approach a girl to talk to them then wake up tomorrow and find yourself accused of sexually harassing her.”
Now, a few days ago, as I dropped off several friends of mine to catch a movie on my way home, I walked past a couple that seemed to be having an argument and overheard the woman say, “You know, I could scream and…” I didn’t catch the rest but you can guess where that went. Sounded like it was shaping up to be a threat to me. I do not think it impossible for a woman to make up claims of sexual harassment for the express purpose of tainting a man’s reputation but I think it incredibly unfair that the increased reported instances of sexual harassment are met with backlash targeted at the victim. Why is this?
Look at the highly publicized Bill Cosby case for example. That was pretty big in the news last year, 2017. He was accused of indecently assaulting several women and when the victims started coming out, some cases went as far back as yeeeaaarrrrrrssssss. It was years before the victims had the guts to come forward. Did you catch that? It took victims YEAAARRRRRSSSSSSSS to come forward. You may think it was irreparably damaging to Cosby’s reputation but consider for a moment the kind of damage that was done on the victims. To possibly have to still work with this man who had the power to make or break their careers. The man who fed their children. Really, where do you go from there?
Last I checked, Bill Cosby’s case ended in a mistrial and his life possibly went back to normal with that out of the way. I however highly doubt that was the case with any of the women that came forward and publicly spoke of their experiences. They probably had their credibility questioned. Had friends and relatives ostracise them and I would not be surprised if finding any work in the same industry was a task for them. I am willing to bet 3 months salary on the fact that these women had their lives more destabilized by coming forward than Cosby did by, REPEATEDLY, being accused of sexual harassment and assault. Who wants to be associated with a woman who goes around accusing people of sexual harassment and assault?
I am trying to drive two points home here. The first is the fact that (serial) sexual predators are not stupid. How else do you think they have been able to do it repeatedly? They will often be taking advantage of an imbalance of pay and power that puts them (typically males because we still live in a world where women are fighting for equality) in a position to harass. A position that gives them unchecked control over the economic lives of women and as a result influence over their physical lives.
The women they target are not their equals or their superiors. The women they target are their subordinates. People they know they can threaten into silence because they(the predators) in one way or another hold their prey’s livelihoods in their hands.
Case in point, this gentleman in Douala, given that he was one of the main organizers of this conference, given that I was a speaker at this conference and was only able to attend given the sponsorship package provided by the organizers, think about the power dynamics. In my opinion, he knew exactly what he was doing. In my opinion, it was not the first time he was doing it and I doubt it was/will be the last.
The second point I am trying to drive home is the fact that is it unfair, borderline irresponsible, to invalidate these women’s experiences just because cases of sexual harassment and assault are being more widely reported. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, know this, know that you have taken the side of the oppressor.
“These days you could just approach a girl to talk to them then wake up tomorrow and find yourself accused of sexually harassing her.”
Shame on you if this is ever your train of thought when you hear ‘yet another case’ of sexual harassment being reported. Shame on you. You may think you are being neutral by not taking sides but your silence, your unwillingness to take a stand, allows predators to continue preying upon those weaker than them. By the time someone who has been oppressed comes forward with this kind of thing, the incident may be long past but I can assure you the mental load that has burdened them since the incident has only gotten heavier and your neutrality only serves to invalidate their experiences and ensure their predator’s continued invincibility.
On the ‘It is not something I would personally have done’ argument. Hmmmm. I see. Not something you would personally have done yet something you stood by and watched be done to another. Got it!
Would you have stood by and watched if it was your sister? Mother? Wife? Girlfriend?
This argument always seems to drive the point home where men are concerned and it is for this very reason that I absolutely detest it.
Why, pray do tell, why can a woman, even as someone you do not know and have never met, not be a human being in your view? Why must she be likened to an individual that you know and personally care about for you to view her as a person. A HUMAN BEING! An individual worthy of…ARGH! Just…worthy!
Women are people. They do not have to be associated to a man in any way to validate their humanity. They do not have to be a mother. A sister. A girlfriend. A wife to a man in order to be human.
I repeat, we are people.
Now I am tired.
I don’t want to talk(write) about this anymore.
My ever so wise cousin, Sophia’s voice is now ringing in my head. I hear her telling me men also suffer sexual harassment and assault. I hear her telling me that cases of sexual harassment and assault are under-reported where women are concerned and more so where men are concerned because most people think women are not strong enough to assault men. Thank you for being the voice of reason even as I want to rage on and on and not care if this post comes off as basically just male bashing Sophs.
I am now tired.
Did I mention that already?