The Potrait

Bryan was my brother, ten years older than me and a paint artist. He left home when I was 8 and for a while the distance and age gap pulled us apart. After a particularly bad period of my life, Bryan made special effort to be a big brother. I needed that and still count it as one of the reasons I am still alive today.

At first, all Bryan could do was be there for me. At times, even that had to be at a distance. His work as a paint artist allowed him a few respites especially after a good exhibition sale at a gallery somewhere. Then he would take time off to come to the tiny village town where I spent my teens. While there he would ask me to pose as his subject for a painting. I recall breezy mornings on grassy green with palm trees and flowers in the background and me with a book. Then there were humid afternoons on sandy white with the jade blue ocean as our setting and yes, me with a book.

Bryan was tough, not very loud but potentially boorish after a few beers and in the company of his macho friends and cousins. When he was painting, he would be quiet and intense, listening to strange music that I have since discovered to be modern classical compositions, or alternatively asking me to read from poetry and classical books. During my career as his art subject, I read poetry from Homer’s Iliad to Sara Teasdale’s Peace(Sadly my own attempts at poetry are, well, deplorable!). I read Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and children’s classics like The Snow white Queen and Cinderella, the Kenyan legends like Mekatilili and Luanda Magere.

The last time I posed for Bryan’s work (It can’t be a pose exactly because I was allowed to sit and required to move around) I was 19 years old. I had to read both Mekatilili and Cinderella. I sneaked a few glances at the boys playing soccer further down the beach and wished to join them. I stared quite openly at the lovers covertly attending to each other hidden by the jade blue. A light skinned girl about 3 or 4 squealed with delight as her father, a Caucasian, tickled her then let her run up to the edge of the water before scooping her and carrying her back to his black wife. And I wondered what Bryan’s finished work would look like and if it would fetch him a bit of cash.

When I did see the finished work, I reeled in shocked surprise. In all his previous works he depicted me as an impish tomboy, caught between innocence and adulthood, hardly developed but not quite a child. One particular painting had me standing on the edge of a crag ready to dive into the ocean and obviously relishing the attention of the awed boys below. (That episode earned me a few slaps from a brother who was certain I had narrowly missed cracking my skull on jagged rock underwater.)

The portrait was nothing like that. Last I heard someone bought it for a hundred dollars (a good price then!) and if you are reading this I will buy it back please. I might need to mow your lawn and do your laundry to get the sum together.

In the portrait, the person depicted (me surely?) is young, gentle, feminine, a woman… She looks at another person who is hidden by shadows, vague, male, not my brother. Her eyes know. Her mouth is full, sensuous, determined. Her body shocks me because it is relaxed, accepting of its own sexuality. The feminine curves are defined, the soft swell of a breast, the gentle roll of a hip just covered by the bright coloured fabric of a leso that might have flapped with the wind.

Like I said, someone bought it. No idea where it is now. But here’s a vague shadow to the portrait my brother made. Now, use your imagination!

I wasn’t shocked that my brother had drawn me, his own sister, in the form of a woman, and a sensuous one at that (!!!). I was more than shocked even repulsed at the idea of my being a woman, and a sexual being.

Perhaps this was the final lesson my brother wanted to teach me, because he was killed soon after this. As I stood there that day, shaking to the pit of my stomach, he asked me, “Wambui, you are who you are. But who are you? And what do you want to be?” The thing that has bothered me since then is the way he asked those questions. I am who I am, but who am I? What did I want to be?

It’s taken me time, but I am slowly unravelling it in my mind. There have been times when I have chosen to ruminate over it, and times when I have chosen to skirt past it. However, I chose to be a teacher and a writer. As a teacher, I am in daily contact with young children and teenagers who are struggling to discover their personal identities. As a writer, I have to write about social issues and that almost always brings me back to the topic of identity.

Identity has been wrapped in issues of ethnicity, nationality and gender. Sexual identity forums almost always spiral into debates about gender roles and homosexuality versus heterosexuality. Generally, most people confuse, and lose, their own personal identities in the roles that they have to assume or that are imposed on them through the life cycle. I keep thinking, I am ME. I am a teacher, a writer, a
sister, a Kenyan…I should still be ME if I chose not to teach anymore or to change citizenship. I should still be ME if I take on the roles of motherhood or say, uh…, wifehood.

Old African culture dictated the sequence of life role changes. It also provided support and symbolic rites which included a measure of educative processes that I believe helped shape and reinforce a person’s individual identity for the good of the existing society. I cite the Agikuyu initiation rites which were accompanied by education from the elders and subsequent freedom to attend activities such as ngweko (a form of dating with sexual activity that was not limited to one partner but that did not allow penetration) which made it possible for a person to explore sexuality within limits. The subsequent ascension through the leadership roles with accompanying education and rites formed a kind of reinforcing system.

Times have inevitably changed. Historical developments, introduction of ‘un-African’ religion for example have changed the socio-cultural structures. Granted, some of the cultural traditions were shrouded in illogical shades and at times clearly violated the rights of a human being. However, it is my personal belief that the socio-cultural texture of many of the old African traditions did promote and contribute to the well being of individuals and societies as a whole. At the time.

I am not surprised then that more and more African peoples are going back to being as African as possible in this modern world. More and more people are choosing to learn, and have their children learn, at least one if not two or three ethnic Kenyan languages. Parents are choosing to have their children go through modernized forms of traditional initiation rites. For the boys, they may comprise in some cultures a ‘cut’ at the clinic followed by group setting counselling usually provided by a church based organization. For the girls, the counselling might be accompanied by basic skills teaching in housekeeping, social skills and so on, but eliminating female circumcision.

I think the effort is commendable. In fact I wish that I might have gone through a similar rite of passage to define the moment I passed from being a child to being a woman. As it is, life chose a very different and much more painful rite of passage for me.

That said, I must state at this point that I am very much disturbed by the manner in which we handle the development of a child into adulthood. We, African Society, chose to deny certain aspects of development (don’t get me wrong here, we do pretend to talk about it) and in effect negate very important parts of the human identity, more often than not creating maladjusted individuals and therefore even more unhealthy societies.

Sexuality. As far as I know, ‘counselling’ in the context of the rites of passage ceremonies involves telling the youth to abstain. Abstain? From what? Sex and sexuality are deliberately and inadvertently portrayed as ‘sinful’ and shameful. So shameful that we cannot acknowledge that sex is part of who we are, so shameful that we in effect fail to teach the youth about boundaries and safe living. So shameful…and this in a society where a man will defile a ten year old and dare claim in his defence that she provoked him.

Back to the portrait. I am not sure what my brother was thinking when he painted the portrait. I do not know what you are thinking either. What I know is that it made me realize that I was a human being, with my very own identity, which does constitute a sexual component and is not at all anything shameful, even if I chose not to flaunt it. It just is.

I have thought quite hard about the point I want to make with this article. I look at the portrait in my mind and hope that every parent, every caregiver, every teacher can acknowledge that every child growing up is a human being, has an ethnic, physical, mental, psychological and sexual identity all rolled up and intermingled with each other, and that the education of that child needs to equip him or her to explore all aspects of it all while learning restraint and respect for social boundaries and respect for other people’s choices and boundaries.

I do not think it is easy to change the mind-set that now dictates our society today. But that is all it is; a mind-set. It can be reset. The reset, however, requires that we all accept 3 things:

-It is human to be sexual, just as there is nothing wrong with accepting our cultural and psychological identities, and that there is nothing wrong with accepting our own sexuality.

-Times will continue to change, therefore education systems within and without the family must evolve while encompassing the human development.

-A child does have a sexual identity, but there is nothing at all acceptable about an adult exploring or exploiting a child’s sexuality. (I suppose we are now going to be debating about who is a child, but the boundaries for that are limited, too.)

So who am I? I still need to think about that for a while longer. I do know that I am well on the way of accepting myself for who I am.


5 thoughts on “The Potrait

  1. I do not know what you are thinking not, either

    think or should be between thinking not…

    I have though quite hard about the point I want to make with this article.

    think though should be thought….

    to explore all aspects of it all while learning restraint and respect for social boundaries

    (Would drop one of the all’s in this)

    And that’s all I see editing wise…


    Lovely article and very thought provoking and beautifully written:)

    It’s been a while so also great to hear from you

    Love and light and thanks for sharing this,
    I enjoyed immensely,


    Chase Von


  2. mind sets can and should be changed. they are no excuse. wec ontinue to make the seme mistakes because we cling to old traditions and cultures, which obviously care not helping much.our culture is too proud.

    these very mindsets are the ones that propagate child molestation and incest, the culture of secrecy and keeping sexual matters tabboo, and pretending they dont exist.

    we do not want to accept that people are having sex or talk about it in schools or to our kids, and so we continue to propagate disease, crimes against children and women etc

    i read a quote which said something like ” the fool in the 21st person is the person who refuses to learn, relearn and unlearn” this aplies to our kenyan culture, we need to unlearn most of our practices and learn others.


  3. Relearning and unlearning means self-examination which is what most people are loath to undertake. We have no choice. We can either let our societies go to ruin, or take the steps to unlearning and relearning.


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