I like to leave the office at 5.00, but I usually leave at 6.00, or maybe 6.30. Not today. It’s 6.00 p.m., and my boss needs me to go for a meeting. I have no idea what time this meeting will end. I call my baby and tell her I’ll be late. She says it’s okay. She’s at the salon, and it’s her day to cook.
I walk into the client’s office. They have a beautiful architectural model for a new housing complex. It has a swimming pool, shopping malls, and a penthouse full of palm trees. I ask my boss if he’ll ever pay me enough to buy a palm tree. He laughs and tells me my dreams are valid.
We’re in the boardroom, talking to our clients. I’ve decided to be quiet in this meeting, because at the last meeting, I came off as a little too aggressive. At least that’s what my boss said. But it seems my aggression worked, because the client insists that I speak, and my boss watches me with a smile.
It’s 7 o’clock. My phone rings, and I peek at it under the table. It’s my daughter. She’s done with her hair, and she wants to send me a photo so I can see how pretty she looks. I say I’m in a meeting. She doesn’t reply.
It’s 7.30. My phone rings again. I cancel the call and text, ‘In a meeting.’ This time, she replies. She says she’s sorry for interrupting. She says she’s really tired, so she’s going to bed. She asks me to wake her up when I get home, so she can cook me dinner. I want to cry.
I look up from texting to see everyone staring at me. It turns out they had asked me a question and are waiting for an answer. My mind is blank. My boss gives me a look, covers for me. I realise that I missed something important, but asking would only make things worse.
It’s 8 o’clock. The meeting is finally over. I’m in such a hurry to leave that I forget my backpack. My boss calls me back to get it, and I explain why I was distracted. He says his baby is sleeping too, and that if I ever want that raise I asked about, I need to be willing to put in late hours. I silently wonder how badly I want that raise.
My boss offers to drop me at Yaya, since it’s too late to go back to the office. There are no matatus at Yaya. I stand feeling lost and distressed, uncertain about being in familiar surroundings at an unfamiliar time. A man tries to sell me sugar cane, but I’m not listening to a word that he’s saying.
A matatau comes from Kibera. It’s 10 bob to Hurlingham. Perfect. There’s only one person in the matatu. Well, two people. A mother and her 2 year-old son. I get on the matatu. They get off at the next stop. I freeze. There are two men here, the driver and the makanga. The road is deserted and I’m all alone. Should I alight?
I see two women in the distance, and I sigh with relief as the matatau waits for them to board. Phew! I get off at Hurlingham. I start to walk towards Kenyatta, worried and distracted because it’s 8.30 and I don’t know if I ‘ll get a 34. I should have just gone to town.
I see two men walking towards me. They’re hogging the road. I try to step around them but they move with me in a strange, disturbing dance. I raise my head to look at them, and the big one says, ‘hello.’ His eyes and his leer say that one word is much more than a greeting. I try to step aside but he won’t let me pass.
I jump onto the road, straight into oncoming traffic. A car hoots, a driver swears at me, but in the blinding light, the two men are gone. I sigh with relief and keep walking on the road. I’m safer in oncoming traffic.
I reach Total and realise my fists are balled. I’m thinking about those men. Hurlingham is a safe place, a clean place, a well-lit place. Yet two men I’ve never even met tried to scare me. I’m wearing jeans, sneakers, a marvin, and an over-sized hoodie. Yet two men tried to hurt me.
There’s nothing provocative in my clothes. There’s nothing feminine in my clothes. And yet … if it wasn’t for a car with an angry swearing driver, I might not have made it home tonight. All because my baggy, shapeless sweater couldn’t hide the fact that I have breasts.
Why did they come after me? Is it because I work for a living? Is it because I was on the street and not in some house cooking for some man? Is it because something about my backpack and my baggy, shapeless sweater rubbed them the wrong way?
I get to Kenyatta and find maybe the last matatu home. I take out my phone and squint. I type a sad message to my friend. And then I stop and I think.
This is my life. This is what it means to be a woman. It means being scared because I had to stay out late to feed my baby. It means wondering if every other person on the street is trying to hurt me. It means shaking as my skin crawls, just because a random man said one word to me. It means sitting in a matatu in tears because it’s Friday and my baby fell asleep before I got home and kissed her goodnight.
They tell us we can have it all, just not at the same time. They say we’re making empty noise, because our needs are not like theirs. They say we clamoured for our rights, and this is a consequence of those rights. They say that we should just shut up, that this is what gender balance means. They say we can’t demand to be equal still expect our treatment to be different.
I take a breath and tell myself to chill. I remind myself to be grateful. Grateful that I got that last matatu. Grateful for the headlights on the angry driver’s car. Grateful for my boss, my talent, my salary. Grateful for the good Lord that made me a mother. Above all, grateful that tonight, I get to see my child, and nobody will find me in a ditch with my heart and body broken.
Tomorrow I will wake up, and they will tell me not to be angry. They will tell me this is life, and that all I have to do is live. But on nights like this, I almost wonder if I should even try. On nights like this, I wish I was a boy.