V-Day Vagina Monologues-Nairobi 2013 (review)
“Have you heard of Eve Ensler?” I would ask, as I began to explain One Billion Rising. The answer was invariably no, until I said she wrote “Vagina Monologues”. It seemed most people had heard of that, but not many had actually seen it. A rare chance came around on 28 February at the Michael Joseph Centre and it was quickly sold out. I had seen the show once before in England in 2005. But this one was really special – not only because it was the tenth anniversary V-Day performance of Vagina Monologues here in Nairobi, but also because it was part of One Billion Rising – Eve Ensler’s global campaign to end violence against women.
This dramatisation of interviews with women and girls from around the world is presented as a series of intimate conversations with the audience and reveals the myriad attitudes of women to their vaginas. Eve began:
“… there were vagina interviews, which became vagina monologues. Over two hundred women were interviewed. Older women, young women, married women, lesbians, single women, college professors, actors, corporate professionals, sex workers, African American women, Asian American women, Hispanic women, Native American women, Caucasian women, Jewish women. OK. At first women were reluctant to talk. They were a little shy. But once they got going, you couldn’t stop them. Women secretly love to talk about their vaginas. They get very excited, mainly because no one’s ever asked them before.”
The energy was already electric when I arrived at 6.45pm for a 7.15 start, abuzz with the voices of over 200 women (and a few brave or curious men). A slide show was playing from that very first performance in 2003, synchronistically at the same venue. The stage was set with 3 temptingly empty red leather barstools.
An announcement by the voluptuous MC, June Gachui, looking wickedly coquettish in tipped black trilby, brought us all to attention for the introductory short films: “Kenyan Woman”, a film by Kaz, was an elderly woman’s testimony of being gang-raped during the post-election violence. It was sobering, yet ended with her message of hope: “Never give up.” This was followed by the signature One Billion Rising short film, which highlights many forms of gender-based violence, and culminates with all the victims rising and dancing as one around the world.
Director, Mumbi Kaigwa opened with a poem in memory of Betty Kavata, who was beaten to death by her husband. She declared, “We will not forget you.” Then to rousing applause, twenty women paraded onto the stage like a pageant of top models, resplendent in the V-Day colours of black and red. Black skin, brown skin, red dresses, black dresses, red high heels; bold, buxom, lithe, elegant, startling, each different from the other, each a beauty. Some unashamedly baring cleavages or long legs in short slinky dresses. All phases of womanhood were represented here: mother and daughter; one woman full-bellied in pregnancy and another holding her newborn - the youngest “vagina warrior” in red tartan jumpsuit and red socks! They took their place in the semi-circle of chairs at the back of the stage. Then three women, or two or one would rise and sit on the red chair(s) for delivery of the different monologues.
By turns poignant and painful, uproariously funny and deliciously sexy, it was a celebration and appreciation of the wonder, mystery and beauty of vaginas. These women commanded our attention, they commanded our respect, they showed us the huge, hidden power of women; they titillated, they cajoled and convinced, they raged and railed, they appealed to our senses, they appealed to our humanity. They declared “Enough is enough!”
They had us applauding, shrieking, ululating.
One lady, Bea Imathiu, experiencing the Vagina Monologues for the first time, later reflected:
“We laughed and cried in equal measure .... I cried from a place so far, the tears didn't fall - I laughed so hard I forgot to be a lady.
The monologues painted such a vivid picture: as Kaz regaled us with "The Flood", you could feel the wetness in her dress, you involuntarily squeezed your thighs shut at her numerous embarrassments for making an old lady talk about her ‘down there’! …
I had an emergency cesarean section a few weeks ago. I was alone in there. Screaming. Crawling. Naked. So the beautiful monologue [Eve’s own],"I was there in the room" tore at me. Seared my wound all over again. How I wish I'd had someone special to witness my vagina play her part in life's miracle of miracles.”
Here are some highlights from this star cast of Kenya’s women of the arts:
• Wanuri Kahiu, enlightened us of a vagina happy fact from “Woman: An Intimate Geography,” by Natalie Angier: ”The clitoris is pure in purpose. It is the only organ in the body designed purely for pleasure. The clitoris is simply a bundle of nerves: 8,000 nerve fibers, to be precise. That’s a higher concentration of nerve fibers than is found anywhere else in the male or female body, including the fingertips, lips, and tongue, and it is twice, twice, twice the number in the penis. Who needs a hand gun when you’ve got a semi-automatic?”1
• Pinky Ghelani-Raj alerted us to a not-so-happy fact found in UNICEF’s 2005 Report, “Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting. A Statistical Exploration”:
”Female genital mutilation has been inflicted on approximately 130 million girls and young women. In the 28 countries where it is practiced, mostly in Africa, about three million young girls a year can expect the knife — or the razor or a glass shard — to cut their clitoris or remove it altogether. In a man it would range from amputation of most of the penis, to removal of all of the penis. Short-term results include: tetanus, hemorrhages, cuts in the urethra, bladder and vaginal walls. Long term: chronic uterine infection, increased agony and danger during child births, and early deaths.”
Fifty percent of Kenyan women have undergone female circumcision. The clitoris is considered ‘unclean’ and cut as a rite of passage, to make a girl a ‘woman’, to prove to her future husband that she is a virgin. Not only will she suffer tremendous pain, she will never feel the pleasure of sexual stimulation.
• And Aleya Kassam’s enraptured performance of “The Woman Who Loved To Make Vaginas Happy”, with an orchestra of moans, reminded us of the ecstasy women can know. She received a standing ovation.
• One Billion Rising was the Spotlight Narration “..a call to the one billion who have been violated and the men who love them, to the women who have been beaten and raped and cut and mutilated and burned and sold and who know the destruction of the female species heralds the end of human kind. A call to walk out of your homes, your jobs, your schools, and find your friends, your group, your place and music and DANCE. A Global dance action, our feet on the earth.”
• The last monologue was “Over It”, passionately delivered by the young Mo Pearson, a pronouncement that we are over rape.
When the audience was invited to speak, Elizabeth took the stage to tell us that she had been gang-raped at age 16 in the post-election violence of 2008 and become pregnant. Her baby girl was seen as a curse and they were rejected by her family.
“Men, do not take out your disappointment and anger on women’s bodies” she said. “Our vagina is part of us. Rape does permanent damage…. If you want to protest, strip naked and go out on the street! Don’t use our bodies!”
The MC appealed to “good men” to support us in denouncing rape.
Women in the audience then spoke up and began to tell us the names for “vagina” in several languages, including Spanish, Hebrew, Kalenjin and Maasai. Some words were not even allowed to be spoken in their community. The etymology of the English word “vagina” is hardly complimentary. From Latin, it means “sheath” or “scabbard” and was first adopted as a medical word in modern times, certainly by a man!
I’m sure many a woman left, as I did, feeling affirmed as a woman and elated by this thoroughly female collective experience. But it did not erase the fear of walking home alone in the dark. As long as that is a reality, we must continue to rise. With the gathering momentum of One Billion Rising worldwide, violence against women has come to the centre of the conversation. And I vouch a lot more people will remember the name, Eve Ensler.
*Proceeds from the event went to WRAP (Women’s Rights Awareness Programme)