Essentially, Woman

Great artists become great because they were nurtured in some way by some woman or women somewhere, in the same way that great people become great because some woman somewhere cared. As she cooked and cleaned and bathed and rebuked and spanked and worked and pointed out where the other sock was, she had the presence of mind to make sure that that great person was safe and warm and cared for – so much that that great person became educated in the ways of life and gained the confidence that that great person needed to be great. It was her, that that great person ran to when that great person was afraid or hurt, her that that great person leaned on when there was no food or water or health or wealth or joy. It was some woman somewhere, who stood behind the scenes and ensured that that that great person not only became great, but remained great. And she did this, while walking many kilometers to find a health centre or water or firewood, while spending whole long days tilling the land then going home to cook and clean and pick after that great person and everyone else. She did this even when her spirit was low and her body was sore, she went out to work at the crack of dawn where she found she had to work harder than everyone else, prove herself at every juncture just so she could stay afloat and get ahead. It was her who made the great sacrifices, all the time, every time, and on the back of her sweat and blood and tears, that great person became great and remained great. She has throughout her life been the pillar that everyone leaned on and spit on, she was the cement that held it all together, whatever it was.

Wife, mother, sister, aunt, teacher, nurse, preacher, leader, friend – she made you great, all the while standing up straight, with a smile on her face and an uncanny grace in her step because…

She was, she is and she will always will be,

Essentially Woman.


  1. Neema

    I don’t like it.

    1) It suggests that all great artists are men or lesbians
    2) It suggests that all women live lives where they farm or till land or engage in such like activities, or that to be seen in the positive light this piece suggests, they must live such lives.
    3) The piece glorifies a certain type of life, a certain type of woman living in a certain type of space, fulfilling a limited type of role and does not acknowledge that it is limited. There are indeed people who live a life a kin to that which is described here, but there are other ways of living, and while i would not require that those be described in this poem, I do demand that the language used allow their existance somehow.
    4) Recognize that it may even be construed that the particulars (a rural life) (a long suffering female body who is spat on among other things) are indicators of ‘woman’ and all that she must be, condone and be subjected to. and it is forever: “she was, is and always be.” “Woman” has no space to move, experiment, be something else or more. I actually hate this piece now. and not hate as in it drew a reaction and is therefore successful in that way, but hate as in it does nothing new or useful, does not challenge prevailing ideas on womanhood, if anything further romanticizes even idealizes things that women have borne that are not essential/applicable to their lifestyle or sex. In this way, women who believe this poems could begin to find themselves feeling some perverted sense of guilt at not being this unbreakable crutch.

    5) I dare say, for men who fulfil the “supportive partner role” (which easily blurrs into an “unbreakable crutch”) described, the may well serve to emasculate their otherwise possibky intact masculinity, and allows men, artists or not, to develop or maintain a perverse idea of masculinity which needs to create this “Essential Woman.” I must insist that this man exists too strongly in our societies so much that any responsible writer cannot write about an “essential woman” without qualifying her existence with some indication of what an “essential man” might look like so that the reader does not feel like the “great (male) artist” should get out of the way and be burned at the stake so that the “Essential Woman” who really knows whats up can create an art so pure instead of passing it off to the “artist” who will, no doubt, mess it up in his ineptitude.

    6) I dare say it is because of pieces like this that a lot of women writers, feminine types and not would rather be allowed to speak for themselves and of their roles, characters and duties in their own lives and of those around them. That is not to say that certain writers will not express similarly limited views, but the diversity should get us somewhere closer.

    7) To this apparently male writer’s credit, it is good and useful to see what a male body thinks of female bodies, or what the male body deems ideal or desirable or expected of a female body. What becomes important is what is done with the thought, the expression. If i see or hear a young urban female artist doing a recitation of this piece in public in the tone in which it was first written here, I will pull my hair out and call for the whipping of this writer and whoever suggested this piece as a good idea to the female for her recitation. and I will weep for the female and her generation of young urban females.

    ok. feel free to strike me back or point out things that I have missed. I will attach a disclaimer to whatever limitations I reveal of my own thinking, I’ve only thought about this piece for a couple of hours.

  2. Wow.

    Neema, Now that is some powerful analysis. However, I can see that it has been read in a different voice than it was written.

    My initial reactions – indepth thoughts will come in a few hours:

    You know, I once was told/ watched in a movie/ read that you put into a text that you read as much you get out of it. Its an issue of perspectives. One person can say to you, ” We mjinga sana” and you will laugh because you percieve a light heartedness to it. Another will say the same and you will simmer because you will have percieved all the (possibly) intended insult from the statement.

    You read a text with a picture of the person that wrote it in mind and you would react to it based in part – and only in part – to the picture or perception you have in mind of the person or the subject at hand.

    I am wondering how many ideas expressed above are pre-concieved notions from other literary and physical and emotional experiences?.

    Also, from a statistical aspect (and this is simply formulating an undeveloped thought) aren’t the MAJORITY of women in Kenya and Africa 70% at least i dare say, in rural areas, going through the exact life depicted up here. Aren’t a considerable majority of the so-called urban women, especially those over thirty living lives that are borderline rural anyway (forget the yuppies that are a small number of urban women) – what with them living in Kangemi Uthiru Kariokor etc with a small compound that has a kitchen garden and a few chickens and the occasional goat? Not forgeting of course that they will go “home” to shags at every possible opportunity?

    Does this not therefore suggest that the women depicted and yes, celebrated above is the rule and not the exception?

    I also wonder how much of that reaction and analysis is coloured by what I call “modern woman insecurities” that force the urban educated women to overanalyse every aspect of their existence in the context of the marginalisation of the woman by the adversary (usually male)?

    I once worked with this woman in a newsroom where people had to share computers. There was this one particular computer she liked to use. Now, normally when someone left a computer unattended, another would stop by and check email or whatever. Interestingly (and I observed her for months), when she found a woman seated there, she would be polite and she would nudge them off with sweet words and smiles because she had not finished. If it was a man, she would immediately cause a row with him saying that it was the men who wouldn’t let a woman dfo what she was doing to get ahead or such stuff.

    Kinda reminds me of the black american’s hang up with white superiority…

    powerful thoughts yours though.

  3. prou

    Does the woman depicted above ever do something for herself I wonder? Not for the satisfaction of seeing someone else accomplish their dreams.
    Does she have dreams of her own? Perhaps of being an artist.

  4. Neema

    There is no rule that would make being an urban woman an exception. That said, obviously more women live rural lives, but it is not about “rules” or “exceptions” – that value is restrictive. The premise for this piece is what does it look like to be the woman in a “great artist’s” life when you (both) live in a rural environment in the developing world. This is unchartered territory. You are going to need to define such a great artist’s lifestyle to sell this. I contend that the voice of the narrator doesn’t suggest that he knows anything about rural living, in tone, voice or language. the narrator just clearly indicates rural living in the height of its clich and perhaps as alkags writes later is just trying to satisfy some idea of where the female masses are. But this poem isn’t even about the great multitude of woman, or isn’t about that initially; it opens like its about the women of “great artists.” “great artists” are not a dime a dozen, therefore we are speaking about a particular kind of woman who is suited to (or services?) a particular man who has achieved excellence in a particular vocation, are we not? Further, the two seem to live, or at least, she seems to support him from a particular kind of environment and with particular economic resources.

    This woman’s life, or this type of woman’s life, how did the narrator come into contact with her, whats his relationship to her or the “great artist?” How does she come to exist via this very articulate English speaking narrator (although let me tell you in my bias “juncture” has no place in the tone of this poem) on the internet no less. She is apparently not English or American or Western for that matter because of the nature of her poverty, the particular type of medical facility she would seek, the energy resource she relies on (firewood) and how she gets it. There is no indication that she is Amish even. I think medical center would sound like a different thing in that case.
    Do Not even impose some preconceived anything in my critique without substantiating it per the text itself. Indeed I am positioned in a certain way, I am a young urban woman from the anglophone Africa, Kenya specifically, and I do cringe at words like “juncture” that we overuse in Kenya and I will admit impatience to that extent. However, the language (clearly down to each word) suggests a particular positioning, a particular relationship with the ‘rural’ space, male and female roles… (and I can’t think what else.) and for every other Kenyan reading this, and apparently we are many, even the language resonates with various moves we have been making since and following the colonial era. Despite that, I’m not going to necessarily impose a “Kenyan-ness” on this poem, and as I have said before, my issue is not that the woman (as not necessarily a “great Artists” woman/support mechanism) does not or should not exist. She does and should be allowed to exist more – and she fails miserably in this particular piece. You have to remember that in as much as you accuse me of imposing my urban woman issues on this piece, there is already a body of writing that precedes this piece which colors it – more concretely than my biases, admitted and not, ever could. The manner in which women of this particular environmental and economic disposition are depicted is, well, basically you need to do more with it to add something useful to the existing body of literature on the subject.

    ok. I may have alluded to this earlier, but the “great” “artist” does not also exist substantially, particularly given her environment and situation. What does he do, who say’s he is great – that seems more interesting to me given where she (they) live. Described alone, without the fruits of her labor in him being expressed, (since her labor in him is central to the piece) she exists here in ridiculous cliche and is therefore dishonored.

    the first question I would have for the writer would be what are you trying to do with this piece?!
    For the narrator, I wonder what his agenda is, why he cares to lift her up on the page.


  5. Neema, I have to go back to the very first reason why you don’t like this verse.

    “It suggests that all great artists are men or lesbians”

    Wrong. It seems to me (having re-read the verse), that the writer only uses his place in society (as a great artist) or his aspirations (to be a great artist for example) as introduction.

    I notice that nowhere does he (or she) say GREAT MAN, as patriarchal leaning artists tend to do.

    I also notice that he (or she) uses that introduction to illustrate the great prowess of this woman that he (or she) sees as essential to the success of his (or her) – lets stipulate that wherever ‘he’ may appear in my response it may also be a woman thus (or she) – success and greatness.

    Look at every great person in history and even in today’s world. Do they not all (without exception) draw their strength and inspiration from some woman – mother, grandmother, nanny – who nurtured them and who remains their anchor? Isn’t that true for both men and women across societies? And you say it like it is a bad thing or an instrument of further maligning the woman.

    To your point number three which corresponds largely to the first para of your second response, i am led to wonder whether you understand the value of statistics in society. Hark this figures. 65% of Kenyans are rural based – More than half of these are women.35% of Kenyans are urban based. Slightly less than half of them are women. Are these numbers meaningless?

    The reference to rules and exceptions is a logical one and must be understood to respond properly to my earlier statement which is – In Africa (certainly sub-Saharan Africa), the rural folk (and women) are the rule (i.e. the norm) rather than the exception (the relatively unusual).

    With this in mind, is it not possible that the writer of this piece will write of the nurturer, the essential woman in the light of his surroundings and environments growing up?

    Therefore when you complain that the writer “glorifies a certain type of life, a certain type of woman living in a certain type of space, fulfilling a limited type of role and does not acknowledge that it is limited,” one wonders where the problem with that could be, especially because the writer will write what he sees and feels as you would.

    I further submit that the writer has absolutely no responsibility to anyone to admit that his view is limited if at all he is. There is no room for disclaimers in inspiration. DITTO: when you say that the values that the writer uses are restrictive – he has no responsibility to make them all encompassing or comprehensive.

    Show me a writer who works hard at qualifying his work for the sake of political correctness and I will show you a hypocrite.

    BY THE WAY: You have focused on the notion of “the great artist”, while the writer as focused on the great person, a clear fundamental difference – wherein i notice that the writer makes a concession to political correctness (he could have said the “Great man”)

    You ask that we recognize that “that it may even be construed that the particulars (a rural life) (a long suffering female body who is spat on among other things) are indicators of ‘woman’ and all that she must be, condone and be subjected to”

    I wonder: is it not true that the greatest victories are achieved at the end of the bloodiest of battles? Does her sacrifice and circumstance not make her victory even the greater and the writers wanton admiration and gratitude all the greater?

    You read “and it is forever: “she was, is and always be.” “Woman” as restrictive and negative. Is it not possible it is that she will remain on the pedestal upon which he has placed her permanently?

    At this point you veer off into the the horizon of the woman advocacy issues and the women’s lib platform and begin to loose me. Your whole point number five in the first response is a moot point because the writer would not – and you have not right to ask him/her to – work at political correctness to please you or women’s lib.

    You also begin thereafter to address yourself to the semantics of the person’s work (“juncture has no place in such work”), question her relationship with her (even though you were quick to assume a girl/boy or partner (supportive partner) sort of thing from your first text. you question her heritage – and a lot else.

    I ask: What right have you to question the writers position or use of language. Since he spoke english, you admit GRUDGINGLY that you need not impose kenyan-ness or local-ness into the piece – – – and then you do!

    Are there not urban men and women, from Anglophone Africa – with all its nuances of nyama Choma and shags alongside high rises and Java coffee – just like you who have a high command of the English language and who might read and emulate Yeats and Wilde in their work – just as they would Binyawanga and Ngugi and Ouko?

    But all of the above seems to be besides your point anyway. Your point is that the woman ( as the nurturer and supporter) must surely exist but that they fail to adequately do so in this piece – because of the huge body of writing preceding it that colours it a certain way.

    you also, as i believe is a sub-point, say that this piece adds nothing USEFUL to the body of literature on the subject.

    Two questions on the above: Are you not simply trying to apply another color on the piece – on top of the one that you saw colored on the piece by preceding works? How about acquiring a non-bias and read each sentence and nuance for its own merit and judge it thus?

    Secondly, it is not a must that an inspired piece add anything – useful or otherwise to the body of literature – because regardless of one critic’s views, someone somewhere, will feel something “yum” about it – or go “oooohhhh, how sweet…” and its object will be achieved adequately – pulitzer or no pulitzer.

    Read the piece again and internalize it. Substitute in your mind the premise of the Great Artist (who is not the main subject of the intro) with the great person (male and female, according to semantics). Perhaps wear black and white glasses to it as well.

    What agenda might the writer or narrator have but to elevate the women that has nurtured their own greatness (at whatever level) to the pedestal of reverence?

  6. Neema

    what good is reverence, a pedestal, does it not eventually imprison?

    what good is inspiration if it does not tell us anything we do not know, or say something we do know in a way we can no longer hear?!

    re: her suffering heightening her greatness
    If I get saved after having led a relatively peaceful, mundane life – and Jane got saved after having been a thief a prostitute and drug addict as well as a serial murderer, I feel like the Angels will be just as happy at our coming into the fold because both were sinners anyway, regardless of what human value we placed on ones sin over the other. I may need to check that, but well.

    also, despite the fact that the writer said “great person” the person sounds clearly male – has a very masculine voice.

    if the goal of the writer is to elevate the woman, he needs to do more because he, as narrator is positioned so disadvantageously that he cannot believably do that.

    and there’s a difference between having this woman/women “adequately” exist as opposed to “authentically” exist. She/these women are not real.

    Consider the Kitchen toto + Lord Delamere example we spoke of, in terms of the problems between the narrators tone and his subject. I’m just saying that Lord Delamere has to do a hell of a lot more work to glorify the toto to me (individual who is not his kin and who recognizes the particular power relationship he shares with the kitchen toto) and get passed my first instinct that he only likes/glorifies the toto because the toto is subservient, does not question his authority, and is an (unwilling or ignorantly willing) part of the machine that keeps Delamere powerful and Kitchen Toto powerless. Yaani to make me believe that this toto is actually an independent, free thinking human who really loves Delamere and Chooses to work so hard and endure so much to support him in reaching his full Delamere potential… and is just a Happy Kitchen Toto all the time for all his labor and his continued limited freedom… *sigh* what can I say.

    Alternative response, since I seem to be getting nowhere with reason:
    Hack in and chew out my fallopian tubes with a hoe or your teeth – they are alike now. Sit me down on the pedestal to bleed and die, ensure by whatever means that I am straight-backed eternally. And when I am dead freeze my remains before asking if I had a Will or had told another of my wish to be cremated. Then ask yourself and no one else if it was what I wanted. Say yes.
    Put the pedestal and I in your museum. National Museum. Go Global. Call the work “Praise,” the word carved on a large, heavy, red earthen brick (for some ethnic flavour), in Monotype Corsiva (because you remember me saying I thought it was so gisty). Stand it on my toes, you will have made them curl out (broken them) to help keep my body from falling over backword from the awkward perching straight-backed but frog-like crouching position you sat me in, fallopian tubes hanging out, shrivelled up from being tiny and delicate and then frozen. Time will pass, people will come to see and presently leave when they are bored or have some other spectacle to seek.

    If I was in my body to feel my knees would hurt after a while
    – because my mother’s do when it is cold and I am her daughter.

  7. Having read through this passage,my opinion is that there is a tendency for women to be more caring and nurturing than men,hence their preponderance in counseling roles,in nursing,in catering and other domestic roles.All these roles are played out in our mothers,whether urbanized or rural.This is what the author has tried to bring out.

    Of course not all women have these attitudes,not all women are angels.There are many women who enjoy the cut and thrust of what I shall call counter-productive competitiveness;there are many women who do not have a nurturing disposition.They can be described as women who have “balls”.In the same breath,there are many men who exhibit traits that can only be termed as feminine and would be much happier if they practiced them,but they are caught up in a masculine world where to exhibit them would only serve to work against them.

    For me,this article recognizes that women,because of their upbringing and experiences,bring to the table a set of attitudes preferable to those brought by men,in this case,the nurturing attitude.The implication that all great artists are men or lesbians is unwarranted.Former tennis great Martina Hingis,who is not a lesbian, owes her success to her mother who nurtured her from an early age.There have been several examples of women,mothers,who sacrificed whatever dreams and ambitions that they had in order to see their children,male or female,prosper in one way or another.This is the essential woman,what is the harm in highlighting this?

  8. Vee

    I haven’t read both Neema & Kags lengthy debates but my take on the piece is that it’s shallow in the sense that there exist more sides to the women who raised us. This piece is skewed to an idealistic and angelic angle… while we all know that they reign both fear & love in our hearts, hopelessness and hope, they inspired and sometimes caused despair! They did have their own failed dreams that they lived through us whether we liked it or not. They had dreams that they achieved and that challenged us. Either way without them and all their multi personalities God gave them to us and here we are.

  9. Neema

    Cough Cough…
    Vee spoke.

    Ya’ll need to appreciate that for all our (my) critiques, none are directed at the writer or his intention. I merely comment, constructively I would hope, on the success and limits of his intentions.

    Vee like me, clearly does not believe the piece. On some level, this is like advertising. You have to make your audience believe you somehow, regardless of what your selling and however they feel about whatever your product is at that point. bado boss. 🙂

  10. sitawa

    i think its a truly deep work of writing it gives the power to the women i think when the writer talks about great men it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is male it generally talks about humans in general.

  11. aduna

    the beauty of the piece lies in its ability to bring to focus the strength of all women, rural or urban. it is very similar to rap songs about the african american mother by pple like tupac. we did not fail to understand the beauty of the song because he did not talk of the african woman’s trials. coz at the end of the day they are all trials….

    i like that the piece points out that the woman is greater than the great person, without saying it

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