No winners in the ?war of the wives? in Kenya

No winners in the ?war of the wives? in Kenya

Date: January 1, 1970
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In what has become known as the ?war of the wives? – a home made soap opera in the Kenyan media – Lucy Kibaki?s temper flares have been attributed to her inability to handle the public appearance of the ?other? woman in her husband?s life.

The recent happenings in Kenya concerning the First Lady, Lucy Kibaki, have sparked a myriad of reactions from Kenyans, as well as local and international media. News reports the world over captured Kibaki at the Nation Media group protesting against what she saw as negative media coverage of her family. She apparently also slapped a cameraman.
The Kenyan media craze with the first family began in 2003 when the then Kenyan vice-president, Moody Awori, “inadvertently” referred to Lucy Kibaki as ‘the second lady’ during a dinner speech in Mombasa. This statement was made in reference to the ‘other’ woman in President Kibaki’s life – Mary Wambui.
In what has become known as the “war of the wives” – a home made soap opera in the Kenyan media – Lucy Kibaki’s temper flares have been attributed to her inability to handle the public appearance of the ‘other’ woman in her husband’s life.
However, Kenyan national media’s obsession with personal aspects of Lucy Kibaki deserves closer inspection. The First Lady has often been critiqued for her apparent lack of style by the media; including reports on her wearing ‘pyjamas’ and ‘shorts’  in public. According to the media, this is extremely unbecoming for a First Lady.
This kind of reporting, coupled with the often times violent and misogynist language used by some Kenyan commentators (including women), leaves a lot to be desired regarding how Kenyan media represents women. We need to challenge these gender imprisoning conventions where women are acculturated to look at their bodies through the eye of an imagined male gaze; and where women’s bodies define them, invariably becoming sites where their conflicts are unmistakably evident.
The President has also been advised to “rein in” his wife and to control her. The level of male chauvinism displayed here needs to be questioned because such patriarchal pronouncements are meant to silence women and relegate them to the margins of the mainstream society.
From where I stand, the ‘war of wives’ is a creation of male politicians and the male dominated media in their quest for power. Kibaki and Wambui are represented as opposites, in competition with each other. This supposed competition is also used by male politicians to get greater access to the head of state – pitching each woman against the other. Now while this strategy in some way recognises the power yielded by the two women, it also points to their manipulation by the men around them. While Kibaki and Wambui are the combatants, the spoils of the war it appears are for the male politicians.
There is no doubt that Lucy Kibaki is a powerful woman and the call for her to take a backseat and let her husband be “the man” he ought to be speaks to the national psyche in Kenya. Lucy Kibaki should know her place as a woman and her husband should behave like a “man”. Her place of course is to be silent and invisible, except to appear as an accessory on the President’s arm.
When a decision was taken that Kenyan MPs, their two spouses and eight dependents would be able to visit any hospital in the world at the taxpayers’ expense, very little was said about the “two spouses” clause in the media.  
Given their tendency towards the sensational, a story that looked at whether the same privileges would be accorded a woman Member of Parliament who has two male lovers, would have made for great journalism…. But they were silent. One wonders why. Also, although some women activists in Africa have not taken kindly to the first lady phenomenon, one cannot help but wonder why women parliamentarians and gender activists did not decry the decision to allow male MPs in Kenya to have two female beneficiaries on their medical cover.
President Kibaki himself has not been unscathed by the constructed “war of wives.” On the contrary, he has been positioned as being trapped between two powerful, warring women – a weak man, unable to control the affairs of his family.
Another portrayal of the President is as a man who the nation should pity. He is a casualty of Lucy Kibaki’s unacceptable behaviour – she is the positioned as the villain, and he as the victim of an uncontrollable wife; a martyr who is trying his best in difficult circumstances.
This brings me back to the media’s representation of Lucy Kibaki. If the media must report on private issues concerning the first family, surely there are more important matters to address than the First Lady’s wardrobe and her “villainess” behaviour towards her “poor” husband.
Unfortunately, I think that the media will go on reporting on the “war of the wives”.  
Sadly, they are missing out on the opportunity to move beyond the superficial coverage of the first family. Instead of sensationalising reports of the two women in Kibaki’s life, the media would do well to report on these issues from a more informed perspective.
The truth is as far as I can see it is that both Lucy Kibaki and Mary Wambui are pawns in the war for political power in Kenya. However, it would be a mistake to assume that these women are unaware of the power that they do in fact hold and wield.
What is missing in the analysis of the media is an interrogation of the way in which the actors in this “soap opera” are manipulated and manipulate; and how, in the bigger scheme of things, it is “the woman” who once again is the scapegoat.

Agnes Muriungi holds a PhD in Literature and is an intern at Gender Links.

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