Jean Davison first traveled to East Africa in 1977. Since that time, she has written extensively about the Gikuyu region of Kenya, particularly about the life of women in that region. In the interim, she kept track of the seven women she came to know as friends, returning to visit several times till 1994. Four of those seven women are still alive; Davison returned with specific questions in mind and for the added joy of catching up with now-lifelong friends.
Kaguno, the small community she has known, is turning into a town, with all the growing pains the process seems to demand. Davison has added precise, clear diagrams of the town, which are a great aid in orienting the reader to her journey. In addition, photographs of her friends and their extended family give additional warmth and clarity to this lovely book. Tackling often difficult issues such as female circumcision and HIV, Davison epitomizes the best qualities of friend and listener.
Female circumcision, “the awkward practice”, is explained as “the culminating ritual event of Irua,” the most important rite of passage in Gikuyu society. It was necessary in order to participate in adult society. The practice was outlawed in 1982, and Davison explores the meaning behind the ritual, the elevation in status from child to adult. She points out that it is practiced in many forms, from mild to the more severe practice which has outraged so many western feminists. Her friend Karuana points out, “When Western women start telling us what to do, it reminds us of the British. We need to find our own solutions to problems.”
And, in the true style of walking in another’s footsteps, Davison speaks of a woman’s reaction upon seeing her daughter’s braces. Hearing that it caused her pain when they were tightened, she was horrified that any mother would do such a thing to her child.
Other issues explored are the shift in economics after the 2002 election: coffee versus tea; HIV status and the reluctance of her friends or their children to talk openly about those infected; and domestic disputes between multiple wives.
This is a wonderful read, both enlightening and thoroughly enjoyable. I’d love to see this book read and discussed by high school and college students; it would also make for some lively discussion in adult book groups.