Patricia Taylor Edmisten, who served in the Peace Corps in Peru from 1962 to 1964, is an author herself. She has published Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa, Chamorro Legacy, and Wild Women with Tender Hearts, which was the winner of the 2007 Peace Corps Writers’ Award for poetry. Patricia reviews Kirsten Johnson’s novel Footsteps about life in Kenya.
by Kirsten Johnson (Kenya 1982–84)
Plain View Press
Reviewed by Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
It’s easy to forget that Footsteps is a novel. Buoyed by an enormous heart, Kirsten Johnson shares with her readers the injustice and inequities she witnessed while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya in 1982. In particular, she sheds light on the unique burdens borne by girls and women: lack of education; pregnancies before reproductive organs mature; the absence of skilled midwives; unsanitary birthing conditions; too little breast milk for their babies because they themselves are undernourished; little or no access to basic medical care and birth control; a cultural tradition of male dominance; the uneven distribution of labor, and now, HIV/AIDS and the burgeoning numbers of sick babies and orphaned children.
Central to the plight of some Kenyan women is female circumcision, the issue that drives the plot in Footsteps. Often referred to in western nations as “female genital mutilation,” it is this practice that the female protagonist Kanini endures when she’s thirteen, and it shapes her destiny. Although her parents are nominally Christians, they insist that she have her clitoris excised. In their way of thinking, female circumcision is a cultural tradition that will not only make Kanini a “proper girl,” it will be the mark by which she is fully received into her tribe.
Although female circumcision is illegal in Kenya, Kanini, if she’s to show respect for her family and neighbors, must endure unimaginable pain. (One of the strongest passages in the book is the description of Kanini’s ordeal.) Men, by contrast, after their own circumcisions, may still enjoy sexual pleasure, and stray to have more of it, endangering their wives’ lives. Women become instruments of that pleasure and have no say in determining when and how many children they will have.
Aware of the subservient role of women at the too precocious age of nine, Gateria tries to influence her older sister to refuse circumcision:
“Kanini, I’ve heard of girls who never recover from circumcision,” Gatiria said in a lowered voice. “They bleed to death, or they get infected and die after a few weeks. Even the ones who survive, some die later in childbirth. Haven’t you heard the stories? What do I care if no one wants to marry me? I’d rather be a childless old woman than die from nyambura!”
Although Kanini is fearful of the knife, she is much more anxious about the possibility of being rejected by her family and community.
A new novelist’s biggest challenge, especially if she has social or political aims, is to let plot and action reveal her protagonists’ values instead of dialogue that, were the characters real, wouldn’t be spoken because the people talking would already know the information conveyed. The writer’s tendency to teach through dialogue is the book’s biggest weakness. On the other hand, the sisters’ correspondence, after Gatiria has escaped circumcision by taking refuge in a Christian mission and Kanini is married and has borne her first child, pulses with authentic language: In the letter below, Kanini writes to Gatiria in English, a language she is still learning.
I do not like playing sex, Gatiria. When I see the sun going down, I start to feel bad thinking about the night coming. Kathenge is really liking it. He says he lives for this thing, which to me is such a torture. I do not understand why men are wanting sex all time, even so many women do not care about it. And then it is the women who must suffer having the babies. At least the men could be having them if they like the sex so much! Truly, Ngai is not fair, and I do not understand Him.
Although unspoken by the characters, Footsteps is a novel that will prompt readers to view women’s rights as human rights.
Patricia Taylor Edmisten served in Peru from 1962-64. She wrote the introduction to, and translation of, The Autobiography of Maria Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of a Peruvian Activist; the novel, The Mourning of Angels, and two books of poetry, The Treasures of Pensacola Beach and Wild Women with Tender Hearts, which won the 2007 Peace Corps Writers’ Award for Poetry.