author – activist – faculty – mom
And people will often ask women in ongoing abusive relationships, “why did she stay?” Sometimes, women stay because they lack the resources to get out of the relationship. But other times women stay because they have connected with the part of a man that is human, that exists outside of his abusive behavior, and she is bonded to that man’s humanity. And it’s difficult in our culture to understand that because we are taught to see everything in a dichotomous good/bad. Our culture finds it difficult to hold these two sides of people: the truth of their humanity and the reality of their abusive behavior.
The same is true in the reverse. When we are in touch with the brilliance or gift or dedication of a leader or artist or upstanding member of our community, people will often express shock and disbelief. He couldn’t possibly be a rapist, child molester, sexual abuser because…I loved his book/His speech moved me/I’m his biggest fan. When someone comes forward with an accusation against the beloved luminary, many will blame or discredit the accuser, unable to accept the possibility that their hero could be capable of misdeeds as well as greatness.
Sometimes it is easier when people value what a public figure can do, as opposed to how they make us feel. The public can accept that Ray Rice could be a stellar football player, yet a brutal and abusive partner.
So now we come to the case of Tony Mochama, a columnist with Kenya’s Standard Group, Secretary of PEN Kenya, and holder of a Morland Writing Scholarship. Mochama allegedly sexually assaulted feminist poet and activist Shailja Patel at an international gathering of poets in Kenya. Mochama initially denied that attended the gathering. However, his presence there was witnessed and confirmed by the 12 others who were present, including Kwame Dawes, founder of the African Poetry Book Fund, who convened the gathering. It was also confirmed by the poet who invited him, Clifton Gachagua, to whom Mr. Mochama afterwards allegedly boasted of his assault on Patel. When the story keeps changing, any credibility the alleged perpetrator might have had is lost.
Mochama’s supporters, however, do not seem to have any trouble believing his story. Apparently they are having trouble accepting that he could be both a celebrated writer and capable of sexual assault. Radio personality Caroline Mutoko of Nairobi’s KISS 100 “grew up with Tony.” In a videotaped interview, she wrestles with the possibility that the sexual assault allegations against him could be true: “He has a committed partnership. I think he’s married, and he has a child. I’m finding it very hard to believe that what is being said about Tony is true…I’m hoping it isn’t….It would be painful if it was true.”
Mutoko acknowledges the reality that accepting the misdeeds of our friends or heroes is “painful.” We want to believe the best about those we care about. Of course, her logic is totally flawed. Having a committed partnership, a marriage or a child has never stopped men from pursuing other sexual avenues. But beyond that, sexual assault is not about the pursuit of consensual sex, it’s about asserting sexual power and domination.
So some are having a hard time believing Patel because of their loyalty to Mochama. Perhaps for others, it’s not so much a case of not believing Patel, rather a dismissal of her right to complain. Perhaps for some it’s just a good old boys situation, where men have the right to turn a co-ed gathering of internationally renowned poets into a frat party where the guys have license to grab any women they choose. According to one media outlet, “There was no alcohol at the venue but Tony Mochama decided to turn it into a BYOB and so he brought his own alcohol.” The author concludes by saying, “some of the women present accuse Tony Mochama of being a perenial pervert, putting paws on their assets whenever he gets drunk and unruly.”
But as I said, men are not animals, they are not scum, they are not rodents or douchebags. They are human beings. They’re capable of brilliance as well as abuse. And for their humanity and brilliance they deserve affirmation, but for their abuse and oprressive behaviors, they need to be accountable. Period.