A few months ago, I received an unexpected package in the mail. It was one of my faithful readers, who sent me a book as a gift, called Footsteps by Kirsten Johnson. It has taken me a while to get around to reading it, but I am so glad I did.
I knew nothing about the Tharakan culture in Kenya and I will not likely be traveling to that part of the world in my lifetime. But after reading Footsteps, I feel as though I’ve traveled to that part of the world and that I got to know several people from that culture intimately. I realize this is fiction but I am convinced these stories were based on real people, especially after reading the Foreword.
First I want to say a few words about Johnson’s good writing. I find there are different kinds of good writing. Some is poetic, and I want to savor every word. Other writing is provocative, challenging me to think about things differently than I have before. Then there is story-telling — the kind of descriptive writing in which I don’t notice the quality of the words, because it’s the story I find myself becoming engrossed in. These are the kinds of books I find myself staying up all night to read.
Kirsten Johnson is a true story-teller. I have never felt so drawn in to a story from a part of the world I knew so little about. She has also challenged me to think philosophically about the cultural issues she raises in Footsteps.
The main protagonist is Kanini, the eldest daughter in her family. Even though she has questions about the cultural traditions that cause women great suffering, she feels she has no choice but to follow those traditions.
As I read Footsteps, I realized more than once that growing up in the Amish culture is mild compared to growing up in the Tharakan culture, and yet there were so many parts I could relate to. When I read how Kanini was preparing for the day of her circumcision, I wanted to scream, “Don’t do it!” It reminded of the days leading up to my baptism into the Amish church when I was expected to promise that I would stay Amish for the rest of my life. I did not consciously choose to become a member — nor did I consciously choose not to, and so the cultural expectations won out. One big difference between Kanini’s situation and my own: my body was still going to be whole after my baptism.
Though Kanini submits to this ritual, her younger sister, Gatiria, is a whole different story. She is a force to contend with, and even the ancient culture into which she is born, is no match for her. I found her to be a true kindred spirit. I kept wondering why the author chose to narrate the story through Kanini, rather than through Gatiria. As I keep thinking about this story days after I finished reading it, I think she was wise in her choice. By seeing Gatiria’s inborn strength and independence through Kanini’s eyes, the reader gains a whole different perspective.
The relationship between Kanini and Gatiria is a strong one, and even after they are physically apart, they remain in communication through letters. In this regard, the reader does gain Gatiria’s perspective.
I knew that female circumcision is still practiced in parts of Africa. I read Alice Walker’s book Possessing the Secret of Joy years ago and became aware of the brutality of this tradition. But I don’t remember feeling how culturally rooted this tradition is from reading Walker’s book. Johnson plants it firmly in the tribal culture where it belongs. To change this one tradition would change the whole culture, and changing an ancient culture is not so easy. This is the aspect of Footsteps that I related to the most — no matter how much a woman resists submitting, she knows that if she refuses, she will be blamed for bringing about the demise of her culture. For Kanini, it is even more profound. No matter how clear it is to her that there is something horribly wrong with traditions that require her to submit to such deep and terrible suffering, she also knows at fourteen she does not have the strength and courage to resist. That is how her culture won out.
There is some truth to the thinking in Tharakan culture that if women no longer submit, the culture will have to change or fall apart. It is also true in the Amish culture, and in so many others around the world.
Footsteps also tells the HIV/AIDS story in the Tharakan culture in the 1990s. Many of the men are having intercourse with women outside marriage and expect that their wives will not ask them where they have been or whether they are staying faithful to their marriage. Compounded with widespread denial, the men’s behavior is a major factor in how fast the disease is spread. Whole villages are devastated, leaving young children orphaned with no one to care for them.
The conclusion of this story is mostly tragic. The men who refuse to change their ways and continue to deny the existence of HIV/AIDS are doing exactly what they didn’t want the women to do: bringing about the demise of the culture as they know it.
There is a ray of hope, however. There are survivors who are like the Phoenix bird, rising from the ashes of a culture that should have adapted and changed long ago for the sake of its own survival and for the sake of humanity. The men who do not insist on marrying a women is circumcised, and who do not seek sex outside of marriage can live healthy, normal lives with their families. There are also people like Kanini and Gatiria who have the courage to look truth in the face and deal with their situation the best way they can. Even in the face of oppression, they will carry on and provide hope to others. Two beautiful souls, shining through the clouds of despair like a double rainbow.
Thank you, Kirsten Johnson, for writing Footsteps. It is a philosophical novel that will find it’s place on my bookshelf to read again someday.
I also want to thank Paula for sending me the book. Your formal thank you will arrive in the mail in a few days.