Our dignity is priceless

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“Women” by Nana Yaw Kowalski

Over ten years ago, when I was a graduate student, I received a small beautiful card in the post, and in it was a handwritten note from one of the faculty in the department where I was. In the note, he said that he loved me, that he couldn’t stop dreaming about me and he wanted to make love with me. So could we go on a date?

Honestly, I thought it was a bad joke, so I tore up the letter and pretended that nothing had happened.An additional two weeks later, however, I received another letter from him. This time, the professor said that he hadn’t heard from me, but in anticipation of my reply, he was enclosing a cheque for €8,500 with instructions on how I was to cash it.

Apparently, he had read an essay I had posted on my school website, where I mentioned that I loved travelling and would do a lot more if I had the cash. So the money was to enable me to travel, and the remainder was for a project for the poor in Kenya. However, he gave me instructions on how to cash it – I was to take it to the bank on specific days, so that his wife wouldn’t find out.

At that time, €8,500 was a lot of money. It was enough to pay my rent for a few months, and leave quite some money over. It could have paid for a trip to and accommodation in Italy, which was a country I dreamed of visiting but had no money to. Even now, €8,500 is a lot of money, almost KES 950,000. Can you imagine what I would do with that now?

But I never did cash that cheque.

You see, my mother had told me for many, many years, since I was a girl, that I must never accept money from a man. I was in school to learn how to take care of myself, so why accept such gifts? Also, she told me that those gifts never come free. There was always a price I would have to pay, and it would be a very expensive one. Of course she was talking about sex, and at the time I never imagined that I could get offered almost a million shillings for it. But my mother had taught me to consider my dignity priceless. My dignity had no price tag.

What was later to surprise me, however, is that many Africans whom I told that story – especially men – said I should have taken that money. I could give it to charity, they said. That money could go a long way in helping all our poor relatives we had left at home. I could take the money but not sleep with him.

To my recollection, only two people have told me that I had made the right decision. My mother did – of course. But also my husband. But by the time I told my husband, I was so used to being told that I made a foolish decision, so even when I told him of the incident, I said that maybe I was the stupid one. Chris assured me that I did the right thing. Not just because he loves me, but he also has his own experience in which he has learned the same lesson. So we’re a perfect match.

The point of me telling this story is not to show what a holy woman I am (or a stupid one, depending on how you see it). This was not the first time a man had offered me something in exchange for my dignity. Some offered me money, but most offered their acceptance, while others offered me violence, telling me that if I annoyed them, it would be understandable – even African – to hit me.

I still made mistakes, got humiliated and my heart broken. Many times. Finally, two years after I returned home, which was about six years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The journey through treatment gave me a sense of my life being precious, even though I was a single woman. And two years ago, I finally understood what it meant to know that my dignity was priceless. Pastor Muriithi Wanjau preached a sermon in which he said that we are women because God created us women. Not because we get married, or give birth, or are beautiful. Our identity is from God. I then told God that I would accept myself as God made me, and that I would no longer sacrifice my dignity to a man for anything.
And within eight months of making that prayer, I was in love with the man who is now my husband.

I am now in a good place. My struggle to grow our music program is now bearing fruit, and I get invited to give talks because of the stuff I write on my blog. I’ve built a fairly solid reputation for boldly speaking my mind. Challenges at work have become easier because I have a friend, my husband, who shares my tears and joys with me.

I wouldn’t be where I am today, if I had not valued my dignity. I wouldn’t have been as confident to speak what I think. I would have accepted to be violated again and again. I would have shut up when people told me that I’m too aggressive for a woman, and maybe that is why no man wanted to marry me.

By contrast, there is a man in the Bible, Esau, who sold his dignity for a bowl of soup. In Gen 25: 27-34, we read:

27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skilled hunter, a man who loved the outdoors, but Jacob was a quiet man who stayed at home. 28 Isaac preferred Esau, because he enjoyed eating the animals Esau killed, but Rebecca preferred Jacob.

29 One day while Jacob was cooking some bean soup, Esau came in from hunting. He was hungry 30 and said to Jacob, “I’m starving; give me some of that red stuff.” (That is why he was named Edom.)

31 Jacob answered, “I will give it to you if you give me your rights as the first-born son.”

32 Esau said, “All right! I am about to die; what good will my rights do me?”

33 Jacob answered, “First make a vow that you will give me your rights.”

Esau made the vow and gave his rights to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave him some bread and some of the soup. He ate and drank and then got up and left. That was all Esau cared about his rights as the first-born son.

The story of Esau is the story of poor perspective. Esau was the first born, and he was evidently very attached to his birthright, to the extent that later on, he was willing to kill his brother Jacob for it (Gen 27:41). However, on this day, in a moment of temporary weakness, he forgot how much value he attached to it, and he sold his birthright, with implications for eternity, “for a single meal,” as the writer of Hebrews says (Heb 12: 16). He was so desperate for that soup, and some translations say he called it that “red stuff.” That’s what he sold his birthright for. That stuff.

Well, Jacob wasn’t exactly a good boy. He must have coveted that blessing for quite a while, and the opportune came when his brother was very hungry. And he seized the moment, and proposed the transfer at Esau’s moment of weakness. But even then, Esau’s reply was shocking: “I’m going to die anyway, so what is the use of a birthright to me?”

Now, let’s think about it one minute. We know that Esau was a good hunter. We also know that he knew how to prepare a fabulous stew, because when his father Isaac was ready to bless him, Isaac asked Esau to go hunt, and cook the tasty stew that Isaac liked (Gen 27:4). That means that on the day he sold his birthright, Esau could have actually chosen to endure the hunger for an hour and prepare himself a meal, if Jacob adamantly refused to give his brother some soup out of love for a brother, not in exchange for something.

But Esau didn’t wait. Instead, he sold his birthright. For a bowl of soup.

And the price Esau paid was much, much bigger and eternal than the temporary relief from the soup. The blessing which Jacob stole from him included fertile fields, other nations serving him, and curses on those who cursed him, and blessings on those who blessed him (Gen 27:27-29). Because of his foolishness, he inherited a legacy of struggle (Gen 2:39-40), and a long-term murderous anger against his brother Jacob. Was all that worth it for a single meal? For that red stuff? Of course not.

Yet every day, we Kenyans sell our birth right. Elections are coming up next year, and many of us Kenyans are going to receive bribes from politicians in exchange for our vote. Or in exchange for our silence for the five years between elections. In the universities – and now I’m getting to my main point – we sell our birthright so many times. For a bowl of soup called a grade. We cheat in exams. We copy-paste from the internet, because our birthright to think for ourselves has been taken away by a rotten education system. We women accept money from older men, money which we use to go to the salon. To buy that outfit. Sometimes we accept bargains where we sell our soul for that grade. Yet others sell their independence to come-we-stay with a fellow student, for fear that we may not get married if we’re educated.

Just for a grade, or to feel loved, we sell our birthright for a single meal. A bowl of soup. It is a bowl of soup because two or three years after you graduate, no one will care much about whether you got an A- or a B- in poetry. Yet you will pay for these compromises for grades now with the rest of your life. As a woman, you never get to be confident about your own abilities, and you will keep offering your dignity to get ahead. Others of us will need to keep on cheating to cover up our inadequacies, and will never get the confidence to say that “this much I know, that I don’t know, and I’m willing to learn.”

As a man, you will get used to taking shortcuts, and never be a man of your word. You will become the dirty politician, the absent father, that you hate so much now. You will lead a double life, hurting the women and children who love you, and sacrificing the welfare of millions of Kenyans through diverting public resources that could spare a woman and a new born baby from death, that could provide poor children with education, or healthcare to millions.

I am here to tell you that all these compromises you’re making now, for a mere grade, for acceptance, for assurance that you are beautiful, are not worth giving up your dignity and your integrity. You are a child of God, with a birthright to inherit God’s kingdom, no matter how little resources you have. The people willing to give you thousands of shillings to sleep with you, to give up your vote, know that however much they give you, your dignity, integrity and human birthright are much, much more valuable. That’s why they’re willing to part with so much. So you too, should know how valuable your dignity is. Do not give up your dignity for a bowl of soup. In Hebrews chapter 12, the writer reminds us in verse 16 that we should not be immoral like Esau, who sold his rights for “a single meal,” and lived to regret it because he could not reverse his father’s blessing.

However, I also know that many students have not given up their birthright, and are paying the price. You refused the advances of from people who should be serving you, and have paid dearly for it. You may have even tried to pursue justice, but found no one would listen. As a woman, no one took you seriously. You’re a woman or a man who has refused to cheat in assignments and exams, and many think you’re a fool, especially when they get better grades than you do. And whatever decision you made to maintain your dignity has left you hurt and humiliated.

I am here to give you hope. In Hebrews 11, the writer of the chapter tells us of many, many people who gave up what they had in the present for blessings in the future. There was Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and by the time the writer reaches verse 32, he even asks “Should I go on? There isn’t enough time for me to speak of Gideon, Barak, David and the prophets. They did what was right and received what God had promised. They shut the mouths of lions, put out fierce fires, escaped being killed by the sword. They were weak, but became strong…through faith women received their dead relatives raised back to life.” The chapter ends with these words, in verses 39 and 40: “What a record all of these have won by their faith! Yet they did not receive what God had promised, because God had decided on an even better plan. His purpose was that only in company with us, would they be made perfect.”

But it is in the next chapter where the writer concludes with one of my favorite bible verses: “As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses round us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way…let us run with determination the race that lies before us.” We have a great crowd of witnesses. Of men and women in the Bible, in African history, who kept the faith. Their lives are made perfect not by what they did, but by you, when (as the writer of Hebrews says) you honor them by keeping the faith they kept, by doing the right thing. By keeping the faith as our shujaas did.

And for you who have sold your birthright for a bowl of soup, I’m here to tell you that you can have it restored. Jesus can give restore your birthright. Jesus is not like Isaac who told his weeping son that it was too late. In Romans 8, we’re told that there’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. In verses 14 to 16, we are told that Christ restores our birthright as God’s children, for “the Spirit that God has given you does not make you slaves and cause you to be afraid; instead, the Spirit makes you God’s children, and by the Spirit’s power, we cry to God “Father, father!” God’s Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God’s children.”

I was asked to speak today about “The company you keep.” And I will conclude by saying this: the company you keep is more than the friends you have now. It’s also about the historical figures you know. It’s also about your mentors. Who are your heroes? How much do you read about them? Get a history book and find out more about them. Make their lives perfect by surrounding yourself with a crowd of witnesses.

I am also here to offer you a forum to provide that crowd. Next Monday, Ajenda Afrika will host a ladies meeting to talk about maintaining our birthright. And I’m not talking about virginity. I’m talking about dignity. We will talk about the pain of giving up our birthright. We’ll talk about having it restored. We’ll talk about the pain of affirming our birthright while people mock us. There will be only two gentlemen in the room, two men, who will tell us about making better choices with the men we allow in our lives. The next week, Monday 8th, we will have a similar session for the men only, with only two women in the room.

So come let’s cry together, let’s laugh together. Let’s affirm our humanity. Let us proclaim that our birthright as God’s children is infinitely more valuable than a bowl of soup. A bowl of soup may be 2k sent to us by mpesa, or a cheque of 8,500 euros, or a packet of unga for a vote. But it is still a bowl of soup. And no matter how expensive that gift is, our dignity is worth much more than that. It is worth the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Our dignity is priceless.

This is the text of a sermon Dr Wandia preached to students of Daystar University Athi River campus, on January 28, 2016. The views presented here do not, in any way, reflect the position of the university.

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