The first time I met Elema Nyar Marsabit, she was wearing a jungle green bandage dress. The way she wore that dress is something you will never forget for eternity.
It was a hot Saturday afternoon, and I was delivering my novel that she had bought to her. Meeting point: Kenya Cinema.
When meeting a stranger, you rarely know what to expect. And as she approached me with her signature eager smile, I was quite frankly smitten. Bantu and Cushitic genes had conspired to present to me easily one of the flawless beauties.
If her beauty and curves were enthralling, her personality was sickly magnetic. She is a true charmer. A straight shooter. I was thirsty and famished, I asked her if we could do lunch at the Branch Restaurant. But she was full and in a rush. However, she did agree to take a bottle of water, as I signed her book. So, up we went, and for a brief ten minutes we chatted about her growing up in Marsabit, her training as a teacher (she has never stepped inside a classroom), and her idea of fun and hobbies, which reading Kenyan books is part of.
She left me to deal with gizzards and watching her walk away in painfully sexy steps, left me wondering what stale weed Ayi Kweyi Armah was smoking when he said the beautiful ones were not yet born.
We started chatting regularly. Flirting occasionally.
To chat with Elema is like gossiping with the naughtiest, wittiest college friend. The conversations roll on with a familiarity reserved for people who have known each other for at least 14 and half years. There is no question that is too hard for her to answer. She peppers her answers with self-deprecating humour and surprising candour, never forgetting her devastating wit. She terrified me in our chats, and for all my liberal attitude to life, sometimes she has forced me back to my conservative cocoon, wondering how girls became so wild and ungovernable.
She is known for her brassy, sometimes bratty, sometimes squeamish Facebook posts that make me and some men squirm. Women celebrate her outspokenness on female sexuality, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and childhood marriages up North where she comes from. She has spoken about motherhood and its discontents. In a sense, she is the voice of young millennial women faced with existential angsts. In a society that silences women, or wishes women didn’t voice some of these issues, she has become their voice. Because, either way, someone has to say these things. It is a thankless job she has taken that attracts cheers and jeers in equal measures. And men like me, sometimes pray she toned it down a bit. But she doesn’t speak or care about the opinion of men like me who pine for the good old days when women were silent.
Elema hates me. Or my guts. Or what I post online.
“It is misogyny. Do you hate women?” she asks me, and for the umpteenth time, I remind her that I love women to death, to the moon, and back.
“Just because you disagree with some of my views does not make me a misogynist,” I tell her. She sneers and throws her hand up in desperation. But unlike other women who block me and silently pray for me to choke on maize porridge, she always takes me on and calls me out on what we disagree on.
We have this conversation when she buys my third, Man About Town. We meet on Moi Avenue, this time round, she is wearing a free-flowing, floor-sweeping floral dress. We walk to Nuria Book Store on Moi Avenue where I sign the book for her, and she dashes out to go pick up her daughter from school. In the meantime, I invite her to be a hostess at my book launch. She agrees.
To my book launch back in July she wore a ruby-red, figure-hugging skirt and a white crop top that left her achingly flat-as-mirror tummy and a sweet navel out. She catches the attention of the men and women in the room. And of course, everyone wants to know who is she to me. She is a friend who just doesn’t know how to dress badly. She puts on what compliments her body that she is very proud of. Some don’t believe me; the rest want her number. I can’t share.
Our lunch date was long overdue. It is hard setting up lunch in Nairobi. Partly because I move around a lot. And partly because everyone is busy in Nairobi.
She may be a feminist, but she left me with the task of arranging for our lunch.
“As long as it is meat, lots of meat, pasta, and there is camel milk, I am sold,” she told me on phone.
“That means any Somali restaurant in the CBD would do?” I asked her, to which she accepted.
I had plans for a more exotic lunch, but Elema still loves her Borana background. And thus, I settled for my favourite Somali restaurant in Nairobi CBD: Al Yusra.
She got there fast seeing as she lives closer to town, and I live three counties away. Not exactly a patient being, but if running late is misogyny, that is fine, anything to rile up a feminist.
I arrive and she is seated in the private space reserved for couples or women. She is wearing a beige dress, her hair now cut short. What is seated across from me is a desert goddess. Never has a woman owned her body, her sexuality, herself, like Elema this Thursday afternoon. The permanently eager gaze and smile make for a healthy bonding over a very Somali and Swahili late lunch.
She goes for arosto, which is fried young goat meat prepared in a very Somali way. She doesn’t want any starchy accompaniment.
“Is that the secret to your curves and killer body?” I ask her, even as I remind her that the food comes with an accompaniment, and I insist that she has to eat the accompaniment, which can be rice, fries, or ugali (not so common). She opts for rice.
I opt for their Swahili chicken biryani, which is served with a salad and yogurt, and an extremely good peppery sauce.
Once, Elema opens her mouth to talk, you have no choice but listen to her with minimal interruption. And she has a story to tell. Which can start from her high school deviant days. She went to school in Marsabit County, one of the most underdeveloped parts of the country, occupied by various pastoralist tribes.
“I wasn’t always a sexy, pretty thing, if anything I got my curves when I turned 19, after giving birth. I blossomed rather late, and quite suddenly,” she tells me, showing me a picture from her high school days.
She is not the fiery beauty she has become but the signs are there.
When she joined college, she was invisible. Nobody noticed her at all. Then she went back home one holiday and wore her cousin’s dress. It fit her like skin, but also revealed her curves that had blossomed inside her like a volcanic activity that explodes abruptly catching everyone off-guard. The next time she went back to college, she had everyone’s attention. It was unbelievable.
But if she is happy, even grateful for her beauty, her life is chequered and she is not afraid to tell her story, where others would be shy.
She got pregnant by the first man she ever gave her heart to. Just after high school. And in typical pastoralist fashion, the man had to marry her. Her mother was not for the idea. But tradition prevailed and the man paid the bride price, and a traditional wedding took place. And she was shipped further and deeper the annals of Marsabit County from where her husband came from.
Her husband’s family was not exactly enthusiastic about her, seeing as she came from a different tribe.
“I was isolated and lonely,” she explains. Throughout the pregnancy up to the delivery, she received little to no support, but she endured, willing the marriage to work. However, after giving birth to her daughter, there was no support for her from the family and she suffered even more. because of stress, even the milk in her breasts died; her daughter had to be fed goat milk, which suffices.
“Life as a young mother wasn’t easy. I fetched water from several miles away. I still had to cook for the man, who often didn’t touch the food. He preferred his mother’s food,” she says. Only the brother-in-law and father-in-law were sympathetic to her situation.
Still, she was hopeful that the marriage would pan out for the better. She was dedicated. But her dedication wasn’t enough. Nothing she will ever do to earn the love of her husband. And then, the formerly loving man became abusive. Still, she was not in her senses. She didn’t even speak her husband’s language and they could not speak to her in a language that she understood.
When she could not have it anymore, she conspired with her mother to escape her marriage. What her mother gave out, and what her mother received were two different beings. She went back home weighing 29 kilograms.
After leaving, she never looked back. Better still, she came back to her senses to realise that she was too young to have condemned herself to an abusive marriage. Besides, she was intelligent and eloquent. This was going to stand her in good stead for the causes she will choose to fight for in the future: feminism, HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ, Gender-Based Violence, anti-Female-Genital-Mutilation, and everything that a girl from a pastoralist community is likely to be denied or anything that will stand in between her and success.
Online, she remains vocal about these issues. Whether it is the importance of the clitoris on female sexuality or homophobia, she will talk about it, using personalized experience to drive her point home. And in her comment section, one gets to see how her lived experience can empower others, especially women to share and voice their experiences. It can be therapeutic if you think about it.
For her bravery, outspokenness, courage, her eloquence, her writing, and articulation on these very uncomfortable topics, she is a queen in her own right. And here is to hope that the book she is working on, will be out soon, and it will be full of her uncaring honesty, wit, humour, and above all, her story can well inspire more girls from north Kenya.
She avoids the rice as she had promised. And she can’t finish the large meat portion of arosto, and thus nudges me to help her finish off the delectable piece of goat rib. As I see her off to catch a cab, there is a lingering doubt that the date should have gone on forever. Because she won’t stop talking and she is entertaining at every turn. In total, our lunch runs from 3.30 p.m to 6.30 p.m.
Elema is currently contesting for the Mrs. Universe Kenya 2022. You can take 4 seconds to vote for her.
“The Mrs. Universe Kenya pageantry is creating awareness on GBV and getting the crown will enable me to fight for the young girls who might not have had a chance as I did,” she urges. Voting will run until December 12, and one is allowed to vote daily.
To vote, follow this link https://africapageantonline.com/pageant/mrs-universe-kenya-2022
PS: Recently, Elema started a Community Based Organization to create HIV/AIDS awareness and to fight the stigma that comes with it. Today is World Aids Day, you can chip in to contribute towards her cause through the following till number: 7177247