Muturi, why didn’t you say something? You clearly looked like you had something to say, a close friend recently asked me after a dinner event organized to discuss issues of race, gender, class and privilege at Colgate.
What exactly does ‘having a voice’ mean? Is it speaking the most during all your conversations? Is it using the best arguments and the most powerful rhetorical tools in speech? Or, maybe, is it strategically utilizing the medium and form you feel most empowered in and best suited to the specific context to express your ideas, thoughts and opinions?
I am pondering the meaning of voice because a while back I tweeted, “Sometimes I am scared that my fingers speak over ten times more articulately that my tongue.” See, I am quite introverted. My close friends will swear I am not because I talk a lot more when I am around them, something that a Psychology class taught me is, ironically, very common among introverts. In addition, introversion and extroversion, like many things in this complex life, don’t exist in a set-in-stone binary but rather on a dynamic continuum. For me, oftentimes, especially in formal group settings with relatively large and unfamiliar audiences, talking requires extra energy, leaving my comfort zone at an opportunity cost. Furthermore, I am naturally soft-spoken, and sometimes, especially when I have to speak in English in this kind of context without prior preparation, I stammer, feel nervous and my train of thought often gets off the rails. Add my ‘foreign accent’ into the concoction and you have a recipe for disaster. A member of the audience predictably reacts, with their facial muscles scrunched up to show the excessive energy they are employing to decipher my message, “Sorry, say that again!” or “Speak louder!” or, my personal dis-favourite, “Muturi, stop mumbling!” The writer in me can make out the gigantic exclamation marks and question marks at the end of their statements. It might not be the case, but at that point in time, I am bound to think that they think I do not know what I am saying. After decades of this negative feedback, I am not surprised by my frequent choice, in this kind of contexts to:
- remain silent (but react non-verbally),
- play the role of the keen listener (which doesn’t necessarily imply agreement with the speaker) — somebody has to do it! — and,
- then react, in due time and comprehensively, in the manner I feel most empowered.
I remember as a kid in the earlier years of my primary school, my mum and my teacher were quite worried about my ‘speech abilities.’ My mum would always insist on me repeating words because she thought I was ng’ong’oraing(speaking in an incomprehensible manner). She would ask my teachers if I did the same in class and most would respond by saying that I rarely made contributions in their classes. Nonetheless, most of my teachers loved me because I was one of their best students. When I wrote my answers and solved the problems, I always did quite well.
Speaking has never been my cup of tea. My past reports are full of teachers saying Peter is an intelligent student but he should speak up more in my class and I have endured comments like why are you swallowing your words or you speak too softly. Sometimes I retort to these comments with a curt I think you need to listen more carefully; oftentimes, I don’t respond to them but can’t help wondering why the world thinks introversion, a personality trait predominant in almost half of its population, is an anomaly that needs fixing and not a latent force that can be harnessed given the right conditions. No wonder a major bone that I chew with God in our private conversations— aka prayers — has often been why did you curse me with such a heavy tongue? Again and again, He keeps responding, but, son, I gave you lighter fingers. Imagine if my servant Moses had to speak the ten commandments instead of engraving them on tablets!
So, I don’t feel voiceless. I simply need more time thinking through and articulating concepts and ideas which is what writing allows me to do. It offers a different kind of voice, which I consider very potent. A voice that transcends the constraints of the time-space continuum; think I am lying, ask Homer, he of The Iliad and The Odyssey; or, better yet, ask The Egyptians who wrote in hieroglyphics. What do you mean you can’t ask them because they are long dead even though their work is still alive, well, isn’t that kinda the point?
When I write, I write audaciously. I sit in silence, strategically synthesize the voices and stories I have heard and read, add my own voice, personality, experiences, values and story, then spit out whatever the product is, without an iota of fear or favour. I am confident my readers will not complain about my ‘foreign accent’, or my ‘swallowed words’ or ‘my mumbling.’ Most likely they will say ‘that was brave’, ‘I am glad the world gets to hear your voice’, ‘that was an intense, engaging, soul consuming piece’, ‘point X makes sense but I disagree with point Y because…’, ‘I want an autographed copy of your first book’, ‘your story inspired me to talk with my dad’, ‘keep writing on’,…
So, I talk less; I write on, more.
Overall, I believe I am getting louder, and, honestly, I am uncomfortably comfortable with it, and I love it when I feel like this.
Of course, we must be wise enough to discern the difference between refusing to engage verbally and strategically choosing to engage in the voice one finds most powerful and appropriate. And I cannot refute the blatant fact that there is a lot of value in speech in our real world as it exists. This realization is what drove me to take a course in Public Speaking two years ago. I don’t want to disclose my grade, as it might seem boastful and would be distracting, but I can assure you it was strong enough to allay fears about my ability to use speech strategically. Nonetheless, I think the onus on each one of us is to find our voices, in whatever ways we’re gifted—from painting, to drawing, to coding, to music, to poetry, to oratory, to anything—, strengthen these voices and use them to communicate our passions and ideas for a better society.
My friend, Christelle, I might not have spoken to the entire room during that dinner, but you bet over a thousand people have read Dear Natasha and Dear Natasha 2.0 online and offline. And, the tens who will read these two essays today, and in the future, will tell you that the two discuss issues of race, gender, class and privilege at Colgate, and beyond. Christelle, if somebody then says I am ‘doing it wrong,’ then there is something to be said about that and who gets to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, I think I might have justwritten about it.
Yes, there was the influential extrovert in the person of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who stood up with charisma; but we must never forget that there was the resolute introvert in the person of Rosa Parks, who sat down with fortitude. God gave us both; we needed both.