Driving While Black (& Female)

Grandama Gathiri was a trendsetter. She was brought up by a mother, my great grandmother, who was a nurse by profession, at a time when many of her counterparts were locked into illiteracy. Gathiri’s dad, in addition to being a carpenter for Kenya Railways, had also been detained by the British Crown  for associating with the dreaded Mau Mau. All these made my mother’s mother a truly cosmopolitan Kenyan; she could draw upon varied experiences: from the countryside to the expanding cities, from 1950’s professionalism to living under the constant threat of colonial military might.

It was no surprise then, that Gathiri owned a vehicle: a red mini Morris. She went through the rigmarole of acquiring a driver’s license and chauffeured herself from place to place. Eventually, so I’ve learned, the vehicle was turned into a taxi. That didn’t last very long. The business went bust. This could have been due to a whole number of reasons – perhaps the driver/operator was skimming off too much for himself and not maintaining the vehicle as needed. Or maybe the Kenyan government cracked down on private taxis, driving them out of business and reducing the competition faced by bigger politically-connected companies.

Decades later, grandma retired and moved to Juja Farm, a former colonial ranch that sustained teeming wildlife. I’d visit during the school holidays in April, August, or December. Part of Juja’s allure was the openness. The land is flatly, sparsely populated by thorny Acacia shrubs, and you can see the horizon all around you for miles and miles. The grassland provided great grazing for grandma’s cattle. I’d team up with a local herdsman, or sometimes just one of the village boys, and we’d walk behind the animals all day. Driving them towards green grass, and making sure they had plenty of waterholes close by in the afternoon.

Githu, one of my herdsmate, lived in grandma’s locality and had known her for a long time. They all called her Wa Njoroge, Njoroge’s mother. My mom’s younger brother, Njoro, was the only one still living with grandma by the time she relocated to Juja. As is customary, grandma became known for the child the community could see. The only additional moniker they gave her had to do with her literacy.

The Harris’s were a white family who lived at the original Juja Farm. Perhaps they’d bought the land from an earlier colonial settler, or maybe they were descendants of previous British settler populations. Grandma came to know them and soon she’d visit to see if my mom had called their house, the only one with a phone line within a 30 mile radius, and left a message. Fellow villagers were astonished to see Gathiri converse with the white people, in English, no less. And so fluently! From then on they called her Nyina wa Njoroge  wa Githungu, Njoroge’s mom who speaks English.

Speaking English was one thing; after all even school teachers did. Driving was quite another. I once narrated to Githu that grandma used to drive. That she had once owned a small red vehicle and she’d get in, turn the ignition, and transport herself from point A to point B. This was too much for Githu. He opposed me categorically, on the simple fact that women could not drive. Githu’s point was not simply that women didn’t get opportunities to drive, but that they were physically, (emotionally?) incapable of driving.

I lived in Ngong, a fairly urbane location so had seen numerous female drivers. My headmistress, Mrs.Murithi, chauffeured herself to school, hours before her husband who worked as the head institutional  administrator arrived. One of my classmates, a biracial kid with an Italian dad, was dropped off and picked up from school by her Meru mother. My grandma’s youngest brother, had married an optician who not only drove to work, but also took us to Juja multiple times. I knew Githu’s argument was false, but I also understand that his immediate surroundings, void of the same experiences I could draw upon, had led him to such conclusions. He vehemently denied the existence of (black) female drivers.

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While generally a somewhat cranky person, I have few pet peeves. I appreciate my own quirks enough to allow others their own strangeness. I often get on pavements and roadways as a pedestrian or cyclist; understandably, I feel very strongly when drivers ignore traffic laws and common road etiquette. My biggest pet peeve is drivers idling their brakes until they come to a final stop right in the middle of a pedestrian walkway. It’s technically illegal, but more importantly, it’s sloppy and rude. Both of which make for dangerous driving. I cannot stand it. It blows my mind that a driver can be so ignorant of the fatal potential that her car holds vis-a-vis cyclists or pedestrians. This action smirks of entitlement, and worse, complete and utter obliviousness. Again, bad, dangerous driving.

I’d just finished going through several hoops in order to renew my expired Florida license in Nebraska. The DMV officials had looked through all my immigration documents, and successfully ascertained I wasn’t one of those immigrants awaiting a deportation trumpet to Mexico, or wherever. It then turned out that I needed to pass a written test. With no prior head’s up, I’d obviously not prepared. Nevertheless, I dove right into it, and dutifully failed. Something about parking uphill when there is or there isn’t a curb. I still don’t get the difference.

24 hours later, armed with about 45 minutes worth of perusing the driver’s manual, plus a practice test, I returned. I felt good about this particular attempt. I’d made efforts to remember the 5 or 6 questions I’d failed the day before, and memorized their answers. I also had my priorities right. My goal was to get through the test; it had nothing to do with how I’d actually behave on Nebraskan roadways. A test is a test; driving is driving. The two entities do not always match up.

I patiently endured my 2 hour wait at the DMV. Where would we be without long waits at virtually all government offices? Imagine delivering services in a way that optimized rush hour, wait times, personnel, and scarce resources. What a lovely dream! My waiting ticket number flashed on the console, and I pulled myself together as I headed to counter #2. I handed over my ticket, immigration documents, plus a bar code receipt from the previous day. The officer in charge then directed me to choose any of the tablet computers lined up against the wall and get started with the written test. I did as instructed. I skipped a few questions, and even guessed one. I was a bit anxious to not fail, once again. In the end, I was happy to find out, I’d answered all but one question correctly. My guess on how many points you stand to lose over a 2 year misdemeanor record was correct. But my response to a question regarding residential area speed limits was not. It took me another 20 minutes to pay the license issuing fee, and I walked out with a paper copy of my DL. Success!

I took O Street back to downtown Lincoln.  At the second pedestrian crosswalk, I noticed an SUV idling its way onto the zebra crossing. The driver was on the phone as she eyed the light ahead so she could take a left turn. I don’t think she even turned towards where I was coming from. In any case, the person sitting beside her on the front passenger seat would have partially blocked her view. There was no other vehicle behind her; if she’d really cared to, she could have backed up and moved away from the pedestrian crossing.

The combo of using a cell phone while driving THEN stopping smack in the middle of a pedestrian walkway was just too much for me. I went around the back of her silver Mercury. Emerging from the other side, I approached her open window and said “next time, please don’t stop on a pedestrian crossing!”

Oh my! Me calling her out got her mad. Super mad. She began shouting as I walked away, “excuse me! Excuse me!” I walked on. “What did you say?” I never turned back. I got the feeling that looking back at her would not only dignify her outburst, it would also escalate this interaction. Although I could feel her eyes literally drilling daggers through my back, I forced myself to keep walking forward. My back has never felt so exposed before, and I’ve never wished for a bullet proof vest as I did that afternoon. And yet somehow, I banked on some unspoken honor code that even if she was packing, she’d not shoot me in the back. Talk of clutching at straws. When eventually the lights turned green and she took her left turn, she drove past me on the other side of the road with sneering eyes.

She’d irked me for careless driving, and totally deserved to be told off. In retrospect, however, I should have approached that moment with more humility. Forcing myself into the bubble that constituted hers and her passenger’s personal space, I should have at least excused myself. Not doing so merely rendered her invisible – in the problematic way that women of color in particular, and women generally, are invisible in white male space (basically everywhere). Like Githu, I too was participating in a monologue that underlined women’s incapacity to drive. I call out a lot of bad drivers. Sometimes I flail my arms in frustration, and once in a while I’ve even been know to issue the finger. But I’d be dishonest to claim that my probability of calling out a white male driver is the same as that of me calling out a black female driver. Sometimes it’s worth staying mum and letting go. Or perhaps using sarcasm to thank rude drivers. In any case, I’m now very keen on rewarding good road use. I wave at every driver who’s polite enough to let me past the crosswalk. After all, it’s the little things that count!

 

 Of Black, White, & Black and White Guns

So, I’m walking in the park, absolutely minding my own business – enjoying the sun, complementing myself for having made it outdoors while I could have spent many happy hours glued to the screen watching old episodes of “The West Wing.” Holmes Park Lake is a low-key recreational area where families hang out over the weekend. Quite a few folks had chosen to fish – an honorable hobby that requires much more patience than I often possess. Others were out on the lake paddling their stand-up boards. And as usual, multiple elderly couples were sitting on benches, some on motorized chairs enjoying the shade and reminiscing on bygone days.

I had left my apartment earlier that morning dressed in sneakers and with my camera fully loaded. The intention was to re-visit the Sunken Gardens I’d just discovered the day before, take photos, and then explore some of the many miles of trails that everyone in Lincoln, Nebraska keeps talking about.

I enjoy walking, immensely. I tend to power walk most times, even when there’s no seeming reason why I should be doing so. I love seeing how far I can go before I start running short of breath. Power walks have become a great substitute for my running. I’m using my knees very sparingly, especially because I often end up running on urban concrete, which wrecks havoc on the joints. Most of all, however, I love getting to my destination; often I have none in mind when I set out, but my body will figure out how tired I am before requesting that I sit on a bench and just enjoy the breeze.

Holmes Park was clearly going to be my destination. I’d already walked 3.5 miles, sweated a lot, and I was dying for some water. My plan was to grab a bottle of water from a vending machine I could see next to a baseball pitch, circle the lake, look for a spot underneath a tree, then sit and just breath for a while.

Walking towards the vending machine, I met two women. One was clearly older, and I immediately presumed that the five year old boy who was running several meters ahead of them was her son. The boy had a tree branch in his hands. The dry, hooked twig – brown and thin in his curled fingers – had been transformed into a weapon. Playfully, the kid turned his rifle towards me, and made shooting sounds. I almost missed the gesture, but his mother’s emphatic, “please put that stick away, ok?” brought me to the real significance of the situation. I’d just been shot at by a white kid.

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“Cops and Robbers,” that’s what we used to call the game back when I was in primary school. It was a heck of a lot more glamorous to be a robber. You could get away with a lot. Few of us wanted to be law abiding officers of the state, hunting down ruthless criminals. But without the boys in blue, the game wouldn’t have worked. So we often had to recruit a few less aggressive boys, or sometimes (heaven forbid) one or two girls.

It looks easy, this game, yet it’s anything but. There is a style, a panache to how you handle your weapon. How you wield it and how fast you can discharge it. The weapon – sometimes a Chinese-made plastic toy gun. Metal was ideal, but few parents could lavish such luxury onto our childhood dreams. More often, we made do with pistols carved from wood, or sometimes modeled in clay. If all else failed, one could always grab a twig and re-fashion it into a rifle. Or even simply point out the index and middle fingers, with the ring finger forming a trigger, while the thumb could be cocked before firing, a sure sign of those who truly understood the mysterious ways of such boyhood heroes as Chuck Norris, Rambo, Jean Claudde Van Damme, and Terminator.

You got shot and you were obligated to fall down and succumb to your injuries. Sometimes you could hobble away, nursing a bullet hole through your leg, but rules were rules. You couldn’t miraculously get better. Not if you wished to be invited for playtime next weekend.

None of the bullets flying towards you were covered in racial slurs. There was no N-word when you went down. It wasn’t even about ethnicity. Much, if not all, the dialogue during the game was run in Sheng: the nativist-denying tongue that binds kids in Kenya’s urban areas. It’s a language that borrows, shamelessly, from English, Spanish, and French, but also from Swahili, Kikuyu, Dholuo, Luhya, and a myriad other languages spoken in the country.

Perhaps there could have been traces of civil war. Remnants of the conflict that pitted Gikuyu loyalist – aka British collaborators – against their brethren who supported the Land & Freedom Army (Mau Mau). The latter ventured into the forest and waged a guerilla warfare that lasted from 1952 to 1957. But I think the intricacies of that civil war, and its implications on present-day Kenya were lost to us. We did not rehearse that particular series of battles. Just like the communities around us, no one invoked the spirit of dreadlocked forest fighters; no one proclaimed that they’d like to be Mau Mau, and sure as hell no one wished to impersonate the Lancaster Fusiliers, soldiers from the United Kingdom who were flown in at the height of Kenya’s Emergency period to flash out GEMA (Gikuyu, Embu, Meru) malcontents who were destabilizing what had been an otherwise “model” British colony.

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As we review the long history of U.S. grand juries repeatedly acquitting white officers who’ve murdered unarmed black men, getting shot at by a white kid matters. The action straddles the murky world of child’s play, while also reflecting contemporary debates about the worth of black lives and just how much do they matter. Was the boy’s gesture mere repetition of what’s happened before, or rehearsal for what’s to come after? How do we re-negotiate the rules of public space in ways that differentiate play from real actual danger? What’s society’s role in bringing up children who appreciate historical patterns of injustice and are awakened to the opportunities for activism and transcendence?

Songs for my Ancestress

It was a sunny afternoon; my mom was home, and I was up and about the house staying busy. I’d just done some school work – Physics had a tendency back then to kick my ass and I reciprocated by dedicating a lot of study time to it. My maternal grandma had moved in with us a few weeks before  so she could be closer to medical help in Nairobi. I was aghast to see her when she arrived. She was extremely weak, and her previously slim but full frame had all but withered away. It was clear that the attention she was getting at the hospital was neither  sufficient nor effective.

I was in the living room when I heard her hoarse voice calling out for my mother, “Annie, Annie.” I rushed to my bedroom – which I’d vacated since her arrival – to see what assistance she needed. The door only opened partially, shut from the inside the old school way, with a nail that was partially driven into the door frame before being bent. I looked through the small opening and saw my grandma sitting on the Tily cooking oil container she used when she was unable to make it to the toilet on her own. Having finished with her call of nature, she was now stuck, or her upper body simply too weak to lift her up, out of the plastic can and back onto the bed.

Seeing your elders nude is still, like back in the days of Noah and his son Ham, a taboo. Although my grandma clearly needed help right away, I had to go fetch my mom to come assist her. It would still be difficult for my mother to see her own parent in such a vulnerable, partially nude state, but given the state of grandma’s health, it was excusable. Mom walked into grandma’s room, pushing the door and bending the restraining nail out of the way.

Several days later, grandma was out in the yard. She’d taken a walk outside the house, and was re-entering the house through the kitchen. Just a few meters from the door, she slipped, probably tripping on one of the many stones and pebbles that litter our yard. Weak, and having previously had to rely on her daughter to complete her bathroom needs, grandma fell face first. Sitting inside the house, I doubt I could have heard her weak voice from such a distance; on my way out the kitchen for an entirely different reason, I spotted grandma struggling to get off the ground and back on her feet.

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Of the many interactions I’ve heard with my grandparents, this was the most difficult to reconcile. Margaret Wanjiru, my maternal grandmother and my mother’s mother, was not a woman who fell flat on her face and asked for help to get up.

She was the eldest girl child of Harrison Kamau Karabi, a carpenter at Kenya Railways, and Gladys Wahu, a nurse. Gathiri, as she was known to her siblings and close relatives, led a charmed early life. She went to school at a time when educating girls was considered an anomaly. Thanks to her parents being both skilled professionals, she was schooled to lead the life of a career woman, years before the phenomenon of an independent woman had become the norm in Kenya.

Working with an outfit of the Kenya Transport and Allied Workers Union, Gathiri lived in Nairobi, using some of her income to educate younger siblings. Grandma would later relate to me business trips that she took with colleagues to the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa. Then, as now, travelling cross country, especially to such a major tourist destination was a big deal. For comparison, neither of my paternal grandparents had benefited from formal education. Mombasa remained a far off dream, constrained as they were within the narrow confines of their home and work locations. When my dad’s dad did travel, it was involuntarily. He was arrested by the British Colonial government as a Mau Mau sympathizer. Having taken the secret Kenya Land and Freedom Army oath, he was sentenced to political ‘rehabilitation’ at Manyani Detention Camp- ironically, situated on the route towards Mombasa’s holiday spots.

Grandma was also involved in the Mau Mau effort. At the height of this 1950s anti-colonial movement, she worked at the then King Georges’ Hospital – later renamed Kenyatta National Hospital.  This meant she had access to drugs and medical supplies that the forest fighters desperately needed. My mom recounts stories of how grandma and her colleagues would smuggle medicine from the hospital and on to the men and women out in the Aberdares range and Mt. Kenya bush fighting for the country’s freedom.

Under Pax Britannica, movement was a privilege only granted to those docile enough not to threaten British interests. The only item from my grandma’s life that I’ve inherited, through my mom, is her colonial-era passbook. Unlike my paternal grandma’s which is empty, Gathiri’s demonstrates just how mobile she was – quite a feat at such a difficult time in Kenya. Grandma Gathiri’s passbook shows her travelling between her work location in Nairobi’s Maringo neighborhood to her parents’ home in the country. To say that the trips were bureaucratically intensive is an understatement. One had to apply for permission to travel before actually leaving. This involved going to the closest chief or district officer’s office and submitting the requisite paperwork. Imagine what this would have meant if you had to also appear for your 9-to-5 job. Having received permission beforehand, on the day you were leaving, you’d get a stamp from your local D.O. confirming that you’d left location A on your way to location B.  As soon as you got to location B you were expected to report to the local authorities so your passbook could be stamped that you’d in fact arrived. Any inexplicable time lapses would be grounds for suspicion and possibly detention. The return trip involved you reporting, and getting a stamp that you were departing, and a stamp in your passbook upon arrival. Essentially, the civilizing mission of the British monarchy had balkanized Kenya into separate regions; to cross from district to district your passbook served as a passport, allowing you passage, if the colonial officer on the other side of the desk felt that you deserved it. In addition, the passbook enabled my grandma’s younger brother to travel with her for school.

By the early Sixties, the political climate had certainly improved for members of the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru communities who happened to be residing in Kenya’s budding urban areas. If things were lightening up politically, on the eve of Kenya’s colonial mishap, economically there were still challenges to be tackled. Hence, my grandma’s trip to Israel would have been groundbreaking. Surely she would have been held up as a role model for her nieces and nephews to emulate, her career the iconic demonstration of why working hard to gain an education mattered. I recall her stories about travelling to Jerusalem, washing her feet in the River Jordan, and the nostalgia that she related these adventures.

There was a photo on one of my grandma’s wall of her and a colleague on the Israel trip. These two were clearly women of the 60s. The hairdo and the short dresses tell it on a physical level. Thinking back, however, the sexual revolution that characterized this decade must have influenced my grandma’s married life and the fact that she lived as a single mother for the last half of her life. I’ve heard tell of how she once owned a car, a small red mini Morris that initially served as a passenger vehicle before its demise. That this was an extraordinary feat is best demonstrated by the utter disbelief with which a childhood friend once reacted when I described that my grandma once owned a car. In this kid’s experience, women could not drive, let alone own a vehicle.

Of Hair and Piercings

My earliest interactions with long hair involved oiling my mom’s braids. She’d come home from the salon, or from work a few days after her hair-do, and she’d ask my sisters and I who wanted to help oil her hair. My mom would sit on a low stool, and if it was my turn, I’d take a bottle of hair oil, pour some onto my palms and rub them together. With a little bit of oil in my left palm, I’d dip two fingers into the oil and begin applying it onto my mom’s scalp.
Think painting. I’d paint the hair oil onto her scalp, going down one corn row and up the other. Soon enough, oil would begin dripping down her ear lobes. I’d collect it in my right palm and rub it all over her hair.
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With time, my hair skills improved to the point where I’d help my sisters undo their braids. Before the school semester begins, Kenyan students style their hair neat and tidy for the first day of classes. Call it a throwback to past colonial sentiments when school attendance was adorned with military precision. Hair cuts, for both girls and boys, had to be done with extreme care – not a hair line could be out of place. So, for my sisters, we had to undo their braids and prep them for a trip to the salon. Between either my mom or our house-help, and I, we’d get my sisters sitting on a seat cushion on the floor and so would begin an hour or two of pulling, combing, and quite often, crying.
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A few months before embarking on my International Baccalaureate Diploma at Singapore’s United World College of South East Asia, I sent an email to the principal, Di Smart, enquiring about the school’s hair policy. In particular, I wanted to confirm that it was OK for students to style dreadlocks. My adventure with long hair had began. Ms Smart’s reply was non-committal: essentially, it was neither good, not bad, for students – aka me – to sport locks. As I was to learn later, Di’s reply hid a lot of trepidation on her part. She was worried about this new kid from Kenya with some rather unorthodox views regarding hair styles – she was British, after all.
In the end, the Singapore version of my long hair saga culminated in a pony tail. I grew out my hair, before eventually getting it straightened. It was a pretty cool style, as far as I was concerned. And I complemented it with a single piercing on my left ear.
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Over time, I’ve had to repeatedly confront the history of long hair on Kenyan men. One strand emerged at the height of Kenya’s anti-colonial resistance. This was manifested in the young men who ran away from colonial oppression in towns and villages and disappeared into the forests. They formed bands of militias, organized under the Kenya Land & Freedom Army, and battled it out with both Loyalist/ British collaborators and the colonial project. By the end of the Mau Mau rebellion, long matted hair twisted into thick locks was associated with Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi. In the political atmosphere of the Sixties, Kenyan bourgeois sentiments sought to distance themselves from the peasant revolution that had underpinned political self-government. The up and coming middle class estranged itself from its rural history, previous colonial oppression, plus the associated sense of being a country bumpkin. As a result, men styling dreadlocks were viewed as an anachronism.
This despite a much longer pre-twentieth century history of young Masai, Samburu, and even Kikuyu men styling long red-ochre locks in the years after their passage into adulthood. For these bands of morans, manhood included brightly-colored hair, bare chests, and long sojourns away from their parents’ villages. They’d live together, isolated from their communities, and bond together into cattle-raiding bands (sometimes) and tight age-sets which held their families together in challenging times (more often). Their most superior members would form councils of elders that served as communal governments. Regardless, the association with Mau Mau “terrorist” activity has overshadowed any empowering indigenous history.
More recently, the early 2000s saw a spate of gang-related criminal activity promoted by the infamous Mungiki group. They styled dreadlocks and spoke of anti-modernization policies that are currently re-hashed by Boko Haram and Al Shabab. Ultimately, however, they were a criminal group that profited from insecurity by charging “protection fees,” as well as connecting individuals to public services, including water and electricity. It was common knowledge that they consumed, and dealt, marijuana. It is with this background that folks often look at my hair, and jokingly ask me if I am a former, or current, member of this group of outlaws. No, thank you!
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On the streets of Kenya’s urban areas, something interesting happens when I have my long locks showing. I am perceived, correctly or not, as an outcast from middle class culture as well as a possible fugitive from the law. Hence, I find that street families, both kids and adults, approach me much more than before my locks were so prominent. To some extent, I guess, they see me as one of them: a member of those who form the underbelly of East African urban capitalism and one who can help a peer “sufferer” with a meal to tide over the next day.
One of my paternal aunties commented on how she favors young men who tie their long hair back. As a member of Kenya’s peasant class, her compliment was unexpected. On second thought, however, she displayed the kind of cultural fluidity that is the hallmark of the lower and upper social classes, but which often lacks in the stoic characteristic of the middle class. Too afraid to fall back into poverty, and too intent on making it to the next rung on the social ladder, the bourgeois are focused on doing things “just right.” They carefully watch themselves, as well as the proverbial Joneses, in order to calibrate who’s moving slightly ahead in the human rat race.
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In this regard, nothing throws off middle class mentality more than piercings on a man. This is the height of indecency, if my future in-laws are to be listened to. It not only disrupts gender norms, which middle class patriarchy is heavily invested in protecting, but also a painful reminder of a cultural heritage that they’d rather forget. Older men in Kikuyu and Masai communities styled big ear lobe piercings where they’d hang tubes filled with snuff. This is the apex of backwardness – the very history that private education and foreign fashion accessories attempt to erase.
Finally, my previously two, now three, left ear piercings have elicited questions about my sexuality. Since men “do not” style earrings, it follows that any man who does is not really a man; in other words, he’s half woman, or gay. Hence one of my cousins’ wives once asked me if I “played for the other team?” It did not seem like a wholly appropriate time to explain my support for gay rights, as well as my self-identification as bisexual. The best part about the piercings, however, is that they give me a “bad boy” edge. One that I sorely lacked while growing up. The revelation that I have a PhD, in a country that still highly values education, always lights up women’s eyes. When they do eventually spot my piercings, they are lost between the nerd in me and the budding outlaw. And therein lies my opportunity to strike and make a move.