“My husband is a Helpless Hannah!” exclaimed Muni.
This had all started as a casual conversation after we were done with the official business of our chama meeting. This was not one of the usual chamas where we contributed funds for savings or projects. This was an “u-sweety” chama. For those of you who are not familiar with u-sweety, this is a chama where a group of women (mostly women, I think) meet and plan visits to each of the chama member’s mothers and mothers-in-law. They then contribute money towards this visit.
The aim of the u-sweety is to uplift the lives of the members’ mothers, spend the day with her and generally make her their collective sweetheart for the day. Each member is supposed to identify something that their mother needs. Usually it is kitchenware, beddings or foodstuffs. Depending on how deep the pockets of the chama members are, they can even purchase kitchen gadgets, television sets, beds and, I know an u-sweety chama which purchased motor-bikes for their mothers to start bodaboda businesses and be financially independent.
On the visiting day, a few members come earlier with foodstuffs which they will cook for the rest of the members. The idea is not to give the visited mother pressure of hosting visitors. Once the rest of the chama members arrive, they say a prayer and then sing a few praise songs. The daughter who belongs to the u-sweety introduces her chama friends to her family members present. The family members then introduce themselves and lunch is served.
After lunch, the mother and father are put to sit in the centre of the living room or on the lawn outside, if it is a hot day. The chama members then bring out the gifts. Typically, the first gift is always a shirt for the father and then the rest of the gifts to the mother follow.
After this, the chama members spend the rest of the day with the family, eating, talking, singing, dancing and generally having a nice relaxed day.
Dear reader, don’t mind that I have diverted too far away from my topic. I thought it important that you understand the context of the conversation that followed and since it took place during an u-sweety meeting, I had to describe to you what u-sweety is about.
Back to the topic, our u-sweety meeting had been at Muni’s house. Muni lives two houses down from me in Hekima Estate. The particular u-sweety chama I was attending that day is mostly composed of members from Hekima Estate. Note that you can be in more than one u-sweety. You can be in one for work colleagues, another for neighbours in your residential area, another for former schoolmates, another for churchmates and so on and so forth.
During our u-sweety that day, we had generally agreed on what we would buy for our mothers, whose mother we were to visit when and who the advance cooking teams would be. We were therefore relaxing over a cup of afternoon tea when Muni’s husband came and whispered something in her ear. Muni excused herself and followed him out of the house. She took too long to return and I went to peep out of the window to see what was happening.
What I saw perplexed me. Muni was changing the tyre of her husband’s car while he sat on a lawn chair, scrolling nonchalantly through his phone. I sat back quietly and did not inform the others of what I had seen for, dear reader, I have many weaknesses, but I am not a gossiper.
Muni finally returned and that is when she declared that her husband was a Helpless Hannah!
“What do you mean by a Helpless Hannah?” I asked. I had never come across that phrase before.
“For example, the reason he called me outside was because he had a flat tyre and does not know how to change it,” she explained. “I find that there are many things he cannot do for himself.”
“Does he lack some important life skills?” asked Joanna.
“Those are exactly what he lacks,” said Muni.
“My husband is the same,” Joanna confessed . “At first I would complain about doing some of these things for him and he would push back by saying that he grew up in Europe and was mostly in boarding school and so he never got a chance to learn some simple skills.”
“And for how long have you been married now?” Joy asked. “Has he learnt anything yet?”
“That is my frustration,” said Joanna. “We have been married nine years now and it seems that he has not learnt a thing?”
“What life skills are these he lacks?” I asked.
“Well,” said Joanna. “It started with the small things like he did not know how to wash his undergarments. You know here in Kenya it is an important milestone for a child to learn how to bath themselves and then wash their own underwear. My husband does not know how to wash anything. Not even a handkerchief!”
I imagine that Joanna must have been very frustrated because these are not details I would ordinarily expect one to reveal about their husband!
“He cannot spread a bed,” she continued. “If I am not around, like when I take the kids to the village, he sleeps in an unspread bed night after night until I return. To add to this, he cannot even put on the cooker to boil a cup of water, let alone a plate of food. Initially, I jokingly tried to teach him how to make simple foods like boiled eggs or boiled rice, but he was never interested.”
I thought to myself that Joanna was basically raising an overgrown baby!
“He also cannot heat food in the microwave,” she continued. “He says that he fears an explosion. I asked him if he had any previous experience with an exploding microwave. Can you imagine that he has never had any such experience? His fears are founded on action films which he enjoys watching. This means that if he comes home late at night, I have to wake up and heat his food for him in the microwave.”
“That is terrible!” I said.
Joanna continued, “He cannot wash his own plate or cup and does not know or bother to learn where dishes are stored in the house. Every time he needs a cup or a plate, I have to get it for him. He is basically lost in a jungle if he is in the house without me.”
“My husband has not reached that extreme,” put in Muni. “At least he can boil a cup of water. However, he cannot change a light bulb, unclog the sink, change a flat tyre or even tie his own tie. I tie his tie for him every morning.”
This made us all laugh.
“Are you serious?” Joy asked. “What skills will your husbands teach your children if they cannot do anything for themselves.”
“My husband was with me in the same primary school,” Zara chimed in. “We studied home-science together. We even had to stitch a pair of shorts by hand and yet today he cannot even refix a loose button on his shirt. I have to do it for him.”
“Those are small problems Zara,” Joanna said. “Aside from all the things I have told you my husband cannot do for himself, the most irritating is that he cannot shave his own beard! I shave his beard for him. When I say that he is a Helpless Hannah, I really mean it!”
We all gasped.
“Why can’t he go to the barber for this?” I asked.
“He says that the barbering clippers irritate his skin and he breaks out really badly,” said Joanna.
“Who was shaving him before you got married?” asked Maria, who had remained silent throughout this conversation. “Have you ever investigated if he only became a Helpless Hannah after marriage?”
“I have never thought to ask him that,” said Joanna.
“Your husband is just lazy and you are encouraging his laziness,” said Maria. “I don’t believe that one can be a Helpless Hannah to such an extent that he cannot shave his own beard.”
“I agree with you Maria,” I said. “If it was life skills he was lacking, he would have learnt to do all these things for himself.”
“For example, Joanna, you and your husband have been married for nine years,” I added. “Imagine when your child was born and all the things he was able to learn and absorb between birth and nine years of age.”
“An adult mind does not learn at the same rate,” Muni said.
“It cannot take anybody nine years to learn how to boil an egg,” I said incredulous. “Surely Muni, if you stopped doing these things for your husband don’t you think he would be forced to do them for himself?”
“He has told be before that if I cannot take care of him, then he will marry another wife,” said Muni.
“I rest my case,” I said, sighing exhaustedly.
“You know those are empty threats, don’t you?” asked Maria.
“What if he is not bluffing and actually marries another wife?” asked Muni.
“That is emotional blackmail,” Maria said. “When I got married, my husband also ‘lacked’ life skills. I did everything for him until I got pregnant with my first baby. When I was in my third trimester of pregnancy, his helplessness began to irritate me and then I panicked. How would I take care of a new born baby and a grown man at the same time? Would I have no help from my husband in raising the child I was carrying?”
Maria paused for a short while and then continued, “One day, he asked me why I had not polished his shoes. I had been having constant back aches during my pregnancy and they got worse during the third trimester. My doctor ordered bed rest. However, I never rested as I had to continue cooking, cleaning and basically doing everything for my helpless husband. When he asked me about those shoes, something just snapped in me. I locked the door and hid the key and told him that he was not leaving the house until his mother came.”
“You were always a drama queen,” Joy said laughing.
“You laugh now but I was very serious that day,” Maria said smiling. “My husband made frantic calls to his mother and luckily we were not living far away from each other. At that time, she was living in Northview Estate and we had rented an apartment at Kusini Annex. We were only fifteen minutes away from each other.”
Maria paused again.
“So as she was rushing to the house to find out what was happening, I was busy packing my husband’s clothes in a sack,” Maria continued, laughing. “When she arrived, I made her a cup of tea and then politely told her that I had packed my husband’s bags so that she could go back with him. I was not ready to raise two babies at once. She asked me what I meant. Was I expecting twins? I told her about my husband’s lack of life skills, how he could not do basic things for himself.”
“She just sat there and listened to you?” asked Joanna.
“Yes she did,” said Maria. “And then she told me that my husband used to do all those things he is now pretending that he cannot do. He and his siblings had to do all the house chores including the laundry and the cooking because when they became teenagers, his mother thought that they were old enough to take care of themselves and stopped hiring domestic help.”
“Your husband must have been so angry, embarrassing him like that in front of his mother,” I said.
“He was angry at first,” Maria put in. “He even started threatening separation and said that he was moving out. His mother told him to move out as fast as possible because she had not raised a Helpless Hannah who would then go and enslave someone’s daughter. She even asked where his closet was so that she can finish packing his things for him to leave.”
“What did he do?” Muni asked.
“His mother stormed out and told him never to talk to her or visit her until he became a man,” said Maria. “He had never seen her so upset and this brought him to his senses. From that time, I have never had any Helpless Hannah situations with him!”