Wednesday, July 11, 2012


They are like walking sticks. But what mysterious things do women carry in those huge handbags? NJOKI CHEGE explores
From tiny clutch bags to the downright huge-for-nothing sack-sized monsters, a woman’s handbag is the ultimate fashion statement.  Or so we thought.
TV viewers still remember the image of a fallen marathon star runner’s mother whipping out a panga from her handbag and charging at a group of relatives that she had a tiff with.
A research firm was commissioned to conduct a survey among Nairobi women aged between 18-45 years to understand the enigma of the handbag and its purpose in a woman’s life. What they unearthed is a shocker.

The usual suspects were, of course, mobile phones, money, wallets, lotion, ATM cards, sanitary towels, tampons and wet wipes — the normal girlish stuff.
But it is cucumbers and courgettes that stopped the researchers in their tracks. Indeed, according to the researchers, out of 150 bags sampled, 21 had a cucumber. Other items found were panties, toothbrushes and — quite rare even for women standards — an empty soda bottle.
At face value, cucumbers and corgettes could pass for key ingredients for stew, but their suggestive shapes and sizes, not to mention their presence in a handbag, tell a different story.
“The women we interviewed gave several reasons for carrying cucumbers and courgettes in their bags. Some said they were lonely. Others claimed they are in sexually unfulfilling relationships, or that their partners live away in different towns,” says part of the report.
Not surprisingly, these two vegetables proved quite popular among lesbians.
But other women insisted they only carried them as a “snack and a remedy for puffy eyes after a night out”.  Pauline Ngugi, a young mother, took almost two minutes before she could list everything inside her leather bag.
“I carry chewing gum, wallet, phones, a book, a bottle of juice, a bottle of water, a banana, a pear (all for snacks), car keys, and all the other private stuff such as sanitary towels, wet wipes, a jar of hand sanitiser, a phone charger, a pen, a notebook... that’s all I can remember for now,” says Pauline.
Lilliane Atieno, holding a classic animal print bag introduced a new twist:  She carries another ‘bag within the bag’ — a clutch bag full of make-up; lotion, lipstick, perfume, roll-on, compact powder, and tissue, just in case “the craving to apply make-up strikes”!
Speaking of craving, Atieno tells a story of her friend, Alice, who stocks carrots in her bag. Reason?
Edibles aside, some women carry forks, knives and make-up bags that they have little or no need for. Mwende, an accountant, has, for instance, carried a screwdriver in her handbag for as long as she can remember.
“I went out with a man who tried to rape me when I was in college and from that time, I’m always ‘armed’. The last time a man tried that rubbish, I pulled out my screwdriver and pointed it in his face. You should have seen how quickly he sobered up!” says Mwende.
But Mrs Kinuthia, who is in her 50s, carries a screwdriver and pliers in her handbag for purely practical reasons.
“I’m tired of the attendants stealing my tools each time I go to the car wash. As a woman, I can’t afford to get stranded in the middle of nowhere because of a small electrical or wiring fault that I can fix on my own,” says the mother of four.
A woman’s handbag, however, becomes bigger than a place to keep stuff when it makes a political statement. When a senior politician was photographed carrying his wife’s handbag in public, the country went crazy. Many women labeled him cute and said it confirmed that he was a gentleman who loved and respected his better half. Not surprisingly, most men termed it a sign of weakness.
But the story of making a statement and the handbag cannot be complete without mentioning Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her ‘handbag’.
Margaret Thatcher’s handbag was a power symbol, and whenever she turned up with one at state meetings, it served as a clear indication that she meant business.
 The handbag was said to carry highly important State documents such that it became synonymous with the power inherent in being the occupant of Number 10, Downing Street. As a result, the term ‘handbagging’ was coined and consequently added to the Oxford dictionary, referring to Margaret Thatcher’s brusque style while dealing with those who annoyed her.
Handbagging made its maiden entry in print in 1982 when a Conservative backbencher commented: ‘She can’t look at a British institution without hitting it with her handbag.’
filing cabinet
In 1988, Mrs Thatcher received a handbag as a gift from George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State. He told her: “You are the first and only recipient of the Grand Order of the Handbag!”
The political novelist Michael Dobbs, former Tory Chief of Staff, said Thatcher’s handbag was ‘in part a portable filing cabinet, but was also used to remind people of her power’.
Even decades after she left power, Thatcher’s handbags are still making news as one of them is being auctioned for an estimated £100,000 (Sh13.4 million) for charity. According to The Guardian, that is the handbag she carried when she met US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev.
Back home, every young woman has a big bag, otherwise known as the ‘weekend bag’. The bag, which can literally hold a whole house, surfaces mostly on Fridays, when young women know they will not go back home till Sunday evening, or Monday morning for some, after a wild weekend out.
Such bags carry one or two knickers, a toothbrush, a pair of flat shoes or sandals and, of course, a change of clothes. The change of clothes could be an extra top or pair of jeans, or maybe a tiny dress that can be folded many times without creasing.
Aside from being a ‘wardrobe’, the weekend bag also caries a make-up kit (lipstick, powder, lip gloss, a jar of perfume, lotion), wet towels and tampons — just in case.  Like a matatu, there is always space for more, hence a warm shawl or a light sweater and, occasionally, an outdated magazine or novel.
So next time you spot a young woman carrying a huge bag, just know she is headed for a weekend ‘come we stay’. And before her boyfriend knows it, half of her wardrobe will be in his house, smuggled in item in by item in her weekend bag!

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