Kansas

He smelled like a goat. Not a sweet, fluffy California goat that smells like fresh mint and runs on yogi’s backs. No. He smelled like a rancid goat. One that had spent hot days under the unrelenting sun, packed with hundreds of other even more odiferous goats, bleating for relief, for someone, anyone to save them from the fate that awaited them at the nyama choma joints. 

He had the kind of body odor that permeated any space he occupied, seeping into walls, flooring, the furniture; indeed,  not even the plants in his office were spared. The fetid air sat around Emilia like a heavy blanket, and even though she had swam competitively in her college years and was therefore accustomed to holding her breath longer than the average person, her breath-holding abilities were no match for this man’s putridness. She watched as he sank into his seat, his considerable girth barely fitting in the armless standard issue office chair. His face was a shade of red she had never seen on a human being before. When he finally looked up at her, he spoke in an extremely high pitched voice, which was surprising considering how big the man was.

“What do you want?” he squeaked by way of introduction.

Emilia, struggling to breathe, explained that she was the analyst sent over to update the branch’s web security settings in light of a recent spike in suspicious activity. 

“Did I tell you what he was wearing?” she asks me. 

“No. What was he wearing?”

She grabs her head with both hands, as if she can’t quite rid herself of the image.

“Picture a very tall, very large man, about this big.” She stretches her hands wide to demonstrate how big he was. Emilia is not given to exaggeration, so I believe her.

“Now picture this giant wearing a wife beater, in an office. As in, his place of work. And this wife beater must have belonged to his child or something because it was basically a tank top. And pants so tight I was afraid the zipper would pop. Some things just cannot be unseen.” She shudders.

My amused look spurs her on. I picture a man with what my mum would call “tumbo kama ya politician” wearing what we call a ‘tumbo cut’ back home, squeezing himself into a chair that is too small, and doing all this while smelling like a goat in marikiti.

“Oh and that’s not the worst part. It had stains on it.”

“What kind of stains?” I ask.

“They appeared to be barbecue sauce or blood, I couldn’t tell which one. Maybe both.”

I shake my head in amusement. I mean, I work in California, and things are very casual here. Some people go to work in shorts and flip flops. But even they wear t-shirts with sleeves. 

“And then he reached into his desk drawer and retrieved a leg of something.” Emilia continues.

“A what?” I ask, wondering what on earth is going on in Kansas.

“Yep, he basically reaches into a drawer, grabs a leg of something, I’m guessing turkey or lamb by its size, reaches back into that same drawer, and retrieves barbecue sauce, slathers it all over the leg, takes a huge bite out of it, and burps so loudly, I jumped in my chair.”

I burst out laughing. This sounds like a bad movie.

“While he is chewing this leg, he asks me, mouth full of whatever it is he is wolfing down, barbecue sauce dripping all over his tank top wife beater, ‘why did they send a girl over. Don’t you have men left in California?’. And then he burped again. Really loudly.”

“I looked at him and the leg, now mostly bone, and asked myself what crimes I had committed in my previous lives to deserve this fate.” she muses. 

“I explained in detail what my assignment was and how long it would take. I didn’t think it was possible, but he got redder and redder as he finally understood what my job was. By the time I was done, he was apoplectic. In my experience, when clients are defensive from the get go, they have something to hide.” 

“Here in Kansas, we trust each other, not like you all over there in California, every man for himself. What I do on my computer is nobody’s business but my own” he raged as he finished devouring the mysterious leg and started to chew on the bones quite loudly, spitting shards across his desk.

“I didn’t ask anyone to send some Californian here to breathe down my neck! Get the hell out of my office, and out of my town. Go back to that damned California and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” 

“At this point, he was breathing very heavily, shaking what remained of the bone at me. I hightailed it out of there, and back to my hotel. Good thing about coding is you can do it anywhere. My trip out there was just to introduce myself and see if it was a malicious attack on their software, but since the man outed himself, it made my job pretty easy. I was mostly relieved to be away from that stench and the flying shards of bone. Did I tell you about the food there?”

“No, tell me about the food.” I ask.

Emilia is a beef snob. She only eats Wagyu beef, but after a few days of eating vegetables, she decided to ask a local for steakhouse recommendations. The well meaning Kansan recommended a restaurant that offered what Emilia describes as ‘unique’ beef, which was of questionable origin because it glistened with a shimmer never before seen on beef. And it tasted like cardboard. After that experience, she was done with Kansas.

But Kansas wasn’t done with her. On her way to the airport, she was treated to the deafening sound of cicadas emerging from their 17 year underground residency, the grating sound getting on her last nerve. And just a few minutes before her flight started to board, she felt the tell-tale gurgling of her stomach that told her that her Wagyu beef-seasoned digestive system was violently rejecting the mysteriously glistening, rancid beef she had consumed in Kansas. It was a very long trip home.

Emilia has never returned to Kansas. 

NyarSiaya

I was made on a Monday, my mom says, when everyone was well rested, having had a great weekend, all the materials  had just been freshly delivered and not picked over, all the helpers were in a great mood, and voila! NyarSiaya, her pet name for me, was made. 

As a little girl, mom told me this often, when trimming my nails and complimenting how beautiful they were, or giving me a bath, or cleaning my ears, or attempting to braid my hair, whose bountifulness she constantly marveled at. I say attempting because even though my mom is a woman of many talents, a heart of gold and formidable intellect, braiding hair is not her thing. It’s fine, we all have weaknesses. Braiding hair is hers, and as weaknesses go, it’s not a bad one to have. “You were made on a Monday for sure,” she would say as she tried to tame my hair, “when hair had just arrived and God was trying to cram as much of it on one head as possible.” 

Since I was made on a Monday, I can braid hair to perfection, having inherited those skills from mom’s mother, Dana Athieno, a master weaver. Mom and I agree though, that the one part of us that was made on a Friday afternoon was our foreheads. It was Friday afternoon, and God had given foreheads to the early Monday morning crowd, making them so large they are called fiveheads. Said fiveheads were made to provide runways and continental breakfasts for mosquitos, as well as a shiny, beaming light for lost moths (God looks out for all creatures). By late Friday afternoon, only a sliver of foreheads remained, and God decided that it would be an act of mercy to grant mom and me the miniscule foreheads that remained rather than send us on our way without any foreheads. And so we ended up with purely functional foreheads, which is to say, enough to separate our hairlines from our eyebrows.

Mom tried, and failed to get me to wear dresses or anything girly, watching in dismay as her long awaited daughter tossed the mommy and me dresses she had made for me in favor of the tomboy hand-me-downs I got from my older brothers. I was going to climb trees and roll in mud, and I needed to be attired accordingly. Despite my tomboy ways, she didn’t waver in affirming me. She would tell me I was beautiful, teaching me self love, self confidence and knowing that I was enough, just as I was.

Recently, I was watching a Sauti Sol video where the group hosted a session with their fans, and one of the fans shared that she’d never felt beautiful, and felt invisible because the media and the music and film industry glorified light skin over dark skin. And apparently it crosses over to dating too, where, she said, men flocked towards light skinned women like moths to a  light bulb, making her feel like her dark skin was a cloak of invisibility. At that moment, she looked so defeated, and my heart went out to her. No one should have to endure scorn of any kind because of the abundance of melanin in their skin, and I hope that we all appreciate each other whether we are as melanated as the midnight sky, or as melanin deprived as Joe Biden’s teeth. Look them up, they are the whitest thing you will ever see. The glare might blind you.

I’m very grateful for a mother who affirmed me as a child, giving me the assurance to grow up into a self-confident, proudly African woman whose favorite feature is my melanated skin. 

Love the skin you’re in.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

“Someni vijana, muongeze pia bidii, mwisho wa kusoma, mutapata kazi nzuri sana. Remember that song?” She asks animatedly. I nod, instantly transported back to my childhood, the then ubiquitous track now an ear worm, Henry Makobi’s gravelly voice exhorting us to study diligently, extolling the virtues of the rewards that awaited those of us who heeded his words of wisdom.

“I was a kid of the system. You know that girl who always had neatly plaited lines, clean, perfectly ironed school uniform, shiny shoes, and covered books?” I nod, recalling my tomboy self at that age, and knowing I was definitely not that girl since being a tomboy and possessing lady-like tendencies at the tender age of six were mutually exclusive.

“Anyway, I was that kid. I was a rule follower, still was until very recently.” She pauses to take a big scoop of her hot sundae mint chocolate ice cream, examining it briefly before savoring it. “ Now I just do what feels good to my soul. I was the top student in my KCPE class, top ten nationwide. So I went to school in Kikuyu.” She says this in the same obnoxiously casual manner people use to say “I went to college in Boston” (Code for Harvard).

“Remember, I was a kid of the system, nose in books, no extracurriculars to speak of, no monkey business with Busherians. Not after my mother had scared me half to death by saying, and I quote, “If you play with boys you will get pregnant.”

So after four years of studiously devouring my books, dissecting frogs in the name of Biology, handling corrosive chemicals during Chemistry labs, enduring countless Physics theories, and suffering through many hours of chapel to help us walk in the light and save us from eternal damnation, I sat for and, naturally, aced my KCSE alongside many other bright girls, and that was the end of my four years at Alliance Girls High School. 

From a very early age, I always knew I wanted to leave Kenya. One of my uncles had been part of the Tom Mboya airlift, spoke with a very American sounding accent, and shared inspirational stories of the endless possibilities in that land of opportunity for those willing to put in the work. I looked forward to his visits because he brought us fun toys, and once showed me a laptop and let me use it.I fell in love with computers then. The next time he came back to Kenya, he brought me my very own laptop. You don’t understand how excited I was. It’s literally the equivalent of…” She pauses, trying to find an equivalent, something that will capture the enormity of the moment. She comes up empty.

“Being given ten acres of land?” I venture a guess.

“Bigger!” she responds

“Winning the lottery?” I ask tongue in cheek.

We both burst out laughing, knowing that the odds of winning the lottery are lower than being struck by lightning while being bitten by a shark while wearing sequins.

“No, it was literally like discovering a whole new universe, one you had never heard of before, but you were intuitively attuned to. Fluent in their language, ingrained in their ways. That is what coding was to me. I was a natural.”

“Luckily for me, my uncle returned to Kenya to live there permanently, and I now had a coding tutor. It was later on that I found out the unfortunate circumstances of his return. A nasty divorce had rendered him almost penniless, and he had decided to return home, rather than be destitute in the United States. He was an inventive guy, hustling before it became fashionable, and soon, he had started a computer college just when they were becoming all the rage. When I was in form four, he told me about all these scholarships I could apply for, to study Computer Science. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for that man.”

“Where is he now?” I ask.

“He’s retired, his business was very successful, he got out of the computer classes business and went into selling land. Matter of fact, I buy most of my land from him. Original hustler,that guy. Still has a hint of an American accent after all these years. He married a Kenyan chic and their kids are in college now, matter of fact one of my cousins stays with me in the summer. Good people, that family.”

“So anyway, I aced my KCSE, got into UCLA, on a full scholarship, like everything paid for. Nakuambia, I am blessed. Very blessed.So there I was, a kid of the system, on my way to my dream degree, but still very sheltered. I land in LA, and head nose first into my books. My grades were great in my first year. Then I met them.” She pauses, a faraway look in her eyes.

“Them?” I ask ominously, are we talking about the white walkers?

“Oh come on, you know them. They are everywhere. She waves her hands for dramatic effect. 

“The people who come here to go to school and hop on the party bus and never get off. That crowd that’s been here since God was a boy and have nothing to show for their time here.” 

I nod, I know them, everyone does. Well, unless you are them, in which case, I wish you well.

“So I partied hard. For the first time in my life, I had freedom. Gai! I have never had that much booze in my entire life. Parents really shouldn’t let their kids come out here straight out of high school. Bad idea. And the more sheltered the kid, the worse they get. Luckily for me, my uncle had a good friend who lived in LA, and she sat me down and gave me a very stern talking-to. That woman saved me from dropping out of school and becoming one of them. She would also randomly drop in at my hostel to check on me. By the time I was in my third year I had met my coding tribe and was so deep into coding that no one needed to worry about me joining the partying hordes. Fast forward, two years later, cap and gown in place, I graduated, first with my Bachelors’, then my Masters, and then I went all in for Permanent Head Damage, or PhD, known in certain circles as ‘no class ahead’.”

Then tech came calling. I was a nerd in a sea of nerds. My friends back home think I lead a very flashy life. I mean, here I am, a single successful female, making what seems like a bazillion to people back home. I have achieved everything I ever wanted professionally. I lead teams at work, I travel internationally, I can vacation anywhere I want. But something is missing. My mom thinks she knows what, or should I say who, is missing. A husband. Now, there’s something I knew I never wanted. Marriage just doesn’t make sense to me. I am in my twenties, meet this guy, and promise to love him forever? I don’t even know what I want to wear next week, how can I promise to love someone forever? Plus I like my space, and I like my house silent. This society and its KPIs.”

“KPIs?” I repeat, as I have never heard it used socially.

“You’re in corporate America, you know KPIs.”

I nod, waiting for her to continue.

“Go to school and make good grades. Check. Don’t play with boys. Check. Go to university. Check. Get a good job. Check. Where is your husband? Huh? At what point should I have met this husband while not “playing with boys”? Also, why must I have a husband? Awino, this world is a hard place if you are single. People automatically assume I am defective. Let’s not even get into the 50% divorce rate in these United States. Or the stranger than fiction stories I hear from back home of spouses competing to see who can sleep with one half of Nairobi before the other one sleeps with the other half. Or the domestic violence cases globally. But you know what I like? Women of our generation are not taking responsibility for failed marriages. Or sitting down and pining for errant husbands. They are not going the prayer warrior, fight for your marriage route. If marriage is war, then weddings should be at army boot camp training grounds, not in church. Some men are on the receiving end too. They are beaten, cheated on, stolen from, it’s a jungle out there. By the way, do you listen to Patanisho?” She asks.

I burst out laughing. This is the second time in as many months that that show has been recommended to me. A friend of mine recommended it a couple months ago. Yes, I am now a Patanisho addict. It is hilarious, it is heartbreaking, it is life. Ghost Mulei’s laughter gives me life.

“Yes, I listen to it on YouTube, usually when making dinner for my family.” She high fives me. Two Kenyans far away from home, connecting on having found a piece of home, courtesy of YouTube, whose offices are less than an hour away from where we are having this conversation.

“What do you tell your family now? When they ask you about marriage?” I ask her.

“I tell them the truth. That I need my space. That I don’t want a husband in my house. That ‘leave me alone’ is my love language. Motherhood is not something that appeals to me. The way I see it, my nieces and nephews stand to inherit all my money, so what’s the problem? More for them, right?”

“I finally found the missing piece after I called myself for a series of small meetings. I want out of corporate America. It is financially great, but it is a grind. So I will keep at it for a few more years, then I will quit and go teach coding to kids. That’s what I really want to do. Once I identified it, I felt at peace. Now I do it once a week and it brings me so much joy, way more than the job that pays me a ton of money. I told my family back home and they thought I had lost my marbles. But I am not living my life by anyone’s KPIs anymore. I’m doing me.”

We finish our ice cream pensively, two Kenyan women so far away from home, having taken somewhat similar career paths, but diametrically opposite relationship paths. 

She asks me if I always wanted to be a mom. I nod emphatically. I didn’t know much about what I wanted for my future, but I knew that I definitely wanted to have a child.

“Oh, one more thing,” she adds, “can you believe that with all the education we strive to attain, no one stops to tell us to invest our money and generate wealth? Like, no one. It’s a travesty, I tell you.” She says emphatically, as I nod vigorously.

“Some might even call it an abomination.” I chime in.

She continues, “and that’s why we have so many high income cliff spenders, they make a ton of money but are living paycheck to paycheck. It is tragic, if you ask me. Richness and brokenness are two sides of the same coin. Both are temporary, both can become permanent poverty or wealth. I love this quote “The rich invest their money and spend what is left; the poor spend their money and invest what is left”. 

I chew on that for a minute. It makes perfect sense. She drops another one, “We Buy Things We Don’t Need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

As a voracious consumer of investment articles, I am always appreciative of finding kindred spirits when it comes to investment ideas. One of my favorite quotes is “Would you rather look rich but be broke, or look broke but be wealthy?” And so we spend some more time talking about the almost mandatory land purchase that every Kenyan investor feels obligated to make, trading notes and contacts.

“What would you tell your younger self?” I ask her.

“Can I swear?” she asks

“Sure, why not.”

“To hell with the KPIs. And to hell with those who think less of my accomplishments because I don’t have a Mrs. in front of my name. Life is short, live it unapologetically.”

The Logger (Fiction Series)

Maiko stared at the man in the mirror, noticing the fine lines on his forehead, which appeared to be growing bigger by the day, like a seabed at low tide. The fine lines were more visible, perhaps because he had had many sleepless nights since his last business meeting a week before.

Maiko, a devoted family man, did not usually take business calls on weekends, preferring instead to spend time with Roda, his wife of ten years and their three energetic children. On the rare occasion that he had to work on a weekend, he always charged double, spending the extra money on family trips, the change of scenery smoothing over the interrupted time with his family.

And so on this Saturday as he prepared to meet a client, he had already promised Roda and the kids a trip to Diani in a few weeks, its white sandy beaches a family favorite, assuring that his absence was forgiven. Roda, a very understanding wife by all measures, greatly admired her husband’s dedication to his logging business. He had done very well for himself, and being the intrinsically moral man he was, had also overseen the planting of thousands of trees where his logging operations had concluded, to ensure provisions for future generations. Roda extolled his virtues to all, but his virtues needed no extolling because he was very generous to the less fortunate in their community. There was even talk that he would run for office, and the locals had all but assured him of victory should he choose to honor them by officially representing their county in government.

A week earlier, Maiko drove a beat up white pick-up truck, its ancient parts squeaking as he headed to the nyama choma joint where business would be discussed over barbecued goat and cold beer. His client, a respectable looking, statuesque woman in her mid forties, rose to greet him. He gave her a curt nod and studied her quietly. Before meeting his clients, he conducted a very thorough background check on them. In his profession, carelessness could lead to death, or if one escaped that, a long spell as a guest of the Government of Kenya (GOK) in its incarceration resort, commonly known as prison.

Food served, she launched into her request. Maiko listened carefully, his photographic memory eliminating the need for any note taking. He thoughtfully chewed the ginger infused barbecue goat, mulling over the woman’s words. If he was successful, this would be his last gig. It would set him up for life, and he could truly focus on his logging business, which, while barely profitable, provided a respectable cover for the lifestyle his family enjoyed. Maiko loved a challenge, and he knew he would take the job because it sounded impossible.

Now, Maiko bade Roda and his kids goodbye, hopped into his jalopy and waved as he left on a business trip. An hour later, he and his crew, Juma and the paradoxically named Innocent, were in their business vehicle, a small truck labelled Longonot Logging. Juma and Innocent only knew Maiko as Mkubwa, the boss, but not his real name. They also did not know that the man they worked for always wore a disguise around them, a fact that tickled Maiko. One could never be too careful in this line of work. Innocent, contrary to his name, was one of the best lock and alarm neutralizers Maiko had ever met. Juma was a strongman. He could lift seemingly impossible weights, which was why Maiko hand-picked him for this job. That and his sheer fearlessness.

By the time they arrived at their destination, night had fallen, and they felt the adrenaline rush through their bodies as they donned their masks and gloves. As described, the house was palatial, standing at a towering three stories with elaborate columns and plush gardens dotted with soft lighting, but the owners were almost always away, peculiarly leaving what was rumored to be Longonot’s only known gold bullion apparently unprotected. Maiko’s client’s instructions had been very clear. Take all the gold, and he would receive 10% of its value in payment. However, no burglar who entered that house had ever been seen again, a claim that Maiko had researched but could not verify. Perhaps they had taken some of the gold and disappeared, he thought. He however did not discount that peculiar anecdote as he scouted the property. His sixth sense kicked in, as it always did when he was on a job; it had saved his life several times when he started out, a primary school dropout, and some of his peers were felled by bullets while others cooled their heels as guests of the GOK. Now, he got the sense that he was being watched, but he couldn’t put his finger on why, as the property was completely unoccupied as far as he could tell. 

Innocent quickly disabled the advanced alarm system and the trio set about finding the vault, rumored to be in the basement. A few minutes later Maiko, Innocent and Juma were standing before an open vault and by this time, his sixth sense was screaming at him to flee. He would have left if he hadn’t been transfixed by the sight of heaps of gold bars sitting on the floor, completely unguarded. Innocent and Juma watched agape, mesmerized at the sight. Maiko stood there for a good while, mentally going over the logistics of transporting as many of the bars as possible. He wished he had brought a bigger truck and a larger crew. Nevertheless, he called Innocent and Juma, startling them out of their trance, to start hauling the gold to the truck using the carts they had brought with them. It took the three of them a full half hour to load one cart, which the two hands carted to the truck. After a few more minutes of trying to figure out how much they could carry in the short amount of time they had, it occurred to him that the place had fallen eerily quiet. It was as if someone had pressed the mute button around him. Maiko was not one to panic easily, but when he called for Juma and Innocent, his voice echoing across the cavernous room, and receiving no response, his palms started to sweat. He quickly walked back the way they had come, and found, lying on the marble floor, two of the biggest snakes he had ever seen. Suddenly it all made sense. The unguarded home, the rumor that no burglar who went in ever came out. The pythons’ swollen bellies left him under no illusion as to the fate that had befallen Innocent and Juma. 

Maiko immediately turned around to run from the house, but he came face to face with yet another gargantuan snake, the horrifying sight immobilizing him. He opened his mouth to scream but the snake struck, moving at a speed that defied its size, winding itself around him in a death grip, crushing his bones. Maiko’s last thought, wishing he had listened to his instincts, was lost in an avalanche of excruciating pain as the ophidian beast swallowed him whole.

It takes a village

The late great Tupac Shakur’s song ‘keep your head up’ came to mind this past week when I was walking to my car after picking my son up from school. Just ahead of us was a little girl I frequently see during the daily pick-up rituals of masking up, bringing your own pen to sign your child out, and hearing about your child’s day from the teacher.

On that typically bright sunny day, she was walking just ahead of us, her hair in a very intricate hairstyle reminiscent of Alicia Keys’ hairdo in Fallin’. She wore hers with a lot of pink beads, which bobbed back and forth as she held her mother’s hand and walked to their car. Come to think of it, she did look like a mini–Alicia Keys, matching complexion and all.

I pointed out that I loved her hairstyle as it is extremely rare to:

1. Encounter braided hair where I live and

2. Encounter anyone with black ancestry in that particular school. As of the time of this article, the school has just over 60 students and only 3 have black parentage.

Still, I was taken aback when the girl’s mother told me that her daughter did not want to wear the braids to school because she was afraid the other kids would tease her and call her ugly. To use an often-misused metaphor, I was so shocked, my jaw dropped to the ground. When I had collected myself and my jaw, I squatted, placing me at eye level with the little girl. I told her the truth.

“You are enough just as you are, you are beautiful, your braids are beautiful, your curly hair is beautiful and being different is ok.”

At this point she was smiling and moving her head from side to side so I could see the rest of the hairstyle.

Then I asked her, “Do you know how to braid hair?”

“No, I’m only four!” she declared in a manner suggesting she seriously wanted to withdraw my adult card because what kind of adult expects a four-year-old child to know how to braid hair, let alone such an intricate hairstyle?

Undeterred, I asked her, “Will you be willing to braid my hair in that style when you are older?”

At this point, she was openly laughing at me, amazed at my silliness. Didn’t I know that she had things to do, people to see and planets to conquer? But she was smiling and laughing, and that was enough for me. Her mother, a teacher at the school, mentioned that her child was very shy. Fortunately, the school has a zero-tolerance policy against bullying, and to the mother’s knowledge, her daughter was not being bullied. Also, the only comments she received about her hairstyle so far had been around how she got the beads in her hair, as the other kids were taking notes. I got the distinct feeling that we will be seeing a lot of beaded hairstyles in that school. Turns out, she is a trendsetter, who would have thought.

Fact is children tease other children. Even in my native Kenya where we were mostly African, kids would tease others over the size of one’s head, or the shape of a nose, or ears that stuck out (ala Barack Obama) or unique height, body weight, skin tone, bow legs, wobbly knees etc. It could be anything. And even though this child’s parents constantly affirm her and tell her that she is beautiful, the child could use reinforcing messages from society. Enter all of us. Let us affirm the children in our lives, because an affirmed child knows who they are, and that they are enough, and that they are beautiful and loved just the way they are.

Not all who wander are lost

I was, by all accounts, a very naughty and inquisitive child. And impatient, quite impatient. So, combine these three qualities and what happened next will come as no surprise.

I attended primary school 30 minutes away from home, and a school bus would collect us in the morning, drop us off at school, and collect us again in the early afternoon for the return journey. This routine repeated itself for years, and so we came to count on the bus’ arrival everyday, like clockwork. We knew that after the final bell rang, we had just enough time to run to the nearby kiosk and buy mabuyu/ baobab seed candy or maembe pilipili/ peppered mango before we headed back home.

I still remember that afternoon, it was sunny, the endless blue sky promising a warm welcome when we got home. After an unusually long wait, we heard that the bus would be delayed. My friend Cheruto and I, after about 30 more minutes of waiting, decided, in our nine year old infinite wisdom, to trek home. I mean, how far could it be, it took the bus half an hour, so, in our minds, it would take us one hour tops. That’s how confident we were. And so, armed with our backpacks and Cheruto’s brown trench coat, we set off in the general direction of our homes. 

I can’t say for sure when the folly of our decision started to dawn on me. Maybe it was when we had to sneak away from the other children, or maybe it was when we almost immediately realized that to get to the main road that would lead us home, we had to walk past a Muslim cemetery, which we did, screaming at the top of our voices, and to use a common English composition phrase, running as fast as our skinny legs would carry us, lest the dead rose and came after us for being naughty children. 

We walked up winding roads, arriving at the Eldoret airstrip, and it was at this point that Cheruto pointed at the very thick forest across from it, whispering, “We need to be very quiet, I heard that people are murdered in that forest.” She delivered this news in a matter of fact tone, and at this point, an hour into our journey, and having barely survived unseen ghosts at the cemetery,  I was starting to get really tired, but the prospect of being murdered and buried in that forest injected much needed adrenalin in my legs, so I joined Cheruto as she sprinted up the hill. At this point, I was definitely regretting my decision to join this hair raising trek. 

Fifteen or so minutes later, when we had cleared the forest of unseen bloodthirsty hands, still very much alive, we soldiered on, spending the next hour walking on relatively flat and murder-free terrain. I asked Cheruto how she came about her forest news, and she shrugged, as one does when asked about a commonly known fact. You get to know someone really well when you are on an unplanned hike, having survived what seemed like near death experiences to a hyperbolic nine year old mind. I was an imaginative child, so, in my mind, we had just escaped ghoul and fiend. Let nine year old me be.

Cheruto’s mother was a cateress, and this girl was prepared. She had all kinds of fruit in her backpack, so we had enough snacks to last us for a few more hours. Everything was finally starting to work out, the two of us sharing Cheruto’s snacks, shooting the breeze, when unbeknownst to us, the clouds above us had entered into a quarrel, causing the erstwhile clear blue sky to have a change of heart and gather its squad of angry clouds the likes of which can only be found in Eldoret. There’s a little known fact about Eldoret. Sure, it’s produced more Olympic marathon athletes than I can count, but it also has a little secret. Hidden in its high altitude depths is the fact that Eldoret does not do wimpy rain, no ma’am, it puts on a spectacular show. Go big or go home. It doesn’t just  rain, it produces hailstones the size of a small golf ball, and if you happen to survive the concussion you are sure to receive should one of nature’s spheres land on your noggin, then there’s the lighting and thunderstorms to contend with. The phrase ‘when it rains it pours’ was literally coined in Eldoret. No? You don’t agree? I said what I said.

And so, when the angry clouds reached the zenith of their fight thousands of feet above our heads, the skies opened, releasing torrential rain. And this is not my hyperbolic nine year old mind speaking. It was so wet, Cheruto and I ran to a nearby kiosk to shelter from the deluge, her brown trench coat impotent in the face of Eldoret rain. About half an hour later, when the squabbling skies had vented their spleens and the rain had reduced to what Americans like to call a sprinkle, we resumed our journey. To say that we were cold is an understatement. We were soaked to the bone. I could barely feel my feet. Our brown uniform clung to our skin, our fingers raisined by the frigid rain.

Many hours after we set off on our fool’s adventure, and having survived plagues of biblical proportions like ghosts, murderers, potential floods and hailstones, we finally walked up to the gates that would lead us home. Not the pearly gates just to be clear. We had lost our body temperature, not our minds. To add insult to injury, the school bus drove past us, splashing water from a puddle on the road. We deserved it. When I got home that day, my mother, seeing my state, gave me an actual hot bath, and not the barely lukewarm temperature her elbow, which had been checking water temperature for decades, usually decided was best. To this day, I will go out of my way to avoid being cold, the hours of trekking in cold, soaked leather shoes all those years ago firmly imprinted in my brain as a do not repeat zone.

Here’s to all the intrepid little girls out there. May your adventures come with good friendships and warm endings.

When we die

He died in a car crash. This kid, who was my youngest brother’s classmate in primary school, now a grown man in his thirties, who had been a brilliant student and a thriving engineer, died in a tragic accident as January drew to a close.

The ideal natural order of life is that we are born, we grow up, start families, or end up single- whether by choice or fate, find a career, or a trade, and eventually retire, and after we have bored our families to death with tales of our glory days, wearing our grey crowns, our bodies give up and we are done. But death does not bend to our whims, it doesn’t care for schedules or sequence; it adds our names to its grim list from the moment we are born, waiting to pounce and rob us of our lives, sometimes hiding in plain sight.

But for most of us, the grim reaper is the final death. Most of us die young, really young. Our bodies are alive, our mouths speak. We eat, we drink, we laugh, we cry, we sleep, but we aren’t really alive. You see, we die when we give up on our dreams, when we stop listening to our hearts and what they seek. Talk to any kid, they have grand dreams, they are alive, their bright future illuminating their eyes. And then somewhere along the way, someone or something, a set of circumstances, takes that child’s dreams and tramples upon them, leaving shards where hope once bloomed.

This man’s death was a reminder. A reminder to resurrect ourselves while we still breathe, exhume our dreams from the graves we consigned them to, find a way to follow our hearts, live fully, truly, so when the grim reaper comes calling, we will have emptied ourselves of all we had to share in this life.

May he rest in peace.

Forefathers

Picture a Luo man. Tall. Dark. Handsome. Son of Ogutu. Blessed with the charm to toa nyako pangoni. Now picture that this tall, dark, handsome and charming Luo man is also the wealthiest man in the village. He marries his first wife, his Mikayi, and charms her sister into marrying him, making her wife number two, his Nyachira. His charm gets him wife number three, Reru, and her sister to boot. This pattern repeats itself not three, not four, not five but twenty-eight times. You read that right. The man’s charm offensive bagged him fifty-six wives. And in accordance with Luo culture, he paid dowry to their families, fifty-six times, and was still wealthy enough to provide for all fifty-six wives and their children, who numbered in the hundreds. A man that charming also had to have conflict resolution skills rivaling Kofi Annan’s, for it was not unheard of for wives to stage a coup against a woefully outnumbered husband making his life a living hell. He managed to avoid this fate a whopping fifty-six times. This dashing charmer marshaled his considerable family into farming the land around them, which made him even wealthier, for in those days, the bigger your granaries and herds, the wealthier you were. And this man, my great- grandfather Nyalwalo, was very successful in that regard. So successful in fact that a village, KaNyalwalo, was named for him.

One of the hundreds of children, Ojwang’, was raised at KaNyalwalo amid a sea of siblings, his mother Adowo NyarKanyinek one of the youngest of the fifty-six wives. The Italian Catholic missionaries descended upon this village during Ojwang’s childhood and embarked upon a baptism mission, branding Luo babies with the names of long-dead Italians. Think Abednego, Abscondita. He was lucky. They named him Pius, a name which his village mates pronounced as pee-oooos. A naturally fastidious person, Pius attended the local Catholic village school run by strict Italian priests and nuns. As a young man, he would relocate to Tororo, Uganda, for a job with the East African Railways, no mean feat in those days, and an achievement his larger than life ego would bask in.  Tororo, where the skirts were very short and the legs very long, was a natural hunting ground for Pius, as he had inherited his father’s charm and affinity for the ladies. After a few years of chasing skirts, he settled down and started a family with my grandmother Asin, a long-legged, slender, Luo woman, welcoming their four sons. A naturally generous man, Pius was a natural host, welcoming family and friends, serving them kong’ oseke, a traditional brew drank via straw. As a child, one of my older brothers claims to have wandered into the room that housed kong’ oseke and partaken of the drink. His excuse? He mistook it for “strong smelling porridge”. A taller tale you will not find East of Timbuktu. Pius was a gregarious grandfather, and introduced my older brothers to ojuri, a traditional vinegar tasting dish you have to Google to believe, which was supposed to be exclusively eaten by grown men, but one he shared with his male grandchildren anyway, rules be damned.

Not too far away, a very tall gentleman named Ogutu, born to a clan of men who flirted with the seven foot height mark, married his brother’s widow Ogaja in accordance with Luo tradition; and together they had their first son Keya. When Ogutu married Ogaja, he was under the mistaken belief that like all the men in his family, he would marry a second wife, one he chose himself. Ogaja had different plans. Ogutu and his second wife Oiro found themselves migrating to a new village due to Ogaja’s refusal to accept Oiro, and in no small measure due to her acerbic criticism of Oiro, who, fearing for the safety of her child, fled with her husband. Imagine that you are that gentle giant known as Ogutu, patting yourself on the back for rescuing your chosen wife Oiro and your young daughter Onyango from the stereotypical step-mother, finally free to live your best lives away from the looming shadow of Ogaja, planting your grains, shooting the breeze, marveling at the ordeal you endured, when your worst nightmare shows up at your doorstep. You ask yourself a few questions. Was I a thief in my previous life? What did I do to the ancestors? Why me? But these questions go unanswered because Ogaja is here to stay and since there can only be one wife in your life, your chosen wife Oiro, says ‘ah ah. I am not an orphan, I am going back to my people. Peace out.” And that is how you end up spending the rest of your life with your first wife and any time you think about marrying another, the thought of packing up and starting over anew, when it will only be a matter of time before Ogaja finds you, deflates any hope of escape. But you are a grown man and your glass is always full, so you stick it out with Ogaja and you raise many children together. But your glass is not so full as to blind you, so you wisely place your daughter by your second wife in the care of your daughter-in-law, and since you all live in the same homestead, you get to raise all of your children.

Remember the first tall, dark handsome gentleman at the beginning of this story? Well, he was not the only one. My grandfather Keya was a gentle giant who stood head and shoulders above his peers in intellect, wisdom and humor. He was raised in a very traditional patriarchal society but had the prescience to impel his daughters to pursue their academic potential at a time when his peers viewed daughters simply as beasts of burden and a pathway to wealth and dowry. Soon after he married Dana Athieno, he was drafted to fight the white man’s war, over squabbles roused in lands far away from him, and served honorably, applying the world view he received during his deployment to Egypt, Pakistan, India and the UK as fuel to galvanize his children to want more than the village life. He believed in women’s rights before women’s rights were a thing. Kwara Keya, realizing the importance of the empowerment of women, taught his wife to read at a time when most men believed that to teach a woman to read was a dangerous thing, and also selfishly because he did not want other men reading the letters he wrote to his wife Athieno, stealing his lines and not paying him royalties. Other men chose not to teach their wives how to read, creating a steady income for the men who could read deployed soldiers’ letters to their waiting wives.

He was raised Catholic but did not buy into the blonde haired blue eyed Jesus story, deciding to worship in a manner that was authentic to his Luo spirit. His wit was dwarfed only by his wisdom. Case in point, when my uncle was a teenager, he met a lovely lass and decided to sneak her into his simba. Like most teenagers, he thought he knew everything, and could outwit his father Keya. Well, since Keya was once a teenager, he caught on to what my uncle was up to pretty quickly and decided to have fun with it. Because why suffer through teenage drama if you can’t at least get an occasional good laugh out of it? So my very dignified grandfather decided to go for a walk, passing outside my uncle’s simba, casually asking if all was well. My uncle, panicking at the thought of being caught entertaining a young lady in his simba, blurted “anyamo niang’” translation, ‘I am chewing sugarcane’. My grandfather chuckled, walked away, and returned after a few minutes, cheekily calling out to my uncle, “podi inyamo niang’?”, translation, ‘are you still chewing sugarcane?’ A sulky teenager emerged, alone, as his lady love had taken off the minute the coast was clear, her reputation intact, her departure dashing my uncle’s raging hormone-fueled hopes.

“Jolly Joe”, my father’s nickname, was a very generous and resilient man, who passed his phenomenal whistling skills on to me. Raising six boys is no joke. You have to lay down the law, otherwise you are inviting chaos and anarchy into your home. And my father did not do chaos. Or anarchy. While he was a strict parent, because I was named after his mother Asin, he would call me mama. Thanks to my uncanny resemblance to his mother as I got older, he changed tack from the tried and true spare the rod method he had used on all of us, to long lectures about my actions and their consequences.

Sons are prized in African culture, but my father never favored my brothers over me, and had the same high expectations for all of us. It is said that Kiswahili was born in Tanzania, died in Kenya and was buried in Uganda. And my father, who was born and raised in Tororo, Uganda, spoke Kiswahili like a true Ugandan. Oswahili has nothing on Ugandan Kiswahili, and my sincere apologies to Kiswahili for calling what Ugandans speak Kiswahili (As the daughter of a Uganda born man, I am family, so Ugandans please don’t come for me). Words like ‘wosha’ for wash and referring to everything as ‘huyo’ whether it was living or inanimate, or sprinkling Luganda into conversations, were very common occurrences in our household. To get us to rinse our mouths after meals, he would tell us tales of blood sucking monsters who came to smell sleeping children’s mouths while they slept, and if our mouths were not clean, the nyang’au would suck all our blood. Needless to say, I religiously brush my teeth before bed to this day.  His version of ‘be prepared’, “Mbio ikitokea”, has been a humorous yet valuable life lesson.

An academically gifted student, he was admitted to a National School, Mang’u High School back in the day, and would have completed his secondary school education and gone on to university had life not dealt him blows that forced him to drop out. Resilience ran in his blood, and brilliance cannot be suppressed, so, undeterred, he secured a job with Bata, the shoe company, saving his money to pay for a clerk’s course which he successfully completed, securing a Senior Clerical Officer job at the then East African Community (EAC). When the EAC collapsed, he took his severance package and started a timber importing business which would see him travel back and forth between his native Uganda and his ancestral Kenya, sharing his success with his extended family. Any of his extended family who needed tuition, medical fees, living expenses, you name it, could count on my father. Here’s to a man who was a feminist before feminism was thing, encouraging my mother’s academic pursuits when most men of his generation still used such archaic phrases as “a woman’s place”.

Rest in Peace Baba.

An Ode to my Foremothers

To that resilient, young Ugandan widow, who, when her brother-in-law sold her two sons to the Arab slave traders, despite her grief, fled the land of her ancestors with her remaining child, a daughter, journeying for months in the hope of seeing her sons again, finally arriving in Mbita, her journey to a new land possible because of the kindness of strangers. For that force of nature who, upon the realization that her sons were forever lost to her, forged ahead, making a home in a strange land, raising her daughter, even though her heart bled for her missing boys.

To the widow’s daughter, who, having lost her father and two brothers in a very short space of time, trekked for months under extremely difficult circumstances, settled in Mbita, maturing to adulthood and raising a family of her own in Kalenjuok, Alego, including a daughter she named Akelo.

To Akelo “Ogaja”, my maternal great-grandmother who, like her Ugandan grandmother, was a petite force of nature, born in Kalenjuok, Alego. She who stood out like a sore thumb because of the yellow skin she inherited from her Ugandan forebears, but whose scathing tongue deterred any mention of her foreignness in that Luo village of sun-kissed ebony beauties, earning her the nickname “Ogaja”. She who would be widowed as a young bride and go on to marry her husband’s brother, a tall gentleman named Ogutu, who would go on to marry a second wife in line with Luo culture, and to his chagrin, find out that Ogaja did not share husbands. She who would go on to bear and bury many children, but, like her foremothers, would forge ahead, heartrendingly mourning and then bearing life’s tragedies with stoic resilience. She who patiently waited for the return of her son Keya from his deployment with the King’s African Rifles (KAR), hoping and praying, like all mothers of military men and women do, that their children will return home safe from the horrors of war.

To Adera, my maternal great-grandmother, a very kind-hearted, no-nonsense woman who bore my maternal grandmother Athieno, and who was the founder of the cheek pinching tradition that would be passed down to her daughters and granddaughters, keeping mischievous children in line one pinched cheek at a time.

To Athieno, my very petite and very formidable maternal grandmother, daughter of Adera and Makuda, born in Kaugagi Nina, mkhana Munyala, whose foremothers were Gohe and Muka. She who had a very naughty childhood but grew into a serious woman, married a military man, and ran her household with military precision. She who like many military wives, found herself being the primary parent, and whose husband Keya taught her how to read so “other men wouldn’t read the letters he wrote to his wife”. She who, because her husband traveled to Egypt, India, Pakistan and England while deployed with the KAR, spent long stretches of time alone with her mother-in-law Ogaja, and cared for her as one would their own mother. The kind-hearted mother who would go on to raise many children, those she bore and the motherless, and love them as her own, raising them in her very particular and quiet way, teaching them to speak AbaLuhya on the sly, as her Luo husband had forbidden it, but he was away frequently in service of the Crown, and when the cat’s away and all that. She who abhorred untidiness, frumpiness, and the mixing of cups used for tea and porridge, yes, even when clean. A teacup was a teacup and a porridge cup was a porridge cup and never the twain shall meet under Athieno’s watch. She who would have me pleat, not fold her blankets at the end of the day, because folded blankets just didn’t cut it, and who even when bent with old age, would have me walk ahead of her while climbing stairs because “you are a child and I need to watch over you”. She who, in her final years, would have me move Othith (palm fronds) from the sun to the shade and back and forth until she was satisfied with the suppleness of the Othith she used for weaving. She from who I inherited my pottery and weaving skills, and who would regale us with tales from her childhood including when processed sugar came to her village and only the naughty girls would eat it.

To my paternal grandmother Asin, Nyar Kakan, that phenomenal woman for who I was named and whose foremothers were Asiya and Achieng’. She who married young, and with her husband, moved to Uganda and, as was the tragedy of those days, bore and buried twin daughters. She would bear many sons, and though her daughters did not live, her granddaughters and great grand daughters would bear her name, Asin. She who made a new home in Uganda and would return to her husband’s ancestral village, Seje, to ensure that her sons received their fair share of their inheritance during the division of the ancestral land. She who, like another woman in a distant village, did not believe that husbands were communal property, ejected her husband’s second wife from the family home. She who was in equal parts extremely kindhearted and formidable, who was known as one you would not want to cross, for to step on Asin’s toes was to start a war that she would win, and on her own terms. To the woman who blessed me with my facial features and my physique. The woman who, even though she pre-deceased me, I am told I bear an uncanny resemblance to.

To Amolo, my grandmother Asin’s little sister and my adopted grandmother, who called me Nyaminwa, sister. For, she would remind me that not only was I named after her sister, but I looked, sounded and shared many of her sister’s personality traits. She who always had a gleam in her eye, whose laugh would brighten up even the gloomiest day, belying the blows life had dealt her. She who found humor in the ordinary, and always made the time to travel from her marital home, Mariwa to visit us, never afraid to get down to our level and play with us. I would call her on Saturday mornings my time, which was evening her time, and she would regale me with the goings on in her village. We gossiped like sisters and we would laugh and laugh about everyone and everything. She who I called Dana, Nyaminwa, osiepna, for our relationship transcended generations. She was my grandmother, my sister and above all, my friend.

To my mother, Supermom, Professor Rosebella Ogutu Onyango, who we are all truly fortunate to call mom. She, the first born of Athieno and Keya, and blessed with both beauty and brains, who flexed her intellectual prowess early in life. She whose father quickly realized that farming was not her strength, advised her that the pen was her jembe, and against the norm of the times, encouraged her, a girl, to pursue her academic journey “until there was no class ahead”, who graduated with her Bachelor’s and Masters degrees while raising seven children. She who was widowed while pursuing her PhD and did not quit, a testament to her spine of steel, also making her the first PhD in her entire village, earning her instant and enduring celebrity status. She who lives her deep Catholic faith, a phenomenal woman, whose quiet strength and sense of humor have steered our family through life’s turbulence. She who has survived near death experiences, and lived to tell the tale, and in her humorous way, imparting her timeless wisdom to us and the many grandchildren who are blessed to call her Dana. She who, when we stepped out of line as children, would, arms akimbo, exclaim “Choke!” which was our warning that the verbal part of that conversation was over, and a pinching was coming to cheeks near you. I, being the naughtiest of the last three children, was frequently on the receiving end. In my defense, I did inherit the naughtiness from several of my foremothers, it just skipped my mother, and seeing as I am the last in this venerable line of phenomenal women, I received a triple dose of it. She who embodied the gardening, and not carpenter parenting style, recognizing early on that we were our own people, and that her role was to enable us to be our best selves. Whose kindness to the numerous students she has taught over the years has earned her the name Mama. Whose birthday tributes are a testament to the impact she has made on many, whose former students still visit her decades after she taught them. Whose reassuring presence is the glue that holds our family together.

Here’s to the phenomenal women from whom I descend.

For the daughters of Uganda, For wakhana wa Kaugagi Nina Adera and Athieno, For Nyar Kalenjuok Ogaja, For Nyi Kakan Asin gi Amolo and for Nyar Uhanya, Supermom.