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.