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.

Bright Ones

“If you had told me, the guy who graduated at the top of my primary school class, attended Alliance High School, passed K.C.S.E with a straight A, and this was back when an A meant something, that I would be here today, I would have laughed at you and asked you to seek help for your mental issues.” He sighs deeply.

“But life has a way of taking your dreams into the palms of its hands and crushing them, and when you fall to your knees in surrender, grabbing you by your ankles and dragging you through thorns, bleeding, and only letting you be when it has robbed you of your last ounce of dignity.” He rubs his eyes, bloodshot and heavily bagged from years of working overnight shifts and sleeplessness, and staring at me from a face wrinkled long before its time.

“She was a CU girl, Christian Union, very saved, very very Christian. I met her during my first semester at the University of California, Berkeley. I was there on an academic scholarship, she, on a soccer scholarship. We were two kids, far away from home, and even though I’ve never bought into Christianity, it sounds like a con job to me, I went to church with her because it was important to her. I even ditched my girlfriend back home for this girl. We did everything together, and because we were on full scholarships, we didn’t have to work odd jobs to survive. Life was good. Easy,” His phone beeps, he shows me the screen, a photo of two identical boys, “my mom is raising them, I haven’t seen them in three years.” He lowers his head, the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“One thing led to another, and before we knew it, she was pregnant. A CU girl, pregnant. You know that Biblical story about Moses parting the red sea? That’s how our so-called friends scattered. We became pariahs. Fornication is a sin, and they were not going to associate with us, fornicators who were now bringing illegitimate life into this world. In Berkeley of all places, can you believe it?” He shakes his head, still bewildered by the fickleness of humanity.

“Anyway, because she was a CU girl, she decided to keep it. To say that we were terrified would be an understatement. She was the first born, the torch bearer of her family. The first to go to university, let alone travel outside the country. She is from Mugirango Chache, and told me that her father’s temper was legendary, which is saying something, coming from a place where fiery tempers are as common as a sneeze. He once broke the arm of a boy who dared show his face at his house, ‘like a twig’. And so we decided to keep the news quiet.” He pauses, typing into his phone. “My mom needs more money for the boys, they are outgrowing their clothes, and money to pay the nanny. Let me send her some cash.”

“And so, we found ourselves trying to figure out how to keep our scholarships and raise a family. Because when it rains it pours, we found out we were having twins. Twins! They don’t run in our families, but, like I said, life. Anyway, we had to sort out our living arrangements once the babies arrived, we couldn’t live in the hostels anymore, not with babies. I manned up, swallowed my pride and got a job at a gas station, working nights for minimum wage. It was a rude awakening, a humbling one. I grew up in Lavington, but you see, my parents are not the kind you go to with your problems, or so I thought. Plus, my dad had just retired so cash was tight. But the truth is I was a pampered kid. I didn’t realize how expensive life was. Over the next few months, I attended classes by day and worked at the gas station by night, trying to study and squeeze in some sleep during slow hours. Often, my classmates would stop by on their way from the club and some of them were really cruel, you know, ‘how the mighty have fallen’ was written all over the smirking faces. But there is no shame in being a man and providing for your family. And so I soldiered on.”

“Days turned into months and I saved enough for us to rent a room in a house. It was tiny, but the landlady was a kind old lady, and so we moved in one month to our due date. Amazingly, the birth of our boys was complication free, a blessing in itself because I’m not sure how we would have afforded a C-Section. I should mention that in the months leading up to the birth of our sons, she had become more and more distant, and by the time they were born, we were barely speaking. I hoped that the birth of the children would bond us, and I realize I am in the minority here, as most teenage boys don’t stick around. Some of my classmates asked me why I didn’t just leave her, I was nineteen, with the rest of my life ahead of me, and so many fish in the sea. But they didn’t understand. They didn’t understand that this girl had given up everything to have these children. She lost her soccer scholarship immediately because she suffered from severe morning sickness and couldn’t play anymore. It had been her dream to become a US citizen and maybe even play professionally. That door was now closed to her because she was no longer in school, and had violated the terms of her student visa. She had been ostracized by her Christian friends. Save for me, she was alone in this strange country. And she had a fire breathing dragon of a father back home, so she couldn’t even lean on her family for emotional support, and she certainly could not tell them that she had joined the ranks of international students who move to the United States to pursue a degree only to drop out of school, forever relegated to working grueling shift jobs under the table, playing hide and seek with immigration authorities.”

“Whoever coined the phrase ‘sleep like a baby’ had never met a newborn. They don’t sleep. The sleep deprivation, perpetual brokeness and isolation we were experiencing fueled the lava of insanity that finally erupted one fine morning just as I was wrapping up my overnight shift at the gas station. My landlady called me, frantically trying to say something my sleep addled mind couldn’t comprehend. All I heard was ‘come home now’. Luckily for me, my boss was there and I was able to hightail it out of there. When I arrived at the house, I found my landlady cradling my boys, and I ran to our room looking for her.” He pauses, the look on his face so broken, his bloodshot eyes swimming with tears. “You know, back home, we, men, are told not to cry, to ‘take it like a man’.” He holds his head in both hands, his words muffled, “She left us. Without a word. She packed all her things, and I mean everything. Even her spoons. She erased herself from our lives. My landlady, once she calmed down, told me she woke up to screaming babies, and to the sight of their mother dragging her two suitcases out of the house and into a waiting taxi. I don’t know where she found the cash, but she found it and left us. I didn’t know where to start looking. Here I was, a single father at twenty. Life, man, life will take a big nyahunyo and whip you, and just when you think you can’t take any more, life will send a truck to run you over. But even between the treads of those truck tires, life will sometimes grant you reprieve, and if there is such a thing as angels, mine was my land lady. That woman saved our lives. She went into mom mode, watching my kids while I went to school and worked nights. But it became clear to me that this situation was a bandaid at best. After two months, I swallowed my pride and called home. I cried to my mother like a baby. Mothers, man, mothers will love you when the whole world has turned its back against you. When you have no one left, your mother will be there for you. My mom sent me a plane ticket, and just like that, I took my boys home. My mom raised me, and now she’s raising my boys. It’s not been easy. Just when I was almost done, Rona hit, like I said, life and its nyahunyo. The silver lining is, with school closed, I’ve been able to put in more hours at the gas station so I have quite a bit saved up. I’m finally graduating this coming year, I’m getting my computer science degree. I already have a couple job offers lined up. The clouds are finally parting.”

I ask him where she is, the mother of his children.

“Well, thanks to social media, I found out she went back home. She went to university there and is also waiting to graduate next year. I sent her photos of our boys and she blocked me. I reached out to her sister, who told me that she was warned about me, a stalker who is trying to force myself and my sons on her. We are dead to her. It pains me, I don’t know what to tell my boys. But once I get a steady job and a place of my own, I am going home and I’m bringing them here. I’m their dad. I love them and I’m never abandoning them.”

Dia De Los Muertos

This weekend, many cultures around the world will hold days of prayer and remembrance for the departed. All Saints day is followed by All Souls day, which coincides with Día de Los Muertos, a day of remembrance observed by our Mexican brethren. Dia de Los Muertos is beautifully depicted in the film Coco, if you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor and watch it. It will enrich your life.

We have all known the pain of losing a loved one. And though they are physically gone from our lives, their memories live on in us. I hope you will find the time to remember your departed loved ones too, and keep their memory alive.

Today, we remember, not how we lost them, but much better this world was with them in it.

We remember:

The mother whose laughter filled her house with joy, who toiled tirelessly to single-handedly raise her children. That formidable woman whose firm disciplinarian parenting built in her children resilience that has seen them through life’s challenges; and who carried herself with dignity and unfailing grace even as she fought her final battle.

The father whose quiet strength carried his family through unimaginable adversity. He who steered his wife and children to safety in a war-torn land, and once their safety was assured, returning to fight to defend the land of his forefathers to the bitter end.

The grandmother whose harshness melted away when she held her first grandchild in her arms, to the disbelief of her own children. She who, while she birthed no children of her own, lovingly raised other people’s children, so they called her mother and grandmother because love transcends blood.

The grandfather whose steady love for his family fomented in them an urge to always put family first in everything they did.

The sister who always had a ready smile, making every guest feel right at home. Whose wanderlust led her to travel the world, seeing for herself the beauty it holds.

The brother who always looked out for his tribe of misfits. For though they were condemned to homelessness, he taught them that family is bonded by love.

The teacher who taught selflessly, hoping for a bright future for all of her students. And those students, fueled by her belief in them, scaled seemingly unattainable heights, always hearing her voice spurring them on “You can do it. Never give up!”

The nanny under whose loving care many children were raised, she who was there to clean scrapes and kiss pain away.

The children tragically lost before they took their first breath, their lives over before they began, borne on angel wings.

May they rest in peace, and may they live on in our hearts.