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.