There will always come a time in the life of a Luo man when he must go to another man’s home to ask for that man’s daughter in marriage. It really does not matter how woke one is – at some point in your life you will have to do this. Some like to beat their chests and say, ‘oh, me I will not go to ask for permission, I will go ask for his blessings’ – but those are just Narobi people who have been, in a matter of dala speaking, milking cows that they have not bought. Messed up as it may sound, there are much older laws that have refused to be touched by the bony hands of time. This asking…this begging…is not for you, so much as it is for the man you are going to visit. Especially if they are old timers. For them – well, many of them – it is about respect. You want something (or someone) of theirs, you have to ask for it. Properly. Accompanied by a four-legged gift, or its equivalent in cash. Depending on the tastes and preference of the man whose home you are going to.
And there are rules to these things when it comes to my people. The process of getting a girl even has stages. Four. Like the life cycle of a butterfly. First, there is Ng’eruok – where you are basically going to woo the girl, literally, to know each other. Then Limbe, where the folks (of both sides) visit to see who exactly this is you are trying to bring into the family – you know, to make sure you are not marrying your cousin or into a family of men who put their legs on the bed when oiling their legs, or a woman who puts blueband in ugali. Kasto there is Ayie; which basically means I have agreed (turns out men do understand consent). Here is where dowry is haggled and then after that, there is Nyombo when now the cows are brought into the homestead. Whether or not you do a church wedding is neither here nor there.
My old man never did that church wedding thing until 2003, when I was in class seven, and probably never would have if Mother Karua had not insisted on it. It does not matter how old they get, deep down in the poetry of their hearts, girls will always be princesses. She wanted the works – a pretty dress with a train, tiny girls throwing flowers, a team of maids in kitenges and Orie Rogo Manduli headgear, and a best friend to stand for her at the altar. And throughout that whole process, I was consumed with excitement. My mother was getting married! Well, she was already married, but you know how we Africans like to have traditional weddings, which are later on “legitimized” by a Christian wedding. When, really, there is even nothing Christ-like about a Christian wedding. The son of Man was a Jew, after all, and in his time, they did not quite have bridal showers the day before in which fake Pharisee policemen showed up pretending to respond to a noise disturbance complaint, before walking in and ripping off their trousers and dry humping the wife-to-be for hours into the night.
Look, I am not saying Karua had a bridal shower like that. It is hilarious that I have to make such a disclaimer because there are people who come to read my blog so that they can go report me to my mother. But you get the point, right?
Can you imagine, though, that they never let us (the kids) attend that wedding? All I know about that wedding is from pictures in the album in my drawer, a video tape, and stories from people who attended that wedding. Which is pretty much every one other than me! My mother looking so beautiful in a pink dress, the food at the reception, the performance by Jack Nyadundo with that stomach so big, you’d be forgiven to think he was hired to provide shade, not ohangla music. I felt so cheated yaani!!! I had already bragged to my friends how I will be the kid to carry the rings down the aisle (I am my mother’s bone) on a small white pillow.
And then you know what they decide to do? About five days to the big day, they round us up and say we will not be allowed to attend. Ati some culture forbids kids to attend their parent’s wedding. Which culture? They did not specify. I do not know whether it was the Catholics or Luos, but even then, as a 12-year-old, I called bullshit. Like come on now. You mean to tell me that this person in the spirit world – Yahweh or Obong’o Nyakalaga – would be offended if I attended MY parent’s wedding? Ati parents should hold weddings before their kids are born. Yeah, well, you know what? Fuck Him – whichever god it was. I was already here and there was nothing that could change that. Keeping me away from the church and reception would not change my existence, goddamit! If they wanted to do this ‘the right way’, the best chance they had was to send all of William’s kids – all nine of them – back to his balls; especially the youngest one with a broken tooth.
Fam, I was not letting this one go. That I was locked out of my own parent’s wedding? Imagine that. All the kids in the neighbourhoods eating the rice in your mother’s wedding, and you the only thing you are eating is njaro? What would I tell people? On the day of the wedding, I woke up early like everyone else, showered like everyone else, put Vaseline until I shined like gazeti used to wrap chapos…like everyone else, dressed up like everyone else (except they were in suits while I was in that Naija outfit William had made for me for Karua’s graduation), sat down with the bridal team and had breakfast just like everyone else, and when the cars came to pick people up, I also went out like everyone else.
But unlike everyone else, I did not get into the cars. Karua, accepting defeat, called me aside and begged me not to go. Looking at my mother – her skin the colour of a ripe mango, in that dress that was not decided about whether or not it was pink or orange, her eyes wearing the glow of the sun like that, with a crown sitting on her head, which I would later come to learn is called a tiara, I could not just do it. I could not ruin her day…her moment. Plus, it was not even up to her – it was William with the hang-ups. I watched the cars, ornamented with balloons and Christmas decorations, speed off to Kibuye Catholic Church, as I headed to my aunt’s place.
It fucking hurt, but we both knew she owed me one. And it is funny, you see, because I do not recall ever collecting that debt. Maybe I should. Maybe I will.
Or maybe I will let her have that one. Maybe.
If a Luo man sees you in a suit, the first thing he will ask is “where are you going to eat chicken?” Eating chicken here means going to the in-laws. If you are going to your mother in-law’s house to ask for her daughter, a chicken must lose its life in your honor. And it has to be a suit; jacket with matching trousers (in dala, pants mean underwear), a shirt buttoned all the way up and tucked in, shoes polished and then you strangle a tie. If you do not dress like this then you have not dressed at all; you have walked naked. I do not know who even came up with this dress code, especially because the sun in Luo Nyanza will leave you stewing in your own juices the moment you step out of the door looking like that.
The other week I took my elder brother, Nimrod, for an Ayie. By the above unwritten ordinance, we walked naked. Meaning, we had a tailor make urban Afro wear for the occasion, but I will not get into this experience because my word count will not allow. Lakini let us just say that the day tailors deliver outfits on time is the day pigs will learn to fly. A tailor delivering on time means the client lied about the day of his wedding. Yaani you have to break the 9th Commandment- you have to literally offend God – for a tailor to give you your shit on time.
Of course, the uncles we walked with kept the old ways alive with their suits.
The night before we were meant to leave Alego for Ikolomani, an aunt of mine shared a story about how one of her friend’s sons went on a similar mission, but those people kept them hungry. They were not given chicken. They left their future in-law’s place with empty stomachs and ashy lips from all the talking. Ati because according to Boni Khalwale’s people, they cannot make you chicken unless you are already an in-law. So Mother Karua had called Nimrod’s girl to ask, and she’d confirmed that indeed they would not be serving any chicken for us.
Now here we are. We are marrying a girl from a different tribe, which means they do things differently from how we do things. So which culture takes precedence? Idakhos don’t serve chicken unless you’re already an in-law and we Luos can never trust a maro who does not slaughter a chicken for her in-laws; current or potential.
“Are you the first girl in your family?” Karua had asked her future daughter in law. “No? Oh, so you are the second born? And the other one is married? Ah then there is no problem. So long as cows have been brought to that homestead, then we can eat chicken in there. That is the law. So, please, my daughter, just make something nice for my people.”
I swear to God, I could not believe that this was actually a problem. And I have no idea where Mother Karua got that law from. Ati so long as cows have been brought, then we can eat chicken. When we asked, she said, “I did my research, chokeee!!”
What research? I called bullshit. If there is an Idakho reading this, please throw light in here, because Nyasachiel I can bet my mom just made that stuff up and conned her in-laws out of their own culture and tradition.
The next day, we sat in that house in Ikolomani in silence. Everyone was just observing to see what would be brought. It was not chicken. It was groundnuts. And soda. My uncles were not even eating it, mostly out of disbelief. The hosts kept urging us to open more bottles of soda and to eat more groundnuts, but the old guard were not falling for that trick.
“They just want us to get full on these things and not eat properly,” one of them leaned over and whispered to me, and I just wanted to burst out laughing but I also did not want to swell the head of the whole Karuoth clan.
The volcanic blood that courses through our veins comes from my mother. We are radioactive because of her. Which is why we call her Mother Karua in the first place. And of all the children who came from my mother’s womb, the one who inherited all the uranium is Nimrod. There is no way to contain his anger once it erupts, the only way to deal with it is to let it burn out by itself. From a distance, that is. When one of his girl’s uncles stood up to speak, I knew this was going bad. I turned and looked at Nimrod and saw steam coming from his ears.
“Our girl says that they had agreed on a brideprice, so perhaps we could start our discussions from there. Our son can, perhaps, tell us what they agreed with our daughter.”
First of all, it is funny how now he is your son when we’re talking matters dowry, but he is not your son enough to serve us chicken. Just groundnuts and bottomless Coke. Second, no they had not. So what was this guy saying? I put my hand on his and squeezed, asking him to calm down. My uncles looked confused. There is no such thing in our community. A groom does not agree on a bride price with his girl and then dictates it to the elders. The determination of the bride price is for elders to discuss. Period. Actually, even in this meeting, the only thing Nimrod is supposed to do is show his face. He is not supposed to speak – that is for the people who walked with him. If he has anything to say, he’s supposed to whisper it to me and then I whisper it to my uncles. Then our designated spokesperson will speak.
Don’t ask me why, I was born and found it like that.
We had to walk out and consult. The whole visiting team. Which in itself does not look good, because now we look disorganized. The uncles were convinced that this is a trick. They were just trying to throw sand in our eyes to confuse us and get an upper hand. We went back into the house and stated our own figure.
“OK.” The old man started again. “But why can’t you just state the original number of cows as discussed between our son and our daughter?”
Now my uncles were not having it. The asked for the girl to be brought so that she can tell us in the presence of her husband and elders this thing she is saying. Tongue tied, the two love birds were given time to go and talk privately.
Turns out they had actually spoken about this thing – Nimrod and his bride. But it was just one of those things, according to him. Off the record remark. But then the girl went and told her parents that he had promised to bring x number of cows. According to the Idakho, this is actually supposed to happen, and the poor girl had unfortunately not considered that Luos do not do things like that. An honest mistake, really.
The old men talked, we just sat in silence and tried not to look too greedy by drinking all the soda and finishing all the groundnuts.
“We are not here to do business with your son. This is a dowry payment. Not a business transaction,” is a refrain that kept on popping up. But however much they tried to claim that this was not a commercial enterprise, I could not help but see the biashara in this whole thing. They haggled over bride price relentlessly, just like in business. They agreed on a price, just like in business. They agreed on terms (part in cows part in cash, and that the dowry would be paid in installments), just like in business. Hell, they even drew up a contract, just like in business. And it was important for the Idakho side of the family that this agreement was put down on paper (two handwritten copies), and both families signed it. Legally, this is not a contract, just a promise. In court, it would hold as much water as a collarbone in North Horr. But they did not know that.
It was not until this was over that the ladies brought the food. The chicken. Three fowls had been martyred in anticipation of our arrival. And as Luo custom dictates, the groom’s entourage is not supposed to touch the food until Nimrod has taken the first bite. Then the bride to be came with a roasted chicken and knife and placed them in front of Nimrod. According to them, he is supposed to cut it into pieces and distribute it amongst his entourage.
Surely. Why does marriage complicate food like this? It is just food. Eating. Not a UK Visa application.
When we finally started eating, the bride’s father called to one of my uncles and said, “My brother, when you started speaking and talked about how big and honourable the people of Siaya are, I thought to myself hmmmm I should ask these people for a million. But you cried so much mpaka now nikaanza kushindwa.”
“Well, you see,” my uncle said, “we people of Siaya, we love to talk big, but the truth is, the sun on our side is so hot it even burned our pockets.”
And we laughed and laughed and laughed with food in our mouths and wiped the oil on our lips with the back of our hands. But it is not a lie. I come from a place whose greatest treasure is its people. And that is what this whole thing is about, right? People. Two people who are coming together to continue the line of their people. To keep bloodlines going. To continue with what other people before them started generations before. Then pass it on the ones on the way. Ama?