Everyone else seemed cool with the idea except me. I could not understand it. No. I refused to understand it. Up until the morning of the ceremony, I had not even packed yet. It was ridiculous, this unwritten ordinance. Ati I could not attend my own parents wedding? How? The most annoying part of it was the fact that even William of all people could not bring himself to explain to me who came up with that shit. Was it a chira according to Luo culture, or was it the Catholics who had proscribed it? All he said was, “It is not allowed,” for the thirteenth time and somehow thought that that was an answer.
“Fine, but why?”
“It is just…”
“…the way it is.” I had heard that line before.
“You will understand when you get older,” he said and then I hung up the phone and gave it back to Mother Karua without even looking at her in the face. I could not stand the kind of betrayal that sat inside those eyes. Yaaani and the way I had bragged to my friends! On her bed was a wedding gown. Not pink. Not beige. Something in between. One of those colours that are not really colours, you know? I wondered why she did not get a white wedding dress like everything else, but I knew even if I asked, they would still give me the same stock answers. It is just the way it is. Stop being so stubborn, George. You will understand when you get older. (I still haven’t understood by the way). After the shower, I put on the blue Naija outfit that Aunty Anastasia twang’od for me a while back, took my tea slowly, watching as my other relatives stepped into suits and dresses, wishing that something could happen and my tea would spill on their stupid clothes.
I did not leave until the car came for the bride. I wanted to see if they would really refuse me from going. I mean, what would they do, really? If I held on to that pink dress and threatened to tear it apart unless they allow me to attend my parent’s wedding, I would be let in, donge? Surely every custom can be broken. This one needed just one brave moment. Just one push in the right direction. Furthermore, disobedience to a bad law is not just the right thing to do, it is my patriotic duty! Ama namna gani? Can I hear a TIBIM!
That brave moment never came. Deo and I were sent away to my aunty’s place for the weekend. The other elder siblings were away in boarding school so it did not matter. We went back home on Monday evening to find the house spilling with baskets and stools and glasses (that were then converted for exclusive use by visitors only) and sufuriafulls of pilau and gifts and gifts and gifts. Clearly there must have been a serious rave after the exchange of the nuptials. Yet we never got to see that for ourselves. Because there is some idiot who said that children are not supposed to attend their parents’ weddings. So everything I know of that day are things I hear from stories, watched on video and sometimes looked at in photos. It is said that Jack Nyadundo tore Lions High School Hall – the reception venue – with heavy hits belted from that agulu of a stomach he carries. Buses of jogweng’ were ferried in from Alego Komenya. Some say people ate and vomited and ate some more. Others were seen stuffing samosas and mandazis into their coats. Others claim that our neighbours from Migosi drank Coca-Cola until the water in their veins turned black. Then went back for their next helping.
But what everyone seems to be in agreement of is that it was a day to remember. I was in Class Seven then. I resented my folks for a bit, then, like all 12 year olds do, I forgot all about it after a while. It was the first church wedding in our family. And the last I ever witnessed (sort of).
Until last week.
No sheep. People do not go looking for a girl with sheep. The cows and goats, however, are supposed to arrive in the morning. Way before whoever sent them arrives at the compound, they are supposed to be tethered and grazing inside their new home. Then the dude and his entourage arrive at gimoro 10 or 11am. How you arrive is also important. You cannot go to look for a girl when you are not wearing a suit. Woe unto you if you are coming to nyombo in December when Alego Komenya tends to get so hot and dry that the trees bribing the dogs. You are still supposed to be in a suit. Otherwise, idhi wuoth duk. You have walked naked. And you know there are very few greater chira than an in-law seeing your nakedness.
Conversely, the arrival of the new herd to the homestead also marks the death of a couple of livestock who were residents there. It is the circle of life when a girl is about to be given away. Depending on the expected entourage, a chicken or two may lose its life. Or an entire goat. Or even a cow. Or all three.
The idea is to stuff the guests with food and drink. There are two main reasons here. The first, is so that they are inspired to give generously when the negotiations begin. You thought ati the cows and goats were enough? No bwana. Those ones are just so that the gates can be opened. So you are fed until you are full from opening of your buttocks up to the tip of your throat. It is also not a good show to the women of your in-laws to make them cook up a storm like that then you do not eat. That is why, back in the day when the world was still in black and white, a groom had to have in his entourage a glutton. Someone whose work was to clear food. He eats, excuses himself to the nearby bush, sticks a finger up his mouth to force a vomit, shits, then comes back for more. People of today who have climbed price and pay dowry via MPESA will twenyo their mouths and think that that is disgusting.
The second idea, and this is just what I think, is so that you do not have enough energy to bargain dowry. But that is just me.
Sometime last December we had such visitors come to William’s compound. The weather was funny in 2017. It rained a lot. People were carrying their bicycles instead. Maize in the fields had started going bad. The road from K’odiere to Rabar was, for most of that period, almost impassable. Then like a miracle, on the week these guests were to come, the heavens took a break from beating the earth. Our Karuoth ancestors were working overtime. And on that day, after performing my last born duties of receiving the cows and goats in the morning, arranging the sitting room and entertaining uncles from the village who keep insisting that they can see William in my face, I found Uncle Sammy sitting under a shed. It was time he told me stories I have always wanted to hear. Stories from our family tree.
Meanwhile, inside William’s sitting room, visitors from Ugenya started with mandazis and bread and washed them all down with milk tea. Sweetened with Sony Sugar. The brown one with big juicy particles.
Every time I go back to dala, I am reminded that I have many wives. I meet old women who call themselves mine. Some at the sight of me, break into song. They shower me with praises, calling me all sorts of things – from a leopard’s testicles, to a shiny new coin, to Abura Richman. And there is no way you can visit the village without feeding or clothing your wives. It is expected that you give something for buying sugar at Rabar market. You dip your hand into your pockets and then squeeze a note into those hands that time has kissed. Nothing too expensive. A fifty bob. Sometimes a hundred bob. And then to your person of house you give two hundred. This is all because of the person I was named after. Magunga was not a small man. Ok no yot yot. He was not an easy easy man. He was a man of status, a man of nyadhi. And so when I took his name, I have to live up to it, and that means taking care of the women who called him husband.
On the day Anne’s people came to talk to our elders, one of my many wives called to say that she had boiled for me bathing water. Left in the sitting room was another aunty from William’s side of the family, taking respite from the sun. She sat at the edge of the couch, a black hand on her lap, and an Orie Rogo Manduli resting on her head like a crown. I extended her a hand, asked her how the world had opened for her and her people, then excused myself to the bathroom before the water became cold. And as I threw water to my back, I heard her speak.
“I see they brought three calves.”
“Yes. He has tried like a man, donge?”
“Well, not like the other man who came for your other sister, but you know what? A man who has taken a mugogo from your hands has really saved your heart.”
The girl who is going to cook is my sister, Anne, from my other mother. The mikayi of our homestead. The first wife of William who is no longer around. The one who William went to be with back in 2005. There had been talk that a house in which the parents have died is not a house that bride price is negotiated. It is apparently one of those things that we do cannot understand and will understand when we are older. It is just the way it is. But this is 2018, and to be honest, there are many things that we do that traditional Luo culture does not allow. So they welcomed Anne’s people to the house of mikayi. Karua, my mother, is the smaller wife. Her house is right next to the one for the mikayi, and that is where this remark was made. I did not care so much about comparing bride prices that my sisters have brought to the homestead. It was the final part that bothered me. The part about a Mugogo.
A Mugogo is an unmarried girl. A girl who is old enough to but has not gone to cook yet. The reason it bothered me is because it was not the first time I was hearing about it. While sitting with Uncle Sammy, I remember him mentioning this thing also. A girl is a blessing to a homestead only when she gets married. Otherwise she is a liability. Hell, when a mugogo dies, she is not to be buried in her father’s compound. She is laid to rest outside, perhaps in the farm.
As Uncle Sammy, a man of clocks long wound, explained to me the intricacies of our family tree that morning while Anne’s people were stuffing themselves silly, my woke millennial self kept making him angry when it came to the women in my family. I realized that he was only telling me about the men, tracing our lineages through the male members. When I asked, “Kwani these men did not have sisters?” he said, “We do not count those ones. They will go cook and become part of that other family. They will be counted on that other side.”
Kasto, the final straw was when we got to one of my grandmothers. Uncle Sammy said, “This one did not give birth. She only bore girls.”
It has always been a dream of mine to write a book from the stories of our family tree. I just did not know how to approach it. We remember the men. We remember Nyang’or of old. The cattle rustler and warrior patriarch who, when sent to his deathbed by smallpox, asked to be buried in his war regalia so that he could go fight smallpox in the afterlife. And for sure the day he died is the day smallpox claimed the last member of the Karuoth Clan. We remember Okango who was sent away to World War II; to get himself into a quarrel whose root he had no idea of. We know of Okango’s brother, Magunga. This one ran away from the British Army, found himself a job at Kisumu Hotel, got poached to Nairobi by the owner of Norfolk Hotel, and the affluence brought him status and women. And of course we remember this man William, my father. Nobody called him William. People called him Meja. After he came back from the war, his father, Okango, nicknamed his first son after his boss, Major. But the Luo tongue of Karuoth Clan changed its pronunciation from Major to Meja, and the name was just brilliant enough to stick. That is why I have the words Wuod Meja printed in black ink on my left chest, just next to my heart. In memory of a man long gone who I still hold in there.
But we do not remember the women who made these men the men we remember today. We send them away, like we sent Anne, to be counted by people we barely know. We would rather they are counted in a distant land rather than the land in which their umbilical cords were buried.
And now I am curious. What happened to those women? Maybe the book should be about those lost mothers.
I am the second last in a line of men leading up to the altar. When I was asked to stand in this wedding, I had no idea that it entailed actual standing. You stand at the front with the couple until the ceremony is over. I look around and think of all the people who should be here. People like William who should have been the one who responded when the man of God asked “Who gives this woman away?” Like Terry, who would have been a sassy twenty year old, also standing for her sister’s wedding. Like Mother Karua; but then again a man’s death does not only take away his life. It also complicates the lives he leaves behind.
But for every person we lose, the world gives us others. It is just the circle of life. And this time, we got another one who already had our name. When the priest say, “I now present to you, for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Oduor,” I am sure the people of Karuoth in the congregation smiled knowingly. I am sure Anne sighs in relief because she will not have to go through that whole mess of deciding whether or not she should change her name. And as they make their first step off the altar, Yemi Alade drowning us all in her sonorous voice, dancing under the joy that comes with the joining of two families, I swear my eyes do not water. I swear my knees do not run out of air.