Normally, I would not meet anyone at Kosewe but since the circumstances under which we were meeting were not normal, I shrugged my shoulders and walked in to share a meal with my uncle and two brothers. My uncle is a teacher, and for the life of me I have never understood how he talks to his students. Why? Because he speaks too softly. I think God made him a teacher so that he could teach kids how to pay attention. When my uncle (Mwalimu, as we have now taken to calling him) speaks, you would think it is a secret he is telling you. Have you ever been at a meeting, and then someone walks in and whispers into the ear of the chairman? How the communicate in secret, like they are conspiring about where to bury a body or God-knows-what and then the chairperson nods and sends the secretary on his way? Yeah. That way. That is how Mwalimu talks. And sometimes it can be disappointing, especially if you are not used to it like we are, because you would think he was just about to tell you where your great grandfather hid a chest of treasure, only for him to say something like;
“George, please pstssatsss.”
“Pssssst passst psssst.”
“Mwalimu, I cannot hear you.”
“I said, please pass me the salt.”
That is when you will remember that you are at Kosewe, eating undersalted fried fish with kwon bel (Brown Ugali), apoth, which you will later on wash down with a cold bottle of Coca-Cola.
Mwalimu is one of my dad’s surviving brothers, and the reason we were meeting him at Kosewe at 8pm (about two weeks ago) was because my elder brother was finally going to nyombo – he was going to ask for a girl to marry. And of course, since the old man is not around, would he mind being the one to take us there? So he said yes, but with a few reservations. We leaned closer to listen to his whispers.
“You mean you have walked this Nyanza of ours, and you have not found a proper girl to marry? You had to go to Oloitokitok? Surely, you should have asked us to help you find someone. There is no way you can miss a proper girl if you look from Komenya to Kanyadhiang’ to Nyakach, to Asembo. Even if it has become hard, you can find a proper wife in South Nyanza where people speak funny Dholuo. Oloitokitok? Yawa Onyango. Mano iremo wa.”
By now, you should have known that when Mwalimu says proper wife, he means a Luo lady. Why? Because people have heard stories. There can never be a shortage of horror stories about Luo men who married outside and their lives went belly up. Kikuyu ladies are infamous for running away with your property. Ati one day you will come back home to find that they have taken your children and all your property and left you with nothing but a hall. More stories involve an okuyu poisoning you so that they inherit your wealth.
Luhya ladies have hard eyes. Those ones, will talk back at you in front of your peers and make you look like an empty trouser. They also have relatives who eat too much – when they come visiting, the aftermath is a prolonged famine. Swahili ladies will cast a spell on you and sell your soul to some djinn who lives in the Indian Ocean. Maasais are weird, with all that blood-drinking. Kisii are nightrunners (and we know my family’s history with those).
And the funny thing is, I have never met anyone who has gone through these horror stories. When you ask, they always tell you it is so-and-so. “You remember the man who used to have a shop next to ours who had married an okuyu?” they will ask, and for the life of you, you will not remember anyone. Folks hold on to these stories like the Gospel. So you must understand Mwalimu’s distress when he learnt that his brother’s son was going to marry a girl born of a Maasai father and a Kikuyu mother.
“Love, (n) A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”
Barely a week after the saltless fish at Kosewe, we would find ourselves in Kimana, Oloitokitok to beg for the bride. And that is when we realized that kumbe we Luos do not know how to quote dowry properly. You see, early this year, some chap came to out village and paid eight cows and it was the talk of the village. That was huge! In that case, the groom had walked well. Because we did not know better, that is the kind of mentality that we went with to Kimana.
They must have known that we Luos like to talk a big name. In fact, we arrived in the typical pomp, colour and accompanying razzmatazz. Men dressed in suits and women in fine African attire. It is a general rule, Mwalimu said, that men must wear suits when going to pay bride price. If you are not in a suit, then you are the same as a mad man walking naked, and where I come from, your in-laws are not supposed to see you naked. This means that you are not to wear jeans or Tshirts. Hapana. Every man is supposed to be in official wear.
Now, wearing official wear in Oloitokitok is the same as wearing graduation gowns at a University of Nairobi ceremony. This part of Kajiado County is hotter than three hells. Oloitokitok is so hot that the air smells like ironing. Since it is disrespectful to undress in front of your in-laws, we had to keep on the neckties and jackets, but inside those suits we were stewing in the gravy of our own sweat.
I do not know what the Maasai or Kikuyu jury said about this suits thing, but I could not risk it. There is this fining system that Kikuyus have at brideprice ceremonies which operates like the Nairobi City Council. They fine everything. If you arrive late, they fine you. When you arrive and you have not sung well for them to open the gate, they fine you. If the cloth for wiping soda is missing, they fine you. The girls are the ones who are supposed to carry sodas, if a man carries the crate of soda, they fine you. When carrying the sodas to the house, the girls and women are supposed to announce their arrival by rattling the crates, failure to which there is a fine. When they want to serve the sodas you have brought and the opener is not around you, they fine you. At some point, they dress up the bride and her sisters and cousins in similar lesos then parade them in front of the groom and he is supposed to rightfully select his true bride. If he picks the wrong girl, he pays a hefty fine.
We did not experience it for ourselves, but then we had heard of stories. So we were not willing to take any risks with the suits. Hell, I was so scared of breathing the wrong way lest I was slapped with a fine. But this is not to say that we did not pay any fine. Oh we did. See, my brother…how do I say this?…he was not exactly going to ask for permission from the girl’s parents so much as he was going to ask for their blessings. They have been living together, in fact they even have a kid. So he had to be fined for breaking the fence and entering the homestead illegally. That plus the actual bride price of twenty goats, plus the herdsman’s fee, the appeasement fee for the women, the negotiating fees for the old men and other miscellaneous fees are what made us realize that back home in Siaya, we give away our girls for free.
Then get this, ati after all that, the bride price is not even paid in full. This is like down payment. Apparently, payment of bride price is a lifelong thing.
I did not get to see Oloitokitok that day. While the dowry negotiations were going on, all we did was walk around our in-laws’ place, marveling at the acres upon acres of land that they farm with so much success, given the fact that Kimani is so dry. I did not get to really see the neighborhood. I would get to experience Kimana better when three days after my brother finally got the green light to live with his woman as man and wife. I found myself in the same neighbourhood again. Only, this time was not for a visit to my in-laws, but rather, Naomi had organized a media trip to Kimana. Coca-cola’s Ekocenter and AfricAqua had partnered to open the Aqua Water shop which provides clean and sanitary water to the locals of the place.
Surface water in Kimana is not easy to find. Many streams have The people in this area walk for miles to search for water, and when they finally get it is, it is brown and dirty. Something city folk like me would not touch with a ten-foot pole. But these guy use it for themselves and their livestock.
I will be honest with you. Oloitokitok is not Diani or Takawiri. When you land here, you do not exactly think paradise. You think wilderness. You imagine of how badly your armpits will stink by the time it gets to midday. You hope your cologne will last long enough to keep that whiff at bay. You curse a little for not remembering to wear a hat. Dust is loose and the area is surrounded by thickets that have surprisingly managed to retain some shade of green despite the fact that the heat is splitting stones. The trees whistle for the dogs. Chicken, you do not see them a lot. Sure, you hear cackling and scratching of dry earth, but not as frequently as you would in Western or Nyanza. In any case, if there are any chicken, then they must be laying hard-boiled eggs. `Even the mighty Kilimanjaro mountain hides from this solar. It shows itself in the morning till around 10am then it hides behind a thicket of clouds the whole day.
Oloitokitok is not the kind of place you come to relax. It was not meant for that kind of enjoyment. It’s harshness, it’s texture were meant to test you, to remind of the first rule of nature; survival.
We were walking from homestead to homestead with some media folk who were there to take videos and photos of the area, when we met some Maasai lady. This woman declined all requests of taking any photo or video of her because she was not wearing her Sunday best. The best she could do was a verbal interview. She is a newly married woman, and a mother of four children, one of whom is strapped to her back. Another cries incessantly inside the hut while she is interviewed by a reporter from Nation Media Group. This woman pretty much slaves to take care of all of them. She is the center of that household. She keeps her family grounded. However, it is neither the raising of young children or the struggles of being a new wife that is her toughest job. The real grind is finding water.
When Kilimanjaro does not bring rain, she walks for miles to look for water for daily utility. You can see her battles with the dregs of this land; her calloused hands and her feet cracked from long walks on rough terrain, yet she is the one who still has to provide for this family. For people like her, the new Aqua Water shop in Kimana that provides affordable clean water is a relief. She has no idea how the machine works – how it drills the water from 200 metres underground and takes it through three stages of purification. She has no idea that the founder of AfricAqua was also the same chap who also started the Iko Toilet mobile bathrooms (to be honest, neither did I). All she knows is that she now has access to water that is as clear as a glass of moonlight. In fact, the opening of this water shop was such a big deal that it had to be launched by the Cabinet Secretary, Eugene Wamalwa, the Deputy Governor, Members of Parliament and MCAs at a full day event of celebration and entertainment in Kimana. A life transforming project like this cannot be just whispered. It has to be announced with speakers.
Given that this media trip was just three days after the wedding ceremony, memories from the occasion still lingered. I kept on thinking of the whole dowry payment process and just how closely it resembles a Ponzi scheme. I wondered about the concept of dowry. I tried to guess how much this Maasai lady’s parents received as payment for her bride price. And whether, if it was lesser than what my brother had paid, it meant that she was less of a woman. Never mind that she embodies the beauty of resilience, hardwork, tender love, unflagging vitality and all those incredible things that make a woman, a woman. I thought of what the Coca-Cola Ekocenter did by partnering with AfricAqua to bring the water shop to Kimana; it is by far the greatest dowry that has ever been paid to the people of Kimana, Oloitokitok . A bride price so grand that villagers will talk about even years after my people have stopped marveling at the measly 8 cows that were paid the other day.
I wondered whether I will also do the same thing someday; you know, go through the wearing of a suit under sweltering heat to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage.
Not so long ago, I attended a civil wedding ceremony at the State Law Office. The whole thing lasted nothing more than five minutes. In fact, I recorded the whole event using my phone. Later on we went to Java, had chips and milkshake, chilled for a few hours before releasing the couple to spend a night at Laico Regency. Simple. Intimate. True. The only people who were in attendance were the ones who truly mattered or cared.
I wonder whether I will even get married at all. What is the point? I wonder what society would say. But then again, is this not the same conflicted society conflicted that says black chicks are ugly and light skinned ones are dumb?
Anyway. I am turning 25 this Saturday. I still have five more years to the third floor. Hopefully by the time I get there, I will have learnt to take out the trash and help with dishes. By then, I believe, the secret to a happy marriage will no longer be a secret.