Chwele Woman. Whether tall or short or fat or not, a woman from Chwele is a beauty to behold. She comes to the market balancing on her head a basket full of bananas or sweet potatoes or groundnuts that she will sell to get money to buy nyanya or kitunguu or pilipili or salt for the evening soup. She walks with the grace of a woman with broad hips and thick lips and dreamy eyes, saying hallo to this and that stranger who might buy her farm produce.
“Engo Valamu? Is it well at home?” She will ask and the stranger will admire her sparkling white teeth and if she has a gap between them, she will pass her tongue through the gap and the stranger might blush at such honest beauty.
“It is well. Sendi chinga?” He will ask pointing at the basket of bananas or sweet potatoes or groundnuts that she balances on her head. The Chwele Woman will tell him the price and regardless of whether the stranger buys, Chwele Woman will smile and if she has dimples they will show as she says:
“Vulai. Go well, say hallo to my mothers when you see them.”
The man of Chwele also, is something like you have not seen. He has the huge hands of a man not afraid of work and his legs boast of strong protruding blood veins that are only found on legs that rise up early; not afraid of the morning dew. The Chwele Man, in spite of his big strong hands that are not afraid of work, is so gentle and he speaks slowly, choosing his words correctly and his wisdom will astonish you. This however, is not to say that the Chwele Man is a coward. No. That would be a grave assumption to make because if you cross him the wrong way, the Chwele Man will crush you the way a maize mill crushes the maize for the unga that he eats with the evening soup.
The man of Chwele walks on springs as he beats his cows and goats and sheep to the animal auction at Chwele Market. These cows and goats and sheep too, are big fat beasts that have been reared by big strong hands that are not afraid of work. Why, people come from as far as Cheptais or Mt.Elgon or Webuye to give him lots of money in exchange for his well reared cows and goats and sheep. When he reaches the auction, he will sit on the grass, his walking stick firmly held in the armpits, remove his bottle of snuff and put a little on his palms before offering the bottle to the man seated nearby.
“Let us share this little snuff that I have here. Is it well at home?” He will offer.
“It is well.” The man will accept the offer and after some time, it will be his turn also, to remove his own tobacco and share it with his neighbor. As they sit waiting for buyers they will talk about the recent bull fighting games that just ended or the ones that are being arranged and they will guess whose bull is likely to win this year.
The cows and goats and sheep will be grazing on the grass near their owners. Not grazing really, but playing with grass or with each other. The huge bulls will seduce and mount the cows, the lazy ewes will just lie down on the grass telling lazy stories to the rams and the naughty he-goats, well the naughty he-goats will be up to some funny mischief or the other and the strong man of Chwele will remove his walking stick from his armpits to beat the naughty he-goats to correction.
Sometimes the bulls and the ewes and the naughty he-goats of Chwele will play a game. They will wait to catch the other unawares and the bull will mount on another bull, the ewe will mount on another ewe and the naughty he-goat will mount on another naughty he-goat. But they both know that it is just a game and they will run away, destabilizing the one on top falling him to the ground. The bull or the ewe or the naughty he-goat that has been mounted unawares will look for a chance to revenge. And so the game goes on and the men of Chwele will laugh and they will share some more snuff while waiting for the buyers to come.
Chwele men and women are generally gay and when they are friends with you, they are friends with you and they are not afraid to show it. They will hold hands as they walk into the market, they will bring each other gifts from their farms, they will arrange trips to go and visit places among other things that friends do for and with each other. It is normal therefore, to see two men holding hands or two women holding each other’s waist as they walk to the market or two men who are friends and have not seen each other in a long time, hugging tightly before looking deep into each other’s eyes then hugging again and no one will have weird thoughts. It is so in Chwele.
Recently however, there came a preacher to the market. He was badly eaten with a huge belly and loose, flopping meat at the chest and couldn’t breathe properly because he cut his speech in the middle of words to catch breath. He came in a van that carried big speakers and a microphone that he held with sweaty palms, putting the market to a standstill with his call to the Chwele people to come and listen to what he had to say. Chwele people, with their love for visitors, knew that they had to go or the visitor will leave a curse in their home if they were not there to say “karibu.” So the beautiful Chwele Woman left her basket of bananas unattended, the handsome man of Chwele left his cows unattended to go and listen to the preacher.
In front of the van there were newspaper cuttings, arranged in a semi-circle, held down by little stones so that they do not get carried away by the blowing wind. He told the people of Chwele that God himself had sent him with a message.
“Go and tell the people of Chwele to repent because they are sinners!” He said, mimicking God with his panting amplified voice. The big speakers roared, echoing the message and the panting to many ridges and valleys and mountains. The fat, badly eaten pastor with loose flopping meat at the chest bent to pick one newspaper cutting. He was sweating and panting so much so that one of the handsome men of Chwele bent and picked up the newspaper cutting for him.
“You see this? This is a wedding” He pointed at the photo on the newspaper cutting and paused, maybe for dramatic effect, maybe to catch breath.
“And this is not a normal wedding where a man marries a woman. No. This is a strange wedding because…” He paused again, maybe for dramatic effect, maybe to catch breath.
“It is not a normal wedding because this is a man…” Pointing to one man on the newspaper cutting, then the other, “…and this is another man!” He paused again, maybe for dramatic effect, maybe to catch breath and the beautiful women of Chwele and the handsome men of Chwele held their breaths in surprise.
The fat, badly eaten pastor with loose flopping meat at the chest continued to show the people of Chwele photos of men marrying men, women marrying women in far far far away lands over the seas and he said that God told him that it is wrong and the beautiful women of Chwele and the handsome men of Chwele held their breaths in surprise. He eventually prayed for God to cleanse the land of Chwele, before asking the people to give offering so that he could continue doing God’s work. And so the handsome men of Chwele and the beautiful women of Chwele trooped to the basket and gave him money so that he could continue doing God’s work.
After the preacher had packed his blaring speakers and the microphone and the offering into the van and drove off to do God’s work in other places, gloom beset the market of Chwele. The beautiful woman of Chwele sat beside her basket full of bananas or sweet potatoes or groundnuts, her chin supported by her hands as if in deep thought. The handsome man of Chwele went back to his cows and sheep and goats and sat on the grass, sniffing his tobacco alone. Evening came, and the man and woman of Chwele walked home, alone. The man was afraid that his male friend might want to marry him, the woman afraid that her best friend will want to marry her.
Days came and went, nights came and passed and it was soon another market day in Chwele. The handsome man walked wearily to the market, wishing that he could hug his friend after the brief, cold handshake that they offered each other but he dared not because the news of men marrying men had touched a deep part of Chwele and people of the same gender could not hug without people having weird thoughts. The man of Chwele also wished that he could share his tobacco with his neighbor but he couldn’t, for what would people think? It was thus in Chwele now.
The cows and the sheep and the goats continued grazing, unaware of the gloom in the air, unaware of what the badly eaten pastor with flopping meat at the chest had said. Sometimes the bulls and the ewes and the naughty he-goats played a game. They would wait to catch the other unawares and the bull would mount on another bull, the ewe would mount on another ewe and the naughty he-goat would mount on another naughty he-goat. But they both knew that it was just a game and they would run away, destabilizing the one on top falling him to the ground. The bull or the ewe or the naughty he-goat that was mounted unawares would look for a chance to revenge. And so the game went on and the men of Chwele did not laugh and instead, they took out their walking sticks from their armpits and beat the bulls and the ewes and the naughty he-goats; almost wounding them.
(This story won the May 2014 Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition)