I did not return to the scene until 15 years had passed, by which time I was already more than twice as old as I had been when the events of 1987 abruptly ended my childhood.
In early February 2002, I was in the press pack that accompanied the inaugural East African Legislative Assembly on the inspection of the Soroti Flying School, once the property of the East African Community. I found time and nipped off to St Andrews Madera Boys School, where I had studied from 1985 to 1987.
Even then, in my mid-20s, the paradox was unavoidable: Had I truly left St Andrews the day that the Red Cross evacuated scores of us school children trapped behind the front lines in Soroti?
Can a psychology shaped by the tragic knowledge of impermanence and strife learn to trust and easily move on? How could I say I had put the months of 1987 behind me when the first thing I did upon return to the school was to make way straight for the Stretcher House dormitory?
Standing there with my face pressed against the window, looking inside, it was the events of early August 1987 that came to mind, to that early morning when a teacher sent me and two friends to buy soap in the town with the absurd, early colonial name, Camp Swahili. And there, as we ask about, comes the single gunshot, the high whine of a military truck racing back to town, and then the preternatural sight of the men, the fighters of the rebel prophetess, Alice Lakwena, shirtless, in their black shorts, their torsos glistening in the sun from shea butter, which we later learned had been smeared to bounce off bullets.
The key event shaping a personal future starts at that moment. Explanations are not needed. You have learned a lesson; when the time has come, you must run, do not hesitate. We are going very fast. We cut through the Madera Seminary, which in ordinary times had been forbidden. We are reaching the school compound when the bombardment begins, and all over the town, when the shock of the explosion draws our attention, we see a pillar of black smoke, as if to announce the beginning of hell, habemus bellum.
We make it to the Stretcher House dormitory and dive under the beds. And there, for the next two hours, we track the movement of the front line by how close the sounds of battle are. We hear it recede from the town, come past the flying school, which is a mile from our complex of missionary schools. (Madera was set up in 1914 by the Mill Hill fathers and came to include a school for the blind, a girls’ school, a boys’ school, a technical college and a seminary.)
Shortly, the front envelopes us. Its progress is majestic, slow, following the sloping ground from Soroti town, going down a slight incline to dip into a swamp. This swamp halts the battle, as the army decides against pursuing the attackers beyond the Arapai ridge.
There is, intermixed with the terror, a character to war you read about but is the privilege of an accursed few who get to know it intimately. It is the macabre nature of war that men find irresistible, the grisly truth that a war in motion can also be attractive.
Yes, the sounds of war can be a terrifying, seductive symphony. The sharp mosquito-like buzzing sound of a bullet flying mere feet from your ears, the tearing, rocketing then shuttering register of mortar shells, the ear-splitting rending, as if a giant were holding a sheet of metal as one holds a piece of paper then rips it to pieces as missiles tear overhead. The inscrutable lopping repetitiveness of a machine gun that sounds like someone drumming on a home-made drum fashioned from an old aluminium saucepan. But everyone looks forward to the artillery, the big boy stuff, with dread fascination; the imperious rapid impatience of Katyusha rockets which come as if the earth were being cut up by a high-velocity grinder tool, and, target found, the centre of the world collapses.
In a lockdown, life loses meaning
But as I drew away from the window, my memory drained, I remembered that I had to leave to rejoin the delegation of East African MPs at the Flying School. Then a shot of the feeling I once lived with daily attacked me
How can one explain such a feeling? There’s the febrile malarial listlessness to it, a dry-throated longing, like having a nightmare whilst fully awake. That day in early 2002, I felt as I had for much of 1987 – that there was no point to life, that going on with it would only lead to a future of dystopian mediocrity.
But if the 2002 reunion did not answer the question, then March 2020, when news came of the world locked down in fear, left little doubt. There, across the valley from my apartment in Entebbe, the planes stopped landing and taking off. The grass around the runway was starting to grow wild. Amidst the dead silence all around, I could sense the collective fear of humanity that was awaiting the calamity.
It reminded me of 1987. I heard once more the silence of the skies when the flying school Piper and Cessna planes stopped flying. I saw the spot of greenery on the runway. The school lawns, once meticulous, had become wilderness. And in the night, there were blood-curdling cries that registered in the morning as another funeral in the villages beyond the Catholic missionary complex of Madera.
This was the second time in my life that I was going into a lockdown. The first one lasted nearly a year and it was devastating. It was only in March 2020, 33 years later, that I began to learn that a certain part of me never made it past August 1987.
My mind went back to that day when I saw the fighters of the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena. It was the first time I saw them; I never saw them again; I have never managed to unsee them since.
By August of 1987, northern Uganda had already been in a lockdown for many months. The savage war in Luwero, southern Uganda, had migrated to the north. And there, with changed fortunes, yesterday’s rebels becoming government and yesterday’s government forces the new rebels, the texture of the violence acquired a new complexion. And yet 1987 was early days in what would be a savage two-decade-long war that has not yet ended. But how could an 11-year-old boy whose chief interest in life was to see mummy know that?
The manner of the war meant we were liable to get trapped easily. Hitherto, northern Uganda had had a string of nationally enviable schools. The shutdown of the schools began in Gulu, and made its way east, as did the fighting. The result was that we who came from Lango and Acholi were at the initial stages, in the safety of Teso, by which calculation our parents thought it best we stay there. But no one had anticipated the rapidity with which the war would move. Within weeks, in late July 1987, the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena had crossed over to Teso. That morning, we saw the rebels running down from the Arapai Railway station to Soroti town, where they aimed to take over the airfield of the flying school.
The lagging progression of the war had allowed parents from the east and south to pick their children via the road to Mbale in the east. We would have needed the road to the west, which was shut off. Hence, the first term break had come and we had stayed in school. The second term had started and it was thought best we simply continue with our studies.
But there was to be no second term. Barely had it begun than the parents returned, this time with the vigilance of birds not taking a chance with their nest again. Then the road to the east was cut. We were doomed.
We, the seven students who had spent the last six months at the school, felt the loneliness instantly. In a lockdown, the early days are the most lonely. You feel the prickliness of abandonment. After the warm companionship of crowds is gone, you become aware of your status. There is a grim numbness from which you emerge drained of everything, even fear.
Your concern is for it to end, for you to get your old life back. But that life is gone. Sterner times await you. You learn new ways, new languages, believe in new gods and causes. It is likely that you or the people you love or know will die. You will learn fear.
When the school was empty, we, the stranded, knew we were preparing for something darker. The first month was the worst; we had hope. We spent hours watching the drive into the school, hoping to catch the familiar frame of a parent, the sound of the diesel 504 Peugeot from Aboke that would collect us.
One teacher, Miss Ekit, kept watch over us, like an aunt, but she had nothing to feed her relatives taking refuge in her house, let alone us.
For the next four months, the 400 by 300 metres of Madera Boys marked the confines of our world. We dared not, and were warned against, going into Soroti town. There was a railway station over the ridge of Arapai. There was no train. There was a flying school close by. Only the most connected parents airlifted their children away.
To stay locked down, to know that darkness is enveloping the world around you, is a terrifying reality whose greatest damage is not what happens or what does not happen to you in the months you spend alone. You go into isolation expecting the big moments, the war, the calamity, to come confronting you personally. More often than not, the extremes do not happen. But that is also a revelation; because the big things have not come to you, you grow to learn that you are but one insignificant soul. When the extremes do come to you, as they do to a few unfortunate ones, then that too is another revelation; you were but a mere speck of dirt in the great maw of history. You are personally ground into the dirt but war, or peace, plough on regardless.
A Do Me Good hangs us out like tethered goats
As the shutting down of the north began, hidden impulses and prejudices started to surface. The deputy head teacher of Madera Boys, a prickly little man we called A Do Me Good (which was what he called the cane he never walked without) separated all the Luo speakers from the rest. Our beddings and suitcases were taken out of the dormitory. We stayed under the trees during the day and slept in the classrooms at night. We were the dangerous breed. The Nilotics had been overthrown by their arch enemies. Now a punitive raid by the southerners in power against the Nilotes was feared. And in Teso, it was thought, associating with Luo speakers would draw the ire of the new rulers.
In the initial stages of the war, this fear was an extreme event. An attack did come, but it was from further north, and they came, not for us, but for the cattle of the Teso. The Karamojong cattle raids intensified, and we watched as Teso, once a rich, well-fed and proud region, lost its collective wealth.
Before we had even left, skin diseases of indescribable virulence had spread throughout the land. That had been during that ill-fated second term when we had remained uncollected in the school. And although the Ministry of Education had been informed of A Do Me Good’s doing, and we had been reinstated in the dormitories, what was coming for the north was bigger than the calculations of an obscure deputy headmaster in an obscure school.
Everyone one else left and so there were hundreds of beds left for us. As my childhood friend John liked to joke, there was now a bed for each of his fingers, toes, ears and teeth.
But something else stuck. To be foreign in a time of strife is to attract fear and suspicion. In our case, we had spoken the same language as the last regime’s, and the fear of association – for the Teso were as Nilotic as we were – stayed throughout the time we lived alone in the school.
The second month arrived. The delivery of maize meal and beans from the Ministry of Education ceased. The school store was broken into and the last morsels of food were taken. First we ran to the teachers. We returned with sticks of cassava. Some called us “Elangoit” (Teso for Lango) to our faces and chased us away. For me personally, it was a frightening time. (My name, Kaiza, is from my great grandfather three generations past who was Bunyoro, a culture and language my own grandfather barely remembered, but it meant I would be regarded as enemy by all sides). It did not take long for us to realise that it had been the same ministry delivery that had kept them fed.
There unwalked paths to the roads disappeared and the lawns had a return-to-the wild look. Unswept, the leaves played in the wind. There was a high season of large, egg-yolk orange sunsets. The dusks descended as harbingers of doom. We feared the nights for the dreams that awaited darkness. We feared the nights because children fear darkness. There was a cemetery close by and in the evenings, we thought we caught willow-the-wisps skirting the perimeters. (As I write this from Entebbe, power is gone, dogs are barking wildly and two days ago, a neighbour who returned from Europe with all his family, workers and dogs, was taken into quarantine.)
In the desultory daytime air, we kept to the shade. Towards the end (which you never see coming), we switched from fearing the nights to fearing the daylight. We started to long for the night. We knew the school very well and could stow away in safer corners at night, even inside the heavy branches of the mango trees, till morning.
In a last twist of the knife, one day, Okello, my second cousin, came running to Teacher Ekit’s house where we had taken water, and informed us that a military truck had come and taken two of the boys, the Ejuras, away. They were flown home in a helicopter. We came from the same town. Their father knew people. They left us behind. Now there were just five of us left – me, John, Okello, the portly Akona, and Ocen, a quiet little boy I never heard from since.
The going of the Ejura boys marked a turn for the worse. Corrosive silence took over. We played football less. Looking back, this was preparation for the next phase, and when it came, our own childhood deserted us. We aged prematurely.
Learning to live without food
Starvation is an event of immense clarifying power. It seems there are two types of human beings: those who have never faced starvation and so do not know many things; and those who have faced starvation and can see through the veneer of most things.
Whilst we had had the supply of maize and beans, we led sad lives, longing for home and fearing for our safety.
But when one day, Okwana, the school cook, did not show up, something switched. Three days went by with barely anything to eat. There was the shame we individually shared, when one by one, we disappeared – to forage in dumps, to gouge the backs of kitchens.
The suggestion might have come from John. He was the strongest-willed of our lot. His father was the doctor of Aboke, an imperious old man. John had the family haughtiness in him. It had come as a chance discovery one morning when while collecting fruits from the borassus palm trees fringing the school, I stumbled upon a root. John came to pull me up. But I had heard a snap in the soil. I went down and dug hands in. I came out with a large tube of cassava. Disbelief. Joy. The surreal moment.
But we had become wise to something by then. John bade me be quiet. We poked around and discovered that this garden, belonging to one of the teachers that had fled the war, had been badly harvested. We took what tubers we thought we could conceal. We ate some raw, but decided that it was best we steal over to the Madera Technical College, over the fence, to cook it, to avoid attracting attention.
Along with some sweet potatoes we dug out of poorly harvested fields, we settled upon cooking in the soil. We dug up the ground, and lighting switches, waited for the bigger sticks to catch fire. We collected rocks and placed these in the fire, and placing the cassava and potatoes in with the rocks, we covered the lot and left. We returned and dug out baked cassava and potatoes.
We fed off the gardens around the school for about a month when the tubers stopped coming out. We collected tins, including paint tins, to cook with. But by then we had discovered the “carelessness” of the Teso farmer. That was our actual word. We set out to “correct them”. Hence the word “correction” was what we called our forage.
The word would have been from Okello, my second cousin. Okello was the genius. His marks for all four primary school subjects lingered in the 80s range.
The story from there took on its own character. It was what we became. The fear we had had of ranging out the school perimeter vanished. Hunger gave us courage we were unprepared for. We made our way past the school for the blind, correcting, gathering. We found groundnuts. We found patches of vegetables we recognised. We gathered tamarind fruits. We walked boldly past military roadblocks.
The groundnuts were a boon. We gathered skills we did not know we had. To turn the nuts into butter, we roasted the seeds in hot soil, taking the moisture out. We pounded the lot and ground them. With the vegetables we had sun-dried, the groundnut butter made for a delectable sauce, a far cry from the cassava.
We went past the flying school, going south of the prisons farm.
This manner of feeding became routine. And we used the correction walks to beg for salt from families we knew in Soroti town. The shutting down of the region was having a terrible effect as essentials and incomes ran out. By comparison, we in the school had space, the “correction” to live by.
But the town had its complexities, of course. There were the Asian families in Soroti town who never seemed to run out of things, whose shops remained well-stocked. There were the high civil servants in the senior quarters. There were the bars and restaurants that lined Jumbhai Road that our steps slowed down going past. The piles of chapati, samosas and roast chicken were set there as if to remind us of our status.
And so the discovery of a further truth in the life of decline.
In town, we got looks. We were shouted away from certain places.
It was John who understood this instantly. The state of us had deteriorated. We had no soap. We were malnourished, unwashed, and walking in town. We were a threat. Who knows, a piece of soap, a soda, precious things, might be snatched.
It was a long walk back to Madera. The looks we got began to register. Our hands were covered in scurvy. We had seen town children our own age playing with samosas and chapati and ice cream.
It was not the war that was damaging; it was what the war turned you into that did the harm.
Ice cream had become too good for us.
Till today, I do not understand by what miracle none of us came down with malaria or typhoid. In the state we were in, it would have taken but a little nudge for the ultimate to come.
By late 1987, banditry had taken hold. Internecine conflict had broken out between the Teso that supported the new Museveni regime and those that did not. Class differences turned Teso against Teso. We watched as even some of our own teachers put on military uniforms and joined either the rebels or the new regime and an intra-ethnic war raged. Each morning brought news of someone who had disappeared the night before.
There was a teacher, Mr Odongo, who had kept a distant, avuncular eye on us. He never approached us but hung about where we understood he was overseeing us. One evening, there was a gunshot, so close that the shock of its explosion silenced our little group. Later in the night, we heard a knock on the classroom door. Mr. Odongo may have studied our peregrinations and knew we no longer slept in the dorms. When we opened the door, there he stood, cradling his arm. He had been shot.
We did not know that the bullet had to be taken out. We did not know why he was running a temperature. But John, from watching his father, understood a few things. It was he who ran out for help. Mr. Odongo was taken by adults to hospital and we never heard of him again.
Another teacher, whose brother had joined the government militia, was not so lucky. The bullet got him square in the chest.
A bridge, a land mine
We became inured to life, which is a dangerous stage. One day, a skirmish broke out in Arapai but we just sat by the window, watching, wondering if they were killing many, in between talking about what they were eating back home.
Another afternoon, over at the girls’ school, where my sister was, but which was better provisioned because the nuns ran a tight ship, we heard screaming. In no time, we heard the gunshots and saw scores of men running with the mattresses they had stolen from the girls.
Shortly, we watched as, first, a helicopter sounded off overhead. Then, there was the piercing roar of what may have been a Mig15 fighter jet. John and I were sitting under the tall jacaranda trees by the football field. The Mig heeled up, then, in a terrifying moment, it pitched down, splitting the air, screaming and then it dipped below the tree line. Then it was coming up.
The explosion tore the air apart. We did not run. We had been told to stay put if soldiers or planes appeared. The fighter jet tumbled overhead, we saw it turn upside down, the head of the pilot showing.
In the commotion of jet roar, we had not noticed them. But a single shout drew our attention swiftly. The army had amassed by the football field. And in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder rather than single file, they started to march, sweeping into the bush.
We heard our names. It was Miss Ekit. We got up and ran to the dormitory. She pulled us in and shut the door. We all went under the beds.
There was something about that second battle, coming sometime in November, that was different. It did not sound as dramatic. In fact, it was dull. And it cleared off into the distance. But after that, masses of people disgorged from the countryside and Soroti town became a refugee camp. A Do Me Good disappeared.
We discovered that there had been far more people in the vicinity of Madera than we had known. All had been in hiding, but were now outed by a turn in the war that we did not understand.
People were listless. A faraway look diverted their attention from the immediate. A look like hunger, but deeper, more spiritual. Mute, dull, zombies. We had stopped noticing ourselves, but there we were. Our clothes were too big for us. We had taken to stripping bark off trees to tie our shorts in place. Our shirts were in tatters.
The next week, Miss Ekit told us to pack. She had heard me narrate my stories of travel, for before 1985, my father took me around the country on his business trips. I understood a bit about Kampala, as I knew Mbale very well. Ekit asked me about a friend of our family who was a high-level civil servant in Mbale. She had me repeat his name and the street on which he lived. I did not understand why.
The next day, a long truck drew up outside the technical school. Again, the amazement came. There were scores of schoolchildren hidden in many places whom we did not know about. We were packed into the truck. It drove out of Soroti. We did not speak. If we crossed Bukedea, the border between Teso and Bugisu, we would be safe.
But there was one last throw of fate before we left. We had not yet crossed Aoja Bridge when an explosion whipped our heads to the back. A van had driven over a land mine and lay on the roadside, burning.
The truck had missed it. We the Aboke group were left in Mbale. I took the group to the home of my father’s friend. My father came shortly afterwards and took us all back to the north, via Kampala. But not to our town. In my absence, my family had fled to a place near the Nile, where we still live.
In the coming months, Teso turned into hell, culminating in the notorious Mukura massacre, some of whose perpetrators were the first to die in the Rwanda war five years later.
I did not see John, Akona or Okello again till the late 1990s, and have not seen them since.
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We Just Eat
There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community.
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine randomly suggested something to me just after we’d passed a roadside grill on our way to Kawangware Market.
Tukule ulimi. Let’s eat tongue.
I obliged, both of us turning back to the spot where chunks of meat of different shapes and sizes were sizzling on an oily black grill, the tongue among them, sending smoke upwards, dripping juice. . . let me stop there. We ate the tongue and proceeded to the market. There we sat on a bench next to a chipo guy frying potato chips and crisps, his pan tilted at an angle to fit on the jiko. This we wanted a taste of. As we waited to be served, I suddenly became self-conscious.
“Do I eat too much?”
It’s well over a decade since my primary school peers and I walked to a neighbouring village to listen to the District Officer’s address on the occasion of a national holiday. The hot equatorial afternoon would present a challenge to the day’s main task – the D.O’s speech, and his token to students in the division. As we waited for the D.O. An elderly Luyia man stood up to address the crowd, proceeding to say something spiteful about my village. I remember the emotion in his words. It was strange. It felt like he had a problem with that part of the location I was from, or the fact that people from there were present. He said, “I do not like the name Nyang’ori, I do not like the name Nyang’ori because back when we were children the Luos used to refer to people from that side of our location as Jokuo Nyang’ori.”
At that time, I was still a pupil in primary school, in my final year. I had strong loyalties but could not do much to assert my position. So I kept my cool. Then recently, a song sneaked its way into my head and took me back to that time.
There’s a song that Luhya children sang to their mothers while skipping around the homestead in play. While their mothers prepared the fields in anticipation of the coming rains, they would sing:
Mama mbe zimbindi nzie kuminza
Nzie nzie nzie,
The first part of the song is sang to the mother asking for cowpeas to scatter in the field. The second part of the song goes:
Kiravura kitiezo, ngani inzara yakwita
Na nunyori kanyama, ushiezanga nogonga
Here, it seems to be the mother responding to the child saying, if it were not for kitiezo – a salient shrub that grows wild in the field – we would have died of hunger. The second line is a general observation that if one happened to find meat, they would grind on the millstone with joy.
In his book Western Kenya Historical Texts, Gideon S. Were explains that the name Nyang’ori, by which the Terik are known, dates to the severe famine of 1907 that led Teriks from the Nyang’ori area to steal cowpeas from the fields of the Joluo. As a result, the Joluo nicknamed them “stealers of cowpeas”, Nyang’ori.
Were notes that the traditions of the Terik confirm the fact that the name Nyang’ori was a nickname given to them by the Joluo due to the community’s habit of stealing their cowpeas. While still in primary school, my friends would always remind me that our village once went by a Terik name, Matrin. Nyang’ori seems to be a recent addition in the history of my village.
Now history confirms as factual the basis of that old man’s speech from my childhood. It gives space for whatever emotion he must have felt while expressing his feelings about my village – a century-old grudge. And a century might be a long time to still hold resentment over stolen food, but not long enough to completely erase the influence that the customs that defined relations in the time of our ancestors have on our present lives.
There is a stereotype that conflates the image of an absurdly full platter with most people’s thoughts about the Luyia community. For the longest time advertising, and more recently social media platforms, have reinforced this stereotype with performances of Luyias devouring huge amounts of food in one sitting. Without understanding that absurdity is one of the mechanisms that promote visibility on social media, one might easily be led to believe that a Luyia chewing a whole chapati in one mouthful on TikTok actually does that in real life. Or that a teenager decimating a kilogram of ugali on his own in front of a camera is a normal event in their homestead. Any Luyia with experience will tell you how that makes no economic sense in the village.
This is that part where you, the reader, struggle to detach this image from stories you’ve heard your Luyia friends tell about some of their interesting experiences back at home, upcountry.
A good number of Luyias really are guilty of contriving to always have the better share of certain meals. Luyia men in particular, have historically benefited from traditions that denied women the opportunity to fully enjoy chicken, as some parts were only served to the older male members of the household, the most infamous prohibition being that of emondo, the gizzard.
There is no concrete reason why the ban existed except that the emondo was meant for vasakuru, the elders only, as my aunt tells me. My efforts to reach an elder for an explanation about why the emondo was reserved solely for them were met with reticence. An online group that discusses a wide range of issues on the subject of Luyia culture and life—known on YouTube as the Luyia Fun Group—offers an interesting reason why women are prohibited from eating emondo in one of their videos. They claim that the emondo was found (by the elders) to bear a striking resemblance to a certain part of a woman’s body, and therefore rendered women unfit to eat it because of the homosexual imagery suggested. If there is any truth to this claim, and knowing our ancestors for who they were, the ban must have been a metaphor for their stand on a conversation many of them were obviously not ready to have.
Today, this metaphor has clearly been stripped of its latency. The stand it sought to soften remains in the community though, an oxymoron of the idea that queer manifestations of sexuality are imports of the western world to Africa. There’s still great denial of the existence of homosexuality in African communities, and where denial has failed cloak and dagger have been employed. Dissenting arguments usually range from homosexuality being against traditional African values, to it being unchristian, and most recently, a product of our continent’s interaction with Western culture on social media.
In my village, institutions dating back to the time before any contact was made with the Western world expose the contradiction in this dissent. During the time of my initiation into manhood under the Tiriki institution of idumi, manhood, one of the initiates in my rikura, age set, had long been known to have homosexual inclinations but faced no violence based on his nature during the whole period of seclusion. One would expect that such an institution rooted in African tradition would be extremely hostile in its attempts to correct the unmanly aspects of an initiate, in imparting its conception of manhood to a male member of the community.
In the mid-1920s, when the Quakers were establishing their mission station at Kaimosi, Luyia women in the larger Vihiga area were not allowed to eat eggs. This culture prevailed until the intervention of men who had just gained literacy from the mission set up by the Friends Quakers at Kaimosi. Yohana Amugune, who was among the first men to convert to Christianity at the Friends Kaimosi mission, went back to his village in Chavakali to spread the gospel. One of the reforms he sought to which he sought to apply his new knowledge and belief was the eggs issue. In his essay Yohana Amugune and the Maragoli published in the Biographical Essays on Imperialism and Collaboration in Colonial Kenya compiled by B.E Kipkorir, J.M. Mwenesi writes that upon returning from the mission in Kaimosi, Yohana Amugune broke the taboo and made no secret about letting his wife eat eggs, previously the preserve of men.
Christianity seems to have revolutionized food culture in Vihiga by pushing for the full inclusion of women at the dining table. On the other hand, it required them to forget crucial items on their menu, such as ugali (a stiff porridge) made from traditional grains.
Azangu, a historian I met at the National Archives while researching this story, had interesting thoughts about this matter. Azangu grew up around the Kaimosi mission in the ‘80s. The insights he shared with me suggest that the introduction of religion might have had a lot to do with the disappearance of certain foods and the adoption of others. Azangu told me how the Friends Quakers missionaries in Kaimosi grew maize to cater for their food needs, fostering the gradual shift from the traditional staples of sorghum and millet to maize among the new converts. One of the contributing factors to this shift was that maize was a bigger grain that was not as labour-intensive to cultivate and harvest as sorghum and millet. However, the biggest attraction came from the social benefits guaranteed by the shift rather than the economic incentives.
“During that time, the white ugali made from maize flour was associated with Christianity and modernity, this directly translated to higher status. . . The preparation of the brown ugali was pretty difficult, it required a higher level of skill to prepare compared to the white ugali.”
Azangu’s thoughts on Luyia food culture confirmed to me the idea that, perhaps what is viewed, and has been viewed for long time as an obsession with food, is rather a social structure that has embedded food security within its order – the order being efficient enough to sustain its people and itself, but also enough to be viewed as exploitative by outsiders who might not fully understand the culture.
In response to a question I had posed about whether Luyias really eat as much as the stereotypes suggest, Azangu said, “We do not eat that much, we just cook enough. And if you find yourself finishing all the food you’ve cooked, you are still not content.”
I find his remarks very comical but still legitimate. Food security has always been embedded in the social structure of the Luyia community. We have always had a culture of sharing food that bestows a feast-like quality on every meal prepared – we are not afraid of having guests join us at meals, we do not want to have to be awkward with those who find us mid-meal, and so we prepare even for those who are not present.
So, rather than being a love for food, for Luyias, it is a love of life; how could one separate the concept of life from food? That’s why Luyia funerals might be mistaken for feasts because they are actually a celebration of life. When the Keima drum is beaten, preceding the funeral procession, prompting the villagers to find their way to the home of the bereaved, it also asks them to fill their baskets with produce and carry them to the feast they are heading to. Most strangers cringe at the sight of villagers packed inside the homestead of the bereaved whenever a villager dies, being served mountains of ugali in plates on the verge of breaking from the weight of their contents. But a wise Luyia with an idea of what a functional Luyia society looks like or once looked like, appreciates the role of the dead to the living. They might validly argue that the departed is playing their last role on earth, giving life to not just one person, but to the whole community.
The departed deserve an opportunity to leave with a bang!
The song in my head is a song many Luyia children know. It is a song contemplating scarcity while it drips of joy. A song whose significance might be considered by many as just an historical record of emotion during a time of scarcity – a grave omission of an important message that the song seeks to relay to all children and adults with access to it: Prepare for better days, for worse times have existed, and always remember to be joyful.
Apart from the disappearance of the grinding stone and the loss of prestige of the white ugali, a lot has changed over the past century in Luyia food culture. From the emondo coming to resemble only itself – part of a chicken – to be eaten by women, to eggs becoming a normal thing for women to eat. The only constant has been rikuvi, the vegetable that grows when cowpea seeds are scattered in the fields. The cowpea seeds that the Nyang’ori people went down to Nyanza to steal more than a century ago, seeds that earned them their name.
Perhaps, the strange emotion that made the old man declare his dislike of the name Nyang’ori was due to his inability to reckon with the fact that time had erased its negative connotations but had left the name and its history intact.
This really is strange.
On our way back from Kawangware market, my friend and I happened to pass by the same spot where we had shared the tongue and overheard a woman asking those in her company, Tukule roho? Shall we eat heart?
We exchanged glances, smiled, our tacit agreement not after all exclusive to us, nor our secret cravings.
Everyone loves to eat, and to share food.
Luyias are no exception. We just eat.
The Hidden Lives of the Trees of Amsterdam
Contemplating nature and falling back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown.
There was genuine cause for angst in the early days of the COVID lockdowns as the pandemic spread unabated throughout Europe. I was a new arrival in the Netherlands, marooned at home, working as a remote curator-at-large for the online publication The Elephant. While I appeared stoic to my team based in Nairobi, I could not shake off the feelings of uncertainty. I had a child who had just learned how to walk and my wife had started a new and demanding job.
Amsterdam was ghostly. Trepidation beset the city and it seemed as though people had gone into hibernation. On most days, in between Zoom calls to Nairobi, I would stare out of my home office window at a large weeping willow tree that stood on the edge of a canal, feeling a loss of control.
One morning, I noticed a flock of green ring-necked parakeets perched on the willow tree. I had not seen those birds since the days of my childhood in the Kenyan countryside and their appearance in a foreign country was serendipitous. In times of crisis one is attuned to signs from nature and in those familiar birds and in the willow tree, I found a sense of hope and belonging.
A friend from Kenya who arrived in Amsterdam around the same period also talked about the silent assurance he had discovered in trees. He worked the night shift. For months during those cold days, while his wife and children were away, sitting alone in the house staving off depression, he drew strange comfort from contemplating the sturdy nature of the single tree that grew in his backyard.
When you come from Kenya, winters are survived, chalked down and added to the résumé.
Having grown up under the tutelage of a father who was an avid forester, it was natural that I should fall back on the wisdom of trees to guide me through the unknown. But this awareness would unfold gradually as the trees of Amsterdam revealed their hidden lives.
There is a popular museum in the centre of Amsterdam, on Prinsengracht Street, dedicated to Anne Frank’s life, her famous diary and the secret annex. Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, and her Jewish family had fled persecution for the relative safety of Amsterdam. When the Germans invaded and occupied the Netherlands in 1940 and began deporting Jews to death camps, Anne Frank went into hiding. During her two years in hiding, Anne Frank turned to writing to pass time, journaling not just the daily events but also her thoughts and feelings.
Anne Frank’s father Otto survived the war, found his daughter’s diary and it was eventually published in 1947 under the title The Secret Annex.
There is a passage in the diary where Anne writes about a tree, a white horse chestnut that she used to stare at from her window in the attic. That huge tree standing in the courtyard garden, 170 years old, was a beacon of freedom, longing and hope.
Tragically, Anne and her sister Margot were arrested and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they were separated from their parents. The sisters were taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where, under the unhygienic conditions, they both succumbed to typhus and died in February of 1945.
When I went off in search of the famous tree that Anne Frank wrote about, I found that it had fallen 10 years earlier in 2010 and all that remained was a stump. I found a connection with the story of the horse chestnut tree in Anne’s diary because trees were one of the first signposts that I used to navigate the newness of this city.
There is another tree that is located in Bijlmermeer in the south-east of Amsterdam that is not as famous as Anne Frank’s tree. Its story is much more recent. In 1992, an El Al cargo aircraft en route to Israel lost its engines while trying to circle back to Schiphol airport for an emergency landing. It crashed into Groeneveen and Klein-Kruitberg, two multi-storied apartment buildings, killing 43 people, most caught unawares in their homes innocently winding down the day.
There were speculations that the death toll may have been higher as many undocumented and unregistered people were not accounted for following the accident. On the site, facing a new apartment block, sits the tree that saw everything, a living witness to the Bijlmerramp air disaster.
Amsterdam is a green city and trees are everywhere. The canals are lined with old elms and practically all city roads and neighbourhoods are fronted by straight lines of trees, usually of one species. The tenement buildings may appear to have the same aesthetic similarity of the predominantly red or grey brick walls. But in the courtyards, hidden from street view, are lush green gardens and trees.
I was soon able to guess the age of a neighbourhood by looking at the size of the trees growing in it. I also started to notice that most of the trees in Amsterdam grow straight. Crooked trees are a rare sight.
Many mightn’t be bothered by this little detail but I began to inquire about the stories behind the trees of Amsterdam. A tree is crooked because it adapts to nature and the forces it encounters, but the breadth of uniformity I encountered in the Dutch landscape was an indication that nature had been colonised.
The Amsterdamse Bos (The Amsterdam Forest) that is located in the southwest of Amsterdam, sitting on the border between Amsterdam and the Amstelveen municipality, is a prime example of this. It is an imposing city park, of a scale and order that I find intriguing. Measuring 1000 acres, it is about the size of Nairobi’s Karura Forest, with one unique distinction; all the trees were planted by hand and its all features, including its artificial lakes and solitary hill, are products of grand design. There is also within it a naturist area where nude sunbathing is allowed.
Amsterdamse Bos began as a government work relief effort to deal with the economic crisis of the 1930s. Today it is a functional park, a natural landscape designed for recreation and relaxation that draws in 4 million visitors every year.
I remarked to a Dutch friend over a cup of coffee that the Amsterdamse Bos felt like a big green arcade. To which he shrugged and said, ‘’Poof! You think this orderly, you should go to Switzerland. They are worse than us.’’
Then, as if in admission that he was accustomed to unnaturally neat nature, he recalled a road trip he had taken in Canada a few years earlier. As they drove through the spectacular Boreal forests, both he and his wife agreed that the forests were magnificent. . . if only the Canadians would clean up the forest floor and keep it tidy.
Another Dutch friend took me on a tour of the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, to a spot over a white wooden bridge from where I had a direct view of a tall fountain in the middle of a serene pond with a leafy tree line as its backdrop, spraying water high into the air.
“You see that picture. . . it was designed to be a paradise ideal and nature has been conquered for human splendour with man as the sole animal in it.”
Indeed, it was getting harder to distinguish between what was natural and what was artificial. The Netherlands is a waterproofed country and it is easy to forget that most of the country lies below sea level. It is a country that conquered the waters after a long struggle against nature and 17 per cent of the country’s landmass is reclaimed from the sea.
This is why “God created the earth but the Dutch made the Netherlands’’ is a well turned phrase.
In an effort to know my neighbourhood and meet the locals, I joined the Knotgroep of Uithoorn, green volunteer effort that operates in a municipality on the outskirts of Amsterdam. The group of volunteers are all Dutch pensioners with an average age of 60, and there are as many men as there are women. As I park my bicycle, I receive a series of hoi, Dutch for hi, pronounced with much emphasis.
After a briefing by the group leader, the pitchforks and rakes are distributed and we walk to a privately-owned polder that is used as a paddock on the border of a small lake called Zijdelmeer. Mown grass is strewn all over the paddock. The ground underneath the soaked grass is wet and I can smell manure. Our task is to pile the cut grass into haystacks. The work takes effort and jackets are soon thrown off. Why do they subject these senior citizens to such strenuous work?
I ask why this work is not done by machine given that the Dutch have a machine solution for every task to be done in nature. I am informed that the stacks of grass we are preparing are nesting places where small harmless snakes can hatch and thrive. It also leaves room on the ground for wild cranberries to grow. Such delicate work, necessary to balance the ecosystem, can only be done by hand.
The group continues to work silently and meticulously, and then suddenly, excited voices come from one end. We gather around to find out the cause of all the excitement.
Someone has found a frog.
I am puzzled so I turn to my group leader, a tall Dutch man called Bill.
“Why are we getting excited about finding an amphibian in nature?”
‘’We don’t have frogs here anymore,’’ and he recounts the story of his youth and of a time when nights were filled with a cacophony of croaking. But since the arrival of the red swamp crayfish, an invasive species that feeds on aquatic plant and animal life, the nights have gone silent.
It then occurs to me that for all the canals that surround the neighbourhoods, I never hear any frogs croaking at night.
‘’We are just trying to bring back nature.”
I want to tell Bill about the irony of Nairobi, the former Green City in the Sun that has declared war on trees in an effort to modernise its infrastructure while Amsterdam seeks to return to its natural past and where trees are valued as sites of memory. But I don’t voice my thoughts.
Breast Cancer: The Weight of Waiting
My battle with breast cancer has taught me two things. How to be afraid and how to wait.
My birthday is flamboyantly controversial. My parents are sure they brought me into the world on the 7th of June thirty years ago but the government of Kenya decided that I was born six days earlier, on June the 1st, and my official documents say so. That is why my fellow nurses at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh threw a surprise birthday party for me on the 1st. Just after the breast cancer diagnosis. But they do not know about the diagnosis. They need to wait.
It is 11h03 British Summertime (13h03 EAT). I am not thinking how wonderful it is that I was born. I am worried that I might die. I am in the waiting bay at the Edinburgh Breast Unit of the Western General Hospital. Last week I was told I had breast cancer, but nobody could confirm the stage and grade yet. I was asked to wait for the results of the fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy.
An FNA happens when doctors want to get slivers of tissue from an organ or a mass to find out what type of cells the organ has. Or, simply put, to study that organ in finer detail. When I came here last week, they sedated my left breast then asked me to wait as the anaesthetic knocked my boob out. Then the specialized therapist took out bits and pieces of the swelling inside my breast. A clinical support worker applied pressure on my breast to stop the bleeding. Then I was told to wait.
I seem to be doing a lot of that lately, waiting. I am waiting in this bay for my 11h15 appointment with Mr J., my breast cancer surgeon. I arrived fifteen minutes ago. I forgot my appointment card at home. The medical receptionists do not seem to mind. This is a cancer unit. There are more worrying things than forgotten appointment cards.
There are a few of us here. I can count ten women and two men. Both men brought their spouses. One is in a purple and white checked shirt, and he seems uninterested in his wife’s conversation. The checked shirt has caught my attention. It is a pattern favoured by men from central Kenya. All he needs is the signature baseball cap that Kikuyu men wear and he could be a Kamau or Njoroge. He is playing some game on his iPad as he nods absent-mindedly to whatever his wife is saying.
Most of us are on our gadgets. There is an unspoken sense of apprehension. We choose to speak to our phones and not each other. We want to cling to a sense of normalcy. For the current generation, normal comes in a small box with a keypad, a camera and attention deficit. We have no idea how to speak to real human beings.
People keep streaming in, more women than men. Breast cancer is more common in women than in men. I see it here. More women come in. The seats are now all occupied, and I give mine up for an elderly woman who has just come in, huffing and puffing on her walking frame. Dear God, I think to myself, just how common is breast cancer here in Edinburgh?
There are women from all walks of life here. I see a Chinese woman, or Korean, I can never tell the difference. Another is Filipino; I know because she has just answered her phone in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. Several of the women are Caucasian. I am the only black girl in the waiting area.
Where are the black people in this waiting bay? Did they come in yesterday? Perhaps they will come tomorrow? Why am I the only African in this waiting area? Probably Mr J. will tell me that he has made a very big mistake and that there is no cancer in my left breast. It could be that I should not be here. In fact, since I began this cancer journey not once have I met an African.
A bespectacled doctor has called in a Mrs Frame. Mrs. Frame is the woman I gave my seat to. She is using a tripod frame to walk. I see a pun here and I think it is funny. But this is a cancer department. We don’t laugh here. But I feel a smile take form on my lips. Thankfully, the face mask I am wearing hides my amusement.
There is a six-foot-tall woman near the exit of the waiting bay. The waiting bay has an entry and an exit. We come in through the entry where the medical receptionist is perched on her chair like a patient mother hen and we leave the bay through the exit when we are called in to see the doctor.
There is a water dispenser near the exit. The tall woman looks young. Thirty-something young-ish. Her presence gives me hope. That I am not the only young woman here. She moves restlessly on her lanky, sun-kissed legs. She is wearing a pair of booty shorts because the summer sun is here with us. She keeps tossing her mass of bronze of hair as she scrolls through her phone like someone looking for social media notifications.
It is like we are all keeping her from more important things in her extremely busy life. She looks like she will make a run for it. I cannot blame her. I too would run. If I could run fast enough to escape a breast cancer diagnosis, I would. She is pacing. A sure sign of anxiety. I am tempted to either join her or stop her. I too would rather be anywhere else but here. I need to be with my dialysis patients. I want to continue being a nurse, not this patient waiting in this lounge.
Two clinical support workers enter the bay, sweeping it with their roving eyes as if looking for someone or something. Then they leave. I do not like this. I wish they would speak. Which reminds me of my own practice as a nurse. How often I go to the waiting lounge at the dialysis centre where I work, use my eyes to scan the area then leave quietly. I make a mental note to change that. I will be engaging the patients and the waiting relatives. I will even be telling them that I am just looking for someone, or something. The silent eye-scan is unsettling.
As if on a surgically precise cue, one of them pops back in and asks if the room is too hot. A middle-aged woman in an unremarkable pair of jeans says the room is hot. The clinical support worker promises to turn the thermostat a degree or two lower. I do not care about the temperature. I care that she has spoken to us. That we are not just waiting slots but real human beings with varying repertoires of cancerous anxieties.
For a moment I feel sleepy. I have been writing on my smartphone to keep myself occupied. I am exhausted. I have not slept well since they gave me the diagnosis a week ago. My nights have been screaming terror and yet, in the noise, God has been roaring. He gave me pen and paper. I have been using them to bleed out my fears. But now I need my bed. It is way past my appointment time, which is not surprising given how thorough these specialists are.
“Miss Meina,” a familiar voice pierces through the silence. I quickly put my phone in my purse and stand up. It is Mr. J, my breast surgeon. He cannot pronounce my surname properly, and he calls me “Meina” like many white people do. I do not mind. As long as they spell it correctly.
After profuse apologies for keeping me waiting, Mr J. starts breaking things down.
“We are lucky that the Stage is confirmed to be 1 and the tumour is in grade. . .” he starts. Nurse A, the breast cancer nurse assigned to me, joins us in the consulting room.
“We will need to run more tests to determine the best form of surgery to remove the tumour. Have you ever heard of gene mutation?”
Everyone has BReast Cancer (BRCA) genes. There are two types, BRCA 1 and BRCA2. These genes are protective in that they stop the cells of the breast from growing out of control. Sometimes we inherit faulty ones. Or something in our environment causes them to change and mutate. This places us at risk of developing breast cancer. Even then, only 5 per cent of all diagnosed breast cancer cases are due to a faulty gene.
“If we find faulty genes Catherine, we might have to start thinking about double mastectomy with breast reconstruction.” Mr J. says matter-of-factly. Sweet King David and the choir of heaven! Did he just say total removal of both breasts at thirty? What exactly are you telling me? What about the children I hope to bear someday? What about my dreams of motherhood? Could this disease have come at a worse time? An unwanted boob job? I am not ready for this conversation.
I stand up and head for the sink in the room. I am torn between vomiting and screaming. I settle for crying. The tears, hot, bitter, angry tears roll down my face. I don’t bother to wipe them away.
Mr J. rubs my back as Nurse A hands me tissues to blow my nose. More blood samples are taken for these complicated tests. I cry some more. Now I have to wait for the results of these tests. The waiting never ends. The fear of the unknown creeps up to me like a menacing nightclub bouncer.
My battle with breast cancer has taught me two things. How to be afraid and how to wait. I do not lock out my fears. I invite them in, make them a cuppa tea and then use my fork to poke them in the eyes. I no longer wait while doing nothing. Doing nothing is the chief ingredient in the meal of overthinking. I wait while writing and praying. I wait while reading and researching. I wait, ultimately, while clinging onto the hope that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley. Afraid and tired, I wait.
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