Saturday, 13 April 2013

Mambrui - Interview with Mama Halima Abdi....

She was born, brought up and got married in Mambrui
She links her age to the British Colonial period by stating that when Kenya got independence, she was 11years old. Therefore she was born in 1952. Halima experienced life during the colonial time and after independence .She fondly refers to this as “maisha wakati wa mkoloni na maisha wakati wa Kenyatta”. Her grandparents worked on a farm, growing food crops and cutting firewood. Her grandmother also baked bread for sale (mkate wa mofa) many times, Halima helped sell the bread costing only ten cent. (Peni la Uingereza la tundu) an Englishman’s coin with a hole at the center. For the same coin, she could buy a match box, a pound of sugar and some tea leaves. Even though she came from a poor family by the standards of Mambrui village then; there was always plenty of food for everyone to eat. Women did most household chores.

Baobab Fruit (Mabuyu)
Teenage girls were given special care by female adults. They were educated on how to maintain hygiene during their monthly periods and generally how to carry themselves responsibly as young ladies. This education was provided by mothers and other mentors referred to as (Kungwi). Sanitary towels were unheard of in those days. Girls were taught how to stitch pieces of Khanga (absorbent cotton fabric) together in a way to create a thick padding at the center with strings attached to the ends. The pads would be worn and strings tightened to prevent unnecessary dropping. The stitched pads were washed and aired on strings tied under the girl’s beds so that no one else sees them. Beds were made from wood, woven papyrus (miyaa) and raised to allow sufficient air to pass underneath for the cotton pads to dry up. After menstruation; they would wash their hair with shampoo locally made by boiling baobab seeds and pulp in water to foam. They would then perform ablution (ghusl) (kutia maji kichwani mara tatu, kisha mabegani), an Islamic religious tradition. Parents always watched out for the routine and frequency of their daughters boiling the baobab seeds. If any of them failed to boil her baobab shampoo; the parents would note that she had not had her period and would carefully watch out for possibilities of pre- marital pregnancy. Even though the girls were well protected and educated about sex, some got pregnant before marriage. Whenever this happened, it was frowned upon by Society but support was given to the girls to carry the pregnancy to delivery. However, babies born out of wedlock were not told who their fathers were but were raised by their maternal grandmothers.

It was regarded as respectful behavior for girls to hide in rooms whenever doors were knocked by visitors and strangers. This prevented visitors from seeing the girls as they would easily think of sending marriage proposals, yet at that time, it was an affair purely left to parents and close adult relatives.
Discussions during marriage proposals were done by adults in the family, without both the girls and boys knowledge of who their future husbands would be. The boy’s parents would visit the girl’s parents home to propose. Weddings were arranged as soon in marriage proposals were accepted.
Halima observes any child’s character (mannerisms) depend a lot on how their parents, especially mothers bring them up. On accepting marriage proposals, special female teachers experienced in sexuality were assigned the duty of teaching the girls how to live in marriage; particularly how to prepare themselves to have sex with their husbands).

Matrimonial life.
Girls were taught and given guidelines on how to live with their husbands. How to receive them whenever they come back home from work, to show respect to their in-laws, how to adorn their bodies in preparation to going to bed, how make love/have sex with their husbands’ e.t.c.
On the wedding night, a white cotton sheet was spread on the couple’s bed by the kungwi and close female relatives before consummation of the marriage. This was then shown to close family members after consummation to prove the virginity status of their girls. If stained after sex, the girls would be congratulated for guarding their virginity and special gifts given by husbands to appreciate that.
The bridegrooms would be given spiced milk (maziwa ya kungu) to stimulate them and make them bold in preparation for the act of sex on the first night of the marriage.

For seven days following the wedding (fungat), the bride was not allowed to cook to prevent her heena decorations from fading and her body from smelling smoke and also to give her and her husband a lot of time to bond (one week equivalent to honeymoon). On the seventh day, her family members (mother, aunts and sisters together with her teacher came to teach her and supervise her cook). Of course while growing up, she had been taught how to cook. Then from that day, she would always cook for her husband. In the past, there were no bakeries.

Women activities
There was plenty of food, in Mambrui, when the elementary school started (Arab Primary School), only boys were enrolled. Children were taught Koran education but girls were not enrolled for the elementary education. Almost all households in Mambrui had come to an agreement amongst themselves about that. When some of the boys were asked to pay school fees, they would work, to get coins to take to school; it was not strictly a parent’s duty to pay school fees. Halima remembers from what her late husband told her that one time he ran errands for people and paid 30cents as school fees at Mambrui Primary school for one year. There was regular inspection by Colonial Officers in schools and after class 7- most young men were employed to start earning salaries. A few who came from wealthy families managed to proceed for further education, those from poor families had no choice but to settle for employment. Her husband and many other boys were recruited by force to attend school. Colonial Officers would come to their village with guns to threaten them to go to school or risk being shot, of course no one was shot for refusing to attend school. She also notes that the kind of knowledge, understanding and wisdom about life that young men had after class 7 in those days was more than what most form four school leavers of today have. This is because in the past the sense of responsibility, diligence, respect and other virtues that society approved of were more upheld in the village than today’s situation. 

Weaving beds, carpentry, basketry, crocheting, stitching hats (kushona kofia).
Farm work
Most people, planted maize, cowpeas, green grams, simsim, cotton, millet, cashew nuts, mango trees, citrus fruits (oranges, lemons, limes), pumpkins, watermelons and many other food crops.
Maize was harvested in large quantities and preserved in a granary (uchaga), raised from the ground and fire wood lit underneath to smoke the maize dry. Whenever needed, enough quantities would be taken from the granaries and pounded in mortar and pestle ( kinu na mti)  and cleaned before cooking. Maize pounding was done by women but men being more energetic enjoyed helping their wives and daughters do it as well, although that was rare.
As a child, she helped her grandfather harvest cotton, clean to remove chaff, pack in sacks. These sacks were then taken to a banda near Riyadha Mosque in Mambrui. Trade in cotton was popularly handled by men. Cotton seasons were also a trade season for ladies who would make and sell Mahamri, juices, teas at the market.

 Leisure activities for women
·                     Heena painting
·         Dancing chakacha
·         Lelemama – during weddings
·         Visiting family members, friends and neighbours in their houses to catch up with local news and ongoing gossips.
·         Ngoma ya Makungwi/Msondo – special dance in which girls were taught how to dance for their husbands, this dance was only attended by women, in a closed up place so that men could no see.  Women and girl getting ready for marriage danced with minimal dressing.
Some of the teachers (kungwi she remembers are _ Bi. Shebani wa Sadala, Bi. Baraka Kifua mbele and Bi Rupia Bahamisi.

Taxes were paid at the Chief’s Office. Many times, askaris were sent around to collect taxes. Each household would pay Ksh.2 and get a stamp to last them one year. Even at this minimal rate, many men would be heard bragging that they had run away when Police Officers came to collect tax, some men hid in granaries to evade the taxes, somehow, the chief and police  knew about this and in their rounds, they would search granaries too. All men over 30years old were expected to pay the tax.

Safari to Mombasa
There was a wealthy man in Mambrui (Bw. Said Abdallah Basadiq) with a long bus (Leyland) that was the main means of transport from Mambrui to Mombasa. There were no good roads.  So, the vehicle passed through mavueni – milimani, kaloleni and the journey to Mombasa she heard took a very long time as the vehicle moved at a slow speed.

Provisions for home use
Commodities from shops were sold at an affordable price. Both the rich and the poor could afford to buy. A cup of milk cost 10cents, several pieces of bajia with on a skew (like mshakiki) cost 5cents. A bottle of Fanta Soda (popularly known as soda ya Jeffrey) in a tall narrow bottle cost 2 shillings and 3cents.

Families whose children went to school beyond Primary level, which mama Halima remembers are.
·         Sheikh Salim Ramadhan – long time health office, now a very old man.
·         The Naji Family  -Prof. Abdullah and his brother Mansour
·         Sheikh Ali Kidiku – Senior Health Officer   

     Interview conducted by Doris Kamuye, Malindi Museum

Health and Wealth Stories Associated with the Luo Deche...

 The Luo, an agro-pastoral community inhabiting the Lake Victoria basin, treasure good custody of their belongings. As skilled fishers, herders, hunters and farmers, the Luo made a wide range of tools and structures to help them earn a living, store their food and keep their property safely during both times of plenty and periods of scarcity. Deche or dere (singular Dero) are traditionally cylindrical granaries made of a variety of plant material such as olando (pliable twigs), oundho (papyrus), odundu (reeds), tiang’ (millet stalks), minya (twilling vine), woven together using poyo or togo (papyrus) and daubed with cow-dung (owuoyo) and whose conical roof was covered with grass.

A structure of great skill and adept workmanship, dero was characteristic of every Luo homestead built close to the family houses (as in Fig. 1 above) in which was stored all varieties of grains and nuts (millet, groundnuts, maize, sesame), dried foods like aliya (meat) and seeds of every kind. Any home that did not have it was looked at with pity since dero symbolized wealth, prosperity and food security. Usually constructed during harvest times, the number of deche depended on the number of women in each homestead as well as the different kinds and quantities of produce generated by the family fields. Continued disappearance of deche from the Luo homesteads is a sure index of increasing poverty and insecurity as well as a decline of traditional skills in such art attributed to loss of materials due to environmental change and exhaustion of the resources. It is also a clear pointer to increased individualism and use of alternative custodial practices now embraced by the contemporary generations for whom banks and shops offer meaningful alternatives, besides their large permanent houses with inside storage facilities. Today wealth is not counted by the number of deche but by the size of bank savings, the number of food shops and supermarkets and the magnificent permanent buildings. New technologies also allow use of refrigerators.

 Fig 1: A Section of a Luo Homestead (Dala or Pacho) showing the Main House (Od Mikayi), a Granary (Dero) and a Euphorbia (Ojuok) Fence (Source: NMK Audiovisual Archives, Photo by Fiddy Wangari Waruinge 2010). Traditional granaries were cylindrical and had conical grass-thatched roofs. Some granaries today are rectangular and made of planks of wood and sisal poles with iron-roofs. A food reserve for each Luo family, Dero was a noble centre of the homestead portraying the community’s capacity against hunger and a significant cultural spot of varying entertainment and ritual value. Such granaries are disappearing from the contemporary Luo Homesteads.

Not only forming a resting place during sunny weather, dero was a social and a health index for the Luo people. People often had meals and played games like ajua besides deche. Whenever one was overfed or suffered from constipation during festivities, one would be urged to run around dero a number of times, singing and blowing out air from one’s mouth into the granary. While this may have been purely a wise counsel to careless feeders on the need for physical exercise to relax their stomach muscles and allow digestion to occur, the focus of this activity was ritualistic in the sense that relief came from singing and dancing to the store, the source of the consumed food. The stomach and the granary were to be in harmony for the sustained health of the individual members of the Luo community. This did not mean that the Luo had no knowledge of curative herbs, for pepper and other weeds just did the miracle. The community wise-men saw that physical exercise to relieve constipation had to be done around the granary or else the individual had to go and rub his or her stomach on a path as a curse of greed to ground on which people trod on end.

Traditional granaries did not have locking systems, only some strings or thorns could be placed on their entrance to prevent intrusion. Although it was unusual for people to steal from granaries, children often poked holes at the base to steal groundnuts. During severe droughts and famine, depraved and hungry villagers could robe the neighbours’ granaries. If a woman were caught stealing some grain from such a store, she would be allowed to go home with the stolen grain but was asked to return an equal measure of such grain during the next harvest season. This incident was adjudicated and held in top secrecy with the elders and never reached the ears of her children. It would be tormenting to any child to know that his/her mother was a thief. Such secrecy meant that the community gave its individual members dignity and respect in spite of their failures that would have made them a laughing stock.

With the disappearance of these structures owing to environmental degradation and with the continued detachment of people from rural life, such knowledge is virtually getting lost day by day. As a representation of strength, skill, wealth, health and security for which many stories were told and songs sung and to which memories and names are attached, dero remains a significant structure among the Luo. As I end my brief story, dear reader, kindly volunteer any narrative connected with dero that you may have to help inform the present generation of our dying indigenous African heritage and digitally preserve this oral heritage for posterity.