WANGŨ, A STORY UNTOLD - Catherine N Ngugi
Re – member Me?
Remember me then
More than currency
For the tongues
Of slanderous men
You will have to fight
Fight like men
Nothing makes sense
Actions affect the people
Write me well
–and tell it all!
Invoking my spirit
Do not use a pastel tint
My colours are ochre
My necklace is brass
I stepped firmly
Smiles on only one side of their face
Nyakĩnyua knew me
They did not
Those men who yearned
the gap between my teeth
I walked firmly
And they put
When I was six years old, I learned the sound of the word behove. I always loved how that word drawled off my father’s tongue.
Waceera, he would intone to my six-year-old self, it would be-ho-o-o-o-o-ve you to be slightly less inquisitive. I begged my older sisters to teach me how to put the letters together to spell that wonderful, long word, but they told me it had only one ‘o’.
My grandmother’s method of dealing with her loquacious namesake proved far more effective than my father’s. Cũcũ habitually indulged herself in selective deafness. She might answer one question but certainly never a second. Entreaties would be met with a blank
And an instant demonstration on how to more usefully occupy one’s time: this is how you weave a basket; this piece of red twine goes through these sections of green. This is how you crack an egg to mix a chappati mixture when your hands are old and arthritic and have difficulty kneading dough moistened only with water. This is how you fold your money and tuck it away into unexpected places to keep for a rainy day – that is the meaning of kiunduthu, although you children do not speak Kikuyu and you will have forgotten by the next time you visit. This is how you store maize in the granary and climb backwards – slowly now - down the granary ladder without showing the world your legs – or spilling a single grain.
As a child, the journey to my grandmother’s house was second only to being there. At home, we would all rush to the car shouting ‘door’, ‘door’. But being the third child, I always ended up in the middle and would sulk. My big sisters would chant, “Sulky Sue, what shall we do? Pop her in a basket and take her to the zoo” and then shriek with laughter until my mother would reach behind her and pinch them. This only made them giggle more. My father would tell the twins to be quiet, read more Hekaya za Abunwas and less Enid Blyton and tease me and make jokes that only I and the little ones found funny. Then the tarmac would be finished and we’d be turning onto the packed murram roads that fanned out like ribbons through the dappled green hills. We would smell the heavenly smell of coffee growing, but sometimes, on a particularly hot day, the stomach-churning pungency of coffee berries putrefying in their large mesh trays laid out in the sun. Almost too soon, we would arrive at my grandmother’s home and fight to be the one to push through the long poles that rested in their stocks and open the gate.
I loved the coolness of my grandmother’s hut on a baking hot day, the smokiness of her kitchen where clay pots and metal pans were moved about with equal deftness over the three-stone fire that never went out. I always felt special there, because I was named for her and my grandmother trusted me with a large wooden spoon and her smallest clay pot. She would let me make my very own food of maize from her shamba, peas from the market and potatoes from the granary which I had fetched without showing my legs to the world, although I had forgotten to latch the door behind me. Without even turning her head, Cũcũ would call after me,
Be sure to leave the door unlatched so that the rats can get in and despoil all the food.
So I would giggle and scurry back up again to latch the door. Without showing the world my legs.
am twelve years old, wandering through my grandmother’s new four-roomed stone house. The uncles and my father have decided that their mother should have a home befitting a mother of sons. They have gleefully demolished the thick mud walls, burned the thatched roof that reminds them of their childhood gremlins – things that went plunk in the night as they landed on unsuspecting sleeping faces. Idi Amin has wrought chaos in Uganda and boosted a Kenyan coffee boom. Matching beige Mercedes Benzes purr in satisfied splendour, a pleasing backdrop against the fat clusters of red berries which yielded their purchase. Outside, where they are wrestling out of car boots a fettered goat, charcoal, some crates and various brown paper bags, I hear the uncles and my father joke about “driving to the border”, about the need for “more gunny sacks.” When my aunts and mother hear this, they purse their lips, turn their faces away from the men. The twins and my older cousins have a new joke: “money grows on trees.”
Inside the new house, Cũcũ has a huge double bed with about six million blankets on it. Some are crocheted. Some are Raymond’s double-sided, bright pink on one side and a grey-green shiny black on the other. None of them are new. I wonder what she does with all the new things that her children and grandchildren give her for Christmas. Idly, I pull open a wardrobe and a picture frame comes tumbling out. It is a black and white portrait from around the turn of the century. A Mũgĩkũyũ woman for certain, with jewellery which startles me. In the 1970s, sophisticated Kenyan women wear costume jewellery of brightly coloured plastic with ivory bracelets and pins set in gold. But this woman’s ears are doubly pierced: beaded hang’i such as I only vaguely recall seeing the very oldest women in the village wear, loop through her upper ear: staring at the black and white image, I imagine the beaded loops which hang all the way down to her shoulders, red and blue and green and yellow and white, echoing the long strands around her neck. From her wide stretched lobes are suspended coils of copper or brass or iron, their weight born by the beaded strip of leather which tethers the coils together and rests over her head.
Her chiselled cheekbones are sharp enough to cut and my hand unwittingly caresses my own buttressed face, the ridge below my eyes which too merges into a pronounced cheek bone. But I have nothing on this unsmiling woman firm lips stop just short of expressing disdain. She stares out at me: narrowed eyes, furrowed brow, a high collar of brass circlets over which the chin is held down although it looks like a chin that usually precedes its owner jutting outwards, upwards. I carry the picture into the kitchen, bereft now of smoke which funnels merrily out of well spaced windows and the door open to the sunshine.
Cũcũ, who’s this?
My grandmother laughs.
My mother is astonished at my nerve. What were you doing in your grandmother’s cupboards?
Leave her alone, my grandmother says. This is her home. It’s only right that she knows where everything is.
Show me that picture. Hi, hi! I haven’t seen this in a good long while. It’s good to have grandchildren to remind you of the people you’ve forgotten.
Do you know who this is? she asks my mother.
My mother looks shifty, and then vague.
Hmmmnnn? She responds.
But my Cũcũ only laughs at her. This is Wangũ. Wangũ wa Makeri.
My mother bolts out of the open door, into the sunlight, down to the shiny new outhouse. She stays there a while.
This is your mother’s grandfather.
Don’t you mean grandmother?
I said grandfather.
I try to bite back the questions that rise to my tongue, but they fly out from behind my clenched teeth. Too late!
But how can a woman be my mother’s grandfather?
Hmmmnn? Why don’t you take that pot off the fire before it over-boils. Here, use this wad of newspaper to protect your hands.
ll my life, I've been asking questions about Wangũ wa Makeri and always getting different answers - or no answers...
In school, people would say,
Wangũ? Isn't she that woman who danced naked? Yes, the one who sat on mens’ backs?
Some would talk as if they knew her: She was Our Great African Queen. She was very beautiful.
How would they know if she was beautiful or not? Who said so? Were they there to see her? And since when did the Kikuyu have queens?
My parents would smile rigidly, as if their teeth hurt them behind tightly closed lips. I'd ask and he wouldn't answer at all, my father. It was as if I had not spoken. My mother would tug uneasily at her Mother's Union headscarf and say there were some questions one shouldn't ask.
Once, though, when it was just the two of us, she cast her eyes down to disguise the anger within them. But I heard it in her voice:
They cheated her! They told her to dance so that they could lie about it to the other men. By then, all the chiefs used to dance the Kibaata thinking they were great because they were chiefs. That was a dance for young men, for warriors, not for them! Chiefs! They feared the young men who still danced the Kibaata. They knew what it meant to dance the Kibaata, that the young men were accusing them. Those chiefs would make the young men pay high hut taxes that would finish their few goats. Without goats, the young men could not marry. Those shameless old chiefs would give only a few of the goats to the colonialists at the Fort and keep the rest to marry all the young women they wanted.
You know Wangũ was like an elder, she sat with the men in the kiama meetings making them ashamed of what they were doing. So they cheated her, those men who also wanted to be chiefs. They told her that she should also dance the Kibaata, that if she danced with the warriors alongside the chiefs, then they would follow the tradition properly and allow the young women to marry whom they wanted. That was the correct way. But it was a lie. They just wanted her to dance so that when she jumped – a woman like her – everyone would see her. Then they said, You see? How can a woman rule? Is this white man’s law or Kikuyu law? This is anarchy. Remove her.
But Mummy, I would beg, if other people were there, didn't they see that she wasn't naked? How come everyone believed it? That a grown woman would dance naked?
My mother narrowed her eyes yet further, pinned them to the ground lest old furies be unleashed, cause damage:
Who listens to the truth? Who is ever interested in what really happened? People just want a story to tell.
When my father finally responded, he said,
Waceera, why must we always talk about dancing? Even at the table? This is a painful topic for your mother and I don’t see why you have to keep bringing it up. That woman chased away your grandfather and his mother. Your mother had a very difficult childhood in Murang’a because of it. Can’t we just eat?
The twins kicked me under the table and tried to change the subject.
s a child, I had seen the mischief which sparkled deep in my grandmother’s eyes and responded gleefully to it. Like mine, her pupils were jet black, unreadable to the uninitiated. As an adolescent, I recognised the sharp tongue I inherited, avoided its ability to reduce teenage superiority to its pitiful components of sham and pride – even as my own tongue decimated foe and friend without favour. Then distance intervened, an educational sojourn that rarely jettisoned me back into the village.
On every visit, my heart quickened on seeing the red soil, the precipitous ridges arrayed in the purple green velvet of banana trees, the unambiguous red of the coffee berries which put money in my grandmother’s bank account, the flood waters of the Chania tripping over rocks as they hurtled down the hills. But I couldn’t find the words to tell her these things and when she asked me about England, her eyes would glaze over while I stumbled for the words to describe cold and snow when what I really wanted to tell her was of the desperation of standing in a red phone booth on the corner of an icy street, praying that no-one would come by demanding to use the phone as I waited for the operator to connect me to my mother’s voice thousands of miles away, to the sound of home: conversations of weather; whether it had rained or not, whether the lawn was now deep green or pale yellow; whether the cows were yielding and whether my father had broken the law and uprooted his coffee which no longer earned its keep, or had simply left it to wither, feigning ignorance of the export crops which my mother had skilfully planted between the redundant bushes.
These were not the kind of conversations I had had any time for when I lived at home, but when studying and working in England, they were the very stuff of my life. I yearned to hear that my grandmother still ruled her adult sons with a quizzical lift of her eyebrow; that when taking leave of her in the village, my father still asked his mother in law that her prayers be brief and that in response, she would pray to God to lift from him the burden of hurry – as well as to keep him and his family safe on their journey back to the city – and that my siblings and cousins still covered their mouths with their hands and pinched each other hard to stop themselves from laughing out loud and bringing everlasting disgrace upon our collective heads. Disgrace came to me anyhow because somehow, my Kikuyu could only tell my grandmother of a cold place and that I was studying hard and that it was sometimes quite sunny, but more often not.
With each new absence I feared that her days were drawing to a close and I needed to renew what had become over the years a mere acquaintance with one another, to re-kindle the bond of iron forged between us when I came into the world and took her name. A visitor; a guest; a cause for abbreviated celebration: Waceera. When I got home one Christmas, I sought her out in the little stone annexe that her sons and sons-in-law had constructed for her in the city after her second stroke. I could not imagine her away from her sweet-water well, from her coffee and bananas, from the hens and goats she called by name and was loath to slaughter even at Christmas. The mere hint that some person might even now be living in her house made the blood rush to my ears and I could not hear anymore what my mother was trying to explain to me. And seeing that I had chosen deafness, my mother reminded me of her mother's fondness for ginger. And left the matter alone.
I bought ginger and tea and sugar and wrapped the cotton nightdress and unsuitably frilly sheets I had picked out for my grandmother and drove to my uncle's house. As I turned into their gate, it occurred to me that I had never driven myself there, always been a child passenger in my parents' car. My aunt, a woman graced with a rare gentleness, pointed out the annexe even as my much loved uncle tried to persuade me into their home for a cup of tea.
Reka ambe ageithie cũũwe, let her see her grandmother. Then she’ll come back, my aunt told him.
Nĩguo tata, nĩngũcooka. It seemed I was always telling people I’d be back.
Wamaitha, the woman who worked for my aunt, escorted me through a small sun-drenched courtyard in which stood the familiar wooden bench and the beaded three-legged stool. Ũyũ nĩ mwana wa mwana wakwa. This is my child’s child. She’s come to see me, not you. I laughed at my grandmother’s boast as Wamaitha laughingly retreated.
My grandmother said, I was also a child once. And it was long ago, in the days when the Kikuyu were first given chiefs. Given. It sounded like a gift, but the corner of my grandmother’s mouth twitched.
What kind of a chief was Karũri, Cũcũ and why did he appoint Wangũ headman?
Karũri. Hmmn. Arĩ mũthaka, na arĩ mwĩini. They say that he was handsome, and I once saw him dance the Kibaata. Ha ha! How my mother beat me! That Karũri was a good dancer. But he was a thinker as well, a judge of character. That’s why he appointed Wangũ headman. She knew people, what they were really like, not the face they put on to impress the Paramount Chief. They used to call him Mũthigani, the scout. It was the same name we gave to the young Masaai boys who would come and live amongst us pretending that they had been chased away by their relatives and needed some temporary reprieve while they made up their relations again. Of course we also had our own athigani, the young boys we sent to learn Maa and come back to report to us when the Maasai were weakest and our warriors could attack them for cattle. Your grandfather, my husband was the son of Wangũ’s wife, the one she married but then divorced for adultery.
I knew all that. It was the dance I was interested in.
What about that dance, Cũcũ? People say that Wangũ danced the Kĩbaata with the men, without clothes. Is that really what she did Cũcũ?
My grandmother retreated beneath her blankets, closed her eyes.
Put that kettle back on the stove and give yourself some more tea. You must be hungry since you keep opening your mouth – is it a yawn you’re stifling? In that cupboard there’s a sweet potato. Put it into the ashes to warm like I showed you when you were little. Do you remember how or will you now burn your fingers like a baby?
My grandmother had no patience with the pain in her fingers caused by her stroke. She kneaded the silly little ball that the hospital had instructed her to use as a physiotherapy aid. But she restrained herself from demonstrating just how I should stir the embers to warm the sweet potato in its skin and not burn the outside while leaving the inside cold. So I tried to hold my tongue and prayed that she would talk of Karũri and Wangũ again, but then she wanted to ask me about England. And what could I tell her?
Oh Cũcũ, it’s just… cold.
The images that come to mind are not so much of cold, but of Njonjo flying through the air. A bunch of us Kenyan students had visited a wine bar before going clubbing to celebrate someone's twenty-first. When the bouncer began the usual "Glasses please, don't you have homes to go to?" routine, we had began happily gulping down the last of our champagne, ready, in any case to go dancing. Such a happy night and so many of us from all across the country: Manchester, Aberystwyth, Buckingham, London. We were all dressed up: blue eye-shadow and glitter for the girls, black polo-necks for the guys – unless, like Kamau and Njonjo, they were at SOAS§, in which case they wore bright African print shirts such as they had never worn at home. And of course it was the SOAS guys who took exception to the bouncer's attitude and of course the bouncer took exception to theirs. In the 1980s London clubs were always witnessing these power plays between African students and Black British bouncers.
Susan, who, as always, was the only one to have seen everything, reported that she was on her way to the end table to get the guys to hurry up, when her view was temporarily obscured by a very broad, suited back. Peering around the broadness, Susan had seen the suit arm drawn back and then extended. And then she had seen Njonjo fly through the air. Presumably, the bouncer's fist had made contact. We knew the drill: we gathered our handbags and teetered out onto the pavement in our tall heels, waiting for the guys – and the Police – to do what they felt they needed to. When they all emerged, it was apparent that there would be no clubbing that night so we'd all retired to the nearest flat and taken the party there instead. The new Prince album was playing and I wanted to dance, but somehow, I had ended up in the bathroom with the Dettol in one hand, cotton wool in the other and Njonjo meekly sitting on the toilet lid as I had instructed him, so that I could attend to the cut above his eye. Kamau was hovering in the doorway, wincing as he awaited his turn. It was not the sort of story that I felt I could tell my grandmother.
So I warmed the sweet potato and made a fresh pot of tea and hoped that she would choose to go on telling me what she had been telling me before.
That evening, when I told my parents about my frustrated inability to steer my grandmother’s conversation in the direction I wanted it to take, they looked at each other and laughed. My father said, you can’t tell Nyakĩnyua what to do.
But Cũcũ’s name is Waceera, like me.
Nyakĩnyua is her age group, my mother explained. Having liberated herself from the head-scarfed Mothers’ Union of the Anglican Church and re-converted to Catholicism, my mother sipped happily on her wine, poured my ascetic High Anglican father another glass of water. Then she added,
And you can’t tell a woman that age what to do or when.
n my thirtieth birthday, yet another milestone crossed in yet another foreign country – I was living up to my name and would not tarry anywhere - I decided that if my grandmother was still alive when I returned, this time, I would not deflect her sharp scrutiny with questions, but trust that she loved me still as did I her, despite my fumbling in my own mother-tongue.
When my grandmother saw me, she hugged me. I could not recall ever having been hugged by my grandmother. Hugging her back, just as ferociously, I realised that I was bigger than her, so much stronger than her tiny frame and we both cried a little before common sense prevailed. The ginger was chopped, the kettle boiled, the tea leaves found secreted in one of those small wooden cabinets with a wire mesh front that no-one made anymore. It was useless to protest that I had eaten and I did not bother, simply ate the sweet potatoes Cũcũ pulled out of the embers, burning my finger tips and burning my lips. Content. For whatever reason, my grandmother talked to me that day of her childhood. I never knew why and never would know why these were stories my parents had always known, but had never told.
Cũcũ told me about the first time she ever saw Wangũ: She had already heard of her, though, from her older cousins across the ridge where Wangũ came from. They had said that from when she was a little girl until the day of her initiation, when other girls were telling riddles at the river and plaiting each others’ hair, Wangũ would be imitating the warriors, swaying backwards and forwards at the waist and then erupting straight into the air, her fingers pointed at the earth, her face raised to the sky. Even when the other girls would call her a Wanja-kihĩĩ, a tomboy and chuck a pot of water over her to make her attend to their games, Wangũ would just laugh before joining in. When they had tired of playing and dozed a little in the mid-day heat before starting the trek home with their filled water pots, sometimes they would hear in the distance, the boom of the war horn, the chatter of the rattles on the warriors’ ankles.
As older girls with a role to play in the Kĩbaata, Wangũ’s voice rose above the others: a tall young woman who would push herself forward, almost taunting the man with the white stick. But her friends would always pull her back just in time. She would chant the names of the nine daughters of Mũmbi and the young men of each lineage would toss their heads at her shout, leap into the air.
My grandmother’s cousins told her that when Wangũ’s father tried to choose a husband for her, she had challenged him and his friends to drink the ceremonial beer the young man had brought, assuring them that it would choke them and that they would be throwing up all through the night. It was the young man who had ended up being severely reprimanded for bringing beer before making a proper agreement with a girl.
My grandmother, who was still very young, wasn’t supposed to have been at the dance. But she had gained the front row and sat on the grass, decorously, as she had seen the older girls do, with her legs straight out before her and not crossed or apart like those wives from Maasai-land who didn’t know any better. She took in every move, every leap, every crouch. She wished she could be a boy just for that. Just to dance the Kĩbaata and show off the power in her legs, her agility with a sword and club, her sense of balance and to have the reward of wearing in her male ears, the hang’i that a young woman had won for herself through her own pain. My grandmother told me that when she got home, she was given a thorough beating by her mother. But she was so stubborn she would not cry, which made her mother beat her more.
I was so engrossed by my grandmother’s story, that I never asked a single question. I allowed her words to carry me off to a different time, to see what her childhood eyes saw of a world where a dance signified defiance and transition. It was as I was there, seeing what she saw, hearing what she heard. I shivered when she described the shrill cry which rent the silence of that night. I felt the density of the mist which had absorbed the warriors’ foot-falls so that no-one had heard them arrive until they were already gathered in the clearing beneath the mũgumo tree. The cry was an unearthly sound that scattered the birds from their aerial perches, created an unexpected meal for feathered cannibals, hunters of the night which swooped from the moonlit sky to sink sharp talons into petrified soft flesh. The raiding party had returned.
From the homesteads dotted over the ridges, men and women began to pour out into the mist, snaking downhill towards the clearing. They stumbled over the regalia of vulture feathers, shields and various bits of clothing of which the warriors had divested themselves. The old men were shouting out their own battle stories, the old women growling the ndumo deep in their bellies. Nyakarima, my grandmother’s cousin and her age-mates like Wangũ, had forgotten that they were supposed to stay at home and watch that their younger siblings did not fall into the fire. They were looking out for their favourites.
Not all the warriors had made it home. Kũng’ũ was missing, as was Nderitũ. But most were there, some with bloodied limbs and shields, foreheads glistening. The cattle they had captured were already corralled and hundreds of tiny fireflies dancing at the forest edge seemed to proffer benison. Karũri wa Gakure pushed his way to the centre of the circle. Again that unearthly sound ripped through his throat seeming to come from the very centre of his being. He leaped into the air and his head jerked back, ochred locks flying as his body hurtled down again, snapped sharply at the waist and back upright again. His shoulders replicated the movement and again he leaped up, straight into the air and the others followed, jostling for position until ten, then fifteen, then a hundred young men were grunting low in their throats, crouching, weaving and leaping in unison.
Even as they danced, the young women chanted in time to the horn:
Kinyĩrĩria ũbuthi thĩ
Tread all the arrogance into the ground
Tread always thus,
Wathaka cia Mbũĩ
Gallant men of Mbũĩ
Wathaka cia Njirũ
Gallant men of Njirũ
Wathaka cia Njikũ …
Gallant men of Njikũ
And the warriors would leap even higher when they heard their particular lineage called. The young women urged them on, surging forwards, ever forwards towards the young men they had waited for, cooked for. But the white stick would always be there before them, waved admonishingly in their faces, warding them off. So they would fall back temporarily recalled to themselves, resume their chanting, shivering now as they had not when they felt the knife of initiation. They were proud of their riika, their generation of warriors and maidens who had not flinched from the knife. So the young women chanted and the young warriors leaped, each acknowledging the bond they shared, dancing and chanting their warning to the older generation that they were preparing now and would be ready when their day came to take over the mantle of authority.
returned to England, back to the university, back to preparing lectures. A colleague persuaded me to take on his class on isotopes in fossil foodwebs. Reading up on extinct species and hominids in my rooms, I recalled the dusty exhibits in the Nairobi Museum when I was a child, and the pleasure of seeing the collections restored when on my last visit, I had wandered past troops of excited school children. In the portrait gallery I had stopped before the old portraits of ‘Headman’ Wangũ and ‘Paramount Chief’ Karũri. Noticing for the first time the stripes on Wangũ’s cloak, I had peered more closely, realised with some shock that the garment below Wangũ’s collarette was not the ochred leather cloak that Kikuyu women had traditionally worn, but a blanket!
My father had explained to me that in those days, in the 1900s, those who could reckon their wealth in coins as well as livestock would show off their wealth by wearing store-bought clothing. A squared blanket rather than the traditional squared cloak worn by men of a certain age, showed that they no longer needed the services of the leather tanners and the iron smiths. They were above such artisanal efforts. I laughed in England, imagining the consternation Wangũ must have caused strutting about in a blanket draped over her red leather skirts.
y grandmother has died, a third stroke. I feel disconnected from everything. I feel separate from everything. How will I ever know who I am without my grandmother there to show me who I am not. I am suspicious of everyone. They are not my people. I want to go home.
I hand in my notice, pack my belongings and book a flight on Kenya Airways. I have not lived in my own country for fifteen years and it is no longer novel to be foreign.
They have already buried my grandmother, but at least I can go home and visit her grave. Perhaps I will stay awhile and use the expensive research skills I have acquired to find the questions to all the answers she ever gave me: answers shrouded in the veil of a different time, a different set of values.
When I set out to the village, I will drive up the roads first cleared and graded when my grandmother was a child, see the red soil she walked on, the streams she played in, the river from which she fetched water, balancing her water-pot so the precious liquid would not spill into wasted labour. Instead of forests with clearings in which proud young women danced under the stars with proud warriors, I will see neat rows of wattle trees, planted when Wangũ was appointed 'headman'. My mother’s grandfather.
In the village, only the land will be as I remember it. The soil will still be red, the coffee bushes a deep green and the streams and rivulets still course apace. The smoke that comes out of my grandmother’s chimney, wafts out of the open door, will signal that others live there now. I will not enter. Around my grandmother’s grave, young flowers will be wilting in the heat and I will not remember if Cũcũ ever cared particularly for flowers. The banana trees, all the different species she planted whose names she tried to teach me – they will lend some shade. I will remember how she kneaded that stupid little ball and joked that both she and her namesake were too old to be playing with toys. I will stand there, by the tiny grave, for a long time and when I finally leave, I will not be able to imagine what would ever bring me back to that place.
Driving back to town, I will know the night will be spent dreaming of my grandmother, of being little and making a game of running up and down the granary ladder which is still there, of blankets piled up on a high bed, shiny and new.
But tonight I dream not of Cũcũ, but of Wangũ:
aceera. You ask so many questions. It’s true that you people do not know who we are. Perhaps we might have said more – so that our children could have told you more. That was not our way. Things were different then.
You want to know what it was like for me to be a headman? Ha! Ha! Well, it was good. It kept me busy and it allowed me to travel. I would walk, miles from one ridge to the next, one homestead to another and the next and the last one. I knew everyone: all the mothers whose children were being initiated – even their names – Wanini, Watĩrĩ, Nyokobi, Maina, Kibe, Ndũng’ũ… And the girls who were getting married: I sang at all their ceremonies. They would call me – their mothers – because I had a powerful voice and because I could extemporise better than anyone. If I was on a girl’s side, the boy’s people could never best us in singing. Everyone knew me.
Oh, the work. Well, you know, it was work. Wĩra no wĩra – work is work. And I was paid. Can you imagine being paid rupees, me, a woman. Hĩ! You girls of today, you take for granted the money in your purses to buy the small things you need. But us? There were some men who even wanted to know what was in our granaries! As if that was their affair! But it was because of money: when the Fort was built and those white people began to rule us, they demanded money. Then, it was only some men who worked for cash. We women, all of us worked all the time – it was normal. But those little porters and mission boys; hmmmn – they thought they were better than anyone because they had cash. And were learning to speak, shb, shb, shb shb – like the white people.
Yes, my work was paid in cash. You imagine a woman like me buying land, my own soil? I bought it! Like a man buys a wife. And I bought some wives too. I could hardly expect my co-wives to work my land.
Why ask me who I really was, what my story is really about? Do you not have eyes to see, ears to hear? A woman headman, yes. But I saw Murang’a slowly choke up with Christians and Forts. Mighty mĩguumo cut down to plant wattle plantations that would bring cash, even as the clumsy colobus monkeys shrieked and fell, forced to retreat. They fled from the sacrilege, deep into the forests closer to the mountain, closer to God who gave us Kikuyu this land. I saw men leave their denuded homes, not many, but enough – to pay the taxes which I had to collect. We were left at the outskirts, women working the fields with no warriors on the hillsides to protect them from Maasai or from anyone.
Karũri? The chief? Arĩ mũthaka, na arĩ mwĩini. He was handsome, and he danced well.
He had the mind of a snake.
Did I enjoy collecting taxes? Would it be better for someone else to have – what foolishness! The world had changed. Taxes had to be collected. I was the tax-collector who knew where to go to, which homestead to skip; who could afford and who could not. I did the best I could in those circumstances.
You want to know why I am speaking to you? You people – is it mud you have in your heads? You want only to talk of Kĩbaata! Kĩbaata, Kĩbaata. As if it is even possible for you to know the meaning of Kĩbaata. Do you even know the meaning of itwĩka? Or that it was banned by the British? Banned! How does one ban a generation of men from becoming men. A generation of women stopped from being. It was time. Time for the generation of Mwangi to hand over the knowledge of power and the law to the generation of Maina – that was the meaning of itwĩka. And the young men had to show their readiness to hear, to see what needed to be done, by dancing the Kĩbaata and dancing it like men. We, the Mwangi generation were preparing to put down the burden of guidance, give to our children the Maina generation, the cloak of authority, to give boys the means to sit on the three-legged stools of men. Nobody was going to stop me from dancing the last Kibaata. If there was to be no itwĩka, then know that I danced for that itwĩka! Because I know who I am, a woman who wore the cloak! I danced and I am proud to have danced. Nobody tells Nyakĩnyua what to do. We will not be told. I danced for us all.
Makeri? They call me Wangũ wa Makeri. And that is because Makeri was my husband whom I chose. When he died, I buried him in the Christian place. And when I died our sons buried me.
Do you hear me? Things were different then
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