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Marriage in Rowo where Suba language is fast fading away

Kijaluo ni chumbi (sic) ya samaki,” the old man spits it at me with a lisp that phonetically accompanies the signature tongue of the good people from the lakeside. Two of his calloused fingers hooked onto my forearm to insist on my paying attention. He is visibly drunk at the point of this eureka moment that he has stumbled on an answer to a question I asked five wise men a few hours earlier. Why no one spoke Suba anymore even amongst themselves?

The wise men, five village relations, had been summoned to receive the dowry of our Suba-glittering-diamond Kakwe; from her enchanted Odiero of Lake Constance in south Germany. And since the man had no relations to accompany him to this difficult task as Luo culture demands, I agreed to step in.

I was at the corner of the hunched tent sipping a tot of Quinto’s clear stuff, conceited cargo that had traveled all the way from Busia to Nairobi and then to Rowo Primary School, in Sindo. I offered the old man the stuff, but he politely declined, instead, he asked for a bottled drink, no matter how much praised the local thing. I invited our Odiero over for a tot. It had been on his checklist, a toast to changaa after getting the bride. He had not anticipated the kick of the absinthe on an unaccustomed tongue, that has no memory of eating fire, and he said it burnt while we doubled over with laughter.

We sat down and again the old man who had been the most silent of the five wise men, having gathered Dutch-inspired courage, now sought my undivided attention. He told me Luo is a beautiful language you can weave through your English just as well as you can infuse in Kiswahili; it is, he says, akin to salt that sweetens food.

“When I was out there (in reference to younger days in the urban areas), I would meet a Luo and pretend I did not know the language. I would speak to the Luhyas, I played for AFC leopards 1979 huko, with akina JJ Masiga. We would go into the field and attack, I played number 9…”

He slid in and out of sense like a man drowning in his alcohol. Then went on to remind me I had married his niece, NyarSindo, and that he was glad to see me around after my clan had trampled grass there. He said a man of his means and age cannot ask for a lot from life, save for a chance to witness a wedding. But this was no ordinary wedding, this was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, a white man coming to pay dowry according to custom. And while there were many old men around who could be in his place, he had been chosen over others whom I gathered were more self-righteous or if you like ‘religious’.

He asked me rather animatedly if I have ever heard of the story that church people will not see the gates of heaven and it is we, the sinners, who will walk in because we believe in love. Look at me, he said again with his fingers chiseling my arm, I have been given free food and free beer and a chance to participate and experience this, how many people would love to be here, how many times do I get a chance to see this?

And he flew into a burst of raucous laughter for the front-row seat of the story he will tell for a long time to come. Under a tree in a changaa den, he will dominate conversations with his incredible tale of a tall German that had this mechanical accent switching from English to German like reigning two horses galloping into each other.

That this strange German from Lake Constance – Mtu ya kiwanja ya ndege, had flown all the way into Africa for Nairobi, squeezed into a Toyota Voxy for miles across the undulating terrain cutting through Narok, the hills of Bomet, onto a meandering maze that skirts Keroka into Kisii before plunging into the sweltering heat of Rongo, stammering past Rod Kopany, off to Homabay and branching to Mbita then, all of a sudden, the road ends. Everyone knows that a good quest such as this one to Nyombo Kakwe would be no walk in the park. The lover has to be sought in a faraway castle, by overcoming challenging difficulties.

Until recently, I also never anticipated the level of such a task; thanks to the time we live in, an age where you can meet rare gems in town. You have pictured a rural Kenyan setting and you do not come close to what our Odiero of Lake Constance is about to experience. Few have done it, and even fewer have returned. The last stretch to Rowo is treacherous 21 kilometres that consumes two hours of your life on earth bumping up and down like you are in a seizure. The choice is between a noisy AC and fanning dust as you jingle over rock outcrops moving slowly from left to right like a chariot on a Roman road.

The last time I was here, the short stretch of impossible road took us two long hours to negotiate, sinking into wide gaping gullies and driving from one side of the road to the other looking for smoother ground. The road was so bad that at some sections, you literally had to drive off into the shambas (farms) on the side of the road which was simply impassable.

We were loaded with supplies so the Japanese motor had also hunched on the rear springs and you could hear it groaning as I eased it into valleys and hauled it over steep climbs that stuck at the exhaust threatening to rip it off. As I gritted my teeth through the sound of metal and road, an odd blue Honda CRV and a cold chain trailer were the only other cars on the route dominated by recklessly driven Toyota Proboxes packed to the brim with locals plying the route.

This time, half of the treacherous section had been smoothed over sealing off the gulleys as they wait for the next drop of rain to fall back into disrepair. The 74 kilometres from Mbita, Sindo, and Kiabuya all the way to Sori region was supposed to get a Kes2.9 billion facelift as a flagship project by President Uhuru Kenyatta before he retired. Now, its fate remains unknown. 

The road to Sindo is a treacherous wilderness and I thought perhaps more because it borders Ruma National Park where there is little human activity. I was later told the area floods often forcing area residents to move around in boats. The bare land is dominated by scrub and thorny acacia and thistles of eucalyptus. The most popular business seems to be supply driven by Copia-a local logistic company agency.

The town itself jumps out of nowhere hugging the shores of Lake Victoria that has carved it into the crypt that is Sindo. The lake here is shouldered off by a ring of islands and an extension of the shores into the waters it looks like God scooped a handful of the earth here when he was building Mfangano islands, creating a secret cove that faced the lake.

The fishing village town is nestled where the cove meets the lake on flat ground and the smell of omena and fishing nets laid out to dry lies stale over the place. White egrets mark the stones with streaks of white droppings and hawks swoon over the fish, which is so plentiful that the locals make no attempts to ward off the birds. Boats are anchored during the day and look like organized pieces of pointed wood forming a necklace pattern on the neck of the blue water shimmering as they rock up the rays of bright sunshine on wavy tides.

Tired, crouched, and roasted in heat and dust, Odiero has to make the final climb a steep ascent like Jacob’s ladder. The water gullying down the hill has made the road completely impassable and efforts to fill up sections of it with shrubs, murram, and stones have simply been washed away leaving sharp boulders sticking out that have now caught the exhaust pipe and brought it down threatening to end the journey.

At the top, the face of the boulders stares right at you like you could jump up and scale them. But that is deception, when you turn around you see the most humbling sight, your insignificance in the view of such beautiful geography that takes your breath away. The view of the lake is stunning; the sun has warmed the islands out there but the cove remains hidden from the slant of the setting rays so that it looks like a concealed haven. The treacherous journey is rewarding.

Our Odiero makes reference to Fengshui masters in China who think a house leaning against the mountains and facing the rivers is auspicious and can bring good luck to the people living in it. The view is stunning lush greenery spread over vast emptiness like a secret garden.

Odiero is thinking about that moment right now, feeling lucky like a Chinese. He now feels that all the pieces are coming together, everything is adding up, the long journey, the anxious moments, the hunched tent it all adds up now. The exuberance of the guests in pure thrill and enjoyment carries Odiero with a euphoric sense peppered with the absinthe. Odiero, being a typical host is refilling tumblers with red wine, dropping in on conversations, and picking up a dance or two along the way. He feels completely at home, welcome in the family; he feels as part of the tribe, accepted by strangers in the middle of nowhere; loved even, by people who felt fuzzy and warm. He offers the old man a drink when he tries to wave Odiero down to sit like a true African son-in-law; who does not say a word or stare at the ceiling of the mother in laws house lest he is fined. Odiero retorts he is ok, we are his guests, and he has to move among us to make sure everyone is happy and has a drink, an interesting conversation, or is jiggling away.

“What is this white man saying, that we are his visitors, hehehehe,” the old man says laughing out of his lungs in fits.

The old man rises up and takes Odiero up on the offer. He is on his feet and dances something like a freeze dance or a badly done break dance where every or so minute you freeze trying to remember the next move and ruining the routine. I have a feeling he is attempting the robotic dance he had seen during his AFC Leopard days for the benefit of the white man who cannot dance.

But quite the contrary, Odiero can dance. And true to his fashion, he has joined in the step, mirrors the uncoordinated dance moves to a sensible sync. The old man suddenly finds himself challenged to do something creative and this effort only turns to drunk swoons like an egret sweeping down for the silvery fish on the beaches of Sindo. His embarrassment is only rescued by the matriarch, who joins in elated by the electric performance of our Odiero. Ps. I am reliably informed that when the matriarch steps in she have forgotten herself and she is at her happiest.

Odiero’ magical moment

For our Odiero, this is the crowning moment of what had just felt like a disaster a few hours ago. The financial decision of such fantastic extravagance had only made sense because it costs much more to be in Europe right now. It is the middle of the winter and Europe is at war with Russia if his own Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is to be believed.

He keeps away from politics only lamenting its impact on his life and what the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline has done to his gas bills. But it follows him here in news items about leopards, and not the old man’s AFC. It follows his jokes about the electricity cuts in Zanzibar and how Europe could soon resemble Africa in as much as the energy situation is concerned; ‘Temporary cuts in mobile phone and internet service. Schools closed for a lack of lighting and heat. Even traffic lights could briefly be powered down.’

So to make it all work he has budgeted to the last item. And Odiero is no stranger to Africa, he has been here several times, in fact, several of his ancestors have been here before, and word has gotten out that here on the old continent, you get priced not by the value of the product but by the worth of the buyer. So this caterer, I don’t know if I should say I told you so… Let us call her Magalla.

Magalla is a successful businesswoman, who has done remarkable marketing online but is the classic example of what is wrong with social media. She has awesome photos of very beautiful decor she has done, images of nice food she has cooked and provides a one-stop-shop package for a would-be wedding or funeral. We had hired her during our event and found that the good representation on social media had quite concealed the darkness of her heart. When Nyar Sindo and Kakwe were conferring about hiring her I asked them to proceed with caution.

During our event, she had claimed that it cost the same to provide services for 100 people as it would cost me 70 guests, and no amount of bargaining could make her change her mind. She quoted double the supplies and refused to serve guests at some point lest we pay more. Well, she charged Kakwe and Odiero twice the amount he charged me and Nyar Sindo without batting an eyelid. And when they refused, she plotted a most sinister plan.

Magalla hatched a devious plan that she would set up the most remarkable tent she has ever done in her career. The double tent was scrapped with white lining that arched to the masthead like pleats of mushroom gills. Redlining streaked the top sides of the tent and wove into a strip of Ankara wax cloth. She brought bales of stray and placed empty luderus and on the table set the strips of matching Ankara cross white spandex held down with leopard-spotted guards, with thick lush red carpet beneath our feet.

It was beautiful and I was begging to eat my words when she said lo and behold. She had booked two engagements and would dismantle this exquisite setting just after lunch. Before the brown Ugali and fresh fish from the lake down the road could settle in our tummies we heard the rough churn of a truck coming to pick the dismantled tent. And Magalla was having her day in the sun. The whole family was at the seams of her dress begging her to spare us the embarrassment but she flatly refused, ordering her quite upset workers to take everything apart since a funeral was awaiting them.

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Odiero, a man who comes from a place where people sign contracts and have a business address could not fathom that Magalla operating from an unknown address on Facebook could just tear up your event right in the middle of it. Adamantly with her head coked up over the family, she insisted that they had only paid for lunch and that she had gone ahead and booked another client, who all of a sudden urgently needed her attention and she was not willing to disappoint them. My God, Odiero was furious, threatening to sue the adamant woman whose darkened humour hoped that she had ruined the day for lovers.

But as she executed her best-laid plans, the good Lord who had made it a point to leave the skies open and blue as the lake, sunny and bright, looked down and knew to intervene. Celebration are not spandex on chairs, they are people. We all grabbed tables and chairs that did not look alike, anything that could be sat on, and gathered around an old haunched tent brown dirty, and threatening to fall down that we had to prop with ropes to the house railings.

A few bulbs and chain lighting transformed the hunched tent into a beauty in the early dusk and a shrine of love as night clocked in above pearly with the shining light of God’s smile sneaking through the holes on the floor.

For Odiero, this was a magical moment, it confirmed everything in his belief in choosing Kakwe for his wife. This could not have happened in Germany on a cold winter night thinking of gas prices, it could only happen in Sindo, tonight, and once in this lifetime. If anything it confirmed my theory about God.

A-JAW and Junior

When I first met Ajoe, he hurriedly helped us unload stuff from our van upon arrival. I thought his name was Ajow which sounded more like Sudanese, but these people call themselves Subanese so it wouldn’t be beyond them. But Ajoe is the short form of Jose, Joseph but pronounced A-JAW. He walks around with his friend Junior by his side like a shadow wearing a white T-shirt that had flag prints of countries he doesn’t care to know.

I felt I could relate to two little kids looking at the strange spectacle of Odiero and watu wa Nairobi. Growing up in a village school can be boring, nothing ever happens except carrying water and firewood to school and drying omena under the sun. But AJaw and his shadow have a chance to witness a tale that will make them the envy of school playground banter.

Uncle had bequeathed them with the special task of bringing the cows to a reasonable distance so that the Odiero doesn’t melt in the 30 degrees of sun heat. They had their instructions and at the appointed time were at hand leading us down the steep hill to get the beasts. This was the bride groom’s party, led by two young boys shinning with too many arimis followed by Odiero and me in our African attire to blend the theme of the traditional wedding. So Odiero was having this religious conversation being a marriage that was not only cross-cultural but cross-religious, just like mine.

He said he was a believer in God and as a man whose disposition is quite accommodative, he has explored the views of all religious movements where he has visited across the world. He said he had but just one question which he has posed to all of them and it is why. He pauses looking for the phrase. His German horse galloping ahead of his English for the right expressions.

“I ask if God is witnessing a child,” he goes for an analogy. “That sees ice cream and rushes across the road,” and it is all pronounced Germanic ‘zhat seeez, aaaiice creme…’ And he animatedly tells me that at the same time a car is coming and asks why God doesn’t stop it for this innocent child gesticulating as if making a barrier of intervention on the palm of his hand.

I said I would attempt to answer, although I have no religious claims that I can say I really profess. I said his analogy had a problem because it was trying to ascribe God’s human attributes of what is good or desirable. For me, God was impersonal, like time, and within his endless bounds, we get to experience existence.

He asks, but why have the suffering, Odiero software engineering brains now come to light. He says if he were to build this earth; and you can see the algorithms in his excited eyes as he describes a haven with just a layer of endless white sand next to the lake that does not make you dirty. And grass so thick and lush you can step bare feet on. His heaven on earth, as he heaved a sigh of relief, looked just like the pictures of home he had shown me of Lake Constance overlooking the Swiss mountains. 

I tell him, the suffering makes beauty even more beautiful and worth living. His idea of heaven was moot because it was a failure of the way our brains are structured. As cavemen, to survive we needed to learn our past to anticipate the future. A philosopher once said we can withstand misery at the moment if we are hopeful of a better future and we can be in total misery under the best circumstances if we are uncertain of this future. He need not wait for heaven if he can feel the moment, turn tears into smiles and see the positives in each moment even in the middle of a crisis.

“I see what you mean, believe in the goodness of people, see the positives but I am more of a realist,” he said, resorting to his tough German logic against my loosely-pierced ambiguities. “The world is full of people and it is rarely fair. People do bad things and they get rewarded and some do good things and they are not.”  And I thought to myself, there’s your own god; the invisible hand of the market, so capitalism too hasn’t figured out the discontent that has killed older gods. 

By that time AJaw had brought two cows, a sturdy bull, and a heifer in tow all brown hide and trudging the terrain like it was flat ground. AJaw hands Odiero the reigns of the two beasts and he takes charge of the sisal rope that immediately runs taut and he restrains them. He uses the hanging half of the ropes to parry at the cows. I bet they were ticklish though having rather been used to a dry switch by AJaw. Up they went at first galloping into each other like his German and English but then he swings the ropes like a chariot and they somehow follow his lead.

According to Luo customs, I learn, the groom’s party proceeds with the cows, where they are met by the bride’s brothers. Here, the party is to be challenged on their intentions and identity of the one they sought that can be riddled out by wit and outright bribery. Once allowed in, the groom’s party would be shown where to tether the cows, and drink some water in the homestead awaiting summons from the elders.

But for the passage of time, the indulgence of multicultural unions some of the practices go unobserved, we marked each symbolically. Odiero tethered this bull in a slip knot he had probably practiced from Youtube but AJaw rushed to intervene to throw the rope around the trunk slip one loose local knot he could undo with a tug.

Many of the roads to Sindo are treacherous wilderness for travelers partly because the town also borders Ruma National Park where there is little human activity.

I have never met wise men before, and there might be a reason why our people only allow wise men to meet each other. In matters of dowry, there are things discussed that are kept away from women and all rank and file and I was privileged to sit among wise men, so what was discussed remains in that little Gazebo perched atop a hill in Sindo. A child among elders can converse only with his ears, not his mouth. But I had to ask the wise men a question that had bothered me for a while. Why five Suba wise men were negotiating dowry in Luo?

I had hoped to hear Suba language to see if I could detect some relativity to our own Manyala who hail just North along the beach of Lake Victoria; there is a rumour along Inyanja of related mutineers who scattered after the death of Kabaka Junju in 1760. Suba is a Bantu language listed by UNESCO as endangered and now on the verge of extinction.

It is currently only actively spoken by the generation aged fifty years and above. But right there even this assumption was being tested when my old wise men were speaking Luo. Some books say languages vanish like the Rushana aka Orusyan that was last heard in 1930 by Huntingford, G. W. B. But maybe here I was witnessing the phenomena in my time.

One of the wise men told me it is the intermarriage with the Luos that did them in. He told me that initially when you married from outside they would give the woman up to seven years to assimilate into the tribe. However, that stopped and most of the Luo women they married ended up passing their mother tongue to an entire generation.

This I wanted to believe was a fabled truth widely accepted here. For some reason, the phenomenon holds in that most of wise men can point to homesteads that had Luo mothers.

Then one wise man told us giving an example of cases of both Suba parents and still, none of the children spoke the language. He said the truth is that the language has been assimilated by the Luos to such an extent that when they spoke it they were deemed backward. He said Luo elite political ambitions saw them fabricate the narrative of a shared identity given legitimacy by their own scholars such as Prof. Okello Ayot’s who coined the term Luo-Abasuba and politicians like Tom Mboya, who the old wise man swore his father came from Asembo before he settled in Rusinga. (I cannot vouch for this, all I know is the man’s origins are disputed).

The old man says the people who have taken their language and rewritten their histories are in it to lay claim to their little piece of heaven, his great-grandfather found this land and there was not a soul on it. He asserts.

But one old man who said the least had to wait hours, and a few drinks to tell me why he had lost his tongue, Luo was just too sweet, like salt on fish. As he danced with Odiero and the matriarch to Alilo, a number by a Suba sensation Ely Toto and the reigning crooner Prince Indah. You do not need to know how to dance, nor the meaning of the words, you only need to listen to the wail in the voice, the timbre, and let your bones follow the beats.

AJaw was, at least, moving in his own world unconscious of the entire world just rocking beneath a starry sky to a beautiful song. His feet thump up the dust, his friends mill around in hope that he acknowledges and by that endorses their uninvited presence. And I ask Junior who had made me promise that I would dance to at least one song, the meaning of the chorus of the song. He pauses, he listens, I listen and it sounds bantu even Luhya. Is this Kisuba, I ask guessing since Elly Toto is Suba. Junior says.

Sijui kisuba, mimi ni mjaluo.

You can catch up with part two of my story on where I met my Valentine tomorrow, 14th February.

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