January is here and I am back from a long and restful holiday in my village of Matungu. I had a good time with my extended family, eating food fresh from the farm, taking long walks in the evenings and generally lazing around. Now that I am back, I find that I am not just hangover from the good times I had, I am also hangover from the cultures and beliefs of my people.
For example, this morning, I heard a bit of a commotion at half past four in the morning and on looking out of the window, I saw my neighbour Matthew Smith urging his dog forward. He was dressed in his running gear and was taking his dog out for an ‘early morning jog.’ His dog wanted to poop outside my compound and Matthew was trying to prevent it, hence the commotion.
Matthew Smith is an American working in Kenya and has lived in our neighbourhood for the past three years. He is known for his commitment to fitness and has never missed any of his early morning jogs. Neighbours often consult him on fitness issues including the best brands for jogging gear, the best fitness apps and ways for training for a marathon or a half marathon. Mr. Smith has indeed earned respect and made friendships from his daily 4 am runs.
Now, let me translocate Mr. Smith and his activities to my village of Ematua. A man committed to running alongside a dog under the cover of darkness every morning without fail. Can you imagine it? The conversation about him would be interesting.
“That night runner Mathayo has become a great nuisance,” one villager would complain. “Last night, he made his dog defecate in my compound. Today, two chickens died. If his dog defecates in your compound, burn that excrement immediately!”
“True,” another villager would confirm. “The other day when his dog defecated in my compound, I woke up with serious diarrhoea out of nowhere. When I realised it was the dog excrement that caused me to be sick, I burned it immediately and I was instantly cured!”
“But what kind of wife did he marry?” a third villager would sneer. “She is too lazy and loves to sleep. She does not stay awake with one foot on the cooking stones and that is why Mathayo is always getting caught. If she could step on that stone properly, that dog would never defecate in people’s compounds and people wouldn’t even know that Mathayo is a night runner.”
“I heard that she made a complaint to the elders the other day,” a fourth villager would say. “She is tired of her husband’s night running. She says she tried to stop him by putting a broom in water under the bed but he swelled at night until he was as big as the room. His body was actually squeezing her to death. She had to remove the broom immediately and he went back to normal and proceeded with his night running!”
This would be Matthew Smith’s reputation in my village.
Mary Lin an Asian woman whose children go to school with my children would earn a similar reputation. Not because of any nightly athletic activities but because of her unfortunate mode of dress. Several class mothers including Mary Lin and myself decided to start a monthly class birthday outing. On the very first outing, we decided to take the children for a swim followed by cake and other traditional kids’ birthday activities.
Nairobi women are very conservative in dress and this was reflected in our bathing suits that were all one piece with some kind of skirt or leggings to cover up our hips and thighs. Mary Lin stood out because she was clad in a two-piece bikini, the bottom half of which was almost a thong. In short, her butt cheeks were exposed for all to see.
Do not get me wrong. She did not look indecent. She has a flat buttock, the size that is known as olupatia in my village. To make matters worse, Mary seemed to have a propensity towards bending over at the slightest excuse a situation that led to her further exposing her tiny buttocks to us.
This (bending over and exposing one’s naked buttocks) is what is known as okhufulama. In my village, Mary Lin would be branded a witch and her every move judged because of her tendency to fulama for people. The result of okhufulama is usually a curse on the viewer of the naked buttock. If your mother or grandmother fulamas for you, you will get an eternal curse that can never be lifted.
Therefore, if Mary Lin were be resident in my village, mothers would caution their children not to go near her home.
“Nashikawa,” a mother would say. “Go to Mama Imelda’s and return this hot pot. Make sure you don’t pass in front of Maria’s house.”
“But if I don’t pass there the route will be longer,” Nashikawa would complain.
“You do as you are told,” her mother would admonish. “Do you want to pass in front of Maria’s house so that she can fulama for you? If you want to be cursed for life then go ahead. But don’t come here crying to me when you grow up stupid, marry a stupid husband and give birth to stupid children.”
Women would be heard whispering about Mary Lin.
“My son in law told me that he was coming to visit,” one woman would say. “I went to Maria’s to buy a big jogoo for him. Can you imagine she fulamad for me and since then my husband has not stepped in my house!”
“She fulamad for me the other day as she was choosing tomatoes in the market,” another woman would say. “I got constant headaches after that and no medicine could cure me. I had to go to Anyole, the pastor from Dini ya Msambwa. He prayed for me and removed the curse. Maybe you should go and see him. He lives in Emarinda Village, just after the Mosque as you kholomokha towards the tarmac road. He prays for people every Thursday.”
Such are the village conspiracies I encountered over my Christmas break.
On my return from my vacation, my first order of business was to attend an international conference hosted in Nairobi. One of the conference organisers, Dianah Madison who is an African American, was extremely friendly to everyone. She always had a wide toothy smile and was full of compliments for everyone and everything.
On the morning of the first day at the conference, she told me that she loved the colour of my handbag. As we were heading out for lunch, the strap of my handbag got caught on the doorknob and snapped. On the second day, she told me that my watch was amazing. As I was driving home, a young man put his hand through my car window and snatched away the watch!
In our village, and in the face of such occurrences, Dianah Madison would be branded a person with an evil tongue and would be avoided at all costs especially if you had something new.
“I hear Tinah is going to attend the bull fighting,” a mother would warn her children. “Just put on your old slippers. If you put on your new sandals and she compliments you on them, they will get cut or get stolen.”
“The other day, Tinah told me that I knew how to maintain my thermos,” a woman would complain to another. “The next morning, just after serving tea to my husband, I tripped and fell down with the thermos and it broke!”
“I never go near her,” the woman’s friend would respond. “Three months ago, she told me that I have maintained a nice figure even with all the farm work I do. One week after telling me this, I started losing weight. I have lost weight consistently until now I am a nyama moja. I have become so thin that now when I step outside the house, the chicken do not scatter. When I go to hospital, the doctors cannot find anything wrong with me. My husband has threatened to marry another wife if I don’t regain my figure.”
Such is the nature of village life. I am now fearful of receiving complements from strangers. Unfortunately, it does not end at evil tongues only. There are also evil eyes. These people with evil eyes are known to throw invisible evil things, known as ebikhokho, to others. These evil things can manifest themselves in form of pieces of glass in one’s stomach, sand in one’s skull, monkey nuts in one’s chest or bolts and nuts in one’s thighs. The other day, I found myself scolding my daughter for eating a banana while walking on the road. I warned her that such a practice would make her a victim of ebikhokho.
Over the weekend, my daughter went to play with her friends in my neighbour’s house. My neighbour, Elizabeth Mulwa has two girls who are good friends of my daughter. A few days after this play date, my daughter developed a throat infection. Children generally spread these coughs, colds and throat infections to one another. However, in my village this would not be understood. Elizabeth Mulwa would be branded as a thrower of ebikhokho.
“When you walk on the path, please avoid Lusaveti’s eye,” one woman would say. “She will throw ebikhokho at you.”
Lusaveti would be avoided at all costs. Those going to visit her would first chew sandakwata leaves or make sure that they wash their entire bodies with water containing the juice of sandakwata leaves to protect themselves from the evil eye.
“I normally go to Mama Prayan for sandakwata leaves,” one villager would say. “They are very effective and neither my children nor I have received ebikhokho in a long time!”
“I will go there tomorrow,” another would respond. “Yesterday, as I was going for my chama, I met with Lusaveti as she was coming from the market. I did not even greet her but she managed to throw ebikhokho at me. Now I have really bad obuinde. My throat is so painful I cannot even swallow my own saliva.”
“You need to go to Mama Prayan, immediately,” the other villager will insist. “She will give you likoshe to lick. This will immediately cure your obuinde.”
Things got interesting for me this January as another neighbour Janice, came to my house to look for old school textbooks and uniforms to give to needy children. Janice is the self-proclaimed community organiser in our estate. Every Easter and Christmas, she comes round collecting used clothing and donations of foodstuffs and toiletries to take to homes for needy children or elderly people. Her January round is usually for textbooks, writing materials and school uniforms. When she came over, I gave her some of my daughter’s old storybooks and a five hundred shilling donation to buy whatever uniforms or books she may need to help a needy child.
In my village, people would be suspicious of Janice, especially because she is not seeking to profit out of her collections.
“That Chanisi is an omutoli,” they would declare. “She will tola you and make you stagnate.”
Omutoli simply means a person who picks up people’s things and uses them to curse the person so that they can stagnate in life.
“Can you imagine what she will do with your clothes!” one villager would proclaim. “She picked my son’s t-shirt from the line and I can tell you that from that time my son has not grown an inch. He was promising to be a tall person but now his growth is stunted. I will have to go to Anyole to pray for him and remove that curse.”
“If she tolas anything with your handwriting you are finished,” another villager would say. “When I finished form four I got a good grade and was actually called for teacher training. Chanisi tolad my handwriting and from then on I could not stand books. I would see a book and vomit. I didn’t go for teacher training and now I am just here!”
The villagers would have applauded me for giving a large denomination note and not a small one.
“If you give a small coin or note,” they would say. “She will tola it and you will become poor for life. But if you give a large denomination, she will be tempted to break it up for change and use some of the money. At least the change she gets will not be directly from you and so she cannot tola you.”
People who tola are said to give the items they have picked to a witch who keeps an animal as a totem. The tolad items are put under the beddings of the animal and you will remain cursed as long as that animal lives. Animals kept by these witches include snakes, cats, monitor lizards and even leopards. I was watching an American reality show on television where the family kept monitor lizards as pets! If that family lived in Ematua village, they would be ostracised.
“Pernat and his wife are witches,” we would be told. “Don’t go near their house or you will be bewitched.”
“Imagine when I was coming from the river I met his monitor lizard going out to bask,” a villager would testify. “It was big and fat and when I saw it, I almost collapsed. My hair stood straight and my skin just started doing rrrrrrrrrrrrr. I was frozen on the spot and could not run or scream until it had passed and gone!”
“You need to wear an eshitiri,” she would be advised. “It will hold the spirit of your ancestors who will keep all the evil spirits in the lizard at bay. I have an eshitiri on my left ankle and when that lizard sees me approaching, it runs back to its home.”
Villagers would speculate on what the lizards were fed.
“Mkha Pernat was looking for a nanny a few months back,” a woman would say. “I applied for the job thinking I was going to take care of the children. Kumbe I was going to take care of the monitor lizard! I had to cook porridge for it every morning and then cool the porridge like you do for a child. Then I had to sit down with it and give it spoonful by spoonful. I ran away the same day! I don’t want curses following me.”
“You remember when we went to their place for a Jumuiaya meeting?” someone would say. “They served us cold ugali and cold chicken. This is because they were cooled down for the monitor lizard to lick before we were served. I saw others eating but me I refused to eat.”
My friend Joe loves animals and keeps a puppy and two cats. I do not know whether I should be suspicious of him. Besides that, he is a very pleasant man. Girls are always streaming in and out of his house and they do not seem to mind even if they find him with another girl. He also has very many male friends who are always buying him expensive whiskies, watches and other luxuries. I do not understand how a man would go on a trip abroad and fail to bring a gift for his wife but bring a bottle of expensive cologne for Joe.
In our village, Joe would be said to be one who chews amanyasi.
“If Chosefu shakes your hand that’s it,” young women would be warned. “You will abandon your life’s plans and go and camp in his house. Don’t greet Chosefu or even smile at him.”
Or you would hear, “Chosefu came to visit my husband yesterday but found when he had already left for work. My husband is a night watchman. I just found myself sitting down with Chosefu and we talked and talked for hours on end. When my husband returned from work at six in the morning, he found Chosefu still in the house with me talking. My husband chased me away and I insulted him, packed my things and followed Chosefu to his house. Chosefu’s wife has threatened to kill me if I don’t leave her husband. Now I want to go back to my husband. What should I do?”
Joe’s wife would give the testimony of how she got married to him.
“One day, when I was in form tsiri, I was going home from school,” she would say. “Chosefu was passing by on his bicycle. He greeted me smiling and I responded to his greeting. He crossed the road to where I was and shook my hand. I then found myself following him. He rode to Matungu Shopping Centre and I walked behind him all the way. Don’t forget that this is in the opposite direction from my home. He went into a shop and I followed him. Then he went into the chemestry to buy medicine for his grandmother and I followed him. Then he rode to Kholera village to give his grandmother the medicine and I followed him.”
“All this time,” she would continue. “I did not talk to him and he did not talk to me. He then rode home to Emarinda village, literally passing in front of my father’s gate in Ematua village and I still followed him. When he entered his simba, I entered too and immediately started sweeping and organising his things. I slept in his simba that night. His mother did not say anything. The next morning, my parents came to look for me and threatened to beat me if I did not go home. I told them I will kill myself if I they force me to leave Chosefu. They left me alone and that is how I became Mkha Chosefu!”