What The ‘70s and ‘80s got right about wellness, community and happiness

What The ‘70s and ‘80s got right about wellness, community and happiness

Once a hotpot of community life and health, today’s village ambles along – sad, sick and depressing

By David Wanjala

It is midday, Saturday, and I am latched to my laptop for the day’s second and last online class. It is the first session of the Semester in Children Law and Policy, and Dr Nancy Barasa of the University of Nairobi is introducing the unit. She is giving a historical background of children and the law.

True to her promise that it will not be a lecture but a discourse, she asks learners to share their childhood experiences. Of course, it sounds a little invasive, and learners hesitate, but the straight-shooting former Deputy Chief Justice has her way of bringing it out in her students. With the names of attendees displayed on the screen at her end, she randomly calls out to learners for responses. I was still lost in my world when she called on my name, and I had to quickly share something which took me back to the late 70s through 80s to early 90s, deep in the villages of Samia in Busia County.

I shared my experiences, trying to cover as much ground as possible in the two or so short minutes she afforded me. It surprised me how easily it all came back to me; the innocence, the love, the discipline, the hard work, the abundance even in scarcity; the communal life, and the simple, near medieval but fulfilling living. Even as the class went on, I was consumed in a whirlwind of thoughts about my childhood and just how things have since changed.

We lived on basics. We walked long distances – to farms, to schools, and to hospitals or just to visit relatives. The best visit, at least in my family, which I guess was also for many others, was to our mum’s birthplace. My grandparents (may their souls enjoy eternal peace) were marvellous human beings. Stephano, who passed on when I was hardly 7, was a caring, easy-to-be-around old man. I remember arriving at sunset for his funeral after trekking over 20km with my brother. His was the first dead body for me ever to see. It was scary, but Helena, my grandmother who, for the entire period before burial, sat next to the body flanked by her sister Sorophina, teased me into viewing the body of “your best friend.” The funeral lasted two weeks, within which villagers and relatives kept vigil as is custom.

Communal life

The burden of feeding mourner was not squarely the bereaved family’s affair. In those days, clans, which got entangled through marriage, carried a lot of weight, and this meant that a village of six or more clans could be mired in a web of relations. Whenever a misfortune of this magnitude occurred, they showed up. Besides, taboos, norms, and practices ensured that food was in plenty, especially where an elder in the village of my grandfather’s stature had fallen. Married female members of the larger family (abakoko), including my mum, in this case, were tasked, as a norm, to not only bring a goat but also a sack of flour as a bare minimum. Their husbands brought a bull each. The norms ensured close relations with the deceased contributed to their send-off expenses. If able, a brother of the dead had to give a bull or at least a goat.

The expansive funerals were a get-together of sorts. Daughters and sons, including grandchildren of the deceased, had to stay back for a stipulated period after burial, a time within which many cultural practices and taboos were performed. I remember we were all shaven clean after the burial, with Silphano (Silvanus), my maverick uncle and the firstborn of the family, shaving every hair on his head, including the eyebrows, moustache, and beard. After that, we trooped to the Wakhungu River to wash our heads. From the river, half a kilometre away, we walked back to the homestead in order of seniority of my mum’s siblings; my uncle and his family, leading the way, my mum, Kalasina and hers, and my aunty, Coronelia, the last born bringing up the rear. This gave my grandfather’s family a good time to know and bond. His life was celebrated on two traditional occasions, ‘Olung’anyo’ and ‘Esabo’, each several years apart. Even in those, the families of his children attended, some coming from as far as Mombasa and Mwatate, further cementing the relationship between cousins. My grandmother lived for more than 30 years after her husband’s demise and kept the home intact.

Life was communal, especially for children. You ate lunch where the time for lunch found you playing. Trouble would be if you refused to eat. I know of one old man, Okwako, who, if you refused to eat at his place, would keep you waiting until they finished for you to take back the dishes to the kitchen. The discipline of the child was every adult’s affair. If, for instance, you were caught on the wrong away from home by a stranger, they would flog you home to a warm reception by your parents. Transgressions ranged from the triviality of not greeting elders to serious wrongs like stealing.

Older siblings were leading disciplinarians. They ensured you took a bath every evening, which was often a big friction point. The question in the evening was always, “have you bathed?” to which a permanent answer was, “I bathed yesterday,” even if that is the answer you gave the previous evening. They also ensured you did your homework and household chores, which forever conflicted with playtime.

Responsibility

I once kept my older brother, Peter, whom we cheekily referred to as Petero, waiting on the farm for hours on end as I went fetching water for a cabbage seedbed three kilometers away. It was meant to take me half an hour at most. I left the farm armed with my two five-litre plastic jerrycans promising, inwardly, that I would not, this time round, deviate from my errand to play soccer in the fields near the river. After filling the jerrycans, I couldn’t resist the urge to play kadenge na mpira, for at least five minutes, I promised myself. My two cans formed goalposts on one end of the small pitch, and I, together with ten other kids, got lost in chasing around the round polythene ball. Two hours later, Petero appeared, furious like I had never seen him before. The caning I suffered, right from the pitch, in front of my friends, all the way to the farm, the two jerrycans in each of my hands, is a story that evokes both laughter and terror.

Some adventures took us close to our makers early in our lives. I was hardly ten when we went to a football tournament a few villages away. After the game, we passed by Wakhungu dam to swim. An older boy dragged me to the deep end, leaving me there. My cries for help were taken for part of the game. It took a guy on the banks of the dam to notice I was drowning. Had he not come to my rescue, I wouldn’t have survived.

There was a clear distinction of household chores along gender. In as much as we went to the farms and fetched water from the well or borehole together, specific duties were exclusive to different genders. The boys never cooked. We never entered the kitchen. This was so serious in my family to the extent that when we returned dishes after meals, we handed them over to our sisters at the kitchen door. I remember when I first came to Nairobi after high school, I first lived with my older sister in Ongata Rongai. She was a teacher. I look back to those days with shame because I turned her into my maid in her own house. She would cook and do the dishes every meal. She would even prepare me breakfast before she left for work in the morning, and I could not even have the courtesy to do the dishes after taking the breakfast. It took me a few years to shed off the mentality that the kitchen was out of bounds for boys.

Schools were few and far apart. We walked long distances in search of education. My first school was Wakhungu Primary School. It was at least 8km away, to which we walked without breakfast in the morning and trekked back for hours on end in the afternoon before we had our first meal. I remember one day when I fell ill with malaria, and on my way back, my body could not take it anymore. I decided to rest under a tree beside the footpath halfway home and fell into a deep sleep. My older sisters stumbled on me in the evening on their way home. I remember waking up in the tight grip of one of my sisters, Mboya, wailing over me. Apparently, the tree under whose shade I took shelter was known to harbour a giant snake.

Dispensaries were equally few and far apart. Luckily, we hardly fell sick. I can count the instances I was ever taken to the hospital as a child. One of those instances was when I stumbled into a sufuria of boiling porridge and suffered serious second-degree burns. A neighbour, a white lady who worked at the Nangina Holy Family Mission Hospital, and a good friend of mine (I made friends easily as a kid) rushed me, clutched in my mum’s arms on her motorbike, to the hospital while delivering a dress-down on my mum for ‘negligence’. Most of what we suffered in the village as kids were weird traditional, hard-to-explain phenomena called ‘Ebikhokho’. Possessed women, in particular, would, when overcome, spin evil spirits into you whenever your eyes and theirs came into contact. The symptoms were severe, especially stomach aches, but there were never any known instances of death. The cases were dealt with traditionally.

Taboos

One day, I innocently shouted at an elderly woman when she passed near our home, and told her she was possessed of evil spirits. Later that evening, I was overcome by stomach pains. I only remember my mum tying me on her back and dashing out of the house into darkness as the rest of the family remained worried. The pain was excruciating. By the time we got into the traditional healer’s homestead, I was almost losing consciousness. She pierced my stomach with a razor and removed tiny pieces of bones. I belched all the way back, but all the pain and constipation were gone. That was quite common in the villages. The healers were paid with chicken, a bucket of finger millet, sorghum, or cassava flour.

Trekking was the main way of moving from one place to another. A few homes owned bicycles which at the time was a gem. After I advanced into upper primary, I learned how to ride by stealing my father’s bicycle to train with it. It was the sweetest experience ever. He never shared his bike. However, after he learned I could ride, he began using me to ferry farm produce during harvests. For longer distances, say to Port Victoria, Busia, or Kisumu from Funyula, there were three main buses, including OTC, Mawingo, and Roadways, that passed by early in the morning and late in the evening.

People in all age groups were fit and walked a lot. The farms were fertile, producing large amounts of cassava, sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes, yams, maize, beans, groundnuts, and cotton. Women, in particular, took pride in their homes having plenty of food. Helena, my grandmother, for instance, was known for her commitment to the farm. Her home never lacked food. Even long after the demise of her husband, it was in her home that the destitute took refuge. Her pots were always full of boiled sweet potatoes, cassava, and beans, not as main dishes but as snacks during the day. Woe unto you if she travelled only to come back and find you had taken those as lunch or supper. She took that as an insult, as a statement that her home was deprived.

Women of all ages, including our grandmothers, mothers, and older sisters, were strong, firm, roundly built, and beautiful. They glowed. Even in tattered clothes and bare feet, the kids were healthy, athletic, happy, enthusiastic, and curious. Even without modern tech, life was easy. People were happy. There was plenty of healthy food. The lands were fertile with plenty of fruits. People shared.

As we wound up class that Saturday morning, the nostalgia in my quiet introspection waned into a sad reflection of the reality today. The villages are a pale shadow of their former selves. The kids are malnourished, the men drunk and skinny. Most stressing is that the women are sad, stressed, weak, and sick. The most prominent gatherings in the villages are no longer for parties and sports for the youth, merry-go-rounds for the women, barazas to deliberate eminent societal issues, and age-set gatherings over traditional brew for the men, but fundraisers for hospital bills and funeral expenses and burials.

The village is tired and sad. It is sick; it is dying a slow death from chronic but preventable ailments, as well as incurable ones. The lands have since become barren and can no longer produce without the aid of expensive fertilizers. Communal life has since died. Thinking of the village in its present form saddens me.

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