Luo women, like my friend and blogger Damaris Muga (her funny artsy blog won an award by the way), are tired of being called “hard headed, loud mouthed and nagging”, qualities that have made us unmarriageable. Dama and I deeply contrast each other except that we are outspoken about things we believe in; we love art; we love living in godforsaken rural areas even in this big city and…. (drum rolls) we were raised by disciplinarian ass whooping mothers in South Nyanza. You should see us rolling our eyes in indifference when we listen to “tearful” narrations of how others think they are damaged adults because their mothers abused them by making them wash dishes every morning. We would say “Her bony behind would have a syndicated Oprah-like talk show on ‘how I was abused by my mother’ had she spent a week with our mothers”. Back in Kanyidoto, in Ndhiwa where I trace my paternity, and Suba where Damaris comes from life, little has changed on how the girl child is brought up to be the woman she is. This is how I, and any other Luo girl from the village, was brought up.
At age 6, the Luo girl is already programmed to know how to carry her little brother or sister on her side. At this age, she is also supposed to start the trips to fetch water from the well (soko), water pan (yao) or aora (river). When the water source is shared between cattle and people, I already knew that I had to fetch it in the morning before the cattle startled the water (jamni oduo pi). I will make many trips (sombo pi) and as I grew older, the trips would be fewer because we learnt how to balance the 10 little bucket on my head (diedo) and carried a smaller 5-litre jerican by the hand.
From the water fetching, a woman is taught three things: team work, knowing how to select who will be in your circles and improvising what you have in your environment to live. Normally with shaven heads, I had to learn to make a little donut-looking grass thing (tach) to place between my head and the bucket. This thing is woven using grass and banana leaves and left to dry. The trips to the river sometimes would be lonely, and therefore we would go as a group. In the dry season the group becomes handy. The water would be so far down the water pan, difficult to reach and slippery . So we would let the lighter girl, stay there fetching the water with the calabash (aguata) which we would decorate with fire to make them pretty. Then the lighter girl would pass the bucket to another in the middle and then finally to the one standing outside the water source. Team work. Once every bucket was filled, the tallest girl would help all of us put them on our heads before carrying hers and we would leave. These teams were not random. They were selected carefully and headed by an unspoken alpha female who was perhaps older, stronger. Because yours truly has always had a tiny physique despite her dinosaur’s appetite, she never became an alpha female. Let us take a moment and laugh at that.
The river was not just a place for drawing water. Far from it. This is where girls and women would plan the next social event (like playing bean bag or market expeditions) solutions for problems (like way laying the second wife who dared speak back to the first wife and beat her to pulp to know her place). So every week there would be bean bag, date sets by the alpha females and word passed round the village for all girls. Since there was no watch, the time would be spoken in terms of “ka jo dhok owuok” (when cattle sellers are leaving, oh they were never late). In the game, there would be a mock election to decide whose side you’d play on. Now this is where the alpha females spoke. We all knew one another: the one with the strong arms for throwing the ball, the swift and fast(I must have been here), the weak (or here)…. So you’d line up, and one of the alpha females will ask you to step in front and back to the respective teams. The other alpha female would look at her team and if she was satisfied she had enough fighters and enough weaklings that she can take care of without compromising her win, she would ask “ng’ama chako?” (Who’s starting the game?). If she was not satisfied she would say “uyieroru” (You have selected yourselves) and then a negotiation would be made to trade where the aggrieved party would give one weakling to the other side or the strong team would give a warrior over.
Here is the lesson. A Luo woman is programmed to know, that she had to have warriors beside her as well as weak people she had to take care of. In this case, the weaklings would mostly be bright children who live far who can come live in her homestead so that they are closer to school, orphans, children of a widow who is struggling, children of her ailing co-wife… the list is long and wide. It was so natural that the mother of those children would ask them “what did your other mother say of your performance in school?” This explains why Luo women are very artsy: They sew, knit, crotchet, plait hair… The children in the house would be so many. They would need clothes so you sew, with a manual machine if you are lucky to afford one, or with a needle and thread. If you had daughters, they would want their hair done. Around Christmas, the children always wanted the house decorated. So by 12, I had already learnt how to carry cow dung (owuoyo) on odheru (I swear I don’t know the name in English for that traditional pan), and then use that cow dung for muono (mix the cow dung with red soil to make the walls of the mud house). Then you had to sew the flowers on the white clothes to place on the chair or chuecho (crotchet) table mats. The other lesson is, from day one, the Luo woman is taught to say, in the most emotive way possible, that she does not like what she is getting in a deal be it marriage, employment and others. This, in most cases, comes out as nagging… oh yeah I can nag.
In the water source, a girl would accuse the other of backstabbing and invite the other who has aggrieved her for a talk, in the presence of other witnesses. This is how the conversation begins. “Ichuanya” (you have erred against me) or “Imanya” (you have been looking for me from my space for a war). The aggrieved woman would then go ahead and explain, in detail, who told her of the gossip, when and why she is offended by it. The accused would respond this way “Akwayo ng’wono” (I am begging forgiveness) or “ng’wonna” (forgive me). Should the accused be defiant, and the rest of the girls judge that lines have been crossed, a date for a war to restore order would be arranged and each party would bring their cheer leading teams. On the fighting day, each side would sit aside and watch the girls go at each other. After which, the loser will take her defeat with grace, and respect the other girl. The winner will get up and give the other girl her hand and the beef would be over. This war would never be shared to our parents because each parent would whip you, then take you to the home of the girl you fought with so that that parent also takes her turn whipping you. Lesson? You pick your battles wisely, and a disagreement does not mean we have to be enemies forevers.
The test of being a Luo woman came in teens (between 13 and 16). In my preteens, where our parents would ship us to the village from town, my day would begin with nyiedho (milking), then the usual farm work. Damn those drove me redneck crazy depending on what time of the year it was. The maize threshing (suso oduma) left my hands with blisters. My aunt(we called her mama anyway), the woman who would be housing us, would say in the evening just after we had eaten: “Kiny adhi nyoluoro to an gi welo g’odhiambo” (Tomorrow I will go for my merry go round meeting but I have visitors in the evening). Such a small sentence, but here is what she was telling me. “I will not be around here, but I know you are woman enough to take care of my visitors as I would). The next question, as she expected, was for me to ask “Gin ng’awa gini?” (Who are they?). She would go on to list the names of the visitors, from which she expected that I will pick their ages (to know whether they would eat corn or wheat flour because maize is too harsh for old men’s stomachs and young people love maize flour) and their professions (pastors and teachers are little gods in the village for whom I must slaughter chicken, people from church need lots of drinks and light stuff that they can eat and make stories all night). That is all. She would not leave you money or buy anything. It was up to you, to look around the home and figure out shit.
So here is how the hosting begins. That night, you must prepare the flour for “dessert” which was usually fermented porridge. So in the kitchen outside, you will kneel on a little stone (pong) on which you would put sorghum, wheat and cassava and ground that mixture. Not an interesting job at all because you had to make sure that flour is fine. The flour and water will be mixed (bago mogo) and put out in the sun to ferment. That very night, you would ensure all the calabashes and big plastic are clean. If they were not, you would have figure out which home you would borrow them from. If you were the woman known among the girls as “ochido” or “dwanyore” (you can’t keep clean), you would never be given utensils. On that night too, you would also ensure da pi (the earthen pot for cooling water) was cleaned and full.
The following day, in the morning there would still be a few things to be done. You had to make sure there was enough firewood. In the evening, sometimes still in your uniform if you were schooling in the village, you would pass by the farms and field to get traditional vegetables, a mixture of them because you would get them from many fields and it did not matter whether it was your father’s farm or not. Then come home, change and start the fire, and let the water boil for the corn flour that you would need the energy of 50 people to make. If there are too many visitors you would take the hoe and make two other temporary kendo (cooking spots). Then ask the little boys to chase a specific cock that you would gut, roast on the firewood (and it had better not smell of smoke), and fry. As everything boils, you would sit down to take care of the old men who cannot chew through two options: You would sit down with ko (gourd) with milk therein, and rock it gently (puocho) and make them yoghurt or you would have asked your grandmother for mo moleny (some oil made from milk, I never learnt that) to put on the vegetables. This is a span of two hours. Your mother would come around quarter to 7, she will test everything making comments like “Chumbi okotuch kae,medi” (there is not enough salt here, add), “sub no mar ji adi?” (How many people is that soup for?… meaning it is little), ng’in kuonno maber (shape that corn flour properly… imagine the godamned thing had to look like a little hill). Then your mother, or auntie, would tie a scarf on her wait, arrange her house and wait for the visitors.
Now, I cannot remember a single thing for the boys on how to be proper men. Next week, I will continue with this. What perception do you have of Luo women? Tell me firstname.lastname@example.org