Kikuyu was the language my grandmother spoke best, the one in which she shared her wisdom, humor, instructions, perspectives and prayers. We had walked into the 21st century and I was just learning the double meanings, and the words that I only heard in passing when my aunts and uncles, neighbors and family friends spoke. There were few, if any local language stations on the radio then, and it was not my custom to listen to them. The songs and the short stories told in local slang passed me by. I was not sure I could ever catch up. In school we were forbidden from speaking in any other languages apart from English and Kiswahili, even though some of the kids could speak their home languages. My class 4 desk mate and I, fed up of the sneaky ways other kids whispered in their own languages, got caught speaking another language and were reprimanded.
I had learned to write Kikuyu as a teen, after the compulsory catechism when I was 12 had made me want to learn more about the language, and the meaning behind the Bible and Church of England words I’d learned by heart. It was hard to start speaking Kikuyu, which came haltingly, years after my first words learned in English. It made me think I was useful, because I could finally read when the local priest called for the first and second readings. Anyone who heard me speak it said it sounded like I was a missionary from far away who had learned the language and spoke it like an Englishman on long-leave from his country home.
A day after Grandma left us, I walked into the room to the sound of tea sipping as everyone received the first cup of the day, lovingly prepared by hand by a busy bevy of ladies who had all been part of the home as neighbors, relatives and friends. It was not easy to walk in, as youngest in the room by about six decades. I had never spoken more than greetings to the elders in the space. There was also the matter of my smile, it had broken the previous day with the news, and I knew I had to fix my face. We had serious work to do now that she was gone.
When the leader in the group, my grandmother’s brother, started the dates, we had to review that everyone in the group, her siblings who knew her best, agreed on all the details in her bio data. For the longest time, many children born in the first half of the 20th century in Kenya did not get the proper assigned dates of birth in school or official documents. The family of course knew which year, and which season you were born, and what other major events happened around that date. ‘Do you remember the priest who was leading at Kabete mission…He…’’ and one of the group would launch into a story about the exuberant priest on a mission to win all the souls of men, women and children in the diocese territory.
I felt like I was breathing a rare air, because so few people were privy to the memories of my grandmother’s life between the first and the second world wars. I was young and foolish enough to think that I was the only one who could do the job of recording it, but smart enough to speak only when spoken to. I don’t always get that right, but I did on that day.
I was 28 years old and started the first page with the header 1928. I fought with the red lines in the word processor document marking the new language on the screen. I wrestled with the annoying squiggly underline to tell a story I wrote character by character in painstaking, lip-read Kikuyu.
Secure that the dates were all correct, we heard a knock on the door. A dear neighbor came in offering to help with the writing and was politely declined. I have never been able to hide a question, but even before I asked, as soon as she left, I learned that this was the family’s work. That the writing of the stories was not merely a process of dates, events and times, but a culmination and affirmation of the shared history of the family, and one could not just walk in at the composition stage. I nodded and started the next section.
There was warm laughter and gentle debate. The slight clink of cups on saucers, and someone starting the chorus of a well-known song.
If I said there was some joy at a funeral planning sub-committee, would you believe me?
Grandparents can be the best part of growing up when they have energy, time, and welcome us in. Unfortunately, we might only really get to know them when they are gone. Until they walk into the next world, if we are lucky, our parents and guardians tell us about them. In a lot of the world, grands raise us. The best stories and lessons come from that wait for the evening dish to perfectly exit the pot. Practical experience in preparing rice without making it sticky, and the right way to clean a floor with a rectangular washcloth (never by dragging it with your feet, mind!) and staying the course with difficult studies.
When you’re a child you can’t help feeling like your grandparents were born old, but here in the writing session, I was introduced to my grandmother the girl. I knew she had a full life in the village, but I now heard about how hard she worked on her chores, and how she came to be a sturdy and strong teen who could carry a full day’s work, and how she had married young. I marveled as her brother and sisters remembered life in the village under colonial rule, and how they’d navigated growing into their adult responsibilities. They remembered my great-grandfather, and how even after he retired from his work he still cared for his own farm and livestock himself. He famously did not want to be that retiree called by the area chief to sit in committee and decide the outcomes of village offences. He stood tall in these stories, and we got sidetracked talking about how he often visited and greeted the children on their way home, all adults now, with their own growing families. I knew that they had all had to start life young, but until that day I never really saw the grandparents and their siblings as teenagers, as young fathers and mothers under a system they never quite knew would end with a Kenya free from colonizers, until it did end. And another half century of independence later I am not sure we are truly free from meddling friends and enemies.
We would stop every few lines, and Great Uncle would say, ‘Maitu witu, nituigue uria waandika nginya hau’ (Our mother – I was named for my late grandmother – read us what you have written until there). At first I was hesitant, and inaudible. They reminded me that we had, in fact, just had tea, and could I make sure everyone could hear me clearly. I cleared my throat and read the few lines that I had written. If I read it correctly, they nodded. If I did not, someone would correct me, and ask me to spell the word – I knew better than to mess up the double ‘i’ and ‘u’ sounds that changed the meaning of the word when flipped or overlooked. I was a scribe, and they were the ones writing the story. They had sat through many funerals, as becomes the case in later life, and there was nothing that infuriated them more than a too-short eulogy for a person whose life they had celebrated and lived beside for decades. This was a language and history lesson of a lifetime.
Church and the Christian communities in it are a major part of life in the part of Kiambu County I come from. People attend church on Sunday, and attend Mums’ Union, or Men’s Association, Youth Brigade, Choir and receive pastoral visits from the Vicar. I suspect this is the same for a lot of people who grew up in Kenya in the late 80s and 90s. The difference is maybe the denomination. After going to school and meeting kids from different faiths, they shared similar community life around their houses of faith, especially for grands.
For much of my life, my grandmother had a series of favorite hymns. She could not only lead songs, but she knew the number and all the stanzas. To us kids, it was her special skill, and we always found ourselves scrambling for the hymnbook, while she went into each heartfelt song of praise to her Maker. When the room verified the dates and times of her story, they started to sing parts of songs that they loved themselves.
Haleluya twakugatha (Haleluya, we praise Thee)
Turathime riu (Bless us now)
It was natural that spending so many years together in the same churches, they had a variety of stories that one sister would start, and immediately start laughing about, and then the other one would not be able to understand the ending. Apart from the great love of the faith they shared, they remembered the morning meetings that they attended at church, with hungry children waiting for the Sunday lunch promised after they all went back home; whose homes had been welcoming to them as teens, and which ones they’d had to avoid.
The eulogies we write often describe how our loved ones passed. If you open any of the newspapers in Kenya, even the smallest of adverts will talk about how it happened. We want to know. And we want people to get it right and leave no doubt or room for useless gossip. These days, most people pass on and it is described as ‘suddenly and unexpectedly’ as it should be, allowing a person to be defined by more than the way they left us.
When I typed the last chapter of the translation, I did not want to finish it. It would mean there were no more stories to share. I tapped the laptop admittedly slower than most of the words shared out loud. The generous great uncles and aunts took a minute to reflect on what they wanted to conclude. They chose a hopeful Bible verse and they sang and closed the discussion. All that was left was for me to read the last section out loud.
We are not really supposed to speak about death. In all that silence, we miss our chance to celebrate our loved ones and the ordinary moments that made their lives so impactful. We miss our chance to learn how exactly it was to start a small shop in the North of Kenya in the 1960s and 70s, we tune out the music that made the wedding of fancy cousins a highlight even 40 years later. You and I do not get to learn about the grit of trying to educate 15 children, and pick out lessons from a future so far removed from that time.
If you could hear what I remember hearing in that sitting room and feel that familiar warm air in the room from chuckles and giggles. Trying to type in an interesting anecdote from the discussion, and being reminded as wonderful as that bit was, that would not be in print, thank you very much. I wish you could be a margarine-and-jam slice of bread on the table between us for a minute. Maybe then you would get why I was surprised how healing the process of writing a person’s story can be. In fact, you might spend a bit more time remembering that our stories are written only once, but the way we do it, they are remembered for a life and another after that.