From three villages, down a series of slopes, the women come down, singing and ululating. Atop their heads are sisal baskets, others carry metal tins, old enough to have the writings on their ribs rubbed off. They walk in a file, laughing and gossiping. It is early, and the sun is lazily crawling out of its hiding place.
“I hope the women from Thunguri make it in time today, you know they are very lazy…” Start the women from Kariko. The women can be mistaken for a tribe going into war, but looking closer, they are too happy to go to war. They have no leaves tied to their ears and red ochre painted on their faces, and above all, they are women, and in the slopes, women never went to war. At least not with another community, they sat at home, mended blankets and fattened calves to be slaughtered after a good war. The year is 1969, and it’s a good year.
From a distance, another group of women stand around an almost circular pit. The field was cleared the previous day by the village’s young men, using sharp and shiny machetes. They whistled as they cut down the fern weed and weak tree seedlings. Later on, they ate a heap of Ugali and vanished to a nearby brewer.
All women now stand around the pit, looking down at it. They wait for the boys and girls to come with other tins of water.
‘Here are other tins…’ Announce the group arriving.
The two groups hug, and are excited to see each other. One of the resident women has her son tagging along. His name is Kago. His full name is Mugo, named after his grandfather, but since he is small, they call him Kago, a small Mugo.
‘Kago has grown like a weed,’ one of the women from Kariko acclaims. She was there when kago was born. ‘Very soon we will stop calling him Kago, and call him Mugo.’
The other women nod in approval.
Seven women now stand over the pit, with their toes digging into the bare earth. Their lesos are tied to a knot slightly above the knees. A group of boys pour tin after tin of water from Gikira river into the pit, with the small ones carrying water trapped in arrow root leaves. They are laughing and jumping around. The leader woman, Mama Kago, lifts her left arm, to indicate the water is enough, and jumps into the shallow pit, splashing some mud on the ‘Kenya Mambo Leo’ print on her leso. She doesn’t care.
She moves around in noisy splatters, and calls onto the other ladies to follow her. They sing, like always, from childhood songs to songs of praise to Mwenenyaga, to songs praising Field Marshals Dedan Kimathi, Musa Mwariama and General Baimungi. They knead with their feet, until the sun hits slightly above their ears. The mud is now well mixed, but they keep moving. Their feet are all covered with the reddish mixture up to their knees. Their toes are completely buried in the mud.
A short distance away, four women are tying pieces of wet sticks together, creating the basic structure of the three roomed hut. Their arms move like well-gelled machines, as they weave each piece to the other with home made sisal strands. They look like a not so busy hive, but a hive anyway.
Kago sits a safe distance from the pit, playing with two sticks. Somehow, he visualizes the two sticks as a form of weapon, and he tries to fix the small one onto the longer one like you would a cartridge on an AK47. He looks excited, not because they will soon get a new house, but because the two sticks fit in perfectly, and he only needs a small thread from his cardigan to fasten them. He cuts its long end with his teeth, and it makes an irritating noise.
When the four women are finished with the structure of the hut, including the inner walls, the house will look like the ribs of a thin village dog. Its roof will be bare, and Kamau, the village carpenter will have prepared the doors and windows from bamboo sticks which he fetches from deep in the Aberdare forest. He will check if they fit, though he knows the four women are perfect with their measurements. Later on in the day, when the mud is ready, the women will all circle the house and apply the mud, covering up the walls and leaving the door and window opening. They have been building huts since they were ‘Kang’ei’, and are now Nyakinyuas, so their expertise is next to none. All through, a group of young mothers hover around, carrying out light tasks, as they learn the art. Most of them have babies, who are sleeping peacefully under banana plants a small distance away. A village dog watches over them, and jumps around when one stirs.
When the structure is done, the women will have lunch together, a lunch of arrow roots and sliced potatoes, which are being boiled in a nearby home. The house is then left to sit for a few days, and when the mud sticks and dries out, a select group of women will be called to the site, and the thatching will start.
Mama Kago is one of these women, and she will scale the walls of the mud house, and start laying the thatch straw from one end, and another woman will start from the other end. This is only left for an elite group of women, since the slopes are a wet area, and the thatch must keep the rain out. No testing will be done, because they know the quality of their work, and the testing part will be left for the rains.
When the house is done, there will be a big party, and the young family will move in. ON one end of the house, there will be a room set aside for calves and baby goats, and Kago will share the room with them. He will be kicking the calve that snores harder, and his mother will always laugh from the next room, taking a break from her wife, as they try make Kago’s sister.
I was given this story by my mother recently, as I engaged her on how it was for women back when we were just an illusion. Her face lit up, and I could see the sparkle in there, as she described her mother, Wanguni, my late grandmother, and her agemates, describing how hard they worked for their families. She told me the story of housemaking, and I was surprised that it was a women’s affair. I know most of us think our fore fathers used to make the remaining few mud houses. I know she would have broken into a dance, were it not for the small patch on her foot, covering the recovering part of the leg from a recent break.
I’ve grown to know women as the pillars of the society, the axis on which we revolve. No wonder we always call our mothers even when we are going through shit that they don’t even understand. I once had an issue with my laptop, and some silly part of me advised me to call my mother, funny because I am a fundi (like she calls me), and that am the one who finally sorted it out.
‘Hey mum, am having a problem with my laptop, and I cant push the project I told you about forward..’ I lamented.
‘Which project?’ She asked.
‘The book I had told you about.’
‘Ooh, that one. So, what is wrong with your computer?’ She still doesn’t get it how big a deal my book is, and how many sleepless nights it’s giving me.
‘Its not starting.’
‘You are a fundi, right?’
‘No, am not a fundi, am a technician. A consultant.’ I pushed.
‘And what is a fundi in English?’
‘A technician.’ Weird silence.
‘That is something small, you will just sort it out.’ And indeed, I sorted it out. It was a silly problem, since the charger was loosely connected. I however lied to her that it was a big problem. Nobody with beard spread down to the chest and beyond wants their mother chewing on their ear about their carelessness.
I always celebrate women, because I think they are just a wonderful creation, but today there is a special kind of woman I want to celebrate. Of course, all the women who helped bring me up, and those who never got tired of spanking my tiny buttocks are first. And they were many. I feel like I was the village punching bag, and there was an army lead by brigadier Wambui Gichuri. They really liked spanking me hard, and as the saying goes, from the beatings, I got an ailment called Respect for others.
The special women I want to celebrate are those who give motherly love to those who have lost their mothers. It becomes the greatest kind of love since they have to give the kind of love they would to their own. See why I said women are wonderful? Those who know me well know that I have, in the past two or so years, been working a lot with women, through my engagement with the Wounded Healers Foundation.
During this time, I have met great women, talked to great women, listened to great inspiring stories, seen women break down, and have received a lot of encouragement while at it. Out here, there are great women doing big things in small ways, you just need to listen more and look closer. Most of these stories will end up on this blog, while others will be mine to tell my great-grandchildren, but the bottom line is, the stories exist, and they are real. I have also have had the chance to work closely with a team of ladies, I being the only gentleman, and I swear, it’s like being on a hot seat. Those people are sharp, and I have to always be at my best to keep up. (don’t tell them about this fact, they will sit on me).
All I want to say is A Happy International Women’s Day to all the women, ladies, and girls out there. We love you.
- Wamugi Gichuri.