It was that time of the year again when Mlimani battled it out with Idunya P.A.G. These contests were taken very seriously amongst churches in Musasa and this time, Idunya was determined to slay Mlimani. They had won the title too many times already. It was their time now.
It was customary for churches in my village to participate in the annual marago event that was held on Christmas day. This event gave churches an opportunity to mingle with other churches in the vast community of Musasa whilst sharing the good that the Lord had done for the community that particular year. The rules were simple. Churches were required to memorize a verse from the bible and come up with an entertaining celebratory dance and the judging was done by a select group of pastors from a different district. The winning team received two forty kg bags of beans for their church and the coveted crown of Marago Warriors.
So we gathered all of our cousins and every evening for the next two weeks walked with meaning to our church grounds for our daily rehearsals. These meaningful walks were made even more meaningful by the village kids who were always eager to see us again after months of being away.
My family lived in Nairobi but December was reserved for family gatherings and marago. We were also always excited to see our cousins, our friendly village neighbours and guga and nyanya but mostly about the impending contest. The walks to Idunya P.A.G were filled with euphoria. We joked with the village kids about the trips to the kidaho, the crazy little woman Gariamma and her quick and hurried walk and they made fun of our Nairobi way of carrying twenty litre jerry cans of water on our backs rather than balancing them on our heads with the ingata. They called us, vana va mutaoni, meaning children of the town, stressing the V in both words (vvvvana vvvvva mutaoni) in a comical manner that filled our journeys to the church grounds with intense laughter and joy.
We arrived at the church every evening and as usual my tall, quietly aggressive cousins both named Khabei shoved us all into two straight lines to begin our singing practice. The lines had to be parallel to each other and the boys had to pair up with the girls for a uniform look. “Panga hivo” shouted one of them, “Panga mbele yake” chimed the other. They also insisted that the lead conductor should shimmy her way to the judges to receive the order of performances while everyone else chanted the slogan usirudi nyuma pasita (do not waver pastor), to signal the start of the proceedings. The Khabei’s had also quietly taken over the lead soloists role and the rest of the crew did not think to question it, lest you be shoved to the back of the line where none of us wanted to belong. We did as we were told and soon practice began. Onzere, one of the village boys, did not entertain their bullish ways and he stood under the musunzu tree alone with an obstinate look on his face, his head tilted towards the laterite roads that led back home. He would later make it known to them that he was a boy and not a girl to be bossed around.
Then they began to sing with their mouths wide open, their faces beaming with joy at the sound of their own voices, their tall frames swaying from side to side. The rest of us joined in, the tenors and the altos taking a life of their own while the basses quietly harmonized the melodies in the background.
I must admit that despite their overbearing ways, their voices sounded angelic when they sang the song Kimalaika and every time their voices got louder, we danced harder, bending down further, closer to the ground. Our shoulders shimming, our backs bobbing, our bodies moving from side to side. Memba’s drumming accessorized their high pitched sopranos prompting us to move in one steady rhythm and direction.
Days passed and finally the D day came. We had spent the entire night fantasizing about this contentious Sunday and acting out different celebratory reactions should we come number one. Memba suggested that the boys carry the girls on their shoulders, while the girls thought it was better for the boys to drum all the way home instead.
“I think carrying us will be a little awkward,” I mumbled.
“Mmmhh and I don’t want to be carried on the boy’s shoulders” retorted Msimbi
“But I would like to see the expression on your face in case you fall off,” replied Sai, a cheeky grin plastered across his round face.
“In your wildest dreams Sai. In your wildest dreams.”
My sister Msimbi and Sai got along very well despite the distance. It was clear from their light hearted jocularity that they valued each other’s friendship and my father always joked that she should stay in village with his family instead.
After much debating and goofing around, we all agreed that the boys should drum all the way home should we clinch the title the next day.
We woke up earlier than usual and as usual set off on our daily chores. The competition was set for mid-day and we had to mop the houses and prepare our lunches before setting off for Jeptulu. Some of us hurried to the kidaho to fetch some much needed water while others bathed the children on the field outside our mud house, scrubbing every inch of their bodies with makonge, scouring every single dead skin off their feet on the marble rock outside the house. It was one happy moment for all of us.
We soon departed for Jeptulu dressed in the little white dresses that we had been baptized in the previous year. These dresses denoted a purity of some sort- a purity that proclaimed a desire to please God and to compete for Him. They also complemented the occasion perfectly as our celebratory song required that we danced and looked like angels.
The time came and just like we had practiced, the conductor shimmied to the judges to receive the order of performances as the rest of the singers chanted usirudi nyuma pasita in loud voices. The crowd turned towards our direction, their faces adorned with awe, a sign that we had started the proceedings on a fairly high note. We then lined up in two straight lines and waited anxiously for our turn to showcase our dance.
Mlimani did as Mlimani always did. Their well dried out drums beating at a steady rhythm, their dancers moving steadily in striped white and purple costumes. Their soloist shot us a single contentious look as she began to sing the song Kurendenda (we praise you) while the rest of the team sang along, their faces lined with defiant assurance. When their performance ended, they trotted past us, bragging about their brilliant performance in loud voices so we could hear them.
Then, our moment arrived. Memba drummed ferociously to signify to the judges that we were here and everyone sat up to pay attention to the bewitching sounds of the tom-tom drums and to the angelic voices that were belting out the tune of Kimalaika.
The grounds felt lighter under our feet, and our voices resonated with the sounds of the drums. We sang for ourselves, but mostly for Idunya P.A.G. Our bodies swaying from side to side, our faces shining with unmatched glory. (Natucheze kimalaika…. natucheze kimalaika…… Kimalaika kutoka Idunya aaa….) When the singing and dancing ended, we recited John 3:16, with conviction and quiet supplication and then confidently matched to the seating area on the left side of the field where the other nine churches had been waiting patiently. Onzere yelled out a final emphatic Usirudi nyuma pasita that got the pastors giggling and beaming as he sat down.
The applause said it all! The sounds of men dressed in oversized suits chanting hallelujah and women in white gowns and white scarfs ululating and giving praises to Nyasaye signifying that they had enjoyed our performance. It was all for the glory of God they said and when the results came in and we had taken number one, the crowds burst into frenzy with shouts of Amen! filling the already charged air.
They were happy for us and We were happy for ourselves but mostly for Idunya P.A.G.
The journey back home was filled with the sounds of the tom-tom drums. I was quietly elated. These children of the town had come to the village and given Idunya number one.
- Idunya: Name of church loosely translated to mean….be sad.
- Mlimani: Name of a local church loosely translated to mean…. the hills
- Musasa: A village
- Marago: Christmas carols
- Nyanya and guga: grandmother and grandfather
- Kidaho: river
- Makonge: Sisal
- Kimalaika: Like an angel (Natucheze kimalaika-Let us dance like angels)
- Panga: Line up: Mbele: In front: Yake: Him/her
- PAG: Pentecostal Assemblies of God