It was not usual for me to spend time with guga. He was getting old now, his brown coloured eyes behind his glasses revealing a tiredness that could only have come with old age. Guga was also beginning to lose his eye sight. His left eye could not see but the right eye with the help of his glasses guided his wobbly footsteps.
I remember that sunny afternoon in April when he appeared at our gate on Egri’s motorbike, his black briefcase in his left hand, his brown cow boy hat resting firmly on his balding head. The hat had two straps on each side and guga had carefully tucked the straps behind his ears and tied them loosely together under his chin. His legs shook as he walked and his handshake was weak and unsteady. But there was something about him that had not been erased by time and by old age, something that had stood the test of time. His laughter- A laughter that sounded like that of a man riding a motorbike in his chest, a laughter that carried with it something intangible yet warm and welcoming, a laughter that made his Adam’s apple recede back into the now loose skin on his neck whenever he laughed.
I did not know he was coming until that afternoon. Mama had called him, screaming that a neighbour had threatened to beat her up. She said that the man had pointed a sharp metal object towards her and bragged about not fearing prison. But soon he would flee when the police inspector sent out word that he was supposed to show up at the police station. It was always about land and how many feet made up my guga’s three acre piece of land and mama was particular about everything, especially everything about land. If it was not about a neighbour trying to steal it from her, it was about how badly the tillers had tilled it. Even when our neighbour once cut down a tree that had grown too close to her fence, she complained about his inappropriate behaviour and made dad confront the neighbor who had cut it. The neighbor was trying to steal their land from them by manipulating the borders she claimed. However, when she pruned the branches of the musunzu tree on our neighbour’s farm that had grown over her barbed wire fence, spilling onto her precious piece of land, she expected him to understand that her crops needed the sun for photosynthesis.
“They want to steal papa’s land and I will not let them,” she would say. But this time it was not about stealing guga’s parcel of land but about how badly Dismus had ploughed it. The planting season had arrived and mama was enthusiastic as usual. She had missed church on this particular Sunday just to till papa’s farm. Sometimes I wondered why she spent too much money and time tilling a land she claimed did not yield anything.
Dismus had been contracted to plough guga’s farm. However, he did not plough the borders as mama had instructed. She confronted him as someone would confront a man who had stolen something precious from her and he had sprung towards her, shoulders heaving with rage. He had grabbed her by the neck, pointed the sharp metal object he was holding towards her chest and screamed, “Mimi siogopi jela mama, siogopi jela mama.” (I don’t fear prison mama, I don’t fear prison). Some neighbours sympathised with Mama and sprang towards Dismus begging him to let her go while others laughed and clapped, their hands resting on their hips, their faces shining with excitement like a community celebrating a good harvest. Dismus was a hero to them and they had been waiting for this moment when someone would put mama in her place. She was too proud and too full of herself they said. She needed to be taught a lesson.
In my village, it was not unusual for a man to beat up a woman. Cries of women taking up a beating from angry men who wanted to be respected and treated like they thought they deserved rent the air plenty of times and mama’s screams would not have been any different. Despite this scary encounter, she did not go to the village chief or to the village police station to report the matter. Instead, she called guga. She feared police cases she said but sometimes I wondered what she feared most. Her efforts to narrate the incident to me did not go well either. I listened half-heartedly and looked away because I did not want to imagine what this man would have done to her. I pictured her, beaten up and dripping with blood because of a piece of land that had done more harm than good to the people in my village.
There were far too many land related stories of grieving families in my village who had lost family members because a neighbor had angrily hacked them to death. Kitoko, the village night runner had lost a brother in a fight involving his in- laws’ piece of land. The neighbor had picked up a stone and hurled it straight at his chest, killing him on the spot.
So, guga had come all the way from Maragoli, old and frail. He had skipped the final moments of the church service, left the preacher in the process of delivering anointing and blessings from Nyasaye, left the congregation heaving its shoulders up and down, crying to the heavens with great supplication. The piece of land was his and his daughter had called him. He had to come.
I was anxious to welcome guga. I hugged him as he laughed in my ear and carried his brief case to the living room. Mama appeared from her bedroom, barefoot, her head wrapped in a blue headscarf that had the words “Women’s Conference Nyang’ori” embroidered on it. She had been walking around all day with a sullen look on her face, her eyes filled with uncried tears, the look of a child waiting to tell on her friends for not inviting her to play with them. Guga smiled at her, shook her hand and before he sat down, asked to pray. He always prayed. He prayed before he sat down, prayed before he ate, prayed before he slept and prayed when he woke up.
I knew his prayer lines by heart because every time he started to say his prayers, he muttered those exact words. Usually, I smiled at the repetitiveness of this prayer, but this time it was different. Tears welled up in my eyes and an unknown sadness crept over me. I watched him closely, forgetting to close my eyes. I watched his lips move, his once youthful face a haven of wrinkles, his eyes shut tightly, his hands spread out in front of him as if he was waiting to receive something or was grateful for something. He tilted slightly forwards and backwards like tree branches laden with leaves would do on a windy day, his belly protruding from underneath his brown shirt, his leather jacket hanging heavily on his thin frame.
Guga’s last visit had been sometime in December the previous year and I was relieved to see that he looked much healthier than the last time he had visited with Imbo, mama’s sister whose laughter was loud and warm. Imbo had a way with words and every time she visited, we would sit around her and listen to stories of her never ending dramatic heroic encounters.
It was amazing how she told the same stories the same way but still kept us thoroughly entertained. The story I remember most however was of the incident at my grandma’s farm in Busali. A drunken man had come up to her and threatened to take the stacks of hay she was putting together for guga’s cows to his cows. He had tried to intimidate her but Imbo had stood up to him and promised to beat him senseless then feed his carcass to the neighbour’s hungry dogs if he had kept standing there. The man had cowered, turned around and headed home, mumbling something like “foolish woman” to himself. She narrated this story with her hands up in the air, her forehead lined with wrinkles, her face shining with sweat. Sometimes I wondered whether she sweated because of the energy she used to dramatize her conquests or from the layers of fat resting beneath her skin.
Imbo had travelled with guga in order to pick up some bags of maize for consumption or maybe to take care of him. This is how it worked, Mama ploughed the land for them, planted the maize and made sure that the harvest was good but it was always up to them to come and carry it home. I still do not understand why guga came that day. He was sick. His stomach was troubling him and he had spent the entire night throwing up and rushing to the toilets to help himself. He should have stayed home because he could barely carry himself. But he smiled and said not to worry. He was fine.
Guga was not always an unhealthy man. It was life that was beating him down. He did not have a retirement pension to see him through his old age so he depended on his sons and daughters who too had families to feed. So he started to wear off and soon, he was weak. However, what surprised me the most was his joy in life. He was sick and tired, but he spoke only of good things. Even when Mama continuously pushed him to fight for his piece of land, he spoke softly and constantly adjusted his glasses as if to say, enough Mmbo, enough. He worried about his children who too had children but when he sat on the sofa, his eyes stared into space and he drifted to sleep every now and then like a man with nothing to worry about.
Guga woke up early the next morning and walked to his farm to speak to the neighbors, then walked to the police station to report Dismus and to speak for his daughter who had been hurt by Dismus. He wanted him summoned to the station so he could explain his actions but Dismus did not show up. In fact, no one in the village knew where he had disappeared to. On the third day, he gave up trying to find him so instead he took some boys with him to the farm- to help him mark out the borders lest someone steals the piece of land from him as mama had warned him.
I watched him come and go and deep inside I knew he was not keen on finding Dismus. In fact, his disappearing act had made it easy on him. He cared about mama, sympathized with her but he knew better than to wish jail upon this cruel one. Even his conversations with mama about the seriousness of the matter seemed to me tailored to appease her. I knew he resented Dismus’ actions, resented the fact that he had tried to harm his first born daughter but most of all I knew he hoped that mama would learn to avoid land disputes because he was getting too old and too tired to fight for a piece of land.
A day before he travelled back home, we sat together in the living room and he talked to me mostly about grandma and her swollen feet. Nyanya had arthritis and guga was taking care of her. But he had been away for four days and he was starting to worry about her. Despite his ailing self, guga woke up early every morning to feed the cows and milk them. He made sure that nyanya’s food was ready and when she moaned in pain, he took time to massage her legs and help her get up on her feet when she needed to use the latrine. When he spoke about nyanya, the once deep dimples on his now flabby cheeks faded into a long thin line that stretched from the space between his nose and his cheeks to the edges of his chin. I was sad for him.
It was still raining outside and mama had not returned from church. There was thunder and lightning and guga worried that maybe the unceasing drip-drop of rain drops on the roof was getting too loud for us to hear each other. So I moved closer to him and sat on the two seater sofa next to him. This was the closest I had sat with him in a long time.
As I sat across from him, I felt a suddenness of expectation, a yearning for something noble. I wanted to be one with him, to learn from him and to become like him. I wanted his cheerfulness in life, his concern for his people and most of all his love for prayer. He told me stories of his journeys to Chicago and Alabama. Of his white friends from Atlanta who loved the Maasai Mara and the Amboseli and wondered if any of my white friends would want to visit so he could show them around, he joked and I laughed with my mouth wide open, revealing a set of crooked teeth. He talked of birds, birds whose names he knew by heart, birds he watched every day fly from one tree branch to another leaving their droppings on the unsuspecting leaves- of tigers, cheetahs and lions in the Amboseli chasing after helpless antelopes to feed their ravenous appetite. He talked about the dreams he achieved and those he had abandoned along the way and his desire that they be achieved through his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
But the story I remember vividly was the story of Mulogooli. A story he told in Kilogooli, stopping once in a while to explain the meanings of words he thought I did not know well. The story of his fore fathers- a people who had walked thousands of miles and gone their separate ways, just like a river would split its waters into thin streams if it encountered stubborn rocks in its path. He told me of a group of the Balogooli who went South to South Africa, then of those who went to Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. He spoke passionately of the Balogooli who travelled through Cameroon to Kenya and of their customs and beliefs-The Agikuyu, the Bagusii all brothers of Balogooli and speakers of Kilogooli, who today spoke differently due to differences in geography and in their ways of life. But most of all, he spoke of his people, the Balogooli and of his place among the Balogooli. He called himself Musaali, the first born son of Mulogooli, to whom the story was passed down to by his father. He spoke of Musaali’s four sons who went on to marry the Bakizungu, mentioning his long dead brothers Konzolo and Isagi almost nostalgically.
I watched his hands move in little round motions and his eyes light up as he spoke and I knew he valued his place as the first born son of Mulogooli, the true son of the vasaali
Guga-grandpa, Nyanya- Grandma,Nyasaye- God, Busali- A village in rural Kenya, Mulogooli (Balogooli pl)- a person who speaks Kilogooli, a dialect of the Luhya tribe, Basweta, Bakizungu- Clans of the Luhya tribe.