I was invited to meet the heirs of Ademba in 1989, during a visit to the port of Kisumu on Lake Victoria. I had befriended Otieno a few years earlier in Nairobi; he belonged to the Luo people, the third largest ethnic group in Kenya. Mungai, our Kikuyu driver, joked throughout the sixty-kilometre drive along the Kisumu-Kisi road about our entering the land of Kavirondo sorcery.
A small marketplace consisting of a few kiosks provided the only evidence of our arrival in Kadongo. The outpost serves as a postal address for the surrounding rural communities, including our destination, Kabondo.
Off the tarmac, we barely managed a kilometre, before having to abandon the old Mercedes 220. We strolled along the dusty track, everyone we met showed an apparent fascination in me, vigorously shaking my hand and thanking me for visiting their region. As the local people were not in need of aid, and the area wasn't a tourist attraction, it turned out that I was the first European visitor, according to my hosts. We would occasionally pass white-robed disciples of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, the foreheads of their scarves emblazoned with red crosses.
As we progressed, I was introduced to numerous members of Otieno's extended family, known collectively as the Children of Ademba. Before long we had collected an entourage, people travelling in the opposite direction abandoning their purpose to join us. We paused at the fence of the six-year-old school's playing field, to watch the columns of banner-wielding children practise for a parade - chants of "Uhuru" (freedom) rising from their ranks. Prompted by a teacher, the whole assembly turned to wave at us, or should I say me. After several seconds of stupor, I realised that my following was applauding me. Although I felt somewhat embarrassed, I managed a tentative wave.
On arrival at the hedge-bordered pacho of Otieno's father, we entered the corner gate. A sapling-fenced livestock pen was situated top centre, and a short distance down from this, the twin main dwellings stood side by side. Two smaller buildings faced each other a little farther down the plot and a simple central hut served as the kitchen. Women were sitting on low stools before the first house, stripping maize cobs on to an interwoven sheet of banana leaves. Children enlivened the scene, chasing any small bantam chickens that dared to steal the stripped maze. Three young men were trying to administer worming tablets to an uncooperative yellow dog.
Some distance off from all the commotion, the won pacho, Odinga, sat reclining in a rocking chair, wearing a white shirt with a kikoi wrapped around his waist; he looked extremely dignified and aloof. The patriarch smoked a clay pipe, a wooden cane resting across his lap, with lurcher-like dogs lying obediently at his sandaled feet. His white cotton headdress displayed the by now familiar red cross.
Once the rounds of highly involved greetings and handshakes had ended, I was given a guided tour of the pacho. A brushwood fence separated the homestead from the cultivated fields, beyond which stood the toilet, a small shelter of thin thatch covering a pit; two rotten planks provided a precarious perch for squatting. Determined not to be caught short after dark, I reluctantly gave the contraption a try, amusing my hosts with a naïve request for toilet paper - nature provides in the form of leaves.
The pacho, which contained mostly maize, covered ten acres stretching down to the river - two centrally-located prominent trees marked the resting place of Ademba. The whole vicinity had once been the domain of Ademba, until he passed away in 1975. The land was now shared out among his four sons. Ademba had been a pagan, who dominated his pacho with club in hand. His sons were the first generation of Christians, and with the exception of monogamy, had embraced the faith with whole-hearted enthusiasm; all that is except one, the eldest. According to the custom of ultimogeniture, the youngest son, Odinga, had inherited the nucleus homestead, his elder brothers occupying adjacent land. Otieno and his elder half brother, Kyoo, would always have their bachelor cottages in the homestead, but would have to buy plots of their own if they wished to carry on the tradition of land owning - the land was now too small to be divided again.
A recurrent rumour that electricity was coming had been circulating since 1969 when the road was built, due more to the local peoples' patient nature rather than any naiveté.
The tour over, we entered the home of Otieno's mother to eat, the cool interior providing a welcome respite from the dry midday heat. The houses, accurately referred to in English as cottages, were simple yet aesthetically pleasing dwellings for which the term hut would be inappropriate. Thickly thatched roofs crowned straight, smooth walls of sapling and undressed stone frames, rendered with red clay that soon faded to brown in the intense sun. Traditionally, the houses would have been round rather than rectangular. The main cottages had concrete floors and paneless windows with shutters and nylon mosquito screens; their uncluttered interiors furnished with solid, locally-produced tables and chairs, along with several sofas; large drums skinned with hide served as coffee tables. Charcoal and firewood provided the cooking fuels and paraffin lamps the lighting. Water had to be carried a considerable distance from the river, by the young women.
A trio of Otieno's sisters served us at the table, commencing with bowls of hot water for ceremonial hand washing. The meal consisted of a roasted bantam, mashed savoury banana, sweet potatoes and spinach. In place of bread was ugali, a slightly moist yellow cake or solid porridge made from maize meal and cooked through an arduous process of boiling and folding with a spoon. The flavour of ugali is very subtle, but it's quite addictive, once you get a taste for it. Once cool it loses its pliability, but it does make an excellent breakfast if sliced and fried, accompanied by sukuma wiki, spinach cooked in chopped fresh tomatoes with onion and coriander (how I miss it). Utensils are reserved for cooking, fingers being preferred for eating. During the meal Otieno explained that he needed to return to Kisumu on an errand and how Mungai had agreed to take him; they would probably spend the night and return for me in the morning.
I was left in the care of Kyoo, who looked like a younger version of Odinga and was just as dignified, along with some of their cousins. Some people like to be called by their Christian names, like Fred (Odhiambo), a well-built, jovial young man. Lads being lads they decided to take me for a drink at the local bar.
We left the pacho and followed a winding track through the maize crops. To the south, vague but discernible, could be seen the distant hills of bordering Kisi. It was explained to me how walking the lanes and chatting was the main pastime of an evening. Although the locals cultivated very little fruit, the hedgerows were full of wild guvu bushes; unfamiliar to me, the fruit is lemon-like in size and appearance, its centre consisting of soft red flesh impregnated with numerous small seeds. I was given an example to eat as we walked.
I asked my companions about snakes and was assured that they were scared away by the chickens and dogs. And no word of a lie, no sooner was that said than we rounded a bend to see a short, but thick bodied, horned green viper crossing the trail in front of us. I watched the serpent insinuate its way across the trail and disappear in the hedgerow. My companions offered slightly embarrassed grins, but said nothing, and then we carried on.
A little further along the trail, our path was dissected once more, this time by a seething column of safari ants, with a dead bird in their midst, slowly being dismembered and carried away. Kyoo proved far less reticent concerning ants and explained how prolific the siafu become during dry periods. The ants would scale the outer walls of houses to penetrate the thatch, before forming a living chain down to the floor. At such times the people would effectively deter invasions by placing an unbroken ring of fire ash around their homes. Needless to say, I cautiously stepped over the river of ants with an exaggeratedly wide stride.
The bar was an open-fronted shack with a thatched roof and tables outside. Our appearance was declared a special event by the landlord, as we were the first paying customers in days. Due to a mixture of religious fervour and the expense of bottled beer, the bar got scant custom. Traditional brews were still popular, although some are potentially lethal. Changaa, a highly popular corn spirit, has been responsible for numerous deaths and had recently been banned by the government.
Kyoo got a round of Tusker lagers in. With no power to run the fridge, the beer was lukewarm but wet enough. I found that the younger generation were keen to emphasise their schooling and progressiveness while playing down the more traditional aspects of contemporary life. However, after a few unaccustomed beers, which they refused to let me pay for, and encouraged by the sincerity of my interest, I was able to glean a general picture of life in Kabondo.
Although small plots of experimental cash crops had been planted under the influence of the younger generation, the bulk of the crops remained maize, supplemented by banana and sweet potatoes; some of the larger neighbouring shambas grow sugarcane. Banana originally provided the staple diet of the Luo people, until the introduction of maize during the colonial era. With the exception of the rice and chapatti-loving Swahili of the coast, maize had become the staple food of most East Africans. The maize harvest comes in August, with a second crop in December only sometimes attained. The average yield is ten sacks per acre, two sacks a month being required for home consumption; the remainder is shared out among needy relatives. Ademba's clan patronised a traditional river-powered mill situated in the nearby hills, the charge being two shillings per load compared to the six charged by motorised mills. Traditional mills process a sack of maize in three hours as opposed to the ten minutes taken by their modern competitors.
Men plough the land and sow the seeds, after which only the women tend and harvest the crop, generally speaking: the few tractor owners in the region hire out their vehicles for ploughing. Unfortunately, the heavily overworked land proves less productive as land shortage limits crop rotation. The young men talked about their aspirations towards the use of chemical fertilizers and yet more intensive farming methods.
Despite their descent from nomadic pastoralists, derived from the Nile Valley, the Joluo have been successfully adapting to more sedentary and agrarian ways of life throughout the last century. Cattle still remain an integral aspect of Luo culture, in terms of dowries and feasts. In the event of a burial, relatives can come from near and far with their herds. Depending upon how well-respected the deceased was, the mourners can reach numbers of several thousand - bulls are slaughtered to feed them. African long-horned cattle are exceptionally hardy, but in terms of milk yield, the average individual struggles to fill a glass after a day's grazing, consequently, goat's milk provides a necessary supplement.
My companions talked in the past tense regarding their pre-Christian spiritual beliefs, but I still got the impression that the new religion had simply overlaid the old, rather than completely replacing it. Ademba's god was Nyasi, a name borrowed from the Bantu. Nyasi is the Supreme Being, creator of the Universe. The sun is also deified under the name of Chieng. Serpents are regarded as hosting the spirits of their ancestors and are never harmed - if a Jaluo finds a snake in his property, he will politely ask it to leave. Anamism plays a large part in their traditions, trees, rocks and hilltops being considered sacred. There is also a shamanistic tradition of Juogi (spirits), which possess the chosen few (Ajuoga). The most adept of these witchdoctors may aspire to become a high priest (Jabilo), the quasi-sacred rainmaker and source of war magic.
Next I was told the legend of Luanda Magere, the invincible warrior brought low by the treachery of the woman he loved; a tale with aspects similar to the story of Samson and Delilah, along with that of Achilles and Cassandra.
I had seen very little evidence of the customary removal of front teeth, a drastic response to the endemic threat of tetanus: infection brings on an involuntary clamping of the jaw muscles, but with the teeth removed, the afflicted are able to take in nourishment. An initiation ceremony on attaining adulthood grew around the tooth-breaking custom, but thankfully, vaccination programmes were rendering the practice obsolete. Despite the proven flexibility of Luo culture in relation to Bantu influences, they remain one of the few tribes not to have adopted the custom of circumcision, the universal rite of manhood for many tribes. During their amusing and light-hearted exchanges of tribalistic banter, Mungai would often tease Otieno about his uncut status. I was safe from such taunts and all the more grateful that my initiation had been carried out on the operating table and under anaesthetic, rather than while stood in a river, like Mungai.
The younger generation's views on polygamy were mixed: like the unmarried Otieno, Kyoo thought his one wife sufficient. Kyoo worked in distant Nakuru, where his wife and children lived. Odhiambo, their cousin, had three wives and provided an interesting example of contemporary polygamy. Like Kyoo he worked in the civil service, only higher up and in Nairobi. He seemed to be the most successful member of the clan, in terms of career, finances and property. His first wife was uneducated and lived in his cottage at his father's pacho; the second wife lived in a modern home in Kisumu, where she worked in a bank; the third lived in Nairobi and also worked in the civil service. Odhiambo had twelve children, all of whom spend their early formative years with the first wife. As the children get older, they are moved to a town or the city to continue their education, allowing them better career prospects. I for one was a little jealous of this dual existence. No, I don't mean the polygamy - I mean the lifestyle representing the best of both worlds, traditional and modern.
I did ask if it would be possible to visit the local witchdoctor - strictly in the interests of social anthropology - but he happened to be away tending to someone who was sick. They said they'd take me to see the next best thing.
We vacated the bar around an hour after sundown. I was unwittingly led on a shortcut through the maize fields. Stumbling blindly through the maize, I clutched the shirt tails of Kyoo, images of vipers and soldier ants running riot in my mind. As we emerged from the crop, I was informed that we had arrived at the pacho of Ademba's eldest son. Apparently, the old man had been ostracised from the rest of the clan, on account of his heathen ways. It soon became evident that my Tusker-emboldened companions were intent on showing me every aspect of village life, including its vices.
Once inside we were arranged in a circle on stools, while the numerous women and children looked on in apparent fascination from one side of the room. The old man produced a water pipe fashioned from a gourd. With the addition of a few smouldering coals to the clay bowl, he proceeded to stoke the pipe with repeated, short, deep drags, plumes of grey bhangi smoke obscuring his wizened features. When the won pacho had fully expanded his lungs, the pipe was ceremoniously passed along to me. Needless to say, I tried to enter into the spirit of the ceremony. Very little was actually said, we just sort of meditated in honour of the good spirit, Nyasi. The pipe made its way around the circle until its contents had finally been reduced to ashes, before we took our leave.
We arrived back at the nucleus homestead to find the entire family gathered in the first wife's cottage, listening to the Voice of Kenya religious service. The broadcast was received on an antique wireless powered by an old car battery. I suddenly felt quite giddy and had to step outside for some air, followed by Kyoo, who had collected a hurricane lamp.
Kyoo distracted me from the queasiness by leading me around the yard and explaining the layout of the buildings. The smaller dwellings, facing one another, were the cottages of Kyoo and Otieno, the latter having been prepared for my visit. All the girls and immature males reside in their mother's house, the patriarch sleeping where his will dictates. Traditionally, the man would have had a separate dwelling known as his abila, where food was brought and the wives visited him - the subordinate wives had to receive permission from the 'Great Wife' before visiting. This meant that the subordinates had to win favour from the first wife, humouring her with bribes and gifts. Also, the livestock would have been housed with the subordinates at night. As homestead life gradually became more sophisticated, the abila would have been strategically placed, allowing the man to visit the wife of his choosing without the others seeing.
I became aware of a curious sensation like pins and needles, creeping up my legs. Initially, it was no more than irritating, until it spread to my inner thighs with searing intensity. Aware of my discomfort, Kyoo illuminated my legs with the lamp. He stoically stated the obvious: 'You seem to have some ants in your pants.'
Reasoning that I needed to act quickly, if I were to prevent my legs being stripped to the bone, I dropped my army trousers and frantically proceeded to rub my thighs. Kyoo advised that I was merely breaking off the ants' bodies and the offending heads remained attached. He suggested we retire to Otieno's cottage to remove the heads. Protecting my crotch with one hand and continuing to rub away with the other, I hobbled off towards the cottage, and then tripped over my trousers, falling heavily - twice, before reaching the door. Inside, Kyoo patiently held the lamp while I removed the ant heads. Understandably, Kyoo was struggling to hide his amusement.
As the cottage was to accommodate me for the night, I decided on early retirement, nursing my pounding head, burning legs and battered pride. Kyoo lit a couple of candles before he left. I could just imagine them in the main cottage, laughing at his hilarious tale. The cot was narrow but comfortable, set on high legs. I checked the bedding for bugs, sprayed the legs with insect repellent, and climbed on the bed to rub a tube of anti-histamine cream into my thighs, before slipping eagerly between the cool cotton sheets and scribbling in the diary.
I had spent nights in far less sophisticated dwellings - such as a cow dung rendered Maasai hut, listening to hyenas laugh' and a leopard yowl, for most of the night - but as I took in the interior of the sparsely furnished cottage by candlelight, I had never been so intensely aware of my surroundings before. Yellow gecko lizards prowled the walls, hunting crickets. In the shadows of one corner, I glimpsed a sinister-looking spider, as large as my hand; it looked capable of eating the lizards. I could hear the incessant droning of mosquitoes dive-bombing my head like World War One fighter planes, and cursed myself for having left the mosquito net in Nairobi. I eventually drifted off into dreamless slumber.
* * *
People rise early in Kabondo, ruling out any chance of a lie-in for me. My return to consciousness was accompanied by a resurgence of a heady euphoria in my throbbing head. Despite my reluctance to move, Kyoo had other ideas. I was soon sitting in the doorway on a stool, sipping black tea and blinking at the sunlight. As my blurred vision began to focus, I became aware of my companions from the previous eve, gathering to greet me. One of them produced the water pipe, thrusting it into my hands. The bowl was freshly packed with tiny bell-like, pale-green velvety flowers, to which Kyoo added a few glowing coals from a small charcoal burning stove used to keep the tea hot. Totally bemused, I drew lightly on the mouthpiece, while everyone else grinned in satisfaction and offered encouragement. When I attempted to pass on the pipe, they declined, insisting that it was all for me. I was caught in the hospitality trap. The weight of my upper eyelids gradually increased, until I could barely keep them open.
Thankfully, it wasn't too long before Mungai and Otieno returned for me. Still, it was with sincere regret that I said my goodbyes, curled up on the back seat of the car and fell asleep. My short stay with the Children of Ademba was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life and I will always be grateful for the generous hospitality I received.
For the elder generation of Kabondo, very little had changed since the days of Ademba, most of them had never even travelled the sixty kilometres to Kisumu, Kabondo and Kadongo remained the centre of their world. It was their children who would experience the full influence of Western culture, education, employment and reliance on the fragile economy of modern Kenya. As for which generation got the better deal, only time will tell.