Thursday, August 1, 2013

Length of Days

My paternal grandparents both died before I was born. However, I do have a "step-grandmother" - my grandfather's second wife. She is a jovial and likeable old lady, plump, sparsely wrinkled, very boisterous and enthusiastic, and simple in her tastes. And wise. I suppose becoming a widow decades ago toughened her some, having already gotten a head start in the school of hard knocks by growing up in the tough colonial era.

It took me a while to get to know grandma personally, because my ineptitude in speaking Dholuo made our conversations awkward. I was stuck to my city ways and languages like they were a badge of honor. But even in my younger days she often ventured to meet me halfway by struggling to speak Swahili. Over the years, however, my dholuo improved, and we have come to know and understand one another better. She often calls me aside to chat, most often on a certain bench, in her compound, under the shade of trees. From there we are sure to see any potential overhearers while they are still a long way off. I am still not fluent in Luo, but most of the time I'm only required to listen.

Humor usually crops up.

Grandma is not afraid to confess that she never once stepped in a classroom. She laughs about it: "In our days girls did not read. We were just herding cattle every day, every day herding cattle, until one day someone came and married you."

Talk of marriage quickly turns on me. "Take care not to marry a girl who knows too much. I have already instructed your mother that if you bring a girl here who crumples her nose at her or talks back to her, she should slap that girl's cheek and let her go back to her mother. You hear? And you should not bring for us a girl here who will make us struggle to speak a lot of Kiswahili. Just look for a good Luo girl who we can tell stories with. See your uncle, he married outside, now he never comes home, never sends money..."

At length her concerns turn to members of the extended family over which she is the matriarch. It is an empty title; few accord her the respect. Out of the blue, she questions me about why one of my cousins is "becoming hard-headed". In halting Dholuo I attempt to explain to her that the lad is merely in the hormonal doldrums of adolescence, that he will eventually pass that phase unscathed. The idea annoys her deeply, she dismisses the concept out of hand. "So that is how he wants to grow up? With craftiness and crookedness?" (Her exact words were "ojanja gi okora!" I had to suppress laughter, especially when she bent forward, lowered her palm to the grass and while raising her hand to the level of her head to signify a child growing up, chanted "ojanja okora ojanja okora ojanja." And then indignantly asked me, "what kind of adult will that one become?" Clicked her tongue. "And he has already begun this business of girls. The other day he went and bought lunch for himself and two girls at the market! He is okora! Why didn't he take the money home to buy soap?"

I nod. Everyone could use some soap at home.

Grandma continues: "Even nowadays when he is told something he makes his face angry. He thinks people are his agemates. Even if somebody's parents are good or bad, you have to persevere and obey them. That boy wants to get spoilt. He has grown horns like a bull. You should go and talk to him or he will become like [another cousin] who can no longer be helped now because it is too late."

I promise to advise the lad to leave craftiness and crookedness behind.

Grandma's opinions bear a certain practical wisdom, at least from her perspective and experience. Therefore when she speaks I listen, if only because she speaks with the absolute certainty of one who knows exactly what she is saying.


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