O Wa Gatùù




Like jokes, there are certain phrases that are common among cultures that are hard to translate and even in those cases where some of those phrases lend themselves quite amenable to simple translation, the meaning of the phrases are not as easily translated.  This is not a sign of a new epiphany but I have to say right from the beginning that even I did not realize just how deep some phrases are when viewed in a deeper context. If fact, the underlying theme of my essay being just have to do m with more than a deeper context, but only that it is cloaked in a more digestible idea of the phrase above. I have in mind a very expansive idea of what it means to be an African-born Southerner living in this times. I have always struggled with what my responsibility is/should be. I find it hard to just create context of myself relative to all other Africans who have traversed the vast American South, both past and present. Having a son in the South and knowing the fractured history of race relations in this region makes me act with a lot of trepidation.  That trepidation is mostly for others. I try to imagine the fear and dread that has been experienced by many Africans in this corner of the the subcontinent. I can’t fail to note that many were brought to this shores amid great and traumatic violence, only to be immersed in even greater violence. That part of the story in partly recorded and many historians have done a great job in their attempt to capture a picture, however faint, of the ordeal. However, there is a part of the violence that only the first African-born Africans were aware of. That violence is the the bitterness of the memory of Africaness and of home.


As such, I tend to think that we can divide all the Blacks in this country into two basic groups: those with a memory of home and those without. While both groups can conceptually understand their oppressive conditions, only one has a context of how to what extent the group has been damaged by the experience. In other words, the memory of home forms a sort of starting point, or base line. This memory is a double-edged sword, it helps one stay grounded, but it can also be the source of a lot of pain as one compares the wretched condition to those of home, family and community. I just happen to be one Africans with both a home-consciousness  and the experience of away-from-home-African-Southerner. That I even consider myself a Southerner is not a easy admission to make. I know that any of my American-born children will never truly experience the feeling of home that I once experienced before coming to the South. This is no trivial matter. What it means to be an African in South should be a conversation that all people of color in should have with and among themselves. Failure to do so is likely to have some serious ramifications.

When I was in undergraduate, I received a scholarship named in the honor of W.E.B Dubois. While I was happy to get any scholarship, the kind of scholarship I received was probably more important then the scholarship itself, at least in terms of the impact it had in my life e. Without too much prompting by my professors, I found my self dealing with a great curiosity about the kind of person Dubois was. What started as a simple curiosity to learn about someone who seemed like an important person for a freshman to know just because, ended up becoming the guiding light and a fire rod that has light both my path and sparked my brain. I find myself dealing with a lot of the questions that Dubois dealt with. It should obviously go without saying that my family’s history and my experience in Kenya contributed a great deal in the budding interest in the intellectual pursuit as laid out by Dubois.

In that light, I started seeing a lot of contradictions among Africans in the South. Southern Blacks were proving to be just as much of a lesson for me as the books I was reading. I quickly understood that some of the behaviors I was observing among Africans in the South predicted that behaviors that Africans in Africa were moving towards. This was before the age of widespread internet use and therefore I did not have a lot of access to information that would have have deepened my understanding of this crucial topic. At the same time, I was still young and much of what I can see now was still beyond my reach even by a far shot. But that was then. With age, new levels of understanding open up and the various reading one may have engaged in begin to bear fruit. So when I was talking to Nducu Wa Ngugi, the son of the legendary Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, I picked on a very nuanced phrase that symbolized home-consciousness.  Nducu and I are great friends and we have a great time talking about all matters African whenever we meet up. Being a writer and as son of writer, we talk into the wee hours of the night whenever we happen to be together. He really gets my mind thinking as he is such a great story teller. But yesterday, he got me thinking about how our conversation still carries oblique signs of a people whose food is oppressed. No better phrase captures that fact than the phrase ‘o wa gatùù”. Nducu was alluding to the fact that food is very central to all the things we do. He continued to recount that whenever he finishes writing at the end of the day, the first thing he wonders if what can I get to eat. After various interesting examples of thing that people do and then proceed to get a bit to eat. This got me thinking about the differences between how my grandfather welcomed his guests to our homestead during his times and how Nducu and I are likely to welcome our friends or even offer to treat them to launch.

I have to first tell you about Kamakia,  my grandfather. I have written a bit about him previously but not enough. My paternal grandfather had three wives. Two of them lived in the same compound and one lived about 30 minutes away from our homestead. Kamakia was quite wealthy during his time. The number of wives that one had during those days was certainly a mark of how wealthy one was. He owned may goats and cows. While this was still during the time of British occupation,  the family lived quite comfortably during the early years of my father’s youth. What was amazing was that my grandfather has a piece of land that was tendered to by his wives. He also had goats in his hut that were tendered to by the young boys in the family. The food that come from my grandfather’s plot was his only. Nobody else could walk to his plot and pick anything to eat without his permission. In the evening, he would be in his own hut with all the boys of the homestead telling them stories. There was always a fire in the hut to keep the place warm. The wives would be in their own huts with the girls who were big enough to help their mothers with the cooking. The younger girl would be in their grandmothers hut enjoying stories, songs and family history. What struck me in learning about my grand father is that from time to time, he will order on of the young boys to bring some green bananas or sweet potatoes to roast for snacks as they waited for dinner. The snacks would be roasted at the fireplace in Kamakia’s hut.  During those days, the women and their husbands did not share huts, each had his or her hut. Each was distinctly designed for the different sexes and was build to meet the needs and functions that each sex had to attend to.

The women’s hut was the most complex of all the huts in a compound. It had a storage sections, that was the equivalent of a pantry, it had sleeping quarters for the young girls, a section for cooking, an areas to store cooked food and her own sleeping quarters. She also had her own goats in the same house. The mans hut was much simpler. It was quite open and did not have many sections. The one thing that conspicuous in a man’s hut was a storage for his honey, meat and tobacco snuff. The meat, known as rukuri, was usually preserved in honey and then dried. It was very sweet and a great treat. Only great friends would be offered this meat. Men typically shared tobacco with their general friends and age mates. During special occasions, the women would brew sugarcane bear and the husband and his friends would be hosted in the house of the wife who prepared the brew. The type of brew was known as Muratina, muratina being a loafer-like plant that was used as catalyst. The english name for the plant is African Sausage tree. The brew was quite time consuming. There were areas where the community would construct a community sugarcane press to squeeze the juice from sugarcane and then honey would be added and the mix would be placed by the fireside. After a few days, the brew would be ready and word would go around to the community elders that Kamakia for example was hosting his friends for a night of conversation, known as ndeereti in local language. The enders would come and to the Kamakia’s homestead and head straight to the hut of the wife who had done the brewing. They would all seat around and the host Kamakia would tell his friends why he had decided to brew Muratina. This was customary because people did not always brew for the sake of it. The was always a reason behind a brewing session. Sometimes the elder may brew Muratina because he had an important message to pass to the other elders. One such important message would be the announcement of marriage in the family.  Other reasons would be honoring a friend. There less desirable reason but similarly fun brewing session for one done as a result of a fine by the council of elders. If one elder or his family broke the law, one of the fines could include brewing Muratina for the elders.

Those drinking session were like theatre to an anthropologist. But to a chef, they were something far greater. The one observation about this sessions was that the person in whose honor the Muratina was brewed was the one who would do the honors, no pun intended.  What was amazing is that all the elders would drink from a single horn. The horn of the cow was just no ordinary horn. It among the most precious items that an elder would have beyond his staff, his sword and his seat. This horn was likely to have some decorative marks. I have seen with three carved circles at the tip to represent the highest level of authority among the council of elders. Every circle represented a goat paid a requsit fee to be admitted in the various levels of authority among the council of elder.

Every elder would take a sip of the brew and then pass it to the next elder. By using one horn, the drinking would take a very long time before all the brew was gone. The whole process still had an aspect of theatre even to an anthropologist. All the various characters would be be played on as though on a collicium. One could very clearly learn the existing relationships among the elders. The truth of the matter is that not all elders were created equal and neither all of them were welcome in such groups. I remember tales of elders who were so stingy that they hardly invited elders to “night in” at his homestead but were quite regular in attending the parties at other peoples homes. One such elder might be “dissed” by being skipped as the horn was going around. Such an act was a form of high disrespect. Such an elder would be so furious that he would end up leaving, also he intended result anyway. But the disgraced and humiliated elder would walk out forlorn,  knowing that he was not welcome among other elders. These sessions would last quite a while. There would be many discussions but more on the lighter side. This was a true celebration for the elders. In the end, the elders would leave and walk home at night. It was not unusual for them to sing out loud as they walked home. All the neighbors would know for sure that so and so had been having a good time. The elders would also use the session to brag about whatever accompaniments each was proud of. As they were joking around, one would for example swear with his dad or a famous member of the family such as a warrior or his clan. These were surely fun sessions. It was also a time to let loose. Besides those who may have been deemed to be unfit for the gathering, those in the group could raise sensitive topics without sounding so serious. This often took the form of riddle or insinuations. The conversations were almost like a form of art. The elders would talk in riddles and symbolism. This was true joy and true freedom. I way for elders to be children all over again.

The stories from my father about those days left deep inscriptions in my memory. I could just imagine the kind of consciousness that it had taken over thousands of years to fine-tune such well orchestrated gathering. With so much order, even in what others would view as chaos. This is why Dubois was such a fresh read for me. I could relate to his central message. That the oppressed have a sense that those in power do not have. They live life with a great sensitivity to their environment. They are truly aware of the power imbalance and how the power in the hands of others shapes them. Such is the connection that Nducu and I have. When I visit him in New York, I feel a great sense of joy and intellectual or cultural union that I rarely feel in this country. This kind of jovial feeling is rarely possible with a White person. I am acutely aware of the fact that however much they my try to understand the feeling of being Black in a country deeply stained by system racism.

But here is a way of trying to demonstrate it. Whenever anybody would visit my grandfather’s homestead, his first words after the greetings was to call out to one of his wife’s to make something nice for the guest. In fact, he would rarely use words such as could you please feed or give so and so something to eat. Rather, there was a special word for indulging the guest. He would most likely use the word “ Kugagura” It struck me as strange that that word is never used in any other context. I only used to hear it used relative to kindred soul. I can almost bet that the word was used relative to a guest or whenever my parents were quite happy. Not that there was a rule against using the word, but it just felt awkward is used out of context.  We just can’t avoid talking about context. But that was then. What about now.

When I in Kenya, I still make the same observation whenever I go back to Kenya, I hear family and friends ask each other “ could we find somewhere we can get something tiny to eat?” Here we go again, meaning lost in the translation. The way they say it sounds like the perfect words that indicate how much our food as people of African descent is still oppressed. The words are quite demeaning if you think deeper about them. For Nducu, for example, being the friend and comrade in social justice, the use of the words “o wa gatùù” reduces both our friendship and our status to that of serfs or slaves. Those very words mean something like infinitesimal. The lowest of the lowest that you can get to eat. How did a people so proud, so friendly, such masters of hospitality, wonderful farmers and great master of family craft get this low?. They while not exactly egalitarian, women could still marry other women in our culture. The arrangement was not sexual and the women who did the marrying would assume the role of a man. I guess “ me too “ would not have worked in their case. The big difference wit the food they consumed was food that it  was grown by the family and no slaves or serfs grew the food. It was therefore local, organic and afro futuristic. It was based on justice, love and community. Is it any wonder that these people were neither obese nor plagued by lifestyle diseases? Yet the process of exploitation in this racist world has in equal measure damaged the consciousness of the African to the point where the highest and finest etiquette of sharing food with family and friends is reduced to an exercise that reminds us that we are eating our own oppression. Failure to recognize this simple fact means that we as people of African descent may be blind to our reality. The result is a consciousness that is false and out of sink. That consciousness should in fact be labeled “O wa Gatùù”. It will symbolize the beginning of the crime against our consciousness. Depending of where you stand, it could also symbolize the beginning of the spirit of blind exploitation of man by man. Many other groups have marked such period of horrors by creating a name for the day of infamy. The Palestinians for example have a day they call All Nakba or the day of Catastrophe.

Among my ethnic group, “o  wa Gatuu” is the most feeding reminder as to why we are still having a problem being ourselves or being human and home.  If we “Kugagura” our consciousness, we just maybe whole again without touching any hem of a garment of the capitalist Moloch that benefit from our toil and suffering. If we do, we may just offer the one salvation that this country deeply needs but does not seem conscious about how our salvation is intertwined. Whenever someone asks me what they need to eat in order that they may lose weight or heal from an ailment. I am deeply disappointed. We don’t suffer or gain weight because we don’t organic food or healthy food, but because we are dishonest and oppressed. Even those perpetrating the oppression are equally oppressed. The very fact that they rely on oppressing others to feel exceptional is a sign of savagery. Yet the very eating in a civil way may be the first step towards taking a deeper look at ourselves and hopefully waking up otherwise the slumber will destroy this country, especially the South.