It was during the onset of the harvest season. The light rains that occasionally graced the hot and dry afternoons making the nights a little bearable, first receded gradually behind the spectacular Nandi hills, then took a quickened retreat over the next few weeks before stopping altogether. The season before, the villagers had grown fond of the light rains that spanned several weeks as their granaries swelled with produce of tough labor.
Slightly over twelve days ago, the village had been whacked with the sad news of the passing of Ker; the last noble and great man from the very wise clan of Chuodho. Ker was well known in the five clans of Kano and on the day he rested, villagers were treated to all manner of dirges from old men wielding spears, traditional fly whisks and with high reverence, chanted nicknames of the fallen giant.
They would occasionally brandish the spears against each other and make threatening sprints to and fro in the mourning compound; a scene that repeatedly sent young children scampering for their lives. They would do it again, with climaxed vigor, on the day his remains were brought home having been laid on the cold freezer of the morgue for nearly two weeks.
Two days later all mourning and unnecessary gestures would cease. It was a day for men of the cloth; to say soothing words to the bereaved, remind the living of the life beyond the grave and convince the villagers, albeit wrongly, that they – men of God – had powers to change the afterlife trajectory of the fallen man lying in the casket.
We usually visit homesteads of the dead for three reasons; hanging around the corpse, eating good food and listening to the details of how they died. Anything falling outside the three sided ring is a pointless distraction. We did it then, we still do. We love to hear gory details of how they struggled in bed with liver cirrhosis brought about by overindulgence in cider brew…what the bereaved was doing beside the deceased in that fine moment…how the deceased was chased by evil spirits until he finally gave up the ghost…we love those details; they bring us closer to the dead.
The Igbo of Nigeria wait, with uncluttered excitement, on the feast of yams and kola, the Swazi venerate the annual reed dance, we from the greater Western Kenya love funerals. On burial days of men of means, few villagers whose sacrifices to their personal gods were consummated in acceptance, got the very seldom chance of munching overrated village delicacies that on regular days would be a pipe dream for many. Chapatti was one such hyped village delicacy.
Whenever your mum announced that she, on sunset, would make chapatti for dinner, that very instant you became a malevolent dictator with veto powers to challenge and quench any contra thought of your childhood friends. With such a disclosure, you held both the kola and the knife. The corroded taste buds of children that were forever stuck with omena and apoth (the native vegetable) always longed for something new; something real. And chapatti was special; so special that a promise to get a piece or bite of it could turn any stubbornly rogue child into a poppet suitable for any errand.
The preparation of chapatti was always faced with torrents of challenges. For some strange reasons, there were only few homes that had pans that could be used to fry the chapattis. Those homes had conditions under which the pan could be lent out. Before dispatching you on a borrow – a – pan journey, your mum would give you a prior brief of this anticipated demand; two pieces of chapatti a ransom. You were to assent to the wishes of the pan owner.
One may imagine that that was a token to bridge the tear and wear that stemmed from your use of the pan. Far from it, chapatti was missed and longed for; if you understood the degree of this obsession then you equally knew that the pan could not be returned to the owner with another food stuff like sugar in its place. It had to be chapatti, in its earlier agreed quantity.
The news of the impending chapatti fest would spread like bush fire in the Harmattan, transforming the little cooking issue into a village affair. And in so many cases random agenda – less visitors would flock in towards sunset; direct beneficiaries of the leaked news that a pan had been borrowed from one home to another. They would jam your heads with lion stories that never run straight, only feigning a pause when the brown matter so religiously prepared was placed on the table with the accompanying beans or on luckier days – chicken stew.
Strangely whenever the meal was done with, the guests would suddenly become aware of how late it was getting and that early planting rains might pour down any time. They would, in strange twist of urgency, be in a haste to leave; having sorted this little matter of the belly.
Just as with race segregation, funerals brought some level of discrimination; based on class. There were erected three tents; one for the villagers and other commoners, the other a reserve high table for special guests.
joNarobi, sons and daughters of the village who earn their living in Nairobi or pretend to, fall under the purview of the high table tent. The third tent in the deceased compound would be the funeral service tent where only hawkishly verified visitors, holy men of God, the societies’ who is who and joNarobi sat attentively as they followed the day’s program.
Ker’s funeral was no exception. The villagers’ tent was set behind the compound, hidden away from the observant eyes of joNarobi. It was stuffed with basic foods; matumbo; bony beef, overcooked syrup – like cabbages. Scrambled too in this tent were rumors of chapatti for the men of God conducting burial service and few in – laws who had paid more than three goats as bride price to the daughters of the land. The other in – laws got their portion of food with the rest of the commoners, for they had elected to bring dishonor upon themselves; detaining one’s daughter without feeling the shame of failing to offer meaningful bride price.
The posh tent of joNarobi, thoughtfully decorated with choicest foods and soft drinks, was planted towards the gate. Both food tents were vigilantly manned by tent keepers. Just as a boy sent by his father to steal goes forth not stealthily but slams the door open with his youthful feet, so did these village – anointed tent keepers pursue their duty with vigor. Appointment to man a tent again in the next funeral was purely hinged on the meanness level of a face these chaps kept and the number of village low – lives they identified, filtered and isolated without mercy from the queue and kept away from the exquisite tent of joNarobi.
On Ker’s burial day, for crowd, utensils and space management, persons were asked to queue the lines in shifts and eat in batches as the sermon got underway.
Man of the cloth for the day, the Right reverend Achupa of the Holiest of All Ghosts Otit Mach Parish – Got Kwer Mission, adorned in his purple apparel, head crowned with hand knit cream miter with a contrasting sign of the cross as a fitting diadem neatly embedded in its frontal pitch, was preaching his favorite line, ‘the age of man is seventy, but if one has good life…’. He must have preached it in three or more funerals before; so much that it got to the nerves of the villagers – they looked forward to it not.
And now it even mattered less considering that he had been preaching for over an hour since 3pm and there was nothing in his gestures or mannerisms that suggested he would stop any time soon. To the congregation he had become a stumbling block to the only missing part of the riddle they were longing to hear; the widow’s eulogy.
In the greater Western Kenya, it would be a grave mistake of immeasurable proportions to allow the widow to speak before man of the cloth take to the stage. We never reverse the order. The eulogy of the bereaved is the icing on the cake. If you jumble up the sequence between the sermon and eulogy, the man of God will – without a shadow of doubt – end up harking himself hoarse to an empty compound.
As if it were an answer to the gathering’s prayers, when the air of the mother earth stood still vibrating with smoldering heat intermittently disturbed by the reverend’s high pitched voice, there was no small stir coming from behind the funeral service tent. The noises soon grew unignorably. The bored audience lurched their eyes from the reverend to the direction of the noise.
And there it was; some two young men were trying to intercept an old man in his late seventies loosely clinching a yellow plastic plate in his palm, who was making haste for the service tent wailing at the top of his voice. He was able to shrug off the young lads and, in between the heavy puffs of breath, shouted his case; his eyes fixed on the composed congregation.
“Chapata pata maka adhi chiro Ahero kae, timiya gi siling abich.
Ni koro oketa amino wach e tok tend ka gi nyithindo manyocha eka oweyo dhoth.
Chapat! Mayie chapat biro miyo akuong’o nyithindo kayiem.
(Chapatti, mere chapatti that is cheaply sold at 5 shillings in the market place Ahero, am being rudely reminded here at the tent by these young lads who only yesterday stopped suckling their mothers’ teats that I do not qualify to have a piece. Chapatti! This chapatti nonsense will make me curse children in vain).”
The first wave of his outbursts sent into laughter a section of the audience in the service tent. The young men at his heels retreated in shame. Not even the right reverend and his brethren at the holy table could circumvent the circus from the old man.
Seizing the moment, the old man pressed on,
“An jaduong marairi gi ikani, ni koro oketa ka amino wach gi nyithindo.
Oketa gi matumbo gi kuon. Matumbo ni asechamo ndii!
Kanyocha Ojunga’ Obare otho batha kaa oketa gi matumbo.
Wuod Bwore mane pee onego cha kocha, bende kane iiko nodiya gi matumbo.
Matumbo tinde chando iya. Iya orudoree konya uru
(At my age so spent, I still have to engage in meaningless innuendos with children. I am being forced to take matumbo and ugali. Far too long I have gulped down matumbo! From Ojung’a Obare’s funeral the other day to Bwore’s son who was felled by hailstones, every funeral I attend am slapped with matumbo. My stomach has lost its tolerance, matumbo is killing me)!’
Apparently the old man, who hailed two villages away, had braved the long winding trek to come pay his last respects for his departed childhood friend Ker. All was well until he visited the commoners’ tent to bridge the deficit call from his tummy. There, when his turn came to be served, a nasty standoff arose with the tent keepers over this weighty matter of chapatti.
He had decided that in the absence of mercy behind the tents, the tent of the common where respect was limited, he had to take his woes to the gallery of the privileged. He seized the moment and took attention of the congregation that was bored by the endless speech spewed by the right reverend.
In that spur of the moment, he created an atmosphere of a pressing message that could not be postponed. He depicted a picture of a man who had been alarmed that Chukwu the high god was about to remove the foot that holds the world in place.
The laughter that came from the tent, the confusion that ensued momentarily put to rest the reverend’s harangue. Something more pertinent, more urgent, more personal, a bigger distraction had to be solved first if he were to get a chance to resume his sermon.
And so he inquired from the old man what was amiss. Without mincing his words, the old man still shaken by the chase – his voice almost lost in the melee, stated categorically that all he ever wanted were two pieces of chapatti and beef stew. But the proud young men of the present day lack respect for age; they decided to flood his yellow plate with two ladle scoops of the poorly cooked commoners’ matumbo stew and ugali. He tipped the plate to the side for the now keen audience to see.
The reverend, seemingly bewildered by the extent to which madness for food had driven the village, asked someone to help the old man get his desire.
A young man, dissimilar from the two that had earlier scuffled the old man, emerged from the villager’s tent to the old man’s aid. Alarmed, the old man knew he was no match for a village duel; accepting to head back to the villager’s tent hoping for a miracle was a venture so useless as the G in lasagna. He would have been subdued, gagged; even tied to a tree or chased down the river altogether for being a troubler of the sober feast. Indulging in such shallow thoughts would have been inimical to his quest.
In the villagers’ lens, he was already an embarrassment; a thorn in the flesh they would gladly wish a way. Given another chance they would not allow a repeat of such a scene. And so the old man knew that where sickness thrived bad things followed. He stood firm and waited, until that which he longed for was delivered at his feet.
No man is foolish enough to spit out a juicy morsel that hard luck has placed in his mouth. He must milk it. And milking he did. He not only altered his demand for a change from ugali and matumbo to chapatti and beef stew, he insisted that in his age and health he prefers to have chapatti and chicken stew instead. To help solve the new puzzle, he pointed at the tent where the new demands should be met from; the joNarobi tent.
Rhythms of laughter and ululations from some corners stirred the air; applauding the magic stroke with which the old man had transformed from a down trodden village commoner to a genius who had decided to use his little moment of fame to sort out his problems once and for all.
A young lady rushed to the joNarobi tent to assemble the old man’s demands. The function had come to a standstill and could only be rebooted after this weighty matter was handled amicably. The gods were with the old man. He demanded for a seat – with an arm rest and a stool to place his food – be created for him next to the dais where the right reverend was conducting his spiritual task. It was the safest place, out of the reach of those marauding young men who would not fail to seize any moment to teach him a lesson or two.
Friends of the bereaved who hailed from beyond the greater Western Kenya, mere aliens in the ways of these lands, shook their heads in amazement – albeit disapproval – pondering how such a vague concoction of salted water, wheat flour and oil can turn such a noble society into club of unreasonable ingrates who spares not even old men the agony and dignity to eat their last days on earth in peace.
Finally, the old man found peace and could now enjoy his hard earned meal with gravitas. The monotonous sermon renewed in earnest.
No sooner had the dust settled than the congregation began to yawn, constantly looking at their watches as had been the case prior to the commotion. It must have escaped the mind of the reverend that the audience he was trying to keep hostage with his seemingly not so amusing words were only entertaining it for as long as the widow was yet to rise up and eulogize her late husband; otherwise by now he’d be sadly preaching to trees and kids running up and down the seats left by the busy audience.
I have said it before, the madness that the love of chapatti will bring to the village is pregnant and suckling a baby at the same time.