Demystifying Luhyaness

So, this time, my eyes were pried wide open by a recent visit to shags. The motherland… well not exactly because technically I was born and raised in Nairobi but you catch my drift. So I was Vihiga-bound. Rooooaaaaddd-trip! Eight and a half hours of seeing hills roll by… and by… and by… until I almost wanted to kill myself. After confirming that my ass was as numb as possible and having my legs feel like they belonged to an old, frail person, I was finally here. The last time I set foot here was for my grandmother’s funeral 7 years ago. So it had been a while. This first-part of the post serves to enlighten the unenlightened about Luhyas and hopefully derive a few lessons. Writing should never be pointless.
So one thing you need to know about Luhyas is that we love our tea. That was just a joking point on Churchill Live before but when you actually get to Luhya-land it stops being a joke. We drown ourselves in tea. Literally. We arrived in Vihiga at around 3.30 pm, had afternoon tea, we drunk tea again at 6 pm, ate dinner, drunk tea immediately after dinner and drunk tea before going to sleep. It really was not an option of coffee, tea or cocoa. No. Tea or nothing. Tea is like water. It is life. When someone in Luhya-land invites you for tea, it is the real definition of Social-drinking, and is mostly an excuse for THEM to drink tea. On average, I drank tea 7 times a day (because when you are in Rome, you do as the Romans do) until my skin smelled like tea leaves. My aunt actually reprimanded me for prioritizing bathing water over water for tea; she was like “Martie, wenya mazi kuisinga na watu hawajakunywa chai?” (Martie, you want to bathe with this water yet people have not drunk tea?)” Like, chill out. Tea goes with anything: bananas, bread, chapatti, mandazi, ngwashe, cassava, you name it, and insert tea. Everyone practically grows tea in their farms and keeps cows for milk so there is never any deficit of tea. I could go on and on about tea but…
Well, another thing that I do not think is only characteristic of Luhyas but of most African rural-folk is the uninhibited generosity. They are generous with what they have, but perhaps more importantly, what they do not have. For example, we visited the caretaker at my mother’s shags and she is quite uhm, for lack of a better word, materially poor. So we had to climb a hill to get to her mud-thatched house (a hill that was used to grow tea! No chills!) and when we walked into the compound, there were two cows tied to different trees (so my coward sisters steered clear of the trees) and we found her decorating her house with cow-dung for Christmas (apparently cow-dung is like cement, it makes a house sturdier, yeah true story bro). She ran towards us after spotting us and hugged my mother super-heartily and the rest of us as well, inviting us into her home where the five of us squeezed into her one big sofa and she got a stool for herself. Her children stood, watching us like we were just out of a movie. She ran into her room and jammed some coins into her daughter’s hand and instructed her to get some flour for ugali and asked as if we would like some strungi. (For those who don’t know what that is, it is tea without milk, used by those who cannot afford milk) We politely declined because we were in a hurry. She looked really insulted. Normal people would feel relieved because this saves them the effort of making tea and grinding tea leaves. She was offended, I was later told, because visitors are a blessing in our community, and the host gets more blessings by treating their guests well. So, our refusal of the “milkless” tea amounted to denying her blessings. She, however, had two chicken in her compound. So when it was time for us to go, she caught one, tied it up and gave it to me with a blessing (Yes I carried that chicken like a man, I have pictures!). It was clear that by giving me this chicken she only had one left. By giving me this chicken, she was showing how much she values our comfort, despite us having arrived in a car, having better clothes, having a socially-more-wealthy lifestyle, above her own. She gave us that cock to tell us that she knows she is surrendering her only chance of bearing more chicken, but she wants to bless us instead, in as much as we seemingly did not need it. That was the generosity that lingered in the air and floated in the wind and dissolved into the tea leaves around; the generosity that symbolizes our unique culture that embodies real empathy, real pride but real humility in giving rather than receiving. I did not understand it then, as she handed me that chicken, smiling and patting my back saying “ugasizwe” (be blessed) over and over again but I get it now.
This case of generosity was not just once, but SEVERAL times. Another visit to my aunt’s and we were given two chicken. Yet on another visit to my dad’s friend for lunch, one chicken was slaughtered the other packed for us. On yet another visit, we were given two chicken and on our last day, we came with one more cock to Nairobi. It was not an isolated incident. It was the norm; this exchange of these feathery delicacies. One morning, a random man with a mud-ridden, torn shirt that must have originally been purple in color and trousers that were shred on his ass peacefully sauntered into the compound. We were living at my aunt’s and we were in the veranda having our usual morning tea (it was my second cup. I had been initiated) and obviously, living in Nairobi where you can be stripped (not poking fun here Julia) or pick-pocketed at any time, my first instinct was to confront him and throw him out for trespassing. I had not seen this man here before, no one was making like they knew him, so I was getting my adrenaline ready to muscle this fool out. So I stood up, and watched him do a semi-drunken walk to the gate and walk right in, then I noticed his feet were as big as tree-stumps, like I’m not joking. So I paused first and wondered whether he could kick me to oblivion then I heard Joy (my sister) saying “Oh my God, he has jiggers.” I stopped. My aunt came out and the random guy said, “Aki auntie nisaidie sigara (Please give me a cigarette)” so my aunt replied “Sikupi sigara lakini kuja nikupe chai ule na chapatti (I will not give you a cigarette but sit down, let’s drink tea and chapatti).” My obvious reaction was to think that this woman is family but she’s crazy! So she asked me to pour him tea and give him chapatti. I did it with a heavy heart, still not believing what she was saying. Crazy! My dad looked at me and said something I won’t forget in a while, “Jesus will ask you, when I was hungry, did you feed me?” That’s the thought I’ll leave you with.


Martie Mtangi (22)