From Kenya to Uganda, the holidays that redefined my heritage

In about 100 years or so, my descendants and those of my brothers and sisters might not know each other. There’s a small chance they could, if they all live around the same area but I think they will be living their separate lives in different parts of Kenya and probably the world. If we are lucky, they might know us. I say all this because as of now, I know very few descendants of my grandparent’s siblings. Where are they? What do they do? What do they look like? I don’t know.

But something happened during the last holidays and it gave me and my siblings an opportunity to know some of them. Our grandma (dad’s mum) has always lived with us. When I was born, I found her living with us in the same farm. She had come from Uganda to live with my dad when he bought his farm in Kitale a year or two prior to my conception. That’s the time when Uganda was a hotbed of terror. The years of internal wars, coups and constant attacks from Pokots had sent the country to rack and ruin.

My dad was not born in Uganda. He was born on the Kenyan side of the border before my grandmother and grandfather separated and she went to Uganda and remarried there. My father is the only son of his parents. When grandma remarried, she got two other children, girls, my aunties. One is in Uganda and the other one in Kenya.

We’d been planning to celebrate our grandma – Gogo Maua (or simply Gogo as we call her) for a while and in Dec 2021, we finally got our date with her.

Because my grandma only had three children (there’s a whole story behind that), and one is far, her grandchildren are not that many. So, we also invited grandchildren of her siblings, those who are known and could be reached.

It was one of those events that you didn’t really know how it will go. There was no official program. We wanted minimum guidance so that it would just flow. Gogo hapangwingwi sana.

What made this day extra special were the relatives who came from Uganda. After being harassed by the police on the road, getting lost for almost two hours, derailing to another party in the neighborhood, they finally arrived at 4pm when the event was ongoing. Their vehicle with Ugandan plates made them look like bait to the Kenyan police.  They were four men and three women. Two of the men had come earlier in October looking for the family history from Gogo as she is the only surviving grandparent.

They went back, compiled the family history and during the gathering, one of them read it, in Sebei (Sabaot).

They arrived when Gogo had already been dressed up and led from her house in dance, as seriet (a Sabaot celebration song) was played. She bounced methodically to the beat as my brother Rotich, who’s sort of become the official family choreographer, led the way. Her steps were short and easy. She would occasionally attempt to move faster but she would default back to her tempo. At 97, Gogo had to be taken slowly. You could tell that the spirit was willing but the body was weak.

Her face was seemingly detached from the good vibes from the grandchildren around her, only moving occasionally to hint at the layers of emotion beneath. For Gogo, that is as far as she goes to show feelings. You will know what she feels from her words.

At the tent, her great grandchildren were waiting to cover her with shinnings (mshaino), whatever those things are called in English.

I have never really believed that Gogo was born in 1924. I always thought she was younger. I think it’s because for a long time her physique never seemed to change. It’s only in the last few years that I have noticed her change physically, which was exasperated by a rare period of illness in 2020.

Everyone who had something to say to Gogo spoke. Her friends, neighbors and family all had great things to say about her. One of her friends and neighbor, a kikuyu shosho who’s also in her 90s, spoke of how well they have lived like family ever since she came to the area in the late 80s.

To be honest, my Gogo is not perfect, just like any of us. She had her run-ins with my mum many times when we were young and she used to brew busaa in the 90s mostly during celebrations. Even the female relatives who lived with her over the years thought she was controlling and sometimes unreasonable. I remember one time after a squabble with mum, she declared that she’d had enough and she wanted to pack her things and leave. She asked for her sacred utensils (cups and plates for esteemed visitors) which were being kept in my mum’s cupboard, that’s when I knew she was serious. She didn’t go anywhere.

When everyone spoke and put things to perspective, when the sum of Gogo’s life is measured over time, when it’s sifted in the funnels of reality, the good comes up. She outgrew the beef with my mum, stopped making busaa many years ago and recently she’s been talking about being a member of the catholic church.

She loves her grandkids to a fault. She spoiled us, sparingly. There was always food when we came from school hungry. When we went to boarding school, she would squeeze some pocket money in our hands so that our parents would not see. She makes the most consistent mursik and her traditional vegetables are to die for. Consistent in taste but also in texture. My friends who have tasted Gogo’s mursik still ask about it now. If there was a mursik competition, Gogo’s would win it over and over again that they would have to make her a judge in the competition. Or she would be in a special category. There would be Gogo’s mursik then others.

I am writing some things in past tense because those roles changed.  It’s our time to take care of her. I remember she called me using my bro’s phone sometime last year saying that she has a debt in the local shop and that they are threatening to lock her up if she doesn’t pay. Never mind that her son just lives fifty meters from her and she sees him almost every day. And the shop belongs to a relative, so yeah, humor me.

She was just saying she needed money from me in particular but in the real sense she was just connecting with a grandchild.

At the event, when it was time for the group from Uganda to speak, the ladies (her nieces) group hugged her and they just cried. They had arrived when people had sat so they had not formally greeted her. Tears flowed freely like the waters of River Nile (I always wanted to use that line). They couldn’t contain themselves. They hadn’t seen her in over 30 years. They were just girls when she left Uganda and now, they are grown women.

I was seated between my sister and her husband looking directly towards my grandma, balancing tears and thinking to myself ‘how beautiful is this’.

When it was her time to speak, everyone was quiet. We all set our ears on what Gogo was going to say. She spoke, sitting. The burden of getting her wisdom was on the listeners. It had been an emotional ride all afternoon. Her message was clear.

“Be good to one another, support each other, live in peace with everyone… I don’t want to hear those issues of your grandfathers going on. That’s the past. Stay away from that.” The way my grandma speaks, you can see the emphasis in every word. She drops silence between sentences, looking down, lost in thought before coming back with more emphasis on her message. She speaks slowly, every word loaded, every word significant, every word old as gold. She’s lived every word she says, she’s seen every warning she gives. Even her humor is experienced.

Afterwards she received gifts from her grandchildren, then it was time for her to bless them.

I had no idea that this part was going to happen. I don’t even think Gogo had planned it. It was the quick thinking of one of our family friends. Milk was poured in a small basin and she was given a handful of cypress leaves. She then proceeded to dip the leaves in the milk and gently cast it on us as we walked by one by one. She whisked the leaves as milk scattered all over our shirts and faces as she said words of blessings.

I had never experienced anything like that in my life. I felt truly blessed.

And it was nothing like the traditional blessings I had witnessed before where someone would drink busaa, guggle in their mouth and then spit the debris on your face in the name of blessing you. Imagine raw busaa that has undergone additional processing in someone’s mouth being splashed on your face, eyelids, eyebrows, inside your nose and you are supposed to stand there and act blessed. And it was mostly done by some wazees whose personal grooming can only be described as wanting.

So, milk was a major upgrade both hygienically and also spiritually.

One of those guys from Uganda who read the family history had insisted that they are writing the history so that they can teach their generation a better way of doing things. So that they can learn from the mistakes of their predecessors and do better. No more alcoholism in the family, now we go to church and we go to school, he emphasized.

Andrei was nowhere to be seen during the blessing. When he was finally found, I took him to Gogo and he got a generous chunk of milk splashed all over him unexpectedly. I will explain to him someday what was going on.

Gogo’s event summed up the holidays wholesomely in terms of my heritage but that ball had begun rolling a week earlier when we had gone for our cousin’s wedding (mum side) in Uganda. It was one of those days to remember.

Growing up in a very cosmopolitan village in Kitale, we never really got to be exposed to our culture extensively. We would go to Chemkengen, Matumbei on the Trans-Nzoia side of Mt. Elgon to visit our relatives and that would be like going to ushago during the holidays.

That’s why going for our cousin’s wedding in Chemwania near Kapchorwa in Uganda was very significant. The whole wedding program, from the church to the reception was conducted in Sebei or Sabiny, that’s how the Sabaot language is called in Uganda. The songs, the preaching and even the vows were in Sabiny.

We were home.

You know when you go to an event in central Kenya or Nyanza and all they speak is the local language, I’d never experienced that. I’d never been the one who understands everything that’s being said knowing there’s someone who’s getting nothing. I attended a funeral service in Mukurweini in December and had to sit next to a Kikuyu friend so that when people laughed or frowned, I could lean towards him to get the gist of it, albeit late. But you know some of those things cannot really be translated.

The journey to my cousin’s wedding in Chemwania from Suam border was the longest 50km that I have ever travelled in my life. Picture Kerio Valley, the meandering road from Iten going down to the valley and to Kabarnet. Now picture traveling for 50km up and down such a road not on tarmac, but rough road.

Suam is the border town, it’s about 1.5 hours from our home in Kitale. We arrived there at 8am, parked on the Kenyan side and crossed River Suam, the border, on foot, my dad greeting one of the border soldiers on the Ugandan side like they are long lost buddies. It’s a journey he makes every so often.

At the border we had to change money. We needed 30,000 Ugandan Shillings per person for the return trip on a Ugandan 14-seater matatu, carrying 18. They call them taxis there. The bureau de exchange and Mpesa services were the from the same guy, operating from the street.

We set off, the road dusty and bumpy, 9 of us in the ‘shuttle’ going to the wedding. Our first cousin, mum side, who spent her early childhood in Uganda, kept showing us places and telling us stories. She made the journey bearable to some degree because the dust was too much. Some windows had to be open because, despite the dust, we needed air to breathe. But then as we went further the dust started coming in from under the seats.

It was rough and uncomfortable, and we were only 30 mins in. We reached Bukwo, the headquarters of the border district and then started the climb. You see mountains ahead of you and wonder, where’s the road here.

Our cousin was telling us stories of them growing up in that area, together with my mum, our aunties and uncles.

“If you alight here and say wewe ni mjukuu wa Jakobo, you will be welcomed in every home around in this area,” she would say as she pointed at the valley where my grandpa lived. He was legendary and a pioneer of sorts in his days. He and his brother were the only ones taking girls to school back in the 60s, and 70s. That’s despite the cultural resistance, challenges of the war in Uganda and cattle rustling battles with Pokots.

My grandfather had dug hole in his farm where he would hide women and children, disguise the top with branches and leaves and stay out in the night to protect his cattle. The instability later pushed him to relocate to Kenya. Before the holidays ended, we visited him at Endebess, where he lives with at my uncle’s place. He’s also 97 years old and has a peculiar liking for Coca-Cola.

My first cousin and my mum would walk 3-4 days to the boarding school they attended, carrying ugali and matoke wrapped in banana leaves with milk. They would be welcomed by relatives and in random homes to spend the night and continue the journey the following day.

Later, when roads were somehow graded, the only transport available were canters, smaller lorries that people and all goods would be bundled in the back and bite the dust the whole journey.

And now, almost 60 years after independence, the road from Kapchorwa to Suam is being constructed. What that means for my aunties, uncles and older cousins is immense. They were just shaking their heads as we passed and they saw many houses with iron sheet roofs, and scores of permanent houses with elegant designs. These are sights they never left in Uganda. They left grass thatched homesteads, barefoot mothers and children and biting despair from the constant conflict.

And now, almost all children are going to school, shops in centers are permanent structures, there’s electricity in homes, the road is getting tarmacked and there are weddings. That’s what development means to those people.

I wished Gogo would have been there with us to see all that.

There are more of our people in Uganda. They are in three districts and have 9 representatives in parliament as opposed to only 2 in Kenya. We are not even deemed big enough to have our own county in Kenya. We are spread between Trans-Nzoia and Bungoma counties. The rise of world beating elite athletes from our people in Uganda has elevated the profile of the community and attracted the right kind of attention to the region. I know some of you thought those athletes are Kalenjins from Kenya who defected to Uganda. Nope. They are Sebei who are the Kalenjins in Uganda.

“Karibu tufike?” We kept asking. My sister was asking the most. My cousin would break our hearts by saying we were just about halfway. The problem with those mountain roads is that you think you have gone so far, only to see where you were 20 minutes ago across the valley. You seem to be going so far but you have just gone round one hill.

The views were spectacular though, it’s just sad that we couldn’t stop to soak them in.

After about 2 hours we got to where the tarmac has reached. The driver stopped so that we could get out, ease ourselves, dust off and smell some fresh air. We were bathed in dust, masks were dusty on the inside, our hairs looked like they were dyed brown. Those who had insisted on carrying a change of clothes were looking at us with those ‘we told you so’ eyes.

I understood why mum had insisted that we can’t go with children on that journey.

After about 20 minutes we arrived at the wedding venue. To our surprise we were the first guests. The tents were being set up, firewood was being brought, water was being fetched. I think the church was also being cleaned. There were all indications that we had arrived a day before the wedding. It was 10.30am.

My mum, some aunties, uncles and cousins had travelled a few days earlier to attend the Koito which was on Wednesday prior to the Saturday wedding. I had wanted to go earlier as well but work and logistics couldn’t allow. When they arrived at the wedding, they had many stories of Kwoti, a high-altitude region where the cold bites on the Ugandan side of Mt. Elgon. That’s where my uncle, whose daughter Harriet was getting married, lives. It’s also the place where the new training camp has been constructed for Ugandan athletes led by Joshua Cheptegei, who is my cousin’s friend and neighbor and was present at the koito. I missed a chance to interview him.

The wedding went well, our beautiful cousin was beaming and she looked really happy. But that wedding meant a lot more for the entire family. It took us back to our roots. It made us understand and appreciate where our people came from.

When the road is fully constructed, we are taking our uncles and aunties on a road trip from Endebess, across the border at Suam to Bukwo and then to kapchorwa. They need that trip in air-conditioned automobiles, stopping at significant places to tell us stories of their upbringing, enjoying the views, visiting Sipi falls and then culminating in Kwoti where their eldest brother lives.

This is because heritage matters.

Some photos, starting with Gogo’s celebration

Then the journey to UG

Harriet’s wedding reception

Visiting grandpa, mom side.


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11 thoughts on “From Kenya to Uganda, the holidays that redefined my heritage”

  1. Great Bro! You are strong with your pen and superior in your thought process literally, This excerpt is an exciting read. I am saying an excerpt because this should be a in a book.
    Nangoja Hiyo kitabu.

  2. Great reminiscing Jon. Gogo is our anchor. She replaced so many grandmothers unconditionally. I will definitely pay my visit soon.

  3. “The journey to my cousin’s wedding in Chemwania from Suam border was the longest 50km that I have ever travelled in my life. Picture Kerio Valley, the meandering road from Iten going down to the valley and to Kabarnet. Now picture traveling for 50km up and down such a road not on tarmac, but rough road.”

    This here caught my attention. This piece sent me back home, traveling those roads on those cantas, arriving all dusty in Suam…thanks for such a well written piece, our history is our heritage.

  4. I’m already planning on visiting Sipi falls and then culminating in Kwoti. Brilliant experience that lead to a marvelous editor taking us through the experience like a 3D movie

  5. That story is so vivid. I felt like I was in the ceremony and was blessed with milk. I just wish I could see a picture of gogo because I already have one in my head, and are all cucus the same? Then the journey to Uganda and the dust reminding us of days long gone by on dusty roads, and yes I always thought Ugandans ‘stole’ our athletes. Now I know. I enjoyed reading

  6. What a beautiful story @Job. And Gogo is really blessed to see all of you now all grown. I think I need to make a similar tour!

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