There is this short story by Grace Ogot about a man called Tekayo. One Saturday morn, Tekayo is grazing his goats, lazily chewing on a blade of grass for inspiration. Like the way accountants chew on their biro pens. Suddenly, a piece of meat falls from the sky. Heaven sent if you like. Tekayo is starving-he has not taken a bite for a week. His sulking wife has been ignoring his SMS’S to bring him food. So, he takes the piece of meat to be a gift from the god of herders and neglected husbands.
The piece of meat turns out to be so succulent that Tekayo thinks that he’s been feeding on leftovers all his life. This must be the food of the gods, he muses. The succulent piece of meat sets him on a journey that finally sees him eat his grandchild. His story ends tragically, but since mine has a happy ending-like a session at a masseuse’s, let’s leaves Tekayo and his meat there.
I am telling this story since I once had a Tekayo moment. That moment when you stumble on something so delicious that you wonder where it has been all along. It was one of those field assignments that take one on a journey on which when you come back to the office, you are no longer the same again. But again, no man should go on a journey and come back the same again. Just like a man cannot touch the same river twice, since it’s not the same river, and he is not the same man.Journeys change us, for better, for worse, but most definitely-they do.
So, I was on this assignment in Northern Kenya to an ungooglable village called Mansa.We were three of us; my colleague plus Ndururu the driver.Now,Ndururu is a cheery old chap who can regale you with stories nonstop in the 700km road trip from Wajir to Nairobi. Without repeating himself. He told us stories of Shifta War.He told us of the horrors of Wagalla Massacre. When he noticed we were getting bored, he sang us some ancient Somali water songs that he has been carrying in his throat like a griot of from antiquity.
With miraa twigs delicately balanced in his hands, we drove on in this this dusty desolate place. Sometimes we came to some rocky patch, and Ndururu drove at the pace of a starving snail. Then we came to flat places all full of sand, and Ndururu drove like hell was following him. Then we came to wild places where the vehicle rocked like mad camel, but the warrior in Ndururu tamed it.
Just about noon, when Ndururu was regaling us with the story of ouster of Siad Barre, we came to this windswept place where the wind tore through the valley with this mournful sound.
What’s that sound? I asked Ndururu.
Long time ago, in this land lived two young people called Leila and Feila-Ndururu began his story. Leila was beautiful like a water nymph. People said that there were two stars in her eyes where pupils should have been.Feila was tall and lithe, camels stopped to watch him walk when passed by. The two were deeply in love.Feila could never get enough of watching Leila’s eyes. But their love was jinxed since they came from two enemy clans. Thus they lived a life of unrequited love. When they died, they were finally united, since the imam directed that they be buried alongside each other. Eventually, two beautiful trees grew from where they were burried.The two trees hugged each other as they grew, and danced in the wind when it blew along. The sound we were hearing was the sound of Feila whistling away, finally reunited with his lover. The two trees never went dry, even in the driest season.
We relished the story, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do.
Ndururu ,hio miti mbili iko wapi? (Ndururu,where are those two trees?)
Hio miti mbili iko haba tu.(Those two tree are in these region)
Wapi haswa?(Where exactly?)
Waria wee fungua macho vizuri,utaona hio miti.(Open your eyes and you will see them)
So we went on with the journey scanning the bushes for those two magical trees. My colleague scanned the right side, while I scanned the left side. Ndururu went on singing some water songs, but this time around he threw in a sad love poem for Leila and Feila.I didn’t see any Leila tree, neither did my colleague see any Feila tree. All we saw were flocks of guinea fowls-beautiful birds that scurried along the sandy roads in resplendent colors.
‘Waria nyinyi mnaangali kitoweo,sio? (You are starring at the guinea fowls since they make some nice stew, isn’t it?)
No.I told Ndururu that in our place we don’t eat guinea fowls or kanga, since they are not even there. He chuckled mischievously.
Ultimately, we came to Mansa and went straight to the Chiefs office. Ndururu happens to have relative in every village in Northern Kenya-the Chief was one of them. In these places, the Chief is the only person who can speak English. But in fact it’s a smattering of broken English-three mispronounced words of English followed by ten words of Somali. And lots of guttural sounds in between that have meaning. Then he assumes you are getting what he says, and you do so.The Chief acted as our translator and somehow, work got done.
After work, the English speaking Chief welcomed us to his dash. The Somalis are one of the few communities where men have retained their dignity. When a Somali man holds court with his peers, he does so in the dash, reclined in soft pillows, sitting on colorful makekas or carpets. If you come from central Kenya, dash is the equivalent of a ‘thingira’.The Italians call it a ‘gazebo’. Forget the different names-it’s a structure where men go to gossip away from their wives earshot.
We were welcomed to the dash by amiable local folks. It was around lunch hour. The men did their ritual ablutions and did the Islamic prayers. I stood there on the makeka, whispering a silent prayer for the safe passage to this place. The Chiefs wife brought us some water to wash our hands in readiness for lunch. Finally, the lady of the house served the men with a mountain of camel meat and pasta and rice.Ndururu jokingly told us that we were the guests of honour and so we would be served something better.
The moment that chicken was laid before us, our taste buds went into riot.Yeah, one violent mid-semester riot by UoN students when they are church-mouse broke. The mountainous serving was meant for me and my colleague-the only non-locals. All that food for just two souls? You see the way they have made eating lots of meat look so bad-like pre-marital sex? Well, those middle-class things aren’t here yet-so we ate.
Thus the Somali men settled on the makeka to feast on camel meat while my colleague and me-the visitors from Kenya-dug on the chicken. Or chickens rather because I tried to count the drum sticks but lost count. We ate our delicious meal in silence-the whole village watching these two poor souls who are ungracious enough to feed on some boy’s pet. You see, amongst the Somalis, a hen is some boys pet.Since they are used to slaughtering one tonne camels for dinner, it looks indecent to slaughter one kilogram cock to make a meal.
When we finished the meal, nay feast, we poured some water onto the plates and drank down the stuff. Nothing was to be wasted. My colleague is generally a small built fellow-but I am sure his weight doubled after the meal. Thereafter, we settled down on the mats, stomachs facing upwards. This was the only tenable sleeping position. To tell the women that the food was good, we burped loudly. In these sides, it’s rude not to do so.
We tried to figure out what kind of chicken we had eaten. I have never eaten that thing they call Kentucky Fried Chicken so I figured it might be the one. But how do you get KFC a thousand miles away from civilization? Again, that thing was too delicious to be a KFC.
Then the Chief’s matronly wife came along to pick the utensils.
‘Maalim,haiye’ Hallo teacher.
In these places, any new person is referred to as teacher.
Mzoori mama.Wafian? I answered back.
Fiante.She answered back. So we had some small talk with her-in Somali mixed with Kiswahili and gestures. When someone whose Swahili isn’t that good speaks to you, you corrupt yours too for politeness sake. They don’t teach that in school though.
‘Kanga alikuwa tamu,waria?’ She asked us, smiling.
You know how Somali women speak, two fingers in the air to emphasize a point? In short, she was asking us, did you enjoy the guinea fowl?I didn’t have a ready answer for that. I nudged my colleague, who was now sleeping beside me, dreaming of some guinea fowl heaven.
Wee,mundu,Madam is asking us whether we enjoyed the chicken.
Mwambie kama imebaki atufungie. He replied.Then burped again.
That’s how Mansa gave us food for thought (pun intended) about Kentucky Fried Guinea Fowl.