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A Woman of Peace

Sat, Mar 25, 2023

“Wagakūrū arī kīguoya mūno.” Bomb detonates. What? Wagakūrū, a coward? Never. Wagakūrū, otherwise known as Naomi Wairimu and cūcū was my paternal grandma and mother of ten. And my auntie, the woman who had lovingly taken care of her to the very end, is the one who had just dropped that bombshell. I could not simply dismiss her statement.

“Auntie, what do you mean,” I begged for more information.

Now, like many of his agemates, our grandpa was polygamous, and Wagakuru was the senior of his two wives. The Kikuyu say, aka erī nī nyūngū igīrī cia ūrogi, two wives are two pots full of poison. Our family was not that toxic, but there was always enough drama to keep the world evenly spinning on its axis. There were seasons of peace and camaraderie when both branches of the family got along well, but there were also seasons when our world rumbled with tremors of hostility and accusations and even the occasional nasty exchange of blows.

A lot revolved around resources which any decent economist will tell you are always limited. Be that as it may, it was expected that the little available would be shared equally, but the patriarch seemed to favour the children of Wagakuru’s co-wife. This did not go down well with my father, his siblings, and their spouses. Take, for instance, our biggest cash-earner, coffee. Everyone from the grandmothers to the littlest of us grandchildren toiled on the farm. There were long hours spent bent to the ground with a Panga, clearing the weeds, and the harvest season meant chilly mornings, often with icy raindrops dripping down your back as you reached for the berries. These were sorted to ensure the red was just so, then measured out to appropriate loads depending on age and gender, after which we all trekked to the coffee factory miles away. Somedays, the sun would threaten to melt you, while at other times, you had to find the four-wheel drive gear in your leg muscles to keep you from skidding on the muddy roads. Wasn’t it only fair that the proceeds be equally enjoyed by all?

For Wagakuru, it was bad enough that her children had to remain vigilant to ensure the load measured out for her to ferry to the factory was reasonable (someone was always trying to double it), but even worse, she never seemed to get anything out of the coffee sales proceeds. Some of her children were not going to take this lying down. They would incite her to take matters into her hands – without success. Why can’t you be like the others? They aimed the barbed question at her, a thinly veiled reference to her co-wife who never missed a payday. You knew it was it when she cleaned up, tucked her handbag under her shoulder, and trooped to the local shopping centre. There, she would get her share from the patriarch before the rest flowed down Kenya Brewery’s value chain. That was not Wagakuru’s game.

Rumour had it that when she left her harvest of maize out in the sun to dry, someone else would help themselves to it; didn’t Naomi care? To which she would respond, in her wry humour, “let them eat. They are also human beings.” This irked her children to no end. “They are also helping themselves to water from your tanks in your absence,” others reported. These water tanks were a new development in the village. Women banded together and were trained to construct giant cement jars to harvest rainwater, a very precious commodity. It took hours and back-breaking labour to mould the tanks – moving from household to household until everyone got theirs. The alternative was the unenviable task of hauling jerricans of water up the hill from the Sagana river. Cucu happily played the fool and pretended not to know what was happening. Ever light on her feet, this diminutive woman was always bustling about, busier than a couple of bees, humming one hymn or other under her breath. Between weeding for her maize, beans, or potatoes and gathering weeds for her goats, where was the time to entertain or encourage the negative talk?

But she had time to read her Bible. She had followed her parents to adult literacy classes where she learnt to read and write. Her children remember the letters posted to them, and none of us has to try very hard to see the image of her in a corner, reading glasses perched on her nose as she thumbed through her dog-eared, falling-apart Bible. Her parents were early Christians, and she had embraced Christianity from the onset, attended a year of catechism, recognized and repented from mehia ma kimerera, original sin. Even during the height of the struggle for independence, through the state of emergency when many denounced their faith and reverted to their local names, our fearless Naomi stayed put. She joined the Women’s Guild of the Presbyterian Church in the 50s, and she is remembered as the neighbourhood evangelist, inviting women to return to church, “twaikara kūraihu na Ngai tūtigūteithīka.”

The church was indeed her dearest love, and the need to resource it was like a fire under her feet. I have a clear memory of her sparring with my fearsome dad when I was not yet ten years old. She faced up to him during one of her routine visits to collect money… my father glaring at her; where do you think money comes from? Undaunted, she shot back, the Lord requires only gacunjī ga ikumi, a tenth. I cannot know whether my father parted with the tithe, but such was her energy.

She was part of the group of deacons sent out from Kianjogu Parish to set up Wakamata Church. What she lacked in physical weight, she made up with determination as she threw her weight behind the dream of constructing a church building. After years of meeting in a classroom in the local primary school, she was determined to see the stalled church construction project progress. She moved from person to person, demanding they hand over what they owed to the Lord. Irathimo ciūkaga niūndū wa kūruta. Cūcū brought out the big guns and will forever be remembered for mobilizing all her children and their friends. They showed up in full force and set a record for the highest amount raised to complete the building.

Charity wasn’t lacking at home either. She kept a record of which of her grandkids was baptized and sent the upcoming baptism dates on time so that the babies could be received in the house of the Lord. To her prodigal offspring, she demanded mugaga mūrī aū mūtegūthiī kanitha? That question, who is your mother, put my own mother back on the straight and narrow of church-going. Although cūcū mellowed with age and health challenges, it was not hard to imagine this feisty woman fearlessly stepping into the fray to break apart her fighting sons, wielding her needle and thread to stitch their wounds, or even talking a neighbour down from the tree where he was bent on hanging himself. How, then, could this woman be described as a coward?

In her lifetime, she perfected the art of turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, which did not always sit well with her children. The sorest point had to do with land. Not unlike many families, especially polygamous ones, the division of the family land was fiercely contested, fraught with distrust, and the process protracted. It so happened that the land was all registered in her name. The patriarch wanted it divided three ways, which our side of the family interpreted as underhand tactics so that the other side would end up with a double share. When the parties finally agreed, and it was time to sub-divide the land, she handed over half of it in the time-honored Kikuyu tradition that gives each co-wife an equal share. The clerk at the government lands office couldn’t help but remark; you are a remarkable woman handing over land as if it were a loaf of bread.

Ndūjuraga ūtigage kūnyona, ūreciria cukari waumire na igūrū, she taunted the patriarch, daring him to dispatch her to eternity. She placed her struggles with diabetes squarely at his feet. Yes, Naomi was hardly the saint, and a few times, stretched beyond endurance, her words let slip the deep anguish she suffered. She, of all people, had been accused of trying to poison the patriarch, never mind her over-the-top efforts handing over to him every last coin, always trying to buy peace. Twice, maybe thrice, she was pushed to the bitter limit, and she contemplated the unthinkable…ending it all.

Her strength was undoubtedly not because she was ignorant of how despised she was. When the sun set on the patriarch’s life, though in poor health herself, she marveled at the dishonour meted on her by her stepchildren. Don’t they know that the man is buried in the home of his eldest wife? They disregarded this honoured tradition going further to create a new entrance into the homestead so the cortege would not even have to pass through her side of the homestead. Ultimately, it’s debatable – did she try too hard to keep the peace?

In her sunset, the ravages of disease and old age had reduced her to a shadow of herself. She, however, held on to the end and crossed over into eternity victoriously. Everyone who knows her will remember a lesson from her life, most of which were delivered in her memorable phrases liberally spiced with dry wit. Her values were not in doubt – she prayed, gave, persevered in the face of trouble, and courageously chose her battles.

Mūgūnda ti muoyo, land is not life, or life is more significant than land. These infamous words rubbed some of her children the wrong way. Nevertheless, she stood by them – let them [the second branch of the family] have the land. She fought hard for what she believed to be important, chose the hill to die on, and that – her most enduring legacy is how her children eulogized her six years ago – a woman of peace – to the very end.



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4 responses to “A Woman of Peace”

  1. Moving tribute to a courageous woman of peace. So glad to have had the opportunity to meet her and receive some of her wits. Fond memories.

  2. Fantastic and very vivid writing Wairimu! I feel like I knew your beloved grandmother and I’m glad you have a great legacy or faith and endurance to lean on. Lots of lessons for all of us as we fight various battles

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