I may be among the last of that generation that grew up steeped in stories of marimū, man-eating ogres. It was not always around the proverbial open fire, but still, there still were stories in the evenings, even in a home like ours with a modern dining table. Read from elementary school readers like Fred K. Kago’s Wīrute Gūthoma, or narrated by dad, who alternated between describing the cunning of wily wamabūkū, the hare, or scaring us stiff with descriptions of how the hapless girl narrowly escaped being the ogre’s dinner.
In the latter story, there was a dance attended by people from all over. Everyone in their best, the young women donned their best mīthuru, leather wrap-arounds, beads, and their skins polished to a shine with maguta ma mbarīki, castor oil. In the gleaming moonlight, it was one dance after the other in tune with the drums and jingiri – the rattles; what a merry time it was. One young man, Kīūmbani, the charming one, outshone them all. A head taller than the rest, equally handsome, his dance moves were just so. And then, like all good things, the dance finally came to an end, and it was time for o kaihū na kwao, every squirrel back to its hole. Several girls, however, could not bear to be parted from Kīūmbani, so they followed him towards his home.
Isn’t that shocking? Now I wish my grandmas were alive, and I would ask them, hadn’t anyone warned these girls as my mother warned me, and as I have warned my daughters after me – don’t talk to strangers. How could they follow someone they did not know? But then again, we do this all the time on social media. We follow someone we neither know nor know anyone who actually knows them. And then why were all these girls following him? Granted, it was a polygamous culture, but all of them? Did they hope to all marry him? Did he show interest in any of them? Or all of them? I never thought to ask those questions. Maybe that is why I also don’t have answers for our crazy following of musicians and comedians. I also can’t explain the online chat rooms that we, especially our teenagers, flock into or even the very public online love triangles we are regularly being treated to.
Along the way, one of the girls gasped and, in shock, whispered to another, nī irimū, it’s an ogre! What? Yes! It was well known that ogres had a second mouth at the igoti, right there at the nape of their neck. She had seen that mouth when he opened it to swallow a fly. This bit of information made its way among the girls; one scared whisper at a time.
Before long, the bravest said, oh, I must go back. My mother is expecting me to fetch water. And with that, she turned around and headed home. A few minutes later, another cried out, oh no! With a hand on the cowrie shell necklace across her chest, she insisted, I must return this borrowed mūgathī. And with that, she turned back and scurried home. In no time, each of the girls had fumbled out a reason, good or otherwise, to drop off from the procession – except Wanjīra, who was not going to be parted with the tall, dark and handsome. She could not or would not believe he was an ogre disguised as a young man.
As a mother to teenagers, a teacher, an auntie and even a social media fan, I am often shocked at the situations young people find themselves in. How one poor choice leads to another and another, spiralling downward like a horrible slow-motion movie, and all you want to do is shout – stop! Get out! It’s an ogre! You’ll be swallowed alive!
Fortunately, the girls in the story seemed to have the insight and tools to disentangle and extricate themselves even after making a poor decision. Skills that are desperately needed today. When one goes to a party they should not have gone to, where the drinks are flowing rather too freely, and cookies and the rolled-up-take-a-puff stuff is being passed around. When one is being pressured to be more physically intimate than they want – the skill to fumble out whatever excuse they need to and jump ship. To brave the shame and embarrassment, the likely falling out after because, kaguoya kainūkīire nyina, the coward made it safely back home and lived to fight another day.
My memory is now hazy, was Wanjīra saved or was she devoured? It took a while for the penny to drop and for her to know she was in mortal danger. She remained clueless even after the handsome suitor kept her waiting outside his house as he cleared the bones and skulls of the souls he had feasted on before. I compared notes with my husband, but his memory of how the tale ended was no clearer than mine. We, however, seemed to remember she chanced on one of the skulls confirming dear husband was indeed a man-eating ogre disguised as Mr Handsome. She lived through the hair-raising experience of knowing the fate that awaited her but cunningly bid her time until her relatives, fortunately, saved her.
The layers of the story speak to so many issues in our day. Take, for instance, the ogre’s extra mouth. Red flags in relationships always reveal themselves soon enough, and it becomes more a question of whether you are willing to take heed or think you will be the exception. Like Wanjīra, you might convince yourself he is not a man-eating ogre, that he will spare you- maybe because you are so beautiful? Or you have that special connection? How many walk willingly into all manner of danger and not because anyone has a gun to their temple? How about the online dares that tragically end in suicide?
Wanjīra’s lone choice to marry or ‘come-we-stay’ is also haunting. Relationships and marriages are communal matters, and choosing to go it alone should sound the alarm. She eventually had the insight that her handsome suitor was sinister and was only saved by the community. Many who walk into the slaughterhouse of toxic relationships or addictions will only be rescued by the community. Even then, there will be skulls and bones, lives that were not saved.
I am well-known by our teenagers for regularly stepping onto my soapbox, a sermon in hand, in my attempts to keep them on the straight and narrow. I have trouble remembering lectures from my parents. Their stories, on the other hand, are etched in my mind. Maybe we need more stories to equip our kids to deal with life. A story can slip beneath our natural defences and detonate at just the right time. Often on the tail end of one, my mother bustling away would give us a knowing look and mutter, mūndū mūgī ndarī mīheere ya ūhoro, to the wise, a clue is enough. That and the wisdom of the Kikuyu people, mūgī nī mūtaare, clever is the one who has taken counsel.
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