Three Generations, One Home
Written by Jessica Muchiri
Edited by Mateo Daffin
Maina, Mama, and her friend Zipora
At eye level, seeds were seen dropping from a fruit tree near the riverbank. Sounds of laughter passed through the leaves as five school age boys sat propped on the sturdier branches of a guava tree. The boys knew that if they were caught, punishment would follow, yet the reward from the aromatic green fruit was too sweet to pass by, especially given that candy was a rare treat. The boys and their inclination for mischief had gotten them into many of these precarious situations. From the tree the boys could see the bright tips of maize plants sprouting in orderly lines from a large patch. A small section of beans lay on the edge of the land. In a few weeks, the maize and beans would be plucked from the ground and stirred for hours into a hearty githeri. Sugarcane sprouted tall while Nduma (taro) grew low. Dogs and cats roamed freely throughout the acres of land while the chickens, goats, and cows kept to their respective spaces. Furthest from the guava tree was the crop that took up the most space and was undoubtedly the most important: coffee.
The cooperative farm held nearly 1,000 coffee plants, each plant yielding as much as 2 kilograms of coffee cherries. Many in the town were unable to finish their education on account of exorbitant school fees, yet the knowledge of the land was passed exhaustively through each generation. Children were not exempt from the hard labor that came with peasant farming. In fact, fertility rates through the 1960s and 1970s remained around 8 children per woman, because they served as a source of free labor. A typical coffee picking day began at dawn and ended late at night. Each skilled hand grazed over the cherries searching for the specific scarlet that indicated the most robust coffee beans sat inside. On one of these days the boys helped their parents gather the fruits of their labor to be brought to the factory, where they would wait for their number to be called. At the factory, they saw an Auntie struggling to unload her cherries. However misbehaved the boys were, they understood the importance of community within a small village like Kiaguthu.
“Nitúgúgútethia.” We will help you.
The boys grew up not knowing how many siblings they were going to have. Every few years the number grew, but for most of their young lives there were 8 children in the home. Supporting a household with so many mouths to feed and backs to put clothes on was a difficult feat. Baba, who had a knack for numbers, was a carpenter. He picked up this trade during the revolution while incarcerated in a British internment camp. For years the children did not know Baba served as the chairman of the Kiahara clan, squashing arguments over land and addressing complaints. His pride never got in the way of his values. Mama and Baba gathered up all their earnings from crop cultivation to send their kids to school. They were determined for all their children to complete secondary education. Mama sent the kids to school in the morning where the younger ones drew letters and numbers in the dirt, and the older ones practiced time tables. After they left, Mama attended to her duties as a homemaker, but that did not mean she was soft. Within the home she was a commanding officer, organizing her family into a workforce to ensure proper cultivation. Time that wasn’t spent in the home or tending to the land, was spent in the village engaging with the other women of the community. An unspoken praise was bestowed upon the mothers and wives. They were tasked with making all the important decisions about the land, the children and how to allocate resources. Whereas outsiders may look in and see the husbands as the breadwinners, it was the bonds of the women that acted as the backbone of the town. Everyday the boys rushed home from class to find Mama molding Ugali the size of two heads into a large metal pot. They knew that as long Mama was around, they would always be taken care of.
When Guka moved in with the family, a separate enclave had to be built. It was customary that a father and son could not sleep under the same roof after the son had started his own family. For the boys’ entire childhood, Guka lived in a sturdy shed next to the home and provided counsel as needed. He was rarely seen inside the household, often either bathing in the river or cooking his own meals in his quarters. The boys only ever saw Guka eat soup, porridge, and boiled root vegetables. Perhaps this natural diet contributed to the fact that he still moved with grace, well into old age. He took a liking to the children and didn’t shy away from picking favorites. Guka especially watched out for the second-eldest boy who bore the same name as him – Maina. When Baba caught the boys playing up in the fruit trees when they were supposed to be tending to the maize, Guka called Maina in his shed to keep him from being punished. He had been preparing porridge with a long múiko (wooden spoon). They both stirred the pot as the smell of fermented millet filled the shed. When the sun set on Kiaguthu, Guka laid down in the corner of his room, Mama and Baba snuggled close to each other, and the hushed whispers of the boys carried on through the night.