Growing up in a Kenyan village where there is the huge Komala hill to the east, an extensive Nyabondo plateau to the North and beyond the plateau, the famous Homa hills, I have always loved geographical features. I loved the beauty such features created on the landscape. When I was a little bit older, about ten years old, my dad took me to a famous tor in the western part of Kisumu. It is called Kit Mikayi. Kit Mikayi means “the stone of the first wife” in the Luo language. This was a journey of hundreds of discoveries, legends and beliefs about this rock. This tor is one of the most visited tourist sites in the western part of Kenya.
The famous tory behind it talks about a man, who had really fallen in love with this stone. Each morning, he would go into the cave below the rock. From where he would take his meals, meditate and talk to the gods all day long until sunset. So his wife said the stone was the man´s first wife. This tor has meaning beyond the pillar of rock that I saw at the first sight-breathtaking. The site is associated with sacrifices and many legends and a very popular local pilgrimage site for the followers of the Legio Maria sect who visit the rock to pray and fast.
While so many tourists-both local and foreign-come for sightseeing and having fun, they actually create a very big social impact to the community living around this legendary tor. Normally there is a small entrance fee paid before accessing the site. There is a council of elders who distribute this money so as to benefit all the members of the community in an equitable way. For instance, Ngóp Ngeso Primary School which is found within the vicinity was created thanks to the funding from the tourism. Ngóp Ngeso Primay is a mixed day school, now run by the central government. More than sixty percent of the school going children from this area benefit from the free education at the school.
There a social welfare group created as a result of the same touristic site. These are especially formed by women with an objective of presenting the Luo culture and entertainment to the tourists. This includes traditional music, choreographies, dances and sometimes food. The women earn a living from here. Most of these women live with vulnerable and orphaned children. The income is directed toward supporting such children with their daily basic needs.
So each time I returned there to enjoy the beautiful scenery, I have always had in mind that I am making an impact in someone´s life-be it the elderly woman showcasing the dances or the school-going child who needs my support. I realized, “Nothing is as satisfying as enjoy such scenery having in mind that you are helping someone somewhere.
¡Shadows! Shadows? Yes, let us speak a little about shadows. You have probably heard of this word although you might have not paid much attention to it as it deserves. There is a taboo of a famous ethnic group of Kenya inhabiting the western part of the country. In this region, both the living and the dead are held in very high regards. In a community where agriculture is the main economic activity, traditionally after each harvest, a sacrifice is offered to the ancestors. This ceremony is always done in the nights of the full moon, around a fire where the sacrifice is burnt. Stop a bit. Why just during nights of the full moon? Well, it is because the shadows are more visible and this allows the incorporation of the dead in the ritual. It is a belief that the souls of the dead are pleased by the smoke that comes out of the fire that is lit up. Each family, including children, always meets after the harvest of the crops to do this ritual. In these moments the dead supposedly rise from the tombs and unite with the families in forms of the shadows. Shadows? Yes, shadows. They cannot be seen but it is believed that they are present. Therefore, it is said that when the smoke starts rising from the fire is forbidden to look the shadows. The power of these souls of the dead can lead one to the rivers and even kill him. Although this taboo has changed over time, people still continue respecting it. For example, today the parents threaten to the children not to look at their shadows in the night during dinner. They say this so that the children can concentrate on their food and not get distracted from the stories told during the family dinners.
Now you can understand why I, a western Kenyan, eat without looking at my shadow during the night; it's a part of my culture. Yes, the shadows.
It is seven in the night. As a custom in her home, everyone has fallen asleep except Najjemba. The moon´s light freely finds its way into the little hut through the cracks on the mud-walled house. Najjemba looks around scared-the house is too quiet. So silent that she thought she was inside a deep cave. She adjusts the blanket on her sister, Joan, who is fast asleep and quickly falls back on her mat. Time elapses yet she hasn´t yet had sleep. Her back pains-she worked in the farm half of the day, took care of her little sister and tended to the little garden of vegetables. This is not what Najjemba desires though. She wants to go to school. Well, she is a mere village girl but her dream to change her community amazes everyone she talks to about it. Once in a while, she sneaks to the school nearby and asks to study part time for free. Most teachers of Kabaale School know her. They allow her to take the science class and English literature class. Najjemba is an outgoing little girl. She has great rapport with the teachers and the students in school.
Let´s look at other part of the story of Najjemba. Why is this little girl so focused yet so passionate about school? Najjemba was born in Rwanda in 1992, two years before the famous genocide. Her mother was a Rwandese and her father a Ugandan. Since when she was young, she always wanted to be like Mother Teresa. She loved working and playing in the children´s home, making all the children happy. In 1994, just a year after her sister, Joan, was born the country suffered the genocide. It was the worst experience the little poor girl ever experienced in her life. She clearly remembers two men storming into their house and killing her parents. It was too sad to bear, too much to cry. Luckily for her and Joan, they were spared and so they were taken later by police to Kabaale in Uganda as refugees. Life wasn´t all easy at the camp, so Najjemba would sometimes go out on the streets to beg for food, money, clothing or whatever help she could get.
One day she dreamt that she was with her mother. From her culture, when you dream about dear ones who have already passed away, then they are likely to reveal to you a breakthrough to your worries. In the dream, she was happily hugging her mother. Then she remembers her mother taking her hands and leading her to some hut deep into a remote village. That was where her grandmother lived and henceforth that was to be their home. Her grandmother, in the dream, was a gentle and kind old mama. She cooked matoke, as a Ugandan custom, and served the three. They all ate very heartily. Then when Najjemba was about to ask where they were, all the shadows disappeared and she was all alone. That morning when she woke up, she remembered the trauma that she had undergone in 1994 back at home, Rwanda. She cried a lot. Joan was helpless; she wept her heart out until her eyes were dry.
So that very day, late in the afternoon, they set out for the village. Najjemba believed her mother would lead them, so did she. Carrying Joan on her back, they walked into the interiors of Kabaale and just as it was in the dream found their grandmother´s house. She at once recognized them, hugged them, bathed them and served them with matoke. Grandma Acheko was a kind old lady. She had dimples which showed when she laughed; which she did most frequently.
Once in the village, Najjemba and Joan´s life was once again happy- as it was when mum was alive. They found the comfort of being home, being loved. However, the little girl was always sad. She could not go to school. Grandma would not afford it-she did not work after all. Every day, Najjemba thought of school. She knew the basic arithmetic and alphabet from what her father taught her. But this was not all that she needed. She wanted more- a great yearning.
Najjemba was now ten years old. Another huddle of her life just broke loose. On her tenth birthday, her grandma fell seriously ill and could not talk. She was in coma for several hours. All the two girls wept bitterly- a recap of the day their parents died unfolded clearly. The wound was too big to cure. Then grandma died later that day. Some few good Samaritans helped bury her body. For Najjemba, hope was not part of her life at that moment. She felt confused, lost, hopeless and helpless.
Life has never been the same since her tenth birthday. She does all she can to get food for herself and her sister. Najjemba work in banana farms for food to take home. Sometimes she requests for old clothes for her younger sister.
The children who live in the home where she works go to Kabaale School; that´s how she came to know about the school. School was where Najjemba has always wanted to be. So this was an opportunity in a lifetime. She started bringing Joan, now a bit grown, to help her in the farm. While working in the farm, they talked about school, about grandma Acheko and their parents. Occasionally, they made jokes and burst out laughing. You could hear Joan comment, almost sarcastically, “That´s the big girls talk.” Najjemba would laugh to tears. They were now grown girls and were slowly getting out of the trauma they had undergone.
The two girls were admirable and happy together. They loved working and talking with their age mates about their passions and life goals. They almost had nothing to rightfully call theirs yet were so enthusiastic about life. Is it not strange? Well, Najjemba was the reason for all these. She always said, “Do not be sad to earn sympathy. You are not poor! You are talented, only disadvantaged.” These were the pillars they lived by very day.
There was one turnaround in Najjemba´s life. One day as she was cleaning the house, she came across a dusty antique metal box close to the fireplace. She picked the box up and carefully opened it. It smelled rust- for sure it must have stayed here for decades. It was covered with soot so Najjemba had to wipe it well. There was a stalk of decolorized papers in this “mystery” box-some of which Najjemba did not understand their contents. She curiously searched through this box but did not find anything quite interesting. She had started packing back the papers when she noticed a paper which had somehow familiar hand writing on it. It was her mother´s!
It was a letter sort of. She unfolded it and sat on the firestone to read it. Well, she wasn´t sure if this letter was written ten years ago or just yesterday-it was a mystery. Moreover, who had put this box here? But the voice of the persona in the story was that of someone who knew Najjemba very well, lived with her for the longest time she could remember and who loved her.
She was not sure whether to read it or not. Was it not whispered across the village that such strange letters are devil´s? But, wait. Najjemba is a curious and courageous girl. She balances herself on the stone and starts to read. The letter is written in Luganda though not a very clear one but she can understand it. She gives credit to grandma Acheko who taught her Luganda.
“I am seeing eyes of doubts looking down onto this paper. It is not harmful to read this my little one. I want to tell you a beautiful story.”
It seemed more like a conversation with an unseen person. This was no more a letter. Ultimately, Najjemba gained enough confidence to read or rather listen to the story.
“When a little baby is born, everyone feels happy- I fact, this happiness is unexplainable. For the baby, the new world becomes a lot stranger and totally different from what exists in the mother´s womb. At first, they baby knows nothing, cannot speak or walk. She just smiles and cries. These are the two most important emotions that everyone experiences all through their lives. The only food the baby eats is the breast milk; and she does not pay for it. This is how easy life is for her! Gradually, the baby develops teeth, starts practicing speech and crawling. This stage is important to every baby´s formation. Here she is introduced to foods other than the mother´s milk. The baby struggles to reach out for things she wants through crawling and occasionally tries to express her feeling by talking words that do not make clear sense. This is the stage where growth starts- she gets exposed to the reality. She knows that there is much more that the comfort she is already used to.”
Najjemba was now lost deep into the story. Grandma Acheko taught her how to interpret proverbs and parables too. So she followed the story well.
“The baby grows into a little girl who fetches firewood, cleans the house and takes care of the babies. This is a much more advanced stage which depends on the previous stage. If a baby does not get stage one well and has not been exposed to reality, this stage would be a hard task to pass. So all that happened when you were not yet so strong to face life, is meant to be appreciated and developed from. Sometimes it could be too painful and cruel but finally the baby is able to connect the dots backwards.
Now the baby becomes a fully-grown woman. She has lived in the two extremes of life and knows how the two faces of the coin look like. She has been desperate, hopeless, ignored, abandoned and sad. However, she cannot forget the feeling she has had of being loved, appreciated, valued and happy.
At this final stage, she holds the world in her hands and sees her childhood dreams becoming true.”
At this point the story solidifies and starts making sense. It folds back to the beginning of time-of her story. Without even realizing, a tear dropped out of her eyes. It was a tear of great significance. This was a mark of transition between the long suffering of the past and the long awaited future. Najjemba wiped the tear with a great sigh and smiled. She felt strong once again.
The letter continued:
“Najjemba is a talented young woman. I know that she needs to go to school. She has great powers in her hands. The society needs her; the children cry for her, the world needs her ideas. She might be afraid to take up this challenge. Perhaps she thinks she is too young. Yes she can. You can do it Najjemba.”
And that was the end of this letter-conversation setting. Najjemba heard her name as an echo-like it was far deep inside the woods. Joan came and shook her but Najjemba was far away into a far land-lost into her own world. She got a whole picture of her own life. It went like a flash at first. Then a slide show version of the story.
Shortly afterwards, Najjemba sees herself on a podium where there were various people from across the world. She sees herself talking passionately about protecting vulnerable children, ways of resolving conflicts and reconciliation. She smiles, unaware that she is doing so. Joan remains there, amazed. She witnessed her older sister filled with such passion.
This is a dream this little girl has been living ever since. Because of suffering as a result of conflict, Najjemba dreams every day of fighting for peace and reconciliation in Rwanda and across Africa. She knows that healing is the only way a country can accept not to repeat genocide. She knows she cannot do this without education. Najjemba is in pursuit of her dreams.
When the sun goes down: I want to be close to the river. I want to feel its waters rushing fast past the papyrus. That warm countryside air is what my skin wants to feel. The air in which I was born and brought up. I want to live, once more, the scenic sunsets back in the village. I feel nostalgic about those evenings, in which we would sit and roast maize. I miss the smell of the fresh maize cob from the "shamba". The very smell that decoated the fireplace every evening at home. I want to watch the orango Western horizon burn to brick-red as the sun majestically goes down. Just before the roasting, giggling and night time stories start. I want to be there, when the sun goes down. "shamba" is a Swahili word for farm.