I am passionate about learning from the past and I have spent years talking to people who were alive in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. I just wanted to know how ordinary people lived in those extraordinary times. I wrote a book called Living Memories with some of those stories but I continued talking to these wonderful grandparents. One of them was my own great-great grandmother. Here’s her story.
Elizabeth Gathoni Koinange
August 28, 2009
If I survive this year, I will have lived one hundred and nine years. I am thankful to God that I am still strong and spry and cheerful. I have lived a good life.
I was born in a place called Ting’ang’a beyond Kiambu. My father was a traditional man, a senior elder – a foreman who was chosen to head the council of elders because he was wise and strong.
In those days, the Gikuyu elders arbitrated small disputes, oversaw initiation and other rites of passage and collected hut tax. When there was issues that were to serious for the elders to deal with themselves, or when a villager was unable to pay the one rupee (2 shillings) hut tax, the elders then deferred the case to the senior chief under whom they served. In my father’s case, the senior chief was Koinange.
When I was a girl, my job was to take care of goats that my brother was going to use to pay bride price for a girl who lived not far from us. According to our customs, while Njuguna could give the few goats he had to the father of the girl as a downpayment of sorts, the goats would still remain his until the Ngurario was done (which would involve the killing of a goat). While the goats were his to breed, he had to provide the labour for them and that is what I was.
It was in those days that I met the senior chief. He would come to my father’s boma regularly and I would receive him on the outskirts of my father’s shamba where I would be tending the goats. I would help him with whatever he was carrying and walk home with him.
I had no idea that there were marriage discussions going on between the senior chief and my folks. I had no cause for concern anyway because I had an elder sister before me who was yet unmarried and and she would have had to be married before I could be considered.
Girls had really no say in their own destiny and usually when the time for marriage came, they were simply informed who they were going to marry. My sister wanted to marry someone in particular and eloped with him before she was ordered to marry the chief. She simply disappeared and was heard from years later when she bore her first child.
One day, the chief came to our home as he normally would. I met him by the pasture and helped him carry some of his things and walked home with him. When their meetings were finished, my mother called me and told me that I was to accompany the chief back to Kiambaa, his home for some time. I had no problem with this because it meant respite from tending the goats. From Ting’ang’a, we had to walk all the way and it took a long time because the chief made many stops in different homesteads to chat with different people.
It was evening when we eventually arrived at Chief Koinange’s home. it was a traditional Gíkúyú home – the main house was the thingira and the Chief’s sitting area – you might equate it to a mzungu’s throne room, where he met with elders who visited him. Around the thingira were four houses – well, large huts, where his four wives, Wambui, Miriam, Njeri and Gataa and their children stayed.
The chief dropped me off with the fourth wife, Beatrice Gataa, who took care of me for a few days. After a few days, she would give me the chief’s food and she would ask me to take it to the thingira. He was so charming and friendly and many days he asked me to eat with him.
After a few days of eating with him, he asked me where I wanted my house to be. I was confused. My house? “Weren’t you told? You will be living here with me.” I was shocked. This was not what I wanted. “May I go home and talk to my parents?”
I went home to so to my surprise, I was ordered to marry the chief. The traditional rites had already been done and my father had already received my bride price. My feeble protests were met with a stern warning from my father: “you will go with him or I will kill you.” I believed him. He was a tough and unyielding man – no joke! So I became the senior chief’s fifth wife. These were different times.
The chief was a devout christian. In those days, Christians were polygamous. There I was, a Gikuyu girl, having to remove my traditional dress, which included the small bunch of reeds tied together and passed through my lobes. There I was rising every morning to pray to the white man’s God, whom I had not met before. No more was I to sing the Gikuyu songs because it wasn’t done by good Christian girls . I was taken to the church in Kiambaa and there my christian journey started.
While, I didn’t want to marry him initially, I had such a happy life with him. He was a tough, hard working man and he was wise. He taught me how to serve the church and the people.
I have done that all of my life.