Art by Syowia Kyambi
As a little girl, I always wanted to see Mama’s nakedness. I so wondered what she looked like inside. Whenever I had a chance, I would crawl under her skirt to get her special smell, lose myself in the comfort of her warm thighs, with the hope that I would steal a glimpse of her beautiful, dark black body underneath. Mama never really let me do that. As soon as I sneaked my way in, her strong fingers were quick to pinch my bottom, driving me out.
As I grew older, I learned to abhor the nudity of any woman old enough to be your mother, to see such nudity as an abomination—a big no-no. If it happened accidentally, that would be shameful. Very shameful. And if any woman, let alone your mother, publicly stripped off her clothes, exposing her body, that would be a curse.
But I remember Mama’s mother-in-law, Nyabororo, often stripped naked in front of Mama and my sisters and me. Why?
“As a little girl, I always wanted to see Mama’s nakedness. I so wondered what she looked like inside. Whenever I had a chance, I would crawl under her skirt to get her special smell, lose myself in the comfort of her warm thighs, with the hope that I would steal a glimpse of her beautiful, dark black body underneath.”
Mama bore three girls. I was the last born. I was born pre-term, around the thirty-third week of her pregnancy. Mama bore me at home, without my father, with the help of a neighbor. My body was still forming, my skull soft right above my forehead all the way to the back of my neck. She was afraid I was not going to make it. So, like a kangaroo, Mama snuggled my fragile naked body inside the pouch of her blouse, covering my back with her leso, her bare chest touching mine, nourishing it. For months, I was bound skin-to-skin with my mama. I survived.
But whooping cough struck when I was a toddler. I became very ill. Mama struggled to find help for me. She took me to Kisii General Hospital for regular check-ups and medication. I did not improve. She gave me concoctions, herbs, and minerals—echumbi ya Gesengere. She tried everything she could to save my life.
During this difficult period, Nyabororo tormented my mama. She mocked her struggle for my survival, despising it as an unworthy endeavor. She urged Mama to remove the woolen blanket that kept me warm. “Why are you going through such great pains? Just let the little thing cough until she stops breathing; it is just a girl,” she said.
Mama never gave up on me. Like a wounded lioness, she fought for my life until I not only survived but thrived.
As my two sisters and I grew older, Nyabororo’s protests and insults grew as well. She disrespected us. She stripped many times in front of us and cursed at us on numerous occasions. Nyabororo wanted Mama to bear sons. If she couldn’t, my father could take a second wife who would.
One morning in Kegochi village, Mama was inside our grass-thatched house, about to start the fire to prepare breakfast before going to the shamba to cultivate. My sisters and I were still asleep. It was pitch dark. Dawn was reluctantly making its way through the silent chills of the morning when Mama heard the voice of her mother-in-law call out to her in an unusual kind but urgent way:
“Bwakire abwo, Mosubati o’ Rogito. Soka ango esiko aiga indakoa ingana nke. —Good morning, daughter of Rogito. Would you please come out here for a minute? I have a word to share with you.”
Mama stepped outside, and there was Nyabororo, right by the door, scornfully staring down at her. A tall aging woman, the beautiful dark strands of her black hair with gray roots woven into a vividly vibrant headscarf. She wore a free, long, sleeveless dress with an open face shrug, as if to let her emotions naked. Its bright colors accentuated her beautiful brown skin. Wrinkles draped her face like an additional revealing dress of olden day expressions of violence against women and girls. She stripped her dress and headscarf, squatted, and pooped right there by the entrance of our home. When she finished, she told my Mama:
Amabi aya naro nakoire
Ogende orere buma omwana oo bweka
Tokorora kerenge kia mwana!”
This poop is all I give you
I bless you with it,
you are barren, childless woman!
Scoop it up
And go nurse it as your only baby
You will never see the foot of a child!
And then she put her dress back on and started singing a funeral song while she strode back to her house.
Mama’s mind was in shreds. As her mother-in-law sashayed away, Mama stood over the sturdy mound of poop, staring at it as if it were Satan passing in regal splendor through the circles of hell. She did not know whether to be ashamed, horrified, angry, or to fight back. She did not get a chance to decide. Staring at the shit was the only thing that kept her brain alive. The smell was so fresh and strong like a skunk had climbed up her nose and died.
I heard Nyabororo wailing, and I leapt out of bed. Her wailing was like a siren, violent to the calm of the morning. Because I was terrified of death, especially Mama’s death, I felt great relief to see my mama standing by the entrance of our house with her back to me. She was wearing a long boho-style multicolored dress, with a V-neck, three-quarter-length batwing sleeves, piping at the waist, and a nice pleat in the back flowing. Its beautiful high-waist and flare in non-stretch viscose material fit her perfectly, as if in the dress all the best parts of her womanhood were blossoming into a broad smile. She rushed over to me and engulfed me in a big hug, then led me back into our hut. Once we sat down by the fireplace, I asked her why Nyabororo was mourning.
Mama quickly dismissed any concerns, saying, “Ah, wa! You know Nyabororo is like that. She just gets emotional remembering the dead.”
I felt protected and alive.
Mama had already arranged firewood in the three-stoned cooking place. Dried leaves, twigs, branches, and logs were leaning against each other in a supportive pile. She set the pan of water on the three stones and lit the fire. She asked me to open the window. Dark smoke and blackened logs gave way to the shining morning sun. Fresh air and light gushed inside as she played with the fire, which lit up so brazen and daring. Mama laughed when I ducked away from the sparks that seemed to wake our spirits.
My sisters woke up, and we all sat by the fireplace, ready for our morning ritual. Every morning we said three prayers together in a chorus. Then each one of us made a spontaneous petition. When Mama’s turn came to say her prayer, she took my sisters and me into a tight embrace. My sisters and I were sun, moon, and stars to one another. We loved, played, fought for and with one another. My sister Jane was about fifty inches tall; Pam was a little shorter at about forty-seven inches, and I was the tiny one at around thirty-nine inches. We were all still wearing our sleepwear. Then Mama’s powerful voice broke forth. She prayed with Psalm 139, the prayer imprinted in my heart, to the everyday God of women and little girls: powerful, feminine, sisterly, and motherly.
God, you have searched me, and you know me.
You know when I sit down, and when I rise.
Even before a word is my tongue, you know it.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Where can I go from your spirit?
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall overcome me, and the light around me become night,’
Even the darkness is not dark for you.
Night is as bright as the day; darkness is as light to you.
And so, I beg you Lord God almighty,
Take these children, my three daughters, and make them yours.
Protect them, love them, lead them,
for it is you who formed their inward parts,
it is you who knit them together in my womb.
I praise you because they, my beautiful girls, are fearfully and wonderfully made.
My sisters and I responded in a chorus, Amina. Let it be.
After breakfast, Mama grabbed the jembe—the versatile garden hoe with a strong hardwood handle— and made her way out the doorway. For the first time, I saw the poop. My sisters and I watched Mama scoop it and rush it to the pit latrine down past the mapera—the guava tree. She plugged her nose with her upper lip.
We were bewildered. Who had done that? Who would poop outside our door?
Mama returned, laughing at our inquisitive faces. Her laughter was contagiously distracting, so we all dissolved into giggles. But it may have been more than funny laughter for my dear mama.
Mama was probably simply extending her lips and making a sound—laughing with a torn and bleeding heart to shield us from the torture she felt. Or perhaps her laughter expressed scorn for social cowardice and the intolerable brutality of social governance. She was indeed not barren.
Mama laughed harder as she called out for water to wash her hands and gave us directions on what to carry to the shamba. Then she broke into song. There was no time for anything else. Soon we all joined in singing as we climbed Kegochi hill for our Saturday morning farmwork. We never again talked about that poop.
That morning, Mama’s laughter was the dew. As we sang and climbed together, thousands of glittering dewdrops transformed our world, whispering the direction of our journey, scattering the nascent rays of the sunshine.
Mama often broke down by violence and the constant threats. But she never let them crush her entirely. One evening she came home from a long day of hard work to find her sister-in-law waiting for her. She told Mama that she was dying to show her something. Her sister-in-law was very young and unmarried at that time. Wearing a smirk, she led Mama to our house, where she had set up a new bedroom in the room adjacent to the storage area. She had bought a mattress, a blanket, and two bedsheets, and prepared what she called a “real bedroom” where my father would “become a man”—where he would have another woman, who would bear him sons.
Mama did not let on how she was feeling. The constant beatings and incessant insults were already too much to bear. Now this. She made a quiet resolution to do all she could to find a safe dwelling for herself and for us, her three daughters. She would work harder and longer on the shamba to raise enough funds to move us away from my father and his family, far from this village that had come to torment us.
Mama had a full-time job as a schoolteacher at Kegochi primary school. In the early eighties, Kenya experienced a boom for the cultivation of pyrethrum as a cash crop. Mama had heard from other teachers that small-scale farmers who joined the pyrethrum farmers’ cooperative at Nyanturago market were receiving free pyrethrum seedlings and extension services. She was excited by the potential of such farming. But there were barriers. The first requirement for a small-scale farmer to be considered a member of the Pyrethrum cooperative and benefit from the services was simply that the farmer had to be a man. Women did not inherit land at that time. They could use the land and work it, but they had no right to extension services or membership in cooperatives, except through their husbands. Mama needed to convince my father to come with her to Nyanturago to have his farm registered. That was a daunting task, but she managed to convince him.
The other barrier was labor. There was communal labor called risaga. But Mama was not respected in the village and was unable to attract the kind of help that households with sons did. Mama had no money to hire laborers.
As my mother would later tell me, “And your father, as you know, never ever set his foot on the farm. He spent most of his time roaming around, drinking the locally brewed chang’aa, giving speeches, sleeping with other women, or hanging out in beer houses.” So, all the farming relied on my mama’s labor, with our help.
Every day before and after school, Mama went to the shamba to cultivate. Every Saturday, she had my sisters and me join her and help at the farm. And on rare occasions, she had the help of risaga.
My father’s land was not big—about three acres running up a narrow strip of Kegochi hill. Mama used two of those acres to cultivate crops for food production for our household consumption and set aside one acre to cultivate the pyrethrum cash crop. For every cycle of harvest, she was able to produce a yield of about six hundred kilos of pyrethrum to sell at the cooperative.
Mama saved most of the earnings from the pyrethrum sales and used part of it to buy two sheep—one ewe and one ram. She chose sheep because they required little labor and small capital to start, and there was a market for sheep wool and mutton. They did not need much space, so Mama was able to raise them alongside chickens. Every two weeks or so they went into heat and multiplied quickly.
I loved the sheep. They were hardy and free, roaming around independently, finding food, and fending for themselves. They were not picky eaters like me; they went for a wide variety of plants and all kinds of forage. But I liked to get them water. We developed a strong relationship. Every time I passed by, they would issue a chorus of wavering cries of baa, baa, as they scampered around me. And if I was away for too long, I could almost hear their agonizing bleating in the fields, crying for me.
Things were looking up. Within a year Mama’s sheep roamed around my father’s compound as if they owned the land. During the flowering season, the pyrethrum field was like a million suns shining from the hillside. It was a spectacular view before harvest. Over time, Mama was able to pay for farm labor, and for some young workers to help her carry the dried flowers to the factory in Nyanturago. Our pyrethrum farm was doing great. Mama was even giving plants to neighbors who were inspired by our success and wanted to grow their own pyrethrum.
Although Mama made good earnings from the sheep and the sales of pyrethrum, she downplayed the profits. She kept her success a close secret and never told my father about her savings.
“I used to tie up the money in knots and hide it in different places, including in the eaves,” Mama said. She feared that if my father and other relatives knew of the gains, they would strip her of it. So, she pretended the returns were meager and hardly worth the intense labor.
One day, Mama went to the society in Nyanturago to collect her biweekly payment for the delivery of pyrethrum. There was no bank nearby or mobile money. And since there was no matatu—public transportation, no taxi or boda boda, to ease transportation, she had to walk over eight kilometers from Kegochi to Nyanturago. After collecting the payment, she hurried back home, trekking another eight kilometers. It had rained a few hours before, and the cloudy remains of the rainstorm made the day seem older than it was. Mama made it back home just before dark with a packet of wheat flour and cooking oil. Her hope was to have our dinner together, then sit by the fireplace as she cooked mandazi—fried doughnut—for us that night.
We had a young helper, a girl of about fourteen named Nyamoita. She loved my sisters and me as if we were her little sisters. Sitting together by the fireside, telling stories and cooking, were some of the most intimate and powerful moments Mama, Nyamoita, and we three sisters had together.
As soon as Mama set the supplies near the fireplace, a child made his way through the door. He said he had been asked by my father, who was at my Nyabororo’s house, to come and fetch Mama. Mama thought that there must be something my father wanted to tell her. She patted our backs and assured us that she would be right back. She grabbed her leso, tied it around her waist, and left.
When Mama got to Nyabororo’s compound, they were all there, standing together: my father, his mother, and his sister. My father was wearing his worn-out “business suit,” the same one he had won to work as a clerk at Barclays Bank, his body almost suffocating with sweat under its tightness. He looked like he had no time for anything that made him human. His sister was wearing a short polyester dress, with a loose swing shape that gave her youthful body an easy flowy fit. Mama knew immediately that something was not right. A young boy was holding one of Mama’s sheep, the biggest and most productive of them all. Mother-in-law told Mama that they were going to slaughter that sheep as a sacrifice so that my father could bear children, sons.
Mama told me, “I couldn’t contain myself. I shouted a categorical ‘no,’ shaking my head vehemently. I refused to accept that they would sacrifice that sheep. I was still shaking my head and crying ‘no, no, no way,’ when a shattering slap to my face shut me up.
“Before I could even figure out what was going on, my sister in-law was gripping my hands behind me like I was a criminal in handcuffs. Your father was raining punches on my head, eyes, anywhere he could reach. Mama-in-law was cursing again, urging your father to hit me harder, to kill me.
“With every punch to my body, my mother-in-law cried: ‘You disobedient, barren bitch. I see the pride is getting to your head. How could you think you own anything? You have nothing! Not a child, not a sheep, not even a dog! Nothing! You deserve to die!’
“I tried to scream, but I could only croak.
“I lurched and stumbled as the insults pierced my heart like swords. My teary eyes opened wider as your father’s final blow came right for my stomach. I made an agonizing leap forward to dodge the blow to my stomach, and by the grace of God, I broke loose before they knocked me down and out. Cold sweat ran through my body, and my legs began to give way; I couldn’t let my brain shut down. I ran as fast as I could up the footpath, past our house. I did not want you and your sisters to see me like that.
“I ran away. I ran until the night fell, smothering the day. As I made my way through the darkness, I was grateful for the moon that lit my path. Everything had gone to sleep. All I could hear was my footfalls, pounding along the path like an elephant’s rumble, larger than life.
“I made it to my mother’s home in Keumbu, fifteen kilometers away, several hours later, in the dark. There were no crickets or birds singing, not even frogs grunting.
“I felt great pain entering my mother’s house. I watched her watch me, as if she was examining a rare animal species in the savanna forest to get a snapshot into their lives. She awoke from sleep to awaken in one heartbeat, not because of a dream, but to face the reality of the I presented before her. Her sleeping clothes were still creased, her headscarf almost untied. She looked at me for a long time. I let her watch me. There was no mirror in my mother’s house for me to see myself. Through her eyes, I gazed at myself, horrified.
“Her eyes walked through the scars of my battered face, my broken lips, my bleeding nose, my torn blouse, and my exposed breasts. Her gaze held onto each area of my brokenness forever. I needed someone to see my wounds, but to also see my full humanity and worth, even if for just a little while. And my mother did. Her gaze locked with mine, speaking volumes, soothing my scars.
“My mother breathed deeply in and out as she quietly lit a fire, set a chair for me by the three-stoned fireplace, and made me a hot cup of erongori yo’obori—millet porridge. I sipped the porridge in silence. No word came from our tongues until the next morning, when my mother said to me, in almost a whisper, ‘Where did you leave the children? Go get them.’ ”
I remember the terror of that night. Fear came at me like a tsunami, sweeping away all my dreams and hopes. It was not just that Mama was absent; it was the thought of what might have happened to her. My sisters and I were petrified. Nyamoita tried to console us. As the night grew darker, Pam and I cried a tumultuous storm, unwilling to give up. Jane, the oldest, sat with her little knees curled up, wide-eyed, while chewing the entire half of her right lip like a day-old infant suckling her mother’s huge breast.
Pam and I must have cried ourselves to sleep. Later we learned that our sister Jane was lying under the blanket on her small safari bed, too distressed to sleep. Nyamoita had told her that Mama had been in a fight with our father and had gone to Grandma Kwamboka’s house in Keumbu to be safe. Nyamoita hoped she would understand, but Jane was only nine years old and couldn’t fathom why Mama had left us behind with our uncaring father. She hoped that Mama would come to fetch us, even in the night. She decided to remain awake and ready in case Mama returned.
We had no electricity or any other form of lighting. The room was dark, except for the occasional flicker from the fireplace and the moon peeping through the windows. Then suddenly Jane heard someone running around the bedroom, sobbing. She peeped through her blanket. My father was chasing Nyamoita around the room, trying to grab her. Instinctively, Jane sat up on her bed and cried out, “Tata motige!—Father! Leave her alone!”
My father punched Jane in her temple so hard that she felt she’d been hit by something as large as a planet. Jane fell on her bed, semi-conscious. A short time later, Nyamoita’s pleas for help revived her. She shot upright on her bed. Pleas mingled with other sounds in Mama’s bedroom—a squeaking bed, our father’s grunts. Jane listened for every sound. Now and then, Nyamoita let out a moan that was met by a slap. Then silence. It was as though Nyamoita had been trapped forever under the weight of death.
Jacqueline Ogega, PhD. is the author of Home Is Us, a memoir that captures a stunning life story of overcoming adversity through personal agency and collective resilience. She is also the author of Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding, with Palgrave Macmillan. Senior Director of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion (GESI) at World Vision, she leads a team of technical experts in GESI integration. She cofounded Mpanzi, a nonprofit organization that supports the empowerment of women and girls in rural villages in Kenya. Dr. Ogega earned her PhD in peace and conflict studies from the University of Bradford in the UK and holds an MA in gender and development studies and a BA in education. A survivor of gender-based violence, she believes in individual agency, societal resilience, and equity of systems as essential and achievable pathways to lasting, transformative change.
Syowia Kyambi’s approach takes aim at the politics of the time and its legacy: what is remembered, what is archived, and how we may see the world anew. Syowia is the recipient of the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship (2017) and an Art in Global Health grant from the Wellcome Trust (United Kingdom, 2013). Her work is in the permanent collections of Kouvola Art Museum, Finland; the Sindika Dokolo Foundation; and the Nairobi National Museum (commission, 2007). She is represented in the Pavilion of Kenya at the 2022 Biennale di Venezia. Information about “Kaspale’s Archive Intrusion” can be found here.