(First and foremost, thanks to many of you who commented or wrote me notes of encouragement after my last bummer of a blog post. Now back to your regularly scheduled slightly self-mocking observations on life in East Africa!)
We had been planning our visit to “Dani” (grandmother in Luo language) and Innocent, Fred’s nephew who is like his own son, ever since we returned to Africa, and as the time drew closer for the trip to Kenya, I began to get really nervous. I knew language would be a barrier, since Dani and Innocent only speak Luo, but I also had a sense of the weight of the occasion. Fred’s extended family, aunts, uncles, cousins and all, had been waiting for Fred to get married for a long, long time. Most of them had not even seen a photo of me, but they knew I was a white American, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to make a good impression.
As an example, trying to dress for the day we went to their home almost drove Fred crazy. I wanted to wear comfortable clothes for the long trip, but I also wanted to look nice to see them, and I definitely didn’t want to look too American. Trying to find the perfect traveling outfit that would also be the perfect “meet the in-laws” outfit, pairing practicality with themes of cultural integration…my appeals to Fred for feedback or guidance were useless, as I imagine the importance of a wardrobe decision of this magnitude is beyond most men. They could probably identify “wrong” if they saw it on your body, but otherwise, you’re on your own, lady! I finally landed on something that didn’t appall me, and we hit the road for the big event.
Remember the car ride I described where the driver shared a seat with the eighth passenger? Well, I have now realized that this is an extremely common scenario. I have amended my award of “Maximum Vehicular Capacity” so many times in the past few weeks that I have determined that it is only my naivety that would even consider that award worth thinking of. (Eight in the seats, with three to four children in laps, and three to four riding in the “boot” seems to be the absolute capacity for these vehicles, but I’m still expecting to be proved wrong on that front.) The trip to Sindo, Dani’s village, took us about 11 hours, in which we rode in three packed cars, two packed mini-buses, and another packed car. This final car was the one that took us from the tiny town of Homa Bay to the village of Sindo, and the two voluptuous mamas who shared the back seat with Fred and I had us wedged in so tightly that even the bumps of the “detours” off of the “currently being improved” road didn’t budge us.
When we finally arrived at the bottom of the path to Dani’s house, I was so beat I almost (almost) didn’t even care what I was wearing. Fred’s cousin, Beatrice, a lovely 30-something-year-old married mother of five, came running full-speed down the hill from the house. She basically fell on me, hugging me and welcoming me, and she took the bags from my hands, threw her arm around my shoulders and started up the hill. We had to stop and rearrange luggage when Fred’s aunt came from the road where she’d seen us pass, and insisted on also carrying something after her hugs and welcome. Then we stopped again (it’s not a very long path!) when Innocent came tearing down the hill yelling “Uncle! Uncle!” Eventually, we made it to where Dani was waiting for us, and she started crying when she saw us. Half a second of “is that good crying or bad crying?” crossed my mind before she started hugging me and wouldn’t let go!
Suffice it to say that I was very welcome, and as I got to know them better over the weekend, I was let in on the secret: they had been dreading our marriage, although they hadn’t told Fred. Their few observations of marriage between Luo men and white women were not encouraging, and I will summarize their fears in this list. They thought I would be old, wear only tight trousers, refuse to have children (or be too old to have children), take Fred to America forever, and/or dislike them and their home. The stories I heard behind those fears totally legitimize the worst opinion they might have had of me, but by the end of the first day, Fred assured me that they love me and only regretted the language barrier. (Big sigh of relief!)
Their home is on a remote little bay of Lake Victoria. The village is ringed by huge hills (like Chehalem Mountain), and Fred’s family homestead is part-way up one hill, about a 45-minute walk from the village. The lake is nearly empty during the day, since it’s been over-fished for tilapia and Nile perch, but the dagaa (small fish like sardines) are still plentiful. Dagaa have to be fished for at night, so around dusk about a hundred boats set out from the shore with lanterns in them. The dagaa come to the lights and are caught with nets, so it’s like a whole city on the bay each night. There is no electricity or running water up at the house, so they have donkeys that carry full jerrycans of lake water up the hill each morning and evening. Dani has a couple of small gardens close to her three-room house with a separate kitchen, and each garden has a high fence of poles around it to protect from the baboons. They live so remotely that there are a large number of wild animals that come out from the hills at night, including baboons and even the occasional leopard!
Fred has spent the past several years sending Dani part of his salary each month to make improvements on the house, including constructing the kitchen and a toilet, but they hadn’t quite gotten around to a bathroom yet. Our first night Fred told me, a bit shame-facedly, that we would have to bathe outside. I thought, “no problem! I’ve bathed in the outdoor bathrooms at the orphanages, and I enjoy it!” Then he corrected me by showing me the rock he’d found that would be our shower stall. I love being married, because it was not only appropriate, but necessary for him to stay there while I stripped naked on a random rock in the middle of the great-baboon-ridden-outdoors and splashed water on myself. The next day, the first thing he did in the morning was go out and hire two neighbors to help him construct a bathroom from sheets of tin roofing and poles and rocks for the floor. By afternoon he had built me a bathroom, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about glowing-in-the-dark for any passersby to see.
There were loads of other wonderful and funny moments throughout the weekend, like giving Dani the gifts we’d brought her, Innocent praying at meals, Dani dancing with joy when she saw our wedding photos, Innocent hanging from a tree screaming “Auntie, Auntie, look at me!”, Dani and Fred’s aunt laughing at my attempts at Luo/Swahili/English mix, and the look on Dani’s face when she saw me brushing my hair one morning: “Well, you won’t have to spend a fortune at the salon with hair like that!” It was a huge blessing, and they made me very welcome, no matter what I was wearing!