The Netherlands went into a hard lockdown on December 19th in response to the Omicron COVID-19 wave sweeping through Europe. Everything shut down except for provisional shops, supermarkets, grocery stores and pharmacies. This comes as we officially begin the winter season, dumping sombreness on the Christmas cheer with the restriction on house guests. The government directive on the number of guests permitted into a home has been reduced from four to two visitors with the exception of children under the age of 13. Outdoors, three is a crowd. Two is the magic number.
At a press conference announcing the new lockdown measures, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte stressed that despite the difficulty in observing the 1.5 metre social distance rule, people should limit direct contact between persons aged over 70 and children as much as possible. He pleaded with the elders, “…do not hug the grandchildren under the Christmas tree”.
I wanted to tell the PM, “If only he knew what I would do to hug my grandmother, one last time’’.
Three days prior to this announcement, I received a text message from my mother who lives in a little village in Siaya County in Kenya.
“Dani Wahonya passed away this morning at Sagam hospital. Her body is at the hospital morgue”.
Grandma is dead. I cancelled everything I was doing that day and went to the Amsterdamse Bos forest to take a long walk in solitude with trees. It was a grey autumn day and the forest was covered in mist. My eyes were dry but my heart was heavy.
I had seen Dani Wahonya about two months ago when I made a short visit to Kenya and I never imagined that trip in October would be the last time I saw her alive. Now she was gone but even thousands of miles away, I was filled with a sense of her super presence in this foreign land among the grey trees, stripped of their leaves, standing in total stillness and acceptance of the season at hand.
Grief is not something you can schedule or control and it arrives, without notice. Grief is the price we must pay if we have truly loved. I wished for family. In Kenya, grieving is a collective activity. When the death of a close family member is announced, we gather around the bereaved and create a support circle to help them ride the lapping waves of grief. In the West, grief is a private affair.
Dana Wahonya was officially known as Jedida Oyunga. She was the second wife of my paternal grandfather’s elder brother, Isaac Oyunga, whose name I carry. In the village, she was simply my grandmother.
My grand-uncle Oyunga died one year before I was born and my parents said I was named in his memory.
Dana Wahonya never ceased to remind me that I was named after her husband, Oyunga and that made her my wife. It was a strange thing to hear as a young boy. To be teased by this old woman who lit up with joy every time she saw her ‘husband’. Sometimes she would break into a praise song composed in honour of her late husband and I would stand shyly in her presence, overwhelmed by the attention she accorded me. She said I carried his spirit and that she would never lack because her husband still lived.
On occasion she would tease, “My husband! When are we arranging the wedding? I am still so young”.
There is something special about being seen wholly in the way that only grandparents see children. And then to be praised and loved lavishly just because your existence represents the perpetuation of their own legacy. This is why countless of resource strapped grandmothers continue to raise grandchildren out of poverty into fulfilled adults on a steady dose of love and affection.
Dana Wahonya arrived as a young bride in our village somewhere in the 1940s, as my great-uncle’s second wife. She was comparatively younger than the other grandmothers which made it easy for her to bridge the generations. She hailed from Western Kenya on the border between the Luo and the Luhya people in Vihiga county and it would be decades before I came to realise that she was born of a different ethnicity, for she spoke the mother tongue fluently. Noted Kenyan historian, Bethwell Ogot reminds us that, in genealogy, there are no pure breeds. We are all mongrels.
She talked of those early days, as times of great upheaval and uncertainty. Young men were getting conscripted as soldiers of the British empire and shipped to war abroad. Many never returned. There was tremendous internal migration and with the arrival of the land tenure system, rivalries over land became heated. It was a time when men had to rely on brute strength to defend and provide for their families.
I grew up in Nairobi city but in my teenage years, I began to spend more conscious time in the village during the holidays. I became acquainted with the village structure and aware of the invisible hands that held the parts together. Dana Wahonya was the young grandmother for a long time and she outlived many. She was the last of my surviving grandmothers and now I sadly add, I have no more grandmothers that I am directly related to by blood.
Dana Wahonya became a widow in the early 70s. She buried 4 of her 6 children in the following decades who died in adulthood. She brought up their children and was still around to mother her great grandchildren. For 50 years, she never stopped mothering and even as her previously robust and lithe body became bent and aged.
Though not formally educated, she was smart in the ways of the world. In the village, she was known for her innate sense of seasonal crop planting. They used to say that when Wahonya puts seed to soil, you knew the rains were coming. She was modest in her ways, content with her station in life but also a straight shooter who spoke her mind when she was displeased by one’s behaviour.
Dana Wahonya was the last of a generation born in the 1920s, in the decade that Kenya would be declared a British colony. She was the last of my grandmother’s age-set and part of the generation that ushered us into modernity. She was never able to verify her actual birth date but she says she was born in the period “after the first war among the whites”. By our estimation she had lived beyond 95 years of age.
When a grandparent who has lived long and goes to be with the ancestors, it becomes the culmination of a generational chapter. Many of our grandmothers did not age well. They were widowed early and suffered further tragedy of losing their support system, their adult children. By the time the grandchildren grow up to be adults and in a position to contribute to their welfare, they find terminally ill bodies, sapped of energy, that long for nothing more than a dignified death.
In a way, you simply have to look at the collective condition of our grandmothers in the rural areas and working class spaces in urban areas to understand how brutal the journey has been. Our grandmothers, who have outlived their partners by decades, are victims of a crumbled healthcare system and the collapse of the old structure of the communal African society. Those who they sacrificed their lives for, as a form of insurance for the future, either succumbed before their time or became victims of disillusionment that modernity and its cousins visited on the newly minted citizens of the post colonial Kenyan state.
Children were left with their grandmothers as the young ones went chasing for a livelihood in the city. So many were broken by the ruthlessness of urban life. When they came back for their ‘grown children’ they had barely made enough to feed themselves, let alone their families and they still needed granny to prop up their dignity. Only change could be spared. Usually a little money for sugar, tea leaves, bread, cooking oil and Panadol tablets.
What happens when there is no one left to care for the caregivers? Our African grandmothers tend to fit the profile of aged, widowed, rural and neglected caregivers. Most rural villages in Kenya have their quota of forgotten grandmothers. The old woman in a bright floral dress that falls to her ankles and a matching head scarf, walking with an unsteady gait, lugging a bag full of lamentations. The ones with a wrinkled face, leathery skin, teary eyes and bad knees. When she coughs, twice, the family begins to anticipate a funeral. Onlookers cover their mouths and whisper,
“She doesn’t look good?” Will she make it to Christmas?”
If life were fair, she would be celebrated in her sunset years and afforded the convenience of a steady pension and a chance to pursue some of her own desires. She would be cared for by her children and loved by her grandchildren. Like the TV sitcom grandmother.
Pity then, there is hardly any rosiness in the harsh reality of poverty stricken elderly people kraaled in rural areas. That league of extraordinary old women that death forgot about. Women who embraced the responsibility of motherhood before their 20th birthdays and spent the rest of their lives fending for children. They birthed families, raised villages and built communities by sheer force of will. Those once stunning beauties of the land with no photographs to relive those memories of youth.
These grandmothers had no time for personal pursuits. Dressing up to church and a funeral were the only splendour afforded in a simple life. Funerals offered a chance to travel out of the village, to socialise and to reminisce on one’s condition. The rest of the days of their lives were spent working to provide food for the family. A day without work was a day without food.
Physical stamina is what kept them going but as old age drained their vigour, they were reduced to the needy, surviving on hand outs and prayer.
Dana Wahonya, once told me plainly,
“At my age, (then somewhere in her 80s) all I want is something to eat and someone to take over that weight of thinking about how I am going to eat”.
It is easy to forget, now that we are grown and secure, that we are the products of these modest visionaries who sacrificed much, so that those who came after them would prosper in the new world. Some were lucky, like Mama Sarah Obama, who would see glory in her final years. Many others resigned to their fate and the promise of closure through death. When you bury a husband, children and grandchildren, death becomes a welcome stalker. All they wish for is to die with dignity. But each day, they must still rise and make it count. Suffering is relative and every new challenge is placed in context.
On one occasion, I returned to the village and made the customary stop to visit my grandmother who I had not seen for a long time. As the typical eager grandchild, I asked after her living conditions. What needed to be taken care of? She said the roof of the house had started leaking and she needed some new aluminum roofing sheets. I remember, I began to bemoan her condition but she cut me short with a story,
“There was a man who bought a piece of land, not far from here. He built a beautiful stone house and then died before he could occupy it. What is a leaking roof when you have the breath to wake up in the morning?”
There is a special breed of women about to exit the scene with an endless capacity to care for others. They are the forgotten grandmothers whose weary hands are holding up our bright skies. They are the discarded ladders that took us over the walls erected to stop our progress and on whose bent backs, we built modern and prosperous lives.
They languish, scattered over Africa’s rural landscape, anticipating the arrival of well mannered visitors. Those ‘good’ children who come bearing gifts and food to eat. Those who remember to send them money regularly, to be redistributed through an informal welfare system that functions as the last refuge for the forgotten children.
It takes a village to raise a child but it takes a grandmother to raise that village first. If you have a grandmother who has lived long enough to see her great grandchildren, pay your dues, for soon, we will be stumbling in the big shoes, left behind.
Rest in Peace, Dana Wahonya.