Do to others as you would have them do to you.
That is the Golden Rule Jesus whispered to his kitchen cabinet. They then passed the teaching on to us through the Holy Book. More often than not, this is solid advice. Well, except when someone is marrying your sister. In which case, treat them as you want. I am sure Jesus would understand. Because when the day comes for you to go to another man’s home to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, they will also treat you as they want. In-laws will make you do stupid stuff for shits and giggles and say it’s their culture.
Take for instance, the practice of them having your wife draped in lesos and you have to pick her out from a lineup of other fully covered beauties. I know we are a corrupt nation and she’d have already told you where she’ll stand in the queue and you just have to play along to entertain the crowd, but whose culture is it really? I’m sure our forefathers wouldn’t participate in this silly skit. Going to your in-laws was serious business and people wore suits. Afro urban wear was for people who escorted the cattle, not for uncles and your battery of dowry negotiators. It was easy to spot the shemeji and his people at funerals and other functions because they were the only ones who wore suits. And before that, we walked with nothing but loincloths for centuries, and it would take the loincloths of the whole subtribe to cover at least five well-endowed African women. And what would the people whose loincloths had been repurposed into a jilbāb be wearing? In African culture, you cannot expose your nakedness to your in-law. So it’s definitely not a culture thing.
Maybe it is the Mijikenda who picked it up from the Arabs who had set camp at the coast (and being Muslims, are big on this idea of full coverage), and it soon spread upcountry. Or some elders from one of the communities who do this sat down and thought of ways to further extort hapless young men asking for the hands of their daughters in marriage. And after some deep thoughts, a retired government clerk and an expert on matters extortion shot up his arm and suggested, “What if we shut the gate just before the guests arrive and tell them we’ve lost the keys. We’ll tell them the locksmith costs money, you know.” And everyone clapped in excitement.
“But we can only get 3 Gs, 5K tops from that. And you know these girls of ours are hard-headed; they don’t get married often so we have to squeeze out everything we can when we get a chance,” said a former home guard who tells the younger generations he was in the British Army.
“Yes, yes, yes! We need more!” came a resounding roar.
“Tuweke fine ya kuvunja ndama mguu.”
“But…but most of us had three kids with our wives before we took even a goat to our in-laws. And we were never fined…”
Everyone ignored the dissident and carried on.
“These young men don’t want to do things the right way and if we don’t make them pay for it, they’ll never realize know right from wrong.”
Five hours and three pots of busaa later, they settled on three ideas: gate money, pregnancy fine, and lesos. And everyone dipped their long straws into the fourth busaa pot to show unanimous consensus with the new resolutions.
One of my friends invited me to witness his sister getting snatched away. They call it Koito. An engagement ceremony. It was nothing like I expected. First, where I come from, nyombo is a small, intimate ceremony with restricted attendance to family and close friends only and maybe an ohangla band that the groom paid for to entertain him. Often it’s the bride’s drunkard brother who provides entertainment or embarrassment. How you see his antics depends on where your envy falls on the mild to illiterate co-wife with school dropout sons scale. This was a big event. There was even a professional DJ and MC. Like at a wedding.
And when the potential in-law and his people arrived, they were made to wait until their hosts “got alarmed by the crowd pitching tent outside their home.” It’s a culture thing, I was told. You cannot just let them get in like that. Among my people (Luos), it shows madharau to keep visitors waiting outside for long, and any self-respecting guests will leave if they are not welcomed shortly after arrival. Among the Kalenjin, you have to wait for as long as your hosts deem fit. After all you’ve come to steal their daughter and thieves don’t to be welcomed with, “Hi hun, how was your day?” You wouldn’t know this was their second visit after an initial reconnaissance trip to iron out issues such as ensuring the girl and boy are not related and bride price estimates by the way the Or was treated at the entry point.
When there were finally let it, they were led to the tents – not to the house. There are cultural and logistical reasons for this. Koito is a big ceremony and these guys came in several cars and buses so they couldn’t all fit in the house. And because technically you still don’t know who they are and it’s not safe to invite strangers to your house, they have to wait in the tent until they get valid travel documents to go into the house.
The designated family spokesperson asked they who they were, where they are from and what brought them here. Not everyone speaks in these things. If you are not allowed to speak, you smile and nod.
“Sisi tumetoka Pokot…blah blah…Tulisikia kuna ng’ombe huku na tumekuja kuiangalia.”
“We were expecting some visitors and it seems like it’s you.”
After a friendly exchange of parables, the groom and his team of selected negotiators made their way to the house where elders from the bride’s side were waiting. The bride was summoned and asked if she knew the visitors and if she allowed the family to engage the visitors. She said yes and disappeared. This was one of the two times she’s allowed to speak on this day. As much as Koito is the bride’s ceremony, her job description for the day is to smile, dance and hug people. But she has it better compared to the groom who is neither seen nor heard from for the entire event. He doesn’t even get a front-row seat in the event. He is sandwiched somewhere between the first row and the backbenchers when the ceremony starts in the tents.
Inside the house, the elders introduced themselves again and went over the minutes from their previous meeting (the initial introductory visit, remember?). Traditionally, everyone left in the tent are not to be served or attended to until the talks are over and elders come to an agreement. In fact, they are intentionally allocated the tents closer to the gates so they can make a quick exit should the negotiations go south. But my friend’s family are good Christians and these are the days of hatuwezi kosana, so everyone else ate while the talks went on. When they came to an agreement, one of the women from the groom’s side came out with a peacock or ostrich feather on her hat to symbolize the deal was done. Now the celebrations could start proper. For some us, that meant it was time to go for second helpings.
The bride and her maids made a choreographed dance to their tent while the unofficial Koito anthem crooned in the background, and women ululated with joy. They looked like royalty in their crimson robes and tiaras. No leso drapes, which was a shame really because we could have gotten beer money, even rent money by changing the formation of the girls last minute. Opportunity lost. Our time to eat gone just like that because of being good Christians. No one will remember this act of charity when we turn snatchers. There were cakes though. Or a cake with several tiers. I don’t know, man. It was just beautiful. And we ate and ate some more. And bachelors were encouraged to go for an extra serving so they don’t get burnt cooking supper that night. Aunts, uncles and family friends gave lengthy speeches on how to cook for husbands and take care of wives. Young men were challenged to revenge especially considering that was the third lady from the village the Pokots were snatching. Of course I didn’t have a present because I was not informed Koitos are weddings in all but name and also because where I come from, we attend dowry ceremonies to just eat and wish the couple well.
Tea was served after the event and while we were engaging in post-event small talk, the groom’s family was packing the bride’s stuff in the car and were just waiting for goodbyes. They had come for a woman and there weren’t going back home without her. Those sneaky bastards!