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December 5, 2014 / bswitaba

A Tribute to grandmother (Mama Maria)


As the world commemorates one year since the passing on of an African icon Tata Madiba, I take this opportunity to venerate a great soul full of humanity that passed on to the world hereafter –my grandma. It’s been 19 years since she went to the good Lord.
I remember vividly the last day I saw her – it was on a Sunday and my siblings and I were heading back to school after the August holidays. Grandma decided to see us off on her way to church. While we were parting, my soul seemed troubled. Something inside was telling me that all was not right – but all the same we parted and as walked on, I kept looking back to have a glimpse of her until she disappeared into the church crowd.
Later in December, while playing football, I would receive the dreaded news of my life – that grandma was no more. At first it felt as though it was a dream as I stood still with the ball in my hand. The news as mum narrated had just been broken to her by a priest who had been rung by an uncle.

So how was life going to be without grandma? I wondered. She had been such a pillar in my life and instilled character and discipline in me considering I had spent a better part of my life with her. To me, she was more than just a grandma – she was a mentor and I always looked up to her. Grandma had always prayed that I become a priest and or a bishop later in life. She used to tell me how she imagined I being a cardinal and eventually the first black pope! Great dreams she had for me that she inspired me to become an altar boy in the attempt to pursue the dream. I guess this was stirred by the fact that she herself was once a catholic nun – yes she was!

She would repeatedly narrate to me her life story…that after her intermediate school, she was persuaded by missionaries, ended up in the convent after which she eventually became a nun. But after several years in the monastery, she couldn’t stand the oppression of the “mother superior” and decided enough was enough and eventually quit. The church would follow her home to persuade her to return but she would hear none of it.

Her love for church is probably the reason she was a staunch catholic and ensuring that we followed in her footsteps.

Grandma was greatly revered amongst her peers as she was one of the women of substance that possessed a strong command of the Queen’s language. She used to give me kids books published in olden English. I would tell her that we no longer learnt English with words such as “thou, ye, thy”. “English is English no matter what”, she would retort. I honestly the English as it seemed complex to me. All the same, grandma was good at it you would think she was a London regal. Or maybe she was after all. I am not sure if an average graduate of today’s standards would match her oratory prowess. Often, she would narrate how lucky her generation was to have a feel of Karl Francis, the renowned English teacher and settler.

Besides, she was privileged to have brushed shoulders with the “who was who” in the colonial era. She also happened to have worked for English settlers both in Kenya and Uganda (then simply referred to as East Africa).

Like I had stated earlier on, I spent the better part of my life with grandma to a point of feeling that she was a mother figure rather than just a grandma.
Granny was a principled lady who never tolerated mediocrity; she always ensured that she instilled discipline in me and my peers. Bad company and savage behavior was a thing she could never stand. To her, savage behavior, ill manners were a sign of poor parentage, upbringing and family background.

Her emphasis usually placed on the key words – please, thank you, excuse me, pardon me.

If she gave you something, you had to extend both hands – as a sign of respect and say thank you. And in the event that one wanted something, they had to ensure they used the words “please”. Now you would never get away if you were on the wrong and failed to apologize. That would amount to an all out war akin to a world war. More so, she never minced her words – she was always firm and stood for fairness at all times.
When I was young, all these virtues seemed universal or so I thought. But with time, I came to learn otherwise – that not every child was taught mannerism and savage behavior was deeply rooted in some souls that even if you took them out of the village to the outside world, they would still remain that –savage!

Of my age of innocence and life at grandma’s farm house

When grandma retired, she moved from the city and settled on a farm where committed herself to rearing cows, goats, sheep and chicken. For some reason she detested ducks very much.

Considering our home’s proximity to the forest, she taught me the art of tending animals in the grazing valley as well as the outer parts of the forest at a very tender age – a task I grew fond of.
She wouldn’t allow my peers and I to venture deep in the forest for fear of being attacked by wild animals, getting lost or kidnapped. She would repeatedly tell us of groups of people whose aim was to kidnap kids and sell them. So she would always tell us to stick together as a group and raise alarm if we noticed something sinister. We had developed the art of using sound signals, something synonymous with every herds boy. Every signal was symbolic and communicated out a specific message.

My love for the forest was so immense that I always looked forward to the following day to head back to the grazing fields. Wild fruits and roots were freely available in abundance for our munching. During the season of green maize, the older boys would have the smaller boys like myself get maize for roasting and boiling – they didn’t want to know how we would get it – whether by asking for the maize or acquiring it through unorthodox means. This maize would then be pooled together and roasted or steamed in a charcoal burning kiln.

As we waited for the delicacy to ready, we would sometimes engage in bird hunting with our slings, wrestling matches, plunging in the river, swimming, bullfighting, boxing and sliding down a sloppy and muddy hill, but most importantly never losing sight of the cattle lest they strayed to neighboring farms or deep in the forest.

Sliding down the hill got our shorts’ backside torn and would get me a thrashing in the evening. On some occasions, the cheeky big boys would incite a fight amongst the smaller boys by getting one boy to pull the other’s ear as a sign they could box them up. The target would react by harshly brushing off the hand of the other boy and a scuffle would ensue. Grandma had a tendency to check on us and would scold any individual involved in such fights.

There was an era when we teamed up to make a sizeable wooden car enough to carry about six passengers. The wheels of the car were made of wood with cow dung acting as oil to reduce friction on the fulcrum. The car had a steering wheel for control and we always looked for a slope so that we could easily go down it. However, we detested pushing it uphill as it was never fun at all. At that time, we felt we were such engineers –I look back and wonder why none of the team members’ hasn’t ended up as an engineering student at the famed and coveted Massachusetts (grin).

Of bonfire evenings

After grazing escapades, I would head home in the evening and grandma would gladly help me enclose the herd in the boma ( animal enclosure).

Then I would have a hot bath, grab dinner and wash it down with a warm glass of milk – my reward for ensuring the cattle were well fed.

We usually sat around a bonfire and listened to grandma as she narrated her ever charming stories – ranging from colonialism, religion, politics. Her knowledge for world politics always amazed me. She would narrate of Queen Elizabeth II, World War II, Pope John Paul II, the Mau-Mau uprising, Jomo Kenyatta, Samora Machel, Kenya’s 1982 coup, Idi Amin, the overthrow of Obote and his restoration by Nyerere. Grandma had a strong liking for Tanzania and Nyerere – I bet because of ujamaa (communism) which she considered to make people equal and brotherly.
Considering she was religious, she would slot in a religious story before leading to a hymn and a goodnight prayer. One story I remember vividly to date is the story of Fatima appearing to three little kids while they were grazing. Her narrations could explicitly be visualized in one’s mind.

At times, she would pick up a story from the bible – for instance the story of the good Samaritan, the parable of talents just to name a few. Speaking of talents, I was a gifted guitarist –or so I thought at age 5, thanks to a senior herds boy that was previously working for grandma. However, grandma did not feel this was an “ideal talent” so she would take my guitar away and break it or throw it in the fire. As I knew how to make one, I would be at it the following day despite the fact that getting caught with a brand new makeshift guitar would attract a rapping. In the end, I gave up on wanting to emulate Sukuma Bin Ongaro in being a solo guitarist.

Of her passing on

The passing on of grandma was a big blow to us and me in particular. When the news reached us, I didn’t want to go over to the funeral. I felt that delaying my going would probably change the situation – and bring her back to life! At that moment, I silently prayed to God – to give me turn me in to Jesus for a day and possess powers over death.
I had never cried my heart out like this before. In adversity, I became a poet, a musician; I remember that was the year Madilu System’s song “Ya Jean” was a hit. It complemented the somber and melancholic mood. I felt as though Madilu comprehended what I was going through as to release that particular song at that very moment.

My take was that if I had been with grandma during her ailing, I would have “saved” her from the demise. She was an outpatient on medication but succumbed during her sleep in her room.

The world had robbed me off a trusted and open friend, a mentor, a ray of hope. It had such a toll on me that I kept to myself and became an introvert, narcissist. I felt I couldn’t open up to anyone as such. I would go through this phase throughout secondary school and eventually college where I ultimately started to open up and warm to the world – for I felt it was the right thing to do. I had hurt so much but I had to heal and move on.


Today I am who I am – thanks to the principles that were instilled in me by granny. I have this obsession of rating people based on “grandma’s standards” (they were always high and whoever fitted them was surely a true gentleman or woman for that matter).

Though am not all that she wanted me to be in life (priest, cardinal name them) – am glad that I strive to live by the very principles of resounding respect to all (rich or poor, young or old), gratitude and the quest to prosper and excel so as to make the world a better place.

Every time I am in the skies, I remember what grandma told me as a kid: that while she was staying in the military base where my grandpa used to work, she had me and her take a ride on the airforce plane, but I was “just a kid to understand anything”. So she always reminded me to strive and be skyward in my lifetime so that I could comprehend the experience that I wasn’t able to then – on the airforce chopper.

If grandma were alive today, I wonder how life would be like. I know she would be Top Cat’s (Santos’) best friend, and he would probably imbibe and spew English like never before from her– well, he already is, thanks to his addiction to cartoons and JKL show.
Lastly, being a mind reader she was, I know grandma wouldn’t flinch in telling me my personal and life’s odyssey: “Happy folk, Sad folk”.


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