As we bumped along the dirt road in our little Toyota I could hear the driver complaining in luo. I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying but the constant wincing as we went through each rut in the road gave me a pretty good idea. Where on earth were we headed?
Up ahead I could just make out what looked like a little tent on wheels,
tuk tuks are the oddest little contraptions but they can get you where you’re going. And apparently in this case with a whole lot of wood! No way it was getting through all that mud and up that….ope there it went, and here I was worrying about our car!
Just as I was getting comfortable on a nice stretch of flat road the driver pulled off to the side and calmly declared “Here”. You could practically feel the wave of relief in that one little word. All the way here and we hadn’t lost the oil pan. Here we were…Where on earth were we?
Three hours ago we had left our little apartment in Kisumu proper to meet up with Anastasia, our Kenyan partner, to head off to our first meeting with the Women’s groups of Kamrongo at a nice little church right on the main road. When we arrived at her office we were served tea and Anastasia started telling us some stories…uhoh. Something was wrong.
After three hours, more cups of tea than I could count, and an uncountable number of skillfully reworded versions of “Don’t worry everything is fine” Anastasia announced that it was time to go. When I asked her where to, her only answer was “Too the women”…I was beginning to see a trend here. But sure enough after a just a few dozen phone calls and another cup of tea off we went and here we were…this was definitely not the church.
Standing by the side of the road were two women one I recognized as Patricia, an ever curious companion as we had walked the village the day before, but beside her was a woman we hadn’t met before. As I walked up she gravely put out her hands and clasped mine like you would a family members and as she looked me in the eye I had the sudden feeling that I had was being thoroughly inspected, not unlike a horse, or perhaps a youngest son who might have been out playing in the mud. As a small smile crept onto her face I remembered the first time I’d successfully read out loud in front my third grade teacher. “woot I passed!” Giving my hand a firm squeeze she introduced herself as Olima.
As we all passed through the tall brush on the side of the road I could see a few mud huts and a line of trees and, just past those trees, was a little compound where the huts had been plastered just a bit more nicely, and a lone mango tree stood close to the house.
Anastasia started in like she always did chatting away switching back and forth from English to Luo, exclaiming over the state of the road, the mud on our path and everything else that wasn’t up to her satisfaction and walking along beside her Olima reminded me of nothing more than a weathered oak tree standing in the wind. This was a woman who had mastered leading in a land where women had to be quiet.
Once we were inside her home Olima took up a spot on a chair and everyone else started to hustle, apparently we were going to be eating a meal. Anastasia wouldn’t hear of it! (suddenly there were plates on the table) It would take too long! (where did I get a cup of tea?) We had to meet the women! (How do you say “Thank you for the napkin” in Luo?) Well fine…but we can’t stay long. Mama Oak had spoken …or, actually she hadn’t, but there was that smile again creeping across her face.
As I sipped my tea and tried to follow the banter going over my head in Luo, I suddenly noticed a wizened old man slipping in the side door. As I got acquainted with him in came Rosaline, very quiet and sure of herself. About the time we had snacks in front of us there was Mary in her red skirt. And here was Nelly coming in through the back door and picking up the conversation like she’d been there for hours. By the time the I was wrapping chicken in the firm ugali paste that the women had made out of corn flower I was surrounded on all sides by the most outspoken women from the different women’s groups. And into a seemingly accidental, but total moment of silence Olima quietly declared:
“Good… we can finish outside I’m sure; the light is good for writing”
And sure enough out we all went. First out was the table with the chicken, then the chairs, then the couch! All settling in the shade of the mango tree. And as we all got settled, and Anastasia confirmed that we had representatives from all 15 women’s groups, Olima quietly accepted the title of Chairwoman. And, with nothing but a look, commanded quiet from everyone there, even the men.
“Thank you for meeting the women of Kamrongo, we welcome you and I hope you send our thanks to all the people in America that couldn’t come as well. But before we call this meeting to order I have something to ask.”
With a sharp little glance around the circle she quickly pinned each of us to our chairs and then she turned her full attention to the old man who had first joined us in the house. Sitting at at the head of the table he had already leaned forward to start to say something but with Olima’s look it was like the words had been stolen right out of his mouth, and with a bemused little smile he leaned back in his chair waiting for Olima to speak.
“Stephen you are a military man, and you are quick and loud, I am sure if I let you we would all be marching home in 10 minutes, but I want your promise that here today you will let all women speak. You must wait your turn, and only speak when you are recognized by the Chair, are we agreed?”
I couldn’t believe my ears! It had been apparent from the second he walked in that Stephen was someone important in this community. A man of stature, a land owner who had enough money to hire workers, and enough land to blithely offer up a small plot for the building of a future kiosk. For the last 20 minutes he had been pushing for us to head out to tour his farm, he had been dominating the conversation left and right and here was Olima sweetly, but sternly, telling this man to “zip it”! And here he was nodding!
The feeling of awe as I watched this woman raised in a culture where women are taught from birth to be seen and not heard, step up and firmly take control was only topped by what happened next.
“You too Brian!”
To which of course I quickly nodded.
“Good. Now to start, understand here in Africa… Water is Life.”
The women of Kamrongo had found their Chairwoman, and her name was Olima.