The bane of my existence.
I want to share with you a story of untold misery, suffering and a near death experience at the hands of starvation occasioned by a simple wedding trespass.
These are the chronicles of Thanda Maria.
In the mean footpaths of Thanda Maria, we had to contend with many unpleasant things due to chronic poverty. Most pockets in and around the thickets of Thanda Maria were serially arid and perennially empty.
One of the things we had to put up with due to poverty, was a lack of access to shoes on a regular basis. Not having shoes doesn’t sound like much until you have to contend with its attendant hazards, the least of which was a serious infestation of ndutu, or jiggers. Ndutu loved the feet of the young boys and girls of Thanda Maria excessively. If you fell below the mean level of poverty, then the ndutu would love you even more and start loving your hands unconditionally.
I will tell you more about ndutu and its children, tùrathi and ngee at a different time.
There was a rare instance when being shoeless was better than wearing a shoe; when your shoe had the brand name sandak. These were closed shoes made entirely of ridiculously cheap plastic. Wearing Sadaki under the searing sun of Thanda Maria was like wearing a shoe made out entirely of molten lava. They would start out as toe-breaking, size fours made of high yield steel in the morning . They would then gradually transition into loose-fitting size sevens made out of nylon paper by mid-afternoon. Oh, and your feet would be wetter than fire hydrants.
Another thing we had to contend with as a direct result of this very limited access to funds was intermittent hunger and all round poor nutrition. Not that ‘intermittent fasting’ fad that the elitist amongst us love to do; I mean involuntary, intestine twisting, lack of access to any form of nutrition intermittent kind of hunger. Gùtindíra, or going an entire day without access to calories was common. It was however not as feared as it’s more unpleasant cousin, Kùraríra or going to bed with nothing but the collection of gastric and intestinal worms in your stomach.
Kùraríra was the stuff of nightmares. It was accompanied by night sweats and chills. To those whom it concerned, if the choice ever arose, you picked gùtindíra over kùraríra anytime
There are jokes and there were things I saw being passed around as food in the village. There was turungi, which was basically strong tea for those without access to dairy products. There was manjùgùthù , or strong tea stained with faintest hint of milk for those with very limited access to dairy products. They would often be consumed in the morning with Ngima ya mùrara, which was overnight ugali that had a coat that was harder than granite.
There was Ngima ya cuumbí, which is where you would have your ugali with sodium chloride, or table salt, as it’s principal accompaniment. The salt was meant to tickle your tonsils and produce life saving saliva so that the hard ugali from the No. 9 sieve didn’t choke your impoverished self.
I will save the most hideous meal I have ever seen for last; ngùnjagùtù. ngùnjagùtù was a rare instance where ugali would be mixed with it’s accompaniments during cooking. The ugali flour would be mixed with wild greens like thoroko and terere. It tasted like Nazi concentration camps. It was the dish of choice for the elite level, broke ninjas.
Even amongst us poor people, there were classes; there were Prima inter pares if you have a flair for the dramatic, or first amongst equals.
If you happened to be elite level poor; you ran the risk of gùtuníhia njuírí. This is reddening of hair, or an overall corrosion of hair quality, that was the hallmark of near starvation. A quite embarrassing affair gùtuníhia njuírí was. It meant that you were consuming calories that were less than your basal metabolic rate; or the calories your body required to maintain life sustaining functions. That is Marasmus for you my urban amigos.
Because of this limited access to calories, we loved weddings in Thanda Maria. Especially the young amongst us. We loved to attend the weddings of other people. Expressed in very basic terms; weddings meant calories. Attending a wedding offered one a rare opportunity to consume sumptuous wedding njere and njenga .
Njere was the Gikuyu equivalent of pilau; though it was nowhere near as lit as its coastal cousin. Njenga was some form of mukimo. Njenga, by itself, was unpalatable and could choke you to within an inch of your life. When paired with Njere though, it tasted like unicorns and margaritas in Malibu. This was the de facto wedding menu.
If you were a plutocrat fat-cat, there would be soda. The soda was mostly for invited guests and the mythical guests from Nairobi, or ageni a Nyairobi. The best the village hoi polloi would hope get would be dilute tea in plastic cups to cleanse their uninvited palates with.
We the local Ninjas did not bother with the little things, like actually being invited to the said weddings. If you had nuptials and you forgot to invite us, we would come. If you had nuptials and you did not know us, nor us you, we would still come. We would come even if we did not know any close or distant relations of yours. We would come with friends, eat your rice and carry some home to share with our canines who were otherwise engaged and couldn’t come.
If you held a wedding in Thanda Maria, you had to take it upon yourself to ensure that there was enough njere for the guests that no one invited.
Fail to provide enough njere and you would finally learn that hunger is a primal urge. If by our unsolicited assessment there was a shortage of njere, our hunger would break protocol and we would start a free-for-all scramble for njere that never ended well. It was Darwinian. It was survival for the fittest. Your wedding would be short, hard and brutish.
Long before Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson made a famous film about wedding crashers, there was us. We had honed this craft. We had reduced wedding crashing to a science. We called it gútapíra. It was a corruption of the swahili phrase, kutapia mlo. The wedding feast we would call muro.
We were never one’s to miss the opportunity for a feast. There were spooks amongst us. Regular, pre-pubescent CIA operatives, myself included, who were always in the loop as far as impeding nuptials were concerned. We could smell weddings miles before the material day. We were also very acquainted with the itinerary of any such event well in advance, specifically where the feast/reception would be held.
The venue for local weddings was usually either the Murang’a country club or the Murang’a sports club. The names sound elitist, but they were just basic colonial relics handed down from colonial times. Sports club used to be whites only, while country club used to be Africans only. They were borderline derelict.
We did not bother with pedestrian details like church services. We restricted ourselves to our traditional area of strength, food. It did not matter to us whether you had Securicor guards and guard dogs, we would still come. We would steal your sodas, grab cake from ushers and we would generally ruin your guests’ appetites with our gut wrenching body odor.
Most of us reeked like open sewers.
Now, one fine Saturday afternoon, my wedding crashing ways finally caught up with me. The immaterial finally became material. I must have been 11.
I caught wind of a planned wedding on a Wednesday. It was planned for that Saturday and without hesitation, I promptly took the liberty of inviting myself. I also embarked on a crash gastric-cleansing regimen in anticipation of rice Nirvana.
There was one variable I failed to consider in my calculations though, my dreaded grandmother. I was brought up by, and lived with, my grandparents and my cùcù had a very bad sense of humor. She also had a penchant for handing out premium class beatings for all manners of minor infractions.
She rarely attended weddings so she was not a variable I often considered. This particular wedding, as I would later learn, was an exception to this general rule. The wedding belonged to a staunch church member. My cùcù being a catholic registration no. (a)(1)(i) and a member of the St. Mary’s catholic church choir, had an invite.
When the day of the feast came, our army of delinquents, led by our able General, Jose, made its way to the Mùrang’a sports club. Jose was the chief delinquent, who I might mention, carried his unruly ways into adulthoodand is now long deceased. He met his untimely demise after being on the receiving end of a team building exercise by members of the general public. I hear they call it a lynching. This is a story for another day.
Down at the tennis court of the Murang’a sports club, the wedding reception took too long to unfold. The master of ceremonies really took his time. Finally, after what felt like forever, it was time to feast.
Midway through the serving of pilau to actual guests, our army of crashers became rather agitated by the slow pace of the ‘catering’ team. Most of us had only had turungi for breakfast and by now our gastric worms were threatening to bite through the walls of our stomachs to get to the rice. At some point, we could not contain those parasites anymore and we unilaterally decided to charge for the sufurias.
It was epic. We charged for the sufurias like our lives depended on it.
It was like the famous charge of the British light Calvary during the Crimean war immortalized by the famous poem, charge of the light brigade;
“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs to do and die,
Into the valley of death,
Rode the 600”
There were cries over the public address system by the Master of ceremony for some measure of decorum from the unknown delinquents charging for glory. They sounded like BGV’s, soothing background vocals to us.
In a final surge by our army, some of us, including myself, were pushed into the sufurias of hot pilau infront of hundreds of queuing guests.
Undeterred, our army, with no concern for our safety, started scooping up the pilau, with us still in the sufurias. We stood up in the sufurias, and while covered head to toe in rice, we joined the melee.
The spoils of war were bountiful; endless pilau for all since no guest would have dared to eat the rice on the account of our legendary dirt.
My grandmother, who had never seen me in full wedding crashing glory, bore witness to all this. She was having a cardiac episode because of it. I would meet the full consequences later.
We also carried a lot of rice with our ‘to go bags’. Our ‘to go bags’ were usually our torn T-shirts acting as ‘Karais’.
I finally made my way home much later under the cover of darkness.
This is where things got very real, very fast. It is not an ordeal I will forget soon. I will share my traumatic plight with you in the second part.