• I was raised by several women in the first decade of my life on earth
When in Paris, the people of this city will show you many curiosities. One way to do so is to join people of many nations on tourist cruises on the grand River Seine.
Poets believe for ages that throwing a key into this watery snake dissecting the capital city of France, earns you creative energies that endless are. I deposited one and a shimmering padlock the colour of Blue Band therein.
As you sit in one of the flamboyant tourist vessels cruising up and down this famous river, your tour guide will point out some of the famous landmarks of the city. The guide will enumerate several art galleries as one of the features that decorate the Parisian landscape.
“Voila! There is Galerie Seine 55 to the diagonal left.” She will say in English laced with French. “Galerie Mansart, do visit it before you die!” Her singsong voice will break your revelries yet again.
It is in one of these great art galleries that I was almost arrested. I had used my phone to take a selfie with a majestic painting called “The Governess” by Bernard Lépicié. He created it under the influence of the great painter Jean Simeon Chardin more than 300 years ago.
This week, the world observes several minutes of silence in honour of womenfolk. This is done not because this segment of mankind is dead but because it is alive. For being alive, it extends life to others, including those of the opposite sex. This is one of the most profound meanings of their being.
On Wednesday the 8th, Kenyans joined the rest of the world in honouring the women of this land. A plethora of activities and events marked the day, from the city to the Coast and counties.
I took time to replenish my phone with airtime and dropped a message of respect to the woman who gave me this life. A thought from somewhere arrived in my mind while at it. Is a mother only one who, through uterine activities, forms your body and gives you life?
Can a woman who has not uterine connection with you be a mother? For me, I will answer this the best way I can: through a memorial demonstration or two.
I was raised by several women in the first decade of my life on earth. Our family is a big one, with close to 12 members. In Africa, we never give the exact figure. It attracts omens that are not innocent.
Most of these women were house helps who lived with us in succession, aiding our uterine mother with the busy business of raising the battalion. In the 80s, most of the people from Western Kenya preferred to hire house helps from Eastern Uganda. Our home was not an exception.
Three reasons explain this tendency. The people who live in that part of Kenya’s closest neighbour are of the same ethnic stock as those who live at our Western borderlands. The Bukusu of Bungoma county and the Gisu of Bugisu district descend from the same man who settled on the slopes of Mount Elgon 10 centuries ago.
It is ancient River Lwakhakha, a natural border between the two countries, near Sirisia, where my ancestors are buried, that acts as the old dispute boundaries between the descendants of the two brothers, Mugisu and Mubukusu.
There were very many Gisu caregivers as I grew up in our home, and those of many Luhyas at that time. I remember Jamila. She was coy and had the longest eyelashes outside the Bible. However, it is Beatrice of the Breasts that I remember the best.
She is the woman who washed me last before I started doing this daily business for myself. She would put me in a large aluminium sufuria. She would do so when the sun was high and the temperature just right for a child with asthma. She would have bathed my younger siblings already. Following our heights as a cue was her modus operandi.
As she scrubbed my spine with a stone with pores, as she soaped a birthmark here and there, she would break into one of the saddest songs in the universe, about being war orphans. She serenaded our daily baths with this song throughout her short stay of one year in our home in 1985. Beatrice of the Breasts did.
She was the second Beatrice to have ever lived with us from that genteel land to our West. Uganda. The first Beatrice left for Kampala earlier to look for her people after war broke out. The second Beatrice arrived with that same war. It brought Col Yoweri Museveni to power.
The wars of Uganda in that bygone era fed homes of Kenya with thousands of caregivers. The language of refugee camps did not exist back then. The camps were our homes.
'Kwetu ni Kwenu' is the motto of Western Kenya. It worked that way. It still does to this day. Ugandan caregivers exist in their numbers in homes from Bungoma to Embu and from Busia to Lamu. No other nation surrounding Kenya has contributed to the raising of Kenyan children as has Uganda.
Today, I write this story not just to celebrate the governesses who raised us and helped raise our children. Read this as a portrait salute to real house helps across Kenya.