It was Christmas Eve of 1985 and an important day of my life, the day I was to prove to my in-laws that I was indeed the right daughter-in –law to join the family. Having arrived at the Mayo family a few days earlier I was still learning the customs of the family. My aunt had warned me to brace myself and prepare a dinner that was to steal the hearts of my in-laws to get their favor.
I have been at the homestead four days now and everyday new family members were coming, they were almost fifty people on that day and some of them I had already forgotten their names and who is older than who, I wish I had a book to write each time someone new is introduced to me so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. The Karanga tradition demands that when you are greeting people you start with the oldest to the youngest. The same applies to serving food.
The clock ticked faster than normal for me that day, but somehow I wanted everything done fast so I would be done with this welcome home dinner. They call it welcome dinner but instead of them preparing the dinner to welcome you, you are required to prepare it for them to welcome you.
I prepared all the dishes with the help of my two sisters-in-law who have been married in the family some years earlier.
We were about to sent a messenger to the elders of the family to tell them we were done with preparing the dinner when all of a sudden two trucks approached the homestead. My elder sister-in-law tells us to wait a bit otherwise we were to prepare more dishes. This got me sick, I almost asked my sister-in-law that we just share the food we had prepared, but I was afraid of being labeled as lazy.
The blowing of horns filled the atmosphere as the two cars come to a halt in the yard. Everyone came out of the house to welcome other family members. I looked at the drama from the fireplace where we were preparing food for dinner.
My sister-in-law came from my back and covered me with a white cloth and led me to the sitting room. I was made to sit on a mat with my face covered. Covering of the face is done on the first day a bride arrives at the husband’s family. It was funny the first day when most people didn’t know you and would be yearning to see you and they pay money to have you uncovered. This was the fourth day and I thought I was done this bridal unveiling thing. I was sweating all over the body in the cloth but I could not take it away as this would show bad manners.
A singing procession approached the sitting room with me still covered. My heart was beating like it would come out of my chest; I didn’t like the procedure anymore it made me sick.
Finally the cloth was removed, I found myself facing more than ten new people. Fungai, the spokesperson took it to himself to introduce me to the new family members. I wish I could write their names so I could not forget them, but it was impossible. I wanted to impress the family but it was a whole lot of hard work thanks to my elder sister-in-law who took me through. She made life easy for me.
It was only after 8pm that we were done with the cooking and my time had come. Fungai gathered all the people into a large tent that was pitched outside for the purpose. He made them sit in their order of seniority and thanks that made life easier for me. I was going to pay Fungai for the job well done I thought to myself.
There was silence for some time and then Fungai stood up to address the gathering. He coughed to clear his throat and get everyone’s attention.
“The time everyone has been waiting for is here,” said Fungai making up his jacket.
There was loud ulululation and beating of drums.
“Food! Food! I know you my people you are friends with food,” Fungai said jokingly.
“We want to celebrate Shadreck’s wife. Our Makoti is here to treat us as a family” he continues.
Makoti is not my real name, it is the term used to refer to a newly married bride.
Another celebration, the aunts took it to the dancing floor this time. I could not look face to face with anyone at that moment otherwise they would have seen my terrified face. I have been waiting for the moment as well, but when it was announced I caught a fever. This was a special dinner for me and the family. I surely didn’t want to spoil anyone’s Christmas, I had to impress them.
My father-in-law slowly got up from his chair and signaled the dancing to stop.
“Well we are going to dance the whole night. Our Makoti has prepared food for us we want to eat whilst it is still hot,” remarked my father-in-law.
He turned to look at me; at this moment I looked down I could not face him.
“To Makoti, my daughter, I’m happy to have you in my family. I’m happy my family has grown big. You are welcome, you are a mother in this family and we welcome you. When I look at you my heart leaps for joy because my ancestors have taken care of me till I see the wife of my last son, Shadreck. Thank you Shadreck for coming with a mother to the family. She is your queen take care of her. A wife should be loved and cherished; she is not a drum that you beat. I and your mother have now grown grey hair while we are still together, what have taken us this far is mutual understanding; it is not that we don’t make mistakes. My son, you have made me proud today, keep up the good work,” concludes my father-in-law as he sits down.
Everyone clapped hands.
Fungai rushed to the front.
“It is that moment we all have been waiting for. We can sit down in the order of our seniority so we can get food,” said Fungai and he sat down.
I was about to get up and my sister-law-pulled me down.
“They pay before we serve the food” she whispered to me.
She rushed to the kitchen and came with plate and put in front of me. I was ashamed to look at the plate; I didn’t want to appear like I want money so much.
My sister-in-law whispers something to Fungai and he shouts.
“They want money! They are selling the food!”
Everyone burst into laughter at this moment I felt so uncomfortable, I wanted to tell my sister-in-law to drop the subject and just serve the food, but she took the plate and handed it over to Fungai and signaled me to remain seated. It is part of the tradition to give Makoti a token of appreciation for preparing the welcome dinner.
Fungai walked around with the plate among the relatives each one dropped some money in the plate. The plate was brought back to me and put in front of me. I was too ashamed to accept the money; thanks to my sister-in-law she took the plate away.
Serving the food was a really big job like I said earlier; I had to go on all fours with a large jug of water on one hand and a dish washing all quests’ hands. My sister-in-laws came after me with large bowls of food. In the Karanga tradition dinner is served in large bowls and people of the same relation eat from the bowls with their hands. This, they say, is a sign of unity and it encourages oneness in the family. They eat with the eldest in the group being the first to eat and others follow in their order of seniority to the youngest. Only men are allowed to eat whilst on chairs and tables, all women and children sit down on mats in circles with the legs folded.
The way the people would take large chunks of food that filled the mouth is something that I will not comment about. I had to avoid direct contact with people otherwise I could laugh and spoil my day. Speaking whilst eating is a taboo so you could hear the sound of the night when the people were eating, save for a small naughty kid here and there complaining about getting the smallest piece of meat.
By the time we were done with the main dishes I was tired and sweaty and really hungry. I wanted to eat then my sister-in-law suggested that we serve the beer as well then we can be done once and for all.
I was struggling with a large clay pot full of beer when my father-in-law stood up to rescue me.
“I haven’t seen Makoti eating, she has been serving us all along, I would like to see her eat. Can we have the beer later, sit down and eat my daughters” remarked my father-in-law and he sat down.
Uncle Josphat, his young brother stood up with the help of his walking stick.
“My brother, you have missed something here, our tradition requires Makoti to serve us everything before she can eat herself, she has to make sure she has prepared enough food for us first!” responded uncle Josphat and he sat down.
My father-in-law answered from his chair, “Yes that was the tradition long back before civilization now that we can read and write we have to drop some of these outdated traditions. She is our daughter not our slave let her eat. Fungai and your brothers can you serve us the beer.”
Some people from the family complained, but because my father-in-law was the oldest of them all no one could challenge him. I finally got to eat as well. We sat on a mat at one corner with my sisters-in-law with our bowls.
Collecting dishes after the dinner was part of the ceremony and as important as the serving part. I had to go from one group to another asking for permission to take the dishes away from them. I got compliments here and there as I collected the dishes. I felt some kind of relief in me that at least my husband’s relatives were happy with me.
I left the tent to the fireplace where we were cooking so I could clean the dishes, this time my sisters-in-law didn’t come with me. Celebrations continued in the tent, with people singing and dancing.
Suddenly the singing stopped and everyone was quiet.
Fungai came to me from my back and invited me into the tent. I walked to the tent my legs shaking, thank God it was dark no one could see that. I sat down close to my sisters-in-law and looked down.
“We called you so that we can thank you for the wonderful dinner, Makoti” said Fungai.
The whole family clapped in a rhythmic manner for almost a minute. It was after they had finished clapping that I responded by clapping hands as well. I felt some relief that at least I was now officially part of the family.