Living In a Traditional Luo Home, With Love from Thomas – Sept 24. 2009

For 3 weeks now we’ve been living together with our host Sarah, her husband Joshua, his mother “Dani” – the Grandmother in the local language Dholuo – and their children Moses (our Journey Trainee, normally staying in Nairobi), John (age 13) and Christina (age 5). In addition to that there are Mercy (17) and Collins (19), both of them the orphaned children of Joshua’s deceased elder brother, plus Collins’ young wife Maureen (16) and their 18 month old daughter Gracia Michelle, called Toto by everyone. But that’s not all. Out of their good heart, Sarah and Joshua have taken on 3 teenage boys with learning disabilities whose parents have died and who have been neglected by other relatives in their former homes. And Naraya brought her Journey Outreach Team from Nairobi plus us, the Urban-Winterfeldt family of 4, so all together we are 24 people in the home.

We are about 1 1/2 hours on foot / 15 min drive away from the nearest road. The track leading up to tarmac is rough in places and we are wondering how it’s going to go once the rains get stronger. There is no mains electricity, and water comes from a community maintained spring and needs to be carried to the home, about 10 minutes up the hill. At least this water source doesn’t run out in dry season, which is a great advantage compared to other nearby places. Where we lived 10 years ago, in dry season we were forced to carry up all our water from the river where everybody washes their laundry and themselves, their bikes, cars and motorbikes as well as watering cows, bulls and goats …

The home is situated on a hilly slope with breathtaking views across to Lake Victoria and Mount Homa from the nearby hill – Got Agulu in Dholuo, clay pot hill. There is lush vegetation surrounding us, the soil is fertile and boasts three harvests a year. The home is nestled amidst the “shamba”, the plots where food is grown: maize, red beans, kasava, ground nuts, bananas and sukuma wiki, a kind of spinach, being the most widespread crops. As no one is earning a regular income it is vital for locals to grow their main food supplies at home.

Cooking takes place in two separate small grass thatched mud huts, either on a jiko, a small charcoal stove, or on open fire, the pots supported by three stones. The women sit on small stools low down so that they don’t have to breathe in the smoke which hovers above. Food is simple but nutritious. The staple is “kuon”, a white type of polenta made from coarse maize flour, and “sukuma wiki”, red kidney beans called “oganda”, and sometimes there is rice. In addition to that there can be stewed chicken or beef and chapaties. Very delicious is “dengu”, a tasty lentil dish. Practically all food is eaten with your fingers. Spoons are only used for serving, and even gravy can be taken by shaping the kuon into a little bowl. I have to admit that it took me a few days to get used to eating without cutlery.

The washing up is done outside in bowls on the ground and the dishes are dried on a poles and wire construction drying rack in the sun. The toilet is slightly away from the houses and of course is a waterless long drop latrine. However, I much prefer these to the Nairobi water loos because there actually rarely is any water in Nairobi lower/middle class houses and a water loo without water, well, make the picture yourself … The special thing in our toilet is that there lives a bat down yonder – yes, in that part of the toilet where the outcomes go. Batty comes out at night and one can see her or him hanging down from the roof. One only has to shine a torch at it, whistle and immediately it disappears into the toilet hole (and fortunately stays in there). I like this bat!

The climate is generally very warm. There has been sunshine every day with temperatures around and over 30 C. Despite that the short rains have started. Rain usually falls late afternoon and can be torrential. I really enjoy this abundance of warmth! As we’re nearly atop the equator it always gets dark at 6:30 (very rapidly), and the African night begins with an amazing abundance of stars – many, many more then can be seen in Europe – and the sounds of frogs and cicadas creating a magical atmosphere.

The structure of the Luo society is very hierarchical which shows in the design of the home: On the highest point lives “the old Mama”, Dani (Joshua’s mother). In her living room all our meals are being served. Next below on the right comes the house of her first born son. He (and his wife) died some years back, most likely of HIV/AIDS, though it still is kind of taboo to speak about this, leaving three children behind. His is the house we live in now, donated to us by Dani out of the joy and happiness she felt when Moses got involved with The Journey and also finally is able to send some small financial contribution home every month. Down on the left comes the house of the second son. This is Joshua, Moses father, and it is a small hut built from sticks and mud with a corrugated iron roof. If there were any, the next born son would have his house on the right again, but would not be allowed to build it before the first or second born. Everything is clearly determined by tribal traditions.

To me, the most striking thing about this place is the absolute tranquility. The only existing clock decorates the wall in the main living room where we all come together for the evening meal and looks as if it stopped long time ago. Life has a different pace from Europe. Only Moses, the oldest son of the family, has got a paid job. We support him with a small monthly allowance that allows him to go ahead with bringing the Journey to his people. Nobody has to get to work at a specific time. There are hardly any vehicles to be heard but the voices of many birds, crickets and buzzing insects, interspersed with the occasional bleating of a goat, the braying of a donkey being driven to market or the mooing of the cows when they get thirsty. In the compound there live about 6 cows and bulls, 1 calf, 10 chickens big and small, 2 dogs, 1 cat and just for 2 days a hired donkey which helps to carry the water.

The times I look on my watch in the course of the day have reduced to possibly only one time now, whereas I started off with taking my watch with me into bed over night (as I usually used to do). I stopped this after 2 days, because it suddenly felt so silly. It is now possible for me to just sit in front of the house in the evening and look at the evening sky or the happenings in the compound, without having to do, do, do something, quite unlike the me back in the UK. And everyone else is having plenty of time for a chat or anything else, the pace is just so different!

Living here as a “Mzungu” (white person) needs great sensitivity as the difference in income is enormous. The money which I spend to fill up the petrol tank of our car (fuel prices are currently around EUR 0.80/l) is almost half the monthly income of a carpenter or similarly skilled and trained craftsman. Most people are peasant farmers though and earn much less.

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