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We are sorry... We stole your daughter

The way in which Ayub and Winnie (pictured left) got together may not seem at all unusual – they met, fell in love, moved in together, had a child. But for Nancy the absence of the correct protocols according to African custom grates.

What should happen is this: his parents should meet her parents and ask permission to take the young woman into their family. A sum of money should then be paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s. Otherwise, it’s a kind of theft.

Had Nancy been living in Kenya she would have made sure all this happened. As it turned out, none of it did. What’s more, Nancy had not even met Winnie.

Before she returns to England Nancy must visit Winnie’s family and try to rectify matters.

So, at very short notice, Ayub, Winnie and their baby are piling into Eliud’s car to take us all up to Winnie’s family home just outside the town of Thika.

We turn off the road and climb up along the bright-red earth track, fringed with banana plants.

Soon we are at the farm of James Vacha, Winnie’s widowed father. A quiet, dignified man, he takes us for a tour of his farm with its cows, goats, chicken, macadamia trees, coffee. This is a good coffee-growing area. In colonial times only white settlers were allowed to grow the crop. Winnie’s father has no such problems today, getting a decent price for the coffee berries and macadamia nuts he sells for export. He explains how he has divided up the land equally between his son and daughters so that when he dies they will inherit fair shares.

It’s hot under the midday sun and we are invited into a cool blue sitting room. An elderly man, standing pencil-straight in a pale grey suit, appears. His name is Stephen and he is the eldest brother of Nancy’s estranged husband (who lives in the US) and is taking responsibility in his place. He too has come at short notice and walked several kilometres to get here.

After a meal of rice, peas and mixed vegetables, accompanied by light-hearted chat about local crimes and misdemeanours, the mood becomes more serious. Stephen does most of the talking, then Eliud takes over. Their speeches, in Kikuyu, are addressed to Winnie’s family. The gist is: ‘We are sorry. We have stolen your daughter.’

‘We know,’ replies Winnie’s father.

There are lengthy commendations of the couple, Winnie and Ayub, with descriptions of each coming from the relatives closest to them. It is rather like a wedding – a wedding that is just a little late. Fortunately, Winnie’s relatives are fond of Ayub. And Nancy has already told me she really likes Winnie. ‘She is mature and she knows what she is doing.’

The couple make a commitment to each other. It’s all been done properly now, apologies accepted, and Stephen, as Ayub’s eldest relative, has handed over money to Winnie’s father.

Then both families go back into the past and describe their grandparents, their great-grandparents and so on. The aim is to see if the families are connected. Naming customs, and the recurrence of names in families, aids this oral family history. There are no parish registers here to consult, no census or archives – just memory and names and the habits of storytelling. Afterwards photos are taken and promises made to visit each other again.

Nancy and Eliud are happy. The injuries to tradition, caused or exacerbated by migration, have been repaired.

Ayub is relieved: ‘The sharpest part of it is over now.’

Little Alexis Wambui, at the centre of this ceremony lasting several hours and who by her existence joins the two families together, is just blowing bubbles into her canary yellow jumper.

Ayub and Winnie.

Vanessa Baird

All is well, all is forgiven, as two families come together.

Vanessa Baird

New Internationalist issue 379 magazine cover This article is from the June 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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