CICELY TYSON: A SILHOUETTE OF A LUO WOMAN
Updated: Feb 1, 2021
If 500 years of captivity and subjugation, a similar profile of a Luo woman is still standing tall in a polarised melting pot like the North America, what chance do we have that our own lake side woman is ready for turning around any time soon after a mere 60 years of tame mixing in the cultural puddle of Nairobi urban. I think the young Luo man is best advised to shut up and put up as the Luo lady is ‘not for turning’. Not yet. Certainly not for another 400 years judging from the silhouette of a Luo woman Cicely Tyson who just passed on at the age of 96yrs firmly stuck in a strong profile of a Lakeside woman.
Growing up in parts of Rift Valley province and looking at every profile around me and even actors in TV shows like Cheka na Kipanga and Vitimbi I used to think that our Luo-Nilotic anatomy and especially dental works was a mistake that holds us back until I met Cicely Tyson in Homa Bay school during screening of her hit movie “Sounder” in February of first term of secondary school. Not that I heard much in the noisy school dining hall with that strange African American accent of leading actor Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson. In fact, even the graphic poverty on the screen never showed up because compared to what I lived in Kenya it did not look like poverty at all. But I was born again after that movie where a lady with Luo looks was starring.
Projectionist Benson Ogutu MakAlec of South Nyanza-Asembo boarded in the same Jupiter-Ceres Dormitory as me together international Rugby star Sam Dawa, international Hockey star Tobias Oduor Mazee among others. It is them who went explaining what that movie was about. Actually as a first former I overheard them debating the evil of slavery in the US, weeks after the movie. Our South African exile teacher nicknamed Monotheistic, later re-ordered Sounder the movie from Nairobi through OTC Bus courier service in the 3rd term. That was the culture at Homa Bay School that teachers like Denis Ollando Lolwe ( former international football star and Ex Gor Mahia hero) instead of incarcerating us during questionnaire completion after the mass school strike, found it in him to hand hold a naïve 16 year old through the mine field questionnaire designed to catch the innocent as sacrificial lamb. In the second screening of Sounder I sat next to Okeyo Bogonko of Migori Suna just to hear what this Luo lady who resembled any local woman in the lake basin was doing on the big screen. It is Okeyo Bogonko who even first told me there is a guy called Malcolm X and what he is all about. Another story for another day.
So relax Cicely Tyson was not in Kenya in 1973 otherwise she would have been in trouble for just looking like a Luo in those harsh years post the furious sixties immediately after independence. But when she did visit Kenya 6 or so years later, guess what? You guessed right. She got in trouble for acting like a Luo and maybe a hint of looking like a Luo.
Why do I say she was a silhouette of a Luo girl? Just look at her before I even give my testimony. You don’t even have to read her biography that was published just literally 2 days before she passed on. She had too much of Nam Lowe looks that even a blind man could tell with his stick that she was a silhouette of a Luo woman.
A Quarter to Midnight
At Homa Bay School at Form 1 I joined when a pretty dark girl at neighbouring Ogande Girls High (or was it Asumbi Girls High) had been stupendously nicknamed a quarter to Mid Night. I will check with my friend Sammy Ndong’a Achola the identity of ‘a quarter to midnight’. Cicely complexion is the profile of a Luo woman- a quarter to midnight. This is basically Ebony black. It is what they riled in some countries as 'Oil spill'. That if you apply enough Ambi skin toning cream you will get an oil spill just to get them to Mahogany fair skin. It is in bad taste but even dark people laughed at themselves and still do. However, in Kenya that was and still is the profile of Lakeside woman.
I will stick to her anatomy above the shoulder blades. The straight shoulder of Cicely Tyson as if she grew up fetching water from the river on her head. I will skip the Luo women penchant for loud earrings. But what is it with Luo ladies and loud ear rings anyway? I know they are there to overemphasize the the neckline but surely sure surely surely! Above the shoulders there is a very assertive and in-your-face neck line as if it is a rachier (the snake; not Gor Mahia chairman,) ready to blind spit out. And Luo women just like Cicely Tyson are a real handful in the spitfire of verbals. Just ask actor Elizabeth Taylor or Jazz superstar Miles Davis story.
Then sitting on that neck is the thick short kinky hair that just crawls forming a short pruned carpet. A very lakeside hair style. In the days of Afro hairstyle of the 1970’s you had to blow it out to loosen the kinkiness of the hair. I also spotted that kinky hair do. The Luo short hair used to remind me of a sick joke that I transposed on my Luo brethren in the local transposition of racist Mississippi sick jokes. Sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself. Its therapeutic.
Q. Why did God give Luo people great dancing rhythm that he denied other tribes?
A. Because God had effed up so much on Luo hair.
Luos had no long hair and if they did it was short curling ones that is still common in Northern Uganda and Southern Sudan.
Cicely Tyson sharp negroid looks are dominant in her lips. The thick lips on black people have a story or myth of being very fair people at heart. The thin lipped negroid people apparently make up the inhuman and pretty bad African rulers. But that is just a myth. Don’t take it seriously. Its George Apong'kor my elder brother who had a list of bad ass people with thin lips. Wod NyaBoro is dead anyway. Why should we care what Apong'kor had to say. Cicely lower lip is not only thick but pushes inside her mouth like a Luo girl ma onag (who has been circumcised by removing the six lower teeth). In the case of nyako ma onag or even a man the lower lips naturally folds back to fit into the lower gap. Otherwise saliva will fill into the gap and every time they speak the saliva sprinkle-lets will be released. Please note I have not said that Cicely had her lower 6 teeth removed. I just said that her lower lips resemble a yester year Luo girls’ lower lips.
I am not going to talk about the "S" and "SH" speech debilitation of the Luos because Cicely Tyson never had such handicaps or identity depending on which side of Kenya you come from.
As mentioned the lower lips of Cicely Tyson gave the appearance that she had her lower 6 teeth ritually removed as an initiation into adulthood like Lakeside people used to do in those days but that is not really the case. That alone gave her the look of a Luo lady even before you look at her buck teeth that she explains in her biography.
Cicely Tyson conspicuous front teeth are truly lakeside. I have never had a good explanation why Nilotic have this dental structure. Some claim it is because they were hunters and therefore needed strong canines and incisors to tear flesh. In fact, it is claimed that the need to soften the meat is what gave rise to Lake side diligence in cooking. Surely Bantus were even greater hunters and gatherers. I can buy the angle of the development of molars and the premolars in Bantus. I need to find out more. For the purposes of this blog I see that dental works among the Nilotes and Nilo-Hamites. Never the Bantus. In fact, a typical Luo front tooth tends to protrude outwards than face straight downwards like premolars and molars. The main thing is that Cicely Tyson gave you the look she was a lake side woman just by the front teeth.
With these looks alone, if Cicely Tyson had jumped out of the Sounder movie screen, and tried to get a night out at Nairobi Club 1900 or Star Light club to dance to the music of Afro-coiffured Kelly the Bushman with his fine Asiatic physical features or Steele Beauttah with the thin lips and cute Afro, I don’t think they would have let her in. Maybe she would get admission to some Busaa brew Nyatiti fun-awhile in Ololo in East of Nairobi. But who could stop this Luo look alike hot head with a Luo willingness to fight back.
And Yes she did step into Nairobi with her hot head and loud Luo like domo (mouth) and she caused quite an uproar, much bigger than what junior senator Barack Obama caused. It was a typical Luo uproar. I will get to that.
Movies- A Lakeside story retold and retold and retold
Before we encounter her Luo entrance into Nairobi let us look at her career movies to see if there is any lakeside resemblance. Her biography is all over the internet and how she changed over from a copy typist and just rebelled to go into acting has been well documented since I don’t know when. Cicely career change is a typical lakeside rebellion and resistance of the natural order of things at whatever cost. Like Professor Pius Joseph Ben Muga Ouma turning over to plotting coups. Like a young mechanical Engineer dropping a German excellent degree and family opulence to the risking mission of shredding up a rigged 1963 Kenyan constitution to give us a sparkling brand new one. You know he could have just concentrated on manufacturing Industrial Gas cylinders and would have done much much better than Nigerian Dangote. His pet play thing Reunion Football club would be raking honours after honours competing with giants of world football. Most Kenyan tribes just conform with the known but this one of lakeside people of moving to the unknown is like sickness just like "Jomo Kenyatta is Blackman’s God" mantra. Let me just ask, why did Tom Mboya not get into those airlift planes to secure himself a degree that he, himself did not have? If that is not an evidence of a Luo sickness of martyrdom, then I don’t know martyrdom.
Then if you examine Tyson’s choice of stories that she acted in you will see a thread of Lakeside common line of resistance. There is a running thread or resisting a normal system. I have not even mentioned that her renowned movies had a strong presence of water such as Sounder, The River Niger, The Autobiography of Jane Pittman, Help and Roots. She stayed close to waters like a Luo navigation during the Exodus from South Sudan to present day Kenya. Okay, I agree that She did not write the script but ended up in them by choice that sometimes cost her dearly.
The whole story of Sounder and her role as Rebecca is a typical lakeside story of the wife who holds the forte for the absent husband. And this goes on as far back as 1200 AD on the banks of the River Nile. The mitigation of devastation of the family by a strong willed woman presence in the absence of the husband is a story many Luo households can tell you of. Whether the absence is forced or not like in the case of case of Vikings of the river Nile, World Wars, Luo political detainees, the Urban Migrant workers and even todays starry-eyed Luo young men looking up the mountain as soft option when faced with normal marital challenges, Sounder the movie depicts the persevering Luo woman.
Cicely Tyson story in a movie is always a story I can relate to and surely any Lakeside person can relate to. Her persecution in Hollywood industry because of her stance is nothing new to Lakeside people.
When Cicely Tyson eventually landed in Nairobi, I must say it was ill advised trip. Kenya was not the place to be for her. As much as the politics of the day and the temperature was against anybody with a Luo looks or attitude, I would not have advised her to travel to Kenya.
First let me give you a background of Kenya by then. This was a Kenya that had no time for negroid looks. You just had to look at visual adverts on soaps perfumery to get the message that such profiles were not welcome.
Then there is the small matter of cultural outlook. I remember one time there was fashion contest to design what was a national dress. A Nairobi designer put in African fabrics that truly represented all that is Africa especially after the 2nd Festival of African Culture and Arts (FESTAC77) in Lagos. The designer who I believe was a name like (Jane?) Owinga- Shabaan was voted last by the Kenyan cultural panel! And what is laughable is that she was the only entrant with African assertive fabrics, bright colours and art work. The others had dresses tailored in Paris, London, New York etc. In today’s fashion she would be the only winner. However, in 1979 in a national competition, Owinga- Shabaan and her only African attire was put down. This is the cultural rubbish pit that Cicely Tyson walked into in 1980(?)
Let me put this into perspective so that you can understand why Cicely Tyson should not have come to Nairobi in 1980. As far back as 1960 Black Americans were reaching out to Africa to hold on to their dignity. In 1970s to wear an African fabric was a seal of approval for any black man. In entertainment industry you had African Americans singing in Swahili. Afro Sheen the predominant black hair product was running adverts in USA in Swahili (Wantu Wazuri use Afro Sheen). There was even a Safari suit running neck and neck with other global suits. The Conga drums had even been forced into soft ballads like those of Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. That was the image.
Cicely Tyson came to Nairobi on the back of FESTAC77 and was on a roundtrip stopping first in cultural aware cities like Dakar(Senegal), Accra where they welcomed her by running celebrated African American movies like Sydney Poitiers, Guess Who is coming for Dinner, A Patch of Blue, amongst many others.
In Nairobi Cicely Tyson came face to face with all the filth of Hollywood and western free movie freebies that were in Cinemas and our Black and White telly. Naturally she flipped and made a statement just pointing out the difference between East coast Africa and West Coast Africa. And of course the backwardness of Kenya. And the “true Kenyans” did not like what this “Luo girl” was telling them. All the True Love magazine intellectuals and the learned James Hadley Chase readers were seething. And the next day my college mate and best friend Hussein Quresh came having banter at my expense, “Sasa huyu msichana jaLuo anaanza hii siasa yenu ya ubishi na uijinga hapa, Rudisha yeye Ogaden yao”. That is the day I learnt that the trouble some people of Ogaden between Somali and Ethiopia are ethnically another group of plain Luos who lost their way from Pubungu. I was at the receiving end of the banter of endless Luo opposition politics and poking our nose into things that do not involve us. I had no defence to my college mates because Cicely Tyson had just completed the much maligned or envied profile of a Luo.
Anyway, and just like a lakeside woman Cicely Tyson refused to apologise before participating in poetry recital at the Nairobi University. And she did the refusal in quite not the staple diet that is dished to us of “adak makata ionge”. She just said “bla it was not comparative comparison, just qualitative observation”. All the same it was an “adak makata ionge” apology.
This lady was full of Lugosi like a lakeside woman. You just have to read her biography. And Miles Davis was at the end of every one of them. But there was an interesting one. A typical Nya Kano or Nya Urang’ Lugosi. Or worse still a notorious Ugenya clan. There was a dispute of a contract with the great Elizabeth Taylor’s company. Cicely was in her right to seek compensation. Liz Taylor made the mistake of taking a Lakeside woman on through several lawyers. She still lost. You don’t win battles of balls with a Luo woman and these young Luo men these days brandishing fair skinned ladies on social media need to learn this and fast.
Then Liz Taylor unaware the legendary lakeside Lugosi went further when one time they met in a restaurant where Liz was in a date with a famous black actor. Liz tried to embarrass her in front of great James Earl Jones by bringing the case up and how she, Cicely fought over a small change. There is one insult you never throw at a Luo woman. Liz Tailor having coffee with James earl Jones had simply implied, “ka ot otami rito to wog arit ni”. And Cicely Tyson demons were aroused.
The fiesty lakeside Lugosi demons appeared with 7 horns. Now Cicely like a Luo woman proceeded to shame a ‘nyieke’ Liz and announced aloud in the restaurant to anybody who can hear how she sued Liz Taylor and won $500K. Liz will learn that some battles you just have to cut your losses.
There is no divorce in Luo land,
Actually the fight with Liz Taylor emanated from her skipping a work engagement to attend an occasion to honour “ex-husband” Miles Davies the way Lakeside women despite the acrimonious separation still honour their ex-husbands with gusto. This fish like behaviour in Luo women is legendry. It is when Cicely was fired for going for the Miles Davies Memorial that hell broke loose. It is like blocking the path of a Luo woman ma-oa Duaro-riya.
It is not the only time she showed that Luo like loyalty to an ex-husband. Throughout Miles Davies battles with the drugs “demon”, she was there even when separated. The term "estranged" was nothing here. Cicely was just living the silhouette life of a Lakeside woman. That once you are married to a clan you have an everlasting relationship that you have no control over let alone the courts law. For example you can have no new relationships with a man who is a son in that family clan lines. The marriage still subsists with or without the legal marriage.
With celebrity Hollywood actor Marlon Brando, Cicely is a typical lakeside mischief. Brando nene en athongo (had a reputation and a half with women according to Cicely biography). The thing is that a Luo lady can be gentle with you when she is sober but after she drinks, she will now be assertive. Alcohol or any other deviation does not work on them. A former Vice President of Kenya once faced the wrath of a drunk Luo girl at Kisumu Sunset Hotel in the 1980's. Alcohol tends to bring out the will power in them. What a Luo girl will tell you gently but firmly in private, she is ready to tell loudly in public if you cross her path.
Actor Marlon Brando tried a fast one to get into her room, instead of accepting that Cicely was not coming to a dinner party for the filming set, Marlon made his way to her hotel and tried to force his way in to her room. As soon as she got the wind that Marlon was making his way upstairs to her hotel room Cicely put in the legendary resistance mode. To smoothen matters at the set the next day, Marlon apologised and feigned a misunderstanding and the matter rested there.
Terror Machine of the Luos.
Bill Cosby story is known all over but she could not try it on Cicely. In her biography, she narrates this story. And I will quote.
“After filming Bill Cosby in a kissing scene, Tyson recalls the soundman hearing "some kind of ambient noise" which continued after each take. "The commotion, it turned out, was Bill's heart thumping away in his chest," she writes.
Though her book she doesn't comment on Cosby's recent troubles, she says, "In all our years working together, he never laid a finger on me off set, but for that scene, I did get his ticker going."
The silhouette of a Luo woman, Cicely Tyson living a long lakeside life into 90s can only mean one thing. The Lakeside lady is not about to change her ways any time soon in Kenya. No amount of maligning and vilification will change her from what she believes is all that she is. At least not now.
Rest In peace the silhouette of my lakeside people, Cicely Tyson.