DHO-KENDO FOLKLORE: THE HIDDEN CURRICULUM
As the cinders increase the glow of fire slows down. Someone stokes the log to rekindle the intensity. The folklorist notices some of the younglings dozing and some move closer to the fire to catch more warmth. The story teller realises that it is time to move up an octane, and deliberately joins in stoking the logs or turning the cob of maize gently cooking. Or maybe it’s a yam or potato or cassava tube that needs turning round to get a good roast. The story teller clears his or her throat with a fake cough, just to announce the grand entrance of new story. Then the story begins to flow. Slow but deliberate at first. These were my finest moments. Sometimes they would scare me. Sometimes the story teller would just amuse more than amaze me. The folklore that lingered the most in my memory were the ones that had deep elements of aberrations. And the next day while running chores next to older sisters while they are cooking and you tend to maize roasting chores, you would hear them repeat the stories of aberrations.
In later years I would carry them to school, to colleges and even in adult life. And sometimes I met equivalent narration from distant cultures far removed from my sleeping lakeside community. And one by one the stories that had been written off as primitive tales of backwards people were confirmed as actually emanating from some truths or factual observation by my people. This continued until about 20 years ago when a medic conferred on me that aberrations usually have a factual origin. And that would therefore mean that all those Luo folklore tales with aberration actually had some scientific truth in them.
What value were these folklores with aberrations? Were they preventative or curative. For my elder sisters to retell them with awe, horror and sometimes terror seems to allude to preventative value.
I have listed a few of the ones I can easily recall. Some with more accuracy depending on the effect they had on me.
1.The Lightening Cockerel.
This was most common when growing up. The frequency with which it was re-told meant something to do with preventative. One version is lightning and thunder is actually a big red cock-like alien following streams of water during or after a down pour. And if you catch sight of the cockerel then it strikes you.
An extended version is that it can seek a target from home to home within a set of village until it locates the target in cases where it has been sent by sorcerer. Once cousin, Ochecho Kalumba even had an amusing version supposedly meant to be scarier. His version is that the cockerel had two balls the size of a football size 5. And it is those balls that it would explode if it finds you walking by a stream. Also the reason why it repeatedly struck a particular tree, is that just like a dog, it wees at a particular tree. And if annoyed or has not found a target, it will just strike the tree as show of might. Well, just for the fun of it. I like that. Just for the fun of it.
Let me re-assure you that it was not fun being told of these stories or warned to stay away from streams when it was drizzling lest we meet the red cock. The real terror was the tropical rains, the flashes followed by the thunder. Even as I was in my 30s on 01/01/1989, I still remember the loudest Thunder in North Ugenya. I only learnt of its seriousness when relaxing in Ugunja Savannah hotel and word spread around of person who was left useless after the loud thunder.
Of course a Scottish physics teacher in Homa Bay High school had easily corroborated the Luo sightings in the simplest way possible. The red Cockerel sighted by Luos was actually the red sparks when lightning struck producing bowl of fire. To the Luo eyewitnesses in that split second, it looked like a red huge cock. And of course the electrical currents sometimes travelling in different streams to different homes is normal of any electric currents. As nobody was there to mark the sightings at the same time, the conspirators would translate that to mean it was seeking the target.
So why the repetitive warning against streams when it rained or the usual suspected tall tree. Or any tall tree for that matter. Well the Luos were being very scientific just like the warnings for any swimming pool activities by lifeguard to vacate the swimming pool.
2. Kachinja. (vampires)
There is this scary story when I was young of vehicles that travelled at night and would abduct people. The next morning the person would be found dead with all the blood sucked. They were generally called Kachinja and were white people or Africans with eccentric European habits like wearing Scottish skirts etc.
This folklore was a dread and made us afraid of getting into a vehicle whose inhabitants were strangers especially at night. Luckily only the European settlers had such facilities. It naturally followed that such fireplace stories made us afraid of any strange vehicles driven at night with or without lights.
The closest I got to hearing of such eye witness account was by a Lady in Kadem, Milambo Nyanza named Lorna but as kids we called her Jairo Okoth’s mum. She was a fine story teller. And so was Jairo the only son.
This time, 1969, Lorna had visited for Kisuma purposes because she was an old lady living estranged from her husband who had taken up with a fast breeding nyaSeme Kodongo. And as she chatted with her in-law she was recounting how some relatives passed on. And this one relative was killed by Kachinja somewhere in Tanganyika.
What Lorna narrated was that these two brothers had been stopped by a German who took them to his house in a secluded house. Then he asked the brothers to assist him with something while he flashed. The surviving brother narrated how the last he heard was the white man asking his brother to hold those two wires and turn to face the them. In a flash the brother shook and fell down dead. When it was his turn to hold the two wires he took flight in the darkness and managed to escape.
In a later book titled British Gulag that talks about how the Kikuyus were being exterminated, a young Brit of barely 20s narrated in a letter to his relatives back in London in how they used to drive and shoot kikuyus by the road side or how they would abduct them to go and electrocute them.
Once again there was no Kachinja even if later chang’aa drinkers labelled a relative Kachinja for transporting policemen to raid their chang’aa binge drinking sessions. There were no vampires among the East African locals or the settlers. What became known as Kachinja that sparked these tales were these notorious rampart shootings, electrocutions by ill-intentioned wazungu as recounted in British Gulag book.
It goes without saying that the Luo fireplace stories generated by returnees of World War 1 and 2 were experiences from Tanganyika and far distance hinterland Kenya to warn people especially children against getting into vehicles at any time.
3. Snakes and graves.
Just last week I received a message from a reader of my cultural blog who wanted to talk to me urgently. When I contacted my reader he asked me what I know of snakes visiting the grave of a deceased person. As a child, I think in or about 1965, I heard those scary folklore of Snakes visiting the grave of a victim of the snake bite.
In Luo folklore it was narrated that if a person died of snake bite, then in a few days before the dug mound of fresh earth became dry, the suspect in crime snake would visit the grave to collect a piece of the grave mound to cast of a victorious spell. I believed this story and never questioned it then. I have never questioned where Luos got this aberration. I have never even asked of it origin. With time fireplace gatherings got fewer. I was living in colder climates of Nairobi, temperate Europe where fewer snakes were sighted until my reader contacted me.
My reader informed me that on the shores of Lake Victoria in Sakwa, just this January 2022, a young man bitten by a snake died in Bondo medical facility. And was buried. The cantankerous Sakwa cousins fenced off the grave leaving a small exit/entrance where they could keep watch over with full light powered by solar. After about the fourth day the slithered poisonous black mamba/ cobra was seen swaggering in to collect the soil elixir as per Luo folklore belief. The Sakwa warriors promptly subjected the snake to public execution after some skirmishes and sent the photo to my reader to reach me. I thank them very much for reaching out to me.
I called a game ranger who explained to me how snakes track sprinting rodents after striking them. It takes 10 minutes or so before a squirrel or rabbit is slowed down by poison after being struck by a snake. Naturally travelling at the speed of a squirrel or rabbit, the rodent will have covered 1 kilometre or more. The only way a snake tracks the subdued rodent is by following the scent of the poison in the air with the same strength that a shark smells blood droplets in the ocean (5 kilometres away in different species).
Logically the snake tracking a Luo gravemound after 4 days just wants to check on the prey buried by following her own poison scents. The Luo aberration of collecting elixir from the mound of the grave is therefore based on some factual sightings of snakes after burial.
It follows that the vigil or lookout for the visiting reptile is to make sure that it is killed to extinguish any chance of breeding such an enemy around to keep on harming the village
4. Raliel in women (ant-hill like)
Raliel in women is like saying women who are like ant-hill. They behave like anthill in that you can wake up the next morning and find that the termites or ants have worked overnight and closed the grave opening that had been broken through by an intruder the previous day (liel omuono).
As we slowly approached our teens with the onset of puberty, we were told of a phenomenon of Raliel. In fact, I remember when I was 12 years old the Benga sensation Gabriel Omolo and his band Apollo Komesha released a record illustrating the mysteries of Raliel. It is when we discovered that this was not just story told by boys at our fire place.
At that age when boys talk, they don’t talk politics or the weather. They just talk of their new sensation- SEX. Different girls and different flares etc. So with Raliel manoeuvre, sex is a little different because the sphincters close down and to open them the sphincters you are to gently squeeze her throat. Strange.
Naturally I heard this story and like many stories that science could not explain we set it aside as another madness from my Luos until 5 years ago when I pumped into an article.
Raliel is a medical condition. The medical condition causes the vaginal sphincters to tighten up making sexual penetration impossible or extremely painful. Below is a medical article from WomansLAB.
Woman's Lab article:
In some women, the muscle stays tight all or most of the time—even when it shouldn’t be. It can become so tight that even the most determined signal from a woman’s brain is not able to release it– even when she desires to have vaginal intercourse with her partner. Or, it can tighten up on occasion, like when a woman is thinking about or attempting to have sex or have a gynaecologic exam. For some women, it’s situational. The bulbocavernosus might work fine during sex, but contract up for a gynaecologic exam. Or, it might work fine in the doctor’s office, and tighten up during sex.
A tight bulbocavernosus muscle is most noticeable during attempts at vaginal penetration. The word to describe tightness in this muscle is “vaginismus.”
When vaginismus happens, the muscle is not the only problem. The muscle squeezes the small blood vessels, depriving the area of oxygen, and it squeezes the small nerves which can be painful.
In women without much estrogen due to menopause or anti-hormone treatments for cancer, the tightening of this muscle can pull the whole vagina tight. This makes it feel like the vagina is shorter and narrower.
The absolutely predictable thing a woman with vaginismus will tell me about her attempts at vaginal penetration is:
• “it feels like there’s a wall in my vagina” or
• “my partner feels like they are hitting a wall” or
• “my tampon is hitting a wall and I can’t get it in.”
There is no aberration here. Just a lack of knowledge from modern science. That modern medicine discovered when Luo have lived with it for over 1000 years should make the Europeans primitive and not Luos. The folklore recital here is not preventative or curative but a dissemination of knowledge that such women are normal and should not be seen as having abnormality.
5. Aidha (Squirrel).
This fireplace story was told as a riddle. To my knowledge it is mostly known in the parts of Luo land where squirrels are hunted and are plentiful.
Squirrels as rodents are very brave snake fighters using their bushy tail to disguise the target that the snake should aim at even if they get bitten sometimes. They are fast and can only be killed by hunting dogs or cornering them into their den then digging them out. When killed the flesh meat must be fully dried for days then then cooked to drain out any poison. This is in keeping with diet of any animal that may have eaten other flesh.
The taboo is where the plot thickens. The rule propagated among hunters to young boys is that a squirrel bite is potent. If it bites you, you die. To date I have heard of only one kinsman who died of squirrel bite and it must have been in 1700. The Luo antidote of a squirrel is having a mother in law urinate in your mouth. She is not to supply you with Urine to drink. Nope. You must lie down on you back so that she can Urinate in your mouth. Don’t ask me what happens with the urine jet that misses your mouth and falls say on your eyes. And exactly that is the point when I became suspicious. Why a mother in law? Why an old mother in law? Why does she have to urinate in your mouth instead of just supplying you with the urine in a calabash.
I have not found this anywhere. However, I think the custom was just to discourage young men from handling squirrels because they could be suffering snake bites. Most importantly stop boys from reaching into squirrel holes to grab squirrels because the squirrel snake fight could be still going on in the squirrel nest. There is no potent contained in a mother in law urine that a younger woman could not provide. Besides it is more plentiful when drank from a calabash. All the same thank you my Luo customs for reducing the number of snake bites and the ensuing fatalities.
6. Mbi mar Jajuok (Night runner prowess).
I can’t believe than urbanite youths laugh when we tell them tales of Jajuok (plural jojuogi). Tales of jojuogi used to scare even before the experience. The night runners never hurt people but they terrified your night away. And I am sure you have heard of their legends. What is not talked about very much is their usefulness in a community.
Jojuogi were the intelligentsia that smoked out clandestine operations like stock theft, incest, paternity issues, espionage and clan infiltration. They were a very useful community lot and were very much consulted by wise investigators. But that is the positive side.
Fireplace legends talked of their supernatural strength that would render everybody powerless and meek when they crossed say Jajuok path at night. For a long time, I believed that the horror they exert on people is because they are in surprise places. And like wazungu I rubbished any supernatural strength until two years ago.
Two years ago I met an Eritrean student of sports and he was explaining to me the branch of sports he was pursuing. In everyday language he told me that human beings operate on only less than 5% of the ability of motor skills and nervous system. And should human beings approach near 5% their aptitude is incredible and they can even fly. And the Eritrean young man legislated the ability of the so called Jojuogi in Africa and their skills for example the ability to talk a crocodile or a hippo in Mfungano islands, the flying witches that seem so huge at night. When I invited him to take his field studies to the abilities of the people of Namlolwe, he declined. He said, “What is the point of studying the obvious?”.
So once again the myths and the aberration on folklore about jojuogi is scientifically related.
7. Prohibition of Magenga for young ladies.
It was never encouraged for girl teenagers to sit around magenga bonfire. I only learnt of this when an aunt of mine was admonishing an early teenager cousin of mine Okinyo to move away from Magenga. He was scolding, “Okinyo wega bed ri I magenga ibiro mako ich. Kai se kar ri e magenga hamano ka idhi wuowo to iburo mako ich chieng’ no!”. Basically “Okinyo, you are susceptible to conception once you expose yourself when basking at Magenga”.
I cannot connect any relationship between warming oneself at a bonfire and conception among teenagers in Luo land. However, I really respected my aunt (uncle wife) for her reasoning. No matter how crude of anything she said, at the end of the day she was vindicated. We laughed when her son failed primary school examinations and she legendry told, “Wod yuora, owad u orem makata zero ma nyithindo duto yudo ga ni, owad u ok oyudo”. It sounds silly but presented to a mathematician, it was proved to us that it is possible to fail like that. So what is this myth about warming oneself at fireplace and susceptibility to pregnancy.
It has been explained to me that putting several factors including reduced resistance, permissiveness and availability, putting-out-there, Luos were right to prohibit teen-girls from Magenga.
In conclusion, those fireplace folklores were a curriculum of their own covering all that was not covered in formal education including sex education. This curriculum cannot be easily replicated or replaced by modern day sleep overs or day trip family gathering to bury a relative. What we are left with is cocktail of a curriculum that is not fit for purpose.