Papa Luchera stood up and cleared the throat. He looked around at every person in the room. His face remains emotionless. Finally he speaks audibly mincing his words,
“Let me tell a story. Naswa here has always been a curious girl. One time, she saw a chameleon and caught it and brought it to her father, saying excitedly, “Look, father, this thing was like blood when I found it. But when I put it on the tree, it looked like the leaves. Then as I brought it here, it resembles my hand.” Her eyes had widened with joy at her new discovery. Her mother emerged and screamed, ordering her to throw it immediately. My daughter is fearless and smart. It therefore came as no shock when many years later after primary exam, she was called to a big school, far away in the city. The school was for bright girls, but it was expensive.”
The delegation from Simiyu’s side fidgeted uneasily, knowing too well what being in a big school in the city meant for their pockets. Simiyu’s pocket. His uncle, who had not uttered a single word shifted restlessly. His fingers were thick and sturdy and his nails dark. Perhaps he used tumbako, or he was a herbalist. Or he was just dirty. Or he was just a hardworking farmer. I like him. I met him once, during Simiyu’s graduation and he had worn an oversized grey suit that swallowed him and he ended up looking like a scarecrow. I saw him stuff things in his nose. Then he sneezed so furiously his nose almost ricocheted past us. His legs were weak I tell you and he shook with every single step. I don’t understand why he sniffs that poison.
Kundu Kuristofa sat composed as if he had all the gold mines in the world. He was calm. But I am certain deep down, he was panicking. Or he was cursing already. He part his legs then crisscrossed them again.
“You have seen that mukuyu tree at the junction as you diverted from the road leading to this homestead. That is where our land reached. But Naswa’s secondary educated ate up the entire land up to the cattle dip. But you have seen that we still have enough land. And even if she comes to us and says that she wants to go to school again, we will still afford to pay. Because girls are investments and are the pillars of this society. We are sure we can never starve, as long as our Naswa is alive.” This speech serves to bring the suitor to speed of what the girl’s family has used on her. The truth is when I was called to the big school, the entire clan was up in arms, protesting that I should join a cheaper village school. After all, both taught the same things. My father could hear of none. He listened to elder after elder, uncle after uncle, aunt after aunt as they gave facts of how he could use the money wisely, instead of throwing it on one girl. What about the other 8? After all had been said and done, he told me, “You worked hard. You deserve to go where you worked for”
“Upon completion of her sekondari education, Naswa was called to yunvast.” continued my uncle, now deep into the narration. He was so carried away; you would think he was father. He was passionate. “We had to sell the land from the cattle dip up to the road separating us, Abakitang’a and the Baengele. But again, have we starved to death because we sold a lot of land, cattle and food to school her? Every month, Naswa runs home and folds something into her father’s hand. And we are happy we schooled her.”
There was silence in the room and throbbing of hearts. The guests, though prepared, knew it was not going to be easy.
“Here is what we expect from you.” He ends abruptly, before he can tire the room with his long speech. He reaches for a paper and writes something down, then passes it to my brother, who had been sitting still like a good child, when we all know what havoc he caused in the village. My brother presents the paper to Kundu, who does not look at it; instead he smiles and says,
“My fellow elders, we have seen. Please allow us to talk amidst ourselves briefly.” And with that, the delegation leaves the house and goes under the mango tree. I could see people pointing fingers at each other, others laughing and others too shocked to speak. Simiyu spoke little. One of his cousins was shaking his head violently, staring at the paper, as if we had asked them for their life. They tried to murmur, but occasionally, a hoarse voice would bellow. Then after hours of push and pull, they returned to the house. This time, Simiyu remained outside and my father disappeared into his room. It was now Kundu’s turn to speak.
“Your daughter is no doubt, a precious thing we want to snatch from you” the entire sitting broke into a hearty laugh again. And I hated that they talked about me as if I was an item, which can be snatched. Like pick pockets do. And I hated the excitement as they traded about me. I was a commodity being sold. He continued, after an elongated cough, “I asked my son, have you done a background check on the girl? He said yes. That her father is a headmaster and her mother a nurse. And I told him, they are rich people. Will you match their standard? And he said, without blinking twice, yes. Yes father, I will meet their standards. That was 2 years ago. He has been preparing himself. We know what we are getting is a priceless.” Everybody listened, waiting for the anti-climax. It is never smooth. People eat a lot of lemon before dowry negotiation sessions so that their voices will not let them down as they argue.
“And it is true, when you educate a girl, you educate the society. We are happy that you educated her. However, our son also went to big schools and we had to sell our souls to the devil to educate him. He brings value to her life too and she will never know hunger or suffering.”
“If you can’t meet the price, please, feel free to close the gate as you leave and take your emaciated cows away” interrupted my uncle, who seemed very impatient with Kundu’s speech. He was in this sitting to provoke emotions. He is a trouble maker and has a deep scar on his arm.
“My elders, we are not afraid!” Retorted Kundu, as he tried to keep his cool when we know he was almost reaching for my uncle’s neck. “However, Simiyu has other brothers too, who will soon be bringing wives too. We ask you reconsider and reduce the price a bit. This is our proposition.” He said as he handed over the paper to Simiyu’s cousin who took it to Papa Luchera, who had sunken on his seat and was too comfortable to even move an inch and take the piece of paper. My people asked the delegation to leave the house for some minutes as they discuss and they’d be called in. The guests were nervous. It is never a shock if they are told to wait and minutes later, the hosts emerge from nowhere with pangas and chase them away like dogs. Or they are told to wait and the hosts leave the compound, leaving them stranded till night, or send dogs after them. There are all manners of uncouth behavior during dowry negotiation.
In the house, the discussion was heated amongst my people:
“We cannot reduce!” declared Uncle Willy, who is very difficult to deal with.
“Let’s reduce, but not what they have dictated,” offered Luchera.
“Wafula, call your father” said uncle Khisa, his eyes blood-shot as ever.
“I told you we should have doubled the price so that they reduce to three quarters,” regretted Eliudi, who was our neighbor and a good friend of my father’s. His Adam’s apple moved furiously up and down.
“Do they understand that we did not include her many school trips? Had we included, that stupid Kundu could have gotten stroke,” said my uncle who was in this sitting to stir trouble. He is the loose tongue who asked the guests to leave with their cows.
My father emerges and he is immediately briefed.
“Don’t be hard on the young man.” He says and his brothers oppose.
My brother was listening to them, lost in thoughts, probably wondering if he would ever marry. He sighed and giggled.
“Wafula, you are busy breathing instead of contributing,” reprimanded Uncle Willy.
“Accept the offer,” my father said firmly. “We had set it high already. Do you want my daughter to suffer, just because her to-be husband had to pay a lot of money for her dowry?”
“Let us just reduce a quarter of what they proposed,” said Papa Luchera. And with that, my brother was asked to call them in, including Simiyu.
“When you go amongst the Babiketi, or Batecho, Baliche or the Balunda, or past Mwibale and beyond Mwikupo and move to Sang’alo, you will find that we have no enemies.” Started Luchera as the guests settled.
“We treat people fairly and that is why Wefwafwa, our father, started the church. He believed in treating people well and always welcomed strangers to his home. Same to Mayi Puriska. We don’t want to oppress you, because of things that we will leave behind, once we join our ancestors. We have considered your request, but will only deduct a quarter of what you suggested. We have given you our daughter, almost for free.” He said sadly, as if that was true and sat, feigning aggravation. The delegation nodded, and then murmured amongst themselves.
There is this unspoken rule for dowry, that one has to claim that they have been oppressed. If the boy accepts the dictated price without argument, he is considered proud and it is whispered that the marriage will not last past a week.
Kundu stood, smiling, “at last, we can say that, indeed, our son chose wisely. We fully accept your price” My people clapped and made sounds close to ululations, to signal people in the kitchen that an agreement had been reached and should wind up with the cooking. Wafula was sent to call me. I emerged and looked straight at Simiyu, who smiled and gazed at me. He sat finely on the seat and I admired him more. His teeth were arranged neatly and his eye brows curved so well and his lips inviting. I wanted to hug him and tell him how much I missed him.
“This is our Naswa.” Said Luchera proudly. “Naswa, do you know these people?”
“Yes, father,” I said (father can be used too to address uncle in my culture). Simiyu’s eyes and mine interlocked again. My heart skipped a beat. My knees weakened.
“We are giving you this beauty but it pains us. Let me introduce my people to you, my in-laws,” said Luchera jubilantly as they shook hands.