Dowries, Traditions & Experiments by Isaac Amoni
“Although she’d dropped out of school, there was much celebration…Babies are such a blessing. How they will grow up is God’s responsibility.”
My name is Isaac Amoni, I was born on 16-7-93 in Kakamega, Western Kenya. My mother was a teenager and, due to her pregnancy, she dropped out of school. When my mother gave birth to me, she was alone at home with nobody to help. Among the Luhya, many women give birth at home withoutbothering to go to the hospital. They even prefer traditional mid-wives to hospitals which are then left to educated urban women.
At first my mother thought I was a girl. Someone had told her some months earlier that she would deliver a girl, and she had believed it. It’s only when my grandmother came and shouted in surprise, “You have delivered a baby boy!” That’s when my mother realized my sex.
Nobody seemed to mind the fact that my mother (16 years) had a baby. Although she’d dropped out of school, there was much celebration. A baby boy! That received a whrop in my community. People didn’t mind getting babies and more babies there. Babies are such a blessing. How they will grow up is God’s responsibility. Anyway, my grandmother was a hard-working woman and there was no lack of anything. And so I grew up well without much trouble.
A room of iron sheets, divided by a curtain.
My father came to make peace with my grandmother. He begged for forgiveness and promised to take care of me and my mother. In this way he was allowed to continue relating with my mother though she was still too young at 18. When she conceived again, he did the vanishing act. This time the responsibility had grown, and he wasn’t going to do anything about it. By then, they still weren’t married. So my mother was stuck with two children, a boy and a girl.
My grandfather was furious and threatened to take legal action against my father. However, his job kept him busy and away from the mess. He decided to let it go. It was my mother’s hot lake, he said, let her swim in it. But 3 years later, it became my grandmother’s hot lake to swim in, as my grandfather died. His brothers took everything he owned except his house from my grandmother. She was left in great need.
It was then that my mother’s friend took her to Kisumu to find a job. My grandmother too was forced to find a job in order to survive. She came to Nairobi and was taught to cook for wealthy people. She then found a job as a cook. Sometime later my mother left Kisumu and came to Nairobi. She found a job as a maid for an Indian couple. She took us to Kangemi slum in Nairobi. We lived in a room made of iron sheets. It was divided into two by a curtain. This is how most people live in slums. My sister was only 3 years old, and she went to live with my grandmother. I was 6 years old and I started attending standard one.
Sometime later my mother found herself a boyfriend. She brough him to our room. He came frequently and helped her with food and clothes. In the end he stayed with us. This relationship lasted maybe a year before it went sour. One night they fought and shouted at each other. They did not trust each other. I don’t know about that. The result is my mother ran out of the house and din’t turn up.
I was left to live with my step-father, if I can call him that. He treated me normally. Nothing changed. He looked for my mother, and tried to sweet-talk her back, but she said would come back later on her own terms. So he became patient, and life went on. My grandmother came over and made peace between them. After that they didn’t fight for some time.
“I watched the two men fight over me, like I was some profitable property. That day, ironically, I got the feeling that I’m very valuable…”
One day my real father came to visit us. Some friends had told him where to find us. My mother was at work while my stepfather and I were at home. I could not recognize my father. He introduced himself to my step-father and politely asked for his son. I knew there woul dbe a drama. My step-father told him politely to go and talk to my grandmother. In my community, children are the father’s and as soon as he pays dowry (if married) to children’s mother or compensation (unmarried) he has custody, as long as they are old enough to leave their mother.
My father had not paid compensation, and my step-father knew this. He calmly advised him to respect tradition. Children are not the father’s and he cannot be given custody unless he pays dowry or compensation, otherwise the mother may be willing to give away her children without dowry or compensation.
For my part, a father was just a father, and I was too young to understand or care about who then was my real father. I watched the two men fight over me, like I was some profitable property. That day, ironically, I got the feeling that I’m very valuable, otherwise why did they bother to fight? I almost enjoyed it, but neighbors interrupted and quickly sorted out the mess by throwing out the intruder. I didn’t feel sorry for him as I didn’t have any relationship with him. Actually, I was closer to my step-father.
My father didn’t come back for a long time, which means that he got the idea right. Looking back, I doubt if my mother and my step-father were trying to legalize their relationship. My step-father hadn’t yet paid any dowry to my grandmother. So their marriage was just an experiment. Just like her earlier experiment with my father. I don’t understand really. Is it possible for people to live happily without getting married? Can single people be happy without having children? I wonder.
Back to my story, my father talked to my grandmother about his child and wife. Grandma said follow the process. He begged her to stop my step-father from marrying mum or paying dowry for her. “Agreed,” said grandma, but hurry, this complicated the situation further. My step-father heard about this deal and he became temperamental. I ran off to my grandmother for one year. My grandmother used her savings to put me back in school.
One bully called me a “fatherless bastard!” I instantly and without thinking knocked out his teeth with a piece of wood. The teacher beat me up severely and expelled me. Again, I had to stay at home for another year. Grandma said she’d had enough of the mess.
“My wish became a reality when my grandma’s friend told her about a school called Hamomi.”
One day a neighbor’s son asked me to help him with his homework. I happily did and to my surprise, he got the questions right! I helped him again and again and each time my interest in school returned to me. I wished I could go back to school. My wish became a reality when my grandma’s friend told her about a school called Hamomi. We were very pleased with that information.
We didn’t waste a day. Grandmother took me to that school immediately. The year as 2010 when I arrived at Hamomi. I joined grade six. I was given free books and pens and immediately put in class. At break time we are given porridge while at lunch time we have rice and beans every day except Sundays when we don’t come to school. Then I was very happy. In another school I would have to go home for lunch and get nothing from school except games and sports.