Managing Family Politics

On Saturday 19th May 2018, a few friends and I sat at a popular spot at Nairobi West. TV screens were loaded with images of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in the town of Windsor near London, England. The British tabloids reported that it was not a going to be a Bank Holiday, but that was however, not all bad news… the pubs were to be open until 1am on the Saturday night/ Sunday morning to allow two extra hours of “celebration” up and down the land. Meghan’s father was not there to walk her down the aisle for the Royal Wedding following days of chaos surrounding his heart operation and alleged staging of paparazzi photos.

On the backdrop of this event I had been watching a most fascinating Netflix series known as The Crown. Wikipedia has this to say about the series:

`A historical drama web television series, created and principally written by Peter Morgan and produced by Left Bank Pictures and Sony Pictures Television for Netflix. The show is a biographical story about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The first season covers the period from her marriage to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in 1947 to the disintegration of her sister Princess Margaret‘s engagement to Peter Townsend in 1955. The second season covers the period from the Suez Crisis in 1956 through the retirement of the Queen’s third Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, in 1963 to the birth of Prince Edward in 1964. The third season covers Harold Wilson‘s two terms as the Prime Minister until 1976, while the fourth sees Margaret Thatcher‘s premiership with a focus on Diana, Princess of Wales.’ 

The drama is imaginatively lifelike, bringing out the stresses of matrimonial disharmony, power struggle and infidelity within the Royal Family. Some of the going-ons are so incredulous that you would imagine the series to be the product of an overly fertile mind.

Yet it appears all that is said is based the truth. I could not stop wondering whether Meghan, who had an almost fairy story romance, was prepared for the depth of twists and turns, in-fights and other negatives things that would occupy her married life herewith.

In July 2015, President Barack Obama arrived in Kenya on the first visit to his ancestral home as serving US president. He undertook two memorable and significant events soon after he landed. He ushered in his half-sister Auma into the Beast and the two drove to a dinner date where he was pictured alongside his step-grandmother, Mama Sarah, and other members of the extended family. A day later he was quizzed by the press of his African roots, and what it is that he discussed at dinner the night before with his relatives. His answer was most interesting:

‘There is a more immediate family that I have known well from previous visits, there was some more extended family that I had not met before – my sister Auma whom I am very close to and we stay in close contact, I think helped to make sure that everybody was representedI think the people of Kenya will be familiar with the need to manage family politics sometimes, in these extended families. There are cousins, uncles and aunties that show up that you did not know existed, but you are always happy to meet.

Not very much later, Barack Obama’s half-brother, Malik discredited claim that the former US President was born in Kenya. An ardent Donald Trump supporter, Malik Obama tweeted a copy of what he said was a valid birth certificate proving that his half-brother was born in Mombasa, It featured Mr. Obama’s correct date of birth and includes the masthead: “Coast Province General Hospital, Mombasa, British Protectorate of Kenya”. Alongside the picture, he wrote: “Surely. What’s this?”Malik Obama repeatedly pedaled “birth conspiracy” claims that the politician was born in Kenya.

Disputes are no stranger to the Obama family. According to the late historian Leo Odera Omollo, Presidents Obama’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama returned from serving the British colonial masters as a cook in Mombasa and Zanzibar and settled in their home in Kanyadhiang’village near Kendu Bay in the current Homa Bay County. He became an ardent footballer and was captain of the Kanyadhiang’Football Team in late 30s. An dispute arose between Hissein and the Paramount Chief of Karachyuonyo Mzee Paul Mboya after the football team won a match against the Kogweno subclan that Mboya was related to. The chief refused to hand over the trophy after his clan’s team lost 4-1 to the Hussein led Kanyadhiang’team.  Hussein stormed into the chief’s compound and forcibly seized the trophy. Mboya ordered  some youths to invade Hussein’s house. Hussein could not stomach this and decided to relocate his family to Alego K’ogelo in Siaya County.

It is from this perspective we need to understand the significance of the institution of marriage. Some have said that marriage, the union of a man and a woman, is a personal, but not private, relationship with great public significance. Marriage is seen as being good for the couple; it provides the optimal conditions for bearing and raising children. Marriage makes an essential contribution to the common good. Religion supports this view. The Bible decrees in Ephesians 5:31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”

Marriage occurs between two unrelated consenting adults. This is of biological importance since it ensures the blending of the human gene pool. It is for this reason that society discourages marriage between related beings. But therein lies the source of many challenges. You are married into his or her relations and you acquire a host of issues that you were not familiar with but which you must now grapple with. In an African context, there are social norms and cultural practices that you are required to adopt, no matter how odd, or repugnant they may seem. After all, you are not married to one person but to the community. The Bible speaks to this in Ruth 1:16 But Ruth replied, “….Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.Your people become my people? Even if among them are gossipers, thieves, wizards, murderers and the like. These are now my people?

We turn to the series TheCrownto try and understand the essence of marriage. In season 2, episode 4 Prince Philip `chafes under the demands of his marriage to the Crown, his roguish behavior brings increasing pain and anguish to Elizabeth. Despite the developing pressures, Elizabeth suggests a small party to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. And it is at this dinner party that Philip makes a brief speech that describes the core of marriage’s work:

“Ten years has taught me,

The secret of a successful marriage is actually to have different interests.

Well, different interests, not entirely different interests. It’s a funny business.

One sees the whole of the other person. You see even that part of them that they don’t see themselves.
And presumably, they see that hidden part of you.
One ends up knowing more about one’s partner than they know about themselves.
And it can be pretty tough to keep quiet about it.
So you have to come to an accommodation, an arrangement, a deal if you like.
To take the rough with the smooth.
But the extraordinary thing is down there in the rough, in the long reeds of difficulty and pain,
that is where you find the treasure.

So I would like to propose a toast in the name of love, in the name of our beloved country, in the name of steadfastness, in the name of another ten marvelous years.

I give you mon petit chou, Lilibet, Elizabeth, The Queen.”

`Night-running’ is a weird cultural practice prevalent in some communities within Kenya (see Nickson Ogilo:  It is a bizarre practice, which entails an individual stripping naked and running for a considerable distance during late at night. It is said that night-runners are possessed by spirits and are unaware of what they are up to. Night-runners are usually not destructive but meeting one in the dead of the night is not a pleasant experience. So what happens when one marries into a family with night-running tendencies? Do you blend in and become one of them?

I read a curious rendition of yet another weird practice from the history of an African monarch in the Pearl of Africa. It goes as follows:

The Baganda believed the afterbirth and umbilical cord to be a sort of second child, the double or twin of its owner: it was carefully preserved by the mother, because the health and welfare of the living child, were thought to be closely bound up with those of the double. The twin was even given a name by its owner…

At every new moon, the cord was presented to the Kabaka by its Guardian and given due reverence by the Kabaka himself and the assembled courtiers. An entry in the Rubaga Mission Diary for 25 July 1880 describes the scene on one such occasion.

`His umbilical cord is presented to Mutesa. He rises from his seat to touch the precious talisman solemnly with his royal hand. All the assistants rise: those with swords unsheathe them and brandish them, and the soldiers present arms.’

Faupel, 1962

African Holocaust: The Story of the Uganda Martyrs, Page 15

Revised Edition, 2007

Paulines Publications

A family management issue drives the story of the migration of the Luo speaking people of Eastern Africa.    Thedisagreement of two brothers iswell captured in folklore and has been dramatized by Tom Omara in his epic play `The Exodus’ which I have had the pleasure to both direct and act along with my close friends Bosco Ole Sambu and Elisha Wandera as part of the cast.

Journalist Dear Jeanne of the Daily Monitorof 17th August 2013 describes Wang-Lei, located in in Northwest of Uganda as a place of `wonders and miracles’ where an axe comes out of the River Nile when it so pleases. It is the separation point of Nyipir (Gipir) and Labongo (Nyabongo), the forefathers of the Luo, who are spread across Eastern Africa region. The story goes as follows:

The two brothers lived happy after moving from Bahel-gazel and settled on the current-day West Nile region.One day after they had all started families and had children, Gipir asked Labongo for his spear so he could go and hunt. During the hunt, Gipir aimed at an Elephant but failed to kill it and it ran away with the spear.On reaching home, Gipir tried to explain to his brother Labongo, but he could not understand him as he demanded that he brings back his spear. Gipir, having no other option, packed his food and went back to the forest. For days he moved looking for the spear. Luckily, four days later, he found a place where the elephant had dropped the spear as it moved. He took back the spear and handed it to his brother. 

 Gipir, being a beads maker, continued living normally until one day he had errands to do and he left the youngest son of Labongo in his house. When Gipir returned, he found one of his beads missing and after investigating it was concluded that Labongo’s son had swallowed it. Gipir immediately went to Labongo and ordered that his bead be recovered immediately. Labongo begged his brother that he be given time for the child to eat and pass the bead out while defecating. Gipir kept insisting and even though the child went to the toilet, the bead was not seen and it was after resolved that since Gipir had to recover the spear when the elephant ran with it, his bead should also be recovered. Labongo’s youngest son was thus cut through the stomach and the bead removed. 

 The two agreed that they could no longer live together and through the mediation of a Jonam chief Uvungu, they were separated at Wang-Lei and an axe thrown in the river to signify the separation. Gipir and his family were ordered to move to the Western part while Labongo and his family moved to the eastern. Gipir became the grandfather of the Alur of Nebbi and the DR Congo while Labongo became the grandfather of the Acholi and the Luo.

I was told the story of two brothers who perished in a road accident in Naivasha. They had left Nairobi telling their families that they headed to western Kenya. At the time of their accident a female accompanied them. The three bodies were taken to a mortuary in Naivasha. The police were able to trace the elder brother to a house in Nairobi. There they found a very pregnant wife who was required to travel to Naivasha to identify the bodies accompanied by the family lawyer. She did and was able to positively identify the body of the late husband and the brother. She said the she did not know the dead woman. Police had kept a close watch during the identification process and noticed she winced when she saw the body of the dead woman. The police inspector in charge confronted the family lawyer and said they would not release any of the bodies until the woman was identified. The woman was persuaded to acknowledge that that the dead woman was a long time girlfriend of her deceased husband.

I cannot agree more with Obama since I regularly undergo family duets of one kind or another. Our family can get quite complex since I am a product of a mixed heritage; my mum was a Kamba from Kitui County and my dad, a Luo from the slopes of Homa Hills within Homabay County.  My mum’s elder sister is married in Uganda, within the JoPadhola of Tororo. My sibling brother is married to a lady from the Southern African region while my sibling sister was betrothed to a man from western Kenya. Out of these relationships are cousins whose world attitude spread like the colours of the rainbow. One of my cousins is a declared prophet of some Church that draws inspiration from African culture and practices. I had a cousin (now deceased) who startled most of the extended family by being cremated according to his wish.Our family has therefore experienced various shades of opinion, clash of cultures and so forth. Such issues need to be managed with patience, skill and deft. I have had to learn the ropes of managing family politics since I am among the eldest in our family. The story of my maternal grandfather, the late Philip Masili demonstrates some of the complexities we have to live with.

My grandfather hailed from the Mbaa Nzau clan. He fought in the Second World War, far off in Burma. On his return, he married my late grandmother, Damaris Nditi who hailed from the Mbaa Ndewa clan. On his return from war he presented his young bride with a green wooden box with military bearing the inscription  `Ordinance’. It is in this box that grandmother kept her clothes and documents that were most dear to her. The box was a favorite perch from where my brother and I would listen to legends galore from this wise and most beautiful matriarch figure. Her front teeth were chiseled into two diamond-like shapes common of the women of that generation. This box would give us sleepless nights decades later, since in her deathbed, grandmother repeatedly declared she wanted to be buried in it. My Dad was at a loss. How would he undertake such a bizarre request for to fit her body into the box meant chopping her body to pieces? My dad resolved this quandary by ordering that the box be broken into bits and placed into the bottom of her grave. Her coffin was then lowered onto the wooden pieces.  We must have done right since she has not haunted any of us.

My grandfather was a hard working farmer with a passion for his enterprise. He acquired prime property by the banks of a tributary of the mighty Kalundu River and developed the property into a fine orchard bearing all manner of fruits, from jackfruit, mangoes, guavas, pomegranates, sugar-apple fruit, papaya, you name it. It was a Garden of Eden of sorts and folks of every race came to buy and feast of the orchard. The proceeds of the sale were used to clothe his family and educate his children who he adored.

Grandfather decided to expand his enterprise and plant sugarcane at the banks of the river and it is here that they collided with an obnoxious snuff-smoking illiterate neighbour who occupied the land on the opposite ridge. The man was well known for his practice of witchcraft and the like. He detested my grandfather and was jealous of his success in farming. The man protested that the land my grandfather had planted sugarcane was his.  My grandfather would not budge insisted the land was rightfully his. The argument was fast becoming ugly and the clan elders were summoned to determine the case. After carefully listening submissions from both sides, the elders supported my grandfather’s position. The incensed neighbor was shouted back in anger:

`You have stolen from me. I am a man of the land and I know my cultural roots. If you persist with this claim, I warn you that no male will remain in your land henceforth. Not even a cock will be heard to crow in your homestead!’

Grandfather was a stout Christian and would not entertain this kind of heathen balderdash. He asked him to do whatever her wanted to do. The land was his. Period.

Well it happened. Soon after, grandfather developed a bad cough and chest pains. He was admitted into hospital and diagnosed with a complicated liver ailment. Grandfather died during the great floods of 1961, some seven months after his neighbour uttered those words. His only son died five years later. His remaining descendants were women, my late mum being one.