Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Tribute to my Grandmother

Happy Belated New Year and all the best for 2012 to all my readers!

A lot of people raise an eyebrow when I tell them that I have a history of polygamy in my family (in fact two generations ago). One thing that I would really love to do is, over tea/ coffee, have a conversation with my late grandfather where I try to understand what it took for him to marry more than one wives, and how he could have possibly split his love amongst all four wives. I suppose when we are reunited in the afterlife, I will have a chance to have this conversation with him after all. But this article is not about my grandfather, it is about the woman that shaped my life before she even knew I would exist, the woman who even decades after her passing, people remember her deeds and personality with a broad smile on their faces, it’s about the pillar of our extended family!

Dorcas Kilyali Ngila was born in a small village in 1932 in Kitui district but I would be lying if I claimed to know what her early life was like. She was the 3rd wife of the then Senior Chief, Wilson Ngila Ngombo and they had 5 children together. When I was in Kenya over December 2011, I sat down with her best friend and one of my other grandmothers, and had the first in-depth conversation I have ever had with anyone about Dorcas. I asked about her qualities, personality, interaction with other people, and faith. Several facts were told to me that I find very interesting and worth of a tribute:

In the early 50s when very little was known about women empowerment in the world and especially in Africa, she was among the founders of ‘Maendeleo ya wanawake(women development) in the district, an NGO that has been dedicated to fighting for the rights of women and girls, and gender equity in Kenya. At the time, the organisation devoted significant time and other resources in training women for leadership within their homes. As a result, my grandmother’s cooking, baking, knitting, farming, family nutrition, basic healthcare skills improved significantly. She in fact became the head baker of all the family celebrations where this skill was needed.

She was one of the first women in our family to have access to adult education when this was introduced as policy by the Kenyan government and as a result could write her full names and read the Bible by the time she died.

Her granaries were always full even in times of drought and she was often relied on to provide food for the entire family during these times.

She was amongst the first people in the family to accept Catholicism as her chosen faith, devoting significant time learning about the faith, and subsequently only giving her children English names (One day, I will have a discussion about her reasoning here).

In more than one occasion, it has been hinted that due to her generosity, discipline, and love for unity; she may have been my grandfather’s favourite wife. And he may have had a lot of hope for continued togetherness within the family through her leadership if he had passed on before she did.

My grandmother sadly died in November 1967 after a long fight against what we now know as breast cancer but what was thought of as ‘never-healing-wound’ those days.

There are so many examples of African women leaders in past generations that have done unbelievable works and think it is important for women in this continent to document the lives of other women that have influenced us. It keeps us on the right track, celebrates those women, and most importantly reminds us of the greatest influences in our lives.

It is often said that women are the backbone of our society and it’s hard to dispute this fact when one takes a hard look. I know I can take pride in my future having been shaped by a great woman who seemingly went about doing works and utilising opportunities the best she knew how.

But beyond all this, given the resources and opportunities that we, as women, have access to in the 21st century, we ought to ask ourselves how future generations will remember us when we have departed from this world.  

Till we meet, gran!

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