There is a place where life as we know it would cease to exist if food was banned. This place where I come from ugali and tea are ranked high, next to oxygen and water. In Western Kenya, only the crazy ones do not actively participate in maize farming. Maize here is embraced (fiercely) in all its sizes, shapes and forms. We boil it, roast it, ground it, fry it; you name it. Hell, we make busaa (some local alcoholic brew) from left-over ugali. I personally hail from Ebutsunga Village, a small nondescript cluster of homesteads tucked at the far end of the Emauko clan. Home as I know it is bordered by Emuriri Village to the north, Masaba Village to the south, Ebuseta to the west and Khushibembe to the east. You know you have reached Ebutsunga when you are related, in one way or another, to anyone you meet. When you have to stop and greet everyone comprehensively ending the greeting with how everyone is at home, then you know you are on familiar ground.
My first visit upcountry (that I remember of) was way back when I was 8 years of age maybe? Back in the day, visits upcountry were a reserve for December holidays. My dad saw to it that we were whisked up there before the infamous “luhyabeeste” migration started and drove fares to high heavens. Those were good days. Spending the entire day in a bus (crowded, sure. But that did not matter back then) was a pleasure for me. We always got to see zebras and gorillas and my dad tended to be generous on the amount of grub we could eat. My younger sister and I would fight seriously for seat windows. Those good old days when I did not have to worry about packing, or ensuring someone did not “mistakenly” make away with our luggage, are long gone. As a kid, I did not know the hustle that went into securing seats or the amount of patience it took to having to deal with the very rude ticket sellers who by all indicators indulge in a glass of bile with a side dish of shit for breakfast before work because honestly that level of foulness cannot possibly come naturally.
Now that I am grown, I can safely say going upcountry is not as easy as simply packing one’s bags and leaving. It takes time, and strategy and lots of vigilance. The trip, when you get drivers who do not feel inclined to take you through every conceivable route (or if the passengers go easy on the tea so that we are not forced to make too many stops for nature calls), lasts roughly 8 hours. The day starts early. We know we are not going for a tea party so we dress appropriately. Sandals or any open shoes are a no-go zone. It is also safe to not wear that white or bright cream shirt. And by all means, secure your hair. On this day, we forgo breakfast for the love of seats and the hope that we will get to see the sunset from the security of our fenced homestead. Manners and courtesy are left at the door as we leave the house. These are picked up only after we are within the fenced perimeter of our homestead.
In all fairness, we all have the option of securing tickets earlier on, before the rush begins but that is a reserve for the punctual and responsible ones. Furthermore, buses that offer this luxury are a select few and can hardly cater to the huge appetite us Luhya’s have when it comes to spending Christmas in our ancestral homes. Majority of us have to flock at country bus with the hopes that our shoving, smothering and pushing will pay off and somehow get us seats. Country bus, for those who may not know, is that rusty assortment of buses and minivans opposite Muthurwa Market which hosts a myriad of buses with various destinations across the country. It has to be by far the busiest during that final week to Christmas. Buses that get me home are the likes of Msamaria Mwema, or Mbukinya or a personal favourite, Guardian. These are the buses whose designers incorporated absolutely no room for comfort. They are meant to ferry people, and at the very least provide seats next to functioning windows.
There is a technique when it comes to securing seats in Msamaria Mwema which is the bus I run to each time I am unable to get earlier tickets. This technique has to be learnt fast. The rule is simple, whatever you do ensure you’ve secured a seat before they are all taken. That jostle is not for the faint muscled or the civilised. This hustle is taken so seriously that people spend nights at the station so as to catch the overnight bus as soon as it arrives in Nairobi. My heart rests slightly easy when I am able to get my ass on a seat and my luggage safely squeezed away in the overhead luggage carriers. You can only hope and pray that your seat mate does not come with three little ones (because two of those will be yours for the day) or that they are not those people who insist on conversing meanwhile they are unleashing all that morning breathe right into your eyes.
Once the bus is full, we hit the road. Now, there are things I have to believe are done by people of my ethnicity only. Let us begin with the propensity to migrate upcountry at the end of each year. It is shocking, amusing and baffling how we are committed to going up there every December without fail. I think it is engraved in Luhya blood that if you do not spend Christmas in your ancestral house, then the year might turn out terrible. My dad has been doing a pretty remarkable job of passing this baton down to us. I cannot remember the last Christmas I spent in the city and it feels slightly unsettling to spend that day in the city. Then there is the luggage. It is luggage in the literal sense of the word. Bags upon bags upon bags of packed clothes and food and kitchen ware and furniture and beddings. I doubt there is anything we do not carry while travelling. That cliché about Luhyas and their obsession with chicken, it is true. We carry these birds everywhere we go. One would imagine when going upcountry we do not need to carry them, but we do; probably to exchange them and give that village cock a chance at city hens.
The food cannot be explained comprehensively enough. We Luhyas do not believe in throwing away money at those traders who infringe on our pockets by selling us packed diseases. No sir. We carry our own. For all three meals. Tea, in glass flasks (because what is tea if it is not steaming hot) which miraculously survive all the elbowing and jostling to get into the vehicle. This with bread or chapatis or ugali. Then there is lunch which packed in neat boxes is promptly produced at the strike of midday. We finish our meals by a ka-snack (read ground nuts and/or tea) at four as we are approaching home ground. We also believe in reproduction because kids, so many kids, have to travel with us. Room is made on every conceivable room. Seats on the aisle are made out of luggage. It helps that we believe in communism so if you happen to be travelling unencumbered with luggage or children, be sure someone expects you to help them with theirs; without question.
By the time the vehicle actually sets off, it is almost impossible to see its rooftop for all the hanging luggage. Vocal cords also tend to be sharp, probably from all that tea. We believe in getting value for our money so when the driver makes too sudden a turn or halt, man and chicken alike voice displeasure. Only difference is we mankind complain for almost an hour even as the birds wisely secure another comfortable place and continue to do whatever it is they do when travelling with humans in a bus. Something else, we have no secrets whatsoever. When we talk, we need the whole bus to keep up with the conversation; contribute even if so inclined. It is not unusual when someone from the middle or front of the bus holds a conversation, exclamations and all, with someone at the backseats of the bus.
In spite of all this though, I would not quite trade spending Christmas up there with anything. Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats that kienyeji chicken or the community, harmony and unity that goes into collectively preparing food for that day.