Mantalk: Why marriage works only in the village

Where I come from, food is not just a love language. It is love.

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Back in the day, we used to talk about Paper I and Paper II. If you think this is about education, a) You haven’t been reading this column enough and b) You don’t know me, and you probably shouldn’t. Paper I and Paper II were a euphemism for food, and how it is ‘set’ before the visitors. Like in c) Muturi and his traumatic mathematical examination questions, Paper I, was foreplay while Paper II was where the baby was made. Woe unto you if you spent all your energy on paper I and performed dismally on Paper II. This advice works in any area of life—work, school, marriage.

See, where I come from, food is not just a love language. It is love. I come from a western Kenya heritage where we feed guests until they’re in pain and then send them home with leftovers. There’s always a boiling pot on the jiko when you visit us. I bring this to your attention because over the weekend we crammed ourselves in a sedan and drove 453 kilometres to Western for a “small meeting.” It seems that we are finally at that age where my friends are getting married on purpose, and I have to act like a mature, tax-compliant man and resist the urge to say, “Mtaachana tu.”

We do not pray to have money but to have more kinsmen, said Chinua Achebe. We are better than animals because we have kinsmen. An animal rubs its itching flank against a tree, a man asks his kinsmen to scratch him. So, scratch we did. And off! We headed to a village nobody writes about, met by elders who treated us as equals, despite our badboy looks and blings and “Mi sikulangi ugali ya brown” attitudes. We, the in-laws to-be, on a fact-finding mission: To know where the girl hails from. Usually, such an activity in our culture is a preserve of those who have eaten enough salt, who have earned the right to demand certain things done in a certain way—and yet here we were, gung-ho and brimming with the vitality of youth, with the threat of souring relations hanging in the air like morning dragon breath.

Upon arrival, Paper I was set. Tea, peanuts, mandazis, tea, watermelons, bread-and-blueband, boiled eggs, more tea, more tea, oranges, bananas, and is that more tea? It was a feast worthy of those medieval kings, but I had duly warned my colleagues not to eat too much, this was just foreplay, this was your kinsmen testing your appetite, this was Paper I. I passed down generational wisdom that has stayed in my clan for millennia, “the sweeter the meat, the closer the bone.”

When paper II was set, even I was like, “Wah! Hii imeenda.” Chicken—fried and dried—fish, ugali (white), ugali (brown), ugali (sosa), chapati, rice, tea, soda, vegetables, I could go on and on, but I am on a word count. This was Paper II and I could see my friends from the mountain shed tears of pain. Is this how they expected we lived or is this how they expected us to feed their daughter? But we would not let our in-laws down. In my mind, I couldn’t help but think, this is not going to do well for my struggling TikTok account.

A cockerel that had just begun to crow (shitaywa) had nobly sacrificed its life to make good soup for the male visitor. This he had to eat alone—omundu strong. Him trying to figure out how to eat the cockerel was like looking for the Pope at a strip club. I offered some words of wisdom: “Plan the attack, then attack the plan!’ But there was no formula to attack that chicken. It reminded me of C. Muturi’s Solving Mathematics. The more you read it, the less you could actually solve Mathematics.

On our drive back, our guy was quiet. This is what it takes to be married. Feeling like a soldier, full of experiences that have silenced him. That’s when I made the connection: between food and honesty, food and home, food and love. It was in how our in-laws would not allow anyone other than the girl we were set to marry to serve her husband—out of love and generosity, yes, but also out of service, out of honour, out of duty.

It got me thinking that it is mostly in the city where we assume that marriage is not working. Back there in the village, our ukoo was still strong, even after the patriarch of the family had died, and the next elder brother stepped up to take care of the departed's wives.

And unlike the city where everything is a fight, the social order in the village was respected by all. Never, said kukhu (grandmother), has my husband raised his hand on me. And I am the last wife (he had four). The respect above all underlined what had made their marriages work, at least in our eyes.

We city boys are lost in the stars and blitz of situationships because it is easier than commitments. In the village, if you are seen with someone’s daughter, the words that live on tips of tongues would travel by word of mouth and speed of feet to pawn you off.

We landed back and went to the AG’s office to apply for a marriage certificate. Columns and rows and rows of people filing for marriages daily. Yet we say no one is getting married.

It is easy to tell yourself a story and believe it, because it is the only narrative you know. The head is always heavy when the neck is not strong. If someone were to ask me how I define modern-day relationships, I might ask if they want the story or the truth.

Because the truth is, we want too many things from a partner: we want excitement, but also comfort, trust but also mystery. We approach courtship from the view of how long will it last, rather than let’s enjoy it as long as it lasts, wanting what humanity has always wanted and come to expect: more.

Modern marriage is a failed state, and its denizens, the barbarians cavorting in its ruins. But sometimes, it never occurs that the jigsaw is a mirage, not a prison. It’s not to dismantle but to conserve it, that strength is required, for it will come apart in an instant. It’s not so much that the grass is greener, but that the shoots are younger, and the memories technicolour. The courtship is Paper I but marriage is Paper II. That no matter how many people take you to the in-laws, you have to eat the cock alone. As for me and my house? I’m a wild shitaywa, an untameable jogoo, I’ve always belonged to the streets.