Around 1967, a strange thing happened. The children of two first cousins met in Nairobi, fell in love, and decided to get married. They had no idea they were related.
When they went for dowry negotiations, the families were mortified, and the wedding plans were quickly abandoned. The two eventually married other people, but the incident left a mark.
Around the same time, a young man from the family came up with the idea of having a get-together so that he could get to know his family.
With the near-marriage incident, the family did not need much convincing, and the first get-together was held in 1968. They called it the cousins’ party, and they still refer to it as such today.
Despite a few hiccups in the beginning, today, 55 years later, the descendants of Nathan Ngugi and Agnes Nyaguthii number over 500, and the family continues to get together every year.
We are in Thogoto, where the family’s get-together is happening this year. It is held on the second Saturday of every August.
There are approximately 250 people making merry under a tent, several of whom have come flown in from various places in the world just to attend the family function.
Several of them are in t-shirts of different colours that say, “Love, Life and Laughter. Since 1968.”
The shape of a house with a love heart inside it printed on the front of the shirts, inserted in between their family name, “The NguNya Family".
‘NguNya’ is a portmanteau, coined from a combination of the words Ngugi and Nyaguthii, the couple that started it all. Most people also bear a tag mentioning which family of Ngugi and Nyaguthii’s children they belong to. If there is one thing every member of the family we talked to mentioned, it is that the two loved each other very much, and they passed this love down to their children, who then carried on that legacy.
“I could fill a book with my memories about this family,” Mumbi Wanja Githiri, the secretary of the family, tells me.
As it turns out, the family does have a book about their ancestry, a huge coffee table book named ‘Makinya ma Wendo’ (Legacy of Love) with a photo of the founding couple on it. The idea to write a book was conceived at one of the cousins’ parties, and took several years to write.
The story starts in the 1800s. Ngugi was born in 1887, and Nyaguthii in 1885, but the stories of their parents and families are told too, such as how Nyaguthii’s father, Waweru, was Waiyaki wa Hinga’s adopted brother.
Waweru was not Kikuyu, he was a Ndorobo, a people who lived in the forest and were hunter-gathers. He was adopted as an adult into mbari ya Hinga (the clan of Hinga) through a particular traditional ritual, under the regulation of a council of elders.
One wonders if anyone alive today would remember what that ritual was, and you read the book, you get to see how large parts of the Agikuyu culture, beliefs, practices nutrition and so on were erased by colonialism, as most of it happened in Ngugi and Nyaguthii’s lifetimes.
They lived through and witnessed many major world events as the book states - the arrival of the first white man, the colonization of Kenya, the first and second world wars, the Mau Mau war, the independence of Kenya and the politics of the new Kenya.
The two got married in 1912 in Thogoto. A couple of years later, the First World War would break out in 1914, the year their first child was born (another child was born a stillborn in 1912).
Ngugi was drafted into the war, joining the Carrier Corps in Nairobi. “He was then posted to Tanzania. The Carrier Corps were recruited to ferry army luggage and also the bodies of those who had died in the fighting.
Going to war was traumatizing for Nathani Ngugi as it must have been to the other Africans who were forced to fight a war they did not start, or even understand very much,” reads the book.
He returned a changed man, the jovialness and humourous personality that Nyaguthii had known all but gone, replaced by one that was quiet and withdrawn.
The family now believes it might have been PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a condition that was little known then.
Ngugi was a mason, and the story of his friendship with Senior Chief Koinange and how Koinange hired him to build his stone house, a marvel to Africans who lived in mud huts at the time, is also told.
The couple would eventually have nine children. The book has 10 chapters, the first one telling the story of Ngugi and Nyaguthii, while the the rest of the nine chapters tell the stories of the children and their families, with large family trees drawn for each. Their only living child out of the nine, the seventhborn, Ruth Njeri (Ruthu) is 88 now and is still as brilliant as she ever was. She is proud of the book, and moreso of the fact that the family still comes together all these years later.
“It’s a big thing because we have a book because it’s a long story that cannot end. This is my mum and dad,” Ruthu tells me, pointing at the couple on the cover.
“They brought us up with a lot of love. On Sundays I used to feel like we had a celebration, so much that we would attract other people to our place on Sundays.”
She speaks in Kikuyu, but every once in a while throws in an English word, like “convenient” and “wonderful.” Like when she says, “Tondu it is wonderful book” (because it is a wonderful book).
When we joke that she knows English, she says, “Well I can’t speak it, but you cannot gossip about me in English while I’m there!” Ngugi was keen on getting his daughters at least a basic education. Nathan Ngugi Muriiu, who was the firstborn of Ngugi’s first child, Solomon (Thoromoni), is 76, and he tells us that one of the reasons Ngugi took all his daughters to school was because he did not want any of his daughters to receive a letter from their husband and have to give it to someone else to read, revealing their secrets.
“Or if money had been sent with the letter they wouldn’t be robbed later in the middle of the night,” says.
The family has a meeting schedule, where they meet in one of the nine siblings’ families in rotation, starting with the eldest, to the youngest.
“So we have a 9-year cycle where we go to everyone’s homestead, and when we get to the last one, the cycle begins again,” says Ngugi Gichaga, chairman of the family and son to Ruthu, the last living sibling.
Even during Covid lockdown in 2020, when meetings were not allowed, they met over Zoom. Ngugi says that the meetings enable the family get to know each other, and all the new additions to the family that are born every year. His mother, Ruthu, says that it is only possible to do this because of the love the family shares.
“The love is what has made us stay together all these years because even in the original family we really loved each other and we didn’t quarrel, so we have taught our children the same thing.”
I’m not a member of the family, yet I can hardly put the book down. It contains very rich history told through fascinating anecdotes of the family members, painting a vivid picture of the state of Kenya back in the day.
One such anecdote is a description of the feud between Ngugi and his brother Kinyanjui, how that brother got into and out of colonial jail, the description of which will have you aghast at both the white governor and how Kinyanjui pulled it off.
The feud would be dropped when they needed to fight a common enemy such as Maasai raiders. “Thogoto borders with Maasai land and these two communities frequently had skirmishes where they raided one another’s cattle,” reads the book.
While it can be fascinating for the curious, it is a greater treasure for the family, the descendants of Ngugi and Nyaguthii. An expert from it, addressed to the family members who read it, explains the core purpose best:
“How often we read and hear of individuals who traverse land and sea seeking meaning and connections to their past; wondering to whom they belong; feeling bereft and deracinated by not knowing and understanding from whom they descend.
Such people feel that a part of them is lost. It is our hope that you, dear reader, will learn something new about your history, and understand from whence you have come; and realize that you are loved, and you belong. You will glean from these pages more about your roots that will give deeper meaning to your life, and a sense of belonging to this amazing tapestry of love and strength.”