Three times this year I have been involved in family events with a traditional twist. And in all three, it has been evident that the people who remember what needs to be done at what point and by whom are becoming fewer, and even the knowledge they hold is scanty in the unrelenting face of modernity.
In the first event, early in the year, the family of a niece's fiancé was visiting her father's upcountry home to see where she came from and to "be known". As the hosts, we were there early to make sure everything was in place. A few minutes before the guests arrived, the women on our side of the family gathered for a briefing by two not quite elderly aunts. They told us what to do and assured that they would lead from the front, which was a relief because we would otherwise have been quite lost. Even then, I noticed that they consulted each other frequently.
When the guests arrived, "knocking on the gate" with traditional song and dance, we went to welcome them with our own song and dance. It was a bit comforting to see that both sides were not quite sure about what needed to be done. Parts of the songs were mumbled because the words were either forgotten or unknown. Those of us who were more unsure than others huddled together in the middle of the group and tried to dance vigorously to make up for the gaps in the songs.
But at the end of the day, both parties were in agreement and happy.
The second event was a two-in-one – 'welcoming the new baby' and 'visiting the new home' for my younger brother and his wife. After lunch, the official part of the event began, and it was soon apparent that there was a lot of "winging it" along the way. When the time came to welcome the 'new' three-month-old baby boy with song and dance, once again both sides (husband's and wife's) were found mumbling the words of the few songs that were offered in vernacular.
And once again, we tried to make up for the lack by dancing vigorously.
Several times we were caught unawares about what was supposed to happen next and at one time even had to scramble to gather our gifts together for a formal presentation to the couple. Thankfully, there was no real disaster and at the end of the day, everyone was happy and wished the couple well in their new home and life.
Last weekend, another of my brothers was leading us in a visit to his fiancée's home so we could meet her family for the first time. Although I did not attend the event, the week prior was quite busy as we tried to find out what people from that part of the country require for such an important occasion.
In a matter of days and through our efforts to gather 'intelligence' on people from that particular part of Central Kenya, we managed to put together everything we thought would be required and appreciated by the family, including a herb they love to chew and which I discovered can be bought right here in the city!
I heard later in the day that the event went well although both sides, again, were improvising as things moved along.
These three events beg the question – should there be deliberate efforts to preserve these traditions by passing them on the younger generations, and especially city folk, or should we do away with them altogether?
I am seeking answers because it seems like suddenly, I have moved from being an interested observer of these events – leaving it to my mother, aunts and uncles to handle – to finding myself right in the thick of things as the older folk take a back seat. There was no official handover and we were never really taught these things as modern education took up more and more space in our minds and lifestyles.
Yet most times, I find people want to do things "the traditional way" without anyone spelling out what that really means. I expect in a few years' time my older two will be in positions that require meetings of two families or even communities, and I would really like to be prepared one way or another. But for now, as I continue to ponder over where to get these "skills", I guess I will have to mumble on while dancing vigorously to disguise the fact.