March 8 is International Women’s Day, so I’m celebrating a remarkable woman with this post: my great-grandmother, Nyar Nyanjong’.
I’ve been thinking about her lately, chiefly because I realized I’m becoming like her in some ways. One of the things I discovered about her near the end of her life was that she loved to sing. My sister and I visited her one last time years ago, and she regaled us with stories about her younger days. For each story she told, she sang an accompanying song.
Over the past few months, I too have been breaking into song while having conversations with people. A word or a phrase will trigger a memory, and I’ll just start singing. After which I’ll sometimes say, “My great-grandmother did that, too. She had a song for every story!”
Nyar Nyanjong’ was already old and gray by the time I really got to know her. She was wrinkled, a little bent over with age, though tall, and she walked with a cane. She always seemed calm, unhurried, and full of wisdom. She had a significant sense of presence whenever she was present at a family gathering.
My parents worked in a town over a hundred miles away, so we only saw Nyar Nyanjong’ once a quarter or so when we made the journey back to the village. In my younger days, I never thought to ask her questions about her life. I was doing what children do: finding ways to amuse myself outdoors and trying to keep boredom at bay.
On one of my visits back to Kenya from Germany, I went to visit Nyar Nyanjong’. She was sick in bed, and had gone completely blind since I had last seen her. I had no idea that would be my last conversation with her.
I sat at her bedside as she reminisced about journeys she had taken as a young woman. She had traded in salt, and had made the trek north to Turkana before there were paved roads and cars, covering almost 650 miles round-trip on foot. She sang us some of the songs they used to sing on those long journeys.
I celebrate Nyar Nyanjong’ for the values she instilled in my Dad during the years he lived with her while growing up. Dad fetched water, cooked, cleaned and did many other chores that were considered women’s work in his day. He became a remarkable man, who later championed his daughters as much as his son, and practiced equality in our home at a time when much of African society was still heavily biased in favor of males. I didn’t realize how progressive Dad was until I got into my teens and started hearing different stories of gender roles in others’ homes.
Sadly, Nyar Nyanjong’ died before I had the chance to have a good conversation about what life was like for her growing up, especially because she was born in pre-colonial days. I celebrate her today because she is one of the reasons, however indirectly, that I have become the person I am.