Gathering around the fire

In my heart, I feel bonfires are every folklore take tangible form. I cannot help the sentimental feeling that surface when I sit by a bonfire, it takes me back to my childhood. Listening to folklore and myths passed down by my ancestors through many generations onto mine, are some of my fondest early years memories.

Most of these memories involve gathering around a cooking fire, listening to suspenseful tales of giants, mammoths, witches, wolves, healers… Wild things that gobbled down naughty children. Narrations of animals who could talk, girls who went to the woods to fetch firewood but never returned. Stories of the ever witty hare and his foolish companion, hyena. Apart from my siblings and I, we had a lot of older cousins living with us. These were the people who indulged us with these tales and myths. Which were mostly accompanied by songs, dance, idioms, poetry, riddles, sayings and proverbs and ALWAYS a moral lesson! I guess it was a fun way of teaching important life lessons.

In lieu of the mulled wine that inspired this piece, there was always chai (black tea with milk and spices), roasted maize, potatoes buried deep under hot ashes, ( we kids did the roasting and burying) an aroma of what the adults were cooking, a strong smoky smell and eager little ears ready to take in every word, with as much excitement as only a child can master. Everyday much to our thrill the village drunk would walk by singing atop his voice, we would dramatically take up his singing, as we acted out his drunkenness, rolling in rib hurting uncontrollable laughter.

Rainy season was my most favourite gathering time. Neighbours would drop by unannounced to “shorten the night” as we call it. My culture is very sociable and not well accustomed to solitude, so these spontaneous drop-ins were very common and acceptable. On this beloved rainy seasons, it did not just rain, the heavens opened and it poured. It felt as though the roof was going to cave in. We would beg for a tale, to our luck there was always someone who gladly obliged us. Our uncle was always the first pick, it was always an exciting time when he was around. I have yet to meet a better storyteller! He had such a commanding presence and kept us entertained for hours non stop! His tales had an order for them.

“Haditha hadithi” so he began, ( this is a call to pay attention which I think translates to, tale time, tale time)
“Hadithi njoo, utamu kolea” was our response to show we were ready ( let the tale begin and may it be extremely interesting)
This call would be repeated twice, then he would begin
“Hapo zamani za kale”… (once upon a time)

We spend a lot of hours at riddles. These too had an elaborate call and response form. There was always one genius who knew all the riddles and automatically became the caller, the rest of us would chorus the response. “Gwatai ndai”, was the call for a riddle.“Twagwata” we would chorus out in response. The riddle giver would now proceed, we thought long and hard, when no one knew the answer, there was a specific response implying we cannot figure it out. The caller would then make demands which we had to meet before he gave us the answer. So it went till we wore ourselves out.

Maize season was my season of fear. The crops would grow so tall they enveloped all the little people. The paths home though well known became a maze. In this maze when the darkness settled in, the wild things from all the folklore seemed to come alive!
Though silent it was, I could hear the heavy footsteps of giants and mammoths. Fear would set deep into my little bones. Traditionally in the village, we bury our dead in our shambas ( land) so they are always with us. There was no escaping walking past the graveyards in my petrified state. Consumed by terrifying thoughts of all the spirits who lurked around observing me! Fear… yet despite the fact that folklore filled my imagination with terror, my thirst for it could not be quenched.

Most families had an outdoor kitchen where the cooking fire run from dawn until everyone turned in. Electricity was a foreign concept, most people in my village did not have it. It was considered a luxury and privilege, although we did not feel as though we lacked. ( I think we got that privilege around 1999, 2000) There was constant running to and from the main house to the kitchen. If you know anything about my culture then you know that only children did the running. It is disrespectful for adults to fetch stuff that they need, when kids are around for that very purpose, ha! Though both houses had a lantern, the outside was always pitch dark. The one minute it took to fetch whatever the adults needed, meant being in that darkness. Then once again in my young, highly imaginative brain the wild things came alive, the footsteps, fear… This was always the longest 1 minute.

There was constant begging of a sibling, cousin or the neighbour kid who had dropped in, to come along as I fetched said object. Promises to share the best part of my roasted maize or take on some of the parties chores on the morrow were part of the negotiation. All so I did not have to endure the darkness and wild things alone. It’s hard being little, every tale is so real, and the creatures that gobble down little children mostly show up when it’s dark.

Although my child has and will experience a lot of different and worthwhile things in her childhood than I did in mine, it saddens me that this is part of my culture she will not get to experience. Bonfires won’t hold the same meaning and folklore won’t represent all the happiness in childhood. I love raising my child here and I hate not raising her in my own country. all the good things from my culture that I’m not able to provide, leave me a tad bit sad.

I’m not the best storyteller. 3 people are hardly considered a gathering and a bed will never pass for a cooking fire but we do try and tell her stories and read as many books as we can. To create a tradition close to the one lost. Times are different, so much technological growth has happened since my childhood. I wonder if children still gather to listen to folklore or just dance. I wonder if they know how to make a football from papers and strings or craft cars from scraps.

We Africans are rooted in oral culture and traditions, I’m very doubtful of the existence of any ancient written literature. (please correct me if I am indeed wrong). Our ways have been passed down orally through Folklore, music, spoken words, riddles, sayings and elaborate dances. These traditions started slowly dying out with colonialism. Now the world has become more global and tech-savvy. This new age of information is brilliant and I’m grateful to be alive at this specific period in time. Still, I’m nostalgic and sad about the loss of some traditions. Tv has taken the place of folklore but I hope that oral storytelling still plays a role in some families.

Cookfires, gathering, roasted maize, fear, laughter, singing, dancing, outdoor kitchen, lanterns, they all give shape to folklore and thus my childhood. I make up simple riddles for my daughter to solve, tell her stories with a lesson which she is still too young to comprehend. The stories and riddles don’t have the same organic flow they hold in Kikuyu, I sigh and tell them anyway, as I contemplate on traditions lost, how to recreate them and how wonderful it is that a simple bonfire has the power to bring me home.

Thank You for stopping by dear reader. What part of your childhood would you love to pass on to the next generation?

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