Josi the Child Scribe

Eleven years earlier, Mama Ojowi had invited me to write a letter to Okelo (now the late), who was then working in one of the tea estates in Kericho, and had been gone for almost one year.

“Josi, tell him this”, she began to confide her message in me, calling me by my boyhood adoration, ‘Josi.’ I had written Okelo’s address, so I started to pen the message with my medieval dip-and-write ink-pen.

“A letter to Okelo son of Ojowi,   

This is your wife, Matilda, speaking; she is that woman you traveled for three days, with fifteen head of cattle in tow, just to convince that you were the right man.”

I informed her to slow down her pace and dictate a few words at a time. She then proceeded to break up the long sentence into three parts as I diligently played the scribe.”Our house is leaking and falling apart, and my fields remain unplowed; the compound has grown bushy, and your fence is untrimmed and teaming with squirrels that keep raiding my chicken house,” she poured out her love-starved heart in appropriate imagery to her husband who had been away from home for almost one year.

Okelo worked in one of the many tea plantations in Kericho. Tea-pickers like him were a poorly paid lot, and could only afford one home visit each year. It was early October 1966, and she appeared to have been reminding him of his annual matrimonial responsibilities, both literally and figuratively.

I was only a ten-year-old boy, and a Class Two pupil in an Elementary School at that time. But my penmanship and grasp of DhoLuo (Luo language) were very mature, thanks to my older sisters under whom I had apprenticed. I could write before joining Class One. I already was a very well known village scribe for women whose husbands were away from home.

My popularity arose from my young age. The women knew I would write exactly what they said. Moreover, some of their messages were loaded with hidden sexual imagery that made an innocent scribe of my age the more preferable to an adult one. Adult scribes also were known to summarize, twist, adulterate and translate messages. I also knew how to keep my mouth shut. Moreover, my services were free and, at my young age, had no strings attached.

Even in my pre-teenage innocence, the imagery in the last paragraph had raised my eyebrows: There were no rains, her house was in one piece, the compound was not bushy, and there was no fencing around her home. Perhaps, there were some squirrels. Notwithstanding my doubts, I faithfully wrote down exactly what I was told to write.”My husband, I know you are alive, but I strangely stopped dreaming about you many months ago, as if you are long dead. People from Kericho tell me that you are alive and has . . . tut, tut, tut,” she started to sob mid-sentence.

Now, there I was, a boy of only ten, caught in between an emotional woman, her message, a pen, a piece of paper, and the spirit of her long-distant husband, whose black-and-white photograph accusingly stared at me from the opposite wall.

“Sorry, Josi, I am having a bad day. Now write this: Your children have longed for you for too long. Your youngest boy, Bebi, is giving me a lot of problems with our neighbors, whose chicken he has either stoned to death or disabled. Come home to your children.” She again broke down into uncontrolled sobs, and left me awkwardly waiting for the next sentence.

“Sorry, Josi, you are too young to understand why your sister-in-law is crying.” Saying so, she wiped off her tears with her head-kerchief then continued, “Tell him this: Your children, mother and father send their greetings. God Bless you,” then added, as if in an afterthought, “and pass my greetings to Mary Cherono, your . . .” before she broke into sobs, again.

I was disturbed by the woman’s frequent emotional breakdowns, and Bebi was no chicken killer. So, after signing off the letter in her name, I added in my boyhood innocence, “Baba Bebi, Mama Bebi is crying.” Done, I folded the letter, placed it in a preaddressed envelope, which I sealed.

One month later, Okelo came home to his wife; he never returned to Kericho. I had a gift from him, a shirt. I then did not understand why I deserved a gift from the cousin of mine. But the story of Josi the Class Two Pupil who saved a marriage still lives in my village. In her joy, Matilda appears to have peddled the story around. So the innocent words I added, ‘Baba Bebi, Mama Bebi is crying,’ had forced Okelo son of Ojowi to leave his town concubine, Mary Cherono, and return to his rural wife, Matilda. That had been eleven years earlier.

Now, Okelo was dead, and for a whole year his widow would mourn him in song, and continue to challenge her husband’s clansmen until some brave suitor entered her life in a special ceremony.



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