One of the nice things about being upcountry is that it makes for great cardio. At this altitutde, running takes on a whole new level of difficulty. My second day at Ken & Janet’s farm I managed a 2.5-mile run (compare that to the 6 miles I usually do in Santa Barbara and you get a sense of the relative difficulty) along the switchbacks snaking through the hills, and was treated to views of the valley glowing with sunlight below. It’s best to run as early in the morning as possible since there are fewer people out and as a white person you tend to attract less attention. Exercising simply isn’t a recreational activity for the majority of Kenyans. While those in the city at least tend to know what you’re doing (but yell to get your attention as you’re running anyway), people in the more rural areas find it bizarre. And the kids think it’s hilarious, and will often run after me laughing and shouting things til they get tired of it (good quality headphones are a plus here). Learning how to say ‘I’m exercising’ in Swahili helped too.
After my run, I had my first pocket shower, which turns out to be a lengthy process because you need to heat up water, and the shower bag still hangs low enough that you have to squat down to wash under it. Coincidentally, this is how most Kenyans wash anyway, taking a sponge bath out of a basin of hot water on the ground, so I think that actually had something to do with why the family took to it so quickly.
My third day on the farm, Ken & Janet’s two boys returned home from boarding school in Kisii Town. The boarding schools here sound pretty intense: they’re not allowed to take electronics or almost any personal belongings with them, and only talk to their families when they coordinate a phone call through one of the teachers or schoolmasters. So the boys were very happy to be home for the summer. At the same time, they’re anxious to get to Mombasa, which they consider their home and where all their friends are. Being typical teenage boys, they get bored pretty fast on the farm where there’s very little to do and electricity is intermittent. Hearing them complain about not having power for the three days it was out was pretty hilarious actually, and Janet had a good time poking fun at them about it. Their names are Mark and Michael. I actually share an Ekegusii name with Michael, also known as Nyakundi when he’s in Kisii. Mark is about to start his last year of secondary school, and has aspirations of going to university to study economics / business, and then wants to open a business in Mombasa or Kisii. Michael is a few years younger (in his first year of secondary school, I think), and is passionate about music and movies. He seems to know the actors and plot of every one of the hit movies from the past decade. Both of them love basketball, which surprised me a bit (soccer being the huge sport here, like it is pretty much everywhere in Africa). After they returned to Mombasa about a week ago, Mark messaged me excitedly that the basketball court they play at now had lights: “Now we’ll play until dawn!”
Since we needed groceries, once the boys were settled in we waited for a matatu for three hours, to no avail. So I caved and we called a taxi into town. We wound up having a nice lunch (terrible food and service but a fun time getting to know the boys and Janet better) at a place called The Nile, on a second floor balcony overlooking the only roundabout / major intersection in town. Then we went shopping in the open air market and at Nakumatt (Kenya’s version of Walmart) before heading home. That evening, since I happened to have a movie rental on my phone that was about to expire and because the power went out when it started raining, the boys and I piled onto the couch to watch Jack Ryan on my phone – with popcorn and everything! I’ve discovered that roasted corn and popcorn are quite the thing here. In fact, thinking on it now, I don’t think a single evening went by without there being roasted corncobs as a pre- or post-dinner snack.
The two weeks following went by in a blur. The next day I spent at a hotel in town, enjoying access to fast wifi, while Janet attended a funeral. (I’m sad to say that the number of funerals and deaths that Ken, Janet, or Gladys have been affected by in the mere two months I’ve been here probably numbers around a dozen. Granted, Kenyan social networks and families tend to be significantly larger than American ones, so this is somewhat expected statistically and in my experience the normal rate at which people experience these things here, but that doesn’t make the loss any less significant.) The next day Janet also had to run errands, so she dropped me and the boys off at her mother Thenina’s house. Upon learning what I was doing in Kenya, Thenina immediately wanted to tell me a story. Anticipating this, I had brought my Edirol recorder with me, and so got a great recording of the story of Hare and Cheetah. The really neat part was, when she was done Thenina explained the story to Mark and Michael, whose Ekegusii is largely passive. Over the course of the two weeks at Ken & Janet’s, as I recorded various songs from different people, the two of them were treated to all sorts of traditional stories they had never heard before. I don’t think they quite realized the stories even existed, so they would sit and listen eagerly anytime I was recording. This turned out to be great for my research too, because it gave the speaker an audience who could actually understand (mostly) what they were saying, and therefore give them someone to direct the story to. It seemed to put the speakers a lot more at ease. I also learned a number of things I wouldn’t have otherwise, because the storytellers would often explain things to Mark and Michael. For example, every story in Ekegusii starts with Moganó ngóːcha ánde? ‘May I, the Story, come?’, to which the audience is supposed to respond, Moganó ínchuo ‘Come, Storyǃ’. The reason for this, it was explained, is that the speaker takes on the identity of the story itself, so that it’s no longer the person just telling the story, but the story narrating itself. Mark and Michael soaked it all up. And as I’d be going about the house asking Janet about the words for this or that thing, Mark and Michael would jump in and ask questions as well. They even memorized a few of the proverbs that Ken & Gladys included in the back of the dictionary after I had shown that section to them one night. So I was thrilled to see them fostering an interest in their language.
By the end of my two-week stay with Janet, I had recorded
• 2 hours of video documenting the process of planting, harvesting, winnowing, cracking, and grinding sorghum, with continual explanations and discussions between the women of the entire process in Ekegusii
• A few short conversations in Ekegusii
• 30+ traditional folktales, about 2-5 minutes each
• An autobiography, several hours in length (the speaker asked if he could just record by himself for a few hours after dinner one night, wanting very much for his story to made available online!)
• Several Christian songs
• 1 flour-grinding song
Gladys is hoping to get someone to record a few traditional songs with me as well, and I’m thinking that this week I might do something I’ve been wanting to all month, which is to setup some recorders around the living room immediately after dinner, when people tend to sit and chat and tell stories for a good hour or so. The trick is that I want to get permission from everybody in advance of dinner and start the recorders early so as not to make people too self-conscious (or at the very least, to let them get used to the recorders for a bit first). And even as I was leaving Ken & Janet’s farm, I had other people in the neighborhood telling me they had more stories they’d like to record with me as well!
That said, at this point I’ve got way more data than I could hope to process while I’m here, so while I’m still recording with anybody who requests it, I’m otherwise not actively looking to record more for the time being (the exception being that post-dinnertime conversation, since I don’t have much in the way of really natural conversation yet). And that is precisely why I now find myself here at the farm of Gladys and her husband Charles, some distance on the other side of Kisii.
Since Janet had never planned to stay long in Kisii, and the boys were eager to return to Mombasa, they caught a bus back to the coast last Friday, leaving just me and Morris at the farm. Since I had already done an elicitation session with Morris for Luhya the week prior, and since he knew that I was recording stories, he asked if I wanted to record some Luhya stories as well, and I happily said yes. I probably won’t do anything with the data for the time being other than archive it (so if you’re a researcher interested in any of the Luhya languages let me know), but it’s possible that if I return in future summers we’ll be able to continue working together.
After a few days of quiet at the farm, Gladys arrived in Kisii and arranged to bring me to her farm on the other side of town, where our major goal is to translate as many of the stories I’ve recorded as possible. So that’s where I sit now, on the porch overlooking her tomato greenhouse and watching newly-hatched gosslings waddle around the farm under the protective eyes of their parents. But now it’s time to get back to translating!