Loiyangalani’s prettiest girl does not know what a wig is, or how to walk in high heels.
Her beauty is as natural as it can get, accentuated by nothing more than the slight gap between her snow-white incisors and a cute, girly giggle. She is comfortable in her skin, so smooth and shiny under the hot sun that has baked her since birth, yet so unwilling to flaunt anything.
Loiyangalani’s prettiest girl knows she is popular in this far-flung outpost that survives on nothing but the waters and fishes of Lake Turkana.
And that popularity makes her shy. Her neighbours know it, her friends have talked to her about it, but she just cannot help it. Brought up in a village not far from here, she is not used to the attention she is drawing. But she will get used to it. In time.
Loiyangalani’s prettiest girl just got married to a man who loves his cattle, his culture and the occasional ice-cold Coca Cola. By getting married she broke many hearts, but she could not have pleased all. She seems young, sounds too young even, to be married, but she has been prepared for it, and she knows what is expected of her in her new role as a wife.
Loiyangalani’s prettiest girl is called Pascalina Amado, and she does not give a hoot about the Marriage Act, 2014. All she knows, all she cares about, is that marriage here, as anywhere else, requires dedication, coaching and loads of hard work.
She comes into the marriage with two year’s worth of tutoring from her husband’s mother, who took her in way before her union with the lucky moran was solemnised to, among others, “observe her” and teach her the ways of a married woman.
We are telling you about Pascalina because, in a remote way, her story is the story of Kenya’s newly married. At a time when the country is having a conversation about marriage, she just crossed that cherished bridge into matrimony, and her outlook and expectations mirror those of many others who will soon follow in her footsteps.
We choose to tell this story from Loiyangalani because we think we can get perspectives about life that are yet to be influenced by modernist thinking, sort of like sailing off into the deep seas and observing the world through some lucid, vivid prism.
It has taken us a whole day to convince her, through an emissary, to talk to us. We had seen her just a few minutes after checking into Malabo Resort, a cozy establishment set under doum palms to tower over the disused airstrip here and, across a couple of windswept hills, the calm, blue-green waters of Lake Turkana.
And then, as the sun begins to sink, she informs our envoy that she will grant us an interview, but only for a few minutes. We hurriedly gather our cameras and notebooks and move to the parking lot, from where we can see whoever walks through the main gate about 50 metres away. The sun is fast sinking, and we fear we will not be able to get shots clear enough to validate the local claim that this young girl is Loiyangalani’s prettiest.
After about 15 minutes, a middle-aged woman walks through the gates to Malabo. And then, about 10 seconds later, Pascalina appears, resplendent in her traditional Samburu attire and crown. The woman approaches us with caution, sizing up the three of us in the crew before exchanging a few words in the local dialect with our emissary. Pascalina, on the other hand, keeps her distance, maintaining about five metres between us and the woman, and all the while making sure she never looks us in the eye.
“Meet Pascalina’s mother-in-law,” our host says.
“Ohhh!” I exclaim as I make the few steps to shake her hand, the ohhh! more escaping my mouth than being planned. Pascalina, meanwhile, is still cowering behind her mother-in-law, and with the sun quickly sinking, her radiance is slowly being swallowed by the creeping darkness.
“Let’s do this fast,” we inform them. Photographer Ann Kamoni starts clicking away as we talk to Pascalina, who has now been separated from her mother-in-law and is leaning shyly on a picket fence. She has been married for a week, she tells us through an interpreter as she can speak neither English nor Kiswahili, and the journey so far is “interesting”.
“I am excited,” she continues. “I married a man I love and he is a pretty handsome moran too! The traditional wedding was an exciting experience and I am sure I will make a very good wife to him.”
Pascalina had been living at her husband’s home for two years prior to their wedding. This is in line with the Samburu culture as the bride has to be tutored by their mother-in-law on how to live the married life.
“She has taught me a lot of things,” Pascalina says,” including how to behave around my husband (she cannot look at him in the eyes when serving him, neither can she share a meal with him. After serving him, she leaves immediately).”
The two years spent with her future mother-in-law are part of the courtship process, which compares with the modern world’s engagement period. But while the modern woman scarcely meets her future family during engagement, the Samburu woman literally lives with them, learning their ways and slowly assimilating into the family. Should she fail, the wedding is called off.
And, as opposed to giving a woman a ring as a sign of engagement, Pascalina was given a special bead that hangs around her neck, which she proudly shows. “All these beads on my neck are presents from my husband. He is very caring and I have to wear them so that I become even prettier in his eyes,” she says.
We are seated around a table at the parking yard, Pascalina and her mother on one side and I, photographer Ann and our interpreter on the other. The new bride is beginning to settle in when we see a silhouette walking quickly towards us from the main gate. Pascalina immediately trails off as a man, clad in shukas and a club in his right hand, approaches the table.
And then Pascalina stands up. We all go quiet as we look at the man, who eyeballs us but says nothing.
We are all tensed up when our interpreter breaks the silence: “Meet Pascalina’s husband!”
Tall and slightly built, Chuchu Lemarian has come to enquire what his wife and mother are up to. He walked home to an empty house and, being the newly married man that he is, the place felt too cold, too unwelcoming.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, the man lightens up and grabs a seat. Pascalina retreats to the back, and from then on she becomes a scarce character in this play. The story we want to tell is about her, but from now on it will be told through her husband and mother-in-law, she only clarifying a few things here and there.
Chuchu tells us he regards himself the toughest moran in the county for convincing Pascalina to marry him, and that he is looking forward to a happy marriage. He was out grazing his animals almost three hours away from home when he spotted the girl who would become his wife. Smitten, he followed her to know where she lived, then went home and told his parents about her, who then made the first contact with her parents.
“After convincing them that I would be the best man to marry their daughter, I paid the customary eight cows as dowry and then we started the traditional ceremony that culminated in our wedding. I am now a proud man because I have the most beautiful woman in this town,” Chuchu boasts, adding: “I don’t plan to marry a second wife even though the traditions allow me. I have met the apple of my eye.”
That, coming from a man who has grown up surrounded by polygamy, is a bit astounding. I ask why, despite the law now allowing him to — traditional marriages are regarded as potentially polygamous under the new law — he would not like to get himself another wife.
He stares blankly at me, his face suddenly serious, and then leans back and, with the gait of an 80-year-old, says: “I don’t like men who are not honest to their women. When you go to seek a woman’s hand in marriage, you do it with honesty, driven by love and fuelled by the hope of a better life. Why would you turn around and start cheating on the same woman you fell in love with?”
“How many children do you plan to have,” I ask, the question directed more towards Pascalina than her husband.
I am watching the couple internally debate the question for a few seconds when the answer is shot from somewhere opposite them. “She will lay them the way a chicken does its eggs,” Chuchu’s mother informs us, matter-of-factly and unapologetically.
Pascalina looks up, smiling at her man and the mother-in-law seated across her, and nods in agreement. She will have as many children as she can, or as many as her mother-in-law wants.
And then, with a few words, she introduces her husband into the equation as well. “I will give him as many children as he wishes. He is my love and the one to determine when we will have children and how many of them they will be.”
Chuchu is impressed; his young bride has quickly learnt the ropes and handed him the mantle, but that honour, he says, comes with responsibilities: “Marriage is a step-by-step affair, a union that I have entered into knowing that I have to provide a roof and food for my family, come what may. Even when going out into the wild with the animals, I must ensure I leave her with enough food, and that her shelter will withstand the elements. That’s what a real man should do.”
HONEST AND TRUTHFUL
In reciprocation, he expects that his young wife will be “honest, truthful and a good wife”. “I don’t like women who gossip, drink alcohol or sleep around,” he continues. “Our tradition doesn’t accommodate such people and that is why the woman has to stay with the mother-in-law for two years so that she can be prepared for the journey ahead.”
Prepared for the journey ahead. The words hang in the air, grabbing me by the neck of my T-shirt and hauling me 20 years into the future. Prepared for the journey ahead. How many, Marriage Act 2014 notwithstanding, would say they are prepared for the journey ahead?
That bit of Samburu wisdom acts as the show-stopper for me. I doubt anything can crown the night, and as I bid the newest couple in Loiyangalani goodbye, I have this feeling they will be well.
The prettiest girl in Loyiangalani does not know what a wig is, but she knows what a good marriage feels, looks and sounds like. And that, as she settles down to a life in matrimony in this dusty, windswept, sun-baked town 600 kilometres north-west of Nairobi, is all that she cares about.