The Star (Nairobi)

2 February 2013

Kenya: In the Pink Corner - I Miss Days When Visitors Were No Burden

In the good old days when food cost next to nothing and we loved all of our extended family, you would have relatives from the village come over to visit you for a fortnight or more.

They came with bags of potatoes, maize, cassava, mangoes or whatever was in season at the time, together with the mandatory white or red cockerel tucked under their arm.

They helped with household chores and told the children stories while putting away colossal heaps of food (mostly meat). They were mostly pleasant to have around and they reminded you of the long Christmas holidays in the village.

Fast forward to 2013 and everything is so damn expensive, right down to the greens which previously grew wild in almost everyone's backyard. Now it does not make sense for anyone, let alone a meat-eating machine, to visit you for two weeks.

Everyone is feeling the pinch, even in the villages. They no longer load you up with all sorts of foodstuffs and the fatted chicken when you visit - they barely have enough food for themselves.

But that has not stopped some of the more brazen village folk from continuing to visit.

The more skilled ones turn up at dusk, when you are stuck in traffic on the way home, blissfully unaware of what awaits at home. When you get there, it is dark, and as outraged as you are by the presence of this relative (complete with a huge bag and two toddlers in tow), you do not have the heart to send them away in the night.

And thus, with one cunningly timed arrival, she/he is guaranteed an overnight stay, a free supper and breakfast at the very least. Now you will have to deal with the visitor in the morning, when you are either in a hurry to get to work, or they are still fast asleep and you are not rude enough to wake them for an eviction. And once they dig their heels in for a night or two, you are trapped.

As a backdrop to all this, the Ugandan cultural concept of good hospitality forbids that you ask someone why they are in your house. You cannot even ask them if they would like some tea.

You just assume they are hungry and you set about feeding them in grand visitor fashion. It does not help that the Ugandan concept of a good wife means you must have something edible in the kitchen all the time, and you must smile and be happy as you deplete your larder to keep the guests entertained.

If you have insufficient meat for each meal or lack milk tea with copious amounts of sugar, then either you are telling your relatives that you married a poor stingy man, or you are telling your husband's relatives that you are too busy spending 'their son's money on yourself. It is a lose-lose situation.

So, as much as you cannot afford live-in guests whose stay has no visible end, and you cannot explain your predicament to them, if you are a good Ugandan host and a good wife you will shut up and wait for them to tire of the visit.

If you are lucky, they just want to have a break. If you are not that lucky, they would also like to break into your cabinets and relieve you of any extra clothes, bedsheets or things they feel they need more than you.

And when the visits are finally done, you have to cough up transport money back to the village, and perhaps even a contribution to the school fees of one child or another. In the very distant good old days, said children might even be left behind for you to look after.

But who am I to complain? A friend, whose husband is a Member of Parliament, cannot send anyone away because it may impact on the votes come election day.

As a result, she has had to exile her own children to her brother's house while she hosts the TB-infected children of a constituent who came for medical aid! In a way, I miss the good old days when these visits were not a burden, but the reality is that we cannot afford to keep doing things this way.

However, God forbid that I should be the bad wife who bells that particular cat!

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