Lessons from Taita; Mbale’s Sense of Community.

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My father hails from Moka village – Mbale ward, a hidden gem within Wundanyi constituency, Taita Taveta County. My mother, a Mbale resident by virtue of marriage, says Mbale reminds her of a book she read decades ago, Cry, the Beloved Country. Published in 1948, the book by Alan Paton narrates how the city life in Johannesburg stole the heart and soul of Ndotsheni village, taking its offspring along with it. In many ways, the comparison rings true. It is common to see shops and stores locked in old rusted padlocks that were last opened decades ago. Many sons and daughters of Mbale moved on and never looked back, except for occasional festive reunions or when met with bereavement, homes and compounds left to caretakers to maintain.

It is a far cry from what Mbale was pre-independence, almost every other homestead produced a World War II veteran, serving in King’s African Rifles colours. They came back with technical know-how and improved on the architecture in the area, evidenced by the enduring structures in place. Even way before, Mbale had already taken its first steps into modernity with the arrival of the Anglican Missionary clergyman, Richard Absalom Maynard, in 1910. He stayed until 1921, setting a great precedence for early education across the Coast region. Indeed, when Ronald Ngala was transferred in 1950 from Kaloleni school to Taita as Mbale School Principal, it was a move up the career ladder. Mbale school was by then a prized institution. Richard Absalom Maynard’s legacy lives on in Mbale, Maynard Primary School is named after him. Somehow, at some point, the pace and growth of the area came to a halt, I can’t exactly pinpoint how or why.

But there’s good in everything if you look closely enough. Amidst all the solitude in the hills, I have often found solace and lessons in Mbale’s sense of community among those that stayed. This being from my experience with the Nyumba Kumi and the larger Kijiji network in Moka village, I am sure it is the same with the other villages in Mbale. The two networks here function as a colony of bees or ants does, the most well-coordinated community network I have seen anywhere I have been. My first interaction with this was the whistle and loud announcements of a town crier, called Mwalugongo in kiTaita. Lugongo means uphill, I would imagine in the old days, a Mwalugongo would go up a hill to deliver his message to the village and that is how the name came to be. In one of the cases I experienced, he delivered news of the passing of a villager and that all men (of adult age but excluding the old) in good health, were required to gather at the deceased’s homestead the next day to assist in digging the grave. I did avail myself the next day and the numbers present made light work of the task. Within no time we were six feet deep into the deceased’s final resting place.

Burials in Mbale are a cheap affair, unless the bereaved family themselves wish for an extravagant send-off. Apart from instantaneous funeral arrangement contributions of 100 Kenya Shillings minimum from every adult Kijiji resident, there exists a Kijiji and Nyumba Kumi kitty. The monthly Kijiji contribution is set at 50 Kenya Shillings per household while the monthly Nyumba Kumi contribution is separately agreed upon by members of the several 10 household groupings within the Kijiji, anything from 50 to 100 Kenya Shillings. There is also an added 300 Kenya Shillings per year from every Mbale native, living in the ‘diaspora’. Mombasa, Nairobi and elsewhere that is not Taita Taveta count as ‘diaspora’ too. With grave-digging costs already nonexistent, the figures raised cater for food for the mourners and everything else to do with funeral arrangements, all kept within a modest budget. Throughout the year, the contributions also provide emergency cover for medical bills and schools fees for members of the community.

With regard to sticking to the original idea of Nyumba Kumi i.e the security aspect, the set-up here is exemplary. Every head of household has a duty of informing the Nyumba Kumi Chair of any arriving newcomer or visitor and their intended length of stay who in turn informs the Kijiji Chair. Nothing ever goes unnoticed. This is not to impy guests are not welcome. It might seem too invasive but with the crime rate here at a commendable low, you would have to agree with the modus operandi. This kind of positive ‘invasiveness’ has extended to monitoring the family unit. It is common for the Assistant Chief, who receives reports from the Kijiji Chair, to move around drinking dens to fish out those deemed failing in responsibilities within their households. It is the Bible that says “If a man will not work, neither should he eat”, well, in Mbale you can’t drink unless your house is in order, especially when children’s school fees are concerned. This week, the community ensured every child of school-going age reported back to school.

Everything considered, Moka village and Mbale ward in general offers a throwback, to a time most people were well-meaning. When it took a village to raise a child. Many may have moved on from Mbale but Mbale has never given up on its own. It welcomes you right back every time and gives you a route back to the community set-up. In some ways I wish it was more vibrant, but maybe Mbale itself is just as it intends to be, quiet and unassuming. When the wheels of modernity were taking it faster than it could handle, it slowed down, giving blessings to its sons and daughters to try their luck in the big towns and cities. Half-hoping that like the prodigal son, at some point they would come back.

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