In-laws, in-laws, in-laws. Gather around. We need to talk. I feel that our association has transcended what made us in-laws in the first place. Did I miss some essential fine print on the Till-Death-Do-Us-Apart Vow?
In my opinion, marriage equally straddles love and financial stability. That's expected for a husband until the in-laws make inroads that threaten the journey to financial stability.
In my case, a crippling financial d'alliance with in-laws started way before I formalised my union.
It started quite loosely, when my campus girlfriend Nekesa, moved into my bedsitter. She was then in her last year, studying Bachelor of Arts, in Education.
Nekesa moved in, kicked off a blissful four-year 'marriage attachment'.
At the time, I had freshly graduated and started an online academic writing gig. I was earning well enough to afford a bedsitter at Roy Sambu, off Thika Road.
The bedsitter was pretty cramped (girls move in with a ton of clothes) but, still - my girlfriend's cousins would often 'drop by'. Hosting guests came with extra expenses - all they did was cook, eat and binge on movies.
I didn't mind. Weekends in campus hostels are dreadfully boring. They would rather be anywhere else. Plus, it seemed cool that my girlfriend was hosting her cousins - in the city!
They had rather amusing calls to their families in their village. The phrase "Niko kwa Nekesa hii weekend" would literally light her up. She was proud. a glow of pride!
I learned early that family is a big thing in the Luhya community.
Nekesa and co. hailed from a village in Bungoma, easily the cradle of the Luhya community. It's not uncommon to have a doting Luhya mother booking a city-bound shuttle to just 'check on my daughter, nirudi...'
That's exactly what happened with Nekesa's mother.
MIL surprised her daughter with a call at noon, on a Wednesday. Nekesa reminded her of work and explained Wednesday is a working day. She could not pick her up.
So, guess who had to?
At the time, Nekesa had graduated and landed a (board) teaching job at a school she had interned. Low pay, but acceptable as she waited for the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) to fanya mambo yao.
I had then grown my skills as a writer, a relatively higher income good enough to scale up to a modest one-bedroom house. This bit had, of course, trickled down to the in-laws' mashinani.
I got the call.
Mother-in-Law: Mkhwasi, kuja unichukue hapa Nairobi. Nimefika.
Me: Ati nini?
(I was sprawled on the couch, surfing the innards of online TV).
Mother-in-Law: Niko hapa Bus Station nimekuja kuwaona, Mkhwasi.
Me: Kata nikupigie.
I disconnected that call, dialled Nekesa on the fly. Yes, she knew - and, could you please change into some jeans and go pick my mother? Don't go to town in sweatpants.
Granted, I had spoken several times with MIL a few times.
You know those lazy, laid-back calls when someone passes you their phone to greet someone in the middle of a FIFA game on PS2?
That kind. I could, and should be forgiven for not paying attention.
You, too, could have sought some polite random stuff like "Kuja wakati mwingine utusalimie, mama..."
Kumbe she took it seriously!
On the phone, MIL sounded pleasant and easy to love. And, overflowing with that congenial tinge common with African mothers.
She called me Mkhwasi on our second call. That's a pet name for a beloved in-law in Luhya'nese. A decade later, she still calls me Mkhwasi.
If like me, you frequent social places - it's likely that you have heard this phrase hurled around by a thirsty patron angling for a drink from a kinsman.
Anyways, an hour later - and, several hundred agitated calls - I arrive at Bus Station. I found her, easily.
Unbelievably, MIL had a small crowd around her. Apparently, she was dressing down an idler who had tried to steal a parcel during the offloading. If the torrent of words that flew did not have the crook re-examining his life's choices, nothing will. Not even jail.
And, man - what a heap she had! Bananas, several sacks filled with potatoes, fruits, Kale, beans......and two live chickens! No way we could manage that on a Matatu - I hailed an expensive cab to Kahawa.
MIL's first visit to us was a disaster. At least, on my end. I would say that she and her daughter had the best five days of their lives.
But, it's not due to a flaw in the person that she is - a grounded, pleasant guest. It's a disaster in the slippery reality of city hosting, now doubled by the In-law Factor.
See, we are inherently slaves of our culture.
I come from a Mt.Kenya tribe that holds dear a proverbial tribal stone tablet painstakingly etched with a set of guidelines on in-laws. Any needless association or communication - business or otherwise, is frowned upon.
The tablet does not explain why not. But worry not. As soon as you get your own in-laws, it dawns.
For instance, it is an abomination to spend a night under the same roof with your in-laws. That taboo makes sense in the village - you can always take a path to your cousin Jimmy's Simba for the night. In the city, we are hardly spoilt for space.
I tried to lawyer around that archaic rule. Like, it did not apply as technically, we didn't have a roof on our 2nd-floor flat. We had a slab. It backfired.
I ended up in a cheap motel room down the road. I had to endure five long nights on a narrow, spring bed with cheap, stained sheets and not the impossibility of a few bedbugs.
It's not the long nights, though, that did me in. It's what transpired from that visit.
Second day of the visit, Mama Nekesa unleashed a couple of petitions. It was an official visit deceptively cloaked in familiar congeniality. Think of a government envoy to a friendly nation - to land a few favors.
For the sake of diplomacy, quite impossible to resist. If they indeed, refuse - it's upon them to suggest an equal alternative.
For me, Nekesa's younger sister was set to join university. Could she not stay with us? She wondered. The phrasing itself robbed me the dignity of treating it as a request.
Of course, my government could always say no - but, what's the equal alternative? Pay for her accommodation elsewhere? I could hardly afford that.
As the issue marinated, MIL got to work on the balcony - with a charcoal Jiko. She whipped up what is easily the best meal I've ever had.
A classic Luhya meal - the authentic Ugali-Githeri dish - served hot with a fried chicken stew. If they eat in heaven, this is it.
Basking in the ecstasy of that meal, I accepted her request. Yes, she could stay with us. Except, I had no idea sister-in-law was gunning for a six-year architectural degree.
She arrived the following week. Remember, school was seven months down the line.
On the weekend, Nekesa showed her mum around town. No prizes for guessing who bankrolled the sightseeing trip - Uhuru Park, the Nyayo Monument, the Archives, Garden City for chicken wings......
I cannot prove it yet, but I'm certain my girlfriend caught the Let's-Do-a-Wedding-Bug on this day.
Well, my deep financial hole got deeper on the Sunday evening.
Someone had called MIL with the news of rains breaking upcountry. She immediately muted, like a light bulb - a long face. After a long coaxing session, Nekesa managed to crack the code.
She did not have enough planting seeds and fertilizer. Ah, Mkhwasi - yours truly - had to swoop in.
My government had to chip in for seeds, and fertilizer. I had to call my employer for advance pay.
MIL was supposed to travel back home on Monday morning. I couldn't wait - I was sick of the thin sheets at the motel. It was expensive and tedious. I was behind on my content deadlines.
She, however, seemed hesitant to leave.
Reason? She mentions that her roof was leaking. If only she could replace it...or, have it replaced.
Ah, Mkhwasi.... No, not right now.
I pledged to help with the roof, but took care to not mark a near date. I needed a few months to plan for this, I explained.
Good enough, she said. And, would follow it up on her daily call with her daughter.
For peace in my government, I had to pay for a complete roof overhaul for my MIL's house later in the year. Expensive to the core, but, hey - I had plans to ask for their daughter's hand in marriage.
I made this bed, had to sleep on it - or, did I not?
How do I balance my own financial goals and still keep my in-laws happy? I'll do best to ignore the ambiguous premise that bride price is 'never fully paid for'.