• Caleb Atemi

The Snake Chase

You will tread upon the lion and the cobra. The young lion and the serpent you will trample uponPsalm 91:13

My mother was a tiny woman of short stature. She stood barely 5 feet tall. I always used to wonder where she met the 6 foot 4 giant of a man that was my father. Her looks and size however were deceiving. Ruth Nyangasi Okalo was a strong and brave person. A great fighter. My maternal grandmother, Tabitha Nyangasi told us numerous tales of Mama’s heroic fights.

She was known all over Waluka for her legendary fights with boys twice or thrice her size. She would floor all the village bullies. Sometimes while deep in my Karate and Aikido meditation, I visualize Mama as a modern day Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) champion. I only saw her fight once. It was a bloody encounter that she lived the rest of her old age seeking God’s forgiveness. Mama thoroughly beat up a woman twice her size for stealing her husband.

It was a hot afternoon. Moments after a powerful whirlwind ripped off rooftops of some houses in the estate, Mama caught up with the woman at the border of Kivumbini and Kaloleni estates. Residents watched in horror as she chased, caught up, punched and threw down the woman then went ahead to tear her apart. First, she tore her clothes to shreds, then systematically disfigured her face. I stood there watching the spectacle. Mama was later admonished by the Church of God leadership and asked to apologise to the woman. She apologised.

Having suffered through my studies, enduring hardships and doing manual jobs to raise money for my school fees and upkeep while my father paid fees for another man’s children, I almost felt nothing as I watched the women, being walloped. However, with time, wisdom and maturity, I realised that there were better ways Mama might have sought to resolve the conflict without resorting to violence. I felt sorry for both Mama and her victim.

Apart from her physical combat prowess, Mama was famous for her expertise in killing snakes. Wherever a dangerous reptile was spotted in our village situated in the original Kakamega district, shouts of “Mama Ruchi, Mama Ruchi would rent the air.” The tiny warrior would emerge with a stick or a jembe (hoe) and proceed to make easy the task of subduing the snake.

I would burst into laughter, each time I watched huge men take off screaming at the sight of snakes only for my mother to appear at the scene and catch it.

I wonder whether Mama’s encounter with snakes informed my youth. On many dark nights while in the village, I would sneak out of the house to join other boys in honey harvesting in the forest. While Mama was on her knees praying, I would slide through the window into the pitch darkness. Other boys would be waiting at some distance at the appointed time. We each had our turn to steal from the fireside dry grass and embers for the smoke we needed to venture into the beehives.

Once in the forest we would proceed to the hives we had identified during the day while hunting for birds and mushrooms. It only struck me in 2007 while on a tour of the Kitale Museum that it is mainly the black forest cobra that we encountered during those nights. Each time we harvested honey, there would be countless snakes, many of them black with a white collar, feasting on dead hives. We never troubled them and they never bothered us. Our small hands would be too busy harvesting the sweet combs to care about the slithery intruders. We were both thieves in the night.

I tried to understand where Mama got her courage from. Most women and girls I knew were terrified even by the tinniest of crawling insects, grasshoppers and chameleons leave alone snakes. Towards the sunset of her sojourn on earth, Mama told me a story about her frightening encounter with what could have been a black Mamba while I was in her womb.

One sunny morning, Mama was walking home from the nearby Mahanga market where she had gone to buy some household goods. She took the usual forested foot path that would bring her across the Wandacho River. In those days, my village and its surroundings was covered by a thick forest that was home to wildlife, especially Ingwe (Leopard) and snakes. Wandacho River would be transformed into a mighty and deadly monster in rainy seasons. Only a small, rickety wooden bridge separated our village from the valley across. As children, we would crawl along this slippery bridge with our eyes closed, too petrified to look down at the rushing water below.

After crossing the wooden bridge, Mama heard some hissing sound. She turned around and Lo and behold, a huge snake which stood taller than her stared her in the face. She stood stock still. Motionless and terrified by the cold blooded creature. Suddenly it started to move towards her at high speed.

Heavy with child, Mama Ruchi as she was known in the village, took off. The reptile followed, hissing and sizzling through the grass. Gasping and panting, Mama sped across the valley and up the steep hill: “My only thoughts were about the child I was carrying. I could not imagine any harm coming upon him or her. I prayed to God to spare me. As I started up the hill, I lost sight of the snake. On reaching home I collapsed. I never used that path again for years.” Mama was to tell me many years later. The petrifying encounter convinced her that she would not deliver the child in the village. The following day she travelled to Nakuru town.

Mama later conceived a sickly weakling of a boy she never believed would survive beyond his fifth birthday. She faced each day with fear and apprehension. She spent all her nights in what the Banyore call Mumaika, (at the fireside) a state of sleeplessness.

I grew up sickly. For years I wavered between life and death. Since I was not born in a health facility, she lacked the benefit of knowing my birth weight. I was however as light as paper. Many a time Mama would rush out of the house screaming or wailing. Fear would grip her each time I went out of breath. Sweating, vomiting, eyes bulging, I would frequently go into convulsions. Villagers came up with many theories. I had been bewitched. An evil eye had fallen upon me. The spirits of our ancestors were unhappy. Her dead children were calling me and required appeasement. Some evil or sin had engulfed the family.

They recommended visits to diviners, soothsayers, and even witchdoctors. Mama was confused. She dreaded the repeat of what had become part of her life, loss of children. A tiny fearsome voice always reminded her that she was an only child in her family. Her mother had lost eight children before they could attain the age of five. My grandmother, Tabitha, had to give Mama away at a tender age to stay with her relatives in the hope that the evil one would spare her while visiting the homestead. By the grace of God, Mama grew into adulthood.

Fate joined her with my father, Mzee Phillip Oyieli Okalo, who too had grown up as an only child. All his siblings had died in childhood. My father was born in Lela, in Luo Nyanza but settled in Emuhaya in the modern day Vihiga County. With their combined history of ill luck, Mama had every reason to fear for the worst. She was tempted severally to follow the advice of her village mates. It later emerged that I had suffered from very common ailments among the poor of those days; kwashiorkor, marasmus, chicken pox, malaria and diarrhoea.

While still caught up in the powerful vice of superstition and ignorance, a Pentecostal Church elder who the villagers claimed had prophetic powers visited our home. Mzee Manoah said his lengthy prayers. He then assured Mama that the Holy Spirit had sent him a crystal clear message that her son, named Caleb after one of Biblical Moses’s faithful spies, would survive into adulthood: “Your son will be a great man. He will not die until he has accomplished God’s mission on earth. He will study to the ends of education and he will be among the first villagers to own and drive a car.” Came the words of the prophet who I was to meet later in adulthood after I had bought my first car. He was old and frail and could barely remember his prophecy.

The encouragement of faith however is all that Mama needed. She remained a steadfast follower of Jesus Christ. She was greatly relieved since after the prayers by Mzee Manoah, I grew into a playful boy. Sicknesses left me alone. She however preferred that I spend most of my days in Kivumbini where I was born. Just in case, she argued, I should steer clear of the evil eye that always followed people’s children in the village.

Mama was a great leader. Her faith in God, her resilience, determination, courage and compassion, gave her the Budo spirit that enabled her raise the numerous hungry mouths she had brought into this world. In her I learnt the great values of hard work, respect and honesty. I miss you Mama.

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