guest post: all of me is ancestor / beth mbũrũ-bowie
I’ve been in limbo, wonderfully unstuck and different. In December I walked towards my hospital bed on the ward I frequent infrequently, pulled the curtains, took off my shoes, climbed into bed, and gazed upon the Thames.
From the other side of the hospital curtain I hear the voice of my mother deliver a bright “Hodi!” quickly followed by her even brighter eyes. She drew back the curtains, I observed my dad in his colourful cravat whisper something to the nurse as my mum announced they had something to tell me and required privacy. Had the biopsies revealed something awful? I wasn’t prepared for their news “Cũcũ fainted, fell, and died. It was quick, unexpected …but she’d lived a full life.”
My sophisticated, revolutionary grandmother was my whole heart; clever, hardworking, visionary matriarch who put her six daughters through excellent schools in East Africa and beyond, between the fifties and seventies while she built her businesses – which was practically unheard of at the time. She was something colonial Europe would’ve tried to crush, in their minds she would’ve been too woman and too primitive for such a coup, but there she was, the soul of the brilliant one, exceeding expectations, illuminating paths, and knocking out “randy” British colonisers.
What do you do when you lose your heart? When she died my heart became ancestor.
I cried briefly and excused myself as I went to the hospital garden to process. Baba asked if I’d wanted company, but I’d wanted fresh air, music – something Hindi for my Devi. I held my breath until my favourite spot in the garden as only a singer could. I exhaled, then I cried. I didn’t wail – I found that peculiar, but I knew grief wasn’t linear. I thought of her, my Devi, the most powerful person I knew, the only person I’d ever wanted to make proud, took out my phone and sent text to my ex about Cũcũ [sho-show].
Rumi says “Death is our wedding with eternity”…”The sun sets, the moon sets, but they’re not gone. Death is a coming together.” Life never stops, Spring is not afraid of Winter.
The year started with a customary phone call from a number in the +254 and again on my birthday. Cũcũ – my grandmother’s voice – was on the other end. She wasted no time, “Have you left [redacted], is it true?” She asked me again in Kiswahili “Have you left that boy?” but I was tongue-tied in three languages. I’m certain a part of my psyche is still frozen in that moment scrambling for language misplaced. How does one discuss ego-death and emotional security in Kiswahili? I finished dressing for my birthday plans with [redacted] for the seventh year in a row. Her words hanging over me like a garland.
She kept three traditions; ownership of land, naming systems, and agriculture. Each of these find greater meaning in Gikũyũ mythos, which we remained ignorant of because Cũcũ was our culture.
I was named for her.
“The Gikũyũ view each other as literal representations of those they are named after, this connects the living to the dead.” – Summie Mwai. It also connects us to divinity.
I come from matrilineal matriarchy. That is indeed as sexy and mysterious as it sounds. Our story goes; we arrived from the North. By we I mean Gikũyũ, the man our founding mother chose for a mate. Upon descending from meeting with Ngai [God] atop Mount Kenya, he found her, Mũmbi [Mowmbee]. Her name means Creator. She, like Naomi, and the burning bush, knew to place herself on his path. Gikũyũ asked where she’d come from, she replied “Who me?! From those pots over there.” There was brightness in her voice and deep eyes, and surrounding them were sacred sycamore-fig trees. Time passed, they had “nine full” daughters who became the founding matriarchs of the nine original clans of the Agikũyũ, each of whom have their own mysteries. Thus begins the story of our matrilineal matriarchy and the genesis of the name Wanjirũ [OneGeeRow], the first daughter of Mũmbi and Gikũyũ.
As the firstborn daughter, my Elizabeth Wanjirũ inherited her name from her paternal grandmother, who inherited her name from her Wanjirũ, who inherited hers from her Wanjirũ – you can see where this is going – as we lean into history, people become deities, as we lean into the future our ancestors are realised in us.
We find ourselves. Although in flux, I exist in this moment in England, a daughter, sister, grand daughter and my grandmother’s clan sister. I imagine her mapping out my creation like the stars in the sky. An imagining my ancestors experienced when they were the most actualised manifestation of their ancestors’ dreams. I consider that trajectory, how cool we all are, how your ancestors must think of you, dear reader.
As her clan sister, Cũcũ is my sibling and the matriarch I honour most. As a child, my mother called me mami as I represent her mother, and all Wanjirũs before us; knit in our mother’s wombs, a line established by women for women. Should I find myself pregnant, my first daughter will be named after his mother, and my second will be named after mine. We shall not have any sons, instead we shall pass go and collect 200 as we add to this great tapestry.
“She shall be a tree of life to all who lay hold on her.” Proverbs 3:18, Gikũyũ means large sycomore tree, a sacred tree across East Africa and the Middle East. Ngai [God] makes their presence known through nature, Agikũyũ experience Ngai through all our senses.
The stages of grief are terrific, but were composed with and for the dying, not for the bereaved. Therefore I offer an outpouring of written libations in Cũcũ’s honour.
I grew up on her land in Eldoret in my formative years at the peak Cũcũ’s powers. She’d built several bungalows on her property which she’d rent at affordable prices. We entered her large house through her large kitchen where her cook, Baba Caro, would be at work. At the back of her house was a library overlooking the lush flower garden she and I we would admire and inspect in matching colours with our arms behind our backs sniffing the flora and letting them sniff us back – this was my land and they were some the best years of my life.
The first time I lost her was to political violence. I didn’t know I wouldn’t see her again. We grew oceans so far apart that we conjured autumn, and winter, and seasonal affective disorder. I lost my land, and her embrace transformed into a voice on the other side of a telephone. The family was targeted, she was stoned.
The second was when distance x time eroded my grandmother tongue until it atrophied crumbling in my mouth.
The third time was upon her wedding to eternity when space, time, and language dissolved. She knows what I couldn’t articulate about [redacted].
From the infamous Mau Mau years until the acclaimed Freedom Park days, Cũcũ protested diligently for the rights of Africans. We lost our land, but she gave me a country. Cũcũ to Kenyan newspapers: “They were brutal. We women had to shun fear and continue to fight so our grandchildren could inherit freedom”
When I find her, I find myself. She was my hero too, my Shero, and she called me Shero as that’s how ‘Cirũ’, the diminutive of ‘Wanjirũ’ is pronounced. We have come full circle of life. When writing this I heard her ask “Who do you think all this was for?!” then I found the quote above.
When someone died “the elders give orders that the fires in every hut in the homestead had to be tended carefully day and night, in no circumstances was any fire allowed to go out” – Johnson Nganga
I love this idea! We send them home with fire, I will light a candle, I’ll be a flame for my praying grandmother as she was for hers, and me. What stunning poetry!
Indigenous cultures aren’t meant to survive slavery or colonisation; they are a fascination of the primitive, a relic of prehistory, or the work of the devil – a great way to distract from stealing land and people.
She was the culture. An independent, self-sufficient law maker, lane maker, and rain maker. Our pantheon is ordered so daughter inherits from grandmother in an unbroken line. I inherit from the dauntlessness of the stalking lion, I should do well to exist in that fearless place unapologetically – I’m working on it.
The North Eastern Bantu speaking Gikũyũ pour libations before every drink. Communion with ancestors is constant. “Libations allow the dead to be nourished with life offerings” At The House of Eternity in Egypt’s Valley of Kings, Nwt, an ancient goddess of the sky, is painted as Lady of the Sycomore offering figs as nourishment to deceased royalty.
Nwt’s cult began in ancient Aswan where women are glorious with melanin as dark as my grandmother, Wanjirũ, the night.
Wanjirũ means clan of the Black, it refers to the night sky [Njirũ] during a crossing made from Meroë. There’s a photo of Elizabeth Wanjirũ [OneGeeRow] throwing up the Black power fist that I didn’t understand until recently. Cũcũ is a literal & literary cult hero, the living poetry Great Uncle Rumi encourages us to be – flawlessly reenacting the ritual initiated by the Njirũ millennia before when night came walking through the Rift Valley swishing her black dress.
“I feel the nights… reach the darkness where all of me is ancestor, when I brush my own mind across another I am with my mother’s mother.” Annie Finch, Samhain. My mother’s mother and I are always one.
In The Abduction of Wanjirũ, she is given to the underworld. The ancestors ask for her when living prayed for rain. Now in the wake of my Wanjirũ‘s death, I receive the ancestors given to me in perennially rainy England and perfect poetry.
My ascent to the global north was a descent of sorts, displaced by violence and stripped of my identity which until then had been meticulously cultivated by my outstanding grandmother, I find myself a British East African in the African diaspora with an abundance of cousins, traditions and cultures. Hey family!
When I think of her I feel my heart pulled in a mystical direction, if she wasn’t my whole heart she was definitely most of it. She lies in the earth, this throne and body of Geb [Nwt’s husband], nourishing the sycomores and flower industry that sends 1 in 3 flowers to me in Europe.
“God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, ‘Ah!” – Joseph Campbell
My sense of belonging may have been skewed by our separation, but of her I was confident that she actually liked me, she got me, she wasn’t threatened by my potential or inquisitive nature, I got it from her anyway. “That’s my best friend” – Young Thug
Cũcũ is the only person I’ve ever put on a pedestal. People have tried to come close and have found themselves in the underworld and unable. The love I have for her runs deeper than lake Tanganyika, the love she had for me made me.
“Before the Busia plane crash she’d bought land in Kenya’s capital on which to build another family home.” – Wambũi Mbũrũ
I experienced something transcendent on my only visit back to Kenya with [redacted], I played her my songs ‘English Girls Love Jade’, in which I’d incorporated one of the songs she sang to me as a child “Our Wanjirũ, I’ve told you not to go.” I wish I could describe the series of emotions on her face as she recognised her work in my work. Our conversation was wordless, she was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. That’s my lady, my daughter of the Nile.
beth mbũrũ-bowie is an artist, arts administrator & muse. Formerly; Bloomberg Philanthropy, Serious Creative Producer, Roundhouse Youth Advisory Board Chair, and Roundhouse Trustee. Artists and companies include Metronomy, Friendly Fires, Suggs, Hugh Masekela, The Heavy, Hercules & Love Affair, The Pipettes, English National Opera, Royal Opera House