“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”
When I was younger, my mother would send me to my grandmother, her aunt, during the holidays. She called her Mama Mdogo. My cousins and I called her Bibi. She was an early rising, Bible waving, church-going, cane brandishing task master. Behind her back, we called her ‘Bibi-bize, bize’ because she seemed to run on Energizer batteries.
As strict as they came, as many women from that generation tended to be, she never asked us to do anything she did not do herself. Her house was cleaned and swept several times a day, dishes were washed as they were used, and food was cooked every time company came by. Never mind that being a farmer, her day would start with a good measure of digging, pruning, planting and milking. She would wake us up before dawn, thundering, “You are still sleeping while people are already in the shamba digging?!” With that, we begun our daily chores in the dark, before the sun dared make its presence felt in the sky.
As a child, I hated those visits to Bibi’s home because they didn’t afford us any time to play. However, as I grew older, my relationship with Bibi changed. I begun to see the softer, more loving side of this tough, no-nonsense woman. Yet it wasn’t until I had children of my own and she was probably in her 80s that we begun to spend more time together.
Every year or so, I would take the long bus trip to the village to visit. This time, she would do all the cooking, making sure to include all my favourite dishes. She made a big fuss of those visits, inviting her neighbours to see her all grown up grand-daughter, adorning me with Kitenge cloth.
These visits were different. This time, she would allow me to sleep all I wanted. “You’ve come home to rest. Life is too busy in the city,” she would say. Those idyllic days were spent eating, drinking, socialising with neighbours and sitting under her pomegranate tree people watching.
After dinner, this keeper of our family history would tell us true stories about our heritage and where we came from. We would sit enthralled, gaining glimpses into why we were the way we were. We would wonder what subtle influences from our past and the collective family fabric had shaped us. The answers lay in the wisdom behind the soft whisper of her voice and the wrinkles on her face and hands that told of a long life, well lived.
With her recent passing, the final piece in the puzzle fell into place. I now understand why mama wanted me to sit at the feet of this woman. When we think about the value of one life, we tend to see it in monetary terms. Yet the reality is that the value of one’s life is so much more than their net worth. It is in the unquantifiable reach of one’s influence. It is in the children and grand-children whose life ethic is shaped by a woman who woke up at the crack of dawn and set to work.
My grandmother and I didn’t look much alike. Yet, when I proclaim it a sin for any of my children who are healthy to sleep beyond 10:00am, I hear her voice. When I stretch forth my hands to prepare a meal for friend and family, I see her love. When I sit at my desk, staying longer than I would like to, I remember her dedication. When I wear my kitenge dresses, I think of her. She helped me understand where I come from to help propel me to where I must go.
This weekend as we gather to pay our last respects, we will hopefully begin to understand, individually, just how important one life is. We will hopefully consider what we hope our legacies will be. In the end, it all boils down to this: Did I make a difference? Did I love someone? Did it matter that I lived? Did I occupy my space and time for good? Beyond the things we build, the accolades we earn or the things we own, the ability to positively influence your family, community and generation for good is the ultimate measure of value.