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Grandmother stories: connecting with our Wisdom, Heritage & Identity

By Teddy Warria

 The writer with Dr. Mary Okelo, South African High Commissioner, KA. Mqulwana, H.E. Ms.

I grew up, partly, in Kamnua Village in Kisumu, Lake Victoria region of Western Kenya, East African Community (EAC). I fondly call it KIS(S)UMU – The Lake City of 1000 sun kisses!  

I had the privilege of hearing heroic folktales from my late and beloved grandmother, Mama Rosalina “Nina” Ajwang’ Warria Nyamawego. These stories had been passed on to her orally for generations in a Siwindhe – a place for dialogue and storytelling for young girls under the feet of their grandmothers. They were full of life lessons, local heroic deeds, sometimes exaggerated for effect, suspense, and humour.These stories were often told to my siblings and I after sunset around a 3-stone fireplace, in a dimly-lit room, with soup boiling on the earthen pot, Agulu, in her grass-thatched rondavel kitchen that was outside her main house as the first wife, Mikayi.

As my grandmother animatedly regaled us with these tales, our imagination was fired up and connected with the distant past happenings, notably the Samson-like story of the revered Luo Warrior, Lwanda Magere of the Sidho Clan in Kano, Kisumu City County – The Lake City in the Sun, where the Equator passes. The stories of our grandmothers as the seat of wisdom, an African leadership institution, has been dismantled in the 21st century. Reconnecting with and reigniting this connection with our heritage and identity must be supported and institutionalized as we seek to be contributors and representatives of the new Africa by writing our own stories as we regain our seat in a Covid-19 world.

These past holiday season, in my family we helped our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, and spouses to record their own stories using mobile phones – a simple tech solution to preserve the rich wisdom and valuable life lessons that we must not forget and lose as African leaders. Together with my collaborator in this initiative, Rosemary Okello-Orlale, we are deploying this practical platform – the Grandmother Stories Exchange – Mbaka gi Dana. This year, 2021, it has been inspired by the life story of Dr. Elizabeth Mary Okelo, who is both a mother and grandmother. Alongside Susan Wakhungu-Githuku, I have documented stories, such as those of Mama Sarah Ogwel Obama, in a volume called ‘Wisdom of the Elders: Personal reflections of over 70 Kenyans who have lived through changing times’ (Footprints Press Limited, 2014). This is the work of sharing and amplifying Sauti Kuu – strong voices.

Amplifying my voice through the stories told to me by my grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and sisters, I recently wrote them in my new book, ‘Son of the Nile’ to share them widely, at least my geneology and family history with the hope of inspiring other Africans to do the same for themselves and their children’s children. Given that Africa is mainly an oral tradition, as far as stories are passed on, mostly retold from memory, I offered my story to Maureen Mbugua, Co-Director, Africa Podfest, which she will host the recordings of ‘Son of the Nile’ in a conversation with me. Her new podcast on imagining the future of Africa is called Pros & Possibilities.  She is also a Co-Director of 

 Africa Podfest, which is building a truly inclusive media, and they exist to inspire and elevate the African podcaster through fostering community, knowledge and access to resources throughout the year. My eldest sister, Judith Warria-Rao, is a teacher and journalist by training and a highly skilled hand-craft artist. She learned this craft first-hand from our grandmother “Nina” and Mama Leah Awino Warria Nyanjoga. These are the ways of the Luo people of Eastern Africa that are being handed down and honored across generations.

My sister has in turn named her daughter Nina Amani Odhiambo, after my paternal grandmother, and taught her to make colored dolls that come packaged with a story. She now shares these crafts, and their accompanying stories, with the world through Nina Amani Creations; a way to keep our heritage and identity alive, and the wisdom of our grandmothers documented for future generations.

Teddy Warria (Kenya) is the author of ‘Son of the Nile’, an African entrepreneur and investor in people. He co-owns Africa’s Talking Ltd and Focus Mobile Ltd (Operators of and supports women-led ventures to achieve access, collaboration and scale. He is a Champion for Africa 2.0, a pan-African civil society organisation working towards an inspiring and prosperous Africa, and an Africa Leadership Initiative (ALI) – East Africa Fellow within the Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN), The Aspen Institute.

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