Welcome to Male

Image of woman in Male, Kenya, Africa.

Photo Copyright © 2017 by Horace I. Goddard.

IN THE NORTH OF KENYA is Male. It is near the equator in the Rift Valley. The land is flat and stretches for miles, with a river running through it from Mount Kenya. One tributary meanders through Male and supplies the villagers with water. The tributary that passes near George Ombogo’s compound is called the Maro Maru. The land is covered with cacti and acacia shrubs no more than two feet tall. Mud paths are the only roads in and out of the village.  Most families have cows, sheep, goats and some chickens. Gladys crosses the river every day to work with her aunt, George’s wife. Some days I go down to the river’s edge and sit for hours.  I think of the Mau Mau and their liberation struggle against the British for Kenyan independence. Some of their hiding places were north of the district, but I don’t want to go into the caves. The history is too painful.

George’s compound is situated near the river on ten acres of land. He says it was his dream to have his home near a river. Rain falls a few times every two to three years. Water is essential for the crops, for feeding the animals and for domestic use.  George’s children are all grown and moved to Nairobi, six hundred miles away. More opportunities are in the city: economic, social, political and financial. George lives on the land with his wife and her niece, who has lost her husband. George works providing safari tours for tourists in Masai Mara. His wife and Gladys stay at home in the village. They farm the land, and plant potatoes and corn. 

I often think of Gladys Wangara. She is tall and slightly stooped. I have never seen her resting. When I wake up in the morning, she is in the compound. No one sees her come in and no one sees her leave late into the evening. Her going and coming is as mysterious as the river that flows through the village. Her tasks are ordered. She sweeps the compound with a broom made from coconut leaves. Bending her back and swooshing the broom until the yard is spotless. Next she clears the dung from the cow pens, places it in a rusted wheelbarrow, and deposits it onto a heap at the back of the guest house in an empty field bordered by cornfields, from which corn is plucked daily to cook or dry to make ugali.  But she is always singing.  Christian revival-type hymns I remember from my boyhood days in Barbados. 

After cleaning the compound, she brings out the laundry and bends over three buckets of clothing, washing them by hand. She rubs and soaps, lathering the clothes to form copious suds. A three-cycle rinse by hand follows until the water is clear. Gladys then straightens her back like the grevarium tree, shakes the excess water from the clothes and hangs them on the wire lines in the yard, holding them in place with clothes pegs. She then feeds the animals. This chore is very tedious. She fetches grass and corn stalk from a storage shed. She chops these and feeds the cows and goats. A breed of tailless sheep is let out from their cellar enclosure under the store house. They walk the perimeter of the compound eating grass stubble. When the gates are opened, Gladys chases them out of the compound and back to the perimeter. In the evening, the sheep hurry home and settle, protected beneath the cellar.  And she is still singing.

One day we shop and come back with the week’s supply of groceries.  I am anxious to unload the van.  I attempt to take a few bags into the apartment.

“What are you doing?” George asks.

“I’m taking out the groceries,” I reply.

“No! No! Not around here,” he says.

George informs me that men do not do domestic work. It would make them look bad. Other men would laugh at him or me.  I had experienced the same derision in Kampala, Uganda, when I prepared a meal. Yet when I finished cooking the men assembled to eat some of the food. George explains to me that cooking, working in the fields, cleaning and looking after the children are done by women. 

My observation from Kampala is right.  The African Black males are like other Black men in the Caribbean and in Canada, the US and England. This superior attitude is in the social and cultural DNA of the Black race.  I am upset, but keep my mouth shut. I have been warned many times by my wife not to criticize the culture of any group when I visit a foreign country. I am staying on the compound as George's guest. Gladys empties the van.  She puts my groceries in my apartment and George’s in his house, humbly “marching as to war.”


Gladys takes the same route every day to George’s.  She walks through an alley between two cornfields. The sun has already set. Darkness engulfs the savannah, quickly. She walks with a spring in her step.  She crosses a makeshift bridge, a fallen tree that spans the river. I examine the tree.  Its circumference is about sixty inches. Still, I do not have the heart to attempt the crossing.  This bridge is the gateway to the rest of the community. People walk the bridge, through the alley, and pass behind the gated and barbed-wired compound, unlocking the massive red-painted, iron gate, and crisscrossing the savannah to their destination.

The savannah is a dangerous place to walk unless you know the beaten tracks. It is dotted with stunted acacias, aloe plants and cacti—all with needle-like spines. The thought of walking around it produces a fear in me. It reminds me of the creatures in the ghost stories that the old people in my village tell the young in Barbados. The mugumo tree is at the edge of the river. It is a sacred tree. Its girth is about twenty feet; its height, approximately one hundred feet. There is a hollow in the tree where the villagers once offered prayers to their gods, before the Christian movement. The villagers are now Presbyterian, Methodists, Anglicans or Seventh-Day Adventists. They cut the acacias for firewood, but no one dares touch the massive sacred tree. It buttresses whatever faith the villagers practice. In times of pain, suffering drought and other hardships, if they thought their Christian God failed to supply their needs and wants, or protect them from nature’s ferocity, they could easily revert to the faith of their ancestors. Then all would be well again.

This form of apostasy troubles the local Adventist pastor, whose church I worship at while in Male. He says that the church has the truth, but I am lukewarm to this. He says there is no harmony. No respect for the pastor or the elders. The church members do not fear sin. This lack of love and harmony prevents the work of saving the souls of non-believers. The gospel ministry is being neglected. He implores the members to begin their personal revival by loving other members in the church. Once this is achieved, then the work of evangelism can begin.  He warns the congregation that Satan knows that love is personal power, and that revival and reformation begin with one person. He cautions them to worship Jehovah, God of Israel. The sermon is a repeat of what I hear again and again in Montreal, where I live. It is as if there is an echo in the sermons of the two churches, though separated by five thousand miles. The mugumo tree stands there undaunted.

Gladys is polite. She says good morning each time she sees me outside the apartment. A smile is always on her face. In the late afternoon, she comes to mop the apartment. Again she crouches over a bucket of water containing cleaning liquid. She uses an old rag. She soaks the rag in the bucket and moves dexterously across the tiled floors. I remember doing the same thing on our wooden floor as a boy in Barbados. The tradition is intact after more than two hundred years of transatlantic crossing.

I try to engage Gladys in conversation. She is shy.

“How long have you worked here?” I ask. 

“Ten years,” she replies.

“Do you have any children?”  

“I have two girls and one boy. One daughter is married and one is at home.” 

“What about the boy?”

“He is at Male Secondary School in form three,” she answers.

I am presumptuous and try to find out why she works so hard.

“I have no one to help me. I must work hard to feed the children at home.”

I understand for the first time why Gladys sings hymns when she is working.  Singing the hymns makes her work lighter. It brings joy to her burdened soul.  Yet she doesn’t seem to me religious in anything she does or says.

I try to figure her age. Older Black women never divulge their age. My grandmother always said I would know hers when she was dead.  I did. Gladys looks like sixty. She might be in her fifties but younger than my wife. Hard work may make her look older.


I go to church on Saturday, to a nearby Adventist church. It is a shack with rotten wood. When it rains, the mud floor gets wet.  Yet the villagers serve God fervently. The church is surrounded by parched grass, which traps the loose paper that swirls across the savannah. George drives me to the church. The pastor greets me. He was told that I would be coming. I participate in the service, which is conducted partly in Kikuyu and partly in English. The singing is delightful. African singers have melodious voices, and the call and response in the singing add to the harmony. 

The Sunday, George’s wife rises early. When I get up, I ask for her. He says that she goes a far distance to the Methodist church in the district. They are Presbyterians. Their son is a Presbyterian minister. It is as if exercising her faith is somehow not bound to her son or family tradition.

“It’s cold up here on the savannah, with wind-curdling the blood," I say to George.

“You are from Canada,” he replies.

.“The cold is different, there,” I say, and, in any case, that’s by way of Barbados first, but that part I don’t tell him.  The cold in Male penetrates the body like a hypodermic syringe injecting ice into veins that refuse to open. When it enters the body, it creeps through you slowly, slowly—pole pole, as the Kikuyu would express it—as the chill-dispensing needle sinks deeper and deeper into your flesh. You could feel the chill through to the bones, with nothing to warm you and lighten your heart.  No fire, no faith or song. 


It is 2:20 in the afternoon, that pre-departure Sunday. The cold is gone. The sun is intense. The wind wafts the smell of animal urine in my direction as I sit on a lawn chair under a brush tree admiring Mount Kenya's last glaciers. At that very moment, Gladys enters the compound. Sixteen sheep follow her after she has had them drink water near the pump outside the compound, on the south side. 

George is in the house.  Gladys heads to the kitchen. She cooks potatoes, beans with tomatoes, and makes chipati. She takes George’s supper to him and brings a chipati over to me. 

“I am leaving tomorrow,” I remind her. She doesn’t say anything.  She seems sad.  She is used to me being around and reminds me of how long it has been since seeing my wife.  A smile appears when I give her five hundred shillings.  I tell her the remaining groceries in my apartment are for her, I’ve left some shirts for her son and shoes. Her smile becomes broader.

“Thank you! Thank you!” she says.

Mount Kenya glistens.  It is a brighter day.  

Horace I. Goddard is the author of ten books: five collections of poetry, two novels, two children’s books, and a collection of interviews, including the 1986 Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. He has also published many critical articles on Commonwealth writers in books and magazines. He is the editor of the Montreal-based literary journal Kola.