So long Grandma

Martin Akolo Chiteri bio photo By Martin Akolo Chiteri

One of the more notable events that took place in my life last year was the passing on of my paternal grandmother, kukhu (granny) Risper Nangabo Akolo. This happened on the 14th of September, 2014. She was fairly aged, 86 years old by then.

The cause of death had been health problems related to hypertension combined with diabetes. Her first serious hypertensive attack had happened in 1973 when she was 46. They strongly surfaced again around the year 2010 when she was 82 years old, only this time she also had diabetes. Kukhu Risper had been placed on medical care a couple of years prior to that. She had gone into a comatose weeks before her demise. It was a painful loss nonetheless. Our hope had been that she would get a few more years added to her life, maybe three to five on top of those she had already lived.

Photo of my grandmother and mother (seated), my father and I (standing) in 1987 at Ramogi Studio, Nairobi
Photo of my grandmother (left) and mother (seated), my father and I (standing) in 1987 at Ramogi Studio, Nairobi - KENYA

Grandma had been very dear to my heart, with her being the last of my living grandparents (1). She was also the only one I had ever really known in person. Had briefly encountered my maternal grandmother, Scholastica “Pefuli”(2) Nyangweso Amwayi, too but she died in the year 1987 when I was barely five years of age.

Kukhu Risper had actually attended my bachelor’s degree graduation ceremony on the 14th of September, 2007 at Strathmore University. That was exactly seven years before her death. She travelled to Nairobi with her first son, Richard Eyinda Akolo, more popularly known as uncle Obadiah. After the event we went to customarily have lunch together with my other uncle Barnabas Amwayi and auntie Mically Omusamia in Upper Hill Springs.

It was at this place that I discovered her astonishing powers of memory. Kukhu Risper could remember every significant event that had happened between my dad (her son) and my mum (her daughter in-law) with clarity that, to be quite frank was a little scary. … The day my grandpa passed away …, The day my father took mum, then his fiancé, to visit her at home for the first time …, the first time I was taken to visit her at my ancestral village from Mombasa town as an infant …, the day my dad fell sick …, the day he passed on …, why he passed on (all from her personal observations and all in agreement with the autopsy report)… She knew it all and could tell each of them accurately in the order of occurrence by year, month, week and day of week. Each and every one of them. She even used to bring herself to our home in Eldoret town for a visit all by herself in old age when still in good physical health well after my father had died. I found that to be truly amazing!

At the end of it, I really felt humbled. There I was feeling highly educated and more “civilised” (just more modernized), “Ready to face the world” as is commonly said. Yet kukhu Risper who had never stepped into any formal classroom could put what the education system in my country so strongly promoted – a total recollection of facts and reciting them verbatim – to deep shame via Oral literature. I also came to the realization that this was a factor that had made grandma such a good story teller. She most probably passed that trait to me as a kid when my parents and I regularly visited her. During our stay, she would keep telling me fables at night in her kitchen after all her other grandchildren had been put to sleep. This occurred while I sat holding a mug of fresh warm milk and listened to her intently.

You might wonder why all the seemingly favouritism that had been accorded to me. Well, I had been named “Akolo” after my grandfather Samuel Akoolo Openda which intuitively made me her first choice. Traditionally, I was her “husband” of sorts, or rather a reincarnation of my grandpa :)



(1) I also had the good fortune to meet and know my maternal great grandmother. She was the mother to my maternal grandfather, Mr. Peter-Charles Amwayi Omukhunya. Her name was Florence “Flora” Obuchere Omukhunya but I used to call her “kukhu wa kukhu” meaning a “grandmother to my grandmother”. The main reason for this was that she quite naturally appeared to be older than my maternal grandmother. The name caught on very quickly even among her own grandchildren (my mum, aunties and uncles). She passed on in July 1995 due to a possible heart failure aged 84.

(2) The name “Pefuli” was given to my maternal grandmother by her elderly lady friends who could not pronounce her baptismal name, Bavin, properly. She belonged to the “Church of God”, a protestant Christian denomination, before converting to Catholicism when she got married to her husband, a member of the Roman Catholic church in Kenya. She acquired the name Scholastica after her wedding and second baptism.