I know it is sometimes mere courtesy to tell a woman they do not look their age. But in reference to Margaret Kamya, it is nothing but the truth. The woman who comes out to meet us walking briskly across the compound does not look a day over 60. She has heard it before and valiantly defends her age. “I got married in 1953 and I was 20 then,” she shares.
We then sit down to hear her story, and it is quite a story.
Today it may not be unusual to see people marry across tribes and even national borders. The intercontinental marriage is all the rage. In the 1950s, however, it was a different story, in some places the cross-cultural cross-border marriage was virtually unheard off. This did not deter Margaret Wairimu Kamya from following her Prince from her home in Kenya to Uganda, where she set up a home and eventually became a Muganda. As she celebrated her 80th birthday she also shared her story, an 80-year-journey.
Settling into a new culture
At the start of this journey, she was a Kikuyu, that was all she knew until the age of 20. Today, she is a Muganda who proudly declares she is of the Nsenene clan.
Settling into a different culture having been born and raised Kikuyu albeit by very Christian parents was not a walk in the park. The journey was replete with mistakes and learning experiences. One incident sends her into fits of laughter.
“We were at my in-law’s place. I did not know women according to traditional Ganda culture, which was still very strong in the 60s, did not eat chicken. My husband, who, so far, had been telling me the social faux pas I was likely to fall in did not mention it either. In retrospect I now know it was intentional. He was given chicken to share out, and after giving each of the men around the table he passed me a large piece, which I graciously accepted. The stir it caused! No one could believe I was sitting there comfortably eating the chicken with the men. Children who were outside crowded at the door to watch me eat,” she narrates.
Her story begins in Bondeni in Nakuru, Kenya, where she was baptised and where she lived with her parents and siblings. “I am the eldest of 16 siblings,” she says.
Many girls did not make it to school those days but Kamya did because her father was a teacher and a Christian. But not beyond Primary Five.
“My father asked me to understand because he had many children to look after, so I dropped out and started working at the nearby clinic,” she says. That was short-lived as she got an opportunity to go study midwifery in Mombasa. She did not finish the three-year course and was back in Nakuru after one and a half years. “I think I was not passing my classes,” she says.
Luckily, that was a different time, when even those who did not complete training could still practise as what was called a local midwife. So at 19, Margaret was a local nurse living at home with her parents and helping with the raising of her siblings.
It was around this time that she met George Kamya who had come to Nakuru to work as an accountant. “He used to come to church and we would exchange casual greetings,” Kamya, who states she was not thinking about marriage at all, let alone to this young man from Uganda, says.
He, on the other hand, was smitten by the tall beautiful girl and went through a mutual friend, another Ugandan woman called Harriet Kawalya Kaggwa, to reach the object of his affection.
Margaret grew to like him and when he made his intention to marry her clear, she was only too pleased to tell her parents. But there was the matter of his “non-Kikuyuness” so to speak.
It did not go unnoticed by her wider family and other people who heard of the budding relationship. She explains how this was a big thing in the speech that was read on her 80th birthday celebrations on December 21, last year.
“It was a big thing for my people, most of who wouldn’t hear of it. Someone ‘discovered’ that my husband-to-be was a Muganda from Uganda and that they eat people and mice. There were so many stories of the weird things the Baganda do, among them that every first born of every woman is eaten in a tribal ritual...” the speech read in part.
If Margaret’s mother and grandmother had any reservations at the time, they did not voice them. “They had seen him at church and they liked him,” she says. Her father was a little harder to win over. He was worried that George was already married or was not a baptised and confirmed Christian like he professed to be. “He took some time to accept him because he wanted to confirm his Christianity so he wrote to the priest in George’s parish in Mbarara to ask if they knew him,” shares Margaret. The response was that he was indeed known by the priest as a confirmed unmarried Christian and her father gave his blessing.
Her mother-in-law to be also came to see the girl her son wanted to marry. “We were a large family and many of us were girls so we filed past, greeting them until I came and George pointed at me,” says Margaret detailing the beginning of a fast friendship that lasted till the death of her mother-in-law but also of the path towards a marriage.
Starting a family
The two got married in Nakuru in the very church Margaret had been baptised and where they had met. She had done what many before her had not done, married a Muganda.
The adjustment to her new culture was postponed for a decade during which the couple stayed in Kenya.