Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Letter from Butiama: One big family

In early 2000 I was given the task of introducing a visitor to Butiama to several people who had turned up to receive him. In anticipation of the guest's arrival, with pen and paper in hand, I asked the first person next to me his name and he mentioned his name and surname. Strangely, he had the same surname as mine and I found out later that he was one of my uncles.

I was extremely embarrassed, yet I feel I have a perfect excuse. My late grandfather, Chief Nyerere Burito, had 22 wives and four concubines. With a nearly possible 6,000 kin, surely not recognizing one once in a while cannot be that bad?
The graves of Chief Nyerere Burito (d.1942) left, and that of his fifth wife on the right, Christina Mgaya wa Nyang'ombe, my paternal grandmother, who died in 1997 and was estimated to have been 105 years old. In the foreground, a building built in the early seventies to mark the spot where Chief Nyerere's house stood.
In practice, the generation before mine had many children, but if I take an average of only six children per couple to arrive at the number of possible descendants of the Chief, beginning with my twenty-two "grandmothers", I get a possible 132 "uncles" and "aunts"; 792 "cousins", and 4,752 "nieces" and "nephews", giving me a total of 5,676. And this is just from my father's lineage.

Even when allowances are made for the deceased, it still leaves an impossibly large number of names and faces to memorize, and yet recognizing relatives is one critical factor that guarantees top points in big family relations. The first question that consistently comes up when I meet many of my less familiar relatives is, "Do you know me?" When I do, I endear myself to them, but when I don't I become almost an outcast, someone who does not even have the decency to find the time to know his relatives.

I recently met two cousins whose mother, my late aunt, was the third born of the seventh wife of Chief Nyerere. One of those cousins did not know me, had never even heard my name and yet she was almost 50 years old. It was such a relief; here was proof that failing to identify the 5,000-plus possible relations was not an affliction suffered only by those who spend too much time in Dar es Salaam.

One of my brothers has spent many years compiling the family tree of Burito, Chief Nyerere's father. Many years ago, I borrowed his list and began to sketch out, on paper, the linkages from Chief Nyerere to my generation. It was futile: the first attempt ended after I covered all the walls of the spare room of my apartment with pieces of paper. I ran out of space. What I needed was an exceptionally wide wall because the linkages spread out like a pyramid, narrow at the top and extremely wide at the bottom.

Many years after my first attempt, I obtained family tree software from a UK supplier. As I began entering information I immediately ran into another problem: the software would not accept more that four multiple marriages. The suppliers had probably not contemplated their software ending up at Butiama.

I wrote to the suppliers to find out whether they may have developed a later version of the software that would permit up to 22 wives, giving them a few details about the Chief. That letter must have arrived at the other end on or around April Fool's day, the one day in a year when people around the world would be suspected of creating the most outrageous stories about themselves - or their grandfathers. Surely three years is ample time for even the busiest company in the world to respond to a potential client?

Fortunately my problem will soon be history. When I explained my predicament recently to someone whose work in the past involved compiling lineages similar to my own, he suggested I find software developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons, who are known to have practiced polygamy between the time of the formation of their church in 1830 to 1890 when the practice was formally given up in order to conform to U.S. civil law. The Mormons' interest in tracing their roots proceeds from their concern to save dead ancestors.

It is a fact that kinship has as many interpretations as the number of societies you can count. You can be a relative in Butiama but just a friend in London.

I recall in the days when students who completed their O-level studies worked part-time while waiting for release of results of the National Form Four examinations. I and a fellow Form Four leaver who I considered then and still consider to be my relative were employed as office clerks in an architectural consulting firm.

After several days on the job, the manager, a European, summoned me to his office and told me he heard that I was related to Jackson. I told him that was true. When he asked for details of the relationship I explained the following: my paternal grandmother and Jackson's maternal grandfather were siblings, born of the same parents.

To say the manager was surprised is a gross understatement. He was flabbergasted, utterly astonished. If he were a cynical person, he would have said: "If Jackson is your cousin, I have to be your uncle." But he was a serious busy manager and restricted himself to letting me know who was my relation and who was not.

"Is that it?", he asked seeking confirmation.
"Yes", I responded.
"You are not related!" he said bluntly.

To him I could just as well consider Jackson to be only a friend. Now that I think of it, it sounds an appropriate conclusion. No wonder I get along well with Jackson. In fact while continuing to wait for the release of the exam results we went on to work for the Red Cross, sorting and packing used clothing for refugees under the supervision of Mr. Chudasama.

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Anonymous said...

I hope you will continue to tell us about your family chain.

Anonymous said...

Thank you