Lessons from my Grandmother

I learned a lot this year. When things are quite difficult, you learn even more. With loss, you can’t help but reflect and wrap your mind around the fact that someone is not in your life anymore. This is the year our family lost our grandmothers, our gogo. The word gogo means Grandmother/Grammy/Meemaw in Nandi. I would like to tell you about one of my grandmothers – Gogo Martina Chelagat Tum. She came from the edge. She would tell me stories of the migration journey by the Nandi people in Rift Valley, Kenya. My aunt Wilfrida soaked in all that and more and is now the family’s oracle when it comes to our history. Losing her was difficult not just for me but for the entire family. In thinking about her legacy, I realized that there was a running thread between the things she embodied and some lessons I hope not to ever forget.

Gogo grew up in a world that most would say had very little. she didn’t have a brick house, her house was semi-permanent, covered with with a layer of clay found by the nearby rivers. she didn’t have a flushing toilet…an outhouse she and grandpa made, 50 meters from her hut was her only option. She didn’t have electricity…wax candles and kerosene brought light in darkness for much of her life. Her small kitchen was actually a haven for all of us. A utilitarian space that brought us much joy despite the smoke that would get into our eyes while she cooked.
But to my gogo, the ‘little’ she had didn’t bother her…All without a lecture. She embodied such strength, contentment and joy. This is my gogo with my niece. Notice her hand: She is holding a piece of twine that she was going to use for a gift. She was making it into a kind of thread that she would use to weave beads into a gourd, a functional device for storing milk, but later became a sort of memento she would give each of her grandchildren whenever we hit a milestone in life. She was indeed creative and innovative. To look around and use the materials around you to make pots, to line the walls of the houses with mud from the river, to learn the herbs in the forest, and ooh to make the most delicious vegetables. Creation is a selfless task. A task that I have found to be even more enriching when done with others.

She made things. She lived in a time where…you had to make, for something to exist. A time where you had to use your hands.

Make.

My granny used to make beaded jewelry, she was easy going, content and happy. In this world that she lived in, it was also important to fix things. To recycle, re-use old containers, not to waste. It was a hard life for her growing up and how she and my grandfather brought up my father, uncles and aunts is something that I am still amazed at. In her,
My friend Teddy Ruge wrote this post about the need for a fixer movement, pushing back a little on Clive Thompson’s piece in Wired Magazine. As I was thinking about the things gogo embodied, I realized that she showed us the importance of fixing things with whatever you have available.

Fix.

I have come to realize that gogo was not just a grandmother, but a maker, a fixer. In thinking about her life it shows that the story of the maker movement is as old and as intertwined with African culture as time itself. It is not just a movement in San Fransisco’s silicon valley or Berlin’s co-working spaces. It is part and parcel of our heritage. It is important to understand the things that our heritage gives us, the gifts – as part of the continuum of our work and our lives.

Early this year, my gogo passed away, and there was a sudden emptiness. I had lost my gogo, my grandmother. I had lost the woman who made fun of my braces, whose hugs were wrapped in joy, and whose laughter would fill a room. The person whom I felt grounded around. The anchor in my hectic life. It hit me hard. Turns out losing her was not just my loss our family’s loss, but also the loss to a community. During gogo’s funeral, I found out that she was not only my grandmother, she not only fed our extended family, but the community around her were touched by her kindness. She and grandpa provided matchboxes for the nearby Carmelite Monastery (a tradition our family is continuing now). Just as her sphere of influence was wide, Iam reminded that it is really important to help and be helped. It is indeed part of African cultural heritage. To open the door for others to continue the journey.

Help others

In thinking about the gifts left for us, It dawned on me, these three things that she embodied can continue to guide me in my work and be my compass for the future. Iam fortunate to work with an amazing global team that helps me figure out how to embody these ideals on several levels.

No matter the industry… Make, fix, help others.

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