Mistaken Identity

By Hana Njau-Okolo

No authentic African woman would love her goat with the same reckless abandon of my groovy friend and her boy-toy over at MyBrownBaby.

Gem Gume (pronounced gem gyüm), joined the family when a good uncle bequeathed her as a gift to the family. It is customary in African culture to gift cows, goats, or chickens as bride-price, and for celebrations like birthdays, circumcision rituals, christenings, Independence Day (not the movie), Christmas and New Year’s.

The expectation is that the animals will be slaughtered and eaten on the occasion.

Gem Gume, was one of several tokens of appreciation from my uncle who had given us his first-born daughter to live with our family in Kenya. Why? First, because at the time, educational opportunities for further studies were probably better in Kenya than in Tanzania; and second, my uncle had five children to my parents' two, at the time.

My cousin, now the oldest child became the main tour guide of, and assisted with, the day-to-day work of running our Paa Ya Paa Art Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya. She became my favorite big sister, a hard-working role model; and yet another example of the beauty of Africa’s socio-cultural practice of sharing children.

Sidebar: The Kiswahili translation for the word “uncle” or “aunt” is baba mdogo (small father) or mama mdogo (small mother), baba mkubwa (big father) or mama kubwa (big mother).

My darling she-goat Gem Gume joined the three animals already on Paa Ya Paa’s five acres of land. I am not counting the troop of Colobus monkeys that would leap from tree to tree in the dense eucalyptus forest behind the main house and gallery; or the fluttering of butterflies that would flit about in beautiful disarray; or the chameleons that my brother would threaten to plant in my hair because they would stay stuck forever! I am still superstitious like that.

There was the smart brother and sister German Shepherd duo, Timi and Safi, Nyahururu (one of Safi’s sons by a good-for-nothing-rolling-stone) a mutt, who from time to time exhibited distasteful tendencies, like trying to mount his own mother. And even though he was named after the highest town in Kenya, a popular training ground for Kenya’s top marathon runners, his altitudinous name did nothing for his attitude.

Gem-Gume had an elegance about her that set her apart from her new sibling’s often roguish behavior. The unique way she pranced alongside the dogs down the long jacaranda-strewn, graveled driveway when guests arrived to visit the gallery. Gem Gume’s characteristic bleating, lifting the barking of the dogs into a vibrant accapella; and the way her sensuous eyes shrunk into slits as she carefully ruminated her cud.

It became obvious that she was the exemplary one; that Safi expected her to steward the way-ward Nyahu’s behavior with her particular noblesse oblige. The two became inseparable. They would spend hours frolicking about in the yard, sharing bones, and digging up wild onions and potatoes.

It was not long before all of us, including Gem Gume forgot that she was actually meat on four legs; that she was really Nyama Choma (Kenyan barbecue). She’d turned into a dog, barking and running after cars or passers-by across the fence, gatekeepers who assisted the night-watchman who often arrived to work noticeably intoxicated from the very potent and illegal Chang’aa.

Our birthdays came and went, Easter, and Independence Day, numerous art exhibitions and performances, still Gem Gume remained with us. Deep down in my heart I believed that Baba had grown attached to her and could not bring himself to order her slaughtered.

Maybe he planned to paint her some day?

Anyway, life was always good at Paa Ya Paa, with a steady stream of artists-in-residence from around the world there was never a shortage of drama and excitement.

At thirteen, I was responsible for the care and upkeep of the dogs; I’d cook for them, (Gem Gume did not partake in these meals - there was enough grass for her on the property); I’d bathe them, and teach them tricks. My older brother would help occasionally.

It was the rare occasion that I had too much homework to complete my chores when I’d ask the house-boy to prepare the dogs meals.

As time went by Nyahu began to take off regularly with some of his neighborhood bitches. I guess he took after his father, and thankfully he smartened up after a couple of attempts with Gem Gume.

Lonely Gem Gume would follow me around the compound, with a bleat here and a bleat there, we’d go together, everywhere, with a bleat, bleat!

One afternoon, I was in the house changing from my school uniform when I heard the ruckus outside. It was explosive. Dogs barking and an extremely distressed continuous bleat!

Nyahu had returned from one of his many escapades, a changed dog. All pumped up, he was on “mission predominance.”
Today Gem Gume was Nyama Choma!

By the time I got to the driveway, Nyahu’s canines were firmly lodged in Gem Gume’s neck. And the more she flailed and writhed in agony, the deeper they sunk. Her stupid step-father Timi, clueless and probably hungry, joined in the attack. Safi ran around in sorrow, dismayed by the extreme misfortune that had befallen the family.

My screams were echoed by the house-boy and within seconds, the gardener, some artists, everyone was trying to save Gem Gume’s life. We were too late. Blood was oozing from her nearly severed neck. Baba decided to take her out of her misery.

“Mchinje,” he said to the house-boy. (Slaughter her.)

“Tutakula mbuzi leo jioni!” (We’ll have goat soup for dinner tonight.)

And it was not even Christmas!

Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2008. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Okay, I'm SO sad that Gem Gume ended up in the soup, but how incredibly written was the story of her life?! You are an awesome writer, Hana--ridiculously talented. What a vibrant, colorful, beautiful story. Thank you, thank you, thank you for such a lovely read this morning!

  2. Hey Hana,

    My my.. Stories of Gem Gume has been told to my kids time and time again and to friends everytime we think of Home Pets! Haki the story made me see the whole scenario! Gem Gume going round the bamboo plant bleating away next to Safi! How sad it was for Safi, I felt the loss for her. Another fantastic story from you!! keep on Gal!

  3. What a wonderful and well written story of Gem Gume's fate. I almost didn't want to know the ending. You wrote with such suspense, and I enjoyed the reading. Keep it up!!! You have great writing skills and talent. Poor Gem Gume......

  4. Aww, poor Gen Gume. Its always hard to lose a beloved pet.

    I echo what has already been said about the story and your writing... absolutely wonderful.

    Oh, and nilipokea grade yangu kwa Kiswahili. I got a C, which was pretty good consider the course of the semester.

  5. A heartfelt thanks to you Denene, Anon, Moto Mama and Ms. Bar B.

    Just don't ask me what it felt like to eat the soup.

  6. So the dog tried a quickie with the goat. Kinda reminds me of a guy I use to know. I must say I did enjoy the story, quite funny.

  7. what a lovely blog! im happy to see fellow bloggers make good use of the blogosphere!Keep up the nice work!

  8. Poor Gem Gume...but why did I feel like I was reading a wonderful novel. I really hope you are working on one.

  9. I agree with Denene...you are an amazing writer! I think I was a bit traumatized just by reading your story though. I can't even imagine actually being there! You poor thing. :(

  10. I also echo what has been said about your awesome writing and your beautiful story. I absolutely love reading about your beautiful culture. I learn something new.

  11. So, the question that comes to mind is, if you had to choose today between some nyama choma and keeping a goat for a pet, which would you choose?

  12. Ntwiga,

    Today? Wazi I would choose nyama choma.

    Asante for stopping by.

    Mama Shujaa

  13. At the risk of sounding like an alcoholic (especially with the name Tipsy Joe), I must say that I'd sure like to try just a SIP of the illegal liquor spiked with jet fuel! Just a sip, I said.

    Gem Gume! Can you hear me? I am so sorry to hear about your tragic end. You helped shape the life of an exceptional little girl and even though she loved you, I bet you tasted pretty good.

    Hana you are a FIERCE writer. You ROCK!


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