Home » Mulembe One » Who is senje? Beyond Sauti Sol’s viral hit song into the liberal and strict meaning of senge in Luhya culture
senje in red upon a dark background

Who is senje? Beyond Sauti Sol’s viral hit song into the liberal and strict meaning of senge in Luhya culture

Growing up Luhya, there were fewer things more blasphemous than calling your senje, aunt. Worse, auntie. But who is senge or senje anyway?

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First things first. Senje is one of the few Luhya words that’s universal to all the 18 nations of mulembe. The Maragoli and a few others replace the ‘j’ with a ‘g’ to have it as senge; but the exists no confusion at to whom they are referring to when they speak of senge. You know what? Our honorable brothers from the rift, the Kalenjin, have this word, senge, with similar meaning in its strict sense in Luhya culture.

Such is the importance of this cosmopolitan word that it is immune to even the bonanza of twist of tongues and intonations that yield the different dialects of Luhya language. Trust me when I say that Kiluhya can be so remarkably different across the nations. Such that uncultured speakers of one dialect often suffer untold embarrassment when they struggle to understand their brethren, speakers of another dialect.

But the importance of senje rises not from it’s linguistic gymnastics. Its a word that’s primal in Luhya culture as it speaks of the most sacred of relationships. A relationship that in our culture probably ranks second only to that of a mother and its offspring. A relationship that even in its most liberal sense, is filial in nature to the extent that it draws serious reprimand when its sacrosancy is violated.

It is this pious nature of the word that, I believe, the award winning Kenyan Afro pop group Sauti Sol toys with (even if they state otherwise) to land a solid footing home as they charge for the global market with their latest hit Suzanna. Because, those who know, know.

Suzzana by Sauti Sol, the song that could have been named senje

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Going by the notable infusion of Luhya culture in their music, someone or someones in Sauti Sol must have grown up Luhya. And if his (or their people) is anything like mine, then there are in for a reprimand. For Sauti Sol’s artsy take on senje is indeed blasphemous in a Luhya home as strict as the one I grew up in. Woe unto them/him if that’s the case as there is evidence.

Following confusion in their primary market Kenya over the meaning of the word senge, Sauti Sol’s lead singer had this to say in an interview with a local entertainment website:

Senje is an aunt but in this context, it’s the random aunt who everyone relates to including touts. E.g, When they tell you ‘Aunty unashukia wapi? ‘

Sauti sol’s Bien-Aimé Baraza

Magoo! I tell you, doing stuff in the name of art can let one get away with murder. Before you condemn me as a cold towel, hear me out. First I love, love the song. Therefore, I dare not bum on its groovy uptown feel. Neither am I spitting on the unaccoladed hard work Sauti Sol do as ambassadors of Luhya, Kenyan, East African and African culture. But I beseech you to consider the following takes on the meaning of senje in Luhya culture; before you condemn me as some sort of luddite.

The liberal meaning of senje in Luhya culture

We’ve described the relationship described as senje as filial. My dictionary has filial as referring to that concerning parents and their sons and daughters. In Luhya culture, as in most African cultures, the children of your brother and sister are not specimens with fancy names – nieces and nephews – but indeed are your daughters and sons respectively.

We Luhyas see the world this way as it was one way of the community protecting its own. Indeed growing up Luhya, often is the case that if you were lucky to be born of parents who had means, your parents would take in their siblings children and raise them as their own.

Growing up Luhya

What this meant was that as a Luhya child growing up in a typical Luhya home, you never for instance had a bed to yourself. It was almost as if the moment your parents realized that you were lording over a bed, the’d call home for another of your cousins to come to the city.

This meant you had to share everything with them as you would with a brother or sister. A bed, even if they still wet themselves at night. A shirt if the only one they came with was the one on their backs. Or on moving to the next class, you couldn’t discarded your textbooks. More importantly, you had to have taken good care of the books/shoes/school uniform because your younger siblings (read nephews and nieces) would soon make good use of them. And when you were sent home for school fees, you’d both be home until the day dad cobbled up something.

Our parents had to do that because those – the nephews and nieces – were their senjes. So when Sauti Sol beseech senje to be done with her worldly ways in Suzanna, the message couldn’t hit home better. Because no one can call to order a delinquent child as a senge can. In fact if your parents had to call senge on you, better wake up as you are dangling on the precipice. And if you failed to heed the counsel of one who called you senge, the curse that befall was like that of a witch who bewitched you and died.

The real senge is…

Then there was the real senge or senje. This one was strictly a sister to your father. By sister, I mean all your father’s female relations, save parents, from first cousins to distant relatives. For clarity, similar relations to your mother, are simply known as mama. They are your mothers as far as Luhya culture is concerned. Senge on the other hand is many things.

1. The most important guest ever

First, when she comes visiting, to those uncultured in our ways, it might appear as a simple case of a sibling paying her brother a visit, but the truth is something else. The only way I can help you appreciate the gravity of senge visiting is to ask you to think of the most close of father-daughter relationships that you know or heard of. Yes, that’s how it is. What this means is that it’s akin to daddy’s little princess paying daddy a visit. Therefore, all her idiosyncrasies will be entertained. All her whims tolerated, needs and wants catered to the best of your abilities.

2. The most important ally in making a man

Second, aside from being the last line of reprimand – for she is your father – your senge plays other roles in your life that no one else can. For example, in Maragoli culture after dowry payment, enganana in Lubukusu, animals that were agreed upon are walked to the girl’s home. On the day that the animals arrive, the girl’s family hosts a ‘farewell’ party for the bride to be. This is because the Maragoli say: “We cannot keep the cows and the girl.”

Therefore, the day the animals walk in is the day when the day the girl walks out of her parents home to her matrimonial home. In tow, is an entourage from the family she’s married into. The leader of that entourage is none but the senge to her husband. But even before we get here, if it happened that her husband needed help or chose to go old school with his search for a bride, guess who would have been at the heart of it all?

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