A story from my childhood on my first ever meeting of yabunje the royal rat; and all Bukusu culture about this fabled rodent.
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We had closed school. August it was, sometime in the early nineties. An August unlike this past one where children were in school as the pandemic disrupted the school calendar. We were working the farm, harvesting maize from the field and pilling the stalks in a corner by my mother’s kitchen. They were to dry out and be used to feed the cattle.
That was in early August. Late that August, mum needed us to help her move the drying maize stalks closer to the cattle boma to make it easier for her when we were away in school. It was all going well until towards the end, when I came across a ball of old clothes down the pile nested in the corner.
Using a stick, I probed this strange mass and something darted out: a rat. I barely caught a glimpse of it, but what it left behind was something I could never forget – a nest of shinny new coins!
That was my introduction to yabunje the royal rat. So regal is this rodent, that it sleeps on a bed of money!
So what does yabunje look like?
Well, it is a rodent that looks like the next rat and moves as fast as they do, therefore making it hard to capture for a closer look. In color, it could be grey-brown; some say yabunje has a long snout and tail.
Are they eaten?
Yes, yabunje is food, so I’ve heard. This makes the rodent possibly one of the ‘lost’ traditional Luhya foods. My experience has been I yet to fest on one, I am yet to witness anyone eat one, or come across anyone who has.
Have you had, or know of someone who has feasted on some yabunje? If so, what does it taste like? Let us know of your experience in the comments section.
Speaking of eating, swiftly we move onto something that’s (at least for me) all about the food: weddings!
Yabunje and a wedding song
Luhya scholar Barasa Maurice Simiyu in his PhD thesis titled: Cultural continuity and change: A historical study on music and dance among the Bukusu of Bungoma County, Kenya, presents an interesting bit of knowledge on yabunje.
Looking at Bukusu wedding songs from today and before, Simiyu offers a curious interpretation of the Bukusu wedding song “Yabunje yamala bulo” (A rodent of the yabunje type has eaten all the finger millet). He talks of an interesting happenings during the Bukusu traditional weddings such as messages carried by songs.
In the song “Yabunje yamala bulo”, those singing make fun of the biting poverty (kumutambo, Lubuksu), at the groom’s homestead as “rodents have eaten all the grains in the granaries which are now empty.”
Destroying things? Well, that sounds like something that rodents do. But those of us who know something about yabunje will find this Bukusu wedding song unusual. Because this yabunje rat has a different reputation. It is the most unusual of rats. Read on to find out why. We promise it will make you richer!
Yabunje’s tail, the wealth charming totem
For those who believe, and more crucially have the skills to trap a yabuje rat and rob it of its tail, this body part of the fabled rodent is said to be good for business. What do I mean by that? Well, I heard that some business have the rat’s tail placed somewhere within their premises as the owners believe it brings customers through the doors.
More customers means more business and more money….. More money?
Stealing from neighbors to make you rich
On meeting yabunje for the first time, I had so many questions. Why did it have money all over its nest? Where did it get this money? Could you use the money?
It has money as part of the beddings of its nest as it is a royal rat.
It gets this money by ‘stealing’ or rather collecting money from the neighborhood and bringing it to its host.
So what do you do when you meet yabunje’s treasure trove? Eat it! Its your wealth from the gods.
For my case, in those remaining days of that holiday, I must have gained carries from all the sweets I ate. Ah, good memories!
Talking of sweet things, there’s one more yabunje..
I ain’t calling her a gold digger
You may know of him or her. A brother or sister get’s a new catch and all of a sudden, they can’t raise to the occasion financially. Yet, their new khalinjola, their darling, only seems to get rounder in the right areas, profess exquisite tastes and enjoy comforts they contribute zero to.
I ain’t calling her or him a gold digger but (s)he may be a yabunje.