Kikuyu Elderhood as african Oracle
by Harold F. Miller
The basic premise informing this brief research undertaking holds that African Religion is in fact a living reality on the African continent south of the Sahara.38 Over the past centuries, Europeans argued variously that Africa possessed no culture because it had no history.39 Christian missionaries from the West were perceived by many Africans to have been the handmaidens of the European colonial powers.40 In that capacity, they rode roughshod over African cultural practices, in general making little effort to understand the world view which had produced the underlying culture. To be fair, even in the past century there were certain European missionaries who expressed some interest in the African religio-cultural world.41 But it was not until the controversial (but rarely ignored) pioneer work of Placide Tempels in the 1930s and 1940s came to widespread attention of missiologists, philosophers and theologians that African culture and its supporting world view was taken seriously. Today Tempels’ work is cited as the beginning of formal inquiry into the culture and metaphysic of the African world.42 Since then, formal research into Africa’s religio-cultural phenomena has gained strong momentum, resulting in bold claims for African Religion.
This inquiry is situated in the middle of a rather unlikely, even contradictory, continuum. On the one hand, there is the popular impression in Africa and abroad of a diminishing “formal (conscious) adherence” to African Religion, while on the other, there is a growing academic articulation of African Religion based on empirical evidence in support of widespread “informal (tacit) adherence”.43
Modern Africans live in at least two worlds, speaking two or more cultural and religious languages.44 Evidence for this phenomenon is visible on a daily, virtually ubiquitous, basis. For the modern, middle class person living in an industrialized country, the ability to use multiple languages is considered to be aesthetically pleasing and economically advantageous. In Africa the ability to command multiple (cultural, religious, economic) languages is a matter of survival in an environment which yields “abundant life” most reluctantly. But even more importantly, managing multiple languages (in particular the cultural and religious languages) in modern Africa exacts a high emotional and spiritual toll. For most people on this continent, their cultural and emotional home base is not the one with the highest value in the national (or continental) formal sector regimes. Contradictions of this kind comprise a significant, if not a definitional, framework within which Africa survives and interacts with the rest of the world.
In the midst of these realities, a lead question is eloquently posed by Kwame Bediako: “. . . What possible promises [does] this African [R]eligion hold for moulding and transforming African life in the future[?]”45 Or, to state the question in a slightly different manner: What would be the effect on life in the African continent if precepts and values of African Religion were at the very least consciously taken into consideration in the development or change process, even if they were not adhered to as formal religious practice?
This inquiry is in fact at once more modest and more specific than what is inherent to the above questions. It seeks to explore this circumscribed question: How do the Kikuyu people in Kenya today give expression to what is now referred to as African Religion? From the outset of this inquiry, the assumption has been that the Kikuyu people do possess a strong sense of cultural identity, even though it is generally accepted that they, of all the peoples in Kenya, suffered most directly under the colonial regime. The three point working hypothesis guiding the field work on which this paper reports has been the following: 1) Kikuyu elderhood is variously perceived, practised and adapted within today’s Kikuyu community; 2) it is informed by and rooted in the socio-religious values of Kikuyu tradition; 3) an exploration of its several expressions would yield a composite image of Kikuyu elderhood as it functions today.
Oracle as Metaphor
For purposes of identifying general parameters for the field work as well as defining a composite elderhood role, the metaphor of an “oracle” is invoked. In his remarkable many-sided exploration of the Mbona oracle in Malawi, researcher Fr. J. M. Schoffeleers offers the following characteristics of an oracle: the oracle has no formal liturgical function; there is no person who may be regarded as the official narrator, keeper or interpreter; details of its function are transmitted from person to person as entertainment and as informal instruction; the oracle is invoked to assert or dispute claims to rights, positions and functions within society; it may conceptualize or explain important meteorological, social and political events; it speaks to social disorder “now”; it is active “now”; in sum, it is of pronounced theological, moral and cosmological significance.46
As will be seen in the body of this paper, Kikuyu elderhood functions primarily within the Kikuyu community. Kikuyu elders serve as the custodians of ancestral land and, by extension, as keepers of social cohesion within the community. Since the advent of the colonial state and its immediate successor, the politically independent state of Kenya (1963), the “governing” scope of the Kikuyu elder is perceived to have been restricted. On the other hand, the creative adaptations of Kikuyu elderhood to the conditions of modern Kenya would seem to provide evidence of its holistic, oracular character.
Kikuyu Elderhood: Rituals of Becoming
The social and community role of a Kikuyu elder, known as a muthuuri, originating with the word guthuura (one who chooses), is pivotal to the well being and harmony of all. An ideal elder is known as a muthamaki, derived from the word guthamaka, meaning to choose, to reign and rule distinctively. Mwathani or Mwathi (the greatest ruler) comes from the word gwatha, meaning to rule or reign with authority. Mwathani or Mwathi are terms attributed by the Kikuyu people only to God.
Becoming an elder is a protracted process, beginning at birth with the naming ritual, intimately involving the father, whose status is enhanced by proper naming of the child. The kumathithia mwana was a family festival celebrating the birth, followed by the “rebirth” ceremony (returning to the womb to be born again) known as gucokia ihu-ini. At the age of six years, there was the piercing of the ears (gutonywo matu and later gutonywo ndurgira), which were subsequently fitted with decorations. This was followed at an auspicious time with circumcision (irua), the “making of a man,”47 Marriage renders a man an elder.48 After having raised his children, following all the prescribed rituals, and after at least one of his children is successfully married, the father then becomes a candidate eligible for elderhood (i.e. joining the kiama or council of elders49). For these purposes, he can be approached by community leaders and other regional elders who have polled community opinion as a basis for his eventual appointment to the role of “regional elder”, virtually the highest level of Kikuyu elderhood today. Each of these steps, from birth to regional elderhood, is, of course, ritually sealed by the slaughtering of goats and by copious, prescribed consultation with all persons concerned.
As might be expected, the rituals leading to elderhood have been modified over time. Additionally, the fortunes and misfortunes of modern Kenya have exposed the Kikuyu people to many diverse, often harsh, realities. Obviously, their individual and collective character has been affected by these changing fortunes. But essential elements remain in place: circumcision, marriage, children and appointment on the basis of community consensus. Meanwhile, the basic myths of Kikuyu origin are matters of common knowledge. Virtually every Kikuyu woman is named after one of the “nine” (ten!) daughters of Mumbi.50 Every Kikuyu person knows that Mt. Kenya is the place of origin of the Kikuyu people. On the basis of the field work undertaken for this course, it becomes clear that Kikuyu people aged 50 years and older have a good understanding of the basic structure and practice of the tradition.51 But they admit to a concern for the sustained Kikuyu self awareness of their children and grandchildren.
For purposes of this inquiry, the basic term “elder” is the category being explored, simply because of its rather elastic and multiple manifestations. According to informants, a general definition of an elder (in Swahili, a Mzee) is one who has: 1) the ability to listen, 2) the ability to keep secrets,52 3) the ability to make decisions on behalf of the people in a manner reflecting consensus and serving the well being of all. Today the most public manifestation of elderhood takes the form of a “regional elder.”
As a rule of thumb, the regional elder’s jurisdiction coincides with the territorial jurisdiction of the sub-chief,53 an office which functions at the lowest level of the Kenya government’s administrative apparatus.54 In short, the government structure is administered from the “top down.” The Kikuyu “regional elder,” on the other hand, exercises his role from the “bottom up,” representing the wishes and the consensual process of the people living within his territory.55 There was evidence among the people interviewed of a strong sense of the “rightness” (rootedness in the tradition) of the elderhood role generally, and the regional elder in particular, as well as a strong confidence in its capacity to service current diverse needs of the Kikuyu people at the local level.
Informants expressed deep negative feelings about the advent of the colonial government and the effect of its 70-year history in Kenya. Aged informants were gentle and circumspect, while the more educated and the radical traditionalists were properly caustic. Indeed, modern Kenya cannot be understood without a careful consideration of the upheaval that was Mau Mau (the Land Freedom Army) and the effects of colonial rule. For Kikuyu patriots, Mau Mau became a high expression of the understanding and the demands of Kikuyu culture. According to Ngonya wa Gakonya, Mau Mau was the organizational vehicle which developed for the recovery of land, culture and Uhuru, i.e., independence from colonialism.56 While recognizing the important role of Mau Mau in articulating Kikuyu demands and expressing his extreme distaste for colonial rule, Dr. J. N. Waiyaki emphasized that some British civil servants in the colonial government were in fact on the side of the Kenyan people and were perceived by the Kikuyu people to be working for Kenya’s freedom from colonialism.57
Radical Restoration—“Tent of the Living God”
Amongst the informants interviewed, by far the most radical is Ngonya wa Gakonya, the 52-year-old leader of a “back-to-the-golden-Kikuyu-culture” movement known as the “Tent (dwelling) of the Living God” and advocate of “Africanity” (his word). Basic tenets of the movement are quite straightforward and, according to Ngonya, “similar to the beliefs of the Zulu and other African communities across the continent.” Myths of Kikuyu origin are focused in Mt. Kenya, toward which all worshipers of Ngai (God) turn their faces when in formal prayer. “Ngai, the creator God, has given birth to the human community. He/she provides all the resources necessary to life. It is wrong to ask or beg of God for sustenance. Ngai’s abundance is already with us. We must use these resources and fulfill our obligations by having children and raising them in an orderly manner.”
Adherents of the faith have been widely exposed to, or, according to them, variously “destroyed” by Christianity. Indeed, Ngonya himself was raised in a family with membership in the Presbyterian Church. Thanks to a series of disappointments, among which was the refusal of his father to arrange for Ngonya’s circumcision in timely fashion, he became intensely interested in the Kikuyu tradition. This interest was further piqued when he was passed over for a scholarship which he felt was rightly his due. Beginning in 1974, he left his formal sector job and became engaged in the profitable business of selling herbal medicines. In the 1980s, he was exposed to traditional ritual gatherings, eventually meeting with Kikuyu elders under the rubric: “The Tent of the Living God.” However, he found these people too closely tied to aspects of the biblical Old Testament and poorly informed with regard to traditional Kikuyu beliefs. In an effort to become more focused in his understanding of traditional faith, he began working intensely with his own family, whence it became possible, eventually, to address public audiences.
Even though he was hounded during the early 1990s by church leaders and the international community as an “anti-Christ,” he was able, by 1997, to “ordain” 18 candidates into a form of “elderhood.” Meanwhile, his relationship with traditional practitioners extends beyond the Kikuyu to include people from Meru and Embu, with whom there is spiritual and cultural affinity. He does not perceive himself to be an ordinary elder, though he ordains and relates to other elders and a “Council of Elders.” He understands that this council is recognized neither by the Kikuyu people generally, nor by the Kenya government, as an authoritative Kikuyu voice. The cohesion which would have allowed for such recognition was disturbed by Mau Mau and the subsequent imposition of the “top down” government of independent Kenya. Ngonya perceives himself as a visionary, a spiritual leader (he allows the term “evangelist”), in the tradition of his grandfather, identifying the sickness of modern Kenyan society and pointing toward a restoration of the tradition as a source of well being.
Ngonya seems to affirm the following value and faith elements, gleaned from some of his followers during the introductory proceedings of the outdoor service and from the subsequent “sermon:” three essential foods—nyama (meat), asali (honey), maziwa (milk); three essential values—amani (peace), upendo (love), umoja (unity); three essential colors—red (blood), black (people), green (land-vegetation).
Further, they affirm:
“Our home is here on this earth; there is no home in the sky.”
“We are born on this earth.”
“We will die on this earth.”
“We will be buried on this earth.”
“Our well being was insured by the blood shed by our mothers in giving birth to us; we do not need Jesus’ blood.”
“We have God without Jesus.”
“The earth is our home.”
“God is the owner of peace.”
“Ngai calls us to perform circumcision, to offer sacrifices, to perform cleansing rituals, to have strong families and thus ensure the existence and presence of ancestors.”58
During a formal outdoor service on an open plot in Nairobi city,59 all the songs, the testimonials and the admonitions by youthful followers, together with the main speech by Ngonya, were uniform in their affirmations of traditional beliefs and in specific denunciations of Christianity. Indeed, the ill effects of Christianity on Kikuyu culture seemed to serve as a primary negative framework against which the affirmations of traditional religion were made.
If the audience attending the open air Sunday afternoon meeting provides authentic indicators, then it is fairly obvious that young people have a keen interest in this movement. Youthful informants in the audience insisted that most of those present had at one time embraced Christianity, but had meanwhile become disillusioned, and were now returning to the authentic ways of the Kikuyu people in their worship of Ngai.
In an extensive private interview with Ngonya at his home, the question was posed: How are you informed and inspired as a spiritual leader of the Tent of the Living God? In his response, he cited regular communication with the living elders.60 He also consults with people whom he calls soothsayers; he is not comfortable “disturbing the ancestors” by approaching them directly. However, by far his most important inspiration comes from Ngai directly. “Ngai spoke to me at 3:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, telling me to talk to my people about their sicknesses. Our people are sick because they eat chips (french fries), wear tight Western clothing and use the white man’s medicine.” (On Saturday evenings he sleeps in a bed separate from his wife. Visions from Ngai come more clearly when he follows this self-imposed rule.) Irio, (a stiff mixture of freshly mashed potatoes, fresh maize, fresh peas and a fresh vegetable green), good meat and fresh milk is the food for our people.”
He was also asked to comment on a sect known as the Mungiki.61 According to him, members of the Mungiki group were once his followers, but they have gone astray by, among other things, forcing women to be circumcised, and by offering sacrifices in ways which are not prescribed by Kikuyu tradition. Ngonya freely acknowledges that his appeal is to people from the very low income ranks of Kenya. And he recognizes that his group can expect to exercise very little influence on the government of Kenya and on the body politic. He has tried in vain to register a political party known as DEMO. Since then he has established the Cultural Trust of Kenya, which he claims has been registered, but for which he has not yet received the actual paper certificate. For this trust, he welcomes monetary contributions from Kenyans or from overseas agencies.62
Members of the Tent of the Living God sustain a strong sense of a return to the origins of Kikuyu culture and identity. In the context of this research report, the Tent of the Living God community serves as a purist, but so far a marginalized, reconstruction of the traditional Kikuyu community. However truncated, it must be recognized as one of the current expressions of Kikuyu religio-cultural tradition, perhaps one end of a broad continuum giving voice and shape to an idealized version of the world of the elders and Ngai, the Mwathani (the greatest ruler).
The Modern Elder Practitioner
At the other end of the elderhood practitioner continuum, perhaps the extreme end, are the views of a highly educated, widely traveled senior scientist, lecturer and researcher.63 Dr. J. N. Waiyaki is lecturer in the Department of Zoology at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, located approximately midway between Nairobi and Thika. On the basis of observations made around the world, it is the firm conviction of this Kikuyu gentleman, now in his mid 50s, that Kikuyu culture, or religion, if you choose to call it such, takes second place to none. Like all other cultures and religions, it has produced its range of wise, stupid, honest and devious people. But its core values and tenets have rendered the Kikuyu a lively, vivacious enterprising community. Since their emancipation from a most vicious colonial administration, the Kikuyu people have demonstrated that with access to equal opportunity, they proudly take their places alongside everyone else in the world, including people from the so-called developed countries that, like Kenya, have their quota of intelligent, stupid, honest or truthful people.
With his wife, a staunch Christian believer and member of the Catholic Church, Dr. Waiyaki regularly attends mass. But he has no illusions about the Bible: the Old Testament is a Jewish story; it may have some parallels to the Kikuyu story, but it remains a Jewish story. The core themes of the New Testament are not well reflected in the practice and doctrines of the Christian Church in Africa. Anyone who has traveled in the industrialized “Christian” countries, insists Dr. Waiyaki, will quickly come to the conclusion that the Christian ethic is not in evidence there. Indeed, the case could be made that Kenyan Christians are more sincere and authentic practitioners of the Christian faith. According to Dr. Waiyaki, “It is an insult to suggest that the missionary movement had anything fundamentally new to impart to Africa.”64
After getting some very strong feelings off his chest—and having clearly relished the opportunity of expressing them directly to an expatriate missionary type—he then shifted to a more pensive, less defensive mood, speaking of his core values as a human being. Not having embraced in any ceremonial manner the role of Kikuyu elder, except as husband, father of children and participant in the immediate extended family, he noted that some 60 percent of the Kenyan population comprises young people, many of whom are not systematically exposed to positive human and social values. Indeed, according to him, “Young people such as matatu (semiformal public transport vehicles) drivers are bold to defy public sensibilities because they observe leaders in government and other high profile institutions to be doing precisely the same.” Dr. Waiyaki perceives this to constitute a profound lacuna in Kenya society, but has no clear idea as to how this malady might be remedied. Apart from his contribution as a scientist and his role as father in the extended family situation, how does he reimburse society for the privileged position that he enjoys? “I receive enormous satisfaction from making a monetary contribution to a street boy or some other needy person unknown to me.”
The interview with Dr. Waiyaki concluded on a philosophical note. Had it occurred to him that the description and practice of his own moral values conformed rather precisely to the standard definitions of African Religion? (It hadn’t.) Had it occurred to him that the central value which he was placing on his own and immediate extended family is a core value in what is now recognized as African Religion? (“Interesting.”) When in sexual union human beings produce a new being, “the universe takes notice,” according to traditional African understanding. (“Yes?”) When a scientist investigates, observes and reports on the world of subatomic quantum physics, he or she becomes a cocreator of new realities and again the “universe takes notice.” (“I must think about that.”)
Would the fostering of these kinds of linkages serve any heuristic or moral value in today’s Kenya? Given his expressed concern about the morally unformed or ill-formed Kenyan young people of today, would recycling of, or reflection on, the core values and practices of African Religion, as understood by the Kikuyu tradition, constitute a worthy, life-giving project in modern Kenya? “Kikuyu understanding of the world will never cease; I don’t know whether such a project is feasible or desirable, and I would not know how to go about it.” (Dr. Waiyaki shares with other informants an ambivalence with regard to any modern or formal sector engagement with the Kikuyu tradition.) “It is there and can always be appealed to as a moral compass.”65
The Consummate Elder
Somewhere in the middle of the elderhood continuum comes the 92-year-old informant Daniel Kinuthia Mugia. More than any of the other informants, this man demonstrates the values of Kikuyu culture and elderhood with an almost liturgical sense of correctness. Indeed, after the carefully ritualized reception, he recounted what he had done and why. “I welcomed you; I asked you to be seated; I called for introductions; I asked about the nature of your mission and I ordered my wife to prepare tea. A guest cannot leave the house without having ‘taken something.’” He also noted with satisfaction that the stranger seeking information was properly introduced by a well known intermediary, a person resident within Mugia’s “jurisdiction” and senior to the field research assistant. “All of this is required by Kikuyu culture, of which I am a strong advocate and practitioner.” After we had explained our mission, he asked rhetorically in Kikuyu, “Why don’t the young people in the age group of this [my] field assistant demonstrate a more determined interest in the tradition? Why must it be these expatriates who pursue such issues?”
He readily affirmed his Christian identity and commitment, making special note of his membership with the Greek Orthodox Church, the high profile head of which was President and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, friend and confidant of Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta. He joined this particular church rather deliberately, because it did not interfere with his Kikuyu cultural beliefs nor his elder role. While aloof and hesitant to divulge details of the Kikuyu ceremonies which had accorded him the elderhood status, he freely shared the specific functional aspects of his role as a self-conscious elder in the service of his people.
Kinuthia Mugia carefully recounted his several elder roles: he is a parent of married children;66 he is an active church member; he presents a speech at least once a week on Kenyan radio, explaining the intricacies of the Kikuyu language and culture, taking his cues in this regard from the many letters and inquiries he receives; he is a writer of Kikuyu history, proverbs and riddles;67 he is a member of the local community council which attends to matters of security and settles disputes; he serves as a part of the memory of Mau Mau detention,68 and the Kikuyu Central Association, which served as an early vehicle to mobilize Kikuyu resistance to colonialism. In this context, he explained extensively the meaning and value of politics. “Politics is the art of uniting people, bringing disparate views into some measure of agreement.” He spoke of the need to include everyone: “If there is a Mzungu (white man) somewhere in the crowd (as at a wedding) or living in this community, s/he must be assured of inclusion.”
Living in an extremely modest house, he exuded a self-confidence and self-fulfillment of joyous proportions. Despite, or perhaps because of, the severe injustices (not least, detention) imposed by the colonial government, this man has devoted his life as elder in service to his people. His sinewy, healthy body would be the envy of men 40 years his junior.69
The “Regional Elder”
As indicated in the introduction to this paper, perhaps the most conspicuous Kikuyu elder practitioner is the designated “regional elder.” Our informant, 58-year-old Joseph Muchene wa Ngugi, was both extraordinarily forthcoming and very “modern” in his practice of elderhood. “The elder role,” he affirmed, “calls for careful listening, for keeping secrets and then making decisions for the benefit of all the people entrusted to my leadership.”
How did he achieve eldership? He was exposed to all the prescribed Kikuyu rites of passage as a child, as a young man, as a married man and finally as a man with married children who had, in turn, passed through the prescribed rites as determined by the Kikuyu tradition. As described elsewhere, each of these stages and rites was celebrated in community by the ritual slaughtering of a goat. Having met all the requirements and qualifications of elderhood, he was approached, following carefully polled public opinion, by community representatives and other regional elders who requested him to undertake the elder function on behalf of the people living in a geographic area corresponding to the jurisdiction of the government appointed subchief.
As a regional elder, he serves at the beck and call of the community; indeed, his time is not his own. It is his role to maintain harmony in the community. Inasmuch as possible, the regional elder is seen to be performing well if matters arising among community members can be solved within the community. If they cannot be solved at this level, the elder may be required to consult with the government appointed subchief and in this manner invoke the intervention of the administrative apparatus of the Kenya government.
Living as he does in a densely populated periurban area of Nairobi, this regional elder must cater to the needs of many non-Kikuyu people living within his community. How are they included and how are their needs served? It is considered to be the duty of the regional elder to ascertain in the most careful manner who among the “immigrant” community members is considered to speak with an authoritative voice on their behalf. By soliciting and engaging the wisdom of such an authoritative person or persons, it is usually possible to resolve problems related to local non-Kikuyu residents. Whether catering to needs of his own Kikuyu people or the needs of “immigrants,” his primary role is to maintain the peace and well-being of people, including all and excluding none.
In May of 1998, Muchene wa Ngugi was obliged to deal with a major case of theft. The resolution of such an incident requires careful investigation by the elder, gaining a fairly good idea of the identity of the culprits before launching into a process of formal public inquiry. Once it has been determined to the satisfaction of all that the real culprits have indeed been identified, it becomes imperative to conduct a cleansing ceremony, ridding the community of the stigma of an unsavory and disruptive incident.
As a member of the Catholic Church, Muchene thought it appropriate that the church perform this ritual cleansing ceremony after the civil matters related to the theft had been dealt with. Together with another elder, he demonstrated on the church grounds the instruments normally used in a Kikuyu cleansing exercise; for these purposes, he wore a ceremonial wraparound cloth, held a basin of water in one hand and a leafy twig from a special tree in the other with which to sprinkle the participants with water in a public ceremony. Additionally, both he and his colleague were carrying ceremonial walking sticks. By means of this demonstration, the traditional Kikuyu cleansing ceremony was “transferred” or “inculturated” to the care and performance of the local Catholic Church.
What is the procedure to be followed when the people necessarily involved in the cleansing ceremony are members of a church other than the Catholic Church? In such a case, the regional elder consults with the respective church authorities concerned, facilitating in whatever ways necessary the performance of the cleansing ceremony in the church of choice in the community, whether the matter involves Kikuyu or non-Kikuyu people.
Elder Joseph Muchene wa Ngugi’s jurisdiction is located in a densely populated peri-urban sector of Nairobi. The land on which he lives is ancestral land; his father’s house still stands on the compound. He has married children and grandchildren living in surrounding houses, a configuration which itself calls for the exercise of his elder role as family head. During our initial visit, he was in preparation for a prayer service, attended by family and friends, on behalf of his wife who had just been discharged from the hospital. The second encounter was cut short when his house was suddenly filled with ladies from the community, representing the variety of churches, for purposes of comforting his recuperating wife. Just as the interview was ending, he showed us the files of a self-help group of which he is chairman;.”The members of this self-help group,” he explained, “are all in my age group.”
Muchene was extraordinarily forthcoming with all details of his elder role. Indeed, despite the residual effects of a flu, he seemed to be greatly animated by the opportunity to explain his elder role. Equally impressive were the practical manifestations which we witnessed in his receiving of guests, and in the calm order of the extended family living on the ancestral grounds. Muchene’s elder role seems to serve that remarkable and sensitive interface between his Kikuyu jurisdiction (now infiltrated by many non-Kikuyu people and the strong effects of encroaching urbanization), on the one hand, and the Kenya government structure, on the other. Like other interviewees, he voiced his frustration with “land-grabbing” government officials, “some of whom are our own sons.” “How can our own people betray us like this?” He would agree with Ngonya wa Gakonya that the Kenya government has usurped governance roles traditionally carried out by the paramount Council of Kikuyu elders, but which, in the hands of the government, have been vastly corrupted, leaving in their wake confusion and imbalance.70
The Catholic Kikuyu Elder
By far the most surprising discovery in this field work is the Kikuyu ritual performed for the specific purpose of initiating a newly ordained Catholic priest into the elder- hood role. Our informant, 55-year-old Julius Kariuki Mungai, an active layman in the Catholic Church, has on occasion served as the host and master of ceremonies for such a ritual. It is the prerogative of the newly ordained priest to request such services of an older uncle or friend. As with all other Kikuyu ceremonies, this one is characterized by the ritual slaughtering of a goat. In the presence of friends, relatives and community members, the newly ordained priest becomes a Kikuyu elder, now recognized as a person equipped with special knowledge and skills, prepared to serve as a spiritual father of many, therefore rightly laying claim to “offspring” and thus ensuring his contribution to the enlargement and continuation of life. As in the case of the regional elder, it is expected that the priest will have undergone all the Kikuyu ceremonies which render him an adult “man.” According to Mungai, in his experience it has not been customary to inform expatriate priests of the full intent and meaning of such a ceremony, even though they may be invited to attend festivities (featuring Coca Cola and roasted goat meat). For it is feared that they might misperceive this profoundly Kikuyu elderhood initiation, which so clearly interfaces between the Kikuyu community and, in this case, the Catholic Church, which jurisdiction extends far beyond the Kikuyu community. According to layman Mungai, such commissioning ceremonies provide the priest with the assurance and the confidence of legitimate inclusion within the larger Kikuyu community. Additionally, the priest thus initiated can be assured of constant support from the person who hosted or presided over the ceremony. Indeed, he can never be refused access and assistance.71
Fifty-three-year-old Reverend Father Dominique Kianduma, a Kikuyu priest serving at the office of the Holy Family Basilica in the center of Nairobi city, offered additional insights. He confirmed that the Kikuyu practice of rendering an ordained Kikuyu priest an elder is in fact carried out; indeed, it is becoming increasingly common.72 To qualify for such elderhood, the priest “must be a man,” (circumcised) and he must, like his counterpart regional elder, be able to be entrusted with secrets; he must be “mean (careful) with words as in the kiama” (council of elders) and with the confidences which his people (in this case the parishioners of the church among whom would be many Kikuyu people) entrust to him.
According to Father Dominique, the ceremony rendering a priest an elder is ritualized with the aid of green potato vines, one of which is ceremonially dropped to the ground to coincide with the respective prayer requests for an increase of children, of animals, of the virtues of love, peace and unity and for the increase of the fruit of the land.
Is a similar ceremony conducted, say, for a Kikuyu man who becomes a member of the Kenya Parliament? “No,” says Father Dominique, “because the priest serves in the Kikuyu sacrificial tradition. By contrast, the MP’s role is secular and perceived by many to be exploitative rather than in the service of the constituents.” Is this ceremony seen as an “inculturation”73 exercise? Again the answer is a clear “no.” Rather, according to Father Dominique, it is perceived as a way of rendering this person “whole” from the Kikuyu community to the service of the larger church community. “It is a means of sustaining the integrity of the Kikuyu community, that source of our common sense of moral order.” The church seems to serve as a vehicle for extending or expressing the tenets of that order.74
An interview with Mr. Nicholas Mbocha Mirie served as a means of testing the veracity of information gleaned from a variety of informants. He spoke of the role of medicine man played by his grandfather, as means of rectifying breaches of taboos; he confirmed that Ngai was often directly addressed, but that ancestors were less disturbed by the living; they were appeased by various intermediary ceremonies. He verified the existence of the “regional elder” and was fully aware of the dedication of Kikuyu Catholic priests as Kikuyu elders. He remonstrated against the practice of saint veneration in the Catholic Church, which required him to venerate strangers and foreigners. He would much prefer to honor his own ancestors who are well known to him and who lived worthy exemplary lives. He lamented that other ceremonies from the tradition, such as “rebirth,” were condemned by the church, which then proceeds to institute its own parallel rituals.
Like others, he laments that Kikuyu people, who have benefitted from education offered by the church, so easily turn to exploit their own people. Like colonial officers before them and like the officers of present government in Kenya, they are part of the siri-kali (the nasty secret), which passes for the formal sector government and civil service of the day. “Missionaries and colonial officers conspired together to undermine Kikuyu culture, the effects of which plague our people to this day.” The values which held our people together in unity are no longer agreed to; when there is no common agreement by which we are to live, “there is obviously no sin. . . . Our people violate the tradition with no sense of wrongdoing.”75
The Kikuyu Oracle Speaks
The evidence marshaled in this paper suggests that the Kikuyu oracle speaks with muted voice and cleft tongue; it speaks amidst a variety of nuances and the pressures of a harsh modern environment. Still its composite message, however truncated, can be discerned.
Its clearest manifestation can be observed in the role of the regional elder, typically in his mid-50s, combining the role of husband, father of married children, manager of the enlarged homestead, reference point for the diverse peoples within his jurisdiction, contact point between his people and the government of Kenya, but supremely, as custodian of the Kikuyu tradition, rooted in the ancestral land on which he lives. People in his age group and above hear and express the voice of the composite oracle with great clarity; indeed, their hearing is informed still by the vast cultural hinterlands which provide authenticity for the regional elder role.
The regional elder role is the more remarkable for its ability to cater for the immediate and changing needs of the Kikuyu people, for the needs of “strangers”76 or “immigrants” living among them, for “including” and adapting to the element of Christian church, for generally servicing the interface between Kikuyu tradition and the rest of the world.
Young people within the jurisdiction of the elder hear only the muted voice of the oracle.77 They are forthright with observations on their immediate circumstances.78 Some were vaguely aware of the elder role. All of them speak the Kikuyu language and all of them know many proverbs. But the larger cultural or value framework within which such wisdom functions is indistinct and distant. At this point in their lives, there is no systematic exposure to Kikuyu religio-cultural tradition.
Almost equally distant from the oracle is the educated Kikuyu scientist, living in a very large world while intuitively fulfilling the obligations which the tradition requires of him. Like the young people, he participates in few, if any, formal Kikuyu rituals; for this older Kikuyu personality, the rituals have for all practical purposes been secularized into mere social habit and custom.
For me, as a student of the African religio-cultural heritage, by far the most intriguing discovery arising from this research relates to the induction of ordained Catholic priests into Kikuyu elderhood. As a ceremony, it is intended to express and sustain the integrity of the Kikuyu community. Indeed, the church has not been asked or expected to endorse the ceremony in any way. Thus, there is the strange specter of the Catholic Church serving as an important, if unintentional, vector in the service of the Kikuyu religio-cultural tradition. It is in the church where the most educated of the Kikuyu “sacrificers” live and serve their own and other people.
For those who wish to hear, the oracle of Kikuyu elderhood speaks clearly. It speaks of community, of religious, cultural and human values, of “sacrificial” service to Kikuyu people in particular, and to the larger community in general. In interesting ways, the voice of the people is the voice of God.
This paper was written originally as an assignment for a course entitled African Morality, taught by Prof. Fr. Laurenti Magesa in June 1998 at Tangaza College, Nairobi, Kenya
38. This is the essential premise of the course on African Morality as taught by Dr. Magesa and reflected throughout his book, African Religion: Moral Traditions for Abundant Living. 1997. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, New York.
39. "In this portion of [sub-Sahara] Africa, history is in fact out of the question," Masolo quoting Hegel. "They have no history in the true [Hegelian] sense of the word[!]" African Philosophy in Search of Identity by D. A. Masolo. 1994. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, IN. p. 5.
40. Informant Nicholas Mbocha Mirie reported that his people assumed that missionaries, colonial civil servants and the metropole imperial power coordinated their efforts to the disadvantage of Kikuyu well being. (Interview on June 14, 1998, at Waithaka, Dagoretti, Nairobi.) Dr. J. N. Waiyaki was even more emphatic: ‘The colonial system, including the missionary component, was vicious, anti-human.’ (Interview on June 15, 1998 at Kinoo, Nairobi [West].)
41. Augustine C. Musopole in his article "Religion, Spirituality and Umunthu", refers favorably to Donald Frazer who during the 1890s expressed keen interest in the culture and religious practice of people in Malawi. Exceptions of this kind would seem to prove the rule. The Agitated Mind of God: The Theology of Kosuke Koyama by Dale T. Irwin and Akintunde E. Akinade (eds). 1996. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York. pp. 46–49.
42. Tempels, P. Placide. La Philosophie Bantoue. 1945. Lovania, Elizabethville. Presence Africaine, Paris. 1949.
43. Although strictly speaking not the first to do so, the title (African Religion) and the contents of Dr. Magesa’s book make a bold case for the existence and practice of African Religion in Africa’s sub-Saharan region, reflecting widely held, recognizable generic tenets. Moreover, it is his thesis that African Religion is consciously and unconsciously in conversation with Christianity, with Islam and with modern Africa.
44. Orientation remarks by Fr. Kirwen made the point as did the underlying premises in class presentation.
45. Bediako, Kwame. Christianity in Africa; The Renewal of a Non-Western Religion 1995. Orbis Books. New York. p. 180.
46. Schoffeleers, M. Matthew. River of Blood: The Genesis of a Martyr Cult in Southern Malawi, c. A. D. 1600. 1992. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. p. 175.
47. Informants repeatedly referred to circumcision as the ritual which renders a boy a "man".
48. Wachege, P. N. Jesus Christ Our Muthamaki (Ideal Elder): An African Christological Study Based on the Agikyu Understanding of Elder. 1992. Phoenix Publishers Ltd., Nairobi. pp. 17–25.
49. Before commencing the field work, the existence of a paramount or senior Kikuyu Council of Elders formed on the basis of representation from the "nine" (ten!) clans had been assumed. It quickly became evident that such a formally constituted senior council does not in fact function today. According to Joseph Muchene wa Ngugi (himself a regional elder—58 years old), today’s "council of elders" functions as an informal collectivity of regional elders who confer with each other on issues of broad concern. (Interview on June 15, 1998, at Waithaka, Dagoretti, Nairobi.)
50. "According to the Agikuyu, the ten daughters, though ten were not ten, but kenda muiyuru (nine fully)." According to the elders interviewed, it is taboo to give the exact number of one’s children. "Violating such a taboo, it was believed, would bring a bad omen." Ibid. P. N. Wachege. p. 7.
51. The classic popular resource in this regard is Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta. 1938. Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd. (A 1991 edition was published by Heinemann Kenya Ltd., Nairobi.)
52. Virtually every informant noted the importance of "keeping secrets" or being "mean with words".
53. All informants who were specifically asked, agreed that today’s "regional elder" serves at the highest level of Kikuyu elderhood.
54. Central government generates policies, laws and programs, approved by parliament and administered by provincial commissioners, district commissioners, district officers, chiefs and subchiefs.
55. According to Joseph Muchene wa Ngugi, Kenya’s central government structure from parliament to subchiefs, has usurped many of the roles which in preindependence days were carried out by the paramount Kikuyu Council of Elders. While accepting the central government as "ours," he indicated that some subchiefs function as charlatans or hirelings, not in the interest of the people. (Interview on June 15, 1998.) This dim view of the central government’s function was supported by Ngonya wa Gakonya who associated the advent of the Mau Mau war and the subsequent installation of the "opportunist" (his word) independent government of Jomo Kenyatta with the collapse of the more formally constituted paramount Kikuyu Council of Elders. Ngonya noted that the Kamkunji grounds along the Nairobi River in Pumwani, Nairobi, were once used by the Kikuyu elders as a place of sacrifice. In the hurly burly modern politics, these grounds have served as the site of the most vigorous protest against the present government of Kenya. Ngonya did not elaborate on the obvious connections. (Interview on June 9, 1998. Dagoretti Corner, Nairobi.)
56. (Interview on June 9, 1998. Dagoretti Corner, Nairobi.)
57. (Interview on June 15, 1998. Kinoo, Nairobi [West].)
58. This four-pronged prescription he offered as a parting comment at his home. (Interview on June 9, 1998.)
59. Ngonya wa Gokonya attracts a group of approximately 400 people who meet every Sunday from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. on a traffic island—around which vehicular movement is constant and noisy—under an acacia tree, from which the sound amplifying speakers are suspended. The traffic island is located next to the Nairobi River at the end of Racecourse Rd., south of the Kariokoo City Market. However, a core group of his youthful followers begins to gather already at 11:00 a.m., arranging the speaker system, broadcasting Kikuyu songs and interacting with interested early arrivals. The first words of introductory greetings accompanied by vigorous handshakes—shifting repeatedly from handgrasps to thumbgrasps—were invariably "thaai" (peace) an extended version of which was: "Thaai thathaiya Ngai thaai" (may peace prevail between God and men). The preservice testimonials and admonitions—including recitations of their respective genealogies as a means of authentication and rootage in the tradition—by the young men as well as the subsequent formal service were constantly interspersed with these salutations, perhaps a rough equivalent to "Praise the Lord," an admonition which characterizes many public gatherings of pentecostal Christians. The formal group prayer requires all the men to face Mt. Kenya with uplifted hands, standing in bare feet. The relatively few older women and young girls remained seated. Indeed, the basic order of the service was not unlike an evangelical Christian service. Prior to and during the service, many of the participating young men were sniffing snuff. Said one of them: "All of Ngai’s creation is to be enjoyed." During the testimonial period by the young men, the leader, Ngonya wa Gakonya, was also imbibing snuff. (My research assistant and I were present at the worship site from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on June 7, 1998.)
60. Ngonya recounted, in this context, an incident in which he entered the Kenyatta mausoleum in Nairobi, hoping to snatch Kenyatta’s flywhisk (and thus some of Kenyatta’s authority?). Unfortunately he was detected by the police and severely beaten, the evidence for which is a number of missing teeth. (Interview of June 9, 1998.)
61. The Sunday Nation newspaper of June 7, 1998, carried an article entitled: "MP warns against Mungiki sect". The MP was quoted as saying that the sect was taking the people of Central Province (Kikuyu) back to practices that they willfully abandoned 40 years ago.
62. He owns a very small plot in a periurban setting in the center of which is a simple wooden clapboard house surrounded by fruit trees and a vegetable garden, comprising mostly sweet potatoes. A derelict beige 504 Peugeot, covered by a black plastic sheet, is parked under a wooden shelter, a mute reminder of his more affluent business days. The interview was conducted in his "office" next to but separate from the house, some version, according to my research assistant, of the thingira or "man’s hut" on a traditional homestead compound. Immediately next to the thingira was a wooden lean-to equipped with a press bench and weighted barbells. For years he has been a physical fitness fan, evidenced by a firm muscular body and a vice grip handshake. He was imbibing snuff throughout the interview. (The interview was conducted at his home located just south of Dagoretti Corner, off the Ngong-Karen Rd. on June 9, 1998.)
63. Dr. Waiyaki freely recounted the "empty and unsatisfying" sensation resulting from his necessary frequenting of five-star hotels around the world. "It is not human to live in such isolated situations." He had earlier shared with the research field assistant his unease in driving a Mercedes Benz car when many of his compatriots, through no fault of their own, had no choice but walking. In consequence, he had traded his Mercedes for a more modest car.
64. By contrast, the airlift of Kenyans to the United States for purposes of undertaking higher studies was, according to Dr. Waiyaki, an extraordinary gesture. It provided a breath of fresh air after the stultifying atmosphere of the colonial regime.
65. He had designed and built his own house, which took the circular shape of a traditional hut. He apologized for the absence of his wife who is also employed. (The interview, solely in English, with Dr. Waiyaki was held on June 15, 1998, at his periurban homestead at Kinoo, Nairobi West.)
66. He lamented that married couples today are constrained by circumstance or their own hesitance to have large families. "Life is richer with more people about."
67. Partly as a consequence of this media exposure, he is constantly being sought for advice on marriage; for mediation in disputed issues, such as land issues; for points of clarity on the history of Kikuyu people; for details of cultural ceremonies; and for basic value affirmations of Kikuyu culture. His time is "fully booked," always at the service of his people.
68. Kinuthia Mugia was detained, beginning in 1952, for several years during Mau Mau on Mande Island, just next to Lamu Island on the Kenya coast.
69. Said he: "This is how we live, even after years of independence," implying that recovery from colonialism is still underway. A roofless pit latrine is situated just next to a pigsty, within the compact compound. Along the edges of the compound maize and other food crops were growing. (This interview was conducted in a mixture of Kikuyu, for greater intimacy with the field assistant, and Swahili, for my benefit, on June 6, 1998, in Kinuthia Mugia’s home, a simple wooden structure, located near Uthiru village west of Nairobi, just off the main Nairobi-Nakuru road.)
70. Joseph Muchene’s house is a well-built block house, plastered and painted on the inside, exuding a welcoming atmosphere. (The interview was conducted almost entirely in Swahili on June 15, 1998, on his compound near Waithaka-Dagoretti, Nairobi.)
71. Julius Kariuki Mungai is a timber merchant at Dagoretti Corner, Nairobi. Near the conclusion of the interview, the conversation centered on the nature of African Religion and its Kikuyu manifestations. Like Dr. Waiyaki, Mr. Mungai (who apart from his role as head of family and relative in an extended family, plays no formal elder role) speaks of the implicit nature of Kikuyu religio-cultural practice in daily life. And like Waiyaki, he is hard pressed to conceive of a formal program which would strengthen what he clearly perceives to be an eroding cultural and spiritual resource. He expressed delight and surprise when presented with a copy of Magesa’s book. "So this religion is practiced all over Africa." In a free-ranging conversation, Mungai noted that Christian schools had usurped roles earlier performed by the tradition. Such modern schools had the advantage of bringing together students from all of the country, thus helping to avoid incest, a primary concern in traditional society. Like other informants, he noted that modern government had taken over important roles of the tradition, at once secularizing and often distorting them into a disservice. (This interview was conducted in a mixture of English and Swahili on June 13, 1998, on his business premises, located along the road immediately south of Dagoretti Corner, Nairobi.)
72. Peter Muchiri, my research field assistant and Catholic seminary graduate, asserted that 90 percent of the Kikuyu Catholic priests in the Nairobi Diocese have been consecrated as Kikuyu elders. The remaining 10 percent are under pressure to do so. This statistic was not checked with other informants.
73. "Inculturation" is a term widely used in Catholic theological circles, referring to the process by which the Christian Gospel develops African religio-cultural rootage.
74. Rev. Father Dominique Kianduma was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1977. The interview came at the end of the day and was cut short by an urgent appointment which he needed to keep. (He was interviewed in English in his office at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi on June 17, 1998.)
75. The homestead is now filled with the houses of relatives and with rental houses available to nonrelatives who work in Nairobi. (Mr. Nicholas Mbocha Mirie was interviewed in Swahili on June 14, 1998, at his old home in Waithaka, Dagoretti, Nairobi, situated on the ancestral homestead.)
76. Like many other African peoples, the Kikuyu take very seriously the biblical and traditional Kikuyu injunction to welcome "strangers".
77. (On Sunday June 21, 1998, this interview with approximately 12 young boys and girls aged between 18 and 20 from the Karolo Lwanga Catholic Church of Waithaka, Dagoretti, Nairobi, was arranged by the research field assistant with Mrs. Lydia Wairimu Mungai, an active adult member of the church.)
78. With only the slightest prodding, the young people aired their frustrations; they feel assaulted by the moral values of the modern media; they are neglected by their parents who work hard for material gain and who are too rarely accessible; they observe government officials—among them even their Kikuyu acquaintances—grabbing land. The clinical teaching of human sexuality in schools lacks the warmth and concern of "instruction" from trusted elders; even those in the group who had undertaken ritual circumcision spoke of an instructor who abused his trust. Several of them have sought specific information from their grandmothers on the ways of the tradition—one of them had asked the grandmother about the problems related to giving birth out of wedlock. These young people feel strong support from their church; concerned parents volunteer their time to be with them, offering guidance on church, personal and moral matters. (This interview was conducted on June 21, 1998, at the Karolo Lwanga Catholic Church, Waitha, Dagoretti, Nairobi.)