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Take it or leave it: Gender identities and sexuality are key to spirituality, culture

By Barrack Muluka | Published Sun, December 31st 2017 at 10:15, Updated December 31st 2017 at 10:29 GMT +3
Nzambani rock near Kitui. The rock has a gender mystery surrounding it (Photo: Courtesy)

By any calculus, the mysterious Nzambani Rock outside Kitui Town is an enigma. This marvel of nature – the unique rock outgrowth juts 600 feet or 184 metres above the ground – speaks in many tongues. It’s a beguiling – some say living – wonder of the world. It beckons – from every corner of the earth – one and all with its bewitching tales of the metaphysical. Its origins are shrouded in the paranormal – the supernormal. Most Kenyan schools sent their students to bathe and wallow in the glory and mysticism of Nzambani Rock. On a recent visit, I climbed to the very top. In this piece, I recount myth, culture, and the intersection of gender, spirituality, religion, sexuality, and the futility of skepticism.

First, some optics. From the top of Nzambani Rock, one gets a 360-degree clear view of Kitui County. The Rock itself is visible from 60 miles away. It’s a shame the state has done virtually nothing to make Nzambani Rock a tourist attraction. The short 45-minute drive from the edge of Kitui Town could take a mere 20 minutes if the road – one can’t call it that – wasn’t so pathetic. It boggles the mind why the government, or private entrepreneurs, haven’t taken advantage of such a national jewel. I expect the county government under Governor Charity Ngilu to mount and facilitate an entertainment complex on site including lodging, restaurants, a decent visitor center, shops, and other fun outlets.

In its threadbare untamed pristine state, Nzambani Rock wows with its natural beauty. Creating modern life around it needn’t despoil it – it can be tastefully done to blend with the environment. The walk from base camp to the ladder that takes one up the Rock can offer two tracks – the natural difficult terrain for the young and athletic, and a more massaged route for the elderly or infirm. As it is now, the latter take one look at the forbidding terrain from base camp to the ladder and despair.  And yet there are no facilities or amenities at base camp – not even a decent toilet. I hope Governor Ngilu will end this failure of imagination and initiative.

This wasn’t a gripe piece. Let me get back to the purpose of my story. The lore is that Nzambani Rock “grew” out of a single young woman named Nzamba. Apparently, a white colonialist named it Nzambani after the young woman. According to legend, the mystical young woman and two female companions were looking for firewood. It’s said she picked up two rocks – used for splitting rocks and wood – and tucked them under her breasts. She immediately started to grow taller right before their eyes. In shock, her companions fled. Upon their return the following morning, they found she had turned into a tall imposing awesome rock. A closer look at Nzambani Rock reveals the silhouette of a woman’s breasts.

Instruction of elders

Thus Nzambani Rock “originates” from a woman. The primacy of the female gender is critical because the cultural and spiritual narrative of Nzambani Rock revolve around it. The cultural retelling of the origin of the Rock emphasizes its perpetually living state. This permanency of the female gender is an allegorical device that underscores a basic fact – life isn’t possible without girls and women. It’s a valorization and denotation of women as the foundation and sustenance of society – and makes a lie of essentialised misogyny or the bigoted narrative that African cultures are inherently and historically misogynistic. That Nzambani Rock is a sacred site of ritual speaks volumes about the elevation of women in the Kamba culture.

The better known fable about Nzambani Rock, however, is about gender change or gender transitions – what today is known as transgender or transsexual. These involve in one way or another the change from one gender or sex to another for a variety of reasons. In the extant case, the mythology is that one’s gender will change if they circle Nzambani Rock seven times. That myth has one reported case of a boy who loathed his gender because Kamba society favored girls and women. At the instruction of elders, he circled Nzambani Rock seven times whereupon he was transformed into a girl and was then married off. Here, folklore underlines the preference of the female gender by boys and men.

It’s said Nzambani Rock has within it fierce spirits that guard against anyone who seeks to harm it. Gender identities and sexuality are central to its spirituality and religious purchase. Central to Nzambani Rock is the cultural view that gender identities and sexualities are not static, but dynamic and fluid. This suggests that homophobia and transphobia are indeed un-African, and not African, as has been propounded by the messianic faiths – Christianity and Islam. One wonders why this cultural narrative hasn’t entered the mainstream.

- Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua


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