Cultural practices are only judged against the clear dictates of faith

Due to several dynamics in my personal story, I have engaged with the question of the relationship between tradition, culture and faith in the last one year more than ever before. Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s first book “The River Between” exemplifies this tenuous relationship in when Muthoni, one of the characters in the book, dies after undergoing circumcision, a cultural practice vigorously preached against in those days.

Her last words are a message to her sister Nyambura, that in her death she could see Jesus and that she was “a woman, beautiful in the tribe...”. In decades since the European missionaries landed in Kenya, this relationship has been the cause of much personal and societal tension. Interestingly, the missionaries had different approaches to the issue of indigenous culture in different parts of Kenya, ruthlessly annihilating some while accommodating others. 

In Central Kenya where I emanate from, the evangelising missionaries declared almost all aspects of indigenous culture evil, “ushenzi”, and decreed that a mark of good education and true Christianity was a total departure by the Kikuyu from his culture and traditions. Many cultural practices which had defined and celebrated birth, marriage, death or burial were deemed retrogressive and incompatible with Christianity or modernity. What did not become obvious to many of the new converts that the Christian faith they were accepting was being mixed with European culture and traditions dishonestly packaged as one.

As a mark of Christian rebirth they were required to receive and be known by an English first name. A cultured man abandoned traditional liquor in favour of western beer wine and spirits. Cultural dance was exchanged for the fox-trot and twist. A Christian could not cut the “kiande” when wedding; he instead exchanged English rings and ate cake. The English were able to exchange their traditions and practices by emphasising those aspects in our cultures which, like is true of all cultures, were retrogressive. No one could defend a practice that subjugated one gender over another, that even allowed a man to physically “discipline” his wife. Female circumcision, was generally brutal on a woman’s body.

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Unfortunately, the baby was thrown away with the bath water. Over time the place and value of traditional practices was lost and we settled into modernity having one or two extreme views of culture tradition and faith. On the one extreme, was the view that everything about indigenous tradition and culture was evil. On the other extreme were those who over glorified indigenous culture and tradition. To them, anything that came courtesy of the colonising westerner was suspect and all that we had inherited from our forefathers was honourable.

Each of these extremes come with its burdens. The former has to contend with increased awareness that many inherited western practices were unbiblical, meaningless and sometimes harmful. It also has to contend with the innate nature of culture and tradition; the reality that ingrained in our persona is the need to belong to something unique and that culture and tradition become one of those “default” uniques.

The other extreme is also impractical and unreal. How can a person living in a modern world which has all the tools of western culturalisation survive in a unique world of indeginous culture and tradition? The continuing contestation of those extremes has over time produced a desire to re-define a reasonable relationship between culture, faith and modernity, the need to retain and honour those aspects of culture and tradition that are beautiful and have meaning while modernising them so that they absorb current contextual realities. In my part of the world, many ceremonies are flavoured with indigenous practices that add value to the ceremony and celebrate meaningful aspects of culture. For me and other people of faith, cultural practices are only judged against the clear dictates of faith as defined, not by the missionary, but by the Bible. Of course this is a continuing journey where the push towards extremes will be constant. In the meantime, join me in enjoying my African self today.  

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- The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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ChristianityCultural PracticesFaith