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The 'revered' shrines of Abanyala and the myths surrounding them

Residents use boats to cross Yala swamp in Budala Village, Busia County. The swamp hosts the Abakoni's 'Ndekwe Shrine' where youths and women are not allowed to go to. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

Whenever he fails to get a proper catch of fish in the deep waters or even the climate doesn’t work in his favour, Joseph Odongo soaks himself in the Yala Swamp at Ndekwe Shrine for 'special' prayers to the ancestors.

On Monday morning, he stands before the shrine that is surrounded by indigenous trees, rocks, shrubs and papyrus reeds to intercede for challenges that affect fishing in Lake Victoria, River Nzoia and River Yala that pass through Budalang’i.

“Ndekwe our forefather, we don't want it to be rough on us in the deep waters. Give us good luck and plenty of fish when we sink our nets on the high seas. Protect us from the crocodiles, monitor lizards, snakes and other bad water creatures,” says Odongo in the Kinyala dialect of the Abaluhya.

This generic pleading among the Abanyala clan fishermen, he says, has somehow worked for them through generations, the reason why they frequent the shrine which appears most revered in Budalang’i among other shrines in the region.

The position of the shrine, deep inside the murky Yala wetland, makes it appear more guarded, secretive and even sacred than its opposite of Bulwani, Ahinga and Iyanga.

It will take you some 30 minutes from Namabusi beach of Lake Victoria on a hand-rowed boat to reach a man-made road passing through a bush of papyrus leading to the site.

You then dock the boat and wallow in the wetland which is home to hippos, snakes, lizards and other sea creatures for another 10 to 20 minutes to get to the revered site of the Banyala to make a petition to Ndekwe.

Joseph Odongo, a member of the Abakoni clan prays at the Ndekwe shrine in the historical Yala Swamp in Budalangi, Busia County. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

“Ndekwe shrine is home to the Abakhoone sub-clan of the Abanyala. The Balwani and Abanyekera go to Bulwani, Abangoma to Ayinga as Abayanga make supplications and prayers at Iyanga shrine. Crossing from one shrine to another among the sub-clans is sacrilegious,” says Odongo.

“The Abakhoone are populous and have more socio-cultural influence among the Abanyala and indeed Luhya sub-tribes that is why their shrine is more revered,” he adds.

Thomas Mango, a resident of Budalang'i, says the majority of the Abanyala used to stay in the 20,500-hectare Yala swamp before migrating to other sites but often go to the site for rituals.

“Most who departed from fishing and are now doing crop framing usually go to the shrines when the skies refuse to pour rains and sometimes when they become sick,” he says.

The traffic to the shrine particularly grows in the political season, with growing needs of getting power and particularly backing from different sub-clans of the Abanyala.

The typical Mubakhoone clansman will for instance not give you his vote if you haven’t visited their shrine and so is the case with the other sub-clans who mediate at the other respective shrines in Budalang'i.

“Most of our politicians must visit the shrines to get the blessings from all the shrines and major sub-clans of the Banyala before officially announcing their bid to the public,” says Calvin Andira, a fisherman in the lake.

“They approach the shrine while holding the head of a papyrus reed as a gesture of accepting the leadership mantle.”

To visit the shrines, he says, one shouldn’t have a sexual affair with his wife or the ancestors would be enraged and turn against his prayers.

Women are not allowed to gather firewood or loiter around the shrine for that would impact negatively the community.

“It is believed from folklore that the first woman to defy the tradition encountered a giant snake and spent the rest of her years evangelising to her peers never to set foot at the hallowed grounds. The tale is still there and no woman dares visit the area,” says Andira, now a born-again man and an elder.

If a woman has a prayer item or needs some cleansing at the site, she has to use male emissaries.

But with increasing modernisation, Sande Musiola, a Munyala from Abakhoone, says women are slowly being allowed to the grounds around shrines even as most would prefer to send male emissaries.

"The last time I visited, they had a site at the peripheries of the Ndekwe shrine set aside for them," he says.

He adds that the string wave of Christianity has cut in on the beliefs surrounding the shrines and the majority of the Abanyala even don't care that the shrines exist.