Ageless dances used to pass on, preserve Taita culture

Members of the Lushangoni Catholic Youth Group go through their paces as they entertain guests with Mwazindika dance (Taita traditional dance) at Ngernyi Farm during the 11th edition of the Madoka Half Marathon championship, October 24, 2016. [File, Standard]

Clad in colourful traditional costumes, a group of dancers take to the stage with gusto, treating an expectant audience with riveting vibes right from the start to the end of a gripping performance.

With a powerful rhythm of the drums, the dancers entertain guests at the only cultural centre known as Njama Mzango on the outskirts of Wundanyi town in Taita-Taveta County.

As the dance reaches a crescendo, a woman falls as if she is possessed by spirits locally known as Saka Ya Nyonyi.

Other dancers then sprinkle cold water on her so that she can regain consciousness.

The water does magic as the dance suddenly stops, then resumes, to the audience's amusement.

The centre is the only remaining cultural facility in the county, with 52 registered groups. It is also the cultural education centre where one can learn the norms of the community and acts as a repository of the community artefacts.

According to the centre's chairperson, Mzee Mwemba Msula, the Taita dances and songs are performed with a purpose and are part of the locals' lives.

He says the dances are intricately interwoven into the fabric of life as a preserver and transmitter of the local culture from one generation to the next.

“Our dancing troupe is composed of both elderly and youthful members for transition purposes,” says Msula.

"Our responsibility is to sensitise the community on the need to preserve different cultural values for the benefit of the future generation because culture has for a long time been used as a powerful tool for instruction, education, and preparation of the young for adult roles. We cannot allow it to fade away.”

Among the dances performed in the area include Mwazindika, Kishawi and Kinyandi. The echoes of Mwazindika usually steal the thunder in most events.

Though the traditional dances and songs are waning in popularity owing to cultural erosion and religion, they are still performed in Mwanda, Mbololo and Kasigau.

The dances give meaning to the stages of life and communicate status transformation in the community.

Msula says the dances and songs contain a mosaic of information and skills meant to assist an individual in coping with life within the community.

The elder says one cannot talk of a Taita dance without talking about the music, which is an integral part of the dances.

He says deep respect is paid to the mkaba ngoma (drummer), who creates powerful drum rhythms and an enabling atmosphere where the ancestors speak to the living.

Msula says the uja uvinagha (dancer) is the communicator and articulator of everyday life experiences through motion and song. His or her costume, which is usually elaborate or flamboyant, is an essential part of the communication process.

“It is important to be alive to the fact that Taita culture is a functional social entity developed over the centuries to meet practical needs,” he says.

The elder narrates that drama, poetry, dialogue, and music are an integral part of the dances and were developed not so much for their aesthetic value but rather to maintain and perpetuate the culture.

Yesterday, Msula said participation in the dances offers many benefits to the child in terms of physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and aesthetic development.

“Through the repetitive nature of the chants, songs, and choruses in the dances, the children get to develop language and communication skills hence speeding up the socialization and integration process,” he says.

The elder says people visiting the centre can learn more about Taita and Taveta songs, music, and dances.

He admits that most of the Taita traditions and customs have been eroded due to the advent of Christianity and Western culture.

In the past, the community sacrificed goats or sheep during drought, wars and famine.

But today, most of the residents no longer pray in skull caves but churches. The Taita had a unique culture in which the dead were highly respected.

When a person died, he was buried for one year. The body would then be exhumed, and the skull severed from the rest of the body and taken to a sacred cave.

The community treated the cave as a sacred place where people would pray for rain or offer sacrifices during a crisis. They believed that the dead were too close to their ancestors.

The Taita also used to practice both male and female circumcision. They circumcised children between the age of seven to 11 years. Female circumcision is now discouraged.

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