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We should use modern religion and tradition to fix what ails our society

By Njoki Kaigai | March 15th 2020

Last week, the cardinal of the Archdiocese of Nairobi sent out a terse communication warning against the ‘Gwata Ndai’ group. According to the Cardinal, this group whose operations seem to be prevalent in Kiambu is akin to a cult and is promoting retrogressive habits such as female genital mutilation.

A few days later, some Kikuyu wazees went to the media to respond to these allegations saying this group aims to promote Kikuyu values and should not be viewed as a dangerous cult.

A few years ago, yet another church had taken issue with the emergent trend of mburi cia kiama (goats of the wazees) and how these kiamas had taken over the issue of the male rights of passage.

While I am no sociologist, there is more than meets the eye about these turf wars. In my view it exposes the challenges that arise when modern religion meets traditional culture.

For some strange reason, communities in East Africa and particularly those in Central Kenya have not been able to walk the dual sides of being African - that you can be modern and traditional culture.

West Africans excel at this - they will speak and dress like the King and Queen of England or of the South in America and yet embrace all that comes with being Yoruba, Igbo or Akin.

Even here in Kenya we have some communities good at being faithful churchgoers and yet are able to embrace the traditional dances, brews and even have two wives. In my view, what both the bishops and the Gwata Ndai group need to understand is that the Kikuyu history introduced certain challenges, which still manifest themselves today.

These challenges must be addressed perhaps with a certain mix of godliness and good old tradition. Now, before anyone lynches me, here are my facts.

For those who have read history, they will understand that the Kikuyus had a well-established system of governance, managing important social events and most importantly punishing and correcting errant behaviour.

There was an elaborate system that incorporated age groups (created at circumcision) to elevations through the athuri (wazee) hierarchy to manage social order. As was usual with most African societies, these systems were male dominated but somehow managed to maintain peace and order.

The fight for independence wreaked havoc especially for households as men were bundled to detention and families corralled into reserves.

Suddenly, Kikuyu households became single parent households with women at the helm. The downside is that previous social systems fell apart for the men and there was no one to manage correction and punishment. 

The Kikuyu women became a feisty character who could manage many challenges but in the process they managed to bring up grown men who lacked the steel and spine to manage challenges of adulthood. The church then transversed Kikuyu land preaching the gospel but in the process managed to create a ‘divide’ between those who embraced the faith and those who chose not to leave their traditions behind. The new converts received the benefits almost instantaneously, while those who shunned the faith including freedom fighters lost out on the goodies that came with modern Kenya.

Self-centred people

Therefore by independence time, the Kikuyu society had evolved into one full of largely self-centred people who cared little for their community. Not much has changed since and many people have come to accept that Kikuyus are largely self-centred and look out mainly for themselves and if you are lucky for just their immediate family. This selfishness means no one in the community (perhaps your family) cares if a wife runs for the hills, if a child falls into some bad habits, or if a certain man becomes nothing but a serial baby-maker.

After all these years, many folks in and outside the Kikuyu community are acknowledging that there are some serious societal problems. The problems exist in many forms from the very many men who have lost their manhood to the bottle as evidenced by those many protests of women ombaring serikari to saidia wanuame wetu and politicians bemoaning empty kindergartens.

The problems exist in the many young men who have lost their lives in petty crimes and those unable to hold down a job and family. To say there is a men’s crisis in the Kikuyu community is a gross understatement.

Despite all the years of pious worship, those who like to call themselves Kikuyus and who can recall the days of yore are realising that the fusion of church and modernity does not have all the answers.

They have seen that sometimes one needs to throw more than holy water or Holy Scripture at today’s problem.

They recognise that sometimes penalties and punishment in this lifetime and at community level are more effective than threats of fire and brimstone in the afterlife.

They are realising that there are some elements about the old traditions that do wonders for family bonds - like the dowry negotiations complete with the regalia and the muratina. They are feeling that being a muthuri (mzee) imposes more responsibility for other young men and causes one to behave better since all bad behaviour is severely punished.

For reasons, I am yet to understand why they also like being able to offer some chants and use cryptic language.

We are yet to see if all this so-called cultural revival will work, but based on current circumstances we should be open to trying anything to fix the problem. It might also be time for churches to review and develop innovative strategies that help young men and women deal with the emerging issues - something that goes beyond praise and worship and homilies.

Of course, we must draw the line of rites and practices that trample on the rights of others but from where I sit, I see no reason why we cannot use both modern religion and tradition to fix the ails that affect our society. After all, the West Africans do it with flair and pomp. -

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