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Elders, politicians: Genuine blessings or milch cow business?

By Patrick Beja and Ndungu Gachane | November 1st 2021
Raila Odinga (seated second right) hosts Kikuyu Council of Elders, led by Chairman Wachira Kiago (seated right), at his Karen home, Nairobi. [File, Standard]

Aspirants seeking elective positions are going all out to attract voters, including seeking blessings from elders in a bid to get communities’ support.

An elder in any cultural set-up in Kenya is a respectable person and a sign of authority with ability to guide the community on which direction to take on a particular issue. 

In the Kikuyu tradition, for instance, an elder is blessed with Muthigi – the walking stick – which is the crown of authority. It is only handed to men who are respected and have met a certain strict set of rules and steps.

So important is an elder’s blessings that even women who arguably are not allowed to be crowned as elders have sought the blessings.

In 2015, Murang’a Woman Representative Wanjiru Chege was crowned a Kikuyu community leader, despite protests from some elders that the move was taboo.

Kikuyu Council of Elders Chairman Wachira Kiago, who presided over the ceremony, defended the move and said it was not wrong for a woman to be crowned a leader.

“They claim we are installing her as an elder, which is false. We are merely crowning her as a leader of women folk in the County,” said Kiago.

In 2016, Kirinyaga Governor Ann Waiguru was recognised by Kiama Kia Ma (the Kikuyu Council of Elders) as a Kirinyaga leader after undergoing a traditional rite. She was dressed in a special cloth known as Thitu which is reserved for selected Kikuyu women leaders.

In an elaborate traditional ceremony held in Kutus town, the elders, led by Benson Njege, blessed Waiguru and declared their support in her quest for the Kirinyaga’s governor seat in the 2017 elections.

In 2019, Nyandarua Governor Francis Kimemia was endorsed as a Kikuyu traditional elder in a colourful ceremony held at his Mirangine home.

Last year, former Gatanga MP Peter Kenneth met Kikuyu elders and spiritual leaders in Nyeri and they named him a Kikuyu cultural ambassador.

The strategy was aimed at centrally placing Kenneth as a possible successor to President Uhuru Kenyatta as the kingpin of Mt Kenya region.

National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi is the latest politician in Mt Kenya to be crowned region’s spokesperson by a faction of the Kikuyu Council of Elders.

The ceremony attracted mixed reactions from politicians and a group of elders who were opposed to his coronation. Muturi had earlier received blessings from Embu, Mbeere and Meru elders in separate ceremonies.

Kiago believes that receiving the elders’ blessings by a politician is a vital stage before seeking votes because just like in a family set up, one is required to receive parents’ blessings before making decisions such as marriage, circumcision or embarking on a journey.

However, Kiago expressed dissatisfaction and concerns over how elders bless aspirants without conducting due diligence and vetting the leaders.

“It is unfortunate that some elders receive money from selfish politicians to confer  blessings. Our tradition demands that a parent does not refuse to bless their children, but also requires that those with blemish undergo certain procedures to cleanse them,” Kiago said.

In Kwale County, Ali Abdalla Mnyenze, 86, the Kaya Kinondo chairman, says he dressed former President Mwai Kibaki, former Vice President Kijana Wamalwa and Kitui Governor Charity Ngilu at Ukunda showground in 2002 during a rally and was later rewarded with the position of nominated councillor at the Kwale County Council.

Mnyenze also serves as chairman of the committee of Coast Kayas. He says the clothes and all facilitation for the ceremony to decorate Kibaki was paid for by former Cabinet minister, Karisa Maitha.

He says he later participated in the installation of Mr Maitha as a full Kaya elder at Kaya Fungo in Kilifi in a massive ceremony, led by chairman of the shrine, Mzee Simba Wanje, and attended by several politicians.

Mnyenze says it is right to anoint people from outside the Mijikenda community outside the kayas since they cannot “defile’ the shrines in any way.

Ten years ago, the late Mzee Pekeshe Ndeje sparked protests from some members of the Mijikenda community when he anointed Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala outside a kaya in Rabai, Kilifi County. 

The act of elders blessing politicians started before independence. Mnyenze says Coast politician Ronald Ngala and his ally Robert Matano always sought blessings in kayas and were part of that institution.

“Ngala was part of the Kaya Fungo council of elders and always stood with them even as he sought their blessings. Matano also stayed close to us until his death,” recalls Mnyenze.

The Kaya elders, who are custodians of the Mijikenda sacred forests (kaya), are revered as traditional priests in the community that dominates Kilifi and Kwale counties.

Some describe the group as guns for hire and imposters lacking authority from the Kaya institution to perform such functions and offer blessings.

Former assistant minister and Kisauni MP Anania Mwaboza says the current crop of Kaya elders are merely involved in showbiz and are misused by politicians instead of working in the kayas.

Rush for money

“I have had the privilege of being taken to most of the kayas in Kilifi County for prayers and blessings and what we are witnessing today is political showbiz.

“For one to be taken to the kayas, he has to be a Mijikenda, has to buy food, clothes, offer a goat and cockerel. Kaya elders are also supposed to contain themselves to operations within kayas. What we see is just a rush for money and nothing else,” he says.

His remarks were echoed by Mijikenda Community Council of Elders Association (Mijicea) Chairman Vincent Mwachiro who said the elders should not use their clothes to decorate politicians from outside the community.

He said the clothes with black, red and white colours are reserved for kaya elders and should not be used to dress up politicians from outside the community, adding that such people should not even be taken to the kayas where ‘secrets’ of the Mijikenda are kept.

“I can wake up and dress even the president in State House or elsewhere outside the kaya but only in clothes that are not for the kaya elders,” says Mwachiro.

He defended himself against taking former Cabinet Minister Chirau Mwakwere to Kaya Kwale, saying he was a member of the Mijikenda and his family was the custodian of the sacred forest.

Mwachiro condemned an incident where a US ambassador and former Heritage Minister William ole Ntimama were once taken inside Kaya Fungo, saying that was a violation of the kaya tradition.

“The kaya elders know very well that no outsiders can be admitted to the kayas. They were just hungry for money,” he said.

Malindi District Cultural Association (Madca) Secretary General Karisa Mwarandu says the current Kaya institution is shrouded in confusion due to “greed for money”.

“The problem is that politicians have misused kaya elders for long and the latter are now seeking handouts just like the youth do. They do not have income and have resorted to handouts from politicians,” says Mwarandu.

He says Madca is planning to launch a campaign at Kaya Fungo to educate the elders on how to start income-generating projects so as to reduce their dependence on politicians.

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