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The Lost City of Gedi

5 min read.

Whoever it was that built Gedi, they woke up one day and disappeared without a trace.



The Lost City of Gedi
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Gedi was a thriving city-state, then one day everyone just packed and left.

From the look of things, the people of Gedi woke up one day and left. All 2500 of them. The problem is, we don’t know who they were, and why they left a perfect city behind.

It probably started in the city center, a core of mega-structures separated from the rest of the city by its own wall. Within this inner wall, the Sultan and his nobles packed up all their things and led the way out. They emptied their safes, had their servants and slaves pack everything, and started the journey through the Arabuko Sokoke forest. The middle class living just beyond that inner wall did the same. Then the peasants followed, tugging their meagre possessions, leaving their mud-walled homes in the background.

We don’t even know if they made it to wherever they were going. But we know they were enterprising, organized, rich, and Muslim. That’s pretty much it.

At a time that saw many wars among and for other city states, Gedi was isolated in the middle of a thick coastal forest. Built over 45 acres cut into the forest, it had an outer perimeter wall marketing the edges of the city, and an inner wall protecting an urban core with bigger houses, and an imposing mosque. This inner wall seems to have been built purely to separate the wealthy and powerful from everyone else. While the core was built entirely from coral stones, the homes of the poor outside were mud-thatched houses. So while the coral walls mostly survived, the peasants’ homes all but disappeared.

But there was a masterplan. All the houses are single-storey and built with coral and limestone. At least those ones in the rich areas. Each had a medieval safe in their structure, only accessible through a trapdoor. Even more interesting were the indoor bathrooms with drains, overhead basins for flush toilets.

The urban plan was detailed, with all the streets laid out in a grid pattern complete with a drainage system throughout the core of the city.

From the look of things, business was done in the courtyards. This economy was sustained by trade, fishing, metalworking and pottery production. The currency was cowrie shells, and the wares were pretty much anything they could get their hands on. Archeological finds include a pair of Spanish scissors, an Indian iron lamp, Chinese pottery, and Venetian beds. Hell, there’s even an iron box!

Then twice, once in the 1500s and in the 1700s, the people of this great city simply abandoned it. The second time, no one ever came back.

Save a few more details, that’s about all we know so far about the ancient civilization that built Gedi. Everything else is a theory or an exposition.

The problem starts with the fact that there is no Gedi in available records or even local folklore. No one even knows what the people of Gedi called it, because the few written records available on site are inscriptions on tombs. One simply has the date AH 802 (AD 1399), which means that by then it was big enough to host someone important enough to need such a tomb. Gedi is missing in Portuguese records yet they ruled just 15kms away for a century. It’s not in Swahili records, or Arab ones. The Giriama who have lived near it for centuries left it untouched, believing it was haunted. So, until the 1920s, it stayed that way, subservient only to nature herself.

At least one theory suggests that the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama did mention Gedi as Quelimani, but that place is a seaport further down, in Mozambique, near the Rio dos Bons Sinais (River of Good Signs). For it to be Gedi, there would have had to be a river nearby that dried up.

There is another theory that whoever occupied the city’s position in the 13th century built atop a much older civilization. This would (sort of) explain the choice of location, if only it was supported by evidence and perhaps clear indications why it was a good spot (beyond near an ancient coral reef). Another theory suggests Gedi was in fact once a port city, perhaps early in its life. It would be like the Sumerian city of Ur in Iraq, meaning it got further and further away from the ocean as water levels receded.

That would mean Gedi should in fact be 5,000 years and not 700 years as we’ve always thought. But even if it isn’t that old, the people of Gedi still had access via Mida Creek, which is nearby.  The broadwater inlet would have served as a seaport for the people of Gedi, Kirepwe Island and Temple Point.

But if we can’t figure out who built it and why, perhaps we can fare better with why they eventually left after four centuries? Nope. Not at all.

There are very few reasons why a civilization would abandon a city. It could have been a plague, an invasion, receding water levels or a drying up of key resources. But Gedi, unlike many other abandoned Swahili city states, has no proof of any of these. In fact, it seems as if its people just up and left for some reason known only to them.

So this is where theories go from bland to absolute crazy.

The first archeologist on site in the 1920s, James Kirkman, theorized that they abandoned it because of a looming invasion. Gedi was first sacked by an army from Mombasa in 1530, which was at war with Malindi. At the end of that century, a Turkish privateer called Ali Bey landed and disrupted things even further. Then in 1589, a marauding army called the Zimba was making its way up from southern Africa. The Simba launched a battle for Mombasa which ended in a genocide of the Swahili population. The Portuguese destroyed them near Malindi, around the same time Gedi died down (the first time).

A new town wall was built, and the town structures and streets repaired. It was never the same again.

But that wouldn’t explain why it was abandoned two centuries later. The exit in the 17th century was most likely because Portuguese exit from Malindi meant there was no more protection from the Oromo of Somalia. Gedi is the Oromo word for “precious”: one theory has it that it could be because it was in such a lush place, and the other is that it was the name of the Oromo king who made it there.

The problem though, is that there’s no proof of a war or skirmish of any kind. The walls and coral houses seem intact but for the wear and tear of abandonment. It also doesn’t explain why the Giriama, also fleeing Oromo invasions in Somalia, landed here. Perhaps these two stories are interconnected, because the Oromo invasions continued much further south.

A leading theory is that the people of Gedi fled because of receding water levels in their wells. All the wells in the ruins seem to have been deepened over time. Lack of drinkable water would be enough of a motivation to abandon a city, especially one with in-house toilets. Another less plausible theory is that it was the Black Plague in some form. But epidemics are merciless assassins, and the people would have been too frightened to have time to bury their dead. Perhaps there are mass graves lying somewhere within the forest around it. At least one excavation found a mass grave with infant remains, but that’s just about it.

Even with any of these, we don’t know who built it. Were they Swahili, Arabs, Phoenicians or a medieval civilization we haven’t even found evidence of yet?

Whoever it was that built Gedi, they woke up one day and disappeared without a trace.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi


The Illuminating Power of Disputes

Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an illustration of what we can learn about a society and a state from a dispute.



The Illuminating Power of Disputes
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Disputes are an integral part of our daily lives. Both literally and figuratively, people are constantly stepping on each other’s toes.

That being said, disputes are not all created equal—some are more serious than others. The determination of the seriousness of a dispute is subject, and often contingent, on the context. No matter the seriousness, disputes follow different trajectories. That is, they have different lives. While some disputes fizzle out easily, others escalate; while some may end with verbal insults, others result in brutal violence that may sometimes prove fatal. Some are handled between the parties in the dispute, others require the intervention of other actors, including elders, religious leaders, or officials of the state. Expectedly, as I highlighted in my doctoral study, the handling of more serious disputes depends on the nature of the dispute and its effects, the social positions of the actors and the resources that the people in the dispute are able to deploy as they seek to resolve the matter.

Over the last few decades, social scientists have showed that disputes—and how they are handled—can reveal much about societies and states. The scholarship of Sally Engel Merry and Sindiso Mnisi Weeks, among others, is particularly useful in this regard. In her book Getting Justice, Getting Even: Legal Consciousness among working class Americans,   Merry explores how ordinary Americans bring family and neighbourhood disputes to court, seeking justice or revenge, and the effects that these efforts have on the actors and the society more broadly. In her turn, Weeks examines dispute management processes in KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, showing the different trajectories that disputes take, the various actors involved and the logics that underpin the different strategies that they adopt in seeking to resolve disputes. What both scholars do well is to show how the trajectories that disputes take differ from what is expected as per the documented procedures of handling disputes and how the formal and informal processes blur. The work that these scholars, and others, have done, gives us a good starting point for understanding disputes and how they are handled in different contexts. They also teach us how to use disputes to read societies and states.

In this essay, I reflect on what we can learn from the life of a dispute through a review of Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, published by Random House in 2013. Fitting with the genre of creative non-fiction, it is an incredibly captivating book that takes a very close look at life in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, India, that sits behind a concrete wall at the airport whose length was covered with signs of the promise of urban renewal that carried the slogan “BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER”, hence “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”.

While Katherine Boo uses the term “slum” to refer to the neighbourhood that she is writing about, I prefer the term “urban margins” that has been used by scholars to refer to these zones of urban relegation where multiple forms of deprivation accumulate. These places that are often densely populated, are marked by a failure of infrastructure that is evident in the lack of piped water, open sewers, lack of public services (e.g., schools and hospitals) and poor quality, often makeshift housing. Often, these neighbourhoods are marked by the police as hotspots for crime, entrenching the stereotype of the urban poor as a threat to the safety and security of the well-to-do in the city.

To be clear, Boo examines disputes on at least two distinct levels. On one level, the book is an exemplar of the disputes between residents of the city over the right to the city; the poor versus the elite. She asks who the grand and elegant promises of urban renewal that we often see in the colourful billboards and glossy brochures that promise to turn our cities into global cities are for, and what they mean for the poor residents of the city. Just like Constance Smith observes in her book Nairobi in the Making: Landscapes of Time and Urban Belonging which is situated in Nairobi’s Kaloleni estate, Boo shows that these promises of urban renewal always carry the threat of the loss of home and livelihoods for the urban poor. Forced evictions, under the guise of turning the city into a global city, are a common phenomenon in Kenya and have been examined by other analysts like Mwangi Mwaura and Pauline Vata. Thus, even though Katherine Boo’s book is situated in Mumbai, there is much in her work that resonates with what happens in other aspirational cities in the developing world. On another level, crucially, the urban margins are densely populated. It is estimated that Nairobi has more than 40 areas defined as slums that house approximately 60 per cent of Nairobi’s population of 4.4 million people. Even though the veracity of these statistics is not easily verifiable, it is often said that 85 per cent of Nairobi’s population occupies just 5 per cent of the city’s land area. That is a lot of people in very close proximity.

Unsurprisingly, the frequency and intensity of disputes are directly linked to proximity. The closer people are to each other, the more likely they are to be in dispute with one another. Thus, Katherine Boo’s decision to locate her analysis at the urban margins is apt. Additionally, given the inadequacy of infrastructure at the urban margins, including housing, much of the lives of the poor unfolds in public, further accentuating the probability that disputes will emerge between neighbours at the urban margins. This is not in any way to suggest that there are no disputes between neighbours in more affluent areas of the city; there are. In fact, we know of disputes in affluent areas that have resulted in brutal murders and the killing of Kevin Omwenga in Nairobi’s Kilimani estate by his hitherto business partners is a case in point. Given that many disputes in affluent areas occur in private, behind closed doors, their prevalence is harder to assess. Similarly, it is hard to measure the prevalence of the interpersonal disputes at the urban margins. Nonetheless, we can rely on data on inter-personal violence as an indication of the levels of disputes. A study on violence at the urban margins of Nakuru County that I conducted with two colleagues revealed high levels of interpersonal violence, with sexual and gender-based violence and violence against children being particularly prevalent. To reiterate, this is not to say that disputes—or indeed violence—only occur at the urban margins, it is rather to suggest that they are probably more prevalent and more visible there.

A dispute in Annawadi

Behind the Beautiful Forevers revolves around three families. The first is Abdul’s family. Abdul is a young boy who has become an expert at sorting and selling garbage to recyclers, which prowess leads to the success of the business, shifting the fortunes of his family. He is said to have “bestowed on his family an income few residents of Annawadi had ever known”.

Unsurprisingly, this earns the envy of their neighbour Fatuma (the second family), a crippled woman who is derisively referred to as “One Leg”. Fatuma lives with her daughter while her husband works elsewhere. She is presented as a very promiscuous woman, with a sexual appetite that her aging husband is said to be unable to satisfy. As interesting as this theme of sex and how it is deployed in everyday negotiations in Annawadi is, it falls outside of my current analysis.

The closer people are to each other, the more likely they are to be in dispute with one another.

The third family is Asha’s. Asha is a local level political operative who has ambitions of becoming a slumlord and has learnt how to access state resources by being a conduit for corruption for state officials. Beyond providing access to the slum to wealthy people who want to buy land in anticipation of its demolition, her role—and attaining success in it in order to become a slumlord—requires that she gain legitimacy by helping people to access state officials, and resolving conflicts.

Since jealousy is at the core of this story. It warrants a bit more attention. From Boo’s work and my own research, it seems that envy, jealousy and suspicion are very common features of life at the urban margins. These themes recur in much of my own research in Kenya. Many of the young men who have been in trouble with the police that I interviewed for my doctoral study attributed their troubles to the jealousy of their neighbours. Some told me that they have learnt better than to buy new clothes or shoes for fear of causing jealousy among their neighbours. It is crucial to point out here that it is often not the jealousy itself that is the issue but rather how it interfaces with the brutal and ineffective criminal justice system that leaves the living in fear of being killed by the police. They aver that signs of material success are communicated to the police as evidence of their involvement in crime. To put it simply, combined with unconstrained state power, jealousy becomes a lethal weapon.

The saga at the centre of the book emanates from a dispute between Abdul’s mother and Fatuma that leads to the latter’s self-immolation. Ostensibly upset that sand from a wall that Abdul’s family was building fell into her dinner, after a bitter exchange of words, Fatuma locks herself in her home and sets herself on fire. However, she is rescued by her neighbours and taken to hospital. Despite there being witnesses, including her own daughter who called for help, Fatuma claims that it was Abdul’s family that had attacked her and set her on fire. The book opens with Abdul’s family reckoning with the difficulties that are about to befall them and strategizing on how to survive them, beginning with Abdul’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to escape.

From what might seem like an open-and-shut case to a casual observer, as lawyers are wont to say, the dispute transforms into a kind of vortex that draws many people into a lengthy, painful and destructive encounter with the corrupt Indian criminal justice system. The situation is worsened by Fatuma’s eventual death at the hospital. While technically she doesn’t die from the burns that she suffered but succumbs to a lung infection that she contracted at the hospital, this does not seem to matter, even were we to set aside the fact that Abdul’s family did not set her on fire. Thus, Abdul’s family find themselves facing a murder charge that unravels their lives.

This dispute becomes a powerful lens through which we can better understand the trajectory of disputes at the urban margins, especially when they unfold within the criminal justice system in the postcolonial world.

The corruption of the criminal justice system

There has been much scholarship in the post-colonial world that has emphasized how corrupt the criminal justice systems in those countries are. In Kenya, for instance, the state police has been consistently ranked by Transparency International as the most corrupt institution in the country.

Thus, Katherine Boo’s depiction of the Indian criminal justice system as corrupt does not come as a surprise. What the book does beautifully, however, is to present a powerful case study in just how this corruption unfolds in the day-to-day life of those at the urban margins.

Given that many disputes in affluent areas occur in private, behind closed doors, their prevalence is harder to assess.

Police corruption comes in many forms. One form is where police officers collude with thieves with whom they share the spoils. Boo records such claims in India, similar to the suspicions that residents of Githurai shared with me in my earlier work. That this theme has also been explored in popular culture—with the best example being the highly acclaimed film Nairobi Half Life—shows that it is widely understood as a feature of state policing in Kenya. Another form of police corruption is extortion. One form of extortion is where the police visit business premises regularly demanding to be paid bribes, a theme that I have examined at length in my doctoral study. Since people at the urban margins—in Annawadi and in Nairobi’s Kiambiyu alike—often engage in economic activities that are, albeit to varying degrees, illicit, they are often extorted by the police. Often, they have to pay to avoid getting into further trouble with the police and in order to be able to continue operating their businesses. For example, since Abdul’s business would not pass the test of legality, he has to pay bribes to the police regularly in order to continue operating.

The other form of police corruption we see unfolding in Annawadi is that of police demanding bribes so as not pursue the matter against Abdul’s family. Again, this comes as no surprise. In his work on policing in Nigeria, Olly Owen records his interlocutors claiming that a bribe can turn “black into white”. That is, for a small price, the accused can become the accuser. I have found similar sentiments amongst the people I have interviewed for my work in Kenya. The surprising element in this book that we often do not encounter in much of the literature on this subject, is the refusal of Abdul’s family to pay the bribe. They seem to have the sense that paying the bribe will not end their problems but will instead expose them to further extortion by the police. They decide to follow the process.

It is not possible for us to know what would have happened if the family had paid the bribe. Similarly, we do not know for sure that it was their refusal to pay the bribe that worsened their experience with the criminal justice system, but we can reasonably assume that it did.

Some told me that they have learnt better than to buy new clothes or shoes for fear of causing jealousy among their neighbours.

We also see police officers colluding with other state officials to corrupt the judicial process by overlooking evidence and twisting the facts and thus aggravating the situation. Boo documents how police officers colluded with doctors to generate fake evidence about the cause of death which they then presented to the courts. However, this fake evidence is not purely aimed at making the situation worse for Abdul’s family but also to solve bureaucratic problems, such as drawing what might be a complex case to a quick close (murders become suicides) or to avoid institutional responsibilities. For instance, the exaggerated extent of the burns on Fatuma’s body was to cover the fact that she died of an infection contracted while undergoing treatment at the hospital. What was recorded as 35 per cent burns at admission became 95 per cent when she died. Moreover, the process of obtaining documents that are required in court, such as death certificates, provides another opportunity for police officers to extort people. That is, if they pay, such documents can be altered or fail to make it into the court files. However, in some cases, it seems that the police officers’ insistence on bribes or the various demands they make may also raise the price so high that they make it imprudent, or even impossible, for their targets to pay. It seems that Abdul’s family may have been smarter for not acceding to the demands, as it was likely that the police would keep returning for more. In any case, at some point, the police dribble the ball off the pitch as, at a certain point, the matter has to go to court.

Even though Boo does not examine the corruption of the courts, she draws on Abdul’s experience in the garbage trade to observe that “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.” At the risk of repeating myself, none of these findings will be surprising to anyone familiar with the criminal justice system in Kenya, and elsewhere in Africa.

Justice is expensive

The other issue that emerges very strongly in the book is just how expensive the resolution of disputes through state institutions is. In my Githurai study mentioned above and my subsequent doctoral research, my interlocutors noted that the expense they faced while going to courts related to both time and money. Boo illuminates this well in her book.

Through her masterfully crafted narrative, it feels as if the case, which one sees could be resolved quickly, lasts forever. Incredibly, the saga is still not over even as the book ends. While the judge finally finds Abdul’s family not guilty, Abdul’s case in the minor court drags on. This illustrates the inefficiency of the criminal justice system in India. A similar situation persists in Kenya. For instance, on the backlog of court cases in Kenya, it has been reported that nearly half (46 per cent) go beyond the three-year mark.

Boo presents the attempts by the Indian government to resolve the backlog by creating what are called fast-track courts. This is one of the manifestations of the “access to justice” reforms that have been promoted in developing countries and are shaping much of the investments in judicial reforms, including in Kenya and Uganda. Through this case, and in line with some of the literature that critically examines these developmental agenda, we see how these efforts are geared towards improving the efficiency of the courts without really examining the more fundamental questions of what justice is and how it should be dispensed. No matter how quickly they process the case, the fast-track courts will not provide an answer to the question of whether the verdict of “not guilty” for Abdul’s family amounts to justice, and if so, for whom. In other words, in our attempts to resolve the problems that plague our criminal justice systems, we tend to focus on fixing the processes without giving sufficient thought to the outcomes that the systems we have are designed to generate, and whether these align with what people involved in disputes want.

“The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

The dispute—and its aftermath—is very costly to Abdul’s family financially. For one thing, Abdul is not able to continue with his business while he is incarcerated. The business is left to his ailing father and younger brother who are not any good at it. For another, the family must spend their money to pay the lawyer who is defending them, draining all their savings.

In much of the discourse on the justification of the criminal justice system, we are often told that the rehabilitation of offenders is one of its key aims.  We see one of the masters at the Borstal Institution where Abdul is taken advising him to stay away from crime and Abdul commits to this. However, avoiding crime or unscrupulous business does not help him get ahead but rather significantly limits his business while benefitting his competitors. In other words, his “becoming good” comes at the expense of the economic wellbeing of his family, at a time when they are already being further impoverished by the dispute that has engulfed them. Pointedly, Boo asks a question that goes to the core of what we must consider if we are indeed to think about justice. She asks, “If the house is crooked, and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?” To this question I might add, “And if so, at what cost and at whose expense?”

This fake evidence is not purely aimed at making the situation worse for Abdul’s family but also to solve bureaucratic problems, such as drawing what might be a complex case to a quick close.

What Boo is pointing towards here, is the fact that we cannot talk about justice in isolation. And, in a sense, this is where the two levels of disputes I noted earlier collapse into each other. The disputes between the residents of Annawadi must be understood in the broader context of the dispute for the right to the city. In this respect, Boo’s examination of the idea of opportunity becomes particularly potent.

The complexity of life in Annawadi that Boo presents fails to fit into the neoliberal logics that are so often the basis for commenting on life at the urban margins and the advice proffered to residents, mostly by outsiders, on how to get out. With respect to opportunity at the urban margins, Boo says that “In Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.” In other words, one’s life is not just in one’s hands as many do-gooders (read motivational speakers) would have us believe. The context maters. As Boo highlights here, the outcomes in people’s lives in the slum, quite often, come down to chance.

This is a powerful critique of the neo-liberal logic that suggest that what people need to get out of poverty is hard work and resilience, which is not to disregard the reality of the few that do. This book is a caution that even as we look at the narratives of those who make it out—the spectacular examples of success in the face of adversity—we must not miss the forest for the trees. We have to ask questions about the structural conditions that constrain the lives of people in the underbellies of our cities. We must ask what kind of structural conditions generate a context in which a disabled person can lie bleeding on the side of a road for hours—with absolutely no intervention whatsoever—until they die. We must then ask what kind of state only shows up after that person dies to collect the remains. The lives that Katherine Boo describes in her book are a testament to the observation that Judith Butler made a few years back that “the way that the state organises life produces some lives as more precarious than others”.

Weaponising the state

For some of the reasons that I have discussed above and others, scholars have noted that poor and marginalised groups have limited access to state institutions, including in the criminal justice system. On the one hand, the literature shows how poor people are constrained by many factors, such as costs, from accessing the criminal justice system when they have been victimised. On the other hand, we see literature highlighting the victimisation of the poor and marginalised by the criminal justice system, including disproportionate exposure to police abuse and higher chances of being convicted and jailed.  In Kenya, for instance, legal scholars Patricia Kameri-Mbote and Migai Aketch, note how poor people’s lack of resources predisposes them to ending up in jail. However, before concluding this commentary, it is important to also point to the more complex ways in which people at the urban margins utilise the institutions of the state.

The disputes between the residents of Annawadi must be understood in the broader context of the dispute for the right to the city.

Katherine Boo, in a way extending the work of Sally Engel Merry, shows that the difficult relations that poor and marginalised people have with criminal justice institutions do not mean that they do not engage with them. To put it another way, to say that the urban poor have a limited and problematic access to the institutions in the criminal justice system is not to say that state institutions do not feature in their considerations of how to solve the problems they are facing. Even where poor people acknowledge the difficulties they face in pursuing justice through the criminal justice system, they sometimes place their bets on it for varied reasons. For instance, I have already noted how Abdul’s family chose not to pay a bribe and instead go through the formal justice process ostensibly to limit their risk.

What is often not highlighted but has been noted by some scholars recently is how, in their attempts to resolve their disputes, some poor people deploy the criminal justice system against their neighbours. In a study of access to justice in Uganda, Sara-Jane Cooper-Knock and Ann MacDonald noted cases of people finding ways of using legal processes to enhance their negotiating positions in disputes, even where they would want those disputes to be resolved outside the court system.

In Fatuma’s case, Boo gives a powerful, albeit extremely tragic example. Here is a case where someone is willing to set themselves on fire just so that they can exact revenge.  The challenge here though is that the outcomes of such efforts are completely unpredictable. For instance, in Fatuma’s case, it went horribly wrong because she caught an infection in the hospital and died, and people’s lives began to unravel.

It turns out that we can learn a lot about a society and a state from a dispute. In this case, Katherine Boo presents us with a case where, as she puts it, “the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched by turning to a justice system so malign it sank them all.”

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The Illusion of the Kĩama kĩa Ma

Are Kĩama ceremonies religious in nature and therefore in conflict with Christianity as has been claimed by some Agĩkũyũ Christians?



Gũcokia Ruĩ Mũkaro: The Illusion of the Kĩama kĩa Ma
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The rate at which some Agĩkũyũ Christians have been reverting to their cultural practices, beginning with the Kĩama kĩa Athuri (Kĩama kĩa Ma, shortened to Kĩama), has prompted several studies in order to gain an in-depth understanding of the movement, and so inform the church’s response.

There are those Agĩkũyũ Christians that dismiss the Kĩama as having no place in the modern world. They refuse to accommodate the Kĩama in Christianity because of the risk of syncretism. In their study titled The Effects of the Mt. Kenya, Diocese of Mount Kenya South: 1960-2020, S.N. Ndung’u, E. Onyango, and S. Githuku find the main contention Christian theologians hold against the Kĩama is in its initiation rituals, the “aspects of sacrifices (blood), praying facing Kirinyaga and libations”. These Christians consider Kĩama rituals repulsive and this is why they reject the movement.

Given Kĩama’s significant role in Agĩkũyũ society both in the past and in the present, is there a compelling reason to refute the claim that the rituals are merely initiation rites? Are Christians not demonstrating prejudice when they categorize Kĩama initiation rituals as religious? Might the dangers represented by the Kĩama lie not in its rituals but elsewhere?

What is going on here?

Over the last 20 years, scholars have noted a revival of Agĩkũyũ cultural groups such as Thai, Kĩama kĩa Athuri, Gwata Ndaĩ, and Mũngiki, among others, that are calling for the restoration of the Agĩkũyũ cultural practices which they jettisoned in the post-colonial era. During the 1980s, as was the case in the colonial era, President Daniel arap Moi’s government outlawed tribal groupings, targeting in particular the Agĩkũyũ groups. Police often arrested the members “in the forest carrying out the initiation [and] locked them in a cell together with the meat they were roasting”. However, there was a resurgence in the formation of ethnic groups after 2002.

Following the 2008 post-election violence, there was an unprecedented cultural awakening in the country that can be attributed to a number of factors: the increased reach of vernacular media, which became a medium for messaging ethnic sentiment; political participation through the formation of ethnically-based political parties; the drive to preserve ethnic cultural practices; and the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. The 2010 Constitution buttressed cultural heritages in law, allowing for their open practice, hence the registration of the Kikuyu Council of Elders Association Trust (KCEAT) in 2014 and the Agĩkũyũ Council of Elders (GCE) in 2018.

The term Kĩama kĩa Athuri a Ma (Kĩama) first appeared following the 2007/8 post-election violence when its leadership brokered peace with the elders of other ethnic groups in the Rift Valley. The violence had affected the political and economic lives of the Agĩkũyũ living in the Rift Valley and Agĩkũyũ elders sought protection from further eviction. Thus did the Kĩama distinguish itself from other cultural grouping such as Gwata Ndaĩ, Mũngiki, Thai and Kenda Mũiyũru.

Of late, Kĩama kĩa Athuri has been initiating Agĩkũyũ men in droves, including church leaders, who, following the resurgence of the Kĩama, have convinced new members that the association has a vital role to play in present-day society. In the study by Ndung’u et al., 60 per cent of respondents said that, as a governing council, the Kĩama was focused on the public governance issues of the day because the “Kĩama  was in charge of the religious, economic, political and social order of the Agĩkũyũ people”, 35 per cent said it provides a mentorship framework for men in the society, while the same number found in the Kĩama a uniting factor that minimizes vices among men.

According to a 2018 report by the Diocese of Mount Kenya South (DMKS), the Kĩama draws its membership from all levels of society and has established cohorts throughout the country. Most Kĩama adherents are Christians; they attend church service in the morning, partake of the Holy Communion, and in the afternoon attend Kĩama and join in its rituals and ceremonies. Several are office-holders within local churches right up to the level of the DMKS Diocesan Synod, working and relating with the bishops and archbishops of the diocese.

Even though 15 per cent of the study respondents regarded the Kĩama as irrelevant, they did acknowledge that it raised issues of genuine concern for the government, with 20 per cent of the respondents considering the Kĩama as a partner of the government and the church in the fight against “drunkenness, immorality, sanctity of life and other abuses in the society such as female circumcision”.

The Kĩama draws its membership from all levels of society and has established cohorts throughout the country.

The study also found that 60 per cent of the respondents had prior knowledge of the Kĩama initiation rites. However, younger respondents (10 per cent of respondents) learnt of the rites during initiation and the subsequent teachings. Recruits are counselled in matters of family, morality, respect, and their responsibilities, regardless of their entrance level. Being the heads of their families, they are expected to live exemplary lives based on the members’ code of conduct. Guided by the Kikuyu Council of Elders, they discuss the ethnic and political challenges facing the Agĩkũyũ society. At the end of the initiation ceremony, a designated person leads the men in prayers facing Mount Kenya where they lift up their hands and invoke God saying, Thai thathaiya Ngai thai.

The study acknowledges that “Agĩkũyũ are divided on the relevance and importance of Kĩama in modern society”, and there are many Christian Agĩkũyũ today living in modernity and within the church who consider it to be irrelevant.

However, according to the study, Kĩama adherents have transformed its operations. They have “stopped advocatory for rites such of 2nd birth, circumcision, dances and elaborate ceremonies … but they keep praying facing Kirinyaga”. They do not advocate for female circumcision or the obscene and sexually-oriented dances during the circumcision rites of boys, and nor do they advocate for Gũthinga (warriorship), having modernised aspects of this tradition by exchanging the spear and the shield for the book and pen that are given to initiates, since the battlefield has changed. Instead of the elaborate ceremonies and dances that previously marked their new status, initiates receive certificates upon graduation. But while mũratina has been replaced with water and soda, meat must be roasted.

The origins of Kĩama

The Kĩama kĩa Athuri was the highest authority among the Agĩkũyũ, vested with legislative, executive, and judicial functions. They were the custodians of Agĩkũyũ ancestral land, governance, military, customs, and religious matters.

According to oral tradition, the Agĩkũyũ had been a matriarchal society where the ruling women oppressed their menfolk. The riika rĩa Iregi (the Iregi age group who were circumcised when the conflict to overturn matriarchy was at its height—Iregi means protester, dissenter) retreated to the forest to plot their freedom from tyranny. Their secret meetings bore the Kĩama. Since their meetings were long and they needed to eat, the men made it a habit to bring a goat, Mbũri ya kĩama, to be eaten during the Kĩama (meeting).

Legend credits the Iregi with executing the violent overthrow of the matriarchal regime. They impregnated their wives at the same time and engaged them in physical fights a month before the women were to deliver, when they were at their most vulnerable, and thus a patriarchy was established.

The new order required that men no longer obey women and that they live in their own separate huts (thingira) and stop sleeping in their wives’ houses (nyũmba). They would continue meeting in a “Kĩama” to review the new constitution and the progress of their emancipation. The men would also be meeting in their “thingira” to mentor their sons on manhood, honour, allegiance to the community, integrity and to uphold the new system of governance. They declared that animals, children, land and the women themselves were the property of men and that men had exclusive rights over them. Where it had previously been paid by women, the men would now pay dowry so that they could exercise full authority over women.

Legend credits the Iregi with executing the violent overthrow of the matriarchal regime.

Mothers, aunts and grandmothers were to give instruction concerning the new government to all female children in the nyũmba while fathers, uncles and grandfathers were to do the same in the thingira. All issues of morality, economy, social welfare, leadership, religion and justice would be adjudicated by the Kĩama.

The Iregi thus became the custodians of the Agĩkũyũ and, to ensure the continuity of its social function, the Iregi metamorphosed into the Kĩama kĩa Athuri. The Kĩama was further sub-divided into various stages of eldership whose members were assigned various functions. Henceforth, members had to make the payment of a goat to advance in eldership. Humphrey Waweru identifies the councils of elders that a man joined in stages as follows.

The first of these councils, Waweru holds, was Kĩama gia Kamatimũ (the Spear Council), also known as Kĩama kĩa Mbũri Imwe (the Council of the First Goat). This is because one gave a goat, Mbũri ya Kĩama (the council’s goat) in order to belong to this council. This council was comprised of recently married men whose children had not yet been circumcised. They were deemed too inexperienced to adjudicate cases in the society and were mentored by senior elders and assigned to gathering firewood, lighting the ceremonial fire, and roasting the Kĩama meat.

The second council was Kĩama kĩa Mataathi or Kĩama kĩa Mbũri Igĩrĩ (the Council of Two Goats). To rise to this council, a man had to give two goats and a lamb. In his unpublished PhD thesis, The Role of the Agĩkũyũ Religion and Culture in the Development of the Karing’a Religio-Political Movement K. Kang’ethe observes:

“The first goat, mbũri ya mwana, was given shortly before the circumcision of a member’s first child; the second goat, mbũri ya Kĩama, was given in order that they could officially accept the member as a member of this council; and the lamb, ndũrũme ya kũinũkania, was given to the council immediately they had circumcised his child in order to re-unite the child with the family and to bless the homestead.”

This council executed the legislative and judicial functions of the Agĩkũyũ nation, hence the esteem with which it was held.

The third council was called Kĩama kĩa Matũrangũrũ or Kĩama kĩa Ukũrũ (the Council of Old Age). To join this council, Waweru observes, members gave two extra goats. The Agĩkũyũ considered the elders of this council to be the wisest in the land and they were called athamaki. They wore brass earrings and carried ceremonial leaves of Matũrangũrũ as a symbol of authority, and decided “the dates of circumcision feasts and the holding of Itwĩka ceremony.”

Waweru identified Kĩama gĩa Gũthathaiya (religious council of elders) as the last stage. Its members were required to have had their children’s children circumcised and their wives sexually inactive and beyond childbearing age. They also officiated at public religious ceremonies at the designated Mũgumo tree (the fig tree) and were the custodians of Agĩkũyũ religion and culture. Few reached this most honoured stage.

Liturgical rites

Like other African societies, the Agĩkũyũ developed worship liturgies as they took part in prayers and making offerings and sacrifices. They did not always make the offerings to God; lesser spiritual beings such as “divinities, spirits and the departed” also received offerings. The Kĩama members prayed facing Mount Kenya, lifting their hands, and invoking God saying: Thai thathaiya Ngai thai. During the ceremonies, a designated person led this invocation. Kĩama elders were first responsible to God; it is in response to God that these men became dedicated to ensuring justice prevailed through the council to which they were inducted through a sacrifice.

Its members were required to have had their children’s children circumcised and their wives sexually inactive and beyond childbearing age.

Since in Gĩkũyũ traditional religion, priests, rulers, the living dead, and ritual elders were mediators between man and God, it is easy to assimilate the Gĩkũyũ eldership system to a mediatorial office. In traditional African religions, John S. Mbiti observed, “To reach God effectively, it may be useful to approach him by first approaching those who are lower than he is but higher than the ordinary person.” L.S.B. Leakey notes that in the Gĩkũyũ tradition, religious functions had to be conducted by a priest who was drawn from the head of the family or clan and assisted by other junior elders. Thus, according to K.M. Ndereba, Kĩama ritual elders played a mediatorial role within Gĩkũyũ culture, serving in the words of Mbiti as “conveyor belts” in approaching God.

However, the impetus of the present Kĩama appears to have two key motifs: cultural and political.

Cultural Motif 

The resurgence of the Kĩama kĩa Athuri expresses a yearning to return to the Agĩkũyũ customs that were disrupted by colonialism and the coming of Christianity. While the colonialists endeavoured to maintain certain aspects of the Agĩkũyũ system such as the Agĩkũyũ initiation rites so as not to disorient them, missionaries on the other hand sought to replace the Agĩkũyũ religious and belief system with the Christian belief system, including the initiation rites. Such missionaries included C. Cagnolo, who asked Bishop Filippo Perlo (the initiator and organizer of the Consolata Fathers among the Agĩkũyũ), “How could morals be found among the people who in their age-long abandonment, have become so corrupt as to raise practices openly immoral to be a social institution?” Thus, missionaries associated the Agĩkũyũ religion and culture with the devil. For them to turn to God, the missionaries demanded of their converts that they break with their traditional religion and culture. The break was to be so complete that any accommodation of culture was deemed gũcokerera maũndũ ma ũgĩkũyũ, going back to things of the Agĩkũyũ.

Political motif

Proponents of the present (post-colonial) Kĩama, gather in the name of preserving culture and offering leadership to the community. The colonial government’s adoption of the Local Native Councils had made the administrative role of the Kĩama redundant and, by appointing chiefs to replace the traditional athamaki, the colonialists had shifted the centre of authority in the Agĩkũyũ society where, for example, in Southern Kĩambu, Kĩnyanjui wa Gathirimũ replaced Waiyaki in 1892. As Jomo Kenyatta laments, “Irũngũ or Maina generation whose turn it was to take over the government from the Mwangi generation, between 1925 and 1928 … was denied the birthright of perpetuating the national pride”. Thus, by 1925, the colonial political structure had virtually replaced the Agĩkũyũ political system and its administrative units, setting in motion a gradual disorganization of the Agĩkũyũ social structure.

Today’s Kĩama manifests a political motif, seeking to restore its diminished role under British colonial rule and the independence government. The Kĩama denies direct participation but indirectly takes part in politics. In March 2021, for instance, Kĩama leaders endorsed the then Speaker of the National Assembly, Hon. J.B. Muturi, as spokesperson for the Mt. Kenya region.  The Kĩama also came out in support of certain political candidates in the 2022 general election.

Kĩama ceremonies as initiation rites 

Kĩama ceremonies bear the features of initiation rites like those advanced by A. van Gennep in his celebrated work, Les rites de passage (The Rites of Passage). The Kĩama rites involving prayers, libation, isolation, rituals, and sacrifice of goats comport with van Gennep’s definition of “rites which accompany every change of place, state, social position and age”. He sees the performing of sacrifices as enabling an individual to make a meaningful change of status within the society.

According to Ndung’u et al., initiation was done in the forests and members were required to pay a goat to be promoted from one grade to another. The men were grouped according to their grades based on functions which had duties and rights.

Are Kĩama ceremonies acts of worship?

Victor Turner’s insights can help determine whether the sacrificing of goats at a Kĩama ceremony is religious worship or whether it constitutes a rite of passage as is purported. Turner applied the Van Gennep passage model and rituals in both tribal and modern industrial societies. What he found in rituals among the Ndembu of Zimbabwe compares favourably with those of modern society and among the Agĩkũyũ. These rituals involved symbolic manipulation and a reference to religion.

Mathieu Deflem discusses Turner’s approach to rituals, first, as part of an ongoing process of social drama. Here rituals play a significant role in a society’s conflictual equilibrium. Second, as dealing with symbols that make up the smallest units of ritual activity, symbols in themselves are carriers of meaning. Third, the meanings of symbols are multiple, giving unity to the morality of the social order and the emotional needs of the individual.

The resurgence of the Kĩama kĩa Athuri expresses a yearning to return to the Agĩkũyũ customs that were disrupted by colonialism and the coming of Christianity.

Rituals, according to Turner, are symbols showing crucial social and religious values by which information is revealed and regarded as authoritative, as dealing with the crucial values of the community. Since they embody beliefs and meaningful symbols, Turner claims, they can be objects, activities, words, relationships, events, gestures, or spatial units. In Turner’s definition, therefore, ritual refers to ritual performances involving manipulation of symbols that refer to religious beliefs. In the current practice of Kĩama, the goat is offered at the Kĩama eldership initiation rites for two main reasons: to atone for the sins of the elders and to initiate new elders into the council.

Ritual as symbols in perspective

Turner distinguished dominant and instrumental symbols. Dominant symbols appear in many ritual contexts, but their meaning possesses high autonomy and consistency throughout the total symbolic system. Kenyatta observes that sheep and goats were important in the religious and cultural life of the Agĩkũyũ for purification and sacrificial rites among the Agĩkũyũ. Agreeing with him, anthropologist L.S.B. Leakey pointed to the incomparable value the Agĩkũyũ placed on goats and sheep in their social organisation. Sacrificing goats was not just the preserve of the Kĩama but permeated Agĩkũyũ life; for example, in the indigenous ritual of Gũciarwo na Mbũri (birth by goat) ritual, a ceremony where a stranger is “born” into the community. Julius Gathongo observes that they slaughter a goat just like in the Mbũri cia Kĩama, but they do not perceive this as worship, although blood is shed, and they make sacrifices. He cites as an example the Gũciarwo na Mbũri ritual that the Embu medical missionary Dr Crawford performed in 1910:

“In 1910, for his entrance fee, he presented the elders with a bull and there was a great feast. This made the Embu elders recognise him as one of their own, and his ‘religion’ as part of theirs. In turn, they promised him ‘that they would now insist on all the people keeping God’s Day and attending [church] service, and that he was to be the leading elder (Muthamaki)’.

John DeMathew, a popular Kikuyu musician, opined that blood is indispensable for an Agĩkũyũ marriage to endure. In one of his renditions he states:

Atῦmia aitũ magῦrwo na rũru (The dowry be paid with a flock)

Thakame yacio ĩrῦmagie mohiki (The blood that is shed will sustain marriages)

Kĩrathimo kĩumage gatũrũme-inĩ karĩa mũhĩrĩga wao ukarũmia (Blessings flow out of the [slaughtered]) lamb of which the clan will partake)


Kanitha wa Ngai uuge ũndũire ũcokio (Let the Church of God encourage culture)

Na muma wa kĩrore ndikaugũkwo (And the oath of kĩrore, I shall not recant)

DeMathew affirms the age-old Agĩkũyũ belief that marriage lasts because goats are killed and blood shed during the dowry ceremony. He lists what makes an enduring marriage union to comprise shed animal blood, clan prayers and fellowship in the partaking of meat.

Rituals as instrumental symbols are the means of attaining the specific goals of each ritual performance. We can investigate instrumental symbols only in terms of the total system of symbols that make up a particular ritual, since we can reveal their meaning only in relation to other symbols. In Turner’s opinion, Deflem notes, using symbols in ritual empowers them to act upon the performer and cause change in the person. The Kĩama rituals resulted in the transformation of the initiate’s attitudes (status) and behaviour (responsibility). For Agĩkũyũ men, these eldership stages were important as a rite of passage since once initiated, men gained social authority, influence, and power. Their status affected their wives, whose social status, responsibilities, and duties also increased. Conversely, when husbands failed to ascend the social ladder, other women ridiculed their wives.

The association of rituals with supernatural powers

Most of the respondents in the study by Ndung’u et al.African Christians viewed the Kĩama initiations as religious, involving rituals and sacrifices, and as being demonic and against Christian norms. It is possible to characterize Kĩama activities as religious, just as S.G. Kibicho framed the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1952 as a religious conflict between African culture and westernization. They prayed (facing Mount Kenya) and sacrificed to Ngai (God) before launching their raids against the British government. They prayed: “Hoyai ma amu Ngai no ũrĩa wa tene…” (Continue praying to God (Ngai) comrades, the God of our ancestors). Kibicho’s claims concerning the Mau Mau members agree with Leakey’s allegations that the Mau Mau movement withstood the British not because of their war strategy but because they were an African religion. The Mau Mau were, asserts Leakey, “… a new religion, of which through oath ceremony formed only a small part that was the force which was turning thousands of peace-loving Kikuyu into murderous fanatics”.

Sacrificing goats was not just the preserve of the Kĩama but permeated Agĩkũyũ life.

Today’s Kĩama ceremony has adapted Kikuyu traditional oaths to bind its members, as did the Mau Mau freedom fighters. For the Kĩama ceremonies are not unique, since according to Van Gennep, the passage between groups requires a ceremony, or ritual, which is the rite of passage. In their initiation rites, groups in modern society practice customs traceable to their sacred past. Van Gennep hypothesises that such “social groups” are also grounded in their magico-religious foundations.

Turner argues that even though rituals in modern society occur in the secular domain of recreation, they are situated outside the confines of religious groups, and have some religious component. This is because, according to Turner, they have “something of the investigative, judgmental, and even punitive character of law-inaction, and something of the sacred, mythic, numinous, even ‘supernatural’ character of religious action”. All rituals are religious, Turner concludes, because they all “celebrate or commemorate transcendent powers”.

Rituals in modern society share characteristics, in Turner’s view, with the tribal rituals he studied in Ndembu society, where “all life is pervaded by invisible influences”. In this way, tribal societies are wholly religious, and ritual actions surrounding their religions are “nationwide”.

Rituals can be traced to religious belief and symbols and hence, Turner holds them to be related, forming the ground for his definition of ritual as “a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and designed to influence preternatural entities or forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests”. Hence, rituals must not be viewed in the sacred domain alone. Muchunu Gachuki, a member of the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) who administered the Mau Mau oath says that it:

[c]onsists of vows and commandments. People who have no sacred vows cannot be said to be religious… Our ‘creeds’ in Mau Mau were organized in accordance with those of Kikuyu Central Association [political party formed in 1925] which existed before Mau Mau … based mainly on the traditional beliefs of the Kikuyu … that, ‘we are praying to the God of Gikuyu and Mumbi’ who gave to us this country – a country that was alienated by the Europeans.

Since the industrial revolution and because of secularization, modern religion, claims Turner, is decoupled from the rest of culture. Religion in modern societies is, writes Turner “regarded as something apart from our economic, political, domestic and recreational life. Religion is part of the division of social labor”. Turner, thus, regards rituals of modern, industrial religion as liminal (as are tribal rituals where religion and other cultural sectors are interwoven). This is because it is no longer, as its most distinct characteristic, a community affair but is individualized and covers a certain aspect of specific groups.

We can understand Kĩama rituals in this light, as not fully embracing the entire way of life but certain aspects of it. For instance, Karanja wa Mwangi, head of Agĩkũyũ Academy, who is committed to restoring Agĩkũyũ customs including Kĩama kĩa Mbũri, describes himself as a progressive advocate of culture. He accepts changes such as eradicating female genital mutilation and states: “All that we don’t subscribe to is colonialistic doctrines in the church but we can’t go back to wearing skins, the way our forefathers used to do. We have those of us [traditionalists] advocating for such uncivilised practices and this causes confusion.”

In modern societies institutions are disintegrated and independent of each other. As such, they deal with given needs and respond to certain questions faced by their members such as, law, politics, the economy, and religion. Rituals taking place within such domains may not carry religious connotations as they occur where supernatural matters are not dealt with.

In their initiation rites, groups in modern society practice customs traceable to their sacred past.

But, while being cognizant of Turner’s distinction between tribal and modern societies, S. Moore and B. Myerhoff question whether this distinction can be made between religious and secular ritual, since in tribal societies, as Turner argued, religion, economy, law, politics, and other cultural domains are interwoven. Tribal rituals, therefore, must have some religious component, since tribal religion in both mythology and ritual practices has not (yet) split off from other sectors of tribal culture. The sacrifices and prayers at Kĩama eldership should therefore be understood as a socio-cultural rite of passage and not a worship-religious event. Although these observers are quick to perceive the rite as spiritual worship, there is a need to distinguish Kĩama’s initiation rites from Agĩkũyũ acts of worship. This concurs with the conclusion reached by T. Kibara, B. Ngundo and P. Gichure that, “the church needs to recognize Mbũri cia Kĩama as one of the rites of passage within the Gikuyu culture so as to embrace the concept of Christianizing certain aspects of the traditional ritual.”

Today’s version of the Kĩama is much diluted. It is not the status symbol that shaped the Agĩkũyũ society in the precolonial days. Kĩama ceremonies remain initiation rites into eldership whose practitioners are bent on politicking. In effect, the turbulent political climate around ethnicities has given rise to the need for ethnic intervention and so, if the Agĩkũyũ are to survive politically and economically in the lands away from their ancestral homelands such as in the Rift Valley, Kĩama kĩa Athuri would be the vehicle for peace, reconciliation and political patronage.

However, while this approach can secure the interests of Agĩkũyũ society, identity politics is destructive for a country like Kenya. For when we make tribe the basis of our relationships, we lose the nation in the tribal mire. As I wrote in The Elephant:

We must move from the politics of “our tribe” to the politics of “Kenya”. Only then will we rediscover the counter-intuitive truth, as Sacks states, that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable.

The church stands to be destroyed not with the blood of the slaughtered goats of Kĩama ceremonies, but with the logic of tribal politics that conditions us to act on tribal self-interest without a commitment to the nation’s common good. When this logic creeps into the church, the body is dismembered, torn between loyalty to tribe and loyalty to Christ.

This publication was funded/co-funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of The Elephant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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The Boon and the Bane: Three Markers of Democratic Culture in Kenya

The triple helix of Harambee, hand-outs and handshakes weaves an intractable chokehold on democracy as the unimpeded participation of citizens in the design and execution of conditions to better their social and economic well-being.



The Boon and the Bane: Three Markers of Democratic Culture in Kenya
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It was Jomo Kenyatta who popularized the term Harambee. In the months leading up to independence in 1963, Jomo, who was tipped to be Prime Minister, begun to use the term to rally the nation to “pull together” resources for development. Some say Harambee replaced Uhuru, the Kiswahili word for freedom that had been the galvanizing motto in the struggle for independence. Is it possible then that in adopting Harambee, which was also known as self-help, we gave up freedom for collective burdens? One is tempted to think so, seeing that in the early years, those who rejected the Harambee clarion call ignored the customary response, “heee!” opting instead to shout, “Majimbo!” — regionalism. I will return to this story of Majimbo soon. For now, let me trace the journey of Harambee from the ethos of hard work to the dungeons of corruption.

The history of the term Harambee illustrates one of the most admirable aspects of Kenyan social life — our ability to borrow from across communities and weave into the tapestry of pre-existing cultural practices, including language. The word Harambee is a deft cojoining of two disparate words — Har and Ambe. These words became Kenyan on account of the 31,983 indentured workers that Britain, as colonizer, shipped from India to the East African Protectorate to build the so-called Uganda Railway. Construction started in Mombasa, in 1896, reached the shores of Lake Victoria in 1901 and didn’t reach Kampala until 1931.

Har Ambe was an empowering cry that bound the workers as they lifted loads in unison, like human cranes. There is something radical in Indian immigrant workers, known pejoratively as coolies, breaking into their own tongues to invoke a female deity as they were being ordered to lift heavy loads in the sweltering heat. Ambe is a goddess worshipped in many parts of India. She is associated with force and energy and is said to have divine power to destroy obstacles. Har, meaning everyone, comes from Hindi; a language whose origins lie in Sanskrit and one that has grown to do the work of a national language even though that status remains contested. In an alien land, the Hindi Har worked like glue, binding these labourers.

Pally Dhillon captures the distinction of one these labourers in the ground-breaking Kijabe: An African Historical Saga that is part memoir, part fiction. That worker was taller than his colleagues and therefore easily recognizable. Kala Singh, for that was his name, embraced the Har Ambe call, and lent his name to yet another improvisation — the colloquial term kalasinga that is used in Kenya to refer to any Sikh. Terms like these, used to honour rather than to deride, signal acceptance. In A Kenyan Journey the erudite lawyer, human rights activist, and creative writer, Pheroze Nowrojee shows how tenuous acceptance has been for Kenyan Indians to put down roots in a land that has intermittently questioned their loyalty to the economy and their stake in the heritage and the politics. (A Presidential Proclamation by former president Uhuru Kenyatta on 21 July 2017 recognized Kenyans of Asian Heritage as the country’s 44th tribe.) However, it is worth noting that President Jomo Kenyatta’s adoption of the term Harambee as a national motto that was quickly turned into popular song by Daudi Kabaka working with the empire-building British producer Charles Worrod before it was given further credence in the loyalty pledge, was a significant endorsement of the value bricolage in the work of forging nationhood. (See Issue #38 of the chronicle magazine, Old Africa, which features excerpts from And Master of None, Charles Worrod’s unpublished autobiography. Kabaka’s “Harambee, Harambee” is another fine example of borrowings and bricolage. The guitars that underpin Kabaka’s song came from demobilized World War Two soldiers, Worrod says he “used the melody of ‘John Brown’s Body’, and ‘Rule Britannia’ as inspirations”, never mind that it was a symbol of the colonizer, and the Equator Sounds Band that worked with Kabaka drew members from all over Eastern Africa.) No community was too small to lend a humanizing and working strategy, word, or practice to the project called Kenya.

It was in this spirit then that one of the first projects the citizens of an independent Kenya raised money for was the construction of the Senate Chambers. Prince Philip had laid the foundation stone on December 13, 1963. Soon after, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Humphrey Slade was appointed to head the Kenya National Fund which was established to receive contributions from the organizations, members of the public and other well-wishers for the completion of the Senate Chambers. It looked like government by the people and for the people was off to a good start; people were paying for the institutions they believed in.

In Jomo Kenyatta’s day, development was understood as physical infrastructure and his new motto urged communities to join hands in building schools, establishing a dispensary, a maternity ward, or providing staff housing. As Kilemi Mwiria observes, the colonial government had deliberately “limited educational opportunities for Africans”. In Central Kenya, this gave rise to the Independent Schools Movement whose driving force was Mbiyu Koinange. At independence, the president saw this approach of schools built by the community as the shortest route to expanding facilities and increasing enrolment and by extension literacy. Economists can tell us whether in 1963, foreign exchange earned from the sale of cash-crops was negligible, and if the tax-base from those in formal employment was likewise too small to sustain the annual budget. Whatever the case, Harambee evolved as the unofficial tax system.

From 1968 when Dr Julius Kiano was at the helm of the Education Ministry, the government gave communities additional incentives to build secondary schools with the promise that if the community built the classrooms, the government would provide them with teachers. Secondary schools were not the only target of Jomo’s Harambee movement. Numerous institutions that stand today as public institutions of higher learning had their origins in the Harambee spirit and were led by people in the private sector. For instance, Masinde Muliro University started as Western College of Arts and Applied Science (WECO) in 1972, spear-headed by Amos Wako and A.A.A. Ekirapa among others. Similarly, Dedan Kimathi University grew from Nyeri College of Science and Technology, mooted in 1971 by pioneer Nyeri technocrats like Duncan Ndegwa and built from the contributions of big cash-crop farmers and subsidiary farmers of the district. This idea for tertiary education was replicated in many parts of the country. Additionally, in seven out of the eight provinces, Harambee secondary schools out-numbered the government-aided ones. The government publication, Kenyatta Cabinets: Drama, Intrigue, Triumph states that by 2012 there were about 600 Harambee schools countrywide.

At independence, the president saw this approach of schools built by the community as the shortest route to expanding facilities and increasing enrolment and by extension literacy.

In those days before WhatsApp messaging, invitations to Harambees were printed cards, or letters from the person leading the initiative or from the nascent institutions. Once in receipt of the invitation, one was welcome to make a pledge which would be dutifully entered in the ledger on the back of the card, or on a continuation sheet attached to the letter. The community would raise funds, sometimes over a period, and on an appointed day the Chief Guest, usually the area Member of Parliament, would make his donation to boost the community’s efforts. If the school had a particularly high profile, either on account of its name, or its location, the Chief Guest would be a senior member of the Cabinet. There is a photograph in Moi Cabinets: The Nyayo Era, of Vice-President Daniel arap Moi laying the foundation stone for Ngina Kenyatta Harambee Primary School in Kinoo on 13 October 1967, accompanied by Mwai Kibaki, Minister for Commerce and Industry. Following his appointment as Vice-President, Moi needed to raise his profile at the grassroots. That was why he travelled to Kapsabet to officially open the Mosoriot Harambee Health Centre on 16 December 1969, as Nathaniel Kalya, the pioneer Senator for Nandi, and later area MP for Mosop and Assistant Minister for Culture and Social Services (1967-1969), explained to his biographers, Godfrey K. Sang and Wilson Kalya.

Occasionally, money was raised through Harambee for a child to go abroad for further education. The push for higher education became urgent at independence because the departure of the colonialists opened up a raft of jobs for Africans, especially in the civil service. Since education was historically linked to the new religious faiths, it wasn’t long after independence that Harambees to build churches spread like bushfire. Development, it seemed, would not be divorced from its original paths, even in this now independent country. Everywhere you turned in the 1970s there was a Harambee to build a church, a hospital, a school. In reality, some of these were about boosting the standing of current or prospective politicians.

In those days before WhatsApp messages, invitations to Harambees were printed cards, or letters from the person leading the initiative, or from the nascent institutions. Once in receipt of the invitation, one was welcome to make a pledge which would be dutifully entered in the ledger on the back of the card, or on a continuation sheet attached to the letter. The community would raise funds, sometimes over a period, and on an appointed day the Chief Guest, usually the area Member of Parliament, would make his donation to boost the community’s efforts.  If the school had a particularly high profile, either on account of its name, or its location, the Chief Guest would be a senior member of the Cabinet. There is a photograph in Moi Cabinets: The Nyayo Era, of Vice-President Daniel arap Moi laying the foundation stone for Ngina Kenyatta Harambee Primary School in Kinoo on 13 October 1967, accompanied by Mwai Kibaki, Minister for Commerce and Industry. Following his appointment as Vice-President, Moi needed to raise his profile at the grassroots. That was why he travelled to Kapsabet to officially open the Mosoriot Harambee Health Centre on 16 December 1969, as Nathaniel Kalya, the pioneer Senator for Nandi, and later area MP for Mosop and Assistant Minister for Culture and Social Services (1967-1969), explained to his biographers, Godfrey K. Sang and Wilson Kalya.

Since education was historically linked to the new religious faiths, it wasn’t long after independence that Harambees to build churches spread like bushfire.

Reading the biography of Nathaniel Kalya one gets the impression that the budget in the Ministry of Culture and Social Services literally lay with the people. He spent countless hours on the road from Kaptumo, Mosoriot, Kabiyet, and Kaiboi in Nandi; Kandara and Kariti in the then Murang’a District; Githunguri in Kiambu, Kehancha in Kisii and many other locations in rural Kenya. The bulk of his work as an MP, and even as an Assistant Minister, seems to have been taken up by organizing and officiating at funds-drives for health centres, schools, staff houses, even the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital!

By the late 1990s, Harambee had become a loathed concept. District Officers used it to terrorize traders in towns, chiefs used it to punish villagers by confiscating their chicken, churches used it to judge their followers. Ordinary citizens were no longer being asked to give to projects they believed in, projects that would benefit an entire community; they were being bullied to fulfil the narrow agenda of an individual. Two anecdotes will illustrate the absurdities. Sometime in the mid-1990s, a senior academic registrar at a public university wrote invitations on the university’s letterhead for a Harambee to raise funds for his son who was due to take up a place at a university in the US. The letter was sent to academic staff under the registrar’s mandate, and to heads of institutions that traded with the university. Wow. No sense of irony in a man presiding over an education that was seemingly not good enough for his own child. No notion of conflict of interest in roping in merchants who could easily resort to inflating their invoices to meet this unworthy request. No compunction whatsoever, just brazen abuse of office, its stationery, and its social standing.

The second anecdote is about a senior magistrate in a provincial town. He invited his colleagues and practicing advocates in the region to a fundraiser at his newly built home where, as he said, he needed a little help to get an electricity connection. Again, no sense of conflict of interest; no dire plight like an insurmountable hospital bill, just greed in demanding what you want regardless of how it will affect the institution where you work, the very work that you do, and those that do it with you. By the end of the 1990s this self-serving use of the self-help culture had poisoned every social space from weddings to funerals with ridiculous budgets, and worse still, the government was not fulfilling its mandate of alleviating poverty. In this season of brazen abuse of the giving nature of Kenyans, the Harambee motto gradually went from a philosophy to better communities, built from two borrowed Indian words whose spirit resonated with the solidarity that is endemic amongst Africans, to a form of Black Tax in extended families and a tool of administrative tyranny that simultaneously allowed government to abdicate its primary work of providing pathways to secure livelihoods.

In 2002, the government commissioned a British firm to assess anti-corruption initiatives. They zeroed in on Harambees as a driver of graft. Consequently, one of Mwai Kibaki’s first pronouncements as president in 2003 was to invoke the Public Officers Ethics Act to ban Cabinet Ministers from presiding over Harambees. But given the roots of Harambee, banning these fund-raisers entirely, or vetting them for approval as the National Assembly’s Constitutional Implementation Oversight Committee proposed in 2019 is unworkable. Harambee no longer works as a driver of government projects, but it remains robust, if a little wayward as a socio-cultural pillar. In recent years, it has been given new impetus by technology. From WhatsApp groups to rally people around a cause, to M-Changa and allied collection platforms, the Paybill is now a critical constituent of our socio-cultural rites. It frees many from physical attendance of fund-raisers and simultaneously allows them to show commitment to the cause. Which leads me to the other key term in our political culture.


There is a close relationship between Harambee and hand-outs. You could almost argue that one birthed the other. In the early days, the people gave for their welfare, including building the Senate Chamber, which was later used by the National Assembly. And as stories from the colonial struggle show, they willingly raised money for the freedom of persecuted leaders. Two stories cement the argument.

Soon after their 1961 release from detention, the Kapenguria Six addressed several rallies around the country. At Ruring’u stadium in Nyeri, Paul Ngei was asked to say the closing prayer. He asked “the God of Africans to urge the God of Whites to leave to Kenyans the land they occupy and go back in Britain in peace. For this, Ngei was charged with incitement and charged KES 500. Enthusiastic crowds quickly raised the money, Harambee style, and stuffed the currency notes in his pockets while carrying him shoulder high”. (Moi Cabinets Vol 2: 124). 

From WhatsApp groups to rally people around a cause, to M-Changa and allied collection platforms, the Paybill is now a critical constituent of our socio-cultural rites.

It seems 1961 was a special year for Kenyans opening their wallets for their would-be leaders. Another story is told of money raised to buy the newly released Jomo Kenyatta a car. It is not clear from these anecdotal stories who initiated this campaign, but those who participated in it tell it with great pride in their willingness to restore dignity to a detainee. When the car was purchased and issued with the registration KHA, the proud fundraisers immediately dubbed it “Kenyatta Home Again”.

How did we move from this point where the public raises money to aid persecuted leaders to where we are now with leaders, even wannabe ones gunning for office, buying support at campaign rallies in the name of the so-called standing allowance? All might not be lost if the story of the newly elected Mumias MP, Peter Silasyia, is anything to go buy. But the way the story of Silasyia’s supporters building him a house is told with the moniker “broke MP”, it is clear where the values of our society lie. Namely, in the same place where people cheered in 2017 as the newly elected 23-year-old MP for Igembe South, John Paul Mwirigi was given a brand new Prado by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Handouts are not just a problem at the top. They are a retail item, available for everyone. Recently, an academic on Twitter reported difficulties in finding “manual labour” during the 2022 campaign season. “People would wake up and follow the campaign handouts. The handouts ranged from [KES] 100 to 200. Other contestants would give packet of maize flour.” The screenshot below captures the crisis of productivity spurred by this campaign market.

Rent-a-crowd was lucrative enough for some to abandon their usual (side-)hustles as was reported elsewhere. If this practice ran strictly as an election-related business, many would look away from its slippery moral basis and call it the market force of demand and supply. The real tragedy though is that this culture of hand-outs is now so rooted in daily life that drawing a line between it and corruption is a game of mental gymnastics.

Say you approach a crowded hospital parking, and the watchman allows you to park in a “No Entry” section by a door that he knows is never used. You have a parking ticket which you will validate via payment as you leave, so why do you, nonetheless, feel compelled to give that watchman 50 shillings? Is that gratitude? And if so, isn’t saying a warm “Hallo and thank you” enough to show your appreciation? How can it be corruption if the watchman did not ask for it, you say? You might argue he expected it. But what does that say about your own complicity — condoning the breaking of rules and accepting graft? Culture is truly that moment when we do things without stopping to ask the why or wherefore; we do them because they are always done, and done in that way.

The real tragedy though is that this culture of hand-outs is now so rooted in daily life that drawing a line between it and corruption is a game of mental gymnastics.

The dependency created by hand-outs in our society is both crippling and deliberate, sadly. Somewhere along the journey of Harambee, the giver became the recipient as our politicians found value in reversing the relationship. Rather than take from the people to structure what they need in terms of infrastructure and social services, now politicians give us handouts to keep our mouths silent about our needs and their failures. Hand-outs are an instrument of control, a loss of freedom for the people — the freedom to critique, the freedom to be gainful, the freedom to self-determining. Harambee for development became a burden on the people while hand-outs from their leaders have become blinds that lock out the vision of industry and social well-being. There is no compulsion on the part of politicians to expand opportunities and create real wealth for the majority. Meanwhile, at the top, politicians jostle for space at the trough from which they reap to bag enough for handouts for people, if they are generous. The other name for that jostling is elite consensus aka handshakes.


At a 25 November 1963 public rally in Kapsabet, the crowds shouted “Majimbo” in response to the “Harambee” call made by Tom Mboya and Achieng Oneko of the Kenya African National Union (KANU). The people were protesting in this manner to show their disappointment over a decision made by Jean Marie Seroney, William Murgor and Taita arap Towett to decamp from Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) to join KANU. “Their defection was greeted with fury. [Nathaniel] Kalya was surprised that these individuals had not even bothered to consult anyone”. Two short months later, on January 23, 1964, Senator Kalya joined the bandwagon and walked out of KADU. He does not say whether he consulted anyone. He avers that “the move was the best way to serve the people he represented”. It is not lost on readers of his story that soon thereafter, “Kalya was appointed the Deputy Leader of Government Business [in the Senate]. He became the first person to move from being opposition chief to being Government business leader.” Ahem!

There is no compulsion on the part of politicians to expand opportunities and create real wealth for the majority.

Was it naivety, sheer negligence or outright greed that led these KADU leaders to believe that the Majimbo they had stood for in KADU would not be compromised by a KANU government since it was already in the Constitution? Seroney argued that, “the best way to preserve it was to be in Government”. Did these elected representatives underrate the wily intentions of the KANU men who lured them to cross the floor, as it was known then, or were they just greedy men who stood on zero principle?  Their actions left Majimbo in jeopardy, an orphan with no concerned voices to fight for it following the slow death — more like murder — of KADU in 1964. That death was a long game orchestrated by Tom Mboya, the Minister for Justice and Legal Affairs, working on behalf of Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta to ensure that effective opposition would not thrive.

Flash-forward to 2022 and the times are upon us once again. Virtually all representatives elected on an Independent ticket at the 9 August 2022 general election crossed the floor to join the president’s winning coalition, Kenya Kwanza, within days of the declaration of Kenya Kwanza’s victory. Worse still, even those like Kiraitu Murungi and Professor Kivutha Kibwana, who made their bids on rival parties and lost, somehow found it in themselves to cross over and join those who formed the new government. The less I say at this point about Professor Kibwana, a decorated human rights activists and a stellar pioneer Governor for Makueni, the better.

In Kenya’s political history, co-option has had many diversionary names — crossing the floor; co-operation; nusu mkate aka Government of National Unity; handshake. The facts remain the same, no matter what we call it, or how we justify it. Raila Odinga, opposition doyen from the 1980s, famously told us in 1997 that his co-operation with KANU was intended to break it from within. While his goal might have been achieved in the long term, in the short-term it allowed President Moi to enjoy tranquillity in his last term.

This practice of joining the side forming the government, even when the legitimacy of its election is in doubt, raises critical issues about representation. How are the needs of the electorate to be served when the person they elected by virtue of their backbone turns out to have none? When we read this lack of principle as a feature of culture, it is even more overwhelming. It seems independence, the most important ingredient in forging a culture of democracy, is something that elite Kenyans do not want and something that they rob ordinary citizens of at the earliest moment. Sadly, along with abhorrence for independence, scores of public intellectuals have, since Youth for KANU ’92, supplied the carving knives with which the free will of the electorate is slaughtered.

How are the needs of the electorate to be served when the person they elected by virtue of their backbone turns out to have none?

You might, cynically, say there is free will for people to join whatever side they like at whatever time. But no, there is an obligation that leaders have, to those they purportedly represent. But if those who follow them do so on account of the handouts they have been given, then the free will of the electorate is a commodity that has a price. And that price has been put in place by governments that have failed to secure every individual’s dignity by eradicating want. There can be no democracy in a society where people are either bullied, impoverished, shamed, or shunned into following the crowd.

Conceding is not the same thing as being co-opted. This is where we have the politics of compromise all wrong. The stakes have been raised higher than they ever were by the Constitution of Kenya 2010. There are term limits for Governors and Senators and provisions that leave the runner-up in the presidential election with no seat in any of the houses of Parliament and barred from appointment to the Cabinet. The resultant lack of status, income, and influence is enough to tempt anyone accustomed to state largesse to cross over or shake hands.

Intractable chokehold 

The triple helix of Harambee, hand-outs and handshakes weaves an intractable chokehold on democracy as the unimpeded participation of citizens in the design and execution of conditions to better their social and economic well-being. This chokehold is particularly deceptive because on the face of it, its three markers have the capacity to further free participation but, they have frustrated it: a classic case of a boon and a bane. Long before we had worked out that development is more than stone buildings, piped water, textbooks, syringes, pills, and the human resources to execute these to eradicate illiteracy and secure health, Harambee as a vehicle for the delivery of this development was in danger of being abused. That danger stemmed first from the narrow perception of development. That old understanding left out the growth of social relations such as gender equity, environmental sustainability, and equity between nations. Secondly, and perhaps more germane to the question of cultural engineering is the fact that while Harambee was born from the quotidian struggles of workers, its growth as a national movement was driven by politicians.

Culture thrives when state actors give it space to define itself. When state actors hijack cultural tools, decay is imminent. We saw this when the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) hijacked the popular song “Unbwogable” as their campaign anthem for the 2002 General Election. It didn’t take too long before the new NARC government started interpreting “Unbwogable” as an exclusive ethos. Vice-President Michael Wamalwa was at a victory party held at Mulwanda Primary School in Butere/Mumias District, as it was then, when the MP for Emuhaya, Kenneth Marende, warned local teachers to tread carefully in their demands. “It is only MPs who are unbwogable. Teachers cannot also start claiming they are unbwogable in their demands for a pay-rise.”

While Harambee was born from the quotidian struggles of workers, its growth as a national movement was driven by politicians.

To reiterate, the fact that Harambee gave birth to the culture of hand-outs, to say nothing of the millions that have been looted in the name of government workers attending fundraisers, is a good illustration of how fast and putrid the decay of a people-driven ethos is in the hands of politicians. Handouts are no doubt the first cousins of handshakes, that unworthy practice of elite purchase of free will and independent thinking. With the rot where it now is salvation must come from our public intellectuals. How they safeguard their independence and rebuild sites and institutions where the reimaging of freedom can happen is the only real chance we have of revisioning the independence we like to say we earned on the night of December 12, 1963. May the day break.

This publication was funded/co-funded by the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of The Elephant and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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