Magical Kenya: Beliefs, Rituals and Customs of the main Ethnic groups in Kenya
By: Frank Murima
Kenya is characterized by a wide variety of wildlife, pleasant weather, sandy beaches, exceptional sites, interesting multi-cultural ethnic groups among other pleasantries.
This has made the country a favorite tourist destination and an item in the bucket-list for many.
The land is rich in culture as it hosts over 40 ethnic groups, with different origins and beliefs. However it is not hard to see that the communities are in tune with the environment as most of their beliefs and customs are deduced from their surroundings.
There are five major ethnic groups. They include:
In this article I will focus on the main ones. Bantus are the largest group as they host a number of smaller groups.
The languages spoken by these divisions include; the Kikuyu, the Kamba, the Luhya, the Kisii, the Meru, and the Mijikenda.
Most of the Bantu communities are farmers. They are said to have migrated from central Africa and settled in Kenya as they searched for fertile land to cultivate. The Kikuyu community is the most prevalent tribe in Kenya.
The Bantu Culture
The Bantu ethnic group is the prevalent group in Kenya. They occupy most parts of the country from the coast to the highlands in the central region part of the country. Most of the tribes are farmers and also do livestock keeping.
All the tribes have their beliefs and cultural practices that are unique to every community. These superstitions ensure that every member in the community undertake their duty as a member of the larger community.
Age is associated with wisdom. A person older than you is to be accorded respect and one should shut up and listen to their elders.
Arguing with a person older than you is regarded as disrespectful and may lead to the older person casting a curse upon you or wishing you bad luck. It is therefore important to please your elders at all times to ensure that they bless and pray for your future.
Togetherness and Children
A child belongs to every member of the community and can be disciplined by anyone older than them.
The spirit of togetherness is harnessed by encouraging people to take part in communal activities. These include building of houses, dances, weddings, mourning with the family of a deceased among other activities.
Togetherness is encouraged as people of the same age are clustered into groups. This was regarded as an age group.
People in the same age group were circumcised together, married together and also sat together during important ceremonies.
In this article I extensively cover the Kikuyu community as it hosts the majority of the population in Kenya.
The Kikuyu call their God “Ngai”. He is seen as the provider, giver of life and protector of the lands and the wealth of the people in the community.
It is important to appease him at all times so as to bless the community and gift them abundantly. They believed that God lived in the mountain hence would undertake sacrifices and prayers facing Mt. Kenya.
The Kikuyu performed several offerings to appease him. After a harvest they would bring produce from the farms and also cattle which were given to him. Failure to this, it would anger him and would punish them with drought and famine.
Other times when sacrifices took place were if a member of the society angered God. It was important to undertake a cleansing ritual.
This was done by sacred leaders in the community. Failure to this a curse and misfortune would be fall that family.
Rituals in different stages of life among the Kikuyu community
When a child is born among the Kikuyu community, the mother welcomes the infant by ululating. Five ululations are done if the child is a boy and four if the child is a girl.
The father of the child is then expected to cut sugarcanes. Five if the infant is a boy and four if the child is a girl. The juices of these sugarcanes are fed to the mother and the child and those that remain are kept in the house.
If the child is a boy they are placed on the right side while if it’s a girl they are placed on the left side. The right side is a symbol of masculinity while the left symbolizes femininity.
The umbilical cord is buried in an uncultivated land. This is to symbolize fertility and freshness. It is also a prayer that the mother’s womb remains healthy, strong and fertile.
The Seclusion Period of the Mother and Child
The mother and the child are to be kept in seclusion; five days if a boy and four if a girl. During the seclusion period no outsider is allowed to visit the mother and child except close relatives.
No member of the house is allowed to bathe in the river and the house is to remain un-swept during the seclusion period
This seclusion period symbolizes death and resurrection of one life to the other. Life in the womb is brought to an end and commencement of life on earth begins.
Why the Mother’s Head is Shaven
Upon the end of the seclusion period the mother’s head is shaven. This is to symbolize the start of a new life. The shaven hair is then scattered to symbolize that the child belongs to the community and not only to the mother.
The father of the child is then expected to slaughter a fat sheep as an appreciation gesture to God and the ancestors. The mother is also expected to visit the fields and gather sweet potatoes and hence a new life begins.
Naming of the child
The naming ceremony is an important event in a life of a Kikuyu. The naming follows a laid pattern which is practiced even today.
The first-born son is named after the father of the man while a first-born daughter is named after its grandmother from the side of the man.
The second born son is named after the grandfather or the father to the mother as for a girl the mother’s mother. This is to symbolize continuity of the lineage and also a symbol of appreciation to the grandparents.
During the naming ceremony, the father is expected to tie a wristlet of goat skin around the child’s hand. This is a symbol of connecting the child to the whole community and also the ancestors in the clan. This act is regarded as sacred and cannot be brought to an end.
Piercing of the Ears and the second birth rituals
At around the age between five and six, an important ceremony is undertaken where the ears of the child are pierced. This symbolizes that the child is now in a position to look after goats in the field.
The second birth is a symbolic ceremony. It stands for rebirth just like in many religions. The child is placed between the legs of the mother and goat intestines are tied between the mother and the child.
The intestines are then cut and the child imitates the cry of child. The mother is shaven and goes to collect firewood in the fields to demonstrate the continuity of normal life.
After the ceremony the child is now allowed to go to the next stage in life which is initiation.
It is important to note that a child who has not undergone the second birth cannot fully participate in the community ceremonies.
Initiation Ritual for Boys in Kikuya Kenya
This is a mark from childhood to adulthood. In Kikuyu this is performed through circumcision. It is done through the removal of the foreskin.
In the past it was undertaken in both girls and boys however in modern time campaigns against FGM has brought an end to most of the females going through the ordeal.
Boys went to the river early in the morning and dipped themselves in the river to numb their bodies as they prepare for the cut. An experienced traditional medicine man then would come and perform the cut.
After they are circumcised, they are secluded from the community and are taught of how to live like adults. They were also taught the secrets of the community and made to take an oath to protect it with their lives.
After the seclusion period the boys return to the community as adults and they are cerebrated through dance and feast.
Circumcision is the only way to become an adult
After a girl went through the initiation they were taught about womanhood and also about childbirth. This ceremony symbolized that the women were ready for marriage.
A person who is not circumcised no matter the age was still regarded as a child. If uncircumcised person made a woman pregnant, the act was seen as wrong in the society.
It was an act that was seen to anger both gods and ancestors and also an abuse to the cultural values of a community.
Courtship Ritual in Kenya
After initiation and a phase of being a junior warrior in the community, a young man is perceived ready for marriage. The young man will woo a girl by making sure that they cross paths.
He will use his manly charisma to win the girl. He will then ask a girl if he can come and visit her to drink porridge, if the girl agree then this marks the start of a friendship. They will cross index fingers and agree on a date.
When the girl returns home she will tell the mother that a certain boy will visit for porridge. The young man will prepare for the visit and go to the girl’s family compound carrying a yam, in most tribes in Kenya you cannot visit a person empty handed. This is seen as rude and inconsiderate of the person that you are visiting.
The young man will have a conversation in one of the boy’s house in that compound then leave. When the father returns home in the evening he is informed of the visit.
The young man will then inform his father of the interest in the girl. If the two clans have no differences between them, the union is allowed to take place.
Marriage Ritual in Kenya
This stage officially gives a person the right to be a full member of the society. It is therefore planned for and celebrated in a very rambunctious way.
After a young man has paid dowry which is usually a either a number of rams or a number of goats and a number of cows. In a place like in the central part of Kenya it is usually about 100 goats and up-to 20 cows.
The elder members of the society then drink beer made from honey which is a sign of respect to the ancestors.
The ceremony is marked by the bride and groom feeding each other goat ears. This symbolizes that if they want the marriage to work, they have to listen to each other at all times.
The groom then separates a “goat’s shoulder” and shares the tender meat with the bride. This is a sign that she has cut her off from her family and he is ready to use his hands to provide for her at all times.
After this, the woman is expected to demonstrate some of the duties she will be doing to take care of her husband. This include combing his hair and applying him oil. The event is then preceded by dance and a feast to welcome both to adulthood.
Death is a very sorrowful time in the community. In the Kikuyu community the dead are to be respected and accorded a respectable sendoff. During this time other members of the society are expected to join hands with the family of the deceased.
They bring harvests from their land and produce from their animals to show support for the family of the deceased.
During the ceremony, the dead is dressed with the best attire to give a heroic sendoff and songs of sadness are sung to ease the somber mood.
After a person is buried, it is a taboo to point or step on a graveyard. This is seen as disturbing the dead and if the spirits of the dead are awoken, they may bring evil shortcomings to the community.
NILOTES in KENYA
These are the second largest ethnic group in Kenya. They are divided into three groups these include; river lake Nilotes, Highland Nilotes and the Plain Nilotes.
These major ethnic groups are subdivided into smaller subgroups with the major ones being, Luo, Maasai, Turkana, Pokot, Samburu, Kalenjin and many more.
They were initially cattle herders when they migrated into Kenya but those that settled around Lake Victoria with the main ones being Luo ventured into fishing and farming.
THE LUO in KENYA
The Luo community shares a lot of their beliefs with some communities in Uganda as they live at the border. They have a rich culture and a vast array of beliefs.
Some people from other areas fear them due to traditional history of witchcraft. Since I have covered the Nilotes in Uganda I will share popular beliefs among the Luo people in a nutshell.
The shaving of the hair is used to mark a transition from one stage to the other. It also symbolizes the start of a new life and a new stature in the community.
Therefore, when a child is born the mother’s hair is shaved, during marriage and also when demise occurs in a family.
They believe in witchcraft and will relate diseases and death to evil spirits. Some even accuse some of the rich people in the community to attain their wealth through witchcraft.
Giving birth to disabled children is also regarded as the work of the evil spirits and therefore cleansing ceremonies are undertaken. In the past people used to hide disabled children in the house to avoid social stigma and ridicule.
The Night Runners of the Luo Community in Kenya
The Luo community is famous for the night runners and those that do this claim that they have inherited this from their forefathers.
Night runners run at night naked or scantily dressed disturbing their neighbors. They may do this by violently banging at the neighbor’s doors, throwing stones and soil on the roofing of the houses or making horrifying sounds.
Some of the night runners say that when they try to stop, they become quite troubled and tormented. This tradition is still widespread in the rural areas of Nyanza and Homabay.
Initiation Ritual – Luo in Kenya
Luo marked their initiation through the removal of teeth. The teeth were removed either on the upper or lower jaw. It is therefore not uncommon to meet with a person without teeth in those regions.
This rite of passage was conducted on both male and female. It was quite a painful ordeal and a person who underwent it was regarded as a full member of the society and earned his or her respect.
The teeth were removed using a screw and after the teeth were removed, they were given a mixture of herbs to numb the pain.
Religion in The Luo Community in Kenya
When it comes to religion the Luo community believed in a supreme being called Nyasaye. They believed that he would visit the earth either to bless or curse.
Lightening, earthquakes, the sun, the moon, rains among other natural occurrences were regarded as the manifestation of God, on earth.
They believed that a person has two parts that the physical and the shadow one. When a person died the body would go back to become dust while the shadow would join the spirits.
If a person died as a good person then his spirit would be a blessing. Otherwise they would end up being an evil spirit.
To communicate with God and the spirits, the living had to perform sacrifices. The sacrifices included animals and plants; these were undertaken by special people in the community.
Magicians, Soothsayers and Medicine Men
Dreams were regarded as a way that the dead communicated with the living. The magicians interpreted the dreams and prophesied of the future happenings. They would choose the correct way appease the spirits and cleanse an evil shortcoming.
If a magician was not a position to restore the normal way of life a problem was passed to a soothsayer who would discern the cause of a problem and bring healing to the community.
Medicine men in the Luo community were regarded as the modern doctors. They had knowledge of every disease and would use herbs to cure the disease.
This set of expertise was passed down the generation through apprenticeship and only few people were accorded this privilege. So if your grandfather was a medicine man, a magician or a soothsayer chances are you are next in line.
Maasai Community in Kenya
One of the communities that has been a position to reserve their traditional way of life are the Maasais. Even today tourists from all over the world come to visit and experience their rich culture and heritage.
The Maasai are plain Nilotes and are cattle herdsmen, hunters and gatherers. They are pastoralists and rarely have a permanent settlement and move in accordance to the rain pattern. Searching for grass and water for their animals.
Cattle are the center stage of this community. They value cattle and the more you have the richer you are. It is therefore a tradition and still happening today that cattle rustling is very rampant in the cattle herding communities. They regard cattle as gift from God as they provide everything.
Blood and milk as a source of food; Hide skins as their source of clothing; to pay bride price, settle disputes and to seal friendships.
It is important to note that the Maasai rarely terms cattle as a source of meat and will either hunt or eat goats and sheep.
The Importance of having a Son
A warrior is a great title in the Maasai community. He is expected to look after cattle protecting them from wild animals and also from other rustlers. They are the watchers of wealth in a family.
A boy is therefore a very important person in a family and a Maasai man will keep on marrying until he gets a woman who bores him a son.
The father and other elder warriors have a responsibility to teach the boy the ways of the land. They were therefore to guide them as they undertake rites of passage from childhood to adulthood.
In the past a boy had to kill a lion to demonstrate his courage and that he was ready for circumcision. This showed that he was courageous enough to face the life of warrior, a “Moran”.
He will then be ready for circumcision which marked the end of childhood to adulthood.
Women in Massai
The women in Maasai are not given much responsibility and their sole purpose is to raise children. They stay at home and look after kids as the men are out grazing.
The only time they work is when building mud houses which are semi permanent due to their nomadic way of life. Women were also regarded as a commodity. The more women a man had, the wealthier he was and gained more respect.
Jewelry and the Maasai in Kenya
Another notable culture and heritage among the Maasai is their way of dressing and jewelry. Color red is a popular color among them; it is a representation of blood and also believes that Lions are scared of it. You will therefore find it common.
Beads are also a notable jewelry among both men and women.
Each color has a meaning; red means bravery and strength, blue is the color of the sky and rain, white the color of a cow’s milk, green to show plants, orange and yellow a symbol of hospitality and black a demonstration of the hardships of the people.
Women pierce their ears and fill it with large earrings they also wear it around the neck and you can find them carrying a very heavy bead necklace.
It is believed that, in the past women with longer necks in the past were more appealing and attracted a higher dowry price compared to the others. Therefore necklaces were used to elongate the neck over time.
Men wear beads around their hands and legs as an appreciation of culture. During various ceremonies men and women smeared themselves with red ochre so as to be more appealing to the opposite sex.
Jump and Dance
Dances and festivals are marked by jumping. The higher a Maasai can jump the better as he is regarded to see far. This comes in handy when herding cattle and have to look for miles in search of a lost sheep or looking for pastures.
Bows, Arrows and Spears
Bows, arrows and spears are their main weaponry. They use these for hunting, in times of war and also during games. The tips were laced with poison that would neutralize an animal they were hunting in a matter time.
To be a good hunter; one has to be a good tracker; sounds of particular birds, trails of animals can only be interpreted by a master hunter. Few are able to master this skill hence a master hunter is given the best parts of the animal upon a kill.
Spears are also a symbol that the man of the house is around. Since most of the “manyattas”, the temporary houses, do not have a door and will only have a sheet covering the entrance. A man will leave his spear erected outside as a sign that he is inside.
Enkai, the God of the Maasai
When it comes to religion, the Maasai believed in a god who they referred to as “Enkai”. He is the protector of their cattle and people. They also termed him to having two sides a blue one and a red one.
The blue one was when he meant peace and blessing while the red symbolizes when he was angry and had come to punish.
Animal sacrifices were undertaken to please the gods and also ask for forgiveness. In return God would send rain as a source of food for their cattle.
As you have seen most of the communities share common beliefs, vegetation, animals and natural occurrences have significance in the lives of all these communities.
It is therefore important for all Kenyans to take care of the environment and also conduct themselves in the right way to be in tune with their environment.
The respect and upholding of culture among Kenyans is promoted and preserved even today by the government. This is done through holding of cultural shows, Bomas of Kenya where various tribes congregate to showcase their culture.
There are also cultural centers spread across the country and has models of all the tribes showcasing their traditional way of living.
By: Frank Murima
More articles on Country Luck