The nomination of Dr Willy Mutunga for the position of Chief Justice seems to have steered public debate from party politics, tribal alliances and political endorsements to something that has been described as trivial by some and by others as symbolic.
Over the past two weeks, focus and energies have been directed at the left ear lobe of Dr Mutunga, out of which a tiny stud pops. He says he started wearing it way back in 2003 following instructions by his ancestors.
When he came out to publicly accept the nomination by the Judicial Service Commission, as the camera flashlights went off, light bounced off the tiny piece of jewellery.
The TV camera lenses lingered on just long enough for the viewers to spot it.
Dr Mutunga seemed to know that questions would follow and had a prompt explanation for its presence.
“I have two ancestors. A man and a woman. They both had earrings and in 2003 as I prayed to them they instructed me to wear one so that they can protect me,” he said.
With that statement, he opened a debate that touches on some of the pillars of the African existence: spirituality, sexuality and, to some extent, masculinity.
Yet many African communities used to don one type or other of ear accessories.
Koitalel arap Samoei, a revered Nandi warrior, leader and seer who fought the building of the railway through his territory in the 19th century, had one.
Images of the orkoiyot at the Koitalel arap Samoei Museum in Nandi show that he had pierced both his ears and worn jewellery.
His credibility as a leader was never questioned. His authority was final. So far, there is no historical data to show that his earrings were at any one time considered a hindrance to his ability to lead the Nandi to prosperity and peace.
But those were different times.
“Just because my ancestors walked naked and lived in caves doesn’t mean I should do the same. Over the years, we as a people have evolved and shed the negative and retained what actually benefits us,” says anthropologist Wanjiku Mbitaaru. “There is a certain level of responsibility that comes with certain appointments in society. The Chief Justice’s position is one of them.”
Mr Mbitaaru says it is not proper for the CJ to wear a stud because in his opinion, it will water down the value of the office and does not conform to the current standards set by society.
“There is a certain aura that needs to revolve around that office – an aura of authority and dignity which, sadly, in today’s society are negated by the presence of the stud,” he said.
Over the years, the earring has gone full circle. From being a part of cultural identity, to a fashion statement, to a symbol of rebellion and, more recently, a pointer to one’s sexual orientation.
Mr Gidion Mbuvi, the flashy Makadara MP, was thrown out of Parliament for wearing earrings.
Worldwide, men from tribes that are believed to have held on and still practise their culture in a world where modernity is embraced still pierce their ears.
In her book, Jewels and Women: the romance Magic and Art of Feminine Adornment, American author Marianne Ostier notes that ear piercing and the wearing of earrings, large or small, is an almost universal practice for men and women. However, it is only in the Western society that is deemed effeminate.
She notes that the oldest mummified body in the world, found frozen in an Austrian glacier in 1991, showed the body had pierced ears with holes enlarged to between 7mm and 11mm in diameter. Tests showed the body to have been over 5,000 years old.
In the book, she explains that ears were probably first pierced for magical purposes since many ancient tribes believed that demons can enter the body through the ear and that they could be repelled by metal. Thus the piercings and the resulting metal put through the holes prevent evil from entering the body.
“The piercing and stretching of ear lobes is common among the Maasai. Various materials have been used to both pierce and stretch the lobes, including thorns for piercing,” says hotelier James ole Kinyaga.
But he says the practice, like many other traditions, is slowly fading away.
Among the Hindu, the wearing of a stud is highly religious.
In opposing Dr Mutunga’s appointment, the Church, through an umbrella body, expressed its reservation over the stud.
Speaking under the banner of Kenyan Christian Church Leaders, the clergymen, drawn countrywide from various evangelical churches, said they had reservations with regard to the nominees for the Chief Justice and the deputy (Nancy Baraza) assuming these positions on account of their Christian values and beliefs.
This was a message passed through a statement read by the National Council of Churches Kenya general secretary Peter Karanja.
Citing the Bible, author and traditionalist David Maillu says there is no justifiable reason for their opposition. His evidence of Christian tolerance of piercing of ears by males stems from Exodus 32:1- 4.
The verses from the New King James Version state: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’
Aaron answered them: ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
“I challenge them to show us a scripture from their holy book where men are specifically forbidden to don earrings,” Maillu said.
The author himself is a staunch believer in “Africaness” – a belief in all things ancient.
“I believe in the supernatural and the African connection to a supreme being. But sadly, people, out of ignorance, call whatever connection we have with our past as unsavoury, uncouth or even witchcraft and dismiss it,” he said.
For others, the debate revolving around the stud provides an outlet for a bigger argument for acceptance for a group that feels ostracised by society – the gay community in Kenya.
Arguments have been made to the extent that a pierced lobe has a lot more to tell than fashion or spirituality. It also tells a tale of one’s sexuality. For instance, it is widely accepted among urban populations that wearing an earring on the right ear denotes homosexuality.
While acknowledging that piercing the right or the left ear has nothing to do with one’s sexual orientation, Dennis Nzioka of Gay Kenya says the gay community is happy with the kind of debate the CJ nominee’s stud has elicited.
“Maybe Kenyans will finally start talking candidly and openly about sexuality in their homes, churches, workplaces and even in schools. The debate shows that, as a nation, we have a lot to say about sexual orientations and preferences,” Mr Nzioka said.
Asked which he would choose between the Chief Justice’s job and his precious stud, Dr Mutunga said he would go for the latter.
A streak of rebelliousness has also, over the years, been associated with the stud.
At the height of the hippy movement in the 1960s, wearing earrings by men was considered a symbol of rebellion and non-conformity – traits that characterised the American and, to some extent, European existence.
“But now it is mostly as a fashion statement. Our footballers, actors, musicians, politicians and many more role models do wear them. It not such a big deal,” says Mr Nzioka.
Dr Peter Kiarie who teaches African Culture, Religion and Philosophy at Catholic University, says Christianity assaulted the African religion and way of life and for it to be meaningful, it has to be repackaged and rebuilt on African traditions.
“Today, we find many Kenyans are paying attention to their traditional beliefs because Christianity left a huge spiritual gaps in the lives of Africans. Contrary to what the missionaries taught, many Africans are realising that it is those beliefs they discarded that make them more whole as Christians.”
Dr Mutunga is a Muslim. Last week, Muslim leaders said they would talk to him to discard the jewellery.