Why some Kenyan traditions and cultures have stood test of time

Wednesday March 18 2020

Initiates take part in Ilchamus' community traditional rite of passage called sayiare at Murda in Ilchamus, Baringo South, on April 23,2019. Over 7,000 youths aged 10 to 25 years participated in the ceremony. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Just how much do you know about the different tribes of Kenya and what sets them apart besides the language they speak?

The fact is that most of our cultural practices, rich as they are, are rarely known outside individual communities, and where they are, they are completely misunderstood by outsiders. Though we are becoming a modern society with each passing day, there are some traditions that a number of communities continue to hold on to, cultures that are an integral part of a community’s identity and heritage. Here are some fascinating ones.

Adultery is frowned upon among the Pokot

In this community, a man caught cheating with another man’s wife is slapped with a harsh punishment known as ‘triple six’.

The cheat is first paraded before a community baraza chaired by community elders, who act as judges. If found guilty, the offender is subjected to six strokes of the cane and then ordered to pay six goats, six cows and Sh600 to the wronged man.

Eliud Domokong, a Pokot elder, says that before this “cleansing” ceremony starts, a fire is lit, signifying the start of court proceedings. Only the circumcised are allowed to attend the ceremony where only the man is punished.

“The punishment is a conflict resolution procedure to stop the offended man from taking the law into his own hands,” explains Domokong.

Once the judgement is passed, the elders say a cleansing prayer as a show of acceptance and forgiveness. The ceremony ends with a feast of roasted meat.

Mourning the dead: an elaborate affair among the Luo

This is one of the most extravagant ceremonies practised by this community. Of the many Luo cultural practices that have fizzled out over time, their colourful manner of mourning remains true to what it was ages ago.

Juma Were, a community elder, says that the effusive mourning is a show of respect to the dead, a final befitting send-off.

“Mourning can take several days or weeks of weeping, singing and dancing to chase away the spirits of death,” says Were.

To signify just how important the ceremony is among the Luo, the family of the bereaved goes as far as hiring ‘professional’ mourners to liven up the occasion since a low-key mourning attracts embarrassment and gossip. It is interpreted as a sign that the deceased was an outcast, or one who did not mingle freely with others in the community.

The extravagance of the burial rites, however, depend on many factors, such as age of the deceased, gender, marital status, social status, religious beliefs, circumstance of their death or even the area they come from.

Normally, on the day that the deceased body is transported from the mortuary to the burial ground, a large procession of mourners and a herd of cattle would be waiting to receive the body at the nearest local centre.

The mourners sometimes carry twigs and clubs which they brandish as they wail, sing and sprint. The elderly normally arrive at the funeral singing Luo dirges, an act known as giyo, carrying shields, spears or lances which they use to stab the air.

Once the body gets to its destination, mourners join the bereaved family on a night vigil (budho) which is characterised by more singing, dancing and wailing until the following day when the body is interred. The grave is dug at night. Food is a very important aspect during burial among the Luo, so there will be a big feast, one perhaps even bigger than that prepared during a wedding. Bulls and tens of chicken are normally slaughtered to feed the many guests.

Enuoto: A Maasai event of shaving of the morans

This once in a lifetime ceremony (performed every ten years) marks the transition of young Maasai warriors (Maasai morans) into senior community warriors.

The festival, according to Joseph Oloimooja is usually a big day for the morans and their families; and a lot of planning is put in place to ensure the extravaganza lives to its name Enuoto.

“This is one of the biggest cultural celebration among the Maasai, where everyone is always invited,” says Oloimooja.

Before the Enuoto ceremony, the morans are prohibited from doing things independently from their age-mates.

On the material day, the moran age-set donning colourful beads, ochre-red plaited hair and same colour painted on their faces arrive at the ceremony venue carrying sticks as they hum traditional chants.

The warriors then proceed to a nearby river to wash the red ochre paints off their faces and hair. On coming back the venue of the ceremony, the graduating warriors get their hairs shaved, usually by their mothers. The community elders known as Oloibonis, then spits on their faces as a sign of blessing.

“Unless you have gone through this intricate ceremony of the Maasai people, you are not allowed to marry,” Oloimooja added.

At the ceremony, bulls are slaughtered to mark the event and enasho, a traditional brew made of honey and aloe roots, is also served to the elders and the graduating morans.

Dowry payment among the Kambas: a ceremony worth witnessing

Among the Akamba community, Ngasya, or payment of dowry, can take up to two days depending on how far the bride’s home is from the bridegroom’s.

Ngasya is part of a wider dowry negotiation practice that is preceded by ntheo, a marriage vow. During this event, says Mzee Ndambuki Muvele, the visitors from the groom’s side are expected to carry the food that will feed them as well as their hosts. That is not all, they either prepare the food themselves or hire people to do it.

“This is to show appreciation to the family of the woman for bringing up their child well,” explains Muvele.

Before the material day, the family of the man visits their in-laws to familiarise themselves with how the bride’s clan conducts the ceremony and also find out the ‘gifts’ they would like. They can ask for anything ranging from money, goats, cows and food items that will be cooked.

All the items bought and used during the ceremony are carefully documented and kept by both families — the list comes in handy in case of a divorce and the man’s family demands to be repaid.

This list is proposed by members of the clan, not the bride’s father or family — among the Kamba culture, the woman belongs to the clan, not her family.

Dowry negotiations among the Abagusii

Among the Abagusii, a cooking pot and a blanket are integral parts of a dowry payment ceremony known as ekerage. The cooking pot symbolises the woman’s replacement, who used to do the household chores while the blanket is to replace her warmth, which her family will no longer enjoy. The size of the sufuria signifies the extent of the love the man has for his wife.

The man’s side of the family start by presenting the sufuria to the woman’s side of the family, specifically the bride’s mother.

There is then the introduction side of it known as okomanyana, where the in-laws get to know one another. This is then followed by the negotiations for dowry, okomanachombe.

During okomanachombe, the man’s family is not given any food. Offering them food is viewed as trying to bribe them. If then there is no agreement between the two parties, the in-laws leave on an empty stomach, says Mzee Onduso Bong'ita.

Cleansing sexual sins among the Giriama community

Among the Giriama people, when a man is caught sleeping with another man’s wife or dates a girl from the same clan or mbaria, he is supposed to be cleansed together with the woman or girl for what is considered an abomination.

The cleansing ceremony known as kuzizinywa involves a sheep being pierced on the abdomen and feacal matter extracted from the sheep, which will then be put on a container and later mixed with herbs brought by experienced elders for the purpose of the ritual.

The two culprits are then be washed using the mixture, a process which is believed to rid the two of the sacrilegious act.

“In Giriama, we have 15 clans and one cannot date in the same clan because it is very wrong to make love with a person from the same clan. If this happens the two will have to be cleansed kuondoa kisirani.

“If the woman was married, then the man must pay malu to the offended man. Some would ask for a goat or even a cow,” adds Mzee Larry Ngala.

Land for the unmarried Kipsigis daughters

Among the Kipsigis Community, their culture allows women to be allocated land by their parents or brothers in case they fail to get a married. Unlike many Kenyan communities whose cultures frown upon giving land to women, the situation seems to be different among the Kipsigis.

Benjamin Kiprotich, a Kipsigis elder, explains that when a woman hits her prime age without any prospects of a suitor, her family is allowed to give her a small plot of land to settle on. The land can be allocated to her by her father or brothers.

“When a lady is growing elderly and her family is convinced that she’s not capable of finding a husband, they will allocate her a piece of land where she will farm and put up a house. Should she have children, they will later inherit the same piece of land,” Kiprotich says.