If there is one thing the coloniser did most effectively, it was to colonise our minds and kill our traditions. The colonisers told our parents’ parents that our traditions were repugnant, our beliefs wicked, our social structures immoral and our languages vulgar. They embarked on a very successful mission to ‘civilise the natives’; to beat the savagery out of the human, so to speak, and then rebuild the human into a refined being. A culturally acceptable specimen. They, in the same vein, employed persuasion and violence, reward and punishment, heaven and hell to wipe out our evil cultures and implant in us their ‘highly civilized’ cultures.
Their idea of civilization was a ‘high state of human society’, in short, the society they lived in. All other societies were uncivilized. What constituted a ‘high state of human society’ you may ask? To the colonizer, this meant, a complex social structure, an organised system of government, a highly developed religious system, a written language and, get this, a concept of time!
Our parents’ parents were effectively brainwashed and they, in turn, brainwashed our parents. Our parents, straddling both worlds, chose to give us the coloniser’s world. The only world, they believed, in which their children could succeed.
And so as a writer of historical fiction, my agenda this December holidays was to do a bit of research on the culture of my people for my next book. My first port of call was an elder in our village who was believed to be one of the last living people that supposedly practices our traditional religion. I approached his homestead cautiously, not knowing what to expect. He was known to throw out uninvited guests.
He returned my greetings cordially, though I could tell from his expression that he was suspicious of my visit. I introduced myself and showed him a copy of my first book as, I felt, this would make explaining my presence much easier.
“I am doing research for my next book,” I said. “And I would like to know more about the Wanga culture. Our traditions and religious practices, especially.”
“It is good,” he said. “It is great for you to hunger to know of our past but unfortunately I cannot tell these traditions and pass down these religious practices to a woman. If you were a man documenting this history, it would be well and good but not a woman.”
“But why wouldn’t you pass down our traditions to a woman?” I asked confused and disappointed. “Weren’t women part of our culture? Weren’t they subject to our traditions and social structures? Didn’t they participate in our religious ceremonies?”
The elder was quiet for a very long time.
“If tell all these traditions to a man and he writes them down, I will still get to read them,” I argued.
The elder remained silent for some time and then stood up and went into an inner room of his house. He returned after a few minutes holding a photograph in his hand. He handed this to me.
“This is Nabongo Mumia,” he told me. “Standing behind him, to the right is my father.”
He pointed at his father.
“Wow,” I exclaimed. “Your father was close to Nabongo Mumia?”
“He was the royal treasurer,” the old man said proudly. “He passed down his skill to me.”
I nodded with interest. I hoped that he would go on and tell me something about the traditions surrounding the royal treasurer.
“My father taught his skill to me and to my sister,” he said instead.
This surprised me. I thought traditions were not to be passed down to women!
“When we came of age, we went to school. All my siblings and I. It was a Christian school and we were taught Christian religious beliefs. Boys and girls learnt in separate rooms to avoid immorality. I was very good at arithmetic and when the teacher praised me, I informed him that my father was the royal treasurer and he taught this skill to me and to my sister.”
“The teacher just remained silent,” the old man continued. “And I did not think anything of it until that evening, when the District Officer’s askaris visited our home. They arrested my father and took him away. When he returned, he was very sad. I asked him what had happened, and he responded that the District Officer had issued an edict that our savage traditions were not to be taught to our girls. No reason was given for this.”
“The next day, the girls were taken out of their classroom and severely punished. They were warned not to listen to or practice our traditions as they were evil. I couldn’t help but think that all this was my fault,” the old man said sadly.
“Many years later, when we finally had a black Parish Priest, I got the confidence to ask him about it,” the old man continued. “He told me that it was one of the effective ways the coloniser came with to kill our traditional practices. It is women who are the first teachers of our children. The colonisers needed to change the narrative that was being taught to the children. It was therefore paramount that they black out our traditions and introduce theirs. That is why your mothers diligently taught you ‘a-b-c’ and ‘1-2-3’ and Baby Jesus and not about the history of our kingdom.”
“If you found out that it was a colonial strategy to disenfranchise us of our culture, why do you not want to tell me about our traditions?” I asked.
“It is the narrative I grew up with,” he said. “Old habits die hard!”
He laughed and I joined in his laughter.
“But our culture is not static. It evolves with time. For example, what is considered the traditional Wanga dress for men? It is the Arabic kanzu and the British blazer. But this is not what Nabongo Mumia is donning in this picture. He is wearing his traditional leopard skin dress with the colobus monkey headdress!”
I nodded in agreement, taking in all that he was telling me.
“The coloniser was very smart,” said the old man. “He took advantage of our beliefs to influence culture change.”
“How?” I asked interested to learn more.
“A good example are the traditions surrounding our rites of passage,” he said. “Our circumcision ceremony was so elaborate and young men had to participate. The entire tradition took five months, from August to December and this meant that the colonisers had no workers for five months. They therefore began a narrative that our traditional circumcisers were unhygienic and spreading infections. They recommended hospitals instead. We, however, maintained the cultural practices but called on a clinical officer when it was time for the actual cut.”
The old man nodded his head and smiled.
“We thought we were being smart, but the coloniser was smarter,” he said tapping his temple.
“He spread the narrative that the Luhya people, or the Bantu Kavirondo as they referred to us then, were stuck in the positions of kitchen boys, house boys and cooks because of the tradition of receiving a cooking stick from our mothers during circumcision. They pointed out that other tribes such as the Nilotic Kavirondo, that was the Luo, the Kikuyu and the Nandi were holding more respectable jobs such as teachers, clerks and nurses. A few of our boys bought into this and abandoned the culture.”
The old man continued speaking, “They further spread the rumours that the spear we were given by our fathers as a gift during the circumcisions doomed us to be night guards and watchmen for the rest of our days. Young men did not want to be night guards. They wanted to sleep next to their warm young brides during the night and toil during the day like other people. This made many more young men abandon the traditions.”
“And then they made an attack that guaranteed support for them from our mothers,” he said laughing. “They said that the tradition of blessing the boys with busaa, our local brew, made our young men into useless drunkards. They pointed out that the Nandi blessed their boys with milk and the boys were great dairy farmers and the Maa blessed their boys with blood from a bull and their boys were successful livestock keepers. After this, mothers kept their boys away from circumcision ceremonies.”
“The church was not left behind,” he said. “The preachers stood at their pulpits and spread a unified message across denominations. They said that the boy/girl dance during the circumcision ceremony brought out the demons of immorality which possessed the souls of our young men for seven generations. This, they said, explained why our men were marrying many wives and having children left, right and centre. This led to big families that were not sustainable and perpetuated the cycle of poverty.”
He laughed and I joined in his laughter.
“Mothers did not want their sons to be immoral,” the old man said. “Young women no longer wanted to be in polygamous situations. They therefore dissuaded their sons and brothers from participating in the circumcision traditions.”
“What a way to erode a culture!” I exclaimed.
“It was a very effective way,” the old man said. “They also used the law to kill the culture. As you know, young men had to go to their mothers’ brothers to get a bull for the ceremony. The coloniser introduced a tax for moving livestock from one location to another. They also introduced a ban on night time gatherings and a pass which every man had to wear around their neck to allow them to move from one district to the next. They enforced these laws with beatings and jailings. Our people were effectively cowered. Those who retained the traditions had to go underground, like they were perpetuating an evil practice that could be done only under the cover of the night!”
“I feel sad to hear this,” I said.
“It is sad,” he said. “But the world changes. The coloniser was bound to come and introduce many new things to us. Things that would help us like modern medicine, technology, transport systems and many more you can count for yourself.”
“But they could do this without eroding our culture,” I said.
“If they had not eroded your culture, do you think you would have accepted these things?” he asked.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, that is something for you to consider,” he said.
We sat for a while in silent contemplation.
At last, the old man broke the silence by asking, “What questions did you have for me regarding our traditions?”
“What were our beliefs,” I asked, excited that he had agreed to share his knowledge with me. “Who did we worship?”