Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Akamba Traditional Beliefs and Practices

Akamba Traditional Beliefs and Practices

1. General Overview

This article presents some perspectives on Akamba traditional beliefs and practices. After a general overview, it offers some reflections on Akamba concept of God. Akamba traditional beliefs and practices are essentially about the Creator, the Supreme Being, around who all religious institutions revolve. Besides their limited literary tradition in their own language (by D. N. Kimilu and D. Mailu), the Akamba rely mainly on their large wealth of oral tradition for their religious practices. Their entire life is deeply religious. The major activities that constitute their religious tradition include sacrifices, ceremonies, rituals, prayers and festivities. The objects and places used for religious purposes are set apart, such as masks, grooves, shrines, the fig tree, the sycamore tree, mountains, hills and certain significant rocks. Contrary to what some anthropologists have observed and written in books, the Akamba do not worship these objects, but rather they are entry points into the mystery of the one who created them, the Supreme Being, God. Nor would the Akamba worship their ancestors, but show deep reverence to them, a reverence that does not equal the honor and glory and worship of their Supreme Being.

On particular important occasions, the Akamba perform purification rituals of herbal medicine mixture called ng'ondu. For example, such rites are performed at the naming and initiation ceremonies. Another occasion would be upon the return of a member of a family after a long away from from home. The belief was that the person might have been contaminated by evil while in contact with other communities outside the family. So the ritual was perfumed in order to avoid the homecoming person from infecting the homestead and those who live there.

The power of the spoken word was and continues to be important in the religious beliefs and practices of the Akamba. This is confirmed by the practice of going to a traditional counselor or diviner whose name in Kikamba is mundu mue. One goes to such a person when sick or when having relational family problems, first of all to get an analysis of the problem: the real cause, and then some guidance on how to deal with the problem. These diviners use their wisdom and the power of the word to advice and counsel their clients, but always from the perspective of Akamba traditional faith and beliefs. The counsel they give is known in Kikamba as kwathiisya.

The Akamba worldview is an integrated worldview where religion is not something you do on occasions, but something you live everyday. All activities are guided by deep religious values that help to balance the rhythm of the seasons, the planting, the weeding, the harvest that culminates in the thanksgiving harvest festival. The mountains, the forests, the rivers, the plains and the valleys are all sacred because they remind the Akamba of who created them in the first place.

2. Akamba Concept of God

The Akamba use several names for the Supreme Being (beyond whom there is no other being). The first name they use is Mulungu who is acknowledged as the Creator of all things. Mulungu has no equal. Besides this term, the Akamba use the word Ngai and Mumbi. The latter originates from kumba (literary to mould as it were with clay). So the creator is understood in terms of the molder who fashions and shapes all creatures, some more beautiful than others. God is the giver of children, rain, food, air, water, cattle and everything that is. God is thus the sustainer, the one who preserves all things in existence. God is also described as Mwatuangi (literary the one who divides, the Divider). This name of the Divider is indicative of God's wisdom because God is able to separate two legs, two hands, the fingers and toes in the human body. God too separates the oceans and the lakes from dry land, and separates one species from another. It is important to note that the word Ngai is common between the Akamba and the Masai their Western neighbors.

The term Mulungu comes from the root word Mungu, which means God, and is common in most Central Bantu speaking groups. It is the term used in Kiswahili for God by about 40 million speakers of East and Central Africa. The name Mulungu among the Akamba for God, Creator, is seldom mentioned and instead, God is addressed through attributes like Mumbi and Mwatuangi as we have seen above. This tradition of rarely mentioning the name Mulungu is indicative of the great reverence the Akamba have for God. This is related to another Kamba custom of addressing certain persons in the extended family not with their proper name but with another name out of reverence. The father-in-law, the mother-in-law, son-in-law and daughter-in-law are all addressed with a reverential name. Thus a Kamba man or woman would address the son-in-law as Muthonua. Likewise, the tradition of seldom mentioning Mulungu is explained by the great reverence the Akamba have of God.

3. Akamba Sacrifice to God

The Akamba sacrifices were very solemn communal events, but only after particular dramatic moments like draught, famine or epidemic, or upon a warning by the diviner (mundu mue) that such threats were forthcoming. Such sacrifices took place at the ithembo (the place of sacrifice). These places (mathembo in plural) were very numerous around Machakos before the arrival of the Europeans. The mathembo varied in importance, one being used by number of homesteads (utui), and others for a single family. Arsenals, such as bows and arrows or clubs were not to be taken into the place of sacrifice which considered to be sacred. It was forbidden for anything other than the sacrificial animal to be killed there. The ithembo was generally speaking a grove with a large tree, preferably a fig tree or, where these trees were scarce, as in Kitui, baobab trees were considered to be places of sacrifice. It is possible hat a special rock or some other natural features associated with the spirits of the ancestors were used by building some hut as a grove. Such huts were also built at the foot of the trees where sacrifices were placed.

When the need for a sacrifice was identified, the elders consulted the medicine man or woman (a diviner), and if he or she was favorable the day for the sacrifice would be set. The Akamba community sacrificial animal was generally a goat, sometimes a bull, a sheep or chicken if the mundu mue advised. Whatever the animal to be sacrificed, it had to be of one color, never spotted or stripped and one without any deformity (kiema). It is said that certain ceremonies for the purpose of a good harvest the hyrax (kinyowe) or its droppings was used. When the sacrifice was meant for several homesteads (utui) the sacrificial animal was provided by each mutumia wa ithembo (the elder of the place of sacrifice).

In preparation for a sacrifice and after there were certain regulations to be observed as conditions that the efficacy of the sacrifice was not nullified. On the day of the sacrifice, the atumia ma ithembo along with their wives took the sacrificial animal to the place of sacrifice where they slaughtered the animal in the presence of all members of the homestead. Then the blood was mixed with beer and poured out at the foot of the tree or at the sacrificial grove, while uttering some prayers for rain, the end of famine or for healing from an epidemic, or whatever the community need was. In Akamba sacrifice, women had an active role to play. The elder wives of the atumia ma ithembo offered the woman's sacrifice of food that they brought and placed at the spot where the mixture of blood and beer had been poured out. After the sacrifice, the elders (both men and women) ate the meat first and then shared it out to all present

The issue regarding who was addressed at the Akamba sacrifice is of crucial importance and thus needs to be clarified here as it has caused much confusion mainly due to wrong interpretation of observable data by some researchers. It is quite clear that the interpretation of observable data is not necessarily the actual reality. One must enter into the culture of a people, live in it for a long time in order to begin to understand the hidden meanings of such aspects in Akamba religion and their sacrifice. The observable data in Akamba sacrifice includes both what one sees and hears, but this is not what is the Akamba sub-conscious when offering a sacrifice. Any debate as to who is addressed does not arise for Akamba. Only Hobley seems to have understood their subconscious and intention at the sacrifice. He clearly contended that prayers for rain were only addressed Mulungu (God), and never to the spirits of the ancestors (cf. C. W. Hobley, Bantu Beliefs and Magic, London: H. F. & G. Witherby, 1938, p. 53).

In Akamba perception, it is Mulungu who controls the natural phenomena including the rain, lightening and thunder, and therefore there would be no reason why the Akamba would feel any obligation to offer sacrifices to the spirits of the ancestor. However, what might have misled the innocent researcher from outside could have been the placation and veneration of the spirits of the ancestors or their being invited to intercede to Mulungu to stop the famine, the drought or an epidemic.

The pattern of Akamba sacrifices was practically the same, without any fixed order of ritual or prayer. Therefore the efficaciousness of a sacrifice could not be nullified by a mistake in the ritual. Communal sacrifices were usually meant to placate God for rain, at the beginning of planting, before the harvest time, when a portion of the first crop was gathered before it was ripe, at the harvest time, on returning from successful livestock raid, when the first ox to enter the homestead wa killed, and when the whole village had to be purified after an epidemic.

4. Some Reflection on Akamba Culture

A number of themes that strike a visitor among the Akamba would be a deep sense of equilibrium in society; their value of equality; the need for transparency (since they abhor secrecy and surprises); their deep consciousness of their human dignity; their innovative intelligence; and their ability for self-control. All these qualities are interconnected. The first Europeans who traveled into Ukambani were simply struck by the Akamba sense of their own pride. They were at one time described as the aristocrats among the Bantu. The Akamba are a proud people, not in a selfish sense, but because they believe that all human beings are equal. One colonial official was literary shocked when he told his Kamba worker on the first day of heir work that he was not to be addressed by his family name, but the title Bwana (master, boss). Immediately the Akamba workers reacted and said that they did not have a word for Bwana because they believed that all human beings were equal. Thus from the very beginning of their contact with Europeans the Akamba refused to be treated as inferiors before their colonial employers in Machakos.

In traditional society where everybody was related to everybody else, and where one's business was everyone's business there were no secrets because everybody knew everybody else. Transparency was the norm. Anyone who deviated from this norm was upsetting the equilibrium in society. Everybody's wealth lay open to all, and indeed the elders shared with each other about their plans to increase their livestock wealth. Anyone who became secretive was suspect and feared. The Akamba abhorrence of secrecy has remained with them till today. If a Mkamba today goes to his village with lots of wealth, for example an expensive car, or builds a beautiful home, he is immediately accused of being helped by majini (modern ancestral spirits that can be bought or acquired through special rituals). Such accusations are based on the belief that a person who comes with such wealth lacks transparency; it is s surprise in the midst of poverty. Thus even a Mkamba of today is not prepared for such surprises, because they upset the cosmological balance in Akamba way of life.

The talk about wealthy people being possessed by majini (modern spirits) that make them rich and protect their wealth is one of the most frequent aspects of conversation today among the Akamba, and one of several explanations is their abhorrence for the lack of transparency. So today one would either be accused of witchcraft (meant for evil purposes) or of being possessed by majini who increase one's wealth secretly, they can also turn against their subjects or members of the family and kill them suddenly or in some mysterious way. If a Mkamba today cannot explain the cause of a certain death, the cause must be majini. These accusations are based on the belief that such persons have upset the delicate equilibrium in Akamba integrated worldview that is deeply religious at the same time. I am aware that this point is not well developed as it need further study, but any reaction and comments to elaborate on the matter would be appreciated.

©2007 John M. Mbinda

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Akamba People of Kenya

Introductory Article on the Akamba of Kenya

Who are the Akamba?: An Introduction to the Akamba of Kenya
The Akamba people are part of the Central Bantu linguistic group found in Kangundo, Kibwezi, Kitui, Machakos, Makueni and Mwingi Districts in South Eastern Kenya. The area inhabited by the Akamba is called Ukamba. A large community of Akamba is also found in Mazeras near Mombasa and Kwale District of the Coast Province in Shiba Hills, having migrated there for economic reasons. Their common language is Kikamba.

Kamba traditional oral literature says that the Akamba originated from Kilimanjaro, a theory well supported by such renown ethnologists as Gerhard Linblom and John Middleton. This theory may be argued also by the fact that they share certain cultural aspect with the Wachagga of Kilimanjaro, for example one finds names that are common to both. That being the case, it is clear that the Akamba find themselves in Kitui and Machakos after centuries of migration through the plains, valleys and over mountains in search of food and security. One branch of the Akamba clan went East of Ulu, crossed the River Athi and separated themselves from the rest for generations. They settled in present day Kitui. Lindblom dates crossing of the River Athi and settlement in Kitui from Ulu in the first half of the eighteenth century. During the nineteenth century they extended their settlements into Kikumbuliu as well. The Akamba were apparently once a compact group occupying the region called Ulu (from the Kamba word meaning "upper"). They considered Mbooni Mountains as the place where they settled after generations of wondering in the plains in search for better life. The Mbooni Mountain slopes and valley proved to lush with permanent water and fertile soil and so conducive to agriculture, and so they settled here.

Long before the arrival of the Europeans, the Akamba were great traders and organized caravans that brought ivory to the Arab traders in Mombassa (some 500 miles from their homes and back). There they exchanged the ivory for copper, bracelets, beads, rolls of cloth and salt. These items were taken back to Ukamba trading centers in Machakos, Kaani and Kitui. By the time the British arrived in Kenya, Machakos (local name to this date is "Masaku", a name given to the commercial center in honor of the famous Elder of the place called Masaku, but the British could not pronounce the name, so it ended up as Machakos) had become an important commercial center.

© 2007 John M. Mbinda