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Why Kenyans are returning to precolonial spirituality

From TikTok videos to traditional songs and stories, Kikuyu cultural beliefs and practices suppressed under 19th-century colonialism are seeing a revival
Wairimu Mukuru started sharing TikTok videos about Kikuyu culture earlier this year. Within months, the 26-year-old had gained more than 60,000 followers and received at least 1m views of her videos, where she talks about her ethnic group’s traditional practices and beliefs on topics such as mental health and s.e.x.

Mukuru, a Kikuyu language teacher, is one of a small but growing number of Kenyans from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Agīkūyū, who are trying to revive precolonial cultural and spiritual practices. The belief systems were suppressed and marginalised during British colonial rule in the 19th century, and as Christianity became more entrenched.“Westernisation was entangled with Christianity,” says King’ori wa Kanyi, a member of the Agīkūyū Council of Elders. “A good African convert had to take a European name, dress like a European and visit the clinic instead of the herbalist.”

About 85% of Kenyans identify as Christians and the religion has become an entrenched part of the country’s political and cultural fabric, marking naming, birth, marriage and political ceremonies.

“There’s a new kind of Pentecostalism that has consumed much of how we understand ourselves,” says Kamau Wairuri, a socio-political researcher at the Edinburgh University. “Since people are not familiar with other alternatives, those looking to practise a different kind of spirituality might not know where to begin.”

Adherents of Kikuyu spirituality say it is inseparable from their culture and is treated as a way of life. During colonial rule, the community fought to retain their spiritual systems but the practices were labelled as “savage” pagan religions and ultimately pushed to the margins.

“Colonialism destroyed indigenous African religions, labelling them primitive and not good for the modern age,” said Jacob Olupona, a professor of African religious traditions at Harvard divinity school. “With time, Africans stopped seeing something good in their own traditions. Those belief systems became so marginalised that some have become like secret societies.”

Today, less than 2% of Kenyans practise traditional beliefs. But experts say accurate estimates are elusive because many practise indigenous belief systems alongside mainstream religions such as Christianity and Islam.Although the numbers are fairly low across Africa, and many of those who do practise traditional religions are seen as outliers, some Kikuyu elders say that there has been a slow but gradual shift in attitudes within the community.

“Many people are now rejecting European imposed religious and cultural identities,” says Kanyi, adding that among the Agīkūyū, there is a term for the efforts to revive indigenous beliefs, which translates as “restoring the river to its original course”.

kenyaExperts say interest has grown as a rising number of the African diaspora returned to the continent over the past decade, in search of their ancestral traditions. “It has emboldened those who are practising it at home,” says Olupona.

Observers say renewed reckonings over the legacies of colonialism may also prompt greater interest in precolonial cultural and spiritual practices. Nevertheless, those looking to reclaim their heritage face challenges. Most African spiritual belief systems are an oral tradition and are not recorded in writing.

“There’s a lot that has been washed away,” says Mukuru, who has been exploring the Kikuyu cultural and spiritual history for several years.

Some accounts on the Agīkūyū way of life were written by the Kikuyu historian Godfrey Muriuki and Louis Leakey, a Kenyan-British archaeologist who lived among the community for most of his life. Mukuru says a lot of the history can also be found in the community’s language, sayings, songs and stories by Kikuyu writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Traditional religions are also fiercely guarded by community elders and practitioners, say experts, adding that their oral form has allowed religions to evolve and incorporate beliefs from other religions.


But the efforts to revive traditional beliefs have not been welcomed in all quarters. Some members of the community, especially those over 50, strongly oppose the revival, says Mukuru’s teacher and spiritual guide, Kariithi wa Njenga. Many have embraced Christianity.Those who try to re-engage with the traditions, like Mukuru, also face some pressure to adopt it wholesale. She does not agree with some old Kikuyu traditions, such as female genital mutilation, for example. But she says the traditions entail a wide range of beliefs, including many that are progressive.Under Kikuyu cultural practice, women had control over agricultural production, the community’s main source of livelihood. Mukuru says she was surprised to discover that the culture was also matrilineal and sexually liberal. “Sensual dances were used as a way to gauge sexual synergy with the opposite sex,” she says.Environmental protection was also an important part of the culture. “Treating animals and plants with respect is a mark of spiritual maturity among the Agīkūyū,” says Kanyi, adding that the community attached spiritual significance to mountains and trees, and observed a mainly plant-based diet.

Such spiritual practices are only held sacred by the community’s few practitioners. Experts say they have become custodians of an important history and culture. “If we lose these religions, it would be a big loss for the world,” says Olupona. “We would have lost an entire civilisation.”

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Source – The guardian

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