Water and Culture: Kenya
Water for Africa
- Africa, Kenya
by Drew Denzin, Ololulunga, Kenya
My wife, Jen, and I are working with the Maasai community. Traditionally, the Maasai are pastoralists, or cattle herders, on land that is extremely arid. Often, they pray to the Christian God for rain for their small gardens consisting of maize and kidney beans.
The Maasai generally use milk for their main fluids; it is easier to get and cleaner than the nearby river. The river is used to clean their cattle as well as to water their cattle during the hottest parts of the day. Cattle are by far the most important aspect in the lives of Maasai men, so watering and cleaning them is vital—in fact, the water is used for the cattle more than for themselves.
One custom among the Maasai involving water deals with the penalty for killing another man: If a man kills another he must pay a fine of 49 cows as well as wade across a river. When he reaches the other side he puts on new clothes, symbolizing a fresh start.
by Kendall Rondeau, Miharati, Kenya
The Maasai believe that if you know five words or more in someone else's language, they can't refuse you drinking water. The Maasai are a pastoral people living in a very hot and arid land. To deny someone water could cause their death.
The Kikuyu people will not let a visitor leave their house without serving them chai. Chai is a tea made with water, milk, tea leaves and sugar. To refuse someone's chai is a rude insult.
Every time I go to someone's house, the woman of the house goes off to prepare chai. It is hot and sweet and fights off the chill of the rain and cold mountain air. No business can be done without chai. No guest can leave before at least two cups.
The Kikuyu say that rain is a blessing, as are visitors. If it rains while a visitor is at your home, it is a lucky day.
by John and Kim Shumlansky, Mount Kenya National Forest, Kenya
The people of Kangaita are mostly of the Kikuyu tribe. Over the years the Kikuyus have discontinued most of their traditional practices and ceremonies, but one water-related tradition is still remembered by the older members of the village.
The Kikuyus have long believed that rain is a blessing from God. The rains allow local food crops and the many tea plantations in the area to thrive. Without rain many people would have no food and no source of income.
Long ago during times of drought, the elder men in the village performed a religious ritual to pray for rain. The elders would select a special, hidden spot in the Mount Kenya forest where they would go to pray to Ngai (God). Before going into the forest, the men would spend time away from their family and friends. After this time of solitude, the older men would travel into the forest to their secret spot and pray. Everyone else in the village was forbidden from entering the forest during this time. Since it is believed that Mount Kenya is the "Seat of Ngai" the men would face Mount Kenya during the entire ceremony. After praying, the men would slaughter a sheep or goat of one color only as a sacrifice to Ngai. This ritual was then believed to elicit God's sympathy to bring rain to the people.
A famous book by Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, is entitled Facing Mt. Kenya and describes similar beliefs, rituals and ceremonies by the Kikuyu people over the years.
by Melissa Perry, Oyugis, Kenya
The only religious ceremony I can think of pertaining to water is baptisms. In many local churches, people still go down to the river to be baptized.
by Bryce Sitter, Mobile Clinic, Kajiado, Kenya
The value of water is top priority for the Maasai. Everything they need or use comes from the cow; the dung is even used to construct their homes and is often a fuel source. The Maasai live off of blood, milk, and meat, and will spend the day taking the cows to graze and then to water. Most live near a water source. If the source dries up, they will knock down their boma (home) and move to an area where there is water. They have ceremonies for moving, coming of age, naming people, and the "Empolosare" Rain ceremony. This Empolosare ceremony consists of sacrificing a good animal (of a solid color) and singing and dancing.
The Maasai stun me as they stand the whole day under the hot sun without having access to water. I never leave my house without a bottle of water, but they follow their herds across the plains without worry. In their prayers the Maasai pray for rain for their animals, rather than for themselves. The women are the only ones allowed to pray for water for human consumption.
by Barbara Hinsman, Vigeze Village, Vihiga, Kenya
Water plays an essential role in the quickly disappearing traditional circumcision ceremonies of the Maragoli people. The ceremonies take place every 10 years and involve any young boys who are nominated by their fathers, usually between the ages of 5 and 15. On the night of the circumcision, the boys are taken down to the river by the village elders and covered entirely with mud. The actual circumcision takes place at the river, and then the boys are taken to a hut in the forest made out of twigs and grass, where they stay together for one month, still covered in mud. Mamas bring them food and water, but otherwise the boys are not allowed to have any visitors. This month is for healing and meditating on what it means to be a man. When the month is over, the boys are then taken back to the river to wash themselves completely clean of the mud, a symbol of washing themselves from boyhood. After the final washing, there is a huge celebration in the village with food and water, dancing and singing to celebrate the boys' entry into manhood.
Many cultural uses of water are dying quickly as Kenya becomes westernized. One of these dying traditions acted as a mother's test for her son's chosen wife. The mother would give a clay pot to the girl to go fetch water from the river. If the girl returned with a broken pot and no water, she was not accepted by the mother to be the son's wife and another girl would have to be chosen.
The making of clay pots is one of the only art forms of the Maragolis which has not died out completely. Traditionally mamas and girls used these pots to fetch water from the river, but these days they are 20-liter plastic "jerry cans," which do not break so easily. Clay pots are now kept in the home for water storage. Since the pots keep any contents very cool, many people use them as a form of refrigeration. Boiled water is stored inside to be used for drinking and cooking. Some people even store containers of milk in the cool water, and the milk can be kept fresh for days.
Maragoli children like to sing songs while they work. One such song is traditionally sung while fetching water at the spring or river. It is the story of children who, while fetching water, run into a monkey. They ask the monkey to fetch some water for them, so they can play instead of doing their work. The monkey returns with dirty water, however, and the children respond by throwing the dirty water on the monkey. They then go and fetch clean water for themselves to take home to mama.
by Patrick Campbell, Mombasa, Kenya
In all of Kenya rain and water are central issues. When Kenyans greet each other there is an exchange of question about life, family, work. And "in the bush" one of the question at the top of the list will often be, "Is it raining in your area?"
Rain is considered a blessing from above. Many of the tribes or ethnic groups have a designated rainmaker—"mganga wa fula," or "magician of rain"—here on the coast. After the planting is finished, rituals and ceremonies are performed to bring the rain. Rainmakers are also called upon during times of drought.
by David Frommell, Bagoo, Rift Valley Province, Kenya
Blessing from an Mzee (Elder)
When a young couple from the Kipsigis tribe of Kenya wish to marry, they arrange a ceremony along with their parents; much time and money is invested in the event. Traditional and modern elements mix during the ceremony, providing a colorful and fun-filled day.
The oldest man in the village, called an mzee (mm-záy), will bless the young couple. He selects a gourd of high quality in which to mix the blessing elixir. As the mzee hollows and decorates the gourd, community members prepare the ceremonial brew. Maize meal mixed with water is buried for three weeks to ferment. When it is ready, it is roasted and mixed with fermented millet and water to complete the drink.
On the wedding day, the mzee fills his gourd with water and a small amount of milk. He sets the gourd aside as he dresses for the wedding. He wears traditional clothing, including cowhide, a wool cap, and a cow-tail fly swatter.
The wedding ceremony itself begins with Christian celebrations. The bride and groom are given a blessing. First, they sit and drink traditional brew from a clay pot using long, wooden straws. The group then begins to dance. The mzee now takes a mouthful of the water-milk mixture from the gourd. He approaches the couple and sprays them with the mixture from his mouth. After blessing the couple, the mzee continues to bless the entire community in the same manner. Only then is the ceremony complete.
by Glenna Snider, Osorongai, Kenya
I live among the Nandi people (one of the Kalenjin tribes). There is a lot of water in my area in the form of rivers, streams, and springs. Unfortunately, it is mostly contaminated, since little effort is made to keep the livestock away from the water source.
The Kalenjin are primarily concerned with raising livestock; they value milk highly. If you are invited into someone's home, and they do not offer milk to drink, it is considered to be an insult.
During the month of December the young men who will partake in the initiation ceremony (entry into manhood) disappear into the bush for the whole month. They usually stay close to the river, as the foliage is thick and provides excellent cover. They do not want to be seen by anyone during the initiation period.