Celebrating East African Writing!

Of Warriors and Virgins by Martin Njaga

Yesterday I happened to spot a rare sight on the streets of Perth; the picture of two young masaai girls on the cover of a West Australian newspaper. Underneath it was a story about a masaai man who apparently had ‘sold’ off his daughters (14 years of age) to stave off the effects of the drought. Luckily, cops rescued the girls from their ‘marital bliss’ and took them to a rescue centre. Father was hauled to the docks to face trial. It was a pat and dry story; just another day in Africa.

Well, it got me thinking about the role of our traditions and culture. Remember the old saying, ‘mwacha mila ni mtumwa’? It strikes me that the big bad wolf in this proverb is not the leaving of the culture itself but being enslaved. In short, being enslaved by a foreign culture is bad, being enslaved by your own culture is probably even worse.

And yet I feel we have become slaves of our traditions, many of which serve no particular purpose apart from giving us a fuzzy nostalgic feeling. Traditions are meant to support people and to regulate their lives in a given set of circumstances. If those circumstances change, then the logical thing to do is to change your traditions as well to fit the new reality.

But while our circumstances have changed considerably, we cling on to traditions. Take the masaai, perhaps the most rigid of these traditionalists. Why, in present day Kenya does their culture continue to prepare warriors for battles they will never fight? For cattle raids they will never undertake? How does circumcision fit in the current day of IDs and Driving licenses as proof of adulthood? In a Kenya of assertive and increasingly independent women, where does ‘Bride Price’ fit in? What role do tribes play in modern day Africa apart from being sources of division and a basis for the occasional genocide?

To wish for a return to the good old days is foolish. I sincerely wish the Europeans never set foot on our continent but they did and with that, Africa lost all her innocence. When Livingstone and Speke got off their boats on the African coast, they ruptured our collective hymens, and as Bruce Springsteen sings ‘they are gone, boys, and they aint coming back’. We may try cultural secondary virginity, but as the prefix suggest, it, it can only be an inferior version of the original.

To try and marry the old and the new is even sillier. New wine, said Jesus, is not put in old wine skins.

Africa’s solutions, I feel, lie in forging ahead and not looking backwards. We must dismantle the structures of the old and embrace the new ones. We must abandon ‘kikuyuhood’ and ‘dholuohood’ and embrace ‘Kenyanhood’ We must feel out language and expressions of a Kenyan culture and actively discourage the rest. These Kenyan cultures include matatus (never thought I would ever say this), our mbuzi choma and tusker, genge music, vitimbi and sheng/Swahili. Of course they have their roots in the old but they are entirely from a time when we see ourselves us a single nation and not 41 or so little nations that happen to share the same piece of real estate.

This would be a sub culture in the larger culture of mass production and consumption. Before, you say Mzungunized, remember that capitalism and commercialism comes with its own structures and if our goal is to industrialize, we cannot escape this. Europe and its offspring across the Atlantic lost their traditions as well to the juggernaut that is commercialism.

Hold it right there Martin! Are you suggesting that we abandon our culture, our heritage, the source of our beautiful diversity?

No, I am not. We cannot possibly lose something that we never had in the first place. Agikuyu had a culture, the Akamba had a culture and so on but Kenyans never had a culture. It’s that ‘Kenyan culture’ I suggest we need to encourage.

As for diversity, Kenya and Africa suffers from the bitter divisions that separate our people so what we need to be emphasising now is what we have in common, not our differences.


8 comments on “Of Warriors and Virgins by Martin Njaga

  1. Richard Miriti
    November 11, 2008

    I’m impressed by today’s artical. However, a point to note is that our govt needs to upgrade marginalized region to have muilti economic actvities. Most of those areas especially still depend on cattle as the main wealth.

    I have no idea what 2030 vision has for these areas but as long as nothing is forged the story will be repeated.


  2. Clifford Oluoch
    November 12, 2008

    Spoken like a true young ‘Kenyan’. Unfortunately in this era of facebook, I don’t know who belongs where. The world has become global hence robbing us of than identity.
    Back to the masai girls – has anyone ever tried to see the story from the parents point of view? Have you ever tried reasoning with a villager? Or those traditionalists who do not want their relas to be buried in Langata, you must have a house in shags etc.
    My point – generational change, intermarriages and another 50 years will see these traditions dying.
    And by the way – these traditions had their own purpose at that time. Unfortunately the die hard are still stuck in the same thinking.


  3. johnson
    November 17, 2008

    The piece is quite rich in grammar, intellectualism and hard facts, plain truths and intelligentsia, we need kenyans roho juu, like martin, not tribal mechanics like those asking Kwani Hague nini? its the end of their savages. Johnson Makau


  4. Carol
    November 18, 2008

    I have no idea whether Kenyanism would work….you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Culture is the core of every human being and any attempt to change it is hardly welcome no matter what the culture is. We in this generation do not share a culture with our forefathers ours have evolved. So how do we live together when everyone still has a bit of their culture engraved in them.


  5. Ruth
    March 13, 2009

    Sometimes I think people only use tradition as a crutch to do whatever pleases them at the moment. It saddens me how many people sink back to their ‘traditions’ and ‘culture’whenever it suits them.Really how is it going to help you in ten years time that you killed off some animal in the name of keeping tradition.


  6. Osas
    March 16, 2009

    Ruth: absolutely correct as to tradition. And so sad.

    However, selling off female offspring into marriage or into pupillage with the prospect of future marriage is indeed a *very* old and constant tradition among various ethia, notably in times of distress and famine.

    As to the Maasai, they really are newcomer colonialists in Kenya, so they stick to their invented and well-selling “traditions”. Coloured beads and red shuka are not an “old” tradition of theirs, but quite recent self-marketing.

    However, modern washenzidom and matatu unculture – as you promote it – are not an alternative to outdated and noxious pseudo-traditions.

    And, to shift ethnic focus now, most Lakeside “traditional” madnesses (wife inheritance, funeral expenses etc. pp.) are actually very recent, post-1920, if you delve into Jaluo history. The adaptability of tradition to circumstances is what keeps them alive. And many 80- and 90-years-plus elders are a lot more future-minded in outlook and resolution than the 35-50 years men. They have seen so much, they know that change is inevitable.


  7. Allan
    April 14, 2012

    I agree, it is so true.


  8. nduati kariuki
    September 9, 2013

    hey marto! gooood job


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