Mijikenda Walking 2012 (PART ONE)

An Ethnic group on the road to save his traditions

19-06-2012 by Freddie del Curatolo

They are less and less, but more and more determined.
They have lost on the road brothers, travel companions, hut neighbors.
All they have is a house and a cultivable field, their traditional costumes and a pair of clothes that we call "civilized" but which on closer inspection are less civilized than the hando (the skirt with the women's top) and the khanga (the pareo wrapped around the men's waist).
They have little or nothing and moreover they see their past erased every day more and more by false myths, ignorance and the total absence of institutions. 
The handful of Mijikenda who for the second year in a row have set out to defend their culture and traditions of an entire ethnic group, deserves even more respect and visibility. 
It is a peaceful battle, which is fought with only two weapons: feet and head. And with ammunition of joy, positivity fired on the people they meet on the road. Two hundred and fifty kilometers in seven days of walking, touching eight sacred places of the mijikenda culture.
About fifty small, humble, peaceful heroes try to awaken the feeling of belonging of two million people, most of whom still live in the coastal region of Kenya. They are mostly elderly. There are many women, "mamas" who have many children behind them, decades of village government, the cultivated field (the "shamba"), mud huts. After the daily miles of a lifetime, to fetch water, to get wood, to retrieve medicinal herbs, to exchange the products of the land for other edible matter, they now walk to the end of their lives so as not to lose what is most dear to them. The treasure of a lifetime, the only jewel inherited from fathers and fathers' fathers. What the great rains will never be able to drag down into the valley with the muddy clay, that the fires of February will never be able to reduce to ashes, but that only man's incivility could make disappear. 
The mothers, the elderly, the tribal chiefs, the poet and the musicians, the dancers with some "professionals" (the lawyer Joseph Mwarandu, founder of the cultural association MADCA, the museum curator John Mitsanze, the tour-leader Samson, the university student Furaha, the teacher Simba, son of the last great chief Mijikenda, Simba Wanje) met on June 15 in Mombasa. Welcomed by the Governor of the coast, who urged them to protect their traditions, they left for the first "kaya", the sacred village of one of the nine tribes that make up the Mijikenda ethnic group. 
Those who follow already know the history of this people: in the dialect giriama, which has become the official idiom of the ethnic group, "midzi" means people and "chenda" is the number nine. The nine tribes around the year one thousand left the hills of Shangwaya, not far from the border with Somalia where today it is largely deserted and where an absurd war is waged between squalid economic interests and blind fundamentalist claims, to seek a more peaceful place and sheltered from the attacks of warrior populations. Crossing the coastal hinterland they arrived among the ups and downs of Kaloleni. Here each of the tribes organized themselves into a village. Who in the plains between forests and palm groves, sudden formations of millennial lava rocks and rivers that flow into the creek of Kilifi. The Dykes moved to Mombasa and from here continued to Ukunda, the Duruma chose the area of Mazeras, where the valleys open and today passes the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. The other tribes chose to sacred forests (the kaya, precisely) villages very close to each other. In a handful of kilometers you climb the Ribe ridge, in the plain of kaya Chonyi, in the forest of Jibana, in the hills of Rabai, in the forest of Kambe on the slopes of the town of Kaloleni. Then, descending towards the creek, we meet the Kauma kaya, not far from the village of Jaribuni. 
The traffic of Mombasa meets the passage of the Mijikenda costume parade with the sound of horns and black smoke from unstable mufflers. At the head of the group there is a mama holding the Kenyan flag, while a boy dressed in normal clothes is waving an identical one at the back. Someone at the passage of the platoon shouts "mchawi!", evil sorcerers. It's the first sign of the lack of consciousness of their own blood relatives. "The Digos were the first to distance themselves from the Mijikenda traditions - Mwarandu explains to me - just as they did a thousand years ago when they went beyond Mombasa. It is inherent in their nature. So today they mingle with the races of the great city, and this is also right, but instead of showing the peculiarities of their origin, they have absorbed civilization and progress in the name of business, money, globalization". It is convenient to think that those who defend a thousand-year-old indigenous culture, also want to defend the animist rituals that still survive here, where evolution has arrived (with deception, coercing, and deception) only two centuries ago.
 The Mijikenda still today are able to treat themselves with herbs, practicing a medicine that is in vogue in the good living rooms of western metropolises but which is not at all liked by multinationals that dump tons of outlaw medicines in Africa, have parallel administrations and parliaments in their villages that do not have mafia and corruption as the foundation of their order, but common sense and respect for the opinions of all.
It is no coincidence that the Council of Elders of a district is also consulted by district authorities, charities, anyone who wants to deal with the high concentration areas of Mijikenda. Witchcraft also exists, and everyone believes it. So much so that sorcerers are very powerful characters. Anathema against criminals or those who clearly do not respect the rules of the community, is scary even for young people who want to detach themselves from the customs and habits of their fathers, in the name of the gods we have known for a long time. "It is easier to die in the queue in a hospital in Mombasa waiting for the right treatment, rather than in Kaloleni, after a consultation with the healing sorcerer," says Simba. 
Go and explain to the taxi drivers on motorcycles who are crowded on the street corners that only palm wine is kept of the ancestors' customs, but consumed not fresh in the relaxation of a sunset in the kaya, but super-alcoholic and fermented in the engulfing suburban misery. Go tell it to those who live by gimmicks around the new market, sniffing glue and cursing the government, you convince the gangs of slums that toast dreams and hopes under the sheet of shacks that will soon be swept away by construction, by that same progress that you eat the culture of the fathers. 
The new generations feed on the same drug and not only forget the cure, but also denigrate it and fight it. "Our elders live every day with the fear of being beaten if not killed - says Emmanuel Munyaya, young (and it is no coincidence, he was elected on purpose) president of the Madca - myself who defended some of them, and I tried to denounce the baby gangs that want to eliminate the alleged witch doctors, I am threatened and I put my life and that of my family at risk". Beneath their bare feet, on their first day's walk through the dirty and degraded suburbs of the port city, the immoral filth adds a sense of instability that abrades more than the holes in the asphalt. Along with culture and tradition, there are human lives to save, the lives of simple and ancient men, of impassive deans like baobabs and wise men like the water of the uncorrupted streams of the hills that has always carried and purified the same things.
A day's journey to purify oneself from the incivility of civilization. Kaya Duruma is a middle way between the now lost Digos ("their leaders have even refused to attend the last intertribal meetings" admits Madca secretary John Mitsanze, who lives and works in Mombasa) and the "seven sisters" of the hills, Ribe, Rabai, Kambe, Kauma, Chonyi, Jibana and of course the Giriama, the most numerous tribe, the one we frequent and know well in Malindi.
In Mazeras there is another group of people, important and involved in the walk of peace and survival at least as much as those who put their feet on it. They are the mothers who prepare the dinner and prepare the place where the handpiece will stop to sleep. Coordinating everything is Mama Dahabu, an energetic Matsangoni lady who is able to negotiate with the shopkeepers the price of every single bunch of local spinach ("sukuma wiki") and to flavour a dish of polenta and beans with coconut milk and yellow Kombeni eggplants. With her is Mama Kapucheche, who once danced and sang like a few giriama, but who is recommended to keep her knees at rest. From the Aretha Franklin Mijikenda that she used to be, she has been briskly transformed into an assistant cook, but she doesn't disdain a few sudden traditional songs and always has a smile for everyone. Next to them, a few new mothers with little babies in tow and old people who can't walk but wouldn't give up on the field for anything in the world. They put aside their savings and pay for the matatu to wait for the walkers in the evening and to be told about the stage.
Along the road that leads to Mazeras every village, every gathering of people and stores, every crossroads, has seen the people on the way stop, get into a circle and sing. Until another circle forms behind them and an increasingly impressive crossroads becomes public. That is when what Mwarandu calls "Elimu", erudition, takes place. In the name of peace, of the mixture of races and cultures and in defense of their own, the problems and truths of the Mijikenda are told. Behind the ghosts of witchcraft, there is the salvific and current thinking of an ethnic group that for hundreds of years was peaceful, where women were in charge, who did not build weapons of war and had hunting jewelry that often made even their prey smile. Better to ingeniously create traps than spend your life building dangerous spears. Better to become vegetarians, than to risk your life to kill a wildebeest. The man, on the other hand, was not born carnivorous. The poet Kazungu Wa Hawerisa entertains the audience.  Sonnets fishing in current events (the bombs in the churches in Garissa, the elections, the government away from the needs of citizens) and in history (the true prophecies, the prayers of the fathers). To finish the improvised village feast with an invocation to a god who may be the Christian one but also the Muslim one, but in reality for each of them is the spirit of the fathers and mothers, the strength of memory and the millennial path, always on foot, made by an entire people. Perhaps it is God himself, what the Mijikenda walkers are trying to defend. 
Taireni, za mulungu. Alombwayeni mulungu.

TAGS: Mijikenda WalkingGiriama KaloleniTaireni za mulunguKazungu Wa HawerisaKatana Kalulu


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