- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

NAIROBI, Kenya While next-door Uganda recovers from the horror of a Christian doomsday sect, Kenya is witnessing a revival of traditional religions.
The renewed interest in native faiths follows a century of balancing multiple religious identities in this East African country, which was a British possession for seven decades until achieving independence in 1963.
But it stirs concern among the nation's rulers, who fear these grass-roots religious movements might be used to mount a challenge to the government.
The two most visible homegrown religious groups are based in the dominant Kikuyu tribe the Tent of the Living God and a more politically oriented sect known as Mungiki. Government and mainstream religious institutions ridicule the groups but don't ignore them.
Ngonya wa Gakonya, founder of the Tent of the Living God, is a striking figure in his graying dreadlocks and religious garb.
Dressed in white cloth and assorted traditional decorations during a recent Sunday ceremony, he raised his hands north toward unseen Kerinyaga Mount Kenya, the second-highest mountain in Africa and mythological birthplace of the Kikuyu.

Kikuyu culture crusader

On the same dusty traffic circle here in Kenya's capital, amid exhaust fumes and the sound of motor vehicle horns, a few hundred young Kikuyu men did the same, chanting: "Thaai thathaya ngai thaai" ("God, bring peace to our people").
A sign directs visitors down a rocky path to Mr. Gakonya's home on the outskirts of Nairobi; it reads: THAAI, Cultural Consultant, Herbalist/Acupuncturist. Mr. Gakonya himself adds a new title: crusader.
"What I am doing is salvaging Kikuyu culture through reviving, revamping and invigorating the laws and values of our forefathers," he said in flawless English, dipping into a bottle of snuff, and offering visitors mugs of sweetened sorghum porridge.
Schooled in one of Kenya's modern high schools, Mr. Gakonya soon became disillusioned with the Christian bias he found there, and after graduating, educated himself about Kikuyu tradition. He talked with rural elders and participated in rituals and sacrifices.
It was all experiential learning, he said, because "this knowledge is not in books."
The tin-shack office at Mr. Gakonya's clinic shows few signs of the medical services he advertises. But the compound contains traditional structures, including a large wooden thingira a Kikuyu man's hut.

Life stages formalized

The thingira represents a special physical place for the activities of traditional age groups, called riika, said Mr. Gakonya. "We want a revival of these age-set rituals, which mark time and contribute to the solidarity of the community."
"The riika is our most important grouping sometimes even before family," added Tent member Mwendia wa Kaniaru. Mr. Kaniaru emphasizes deep respect for an elder system that enforces traditional law and oversees the community's system of cleansing, initiation and marriage rites.
Mr. Gakonya says Kenyan society is still reeling from a colonial and missionary legacy that led to deep self-hatred. With the age-sets and other traditions, he seeks "to salvage self-dignity, kinship, community and culture."
He blames "confusion by missionaries" for the present state of the Kikuyu, where such traditions are not always adhered to and where members now use "unnecessary" Western medicine, eat junk food and "behave like beasts" in the huge, dirty urban centers.
"Early people lived a communal life, so no one was excluded from the community," Mr. Gakonya said. It is different now, he went on. "My brother has 12 children, but I know only three of them."

Moi government is hostile

Mr. Gakonya founded the Tent of the Living God in 1987. By 1990, adherents numbered in the thousands, and the distrustful government of President Daniel arap Moi, a member of the much smaller Kalenjin ethnic group, began to clamp down, accusing Mr. Gakonya's followers of tribalism.
The movement was banned later in 1990, and Mr. Gakonya was briefly jailed.
The hostile treatment continues. In recent months, police have tear-gassed and arrested over 100 rural members of the Tent of the Living God's sister group, Mungiki.
"The government fears us because we demand respect from the poor and lowly," said Mr. Gakonya. He added that Tent and Mungiki members also identify with the dreadlocked Kikuyu fighters of the 1950s Mau Mau uprising against British rule, who have long complained that Mr. Moi's regime suppresses their influence.
Much of the animosity is rooted in Kenya's post-independence history.
"The present ruling political class hails from the first generation of educated Kenyans," said one analyst, who did not want to be named. Traditionalists of the same generation view them as sellouts and opportunists, he said.
In turn, Mr. Moi and his ruling Kenya African National Union fear that traditionalist groups will mount a political challenge to the government.

Recent national exposure

Mr. Gakonya tried to start a party in 1991 and still harbors political ambitions. But his present involvement is limited to commenting on contemporary issues, preaching freedom of worship and transparency in government, and decrying the mainstream exclusion of traditional religion.
But recently, hundreds of followers of the Tent of the Living God and Mungiki though not invited attended a rally on constitutional reform and were shown on national television being led in group prayer by Mr. Gakonya.
And at a student rally in Nairobi, Mungiki national coordinator Ndura Waruinge called for a political revolution, urging youth to "make the country ungovernable."
Professor Grace Wamue of Kenyatta University's religious studies department says that while the two groups have much in common, Mungiki "openly criticizes dictatorship, and no dictator will allow that."
Mr. Gakonya, meanwhile, rejects criticism that his movement is irrelevant to present-day Kenya.
"The Tent has no difficulty in embracing aspects of modernity," he said, adding that setting up Kikuyu back-to-nature communities is not a practical solution to contemporary problems.

Kikuyu differ in views

Mr. Gakonya's philosophy appeals to many seeking a strong cultural identity while struggling to survive in a modern world, but some other Kenyans view the glorification of tradition as a step backward.
"I consider this stuff unprogressive tribal chauvinism," said Hilary Kamau, a Kikuyu and recent university graduate, distancing himself from "uneducated, lower class" adherents.
Some aspects of tradition are valuable, Mr. Kamau said, but he contended that politicizing the issues only isolates people.
John Kamisha, a Kikuyu who sometimes attends Tent meetings, also cautions against romanticizing the movement.
Promoting healthy traditional culture is only a side show, he said. The real agenda of these Kikuyu groups, Mr. Kamisha said, is to achieve what they see as their "rightful place" at the political helm.
Mrs. Wamue, the Kenyatta University religion professor, argues, however, that the traditionalists have a lot to offer Kenya and the world.
"We Africans cannot run away from our 'African-ness,' which defines our social way of life, our morals, and our relationship with God," she said.
"Their ideas on morality, hard work and group food production teach that everyone has to be involved for the general welfare of the community."

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