Things We Lost in the Flood

The disappearance of intellectual wealth in African communities is directly linked to imperial missionary work that killed professions such as storytelling, rainmaking and divination, all of which had seasoned experts, trade secrets and years’ worth of researched knowledge often dressed up in ritual for the consumer. Born-again African Christians stopped telling tall tales about ogres and all. The fireside died, mythology flew out the window. Rainmakers became heathens and divination was the devil’s darkness.

Of course there were quacks and manipulators, and there was always incomplete research that was tested on consumers, a new herb that could either heal or kill. Life was its own lab. Rainmakers studied the relationship between the plants and the smell of the air, cloud formation, rhythm of the seasons. And when they came around like one of my grandfathers, Mghosi Tango, who came from a long lineage of rainmakers, they carried with them a shekele with which they consulted the gods. Believing in the spiritual realm did not mean their knowledge was not anchored in some form of empirical study.

Grandpa Tango lost his mojo to a proselytization flood that ridiculed his trade, and also to the local brew that perhaps soothed the sorrows of those who found themselves without alternative expertise. Only a western education and salaried employment in a new Africa saved those who surrendered. Grandpa Tango had also been one of the keepers of the shrine at Msavulenyi, just up the hill from our home. When he died, a lot of intellectual wealth was buried with him. Last I heard from my father, these keepers of the shrine were trying to revive their institution because it came with a lot of secret knowledge. What on earth did they know? We bury them pitifully and admonishingly as drunken men and women and forget to mourn the loss of knowledge institutions built over centuries.

New rituals

The missionaries who believed in the inferiority of the African person set about to malign the bearers of ritualized intellectual wealth. They called them practitioners of ungodly trades, heathens, witches, and that included master storytellers too. It is also possible that the missionaries with their western culture did not understand the rules and rubric of African knowledge ritualization. What you don’t understand, you fear and seek to destroy.

The salvation-bringers who held up a blue-eyed blonde Messiah as our only path out of damnation demanded the total annihilation of the African identity, if that was ever possible. In that void, they planted their own rituals. Converted villagers partook of the holy eucharist — the ritual drinking of a new deity’s blood and the eating of his body. The priest would chant: “the body and blood of Christ”; and the supplicants would respond: “Amen”, and eat a piece of bread with wine.

The Catholic missionaries taught transubstantiation – that at the point of consumption, the bread and wine literally becomes the flesh and blood of a man who once walked on earth, died and resurrected. Many among my people eventually embraced that belief. Yet they chose to accept that believing in the appearance of their own ancestors through possession was evil. They drank the blood of a deity they don’t see, yet stopped pouring libation to their African ancestors. It’s a profound betrayal of self.

Pentecostal missionaries taught converts to sing and shout in “tongues” when one was possessed by the spirit. This was not so different from the African diviner who switched to strange tongues during intercession with the ancestors. Somehow these new rituals were supposed to be sanctified, and the African ones pagan.

It would have been easier to use the African belief system as a place of mutual exploration of religious thought. But that would have meant abandoning the mission to subjugate. It it my belief that there was not a single missionary at that point in time, however friendly and well-intentioned, who did not harbor a belief in their own superiority against the African.

The Romans used Christianity to build empire. In the 4th century, they incorporated the beliefs and practices of local people, like the feast of Saturnalia, which millions religiously celebrate as the birth of Christ, yet we know it really wasn’t the birth of the man Jesus-turned-deity. While this diplomatic approach did not stop the brutal holy wars in the long run, it’s the better start to the inevitable merging of cultures as human societies continue to integrate willingly or forcefully.

The failure to incorporate African traditions in to the new Christian faith resulted in generations of Africans with grotesque identity crises. Our people were so beaten to submission and shame that they would, as my father would tell me, rush with excitement to give their children the most biblical or European-sounding names they could find for baptism.

These baptism names became “first” names while their indigenous names were relegated to middle names, sometimes never used. I still recall finding a notebook my paternal grandmother used for her learning at the missionary school. On it was written the name “Fridah Frank”. Her identity as a Dawida woman was defaced by religion and marriage. She became property.

My people got very used to this whitenization that was sold as enlightenment. If you didn’t toe the salvation or catholicization line and their attendant re-branding of the African, then you belonged to darkness. I’m coming two generations later, and I cringe at the violence they had to go through to fit in to such a contorted space of forced belonging. I reject this unholy submission.

Epic of Nyange

Not everyone’s grandparent could tell stories around the fireside, and if they did, not all were master storytellers. Very few could create epic tales in the line of the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Mahabharata, The Iliad, and more recent ones like Star Wars. The epic journey of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars comes centuries after the equally entrancing epic journey of Nyange, a character from a tale among the Wadawida (Taita) people.

The complete epic of Nyange is as long and complex in plot and thought as a Homeric poem, and finding someone who knows it in its entirety is like finding the rest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. My siblings and I had the privilege of knowing a master storyteller, grandma Me-Mwangi. She told us many incredible tales by the fireside in the homestead where my father and his siblings grew up. One was the epic of Nyange. My sketchy recollection takes me to Nyange’s encounter with tricksters who tested his wit; malicious characters who broke his resolve; bullish encounters that drew him into physical fights, and yes, I remember the song he would sing:

Nyange mpuke,

Nyange mpuke,

Nyange kamakamaka,

Nyange puka mndu,

Nyange puka mndu.

So long was the tale of Nyange that I almost remember it taking hours. It took that rare breed of artistry to remember it, perform it with spellbinding mastery, and perhaps recreate intrigue with each telling, as was the nature of orature. A lot of grandma Me-Mwangi’s works are lost through frayed memory.

I never heard grandma Me-Mwangi say bwana ukaso (the Lord be praised), which is the common greeting among Christian believers in Dawida. In the village, getting saved was, still is, a public proclamation that you are now a good trustworthy human; that you have left the darkness, and that includes anything remotely related to the old ways of indigenous worship.

This master storytelling grandmother cared little about the Christian beliefs that had swept across the hills of Dawida. She had no shame in retaining her creative knowledge and passing it on. Not being “saved” in Dawida, especially for an elderly person, makes one a rebel of sorts, a conscientious objector who will not serve in the army of the Lord.

If you spit in any direction in Dawida you are bound to hit a born-again believer who does not wish to remember anything regarding African spirituality. Maybe, just maybe, we will one day recover some of the precious things we lost in the flood of salvation. 

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