In Whose Name Shall They Swear?


Since 1963, all Kenya’s presidents have raised the Christian bible to take oath of office, and all of them have broken that oath with shocking impunity and audacious impenitence.

Suppose they were required to drink the blood of something, chant some terrifying vows in the name of their ancestors, acknowledge that insanity and pestilence would swiftly descend upon them if they broke their oath of office, and forced to cough out a tooth or chop off a finger as a sign of agreeing to this extraordinary intent– Ok, we can leave out the macabre part.

Trust me, and visceral oathing like that would scare the demons out of incoming presidents if they so much as entertained a smidgen of intent to break that oath. And get someone like the legendary Kajiwe to administer that oath. Who was Kajiwe, you ask?

He was no ordinary man I can tell you that. He who took up residence with the spirits in the depths of the sea and emerged as the most feared sorcerer that every lived on Kenyan soil. He who peed on witches and made them disappear. He who could slap you in Nairobi while he was seated in Mombasa. The man raised herds of majini that would take on his personality so he could be in several places at the same time. Now you see him, now you don’t. Aa, uwe! Tall tales or not, it is well known Jomo Kenyatta endorsed Kajiwe’s powers and Moi recognized the man’s influence.

Kajiwe may be long dead, but we know our bible-oathing politicians still go around looking for sorcerers like him during election season. You see them in church weeping and getting prayed on in a public show of piety, next thing they’re rigging an election, orchestrating the theft of public funds or fanning flames of ethnic supremacy.

Spake as a child

What good is taking an oath if said oath does not insure against such depths of betrayal? It’s better to be an upstanding atheist and swear by your own integrity than orchestrate all that meaningless sanctimony. Oath-taking is serious business that is done in every agreement, be it personal, business or political, and it comes with repercussive powers if broken. Broken promises is the reason most nations go to war.

I recall taking on an assignment with a government institution. They sent me an oath of office to sign. It required that I take it to a licensed notary public who would witness me signing the oath and stamp my acceptance as authentic. I was fully aware that if I broke the rules of that oath, I could be fired or face litigation. I was not asked to raise a bible, but there was a silent knowing that I was bound by the power of my own integrity, that ever-present god within.

Children take oath every time they do a pinky swear– ok, those are kids-of-nowadays. Growing up in the village, if a friend wanted to secure your trust before telling you a secret, they would first look you in the eyeball and demand- Sema haki ya Mungu! Being asked to swear in God’s name was taboo; it always made you hold your breath with a sense of terror before you made that swear.

We were also quick to break the oath and tell the secret we had sworn not to tell; after all we were children, and we experimented with the moral world as much as we did with the tangible one. But the same repercussive rules applied. Our little minds suffered the consequences of losing a friendship we betrayed or dealing with the confusion of not being trusted.

We discovered new emotions like guilt that weighed heavy on us. Then we had to start rebuilding the relationship afresh. Imagine a country of grown-ups that is always in this vicious circle of breaking promises and rebuilding shattered bonds, as if they never grew up.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things – The Bible

Extraordinary intent

We take oaths because of the weight of the intention. Extraordinary intent is what leads us to spent into a ritual space of making promise. If I intend to eat an apple in the morning, I do not need to take an oath, but if I intend to lead 50 million people, that is extraordinary intent, and I’m required to take an oath.

Extraordinary intent is word becoming flesh. What you intend becomes action. What you act on becomes substance. Substance occupies real space. It is matter. When we say something is substantial, we mean it matters. Taking oath means making a promise to birth a thing of substance that is larger than self.

When we speak words that we do not intend to matter, to make into matter, we lose integrity. When we do this over and over again, integrity becomes a joke. Is it any wonder that a whole chapter on integrity in the Kenyan Constitution is treated as if it does not matter? We have erased Chapter VI out of our collective intention.

Integrity – having a personality that keeps oath – gives one incredible courage to get to that extraordinary intent. One never has to keep looking over their shoulders. You look fearlessly ahead, ever forward, because you know you have right on your side. And if someone takes you out, your intent will take root and manifest generations after.

Chasing the devil

Kenya’s presidential oathing was inherited from the British. Cultural syncretism is inevitable, and the newer religions in our midst are not going anywhere. But we are smart enough to create new rites with rules and rubric that mean something to us. It enriches us to draw from the wisdom of forgotten African spiritualties that had taken thousands of years to build into knowledge systems.

These are a body of structured ideas that conquerors appropriated quietly while they publicly labeled them as evil and ignorant. It has taken a very short time for Africans to lose, nay, reject their cosmogony and replace it with new worldviews and spiritualties.

Consider this: It wasn’t until the 1930s that African Religions were overtaken by Christianity and Islam in Africa. By the 1980s, those who publicly identified with African spirituality had been surpassed by those who identified as Atheists on the Continent.

It is interesting to note that across Europe, communities of these former colonizers have been abandoning Christianity and returning to their indigenous spirituality that had violently clashed with the Church centuries back. The sharp rise in Norse mythology in European mainstream storytelling for example, is quite telling.

Kenya is a strange case. In present-day politics, anyone caught dabbling in African spirituality gets politically stoned in public with labels like mchawi, mganga or devil worshipper. Forget that mganga (healer) is actually a good thing, but when you put the lens of Christian superiority against it, you transform it to an evil thing. And it works– because our people.

Kenya’s political history is abound with witch-hunting, including presidential commissions formed to investigate devil worship. It sends the people into a frenzy. We’re a people who prefer the opium of manipulation because it conveniently shifts blame from us to the devil. We already know who the thief is, who the killers are, who stole our lands, who emptied our public coffers, but we go after the devil.

In 1994, we all held our breath and waited on the Moi Devil Worship Commission (yes, such a thing existed!) to tell us who the sorcerers among us were so we could blame them. The Free Masons found themselves in our crosshairs. I’m surprised we did not burn anyone at the stakes. We’re also a people conditioned to doubt ourselves, disbelieve our own ability and deny our own worth.

What really works?

When Jomo Kenyatta wanted his Kikuyu people to keep power within Nyumba ya Mumbi, he had them take an oath – not with the bible, not in the name of the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not in the name of Jesus, but in the name of Kikuyu supremacy, with blood and ritual sometimes so terrifying and objectionable it traumatized the community and killed some of the oath takers.

The details of this oath are laid bare in Rev. John Gatu’s autobiography, Flame Into Fan (2016). He was there; a front-row soldier in the rejection of what he felt was evil, criminal and divisive. Not to mention his own wife and children were captured by Jomo Kenyatta’s men and forced to take the oath.

Why did this president who took oath of office with a bible choose to have a more difficult traditional oath administered? The simple answer is that he identified as a Presbyterian, but believed as an African spiritualist.

The Ichaweri oath – or the chai oath as it was known then – was visceral in its administration and potent in its long-term intent. I am convinced had Jomo Kenyatta taken an equally forceful oath of office in the name of his ancestors, he would have been very afraid of leaving the dark legacy he did as president. That oath still holds sway over many who inherited the collective consciousness of a people who were sworn to a terrible loyalty of ethnic superiority.

While we all know the law and its institutions should be our ultimate protection, we also know that even in the best democracies, humans can and do become shockingly cruel. So we take oath in the name of higher powers that we believe are beyond our ability to manipulate.

The first oath-keeper

Christianity is not going anywhere. It has been in Africa at least two thousand years, long before colonization, long before it made its way to Europe. However, the colonial Christianity with its whiteness that most 21st century Africans have imbibed is rather like a coat we wear to hide an imaginary nakedness. That bad brand of Christianity will fade away as Africans continue to wake up to the realization that they are already clothed in an Africanness they’ve been afraid to acknowledge. I agree with Prof. John Mbiti’s prognosis:

Traditional religions must yield more and more of their hold in shaping people’s values, identities and meaning in life. They have been undermined but not overthrown. Modern change is clearly evident almost everywhere, at least on the conscious level. However, the subconscious depths of African societies still exert a great influence upon individuals and communities (1969).

While he wrote this well over fifty years ago, it remains true. I know this because I come from the most saved community in Kenya — the Dawida (Taita) people.

My peaceful and welcoming people love their Jesus. You get bwana-ukaso, you get bwana-ukaso, everybody gets bwana-ukaso! But just live with us long enough and you’ll learn that something has remains in the staunchest Christian there; a stubborn identity of the African spiritual being. It’s the debris of who we are that the river of change never carried away. How do we stay true to this core while embracing the change we cannot avoid?

Again, Rev. Gatu, who always looked to honoring African spirituality, asked this question that best lights up our path on this matter:

Supposing the government introduced a traditional oath as the formal method of pledging allegiance for everyone in Kenya, what would be the reaction of the church?” (Flames Into Fan, 2016)

I wish he was still alive to lead that extraordinary intent. Suppose our presidents dared to take oath in ways that stop them cold before they break those promises? Perhaps then, we would have the first oath-keeper occupying the highest office.

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