Saturday, May 12, 2018

Beliefs and Bullshit: First Letter to the 43 Tribes:

1.Greetings to the sisters and brothers living in Kenya. I urge you to think on this: that you have no business giving to a church if it does not have one or all of these three basics: a mission to feed; a mission to clothe; a mission to shelter. 

2.Demand the running of soup kitchens because there are too many who go hungry everyday, even if you feed only ten per week. 3.Demand a collection point for hand-me-down clothing because there are too many ragged kids and families in the streets in need of some dignity. 4.Demand a system of identifying temporary shelters for too many getting kicked out of their homes for lack of rent and needing a hand up. 

5.Too many Kenyans churches, especially in the cities, are day-clubs with cliques for those looking for belonging and a place for desperate souls to numb their sorrows, and the pastor is the club owner getting richer everyday as long as he/she keeps them high and hooked. 6.You cannot call yourself a church if you're not IN the world serving those OF the world. Neither can you divorce your faith from social justice. 

7.Stop this "I'm just a passerby" theology that encourages apathy and makes you a silent supporter of those who steal and kill and use you for political gain. 8.Pretending to be not-of-this-world is making too many of you serial hit-and-run beggars who'd rather live through desperate indignity than confront the systems that use and abuse you. 

9.We're all of this world until we breathe our last. Our well-being is intertwined, rich or poor. And always remember, you're stronger than you think, no matter how deep in the valley you are. 

10.Greet all those in the family working so hard to make an army out of a valley of dry bones. Greet the youth who continue to take selfies and await an awakening to their collective power. Greet the mothers, whose love is pure, ever nourishing and deeper than the endless burrows of the anthills.


Friday, May 04, 2018

Beliefs and Bullshit: Things We Lost In The Flood of Salvation

The disappearance of intellectual wealth in African communities is directly linked to 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.


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 empirical study.

Grandpa Tango lost his mojo to a proselytization flood that ridiculed his trade, and also to the local brew that 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, and 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!

New rituals

The missionaries called all these bearers of ritualized intellectual wealth practitioners of ungodly trades, witches, and that included master storytellers. The salvation-bringers demanded the total annihilation of the African identity, if that was ever possible, and manipulated in their own rituals. Convert villagers partook of the holy sacrament -- 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; the supplicants would respond: Amen, and eat a piece of bread with wine. The Catholic missionaries taught that the bread and wine literally became flesh and blood of the deity at the point of consumption.

Pentecostal missionaries taught converts to sing and shouted in gibberish not so different from the indigenous diviners' switch to strange tongues during intercession with the ancestors. Somehow these new rituals were supposed to be "holier", and the African ones "pagan". These missionaries really should have done what the Romans did while using Christianity to build empire. In the 4th century, the Romans incorporated the beliefs and practices of local people, like the feast of Saturnalia, which we all religiously celebrate as the birth of Christ. The failure to incorporate African traditions in to the new Christian faith resulted in generations of Africans with grotesque identity crises.

Cross Stitch artwork by Lisa Myers
Luke Skywalker and Nyange

Among the Wadawida (Taita), some of the best storytellers disappeared with the dawn of Christianity. Not everyone’s grandmother 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.

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 mѐ-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.

Army of the Lord

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 mѐ-Mwangi's works are lost through frayed memory. The only other places they were stored was a tape-recording I lost, and a Swahili translation of some of the tales that my big brother did, and that too was lost.

I never heard grandma mѐ-Mwangi say bwana ukaso (the Lord be praised), the common greeting among believers in Taita. Maybe she never got saved, which would explain her remarkable retention of all that intellectual wealth and her love for practicing it when she could. Saved griots shunned everything traditional. Not being saved in Taita, especially for an elderly person, makes one a rebel of sorts, a conscientious objector who will not serve in the army of the Lord! You can’t spit in any direction and not hit a believer in Taita. And maybe, just maybe, we will one day recover some of the precious things we lost in the flood.