‘Restoring the River’: Why Kenyans are Returning to Pre-Colonial Spirituality | Global development
Oairimu Mukuru started sharing TikTok videos about Kikuyu culture earlier this year. Within months, the 26-year-old has gained more than 60,000 subscribers and received at least 1 million views of her videos, where she talks about the traditional practices and beliefs of her ethnic group on topics such as mental health and sex.
Mukuru, a Kikuyu language teacher, is one of a small but growing number of Kenyans from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Agīkūyū, who are trying to revive pre-colonial cultural and spiritual practices. Belief systems were suppressed and marginalized during British colonial rule in the 19th century, and as Christianity took root.
“Westernization was linked to Christianity,” says King’ori wa Kanyi, a member of the Agīkūyū Council of Elders. “A good African convert had to take a European name, dress like a European, and visit the clinic instead of the herbalist.”
Around 85% of Kenyans identify as Christians and the religion has become an integral part of the political and cultural fabric of the country, marking baptism, birth, marriage and political ceremonies.
“There is a new type of Pentecostalism that has swallowed up much of our understanding of ourselves,” says Kamau Wairuri, a sociopolitical researcher at the University of Edinburgh. “Since people are unfamiliar with other alternatives, those seeking to practice a different kind of spirituality might not know where to start.”
Followers of Kikuyu spirituality say it is inseparable from their culture and is treated as a way of life. During colonial rule, the community fought to retain its spiritual systems, but the practices were branded as “savage” pagan religions and eventually pushed to the fringes.
“Colonialism destroyed indigenous African religions, branding them primitive and not good for the modern age,” said Jacob Olupona, professor of African religious traditions at Harvard Divinity School. “Over time, Africans stopped seeing anything good in their own traditions. These belief systems have become so marginalized that some have become like secret societies.
Today, less than 2% of Kenyans practice traditional beliefs. But experts say precise estimates are elusive because many practice indigenous belief systems alongside mainstream religions such as Christianity and Islam.
Although the numbers are quite low in Africa and many of those who practice traditional religions are seen as outliers, some Kikuyu elders say there has been a slow but gradual change in attitudes within the community.
“Many people now reject European-imposed religious and cultural identities,” Kanyi says, adding that among the Agīkūyū there is a term for efforts to revive native beliefs, which translates to “restoring the river in its original course”.
Experts say interest has grown as more members of the African diaspora have returned to the continent over the past decade in search of their ancestral traditions. “It has emboldened those who practice it at home,” says Olupona.
Observers say new reckonings about the legacies of colonialism may also spark greater interest in pre-colonial cultural and spiritual practices. Nevertheless, those seeking to reclaim their heritage face challenges. Most African spiritual belief systems are an oral tradition and are not recorded in writing.
“A lot of things were washed away,” says Mukuru, who has been exploring the cultural and spiritual history of the Kikuyu for several years.
Some accounts of the Agīkūyū way of life have been written by Kikuyu historian Godfrey Muriuki and Louis Leakey, a Kenyan-British archaeologist who lived within the community for most of his life. Mukuru says much of the story is also found in the community language, sayings, songs and stories of Kikuyu writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
Traditional religions are also fiercely guarded by community elders and practitioners, experts say, adding that their oral form has allowed religions to evolve and incorporate the beliefs of other religions.
But efforts to revive traditional beliefs have not been welcomed by all. Some members of the community, especially those over 50, strongly oppose the revival, says Mukuru teacher and spiritual guide Kariithi wa Njenga. Many have embraced Christianity.
Those trying to reconnect with traditions, like Mukuru, also face some pressure to embrace it en masse. She doesn’t agree with some old Kikuyu traditions, like female genital mutilation, for example. But she says the traditions involve a wide range of beliefs, many of which are progressive.
According to Kikuyu cultural practice, women controlled agricultural production, the main source of subsistence for the community. Mukuru says she was surprised to discover that the culture was also matrilineal and sexually liberal. “Sensual dances were used as a way to assess sexual synergy with the opposite sex,” she says.
Environmental protection was also an important part of the culture. “Treating animals and plants with respect is a mark of spiritual maturity among the Agīkūyū,” says Kanyi, adding that the community attached spiritual importance to mountains and trees and observed a predominantly plant-based diet.
Such spiritual practices are considered sacred only by the few practitioners in the community. Experts say they have become keepers of an important history and culture. “If we lose these religions, it would be a great loss for the world,” says Olupona. “We would have lost an entire civilization.”
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