Hema ya Ngai wi Muoyo

(Journal, 1990)

One of the most disheartening trends in postcolonial Kenya is the lack of agency and respect allowed to pure African traditions. Another legacy of British influence, the rejection of indigenous African ways it is an unfortunate manifestation of a cultural inferiority complex that many in Kenya can't seem to rise above. President Moi recently stated that "costumes do not make a culture,” in reference to his banning of the wearing of animal skins during traditional dancing ceremonies. Seen in the context of Agikuyus dressing as Maasai to impress tourists at coastal resorts, this makes sense, but one has to wonder about the Turkana, Pokot, Rendille, Samburu and Gabbra people are living pretty much the same nomadic and pastoral lives as they did hundreds of years ago. Animal skins on Turkana men and women are as acceptable and common as the ochre clay worn by the Samburu morani.

Of course the stereotypical primitive is just a reference point in a simpliifed history used to diminish those it is directed at, usually by the dominant culture. Paul Ereng, who won an Olympic gold medal in the 800 meters is a Turkana, as are politicians, academics, businessmen and so on. For the majority of those still living in largely precolonial conditions, every once and a while some politician professing to represent them in Nairobi's parliament shows up to seek votes, promising to build a new road or health center. Otherwise, their cultural and civic connection to what has become independent Kenya is tenuous.

Occasionally something happens that throws conflict between modernity and tradition into sharp relief. In January, a Kikuyu religous sect called Hema ya Ngai wi Muoyo (translated roughly from Gikuyu to "Tent of the Living God"), was banned and deregistered as a legitimate religion, it's leaders arrested, even though it had been in existence "officially" since the 1960's. The ceremonies and beliefs of the group are nothing more or less than traditional Kikuyu forms of worship. The Agikuyu always believed that Ngai (God) lives atop Kirinyaga (Mt. Kenya), and typical of traditional African groups have a strong belief in the existence and influence of their ancestors.

Recently, Hema ya Ngai wi Muoyo had been making some very strong public statements during their congregations, questioning the missionary perpetration of the Jesus Christ ethic to the African people. The obvious point they made was that thousands of Africans have lost their land and livelihoods due to this conversion. Somewhere along the way the word "con-man" was attributed to Jesus. One of the local newspapers jumped on this, and the headlines for the next week Hema ya Ngai was labelled the "Anti-Christ sect."

Kenya is a predominately Christian country, with large Muslim and Hindu populations, and things steamrolled as they often do here into a witch-hunt, culminating with Moi publicly condemned the group, claiming that as “a true believer in the almighty, he will never allow such a group to confuse the people." Less openly discussed is the obvious tribal dimension of an authentically Agikuyu group making waves in a tense political climate. Moi’s sychopantic chorus has taken up the cause, and The Tent of the Living God has since been deregistered by the government, accused of being a front for "certain rich tribalistic individuals sowing seeds of discord. . ." and a littany of other cliches’ trotted out to discredit those deemed out of line with the prevailing political zeitgeist. So a group that strives to preserve and honor their traditional spiritual beliefs has now been silenced.



February 5, 1990

Dear Sir,

In the last two weeks, an authentic African religion has been unfairly criticised, treated as a curiosity by an African press, and finally deregistered. That to begin with the sect was sensationally branded `anti-christ', a term generally reserved for the practise of devil-worship, in itself revealed the ignorance of the media. In the end the religion was deregistered seemingly to prevent Kenyans from further contamination from African culture and allow other more acceptable sects (including those constantly embroiled in religious feuds) the right to continue worship and win more souls.

What has emerged in this issue is the confirmation of our national lack of respect and appreciation for our traditions and culture. We have whole-heartedly, and without question, embraced foreign religions, notably Christianity and Islam, which between them have been responsible for the decimation of millions, the slavery of countless more, the colonisation of most of Africa and the wholesale eradication of our cultural values. Yet when a group of Africans attempt to recapture some of this lost heritage, we rise up in arms and condemn them! What hypocrisy!

What is so amazing about a religion like `Tent of the Living God' that your paper felt the need to virtually take credit for its deregistration? This is essentially what was intimated in the deregistration story when you printed that "the Tent of the Living God came into the limelight. . . after the Nation published a feature on it. . . about a week after the story was published a Pumwani chief stopped one of their meetings." What is disrespectful about a sect that attempts to awaken our pride in ourselves? Indeed what did the group do or intend that necessitated their being struck off `in the interest of peace and order'? What kind of chaos did Bishop Muge of the CPK envisage by the presence of the religion in our midst?

What it boils down to is our burning desire to bury our history in our headlong rush to embrace other cultures and ideologies. It reveals our embarassment in our Africaness. But in doing so we forget an essential truth-- we need to catch up with our past before we can shape our future.

Chanya Mwakio-Blumenkrantz