Walking the ancestral path: a traditional response to Covid-19
When Covid-19 hit Kenya, the ABN’s Simon Mitambo played a role in enabling a traditional ritual to cleanse the soils, seeds, land and territory. He shares his experience here.
The elders often talk about trusting the path and finding the way under the guidance of the ancestors. I had not thought deeply what this statement means in practical terms until the right time came. I had been locked up in Nairobi Metropolitan for close to four months since the first case of Covid-19 was found in Kenya on 13 March. The President declared a curfew and lock down to manage the spread of the pandemic. Schools, churches, hotels and all gatherings were highly restricted. There was no movement in and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan where the lockdown found me. To imagine that one could get out of such tight lock down guarded by the General Service Unit, a special unit in the police, was like swallowing a ripe bullet or having a camel pass through the eye of the needle. It was simply impossible!
On 25 June, it became necessary for me to travel to Tharaka to join the elders in their ritual ceremony. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the ABN had received calls from individual elders, custodians of Sacred Natural Sites, clan and spiritual leaders from 8 communities across Kenya, from Coastal, Eastern, Rift Valley & Central regions. They were seeking urgent support to conduct seed rituals to cleanse their soils, seeds, land & territory of the Covid-19. The elders held consultations through ABN and had drawn common agreement that Covid-19 and the locust plague were bad omens of the time. As such they were a communication from the ancestors that order needed to be restored quickly through seed rituals. The fear was that if the rituals were not done, more pandemics would occur and the health of their soil and balance of cycles of nature would tilt, affecting the future of their agroecology farming which is their mainstay.
I found myself playing the role of fundraising and coordinating the ritual ceremonies. I tried to get a letter from government offices to allow me to travel but that was in vain. Instead, I was advised back and forth. The only thing I could get was my job card to show where I work and the role I play. I also had the invitation from the elders through the Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation (SALT) which was working closely with the ABN to coordinate rituals in Tharaka. This invitation and my clear intention to participate in the week of ritual ceremonies across the country were the only things I had to show.
On the day of travel, I woke up unusually early to get to the roadblock. I presented my work identity card to the police manning the roadblock and my genuine and humble intention to travel to Tharaka to participate in the ritual ceremony taking place at the foot of Mount Kenya. Given the need and the urgency to have the rituals week for cleansing our land and territory of the bad omen of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was able to get to Tharaka before the Sunset rituals. There I found fifteen elders from six clans who had come together to plan the ritual performance. Besides coming for planning meeting, the elders decided to do a ritual. The elders were wearing masks and observing other government requirements like social distancing and washing hands.
The rituals were led by Mugwe, the spiritual leader of the Tharaka people and fourteen other elders who work closely with him. He led a ritual of “Guta Mpanga” which means ‘casting away the bad omen’. This ritual is prepared using sacred plants of the sodom apple, and certain species of fig tree known locally as mioru. The ripe fruits of sodom apple were pierced together using the sticks of mioru and after Mugwe had finished praying and cursing the pandemic, the elders threw these sticks facing the direction of the Sunset to symbolize its death and burial. Once they threw them, they screamed and left the venue without turning back. The elders had to be careful when they are throwing away the sticks that there is no home nearby in that direction. All the elders participating in the ritual have to abstain from sex for four days after the ritual. Four is sacred in this community and is a symbol of harmonious relationship with Nature. This calls for consensus building between the participants in cursing the pandemic. They invoke the spirit of the setting Sun (Mukunaruku) and the Moon (Mukumbuuthi). The Mukunaruku and Mukumbuuthi are said to be two brothers who watch over Planet Earth. They protect Earth from natural calamities of destruction like the Covid-19. They work hand in hand where the Sun picks the pandemic at dusk sits down with it and hands it over to the Moon for disposal in the deep oceans.
In moving forward, it is important to appreciate that powerful external forces have been taking advantage of the Covid-19 situation and diverting us from seeking for solutions that come from within our relationship with Nature and our diverse cultures. It is high time we appreciate that the solutions that we seek already lie deep within our indigenous cultures and natural environment. For hundreds of years, indigenous people have warned that destroying of our environment would lead to diseases and other natural calamities. This is what we will continue to witness if we do not take heed.