In Langscape Magazine Articles

Muriira: Reviving Culture, Nature, and Ritual in Tharaka, Kenya

July 15, 2020

Simon Mitambo

Right now, in July 2020, it is the harvest season in Tharaka, the bigger of the two harvest seasons we get every year in this part of Kenya. Usually this is a busy time on the farm, a time when people come together and work communally to ensure a good harvest. But the normal rhythms of life are not possible now. The coronavirus means we can no longer gather as we would on each other’s farmsteads, and our lives here, like everywhere else, are very disrupted.

women Elders from Tharaka

Women Elders from Tharaka sit and talk together before the onset of the pandemic. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades, 2019

Tharaka is quite a dry area, and we grow much of our own food in our small gardens and fields, so disruptions to our ways of growing food can have major consequences. There is a real risk that productivity may not be as good as it would have been otherwise; we might lose some seeds if people cannot get out and save them or if they haven’t grown enough of a crop near their home. People’s movement is limited by a government curfew, so those whose fields are farther away fear making the journey and not getting back home in time. For others, the problem is that we cannot work together in the fields, so large tasks are hard to complete.

The normal rhythms of life are not possible now. The coronavirus means we can no longer gather as we would on each other’s farmsteads, and our lives here, like everywhere else, are very disrupted.

Like others, we are doing our best here. People are still growing crops around their homesteads, in plots they can reach easily. We are supporting the Elders and others who cannot grow their own food. We haven’t been able to come together in the fields, but Tharakans are still working for each other and for the wider community.

Indigenous seeds from Tharaka, including varieties of millet and other sacred crops. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades, 2018

Throughout history, our Elders and our stories have reminded us that our community has survived other pandemics and plagues. We have our own traditional ways of responding to these events that have helped us to be resilient in the face of many challenges. These traditional responses are part of the reason the Tharakan people are still here, despite huge locust swarms that have threatened our crops and diseases like smallpox that have threatened our people.

One of our responses to these threats is a ritual we call Muriira. It is a rare ritual, which is only done when the community is threatened by illness or pestilence. Muriira comes from the Tharakan word kuriira, which means to prevent, to stop, to cast away. In essence, the Muriira ritual is used to stop and ward off something that poses a threat.

Throughout history, our Elders and our stories have reminded us that our community has survived other pandemics and plagues.

Traditionally, Tharakan Elders would conduct the Muriira when they learned about threats originating in neighboring areas and communities that could pass into Tharakan territory. The Elders would gather people together and raise awareness of the threat the community was facing, where it was coming from, and why they were concerned.

Before there was TV news, social media, or organizations like the World Health Organization, this is how people here would learn about diseases and other threats. The Elders organized the community, informed them, and mobilized them to participate in the ritual, which requires people to contribute so as to uphold the health of everyone.

The Muriira ritual calls for people to provide and prepare sacred seeds—millet and finger millet—and also to source wild herbs for the Elders to use. These need to be prepared in specific ways over the eight days of the ritual, which is something the community members can also help with, under the instruction of the Elders.

Before there was TV news, social media, or organizations like the World Health Organization, this is how people here would learn about diseases and other threats. The Elders organized the community, informed them, and mobilized them to participate in the ritual.

Women and men from the community prepare large batches of a kind of gruel made with the seeds and also local honey. Specific plants are used to make marigi, which are small models that are made to look like closed doors.

Once all the ingredients for the ritual are prepared, the people, led by the Elders, go chanting and praying to different homesteads throughout the territory, which are blessed using the seed and honey gruel. The processions and the ritual have four key focal points: north, east, south, and west. These cardinal points are very important in Tharakan cosmology. A disease or threat must come from somewhere. Elders who are chosen by the community will split up to go to the roads or paths that lead into our territory in these four directions. They then dig a hole and bury the marigi, the closed doors, in or by the road before saying prayers and coming together again in the heart of the community.

Tharakan Elders and spiritual leaders

Tharakan Elders and spiritual leaders set out to perform their rituals with cow horns and cow-hair whisks. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades, 2019

In recent weeks, our Elders performed the Muriira to protect us from the coronavirus. Although the ritual has been changed a little to make it safe—not so many people have participated, just a handful of Elders, and we have been distancing—it is a boost for us to see it being done.

What is particularly extraordinary is that the ritual has created harmony between elements of the community that have been in conflict in recent years. For example, some Christians here are often hostile to the Elders who continue to practice our traditional spirituality. But during the pandemic their eyes have been opened to the value of Muriira and our traditional ways of doing things. Some have even donated seeds and herbs to the ritual.

The ritual has created harmony between elements of the community that have been in conflict in recent years.

This surprised me. I asked the Elders why the Christians have been compelled to contribute. They said it is because, before they were Christians, these people were Africans. They are Africans first. In this time of pandemic, their minds appear to be opening to the ways of their forefathers. They seem to be seeing the value in our rituals and what they can do for us again.

churches in Tharaka traditional territory

A sketch of churches now located in Tharaka traditional territory, drawn by Tharaka community members. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades, 2019

All this reveals the importance of rituals like Muriira here in Tharaka. Such rituals bring people together both physically and culturally to attend to each other’s well-being and the health of the territory, as well as to defend it from threats. They help us remember who we are as Tharakans and our responsibilities to our community and our homeland. They are spaces for us to listen to our Elders, who have so much knowledge.

Such rituals bring people together both physically and culturally to attend to each other’s well-being and the health of the territory, as well as to defend it from threats.

Although colonial education and Western religions were relatively late arrivals in Tharaka, compared to other parts of Africa, they have had a corrosive effect on our traditional culture and our confidence. While the Muriira is not a regular ritual anyway, other traditions and rituals, our ways of dressing, our songs, and ways of governing our territory have been seriously eroded by colonialism. Our Elders and spiritual leaders have been branded witches and marginalized. People have forgotten the ways in which we cared for the territory.

Tharakan women in traditional beadwork

Tharakan women wearing revived traditional beadwork sing during rituals and throughout their preparations. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades, 2019

The return of the Muriira at this time and the way the community engaged with it, even from afar, are signs of something bigger: signs that we are turning the tide on this history of loss in our own lands. In recent years, Tharakans have organized themselves in a new association called SALT: the Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation. Our work as SALT is to try and revive our traditional culture, to connect youth and Elders, and build back our confidence as a community. We are helping open the spaces for our suppressed culture to awaken again.

We are turning the tide on this history of loss in our own lands.

Our work started slowly by creating “community dialogue” spaces for interested people, especially Elders, to come together and discuss Tharakan culture: what things were like and how things were done in the past, compared to how they are now. Slowly the number of people coming to these meetings grew. Since then we have been able to take action to revive many aspects of our culture in a very concrete way.

Simon Mitambo

Simon Mitambo, the author and a leading organiser of Tharaka’s cultural and ecological revival. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades, 2018

We have revived our traditional seeds and our food culture. When we held our first community dialogue meeting, I am ashamed to say we didn’t have a plan for what food we would give the people who came. When the time for lunch came, we just gave people bread and soda. This sparked a discussion in the group about our traditional foods. We asked ourselves and our Elders, what did we use to eat when we came together? The Elders told us how things used to be.

At our second meeting, one of the women came with traditional millet porridge she had prepared, and we agreed on a course of action to revive and share other foods like this, which we grew here. In many cases, people had stopped growing their traditional foods in favor of cash crops, so they began asking around the villages to see who still had this seed or that seed. Some we could find. Others, like calabashes, which we once grew in large numbers and would use as water vessels, bowls, and plates, seemed to have disappeared, so we looked farther afield in neighboring areas until we found them.

Over the past five to six years of searching, we have seen a huge amount of seed diversity come back and, with the seeds, the knowledge of how to grow, cook, save, and store them has returned, along with community seed swaps. These seeds are best suited to our land here. They grow well in the local conditions and are resilient to the changes we are seeing from the changing climate. People who have revived these seeds are getting good harvests and eating well. They are confident again in their traditional foods and their own abilities, and every time we meet, we Ccan enjoy those foods together.

We have seen a huge amount of seed diversity come back and, with the seeds, the knowledge of how to grow, cook, save, and store them has returned.

The community dialogues have also given us a chance to map our territory together, in space and through time. We know where we have sacred natural sites and have started to identify who the custodians of those sacred sites are. We have remembered how our lands and waters looked a long time ago and the damage that has occurred since then—the riverbanks that have been farmed and the sacred sites that have been desecrated against our traditional laws. Now we are making our plans to revive these places and the customary laws our people have used to protect them for hundreds of years.

Tharakan women draw an eco-cultural calendar

Tharakan women draw an eco-cultural calendar, depicting the changing seasons and activities in their traditional territory. Photo: Hannibal Rhoades, 2019

This is our vision and our contribution to the changes we need around the world. If we really want to survive on this planet, we have to take care of our own biodiversity. COVID-19 is a wake-up call about how we should live in harmony with Nature, as our ancestors in Tharaka once did.

If we really want to survive on this planet, we have to take care of our own biodiversity. COVID-19 is a wake-up call about how we should live in harmony with Nature, as our ancestors in Tharaka once did.

Let us not go back to business as usual after this pandemic. Let us not start thinking about how we are going to open polluting industries again. Instead, let us ask ourselves and one another, as if we were gathered in the heart of the village: Do we really want to restore industries that have polluted our air so badly that we cannot see Mount Kenya through the smog? How might we do better?


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Simon Mitambo is a proud Tharakan, a trained Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner, and co-founder of a Tharakan community-based organization, the Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation (SALT).