.Who are the Akamba?:
An Introduction to the Akamba of Kenya
Akamba Rites of Initiation
By initiation is meant a body of rites and oral teaching whose purpose is to produce a decisive alteration in the religious and social status of the person to be initiated. This description gets clearer as one reads on, particularly in the examples given. Initiation into adulthood, for the Akamba of Kitui and Machakos Districts of Kenya, is a process of formation whereby the community as a whole takes the opportunity to communicate its values, oral traditions and way of life to its youth. Through oral teaching (the spoken word) the initiates discover their identity in society. One of our Kamba scholars, John Mbiti, describes initiation into adulthood as follows:
One of its purposes is to mark the end of babyhood or childhood. It is a rite of separation from one status of life and incorporation into another and higher status. Initiation also conveys new privileges and responsibility, such as being allowed to get married and bear children, to fight for one's country, to take part in family ceremonies and to possess property. (J. Mbiti, Love and Marriage in Africa, London: Longmans, 1973, p. 12).
Initiation may be further described as a public mark which qualifies the candidate to pass from one stage of life to the next. In this sense, a graduation ceremony in a high school, college or university may be a good example of modern type of initiation into a fast technological world. Among the Akamba where high tech may be a dream of the future, initiation is a necessary part of transformation of the individual within the social structure. Among the Akamba, no one (male or female) may be allowed to marry before undergoing the initiation rite into adulthood called nzaiko (that is circumcision). One who has not yet undergone this rite is considered immature and may not be in the company of the initiated. This type of initiation is therefore a prerequisite for social maturity. But the initiation process into society takes many stages from infancy to adulthood. Here we shall briefly look at this process as a rite of passage before considering specific examples.
2. Human Existence as a Rite of Passage
To discuss the idea of initiation among the Akamba, I have borrowed the concept of the rites of passage developed by Anold Van Gennep in 1909. In his classic publication he wrote,
For groups, as well as as for individuals, life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be born. It is to act and to cease, to wait and to rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way. And there are always new thresholds to cross...the threshold of birth, adolescence, maturity and old age... (A. Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1960, pp. 189-190).
What Van Gennep has developed in the idea of the rites of initiation is in fact the patter of human existence marked by different stages that are not necessarily always progressive, but at the same time characterized by a life cycle that begins and ends and begins again till one's death. Van Gennep gave the term rites of passage to ceremonies surrounding the arrival of key moments in human life, such as birth, puberty, marriage and death: moments in which an individual moves from one stage of life to another. He suggested a three-fold classification of these rites: (a) rites which separate a person from previous associations; (b) rites which prepare for a marginal or liming period; and (c) rites which incorporate a person into a new existence. What Van Gennep means in making such a classification is that a rite of passage contains a process of three distinct stages within which there are rites involved in each stage. We can therefore look at the rites of passage as having three stage: separation, in which the initiates are cut off from their former state of life, e.g. childhood; threshold or liminal stage, in which the initiates stand as it were on the threshold (Latin word is limen) between one state of life and the other, suspended in between the two; and incorporation, in which the initiates are transformed into a new state of life and a new standing in society. Against this background we can now look at some specific rites of passage among the Akamba
3. Birth and Naming Rite
For the Akamba of Kitui and Machakos, the birth rite of passage introduces the baby into the community. The birth process begins with conception and continues till the actual birth. For the Akamba pregnancy is a visible sign that a new member of the family is on the way. When a baby is born physically, it must also be born with a communal rite of passage in order to make the baby a social member of of the community. The peak moment of the ritual is marked by the cutting of the umbilical cord (mukauti), an act that physically separates the newly born from the placenta (nzou). The physical cutting of the of the umbilical cord and the ritual disposal of the placenta symbolize a separation of the newly born from its former life in the womb and the introduction into a new state of a harsh world reality.
Among the Akamba the naming ceremony for the newly born is performed on the third or fourth day after birth. This ceremony is called in Kikamba kuimithya, literally meaning to make fully human. Before the naming ceremony, the newly is merely referred to as kaimu (literally a small spirit). Remember that this period after birth is a kind of a liminal stage between what is and what is to be. The newly born is not really a spirit and not yet fully a human being, a stage that makes the baby very vulnerable particularly to the evil spirits and certain persons who have the evil eye. The child is therefore kept secluded until the naming ceremony. The naming ritual therefore transforms the newly born from a status of "it" into the status of a person. The climax of the naming ceremony is the actual pronouncement of the name of the newly born normally by the grand mother or in her absence by a close elderly woman relative. The child is given a new name as a sign of a new life. Finally the father puts a bracelet around the neck...... At this moment all the women present ululate (kusiilila), the Akamba way of offering congratulations on major events
4. The First Circumcision Rite (Nzaiko nini =minor circumcision)
The initiation rite by circumcision among the Akamba is a major event among the Akamba. But because of westernization it no longer occupies the same position it used to have 60 years ago when such a rite took place in the community. Today most parents take their young sons for the operation in the hospital and go home. What lacks in such a western system is the formation that went along with traditional initiation ceremony. In some parts of Kitui District very little has changed.
Normally, the elders in the community decide when and where the ritual is to take place, but always in consultation with the parents concerned. Strictly speaking there is no fixed age when one should be initiated. Different Kamba authors have given different opinions regarding the age. John Mbiti points out that "when the child is between the age of about five and fifteen, the circumcision rite takes place..." (J. Mbiti, New Testament Eschatology in an African Background, London: Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 94). Another Kamba scholar indicates that the parents bring their young boys and girls, who range from between eleven and sixteen years of age, and hand them over to the sponsors (avwikii) who prepare them for the physical ritual (cf. J. Bahemuka, Our Religious Heritage, Nairobi: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1983, p. 65).
It is important to note that the Akamba reasoning regarding the timing for the circumcision was not determined purely by the age, but also by the behavior of the individual young person. When a boy or girl was observed as having attained some form of mature reasoning and to have the ability to look after livestock (kuithya indo na kukeelelya indo), this was a good sign to the parents that their child was ready for the ritual initiation.
Once parents and the entire community determine that there is to be a circumcision rite, a period of preparation begins. But in order to the preparation to start officially, one initiated young man or woman had to volunteer to host the event at his or her home. Such a person is called mwene nzaiko (literally the one who hosts the ritual). The preparatory process takes seven to ten days days. Three days before the actual physical operation, the parents of the candidates prepare some bear known in Kikamba as uki wa kunoa wenzi (literally the beer for sharpening the operating knife). The timing of the year is very important. The whole process normally takes place between the months of July and October when the weather is cooler and dry. Such a climate helps the cut to heal faster. Thus a cool weather condition is one of the factors taken into account in staring the preparations. Vincent Turner in his research among the Ndembu people of Zimbabwe has made the same observation about the time for initiation rites being "during the cold weather as being the most hygienic period of the year" (V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Rituals, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1967, p. 152).
Soon after the preparation, the period of seclusion (usingi) begins. On that day early in the morning the parents bring their young boys and girls to the home of the sponsor (mwene nzaiko). Those to be initiated are handed over to the sponsors (avwikii, literally those who brood over, and thus means those who protect, support, encourage and advice the candidates). The candidates are similarly handed over to the circumcisor (mwaiki). This handing over symbolizes the entering into a period of seclusion, a period that detaches them from their previous status in society. Thus during this liminal period the candidates have no designated position in community. The candidates remain here as long as the phase lasts, and this varies from one place of Ukambani to another.
The first circumcision rite for the Akamba describes and dramatizes the passage from childhood and introduces the candidate (musingi) into the community as an adult. Just as the cutting of the umbilical cord symbolizes the entry as a member into the human community, so too the cutting of the flesh at circumcision is "a symbol of getting rid of the period of childhood, and getting ready for the period of adulthood" (J. Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion, Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1989, p. 99).
During this period of seclusion, the candidate is united with not only with the clan or living community, but also bound mystically to the ancestors symbolized and sealed by the actual shedding of blood into the ground. At birth it was the mother who sustained the labor pains. During circumcision, each individual candidate (musingi) must now experience the dramatic pain of his own rebirth. All this time the candidates are each accompanied by their sponsors (avwikii) who are actually delegated by the community and are supposed to be mature and responsible persons. They must be of goo reputation and persons who have undergone both the first and the second initiation rites. They are responsible for the guidance of the candidates during the entire period of seclusion.
5. The Second Initiation Rite (Nzaiko Nene=the major circumcision)
While the first initiation rite of circumcision is physical, the second one is more formative and educational. The second initiation is a joint event with both boys and girls, which is considered necessary before one can enter into marriage. Among the Akamba, a young person who has not yet undergone the major circumcision is referred to as kivisi (immature), but after this ritual he become a young adult (mwananke for the boy and mwiitu for the girl). It is believed that this major circumcision transforms one into a proper more responsible adult. There is no fixed interval between the two rituals since such arrangements are done by the elders and the parents concerned. But the major circumcision is meant to coincide with the age of puberty, because the ritual mainly deals with formation and thus fits in well with the young people who are undergoing a period of identity crisis. The ritual is meant to help them understand themselves and cope with this crisis.
Just as for the minor circumcision there is a period of seclusion, but this time it is more significant. The candidates (asingi) are set apart in order to live far away from their villages. They are taken to a forest where a temporary hut or traditional tent is constructed. It is here that the Akamba traditional schooling and passing on the traditional wisdom is passed on. The separation of the youth from the family in order to live with others in the camps is meant to open up a new vision for the candidates. The main objective however is to impart to them a sense of community consciousness and solidarity which are necessary for adhering to the tradition in the future. The period of separation is used as the appropriate moment for education and formation on traditional values. This formation is meant to equip the candidates with the knowledge of Akamba tradition. The separation in this second circumcision lasts between seven to ten days, depending on the subject matters treated.
After this separation the time of the actual initiation begin. On he first day, all the candidates (asingi) enter into the forest camp together. Here they learn special songs that are educational and formative. These songs may not be sung out of the initiation ceremony. The following day, the boys face the first terrifying ordeal in the form of facing a wild monster. The candidates are not told what they are about to face. It is a top secret. The candidates must confront this ferocious monster courageously. This monster is a fictional rhinoceros (mbusya), and the confrontation is actually called the shooting of the rhinoceros (kuatha mbusya). The rhino is an invented structure made of wooden planks from within which comes fearful noise like that of a rhino, but the truth of the matter is that a man hidden inside makes that noise. The structure is made in the form of a box large enough to accommodate an adult man. It is carried by several men from somewhere in the forest to very close to the camp where the candidates are while making noises similar to a rhinoceros. As the monster approaches the camp, the candidates are encouraged by the sponsors to remain courageous and face the monster like men. Each of he male candidates must go forward and beat the monster with a stick, and in so doing tell the monster its name.
After the rhinoceros disappears, the boys leave and the girls are brought in. They too undergo their own version of a mild ordeal. Instead of the rhinoceroses (mbusya), an old woman who is disguised enters in with and rattles a calabash filled with seeds, making a terrible noise that frightens the girls, but there is no indication anywhere that they are required to kill the "beast"
That night all the candidates must sleep completely naked outside in the open with no fire, no blankets. This symbolically reduces them into a near sub-human condition in preparation for their transformation. Recall hat this is indeed a liminal phase of the rite when the candidates are as it were suspended in between two phases. But that night is a most torturous experience with insects crawling all over you and you cannot run away.
On the third day, the circmcisors (a man and a woman) and the sponsors receive their fees which is normally collected from parents in advance. After this the girls are sent out to gather firewood, while the boys are given miniture bows and arrows with which they must hunt some small animals, for example a lizard (itelembu) and bring it back to show the elders. Following the wood gathering and hunting rites, the two conductors of the event (man and woman) gather the candidates back in the camp, and then both drink some beer from a calabash, keep the beer in the mouth, and then spit out the beer over the group, thus giving them, a typical Kamba blessing.
The fourth day is a moment of testing. The candidates are tested on the meaning of certain puzzles carved on about 30 inch musai sticks (cut from the musiwa tree) or on the meaning of pictographs drawn on sand. Al the pictographs are symbols associated with Akamba marriage and family life. The candidate who finds out the trick is immediately oiled with butter by the mother. In addition, a small gift is given by the father if it is a boy and the mother if the winner is a girl. As the puzzle solving continues, ritual educational songs are sung. That same afternoon, the boys go into the villages to cut fresh sugar cane with which they prepare beer for their sponsors (avwikii). There are indications that after the entire initiations the parents of the candidates take the above sticks and placed under their bed for the night and destroyed the following day.
On the fifth day, the ritual takes place under a fig or sycamore tree usually along the river bank. There under the sacred tree, the circumcisors and the sponsors take some amount of the milky juice (sap) from the trunk and give it to the asingi (the candidates), who pretend to drink it as a symbol. After this ritual, the candidates are now allowed to eat what was forbidden them as young adults since they are about to become fully adults. Then there follows the operation of two small parallel incisions (nthoo), one represents man and the other woman. This is done only for the boys.
There are no specific activities on the sixth day, and so it is left as a peaceful day of reflection and rest in preparation for the next and last day of the event. On the seventh day towards evening, the boys dressed like worriers carry out a mock cattle raid. They use the yellow fruits of solarium to symbolize missiles and raid the cattle. Meanwhile, the girls cry out that the Maasai are have arrived to raid the cattle. This mock cattle raid brings the initiation ritual to an end. The candidates may now go home carrying their musai sticks which are handed over to their parents.
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