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Why the revered Ngadji still beats in the heart of the Pokomo

By Jasmine Atieno
Wednesday, July 21st, 2021 00:00 | 4 mins read
Obed Wayu Karhay, the oldest member of the Pokomo Council of Elders with Mohammed Akare Berhe, a member of the coucil at Wayu’s home in Tana River. Photo/PD/Jasmine Atieno

Jasmine Atieno @sparkleMine

When Said Kumbi-a-Wadesa, the chairman of the Kidjo, the Pokomo Council of Elders died in April this year, he was the last man to play the ngadji , the traditional drum of their community. 

Passed down through generations, the ngadji, once played by Wadesa’s grandfather who held the same position, was stolen from them by the British colonialists over 100 years ago, and is currently preserved in the British Museum in London. Wadesa never forgot its powerful roar until his last breath.

“Kumbi-a-Wadesa was such an important figure to the Pokomo community. He was a member of the Kidjo, the supreme government, and was the last to play the Ngadji.

He also played songs he had created, making him a popular figure. As a leader, he brought peace to the community until he decided to rest.

Despite that the supreme drum was gone, he spent his life hugely serving the community, intervening and bringing lasting solutions in Tana River,” says Saidi Hero-wa-Rawesa, an elder from Ngomeni Village, Masabubu location. 

The elder says the ngadji was curved from a sacred tree deep in the forest, known as Mzinga, Cordia Africana.

 “The drum was a symbol of power of governance. No one was allowed to see the drum with their eyes except the members of the Kidjo. It was a great secret of these elders, and Wadesa was the one ruling it.

Whoever saw the drum would have to part with a lot wealth and would be given a position at the Kidjo to safeguard the drum’s secrets,” intimates the elder. 

The Kidjo members included Gasa- the governing council; Wagangana- Pokomo magicians and spiritualists who would commune with the spirit world; and the Mabiso, the implementers of laws given by the Gasa.

The three levels worked together for the smooth-running of the government.

They would meet at Mchelelo, the sacred grove, in the night’s darkest hours, surrounded by giant trees including the Mzinga.  

Stolen heritage 

If someone outside of the Kidjo spoke of, or even accidentally came across the ngadji, they would be punished with death.

When the drum was transported, villages were notified beforehand, and everyone stayed indoors.

But when the colonisers raided the community to forcefully take the drum, they did not care for any of these rules. 

Mohammed Akare Berhe has been the chairman of Pokomo Council of Elders, (also known as Sesa within the Gasa rank), in Mikinduni, since 2012.

Before that he was the secretary of the council, also known as the Biso for almost 16 years. 

As a Biso, his role was to look after the elders and make sure they are safe and well looked after, and to keep them informed on everything happening within the community. 

As he shares, there are only 12 remaining Pale elders in the whole Tana River.

“The oldest Pale in the whole of Pokomo is Obed Wayu Karhayu. Due to his old age, he is incapable of carrying out his duties, and was allowed to choose a representative- someone in his age group and whom he really trusts to step in for him.

That’s how he chose Wadesa, but since Wadesa’s death, he has not chosen anyone else. If there is anything happening, all of us go to his home.

If anything needs to be carried out he will advise from there,” says Berhe. 

Restoration journey 

The elder says they found out the location of the Ngadji in 2008, and since then they have been working towards its restoration.

Together with the county government in partnership with the London-based State of the African Diaspora, they signed an agreement on July 8, 2020 to restore the drum, but the pandemic paused the process.

Machkonga Athman Komoro, a Pokomo youth and a traditional musician, is among the few who greatly revere the drum and hold hope it will someday be returned for the benefit of the current and future generations.

He says the vacuum brought upon by its loss has created such a division in governance between the elders and the people.

 “The drum was a symbol of political power, it was basically the government and the members were the Kidjo.

Without it, the traditional government is as good as dead. The elders put in place have not much power as they would have had with the ngadji; the people at the same time do no respect them as much and they are continuously disregarded.

There are also so many problems within the Pokomo community. The disconnection is real,” shares the musician. 

He adds that the return of the sacred drum will have huge positive impacts on the community. 

“The drum was taken with malicious intentions and it is a clear proof. The Pokomo were very organised and became very hard to colonise. Taking the drum killed the people politically.

There is also so much bad omen that keep happening, that is why the drum needs to be brought back,” he says, adding that failure to get back, the Pokomo land risks remaining just as poor as they were back then.

Grievious consequence 

 “I get chills when children today just say the name of the drum anyhow.  As a child, if one was to mention that name in front of especially elders, the child’s father would be brought to court so fast and they would want to know what the child had been told about the drum.

It was careless and the consequences would sometimes be grievous. Like death by drowning.

When the white people came they found a strong government in Pokomo ruled by the ngadji.

It was hard for them to set up their new system and that was the problem. So they had to deal with it by attacking the elders and taking it away forcefully,” says Obed.

While he is hopeful the drum will one day be returned, he says things will never be the same and maybe it is not such a bad thing. 

“The government set right now is the white man’s. It is not our traditional system so even if the drum is returned, it will probably just be put in a museum for learning purposes and to generate money through tourism.

A lot of people have also drifted away from culture because of strict rules. They were scared when they heard about the drum.

It would take assurance that it is not coming back to restart the horrific episodes of drowning, but for better purposes to the coming generations,” he says. 

The elders and ranks set in place by the Pokomo has allowed for a seamless transfer of authority within the community and allowed incoming leaders to learn from elders while in service to them.

Despite that the original ngadji was taken, it has been sounded a few times during cultural celebrations in high secrecy. 

“The ngadji is sometimes created during these celebrations. And even this one, only the Pale and Sesa get to see it.

People will hear the sounds of the drum during the celebration, but will never know where it’s playing from or even set eyes on it. It disappears mysteriously and no one speaks about it,” added Berhe.

Jasmine Atieno