Culture: Mijikenda totems that ‘demanded’ to come home
By Benson Ninai
At just a glimpse, an ordinary person may easily dismiss the wooden carved statues outside homesteads in remote Coastal villages as mere logs. However, these posts, commonly known as vigango, are cultural artifacts the Mijikenda community holds in reverence.
Kigango—word formed by mixing two Swahili words Kigongo (wooden post) and gango (treatment)— is erected at a chosen place in the homestead in memory of departed members of the Gohu society- a sacred organisation of Mijikenda elders also known as the “Society of the Blessed.”
Dotted with stylised patterns, the artefacts are abstracted human-like effigies rising out of the earth. They are regarded as sacred and the community believes that anyone who dares disturb them, risks opening floodgates of curses, which can invite a series of misfortunes.
Mzee Hamisi Katana Charo, an octogenarian from Kaloleni Giriyama in Kilifi county, says growing cases of insanity, deaths, teenage pregnancies among other increased misfortunes in the region could be attributed to utter disrespect of these ritual artefacts by today’s society.
“Vigango may appear simple, but I can tell you for free, the anger of those spirits can have deadly consequences on the entire society. They show no mercy on anyone who disrespects them.
Several youths have gone mad and others with seemingly bright futures have unceremoniously abandoned their illustrious careers for no good reason, but, trust me, if you dig deeper, the root cause of their predicaments rests with disrespect to vigango,” explains the elder.
He adds, “Such situations can only be reversed by elders performing special rituals to appease the ancestors to release affected youths, otherwise their entire lineage will inherit the curse.”
Charo recalls how such posts have been disappearing from various homesteads in the neighbourhood since mid-1980s, saying since then, there has been widespread theft and global trade in these sacred artefacts for decades.
Although those behind theft of vigango are not clearly known, it is believed local Mijikenda youth, in a quest for easy money, have been uprooting the posts and selling them to westerners, who mistake them for art.
This has, in turn, perpetuated wanton theft that has seen posts disappear from various homesteads. Most of these artifacts were traced to museums and curio shops in Europe and the United States, with locals calling for their return.
“Gohu are very important in the society because they are equivalent to the clergymen in other religions. Whenever things go wrong in the society people turn to Gohu for solutions,” Baya Mitsanze a researcher of Mijikenda culture, a member of the Gohu Society and leader of Africania indigenous religion points out.
The process of becoming a member of Gohu is complex. “There are two ways of becoming a Gohu. First a member who wishes his son to be initiated into the society would pray for his expectant wife to give birth to a son,” he adds. Once born, the son brought up in accordance with the mannerisms of a Gohu member and a certain fee is paid in installments, just like in payment of dowry.
“The fee can go up to Sh100,000. Secondly a person who wishes to join the society can be trained and pay the fee in bits until he is finally crowned after certification through thorough evaluation. Gohu must be a household head with great wisdom to preside over serious matters,” Mitsanze reveals.
Once a member of the Gohu dies, he is buried under certain rituals. The community believes his spirits haunt the living members, demanding he be remembered using a particular mark. “Normally, he emerges as a spirit, complaining to the lead Gohu that he has been left alone in the cold and that he needs to be returned home.
The Gohu then goes to the forest to get a holy tree, either Mwanga (Milletia oblata), Mkone (Grewia bicolor), Mvure (African teak) or Mpingo (African blackwood), which they cut and shape into a Kigango.
But before the tree is fell, they must perform certain rituals and give it a name of the departed Gohu, pleading with his spirit that ‘we are here to take you home’. They cut the tree as per the deceased’s height,” he says, noting that a series of ritual ceremonies are carried out as the carved statue is taken home.
Such cultural and spiritual significance of these artefacts make stealing them egregious such that it is not the culprit only who suffers, but their descendants as well.
“The spirit of the ancestor represented by the disturbed kigango causes illness, insanity, disappearance of a family member, disagreement between family members, loss of harvest, or a child being born deaf or dumb,” explains Charo.
According to indigenous belief, these artefacts are inalienable and should never be removed from their site of erection.
Home at last
Malindi Cultural Association Secretary General Joseph Mwarandu Karisa says theft of the artefacts has triggered myriad challenges in Kilifi, with people spending sleepless nights as the “spirits demand respect.”
It was, therefore, relief and joy when the community received 30 vigango recently returned by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science at Fort Jesus in Mombasa.
“These are tears of joys because we have suffered for long. We have pushed to have them returned and finally our cry has been heard. This is great news,” said Mitsanze.
Mwarandu says the vigango were returned because ‘they caused a lot of problems in the US where they were placed.’
“People would hear voices of the spirits demanding to be taken back home, where the inhabitants were also suffering. In Europe and the US strange accidents were happening and that is why they had to be returned,” he said.
Culture and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed hailed the return of the cultural artefacts as big milestone in the quest for social and cultural justice for Kenya. She also urged other countries still holding Kenyan heritage to do the same.