Embu & Mbeere - Medicine and Witchcraft

In this page:
Medicine and the “Little Red Men”
Vomiting of sins

Medicine and 'Little Red Men'

Smiths from around Mount KenyaMedicine is the work of a specific clan called the Igamuturi, of which the hereditary family of the Mutia (the overall Embu chief) are part. Their origin is said to be a place called Gacavari, from where they also spread medicinal knowledge to the Mbeere and Kikuyu. It seems likely from this and other clues that the Igamuturi are descendants of a people indigenous to the Mount Kenya region who predated the arrival of the various groups that later became the Embu and Mbeere. They may therefore be related to the various Kenyan hunter-gatherer groups still in existence, who traditionally lived in forests and were (and are still renowned as) experts in plant-derived medicines, as well as witchcraft.

The Embu call medicine men are called agwe, though other sources say that elderly sages - with terrifying abilities - are called arogi. A more benevolent kind of medicine man is called Ago among the Mbeere, and has the ability to foretell the future or find missing goats (for a startling example of this, read the story of Mwenda Mwea, who predicted the arrival of the British, and the pillage that would follow). The Mbeere themselves are renowned throughout Kenya for their skill with medicines and spirits, and were also known in the past for their blacksmiths - an art (like alchemy for Muslims) that has long been associated with witchcraft. To quote from Richard Trillo's "The Rough Guide to Kenya" (with thanks to David Else for making enquiries in Siakago):

"Information is hard to come by; local people either laugh or look blank when directly questioned about such "unprogressive" activities. Numerous cups of tea and endless slices of bread and Blueband elicited the story from one local man that a village called Uba-Riri was a place where the Ago were active; but he couldn't quite remember where it was, and if he had pointed the way, he explained, legend had it he would have lost the finger he pointed with. Yet the Ago do make their existence known at critical times, as in 1987 when their bush fires are said to have brought on the delayed rains. And the forest rangers on the hills threaten poachers and illegal firewood-cutters with Arogi medicine to make their teeth fall out witchcraft comes to the aid of conservation!
   The identity of these "witches" at best a hazy and mysterious one which people aren't in any hurry to talk about is further confused by the supposed existence in the hills of a race of "little red men" whose small size (estimated at 1.2m) and fleeting appearance and disappearance in the bush have led the odd, dreaming scientist to suppose that they might be australopithecines ape-men hanging on into the twentieth century in their remote forest tracts. They, and the Ago-Arogi, may be just part of the "old people" mytho-history of central Kenya, which is at least partially based on the real, ancient and probably Cushitic-speaking peoples of two thousand or more years ago. Such, anyway, are the stories that might draw you from Embu..."

Vomiting of sins

Among the Embu, if a person was suspected of some evil which might bring harm to the community, a medicine man made a mixture of special shrubs and other substances, which were either ingested, smeared or left in special places to drive away evil spirits or influence the ancestors.
   Special medicinal water would also be made by pouring it in and out of the containers of appropriate medicines. Mwaniki's book has one example of a cleansing ceremony, in which the agwe would intone the phrase "Let me make you vomit out an evil taboo." The patient would spit out as if vomiting, and repeat this every time the medicine man paused after uttering one phrase. "That one which you went to collect and that one which was brought to you. Let me me make you vomit an evil taboo. Let me meet on the way evils, those in your body. I come with that which makes happy, and make happy your good things. I'll blunt your evils with..." He would continue uttering soothing things like that until the operation was over.

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