Gusii - Religion and Beliefs

Much of the following information has been adapted from William R. Ochieng's "Kenya's People: People of the South-Western Highlands - Gusii" (1986: Evans Brothers, PO Box 44536 Nairobi).
In this page:
Spirit ancestors
Medicine and witchcraft


Before the advent of Christianity, which now claims over 80% of the population, the Gusii believed in a supreme God called Engoro. It was Engoro who created the Universe - the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars and all natural forces. Thus he was the source of all property and all life.

He governed the destiny of man, sending him rain or drought, plenty or famine, health or disease, peace or war, depending on whether man lived a good or a bad life.

Engoro was pure, just and generous. He was also all-knowing, and was thus held in the highest possible regard by the Gusii.

Engoro lived in the sky. He was not visible, nor did he directly interfere in the daily affairs of man. But he occasionally revealed himself in storms, thunder, earthquakes and lightning. Other events on earth were carried out by his agents, the spirits of the ancestors.


See also the fable about 'Why Man must Die', in the section on Tales and Fables

As with the neighbouring Luo, the Gusii believed that death was unnatural. It was frequently blamed on witchcraft (oborogi; the word is similar to the words used by other Bantu-speaking peoples such as the Kikuyu, Meru, Embu and Mbeere). When a person died there was always crying, but the degree of public mourning varied according to whether the dead person had been important or not. An infant was usually buried in the floor of the house. There was only a little wailing and few people attended. When a wealthy man died in the prime of life there was much more mourning. The corpse of an adult was buried just outside the house in which he lived; a man was buried on the right side of the house, and a woman left.

The day after the burial there was a public funeral. If the dead person was a married man, his wives, children and certain of his close relations had their heads shaved at the grave. Some of the property which belonged to the dead man, such as his bed or drinking tube or walking stick, was put on his grave. Men attended the funeral with spears, horns, and bells, as well as a few head of cattle each. They drove the cattle all over the compound of the dead man while crying, shouting, ringing bells and blowing horns and whistles. Wooden drums with leather ends, which, as we have seen, were used to sound an alarm, were also beaten on ceremonial occasions.

A drummer was often present at a funeral, and while he beat his drum the women wailed and sang the praises of the dead person.

Spirit ancestors

Like most Kenyan peoples, and all of the Bantu-speakers, the Gusii believed in the survival of the spirits of their ancestors. Unlike other people, however, they made no distinction between 'good' and 'bad' ancestors: as far as I know, all were essentially evil, and had to be appeased via sacrifices of a sheep or a goat. Failure to do so would mean that the spirits would begin to meddle in human affairs and bring misfortune.

On the other hand, when a man had good luck it was said that the ancestors were 'lying well' - not that they were good.

Nonetheless, the ancestors were regarded as the link between the living and God, and so all prayers to God were addressed through them. The spirits were said to be 'like the wind', living on top of the Manga escarpment.

Medicine and witchcraft

In Gusii society medicine men - abanyamorigo - were highly valued and respected. These were the specialists who suffered most from European writers and administrators who often and wrongly called them 'witch doctors'.

The Gusii had, and still have a clear distinction between the 'healer' and the 'sorcerer' and 'poisoner'. The healer was loved by all but sorcerers and poisoners (often called witches) were feared, as indeed they still are: in September and October 1998, ten suspected witches were lynched by mobs in Kisii district. The police responded by arrested other suspected witches for their own protection. And since the mid-1990s, road signs have sprung up throughout Gusii-land saying things like: "AIDS is not witchcraft - AIDS is real".

There was no fixed rule governing the 'calling' of a person to become a medicine man. This might come when he was still young, or in his middle or late life. Usually a medicine man inherited the profession of his parents or close relatives, but there were those who believed that ancestral spirits had 'called' them in dreams or visions, to become medicine men. There were both men and women in this profession. Their personal qualities greatly varied, but medicine men were expected to be trustworthy, upright, morally friendly, willing and ready to serve, able to discern people's needs and problems, and not exorbitant in their charges.

The duties of a medicine man were many and varied, and overlapped with those of other specialists. His medicines were made from plants, herbs, powders, bones, seeds, roots,juices, leaves, liquids, minerals, charcoal and the like; and in dealing with a patient he could give massage, apply needles or thorns, he could bleed the patient, or use incantations, or ask the patient to perform various things like sacrificing a chicken or goat, observe certain taboos or avoid certain foods - all these were in addition to giving the patient physical medicine.

Medicine men had potions and pastes for sprains, diarrhea, pulmonary complaints and heart ailments. In particular the Gusii had, and still have, expert traditional surgeons, ababari, who set fractures and cured backaches and concussion by the removal of sections of bone from the spinal column or skull.

Other duties of medicine men included giving potions to increase love. They gave help to impotent men, they 'treated' people in order to prosper in business or to succeed in politics. They performed various rites to increase the fertility and productivity of the field and livestock, and barren women (or their husbands or relatives) continually consulted them in search of a cure that would allow them to bear children.

It was also the duty of medicine men to purge witches, detect sorcery, remove curses and control the restless spirits of the dead. Some medicine men were experts at conjuring and hypnosis. In many ways they played the role of the psychiatrist in the community. They were experts at questioning their patients and could diagnose the causes of their psychosomatic disorders with amazing accuracy.

In other words, medicine men had access to and, sometimes, control of the forces of nature and other forms of knowledge unknown or little known to the public. They, thus, symbolized the hopes of society: hopes of good health, protection and security from evil forces.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

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