Kikuyu - Feature Articles

A White Man's Initiation into the Kiama

From the remarkable "Africa Drums" by Richard St. Barbe Baker (date unknown to me; most likely written in the 1920s). The copy in my possession was published by the Adventurers' Club, London (also undated). See the copyright notice for textual extracts. For more about Richard St. Barbe Baker and the "Men of the Trees" movement he founded, see

A White Man's Initiation into the Kiama, by Richard St. Barbe Baker

The silent night was broken by the beat of a drum.
   "Boom," it rang out from the north, and "Boom, Boom, Boom," as it moved across the undulating hills, once covered with rich forest of Mutarakwa and Mutamaiyu, cedars and olives. With the quick daybreak came another "Boom" from the south, and as daylight flooded the world, from east and west came answering "Boom."
   Then once again all was silent. Across the morning stillness of the valleys a man's voice called. It was answered from the distant hills like a faint echo.
   Again the silence.
   Suddenly the voice of a different drum, the lively N'goma with quick rhythmic beats, started in the valley. Then another along the winding trail among the small farms; then another from the crest of the escarpment. From all around the rhythm was taken up with ever quickening time.
   Nearer and nearer they came, the chiefs with their drumming escorts, till the place of meeting was reached and the drums were silent.
   It had been many moons since they had met together, and there was a hum of eager conversation as the three hundred Wazee, chiefs and headmen, waited round the Council ring near Dagoreti. They were all solemn and intense, for they were about to witness an important ceremony, the first of its kind which had ever been held, and one that may never happen again.
   They were assembled on the clearing of what had once been the heart of a great forest, which in the course of time had vanished before successive waves of nomadic farmers. The Wa-Kikuyu had bargained for it with the Wa-N'drobo, forest dwellers who, in times when their bow had brought them less food than they needed, would fritter away with a wave of the arm a further area of their forest domain in return for a bag of grain. The only trees that now remained were a few Mugumu, sacred trees, for in them dwell the spirits of all the trees that were cut when the forest was felled to make farms. Those trees framed a distant scene where the hills and valleys run northward to the Mountain of Kirinyaga and the foothills were shrouded in mist. Beyond the mountain peak dwells the Great Spirit Mwininyaga, Possessor of Whiteness, to whom all owe allegiance, and who makes contact with mortals by way of his mountain Kirinyaga, which means Place of Whiteness.
   In this rare setting sat the elders of the Kiama, that ancient secret society comprised of the oldest and wisest members of the tribe, who for generations had been custodians of their ancient lore which went back into the dim and distant past. The Kiama had its source in the Golden Age, and to-day is the only link between the past and present.

Amongst its members have been prophets, priests and kinds, besides the legions of savants, ancient witch-doctors and rain-bringers, clairvoyants who sit in council on all the affairs of their realm. Their sphere of influence is undefined by territorial boundaries and their spiritual and temporal sway passes even beyond the limits of Africa. In their exclusive society they have retained wisdom which has long been lost in many other parts of the world. All approaches to the clearing were guarded by trusted members who would be true to death in the execution of their duty. And there the old Wazee all sat in secret conclave, waiting, talking.
   Then from the midst of the others a venerable Wazee stood forward, an old man bowed to the ground with age. He took the Matati Stick from its custodian, and directly his fingers touched this magic wand his whole being became electrified; his old back straightened out and he rose to his full height, and with great dignity gazed upon the surrounding assembly. In his right hand he held a bunch of Mucharaway leaves, and this he raised above his head.
   As he raised his arm a deep silence fell on the whole gathering. The only sounds that could be heard were the twittering of the birds and a far-distant bleating of a kid. The Wazee, Master of Ceremonies, spoke.
   In beautiful modulated tones, in a deep voice, solemn and impressive, he called upon all assembled to witness the ceremony that was about to take place.
   Before him stood a solitary white man. All around the chiefs and elders, who had come from far and near, watched with intentness this extraordinary scene, for the first and only white man was to be made a blood brother and a member of the Kiama. Turning towards the mountain, the centre of all their devotion and aspiration, he began in a loud voice to call all to witness that the man was a fit and proper person for initiation, and that he had paid his dues, two sheep and a goat.
   Then he called upon the Great White Spirit to give his blessing to the waiting man.
   "Mwininyaga . . ." he prayed. "Grant that he may have a long life."
   "Thai - Hear, oh my God," prayed the whole assembly at the end of each invocation.
   "That he may live long with us."
   "Thai," came the chorus.
   "That in times of war, when he lifts up his hand there shall be peace."

Then, when the last invocation had died away and there was silence, the Wazee turned to the gathering and addressed them:
   "I call you all to witness that the Matati Stick wants him."
   With solemnity he handed to the candidate the staff of office and the bunch of Mucharaway leaves. He placed the man's two hands round the stick and the leaves, bunch downwards, his own on the top, pressing them to the staff.
   The whole three hundred Elders then rose to their feet and in order of precedence processed by. As they passed, each spat on the bunch of leaves, just missing the hands, the symbol of Blood Brotherhood. No transfusion of blood took place; to them the spittle is a sacred gift, as is blood among other tribes.
   The first part of the ceremony was over. A white man was an Initiate, a Blood Brother, a Member of the Kiama. This was my Initiation. I was the white man to whom this great honour had been given.


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

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