Sacred River, Sacred Land: a community goes ‘back to roots’ in Kenya

Simon Mitambo and his childhood community of Tharaka, Kenya, are working together to revive and enhance their Earth-centred culture and traditions. Theirs is a story of going ‘back to roots’ to realise the future they want. Like all good stories, it flows like a river.

Georgie Styles tells us more in the first of a two-part series exploring the emergence of an African Movement for Earth Jurisprudence.


Kithino: Tharaka’s sacred river

The sacred River of Tharaka. Photo: Gaia Foundation

223 km north of Nairobi, in the foothills of Mount Kenya, farmers’ fields sprawl across the dusty red landscape of Tharaka-Nithi. The Kithino River, once home to an abundance of wildlife, cuts through this flat landscape. Nestled between the rocks of a small waterfall along the River’s course, Simon Mitambo sits by waters he has known since childhood, but is only now learning to truly appreciate.

Simon is one of a new generation of Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners. Trained by Gaia, these practitioners are accompanying indigenous and land-based Peoples across Africa to protect and revive their Earth-centred traditions- to live well with Nature as their ancestors did before them.

One core part of the EJ Practitioners training is spending time in Nature to hone ‘eco-literacy’- the ability to ‘read’ Nature’s laws, patterns and rhythms. And last year, while taking part in an Earth Jurisprudence retreat, Simon decided he needed to deepen his relationship with the Kithino River as part of his own journey ‘back to roots’.

I want to have a relationship with the River”, says Simon, “so every morning I walk from my house barefoot to the river… I spend time there reflecting and observing the behaviour of the water.”

Through this simple act- spending sustained, regular time with the Kithino- Simon has become attuned to the rich stories of the River and her deep-rooted history in his community, and the River has gained a new, determined champion.

“Recently, I  noticed there is an old fig tree, a sacred shrine, along the river”, says Simon, who, as part of his work with SALT-Kenya (the Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation), is speaking with the elders of  his community in Tharaka about how to best protect the River from encroachment by agriculture and other extractive activities. These are undermining the ecological integrity of the river and the community’s customary laws, which forbid farming and any activity which disturbs the riverine vegetation.

 

Tharaka goes back to roots

The Kithino, snaking through Tharaka, is symbolic of a much larger story of resistance, revival and rediscovery unfolding in Tharaka.

Over the last five years, Simon has shared his ‘back to roots’ journey with colleagues in the SALT team and the community of Tharaka . They are working together to revive the damaged and eroded cultural traditions and ecological diversity of their lands, and waters like the Kithino, through regular community dialogues and eco-cultural mapping processes.

By bringing together the knowledgeable elders of the community with women, men, youth who are eager to learn about their roots, the dialogues have helped create a community space for people in Tharaka to begin a reflective process, asking questions like: what happened to our traditions and the land?; how did things used to be?; what was good and helped us govern ourselves in harmony with Nature?; how can we bring these good things back?

What are community dialogues and how do they work?

Based on the community memory revived through the dialogues, Tharakans have developed an ancestral map and calendar of the territory, documenting where they come from, the qualities of the land and how they lived there.

The next step is for Tharakans to develop a future map and calendar of how they want the territory and the rhythms of life to be. This will form the basis of a ‘life-path’: a community-made plan for how to revive the cultural practices that enable them to restore and live well with more-than-human Nature.

Revived: Lost Seeds and Sacred Sites

As a result of their dedication over these five years, the Tharaka community have already revived many of their ‘lost’ seed varieties, sacred sites rituals,  traditional crafts, songs and dances, and food practices like the brewing of their sacred honey beer. These traditions have reinvigorated a sense of communal responsibility for protecting Tharaka’s ancestral land in all its diversity.

During a recent visit by Gaia Team members and Earth Jurisprudence Practitioners from across Africa, the community shared some of the fruits of this revival.

We were welcomed in a ceremony which invited the community’s ancestors and the spirits of the land to be present. This was led by Tharakan spiritual leader, M’Mwamba M’Kunyia, or ‘Mugwe’.

Displaying revived traditional dress, made from local plant fibers and seeds, the community celebrated our visit with song and dance, practices which are once again becoming central to their ceremonies and celebrations.

During this celebration the community presented their ancestral eco-cultural map, produced in an earlier mapping process facilitated by Gaia, as a celebration of how much they had revived and as inspiration for the next phase.

Knowledgeable women elders wearing revived traditional dress. The sheepskin garments draped around their necks are a symbol of marriage.

Among these elders, Salome Gatumi is a powerful guide and spokeswoman who has regained the confidence to play her role as elder. During our visit she sternly reminded a politician that he was the son of the community and needed to participate in this process of restoring their identity and traditions.

Traditionally, it is the role of women to be  custodians of the family’s seeds. Displayed here are varieties of Millet, Sorghum and Maize that have been revived by the women of Tharaka. These seeds have been sowed, cultivated and selected by women for generations, and are well-adapted to the land, climate and cultural needs of the Tharaka community.

After two long and arduous years of searching for local varieties of gourd and calabash, the community of Tharaka are now growing their own varieties, enabling them to revive many of the traditional crafts and practices. Pictured are calabashes strung up with a bead necklace. Traditionally used by men to hold their tobacco, they are an important part of daily and ceremonial life in Tharaka.

In Tharaka’s Story of Origin, the community’s early spiritual leaders were instructed to return to the land of the bees- now one of their sacred totems. Notably present, the bees accompanied our visit with a comforting humming sound each day. The honey beer brewed from the fruits of their labours plays a crucial role in community relations, and relationships with the land. For example, honey beer is shared during community gatherings for conflict resolution. It is drunk to connect people with one-another and the land before the subject of conflict is broached.

Here, the Tharaka community acts out the journey of how they began to revive their traditions and rediscovered their Story of Origin.

 

This work of going back to roots at community level is an ongoing process, and is the foundation of a wider paradigm shift emerging across the African continent. We will explore this in the second instalment of this series, coming soon. Stay updated.