We are turning the tide on the history of loss in our own lands.
This is usually a busy time for us here in Tharaka. In a normal year we would be together, working communally on our farmsteads to ensure a good harvest.
But the normal rhythms of life are not possible now. The coronavirus means we can no longer gather as we once would have. Our lives here, like everywhere else, are very disrupted.
Tharaka is the place of my birth. It is my home. A territory that lies in the red hills of eastern Kenya, in what is now called Tharaka-Nithi District.
This is quite a dry area, and we grow much of our own food in our small gardens and fields, so disruptions to our ways of growing food can have major consequences.
Right now, thanks to the pandemic, there is a real risk that productivity may not be as good as it would have been otherwise; we might lose some seeds if people cannot get out and save them or if they haven’t grown enough of a crop near their home.
People’s movement is limited, so those whose fields are farther away fear making the journey.
We are doing our best in the circumstances. People are still growing crops around their homesteads, in plots they can reach easily.
We are supporting the Elders and others who cannot grow their own food.
We haven’t been able to come together in the fields, but Tharakans are still working for each other and for the wider community closer to home.
Throughout history, our Elders and our stories have reminded us that our community has survived other pandemics and plagues.
We have our own traditional ways of responding to these events that have helped us to be resilient in the face of many challenges.
These responses are part of the reason the Tharakan people are still here, despite huge locust swarms that have threatened our crops, and diseases like smallpox that have threatened our people.
One of our responses to these threats is a ritual we call Muriira. It is a rare ritual, which is only done when the community is threatened by illness or pestilence.
Muriira comes from the Tharakan word kuriira, which means to prevent, to stop, to cast away. In essence, the Muriira ritual is used to stop and ward off something that poses a threat.
Traditionally, Tharakan Elders would conduct the Muriira when they learned about threats originating in neighbouring areas and communities that could pass into Tharakan territory.
The Elders would gather people together and raise awareness of the threat the community was facing, where it was coming from, and why they were concerned.
Before there was TV news, social media, or groups like the World Health Organisation, this is how people here would learn about diseases and other threats.
The Elders organised the community, informed them, and mobilised them to participate in the ritual, which requires people to contribute, so as to uphold the health of everyone.
The Muriira ritual calls for people to provide and prepare sacred seeds—millet and finger millet—and also to source wild herbs for the Elders to use.
These need to be prepared in specific ways over the eight days of the ritual, which is something the community members can also help with, under the instruction of the Elders.
Women and men from the community prepare large batches of a kind of gruel made with the seeds and also local honey. Specific plants are used to make marigi, which are small models that are made to look like closed doors.
Once all the ingredients for the ritual are prepared, the people, led by the Elders, go chanting and praying to different homesteads throughout the territory, which are blessed using the seed and honey gruel.
The processions and the ritual have four key focal points: north, east, south, and west. These cardinal points are very important in Tharakan cosmology. A disease or threat must come from somewhere.
Elders who are chosen by the community will split up to go to the roads or paths that lead into our territory in these four directions. They then dig a hole and bury the marigi, the closed doors, in or by the road, before saying prayers and coming together again in the community.
In recent weeks, our Elders performed the Muriira to protect us from the coronavirus. Although the ritual has been changed a little to make it safe—not so many people have participated, just a handful of Elders, and we have been distancing—it is a boost for us to see it being done.
What is particularly extraordinary is that the ritual has created harmony between elements of the community that have been in conflict in recent years.
For example, some Christians here are often hostile to the Elders who continue to practice our traditional spirituality.
But during the pandemic their eyes have been opened to the value of Muriira and our traditional ways of doing things. Some have even donated seeds and herbs to the ritual.
This surprised me. I asked the Elders why the Christians have been compelled to contribute. They said it is because, before they were Christians, these people were Africans. They are Africans first.
In this time of pandemic, their minds appear to be opening to the ways of their forefathers. They seem to be seeing the value in our rituals and what they can do for us again.
All this reveals the importance of rituals like Muriira here in Tharaka.
Such rituals bring people together both physically and culturally to attend to each other’s well-being and the health of the territory, as well as to defend it from threats.
They help us remember who we are as Tharakans and our responsibilities to our community and our homeland. They are spaces for us to listen to our Elders, who have so much knowledge.
Although colonial education and Western religions were relatively late arrivals in Tharaka, compared to other parts of Africa, they have had a corrosive effect on our traditional culture and our confidence.
While the Muriira is not a regular ritual anyway, other traditions and rituals, our ways of dressing, our songs, and ways of governing our territory have been seriously eroded by colonialism and neo-colonialism.
Our Elders and spiritual leaders have been branded witches and marginalised. People have forgotten the ways in which we cared for the territory.
The return of the Muriira at this time and the way the community engaged with it, even from afar, are signs of something bigger: signs that we are turning the tide on this history of loss in our own lands.
In recent years, Tharakans have organised themselves in a new association called SALT (Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation).
Our work as SALT is to try and revive our traditional knowledge and practices, to connect youth and Elders, and build back our confidence as a community.
We are helping open the spaces for our suppressed culture to awaken again.
Our work started slowly by creating 'community dialogue' spaces for interested people, especially Elders, to come together and discuss Tharakan culture: what things were like and how things were done in the past, compared to how they are now.
Slowly the number of people coming to these meetings grew. Since then we have been able to take action to revive many aspects of our culture in a very practical way.
We have revived our traditional seeds and our food culture. When we held our first community dialogue meeting, I am ashamed to say we didn’t have a plan for what food we would give the people who came.
When the time for lunch came, we just gave people bread and soda. This sparked a discussion in the group about our traditional foods.
We asked ourselves and our Elders, what did we used to eat when we came together? The Elders told us how things used to be.
At our second meeting, one of the women came with traditional millet porridge she had prepared, and we agreed on a course of action to revive and share other foods like this, which we grew here.
In many cases, people had stopped growing their traditional foods in favour of cash crops, so they began asking around the villages to see who was still keeping bees in the old way, who still had this seed or that seed. Some we could find.
Others, like calabashes, which we once grew in large numbers and we would use as water vessels, bowls, and plates, seemed to have disappeared, so we looked farther afield in neighbouring areas until we found them.
Over the past five to six years of searching, we have seen a huge amount of seed diversity come back and, with the seeds, the knowledge of how to grow, cook, save, and store them has returned, along with community seed swaps.
These seeds are best suited to our land here. They grow well in the local conditions and are resilient to the changes we are seeing in the climate.
People who have revived these seeds are getting good harvests and eating well. They are confident again in their traditional foods and their own abilities, and every time we meet, we can enjoy those foods together.
The community dialogues have also given us a chance to map our territory together, revive our ancestral knowledge and practices and find the custodians of our sacred natural sites, and the sites themselves.
We have remembered how our lands and waters looked a long time ago and the damage that has occurred since then—the riverbanks that have been farmed and the sacred natural sites that have been desecrated against our traditional laws.
Now we are making our plans to revive these places and the customary laws our people have used to protect them for generations.
This is our vision and our contribution to the transformations we need around the world. If we really want to survive on this planet, we have to take care of our own biodiversity.
COVID-19 is a wake-up call about how we should live in harmony with Nature, as our ancestors in Tharaka once did.
Let us not go back to business as usual after this pandemic. Let us not start thinking about how we are going to open polluting industries again.
Instead, let us ask ourselves and one another, as if we were gathered in the heart of the village: do we really want to restore industries that have polluted our air so badly that we cannot see Mount Kenya through the smog? How might we do better?
Simon Mitambo is a proud Tharakan, trained Earth Jurisprudence Practitioner, and co-founder of a Tharakan community-based organisation, the Society for Alternative Learning and Transformation (SALT).
This story is second instalment of The Gaia Foundation's Stories of Resilience'series, published by The Ecologist and told by remarkable communities from around the globe. Find out more about the series as a whole in the first article here.