The Woyingi Blog

Book Review: Daughter of Mumbi by Charity Wanjiku Waciuma

Posted in African Literature, African Women Writers, Countries: Kenya, Kenyan Literature, Memoirs, Peoples: Kikuyu, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on September 8, 2010

 Daughter of Mumbi by Charity Wanjiku Waciuma

East African Publishing House, Nairobi, Kenya, 1969

During my visits to used book stores across the country, I am often happy to find African literature that is now out of print. Charity Waciuma’s memoir of growing up in colonial Kenya is one of those finds. This memoir covers Charity’s childhood and youth growing up during the ‘Mau Mau’ Emergency. The book is dedicated to the memory of her father, who was murdered during the Emergency. The book also full of information about Kikuyu history and traditions as well as Charity’s own reflections on how these traditions changed in the face of British colonial policy and Christian missionary activities.

Charity Waciuma is a Kenyan writer of children’s books; her books include Mweru, The Ostrich Girl (1966), The Golden Feather (196), and Merry-Making (1972). An excerpt of The Daughter of Mumbi can be found in the 1983 collection “Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa”, edited by Charlotte H. Bruner, and published by Heinemann as part of its African Writers Series.

The title of the memoir, Daughter of Mumbi, is a reference to the Kikuyu origin myth. According to Kikuyu tradition, Mumbi is the name of the founding mother of the Kikuyu people.

In the first chapter, Names, we learn how Charity got her Kikuyu name, Wanjiku. She writes:

In our country names are not chosen haphazardly; they are vitally bound up with being the sort of person you are. Any name includes many people who are now dead, others who are living, and those who are still not born. It binds its owner deep into Kikuyu history, beyond the oldest man with the longest memory. All our relatives to the furthest extent of the family, their actions, their lives and their children are an intrinsic part of our being alive, of being human, of being African, of being Kikuyu. (page 8)       

Charity, as her father’s third daughter, was supposed to be named Waithira (the beautiful) after her eldest aunt on her father’s side according to Kikuyu custom, however as this aunt had died before Charity was born and one of Charity’s cousins who had been named after this aunt had died as well, the clan elders believed that Charity would die too if she was given this name. So, it was decided that she would be named Wanjiku (the gossip), after her father’s younger sister. Kikuyu naming traditions are quite elaborate and involve taking names from both the father’s and mother’s families. Kikuyu have no fixed family name in the European sense. Individuals are usually referred to as the daughter of, mother of or wife of. (For example, renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo’s son, who is also a writer, is named Mukoma wa Ngugi, meaning Mukoma son of Ngugi). Charity’s last name Waciuma (beads) is actually a nickname given to her grandmother’s father who had so many goats, a sign of weath in Kikuyu culture, that they called him beads because he had as many goats as beads in a necklace.

Charity’s father met an itinerant Christian missionary and decided that Christianity was for him. He had to run away from his village in order to study at the Church of Scotland Mission School at Tumu-tumu. After six months, he returned home but he was severely beaten by Charity’s grandfather, so he returned to the Mission School. He only returned again after another five years, in order to ask Charity’s grandfather to pay the bride price to the family of Charity’s mother, Wangui, who was a fellow runaway and student at the Mission School. Charity’s grandfather refused. Charity’s parents were married instead with the help of the missionaries and the money raised by two years of Charity’s father working as a carpenter for the Mission.

Charity learns about Kikuyu history and tradition at the feet of her grandfather, who, despite having rejected her father for becoming a Christian, eventually accepted his son and his new family back in to the fold. I wonder if many other early Kikuyu Christians must have lost their knowledge of their heritage because their families were less accepting. Charity reminisces:

My brothers, my sisters and I used to visit my grandmother every week after finishing Sunday School at the Church of Scotland Mission. When he heard where we had just come from, my grandfather would stand up and curse. “The young people of today have no respect for our god who dwells on Kirinyaga—Mount Kenya. He is the god of our forefather, Gikuyu, who lived at Mukuweini-wa-Gathanga in what the muthungu (European) has named Fort Hall District. Gikuyu lived there with his wife Mumbi and his nine daughters—Waithira, the beautiful, Wanjiku, the gossip, Njeri, the devoted, Wanjiru, the generous, Wairimu, the dullard, Wangui, the clever, Wambui, the talker, Wangari, the farmer, Wamuyu, the hardworking. (page 12)

Charity’s grandfather believes in the prophecies of Mugo wa Kibiru. According to Kikuyu tradition, Mugo wa Kirbiru forsaw the devastation that the Europeans would bring to the Kikuyu people. He is said to have foreseen such details as the building of the Uganda Railway and the coming of jiggers, insects that eat away at people’s feet that are believed to have been brought by the Europeans. Charity and her siblings often have to dig these insects out of their grandmother’s feet during their visits to her.

Charity’s grandfather is polygamous. His first wife, Charity’s grandmother, is Kikuyu but his second wife is a Maasai woman who her grandfather captured during a raid on a Maasai village. Reflecting on the subject of polygamy, Charity writes:

For myself, I decided against polygamy, but its rights and wrongs are still being argued continually and furiously in our schools and colleges and debating clubs. There seems to have been a time in our society when there were many more women than men, possibly as a result of raidings. Under these circumstances polygamy may be socially good. Even today our women like to get someone to help them with the hard work of the farm and the house. Polygamy is clearly second nature to most Kikuyu men. I hate it because it hurts the position and dignity of women and exaggerates the selfishness of men. But, however things go, it will be many decades before it genuinely comes to an end in Kenya. (pages 11-12)

In the second chapter, More of Grandfather’s Legends, her grandfather recounts a story of a bloody battle between Maasai and Kikuyu. In the third chapter, Doctors All, Charity discusses the difficulties faced by her father, who was trained as a health inspector, as he tries to convince the local people to trust in Western medicine instead of the cures of local traditional healers (Charity calls them “witchdoctors” and holds them in contempt, even deliberately playing pranks on them as a child by manipulating their superstitions). At one point, plague spreads through the village and instead of encouraging his people to be inoculated as Charity’s father had asked, the local chief tells them to go hide in ant-eaters’ holes. When people continue to die, the chief eventually tells his people to get inoculated at the dispensary run by Charity’s father. The District Commissioner soon disposes of this chief and replaces him with a young Catholic schoolteacher who is more amenable to Charity’s father’s wishes.

In the forth chapter, Muma: Yesterday’s Law, we learn about the local village court in Charity’s village that was preceded over by court elders, who themselves were appointed by the colonial government. The court was based on both colonial law as well as traditional Kikuyu law. Charity has memories of interacting with prisoners such as members of the independent African Christian Church, the Dini ya Israel:

Many of the prisoners were members of the Dini ya Israel, an independent Christian church. They wore long white robes. The men wore turbans and did not shave, like the Sikhs of India. They did not believe in the use of medicine. If God wanted to punish his children by making them sick man should not interfere. Similarly they opposed soil conservation. When God constructed the world he knew what he was doing and it was presumptuous to try and alter it. They therefore came into conflict with the administration which was trying to persuade the people to preserve their land by making terraces to hold up the red soil’s rush down the hillside in the rains.

In the week or so that they were kept in the local jail I learned many hymns and prayers from them. Too soon they were taken away to the higher court at Fort Hall administrative centre. On the way there, and indeed wherever they went, they sang their hymns, attracting the attention of all the people, especially the children. They always aroused great interest and they made many converts. (page 37)

I was curious to find out more about the Dini ya Israel. I couldn’t find any African Independent Church with this exact name, however, I did find information on the African Israel Nineveh Church, that was founded by Kenyan David Kivuli in 1942 and that is now one of the largest independent Christian churches in East Africa. If readers could confirm that this church is the same church as the Dini ya Israel Charity discusses, it would be much appreciated.

Charity has the change to observe court proceedings and chat with the court policeman who won’t respond to her when she asks if he takes bribes. Often, if the court elders could not draw their own conclusions about an accused innocence or guilt they would ask the accused to take an oath. This would involve getting the accused to slaughter a goat and swear that if he or she is not telling the truth he or she would be crushed like the goat they were slaughtering. It would be believed that if a person were lying he or she would be dead within a week. Of course, people who didn’t really believe in the power of Kikuyu traditions any longer could easily take the oath without fearing any real consequences. Many of the cases at the court were from young women demanding that the young men who got them pregnant admit that they were the fathers. As Charity reflects: “The younger educated men did not believe in the oaths and did not fear their power. Mostly they used to take the oath to deny their responsibility for the pregnancies of the girls who came to accuse them in the court. (page 40)” It is from observing the proceedings of such cases that Charity discovers how babies are really made. Her parents had always told her that babies were bought at the hospital.

Charity begins to reflect on the injustices of the Kenyan colonial government when she befriends older youth who are beginning to question the lack of education available in Kenya and the corruption of the courts.

Kiarie, who was at Makerere College, Kampala, in Uganda, told us all about his university, the studies, the students, the teachers and the people who lived in the town. He told us about the Kingdom of Buganda; how they had their own King, the Kabaka Mutesa, and their own government. Some of us thought he was making fun of us, so Ndegwa asked, “Do they have their own courts and Elders?” And he said, “Yes. And in their District Council meetings they don’t have a White chairman. Well, they really have some sort of ‘uhuru’—freedom.”

“Are many of them educated?”

“Yes, of course. They have many more schools and colleges than we do. I assure you it will take long before Kenya has so many schools.”

“Why do they have all these things, while we haven’t?”

“Mostly because there are hardly any settlers there and when the British Imperial Government arrived they found them with their own Kingdom.”

For a few minutes we got down to our washing, singing traditional songs as we worked. Then Ndegwa asked suddenly, “Have you heard about my father’s land case? You know he can’t take the oath because he is Christian and he won’t bribe the court Elders for the same reason. He can’t afford to pay for the appeal to the District Commissioner’s court if he loses.”

“My boy,” Kiarie replied with the weighty air of one who knows the world, “we all know how corrupt these so-called Elders have become. Judgment in a case these days depends on who has the longest purse. The poorer party always loses even if he is telling the truth—which he probably is. Corruption is gradually killing the helpless old people without money. In the old days the Elders were never bribed and corruption was strictly suppressed. You know at that time the Elders were elected by the people but now the Administration appoints these corrupted old men. They are not interested in the affairs of the ordinary African. All they want is to get rich quick, at the expense of their poor fellows who have no voice or power at all.” (pages 42-43)

In the fifth chapter, The Shamba, we learn that despite not respecting the healing methods of the “witchdoctors”, Charity’s father does rely on them to cast spells to protect his farmland from thieves—and it worked. Charity also observes the plight of the local people who worked on the coffee plantations of the Europeans for meager wages. Kenyans were forbidden to plant cash crops like coffee for a long time and then when permitted by the colonial authorities they had to plant a different variety and were subject to stricter regulations for its cultivation than the European settlers. Charity is also exited by news of the Ethiopian King visiting Kenya. She was surprised to learn that there was actually an African Christian King and she dreamed some day of meeting him and visiting Ethiopia.

In the sixth chapter, Itega and Irua, Charity discusses the challenges she and her sisters face because her parents refuse to have them circumcised as is Kikuyu custom. Charity’s grandfather is deeply shamed and has to face pressure from fellow elders to have his granddaughters circumcised. Unlike Charity’s parents, many other Christian Kikuyu in the village had their daughters circumcised. She writes:

About this time, we lost many of our good friends when they went through the circumcision ceremony. Because we Christian girls had not” been to the river” we were unclean. We were not decent respectable people and mothers would not have the shame of letting their daughters be seen in our company. It was believed that a girl who was uncircumcised would case the death of the circumcised husband. Moreover, an uncircumcised woman would be barren.” (page 61)

In the seventh chapter, Sunday, Charity relates her and her sisters growing boredom at church and the harassment they face from other girls their age because they are not circumcised. In order to entertain her sisters, Charity tells them a story based on a real incident:

The stranger went to the dispensary, where he found Miko the dresser. He demanded to see Waciuma. ‘I don’t know where he is,’ Miko replied. ‘You show me where he is,’ shouted the stranger, grabbing Miko’s shirt and slapping him on the face.

“Who are you?’ Miko asked the stranger.

“My name is Bartholomew, and I have been terribly beaten and burned by your people because I am Luo. I just came here to pay a visit. Some men across the river invited me to their home and while we were drinking they started abusing me; then they beat me. I cannot tell why,’ he concluded bitterly.

“Do you know why they beat you?” Miko said. “Because you are rude and very proud.” Then he slapped him on the face, and blood flowed from the stranger’s burned cheek.

“Just then daddy arrived. “Why did you slap this man and who is he?” “His name is Bartholomew and he is a Luo,” Miko told daddy.

“ Are you a Luo?” daddy asked Bartholomew, still looking at Miko. Then he slapped Miko so hard that later he said his fingers pained him. Miko fell down, and daddy did not help him up. He held Bartholomew’s hand, took him into the dispensary, and treated his woulds.” (pages 70-71)

I am not sure what the origins of animosity between the Luo and Kikuyu are but this incident seems to demonstrate that these tensions predate the conflicts over ethnic representation in the post-independence Kenyan government. Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Senior, was a Luo politician as was Tom Mboya.

to be continued…

Further Reading:

A Puppet on a String: The Manipulation and Nationalization of the Female Body in the “Female Circumcision Crisis” of Colonial Kenya by Sarah Boulanger (essay available online)