Kenya // Western Kenya //

Gusii history and culture

The Bantu-speaking Gusii (after whom Kisii is named) were only awakened to the brutal realities of British conquest in 1905, when they rebelled, pitching themselves with spears against a machine gun. It was “not so much a battle as a massacre”, one of the participants recalled, leaving “several hundred dead and wounded spearsmen heaped up outside the square of bayonets”. In 1908, after the District Commissioner was speared in a personal attack, the same thing happened again, only this time the Gusii were trying to escape, not attack. Crops were burned and whole villages razed to the ground. Winston Churchill, at the time the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, telegraphed from the Colonial Office: “Surely it cannot be necessary to go on killing these defenceless people on such an enormous scale.”

The Gusii were totally demoralized. In a few brief years, the fabric of their communities had been torn apart, hut taxes imposed, and cattle confiscated to be returned only in exchange for labour. And then came World War I. Kisii was the site of the first Anglo-German engagements in East Africa, and thousands of men were press-ganged into the hated Carrier Corps.

It seems extraordinary that the exceptionally friendly people of Kisii are the grandchildren of the conscripts. The powerful, millennial religious movements that burst among them during the colonial period under the name Mumboism may partly account for the very strong ties of community they’ve maintained against all odds. Prophets and medicine men have always been important here, and even in today’s superficially Christianized society, the Gusii have solidly kept their cultural identity. The practice of trepanning, for example, which involves tapping a small hole in the skull to relieve headache or mental illness, seems to be as old as the Gusii themselves. “Brain operations” are still performed, clandestinely, but apparently quite successfully.

Witchcraft and sorcery also continue to play important roles in the life of the town and its district, and often make headlines. The growing influence of Christianity has led to spates of lynchings of suspected witches. Residents are often reticent to come forward as witnesses, which can lead to an interesting collision of worldviews in the media. On one occasion the local police chief was quoted saying: “We hope we can get them [the witches] and if possible charge them in court. This way we shall save their lives.”