Mbeere - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Mbeere believe in a High God, Ngai, said to live atop Mount Kenya. Ngai created humanity and all else in the world. Little mythological elaboration about the activities or manifestations of Ngai has developed. He stays at a distance from the lives of people, although they periodically offer sacrifices to secure his blessing for rain and abundant livestock. More intrusive and less welcome in human affairs are ancestral spirits bringing illness and death. They may act for an understandable reason, or they may punish capriciously. The spirits inhabit hilltops, the bush, or other areas beyond human habitation. People try to keep them at bay by right conduct and by not disturbing areas where they are believed to dwell. Christian churches, particularly Catholic and Anglican, have won numerous converts. The churches have shown little tolerance for traditional beliefs and actions regarding ancestral spirits.

Religious Practitioners. Diviners, medicinal specialists, and healers who treat illness induced by magical means are collectively known as medicine men ( and , ago; sing. mund m go). Women may also practice these specialities, but they do so infrequently. Each specialty is learned through apprenticeship or instruction. Sorcerers ( arogi; sing. m rogi ) cause mayhem and illness through their curses or magical actions and are generally feared. Occasionally, a prophet ( m rathi ) emerges with the power to foretell events.

Ceremonies. The major ceremonies celebrate seasonal and life-cycle transitions. Rites of sacrifice were the province of two generation classes; these rites sought to insure adequate rain for good crops and the health of livestock. Sacrifices occurred at the onset of the rainy season and the dry season. The life-cycle transition most elaborated ritually is initiation of young men and women into adulthood. At about age 15, young men are circumcised. Young women, prior to the onset of first menstruation, traditionally would undergo circumcision, or clitoridectomy. They were then eligible to marry. Missionaries unsparingly attacked female circumcision on religious and medical grounds. There have also been official government efforts to ban it. Many Christian women reject the custom. The practice continues amid strong feelings on both sides of the issue. Its frequency is certainly much less under these various pressures. Male circumcision remains universal. It is increasingly performed in hospitals without traditional ritual accoutrements. Missionaries have also criticized the beer consumption and the erotic songs and dances accompanying both the male and female rite.

Arts. Mbeere aesthetics center on the verbal arts, song, and dance. Riddles, folktales, and proverbs are popular forms of creative expression that also contain strongly didactic messages. The rite of circumcision was an important occasion for song and dance performance, which emphasized collective participation rather than solo virtuosity.

Medicine. The Kimbeere term for medicine, m thege, is broader than its English rendering. It includes ingested substances prepared from plants. These derivatives combat malaria, coughing, stomach distress, and the like. Additionally, muthege comprises various objects such as gourds, animal horns, or other organs manipulated by a medicine man or woman seeking to cure. The theory of disease accounts for illness in terms of naturalistic and mystical, or supernatural, causation. The latter includes sorcery, cursing, or affliction by ancestors.

Death and Afterlife. A concept of the afterlife is little developed, and death ritual is traditionally very austere. Corpses were set out in the bush for hyenas to carry off. Burial became the norm under colonial rule. If a person dies within the home, it should be destroyed by fire to remove the taint of death. The dead person joins other spirits in the wilderness, where they may make their presence known by nocturnal singing. A spirit, by itself, or with other ancestors, can afflict the living, who remain very fearful of ghostly actions. People claim that the spirits sing much less frequently than in the past and that they have been driven off by Christians. Accordingly, attribution of illness or suffering to the ancestors has declined.


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