Gusii - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Before the advent of Christianity in the region, the Gusii believed in the existence of one God, who was the originator of the world but did not directly interfere in human affairs. It was the concept of an ancestor cult that, together with their ideas about witchcraft, sorcery, and impersonal forces, provided a complex of beliefs in suprahuman agencies. The ancestor spirits ( ebirecha ) existed both as a collective and as individual ancestors and ancestresses of the living members of a lineage. They were not propitiated until there was tangible evidence of their displeasure, such as disease or death of people and livestock or the destruction of crops. Most Gusii today claim to be adherents of some Christian church. There are four major denominations in Gusiiland: the Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Swedish Lutheran, and Pentecostal Assemblies of God. Active Seventh Day Adventists are oriented toward European family ideals, and they practice a form of Protestant ethic. Although the churches are very active, certain aspects of non-Christian beliefs still permeate the lives of most Gusii. Afflicted by misfortune, many Gusii visit a diviner ( omorgori; pl. abaragori), who may point to displeased spirits of the dead and prescribe sacrifice to placate them.

Religious Practitioners. Abaragori, who are usually women, determine the cause of various misfortunes. Diverse healers also exist, such as the abanyamoriogi (herbalists), who use various mixtures of plants for medicines. Ababan (indigenous surgeons), set fractures and treat backaches and headaches through trephination. Abanyamosira (professional sorcerers) are normally hired to protect against witchcraft and to retaliate against witches. An omoriori (witch smeller) ferrets out witchcraft articles (e.g., hair or feces of the victim, dead birds, bones of exhumed corpses) that may be buried in a house. A witch ( omorogi ) can be a man or a woman but is usually the latter. Witches are believed to operate in groups; they dig up recently buried corpses in order to use the body parts as magical paraphernalia and to eat the inner organs. Witches usually kill their victims through the use of poisons, parts of corpses, and people's exuviae. Witchcraft among the Gusii is believed to be an acquired art that is handed down from parent to child.

Ceremonies. The most elaborate and socially important ceremonies are associated with initiation and marriage. Initiation involves clitoridectomy for girls and circumcision for boys. The ceremony prepares the children as social beings who know rules of shame ( chinsoni ) and respect ( ogosika). The girls are initiated at the age of 7 or 8 and the boys a few years later. Initiations are gender segregated, and the operations are performed by female and male specialists. Afterward there is a period of seclusion for both genders. The traditional wedding is no longer performed. It was an extremely elaborate ritual that lasted several days. The rituals emphasized the incorporation of the bride into the groom's lineage and the primacy of male fertility. Among wealthier people, it has been replaced by a wedding in church or before an administrative official.

Arts. The Gusii soapstone carvings have received international distribution and fame. The stone is mined and carved in Tabaka, South Mugirango, where several families specialize in this art. The craft is bringing in a sizable income to the area through the tourist trade.

Medicine. Kisii Town has a government hospital and several private clinics, as well as private practitioners. There are also a number of clinics and health-care stations throughout Gusiiland. (For traditional medicine and health care, see "Religious Practitioners.")

Death and Afterlife. Funerals take place at the deceased's homestead; a large gathering is a sign of prestige. Women are buried beyond the yard, on the left side of the house, whereas men are buried beyond the cattle pen, on the right side of the house. Christian elements, such as catechism, reading out loud from the Bible, and singing hymns, are combined with the traditional practices of wailing, head shaving, and animal sacrifices to the dead. The preferred person to dig the grave is the deceased's son's son. Before burial, the corpse is dissected in order to ascertain whether death was caused by witchcraft. After burial, the widow/widower is in a liminal state and cannot move far from the homestead until after a period of a few weeks to two months, when ritual activities, including a sacrifice, are performed. One basic theme of the funeral is the fear of the dead person's spirit. The deceased, enraged at having died, may blame the survivors and must therefore be placated with sacrifices.


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