Africanized Christianity and Enchanted Places of Kenya and Uganda

This Christmas, I can’t stop thinking about how Christianity in Africa is gradually morphing into a hybrid religion spiced with local traditions, just as it did in pagan Europe. One strong indicator of its future is visible in Legio Maria. I first heard of them in my childhood, after a neighbor’s child fell off a tree and died (apparently). A group of Legio Maria prayed for him and he resurrected. A few years later, we planted a moringa tree in our home. They have something against that tree, so one day they showed up at our fence and said prayers to curse the tree, and the tree grew so big that it threatened the house and we had to cut it down. In spite of these strange happening, I never bothered to find out about them until I visited Western Kenya in March of this year.
 

I only wanted to see rocks. People think Stonehenge is a human structure, but are quick to dismiss the beautiful formations in many parts of East Africa as works of nature. I think these rocks have something about them worth looking into, and so I went to the famous ones in Kisumu, not like an archeologist, but to get a sense local views about them.

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The Crying Stone, Ikhongo Murwi.

After finishing some business in Nairobi, I took a bus to Kakamega and then a boda boda to the Crying Rock, a pillar-like structure about forty meters high with a smaller rock sitting at its top. It is so named because water runs down its sides, leaving a tear-like stain, from a mysterious source at the peak. The boda guy said it was far outside town, but it was only a short ride, and it would have been quicker if the road was good and if he knew exactly where we were going. He did not, in spite of the rock’s alleged fame, because, he said, he did not see its use. In the past it was visible from the road, but the family that owns the land planted trees around it, and now the only way to see it is to go right up to it. Not a difficult journey, though the road petered out and I had to climb the hill on foot. Good for exercise. I met an old woman who insisted I pay for seeing the rock. I gave her 200 bob. She showed me a cave at the foot of the rock, which she claimed Legio Maria use for worship, but I saw no evidence of this, no candles, no pictures of holy people. Then she told me the secret of the Crying Rock. “I’ll tell you because you are not a mzungu,” she said. “We tell wazungu something different.” It’s hollow at the top. When it rains, water collects, and overflows. Since I came during the dry season, there was no overflow. That was the end of the visit. I felt cheated. I asked her about the significance of the rock to the local community, for I read somewhere that they held rituals there, to end droughts, to cleanse those who commit incest, and such, but she said the only people who bother to go to the rock are tourists, and Legio Maria (of which I saw no evidence). If you want my advice, don’t go there. It’s a waste of time. A place whose essence is consumed in less than ten minutes is not worth visiting.

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I jumped on a bus, and sped off to Kisumu, to explore Kit Mikayi. I arrived at about one o’clock and had lunch at Kit Mikayi Hotel, where a girl with a charming smile served me dry fish, sukuma wiki, and ugali. It was great to feast on a local delicacy. Her name was Qintar. Not sure how she spells it. I asked her about Kit Mikayi. “I went there once,” she said. “I prayed and fasted for three days for a good husband.” She is still waiting, but is hopeful that soon he will come along.
Qintar, in Obama t-shirt, at her hotel, Kit Mikayi, Kisumu.

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I must note here the importance of folk history attributing the rock formation to human activity. Why this set? Why not all the others around? Does it allude that an earlier civilization or probably humanoid species constructed it? Sadly, colonialism and Westernization has taught us to treat this lore as hogwash not worth of archeological investigation (I sometimes relate such legends to Krishna’s submerged city of Dvārakā).

If you visit Kit Mikayi, walk around the village. It’s worth it. John was kind enough to host me at his home for a few hours. It’s a very beautiful place. You’ll enjoy the scenery, and the rocks.

An old man I met, John Obuyo Ngeso, who lives near the site, and serves as a tour guide, told me it became a shrine a long time back during a severe drought. The leaders consulted a shaman, who said the rock had ‘tied up’ rain. To perform rituals to end the draught, they smashed a hen’s head against the rock, then slaughtered a goat. They grilled and ate these without ugali, then threw the goat entrails mixed in chicken blood into a crag in the rock, where the shaman said certain prayers. Within a day, rain fell. Apparently, every other place got rain, but not this rock. He added that in times of drought, the rock ‘cries’ and water flows down to save the land. I wondered how to relate this tale to others about the origins of the rock. He could not explain.

One ritual closely related to origins goes like this; when a young man marries a woman who is not from the area, they have to perform certain rituals inside this rock, to not only make the woman part of the community, but to ensure she never leaves. That is why there is hardly any divorce in the area, Obuyo said. He took me to the cave where they take the girl, and he demonstrated the ritual; it involved the woman making ululation sounds, or maybe screams. He was an animated storyteller.

Two Legio Maria faithfuls rest under a rock after a long pilgrimage to Kit Mikayi. They were part of a larger group.

Oddly, these rituals take place in a cave that has Christian artefacts – pictures of a European Jesus alongside that of a Black Jesus. That is the magic of Kit Mikayi. All kinds of religious sects consider it a very holy site. During my visit, I saw two: A group of Legio Maria rested under a shade after a trekking over ten miles in a sort of pilgrimage. Behind a rock, a group of Roho Mawa (sic) Christians sang, prayed, and meditated. I asked the Legio Maria why they worshipped at a place associated with ancestral spirits. “God is Everywhere,” they replied.

Inside the cave, where Legio Maria pray. Notice the candles, the potraits of a white Jesus, a black Jesus, and a black Virgin Mary. Locals worship ancestral spirits and perform cultural rituals in this same spot.
Legio Maria faithfuls in a procession, holding portraits of their founders, Mama Maria (right portrait), black Mary and spiritual mother of Ondetto (left portrait) the black Jesus.
The next day, when I went to Luanda’ Magere’s grave, I was not surprised to find a photo of Melkio Ondetto, the black Jesus who founded the sect. According to lore, Luanda Magere was made of stone. He never lost in battle, until his enemies sent a Delilah to figure out his powers, then they killed him. He turned into a rock on the spot upon which he fell. His rock, for all his legend, is a tiny lump half-buried in the ground. In the past, the place was bare, but a man (they didn’t tell me who) got a dream in which Luanda complained about being out in the rain and sun, so this man built a house over the rock. There’s a second house in the compound, for Luanda’s mother, because Luo sons build their homes to the right of their parents. Locals worship in the shrine, seeking blessings and, in the past, warriors would sharpen their spears and knives on his rock for good fortune. It is not uncommon to see both Legio Maria and ancestral spirit worshippers in the same room, kneeling in front of the same rock, praying to the same god.
 

One of the Legio Maria followers, also a caretaker at Luanda Magere’s grave, told me they believe Luanda Magere reincarnated as Dedan Kimathi, that Luanda Magere’s spirit keeps possessing different people. I wonder if they’ll make Dedan Kimathi a saint, or if he is already one of their saints.

After Luanda Magere’s site, I proceeded to Angoro Bethlehem (they have so renamed several villages in Western Kenyan that are significant to their faith), the village where Legio Maria’s founder, and the black Jesus, Melkio Ondetto, was born and raised. The brother of Melkio Ondetto, and the second Pope of the sect, had passed away and was due to be buried the next day. I sadly could not stay to witness it, for I had work back home. It was a fascinating place, with and the Legio Maria are warm and welcoming, humble and unassuming, their Cardinals are not pompous. I intend to visit Angoro Bethlehem another time, maybe when there is nothing going on there like a huge funeral.

Luanda Magere’s shrine. The rock is in the shelter on the right. The portrait of Melkio Ondetto, founder of Legio Maria, hangs at the entrance to the shelter above the grave.
Christian grafitti at Ssezibwa falls.

I am sure all over the continent, there are other such sites, places where both Christians and traditional African spiritualists worship, just like places in the Middle East that is holy both to Muslims and Christians. I wish I could live into the future to see if Christianity and ancestral spirit worship morph into one, and if these sites will become some kind of temples.

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2 Replies to “Africanized Christianity and Enchanted Places of Kenya and Uganda”

  1. I just read your article and I’m so impressed by the story. This story just melted my heart. I loved your post and I would like to share this with my other friends too.

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