Taking ‘Mungiki’ lightly will be a mistake

Daily Nation (Kenya), May 8, 2003

Mungiki is not dead. Its members just cut off their dreadlocks and stopped sniffing snuff in public. Some went underground.

This sect is not just “a family affair” or a “a thing of the past”, as Internal Security minister Chris Murungaru says. And it is, of course, not going to die soon.

This is not to defend Mungiki. But by not studying the deeper sociological issues behind this sect, we would be aping the philosophical ostrich. We cannot just wish it away. It is like Hydra’s heads.

In his book Migrations of Kikuyus, Swiss sociologist Yvan Droz say that in certain times of social dissatisfaction, one or several people rise up and claim to be prophets. And in this period of purgatory, in the collective imagination, the forgotten ancestral spirits descend to provide answers.

“When society is not in ‘purgatory’, these ‘prophets’ are barely noted. They fade away. Otherwise, a cult coalesces around them.”

To understand Mungiki’s socio-political context, it is necessary to know that it was a splinter from Thaai Fraternity aka Tent of the Living God, which drew upon Kikuyu traditional values as alternatives to the materialism of the mainstream Christian churches.

Thaai appeared in 1988 at the height of Kanu’s repression and attendant economic decay. A strong feeling among the Kikuyu was that the Moi Government had designs to wreck their economic mainstay. The coffee and dairy industries, the two trusses of the Kikuyu economy, collapsed about this time.

It was also a time when Kikuyu was a bad political adjective. In Nyayospeak, tribalism and corruption had a Kikuyu insinuation. Earning political credit by Kikuyu-bashing became a career.

We remember such comments referring to the Kikuyu uttered in public by well-known politicians: “These flat-nosed, pot-belied people with brown teeth” and “Cut the Ibos of Kenya down to size”. These and other perceived calumny against the community led to collective paranoia.

In their studies on the Mungiki, Dr Grace Wamue and Prof David Anderson, respectively, of Kenyatta and Oxford universities agree that the sect took definite shape during the Rift Valley clashes of 1992.

According to Dr Wamue, most members of this sect are victims of the tribal clashes. The group embraces the less-advantaged in society.

“Initially, the aim of Mungiki was to sensitise people against the Government, which they accused of starting and fuelling the 1992 clashes,” says her report published in 2001 by the Royal African Society Journal.

The sect is said to have administered the customary dreaded land oath, kaurogo, to make them united politically to retaliate against the violence in the Rift Valley.

One reason behind the non-Kikuyu fear of Mungiki is the sect’s Mau Mau image. The group believes that their struggle against oppression began with Waiyaki wa Hinga, the Kikuyu chief slain by the British. And the Mau Mau war was part of their “long” struggle.

Ndura Waruinge takes pride in being a grandson of the Mau Mau fighter, General Waruinge. Their songs are a mixture of Kikuyu traditional and Mau Mau protest songs. Some of the music in a cassette released last year describes their battles with the police.

Intra-group discipline is rigid. Members are supposed to be teetotallers. Illicit sex is prohibited. Their official drink is mukara, a concoction of honey and orange juice marinated with lemon then boiled in water and lamb fat! Flouting some of the rules could earn a member a group whipping.

But why do they kill or engage in crime? Mungiki has changed rapidly from a ragtag group with a blurred vision of redeeming their community from cultural decay to a hardened urban mafia.

As Prof Anderson observes, whatever Mungiki may once have been on the distant farms of Laikipia, it has been transformed into a radically different movement in the urban estates and slums.

Mungiki members are youths looking for sense and meaning in life. They are an indictment of our society– an index of failure. Thus they easily fall prey to political machinations.

In a city crying out for security, Mungiki found easy jobs as vigilante groups protecting small traders and extorting money from those who needed protection against thugs and even against business rivals.

In places like Dandora, some people argue that crime lessened with Mungiki surveillance and has now gone up after the recent Government crackdown. The problem is that the gangsters may as well be Mungiki members trying to prove they are indispensable.

In the city, the Mungiki soon found easy camaraderie with Muungano wa Wanavijiji, a group formed by poor tenants to protest against high rents and exploitation by landlords.

However, after the rent chaos in Kibera, Nairobi, it occurred to Mungiki that the issue was a Luo vs Kikuyu affair, a realisation that culminated in the Kariobangi massacre of March, last year.

The crackdown on Mungiki in January was a godsend, otherwise we would have witnessed another bloodbath. Mungiki is now, basically, a criminal grouping.

Mr Mbataru is a sociologist in Nairobi

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