Decolonising in Practice: Reviving Knowledge and Traditions in the 21st Century

Guest Writer
5 January ,2016

by Wangui Kamonji

Where are those songs
my mother and yours
always sang
fitting rhythms
to the whole
vast span of life?

What song was it?

What do you remember?

~ Micere Githae Mugo ‘Where are those Songs’ 1972

I just rinsed my nixtamalized maize out in the sink, and as I did so, I thought about indigenous knowledge, revival of traditions, and decolonisation. I thought back to a meeting of elders from various Kenyan communities that I attended a few weeks back- one of a series intended to enable the revitalisation of culture and traditions.

But first let’s talk about the maize.

Maize has its origin in Latin America: Mexico to be specific, where it was/still is a staple. Many East and Southern African countries have maize as their staple food, at the expense of indigenous and more drought resistant crops such as varieties of sorghum and millet (maize is drought-prone because it has a shallow root system).

It was brought to these parts (and other continents of the world) thanks to the 16th century Spanish conquests of North and South America. But one thing that the Spanish did not carry with them was the indigenous knowledge of how to process maize in order to make it more nutritious. The process is known as nixtamalization. Maize is boiled and left to soak in an alkaline solution that dissolves/weakens the pericarp, and alters the seeds’ chemistry to make amino acids vital B vitamins more available. Nowadays you can use store-bought cal (calcium oxide) to nixtamalize maize, but the traditional process uses ashes mixed with water (which forms potassium hydroxide, hello high school Chemistry).

But in the 16th century, wherever maize went and was adopted as a staple (due to its high calorific value), strange diseases sprouted. Now we know them as pellagra (flaky skin, diarrhea, and dementia) and kwashiorkor (distended belly caused by protein deficiency) but then, they were mysterious illnesses, which often led to death.

Nixtamalization not only makes maize more nutritious, it also enhances its flavour (we all know plain ugali does not have much flavour), and reduces aflatoxin growth. Recently, in fact, Kenyan officials were on a mission in Mexico to learn just how to nixtamalize maize with the possibility of introducing the technology here. Quite importantly too, this process makes it possible to form a dough out of maize, without which tortillas could not be made. So when I decided to experiment in the kitchen and nixtamalize maize the traditional way I had multiple incentives. This post provided a recipe, my mum provided maize from her farm, and other experiments provided ash.

When I told my mum what I was going to do, she mentioned that her mum used to process maize in a similar way for muthoko. We know it as a staple of the Akamba people and its signature is that the maize in the maize-bean mixture is hulled. Today you can get machine hulled maize  but I wonder if this is how everyone processed maize then. If so, were there ever any cases of kwashiorkor in Kambaland before posho mills arrived?

The Stranger

I am strange here, they don’t know me.

The mountains breathe the secrets of old,

But I don’t grasp the twists and turns,

The lilts and sighs of their tongue.

Land of my ancestors, you don’t know me,

But will you know me? Will you teach me if I ask you?

Perhaps I need new ears, perhaps new eyes

Maybe a new heart- but I am ready to learn.

~ Wangũi Kamonji

This experiment to me represents knowledge revival in two senses. Reviving my grandmother’s knowledge: she herself couldn’t tell me how she processed maize in this way, being bodily gone from this world; but at least I know that she did. In a second sense, this is knowledge rebirth – using beneficial indigenous knowledge from a different place (Mexico) where I am (Kenya).

This is the kind of knowledge rebirth or revival I became interested in as I travelled in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia, and studied Latin America and the Caribbean more broadly. All these being places that have been influenced in some way by the African continent, and places with an indigenous movement that is alive.

After meeting with and interacting with young people doing things in their communities through my travels, I believe that one must first feel rooted somewhere in order to do activist work. My host brother in Brazil says “those ‘You Have Tos’ that people give you can be dangerous. You have to first find and know yourself before you can do this.” He was a practitioner of Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion that has its roots in West African religious traditions. His sister, also an organiser in their neighbourhood, had a similar sense of rootedness and responsibility to her community. In Mexico City, I met a young bright woman, Lupita, who ran a coffee bar in a community centre. She also taught single mothers how to roast coffee through a cooperative she started, all while writing her thesis on indigenous Mexican dancing. The dance is art, prayer and history in movement. She too felt a strong connection to indigenous Mexican traditions, and her other work in the arts was a testament to this.

In the words of Jennings school district superintendent, Tiffany Anderson, ‘This work [of making a difference] is faith-filled work. … Whether you wrap that in Christianity or not.”


I feel like drought cracked earth,

Riven in places, dry, forgotten,

But slowly, the rain clouds gather,

And the drops begin to fall.

One, two… they seep into the cracks,

To quench the thirst

And heal the cracks.

~ Wangũi Kamonji

The meeting of elders I mentioned in the beginning was a similar avenue for indigenous knowledge revival. The African Biodiversity Network (ABN) regularly convenes meetings of community elders and knowledge bearers from a few communities in order to discuss progress on key issues. All items on the agenda have something to do with research into traditional values and practices and how they relate to aspects of environment and cultural sustainability today. The meeting I attended, for example, began with reports on origin stories of the various communities then led into a discussion on traditional values and practices surrounding water.

The discussions were fruitful and beautiful, as such a collection of varied wisdom and knowledge in one place is not easy to come by today (more on this later). Each morning began with traditional prayers to set the tone, and with the elders in traditional clothing, before we set to the day’s conversations. Alongside the elders’ discussions were also the discussions of the Earth Jurisprudence group, convened to consider how natural law and indigenous traditions might be integrated into the world today.

I greatly enjoyed, and was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the meeting. In our world today – urbanized, disconnected, rootless, colonized – it is difficult, if not completely impossible, to find the indigenous knowledge I was exposed to during that week. Even where there is a will, the way is often unclear. One doesn’t know whom to ask, where to go, how to go, how to be told; to sit and learn and discover.

And then there are the majority that either don’t care for that knowledge (viewing it as not-knowledge and backward) or worse, who think of it as witchcraft, if not satanic. I won’t go into the whys of all of that now, but suffice it to say that such space was a welcome breath of fresh air for me. I had been seeking and seeking, but never finding in my own land. The ABN meeting was a small place to find those narratives, stories, songs and dances that used to be. That I had been wanting to hear, and been looking for, but thinking I couldn’t find in Kenya. (Perhaps it is so difficult to find in Kenya because of the previously mentioned misconceptions and prejudices Kenyans hold towards their cultural practices).

“Who will hear the stories that we tell around the fire?”

~ Eric Wainaina ‘Sir, me sir!’ unreleased song

But even such a space with all its positives had some things that made me stop and shake my head. In a word, misogyny. As a disclaimer, I respect that in some traditions in the past and therefore for some elders, the participation of women in particular activities, especially those of a religious or spiritual nature was not practised. But I find it hard to accept that today. Now the meeting was actually out of the ordinary; women were present during morning prayers (done the traditional way facing Nyandarua [Mt Kenya]); although we were asked to stand some distance apart from the men, and wear skirts or dresses. At other instances, however, I was made to feel less than welcome as woman. Such as when a (well educated) colleague asserted that as women, we should know that our place was not at sacred sites of prayer and all we must do is “peep from afar”. Or when others asserted that ‘African traditions’ do not allow women to participate in religious and spiritual activities, presenting this myth as truth. I cannot accept that because I was born a woman, I am to not participate in cultural activities of spiritual import. First, simply because I am a ‘hard-headed’ woman, second because of all that came before.

The situation of my generation is one of removed-ness, of loss and lostness, of apathy, of rootlessness. We talk a lot about decolonising the mind, but if we expect that it is a task to be carried out by men alone, we have already lost.

There are such few who are interested in reviving traditions before they are completely lost to us, and to the future that if the gatekeepers lock out women, simply for being women, it’s a lost cause. This is often what I think of as a dilemma of the spirit versus the letter of traditions. What is more important? For the wisdom of traditions to remain for future generations, or for them to be performed by exactly the same people who performed them for a certain number of years?

I think one of these is a sure recipe for the death of those same traditions. We are quick to forget that culture is formed and re-formed by living people, and is made to suit the times. It is for the people, rather than the people for it (see the Biblical the Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath). In my travels I participated in traditions that did not exclude women. On the contrary, they upheld women, at times as the ones to commune with the divine. There were often distinct roles and tasks for men and women, but nonetheless, both participated. This is also present on the continent, in the traditions of the Dagara, of various South African communities and so on (hence why that ‘African traditions do not allow women bla bla bla’ is a myth).

We cannot go back to the past. Simply because we cannot recreate that time, and simultaneously, empty ourselves of all we have known and come to be since then. Adaptation is key here. If cultures do not adapt to changes (while maintaining their spirit), they die out.

A blend of the past and the present to form a future we want is what we need to aim towards. And reviving our traditions and indigenous knowledges is a core way in which we learn from the past to inform our present and future. The downside of our times is that after feeling rootless and searching without clarity on where to go to find such knowledge, you get there and find the gates closed.

But the upside of our times is that through travel and the internet, we can find out things, if not from our own traditions, from the wisdom of other traditions (for example, nixtamalizing maize). Thanks to this I am able to drink at the fount, while I figure out ways to make my own more open to others like me.

I like to take Micere Mugo’s advice to sing in the moment. And hope that it is in the singing now that we remember the songs of old.

This I remember:
Mother always said
  sing child sing
  make a song
  and sing
  beat out your own rhythms
  the rhythms of your life
  but make the song soulful
  and make life

~ Micere Githae Mugo ‘Where are those Songs’ 1972

Wangũi Kamonji is an independent researcher and Wellesley College graduate of environmental studies and urban studies. She blogs about her encounters in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, South Africa, Tanzania and Vietnam.

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