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Kenya: Snake is Venerated in Many Cultures

Nairobi — Religious fundamentalism has many faces. It manifests itself through the suicide bombings we witness all over the world. But sometimes it comes out through verbal outpouring.

Religious fundamentalism becomes interesting to a critic when it is found between covers of a book. That is why I took interest in Reverend David Githii's new books Exploring and Conquering Satanic Forces over Kenya.

The book, to say the least is, bankrupt in many ways. Any study that claims to fall within the domain of cultural analysis should be situated within a concrete cultural context and not an imaginary world. Githii fails to recognise the fact that even before Christianity was introduced in Africa, people had their own religions which recognised totems as significant cultural symbols. The belief in these symbols is still very strong, even among Githii's flock.

In this article, I examine the image of the snake in order to demonstrate how far Githii is from reality.

Githii reads the devil in the snake, but he is far from what the snake stands for in African culture. Let me place this in context. African religions are geared towards procuring fertility.

The rituals and prayers are made to obtain fertility for human beings and animals and for agricultural bounty. The African religions recognise the power of the ancestral spirits in their cosmology. They venerate these spirits to promote good health and the welfare of the community and family. The veneration of the ancestors revolves around family totems. Among the symbols of fertility is the snake, which Githii fears most.

One of the snakes that are reared in most African homes is the puff adder, which is the royal snake. You may remember that the conflict in Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God revolves around this totem.

But Africans are not the only people who revere the snake. The serpent has since the dawn of time been represented on every continent as having divine attributes. In many places, the serpent has been made into a deity, feared and adored for its extraordinary vitality and energy. The serpent is an important phallic symbol and above all, it serves as a link between the material and spiritual worlds.

The fact that it sheds its skin offers a promise of rebirth. It is, consequently, both a symbol of death and rebirth, of life that is endlessly renewed, unchanging and eternal like sunrise and sunset. Its imagery is as flexible as its body. In ancient Greece, for instance, the serpent was seen as the incarnation of a soul that had just departed from the world.

Silent and supple in form, the snake is a creature of mysterious and supernatural power. The Nagas of India have seven-headed mythological serpents that have been venerated since the earliest times. Serpents have a great deal of influence over Buddhism on account of the legend that when Siddharta Gautama was meditating in the forest before his enlightenment, a friendly cobra, the spirit of a nearby lake, came and coiled itself seven times around his body and spreading open its hoods over his head, protected him from other animals for seven days and seven nights.

In Genesis, a book that Githii must have read, we are told that Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden for having eaten the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, beguiled by the serpent. Since then, it is irrevocably associated with sin, destruction, temptation and the devil.

But, any serious thinker should go beyond the myth and ask: Was this not the fruit of wisdom and awareness? The serpent told the first woman that if she ate the fruit, her eyes would be opened and she would be like God, to know evil and good. Eve gave the apple to Adam.

After this, Adam and Eve realised that they were naked! In other words, they became aware of their individuality, restricted within space. Eden should, therefore, be seen as a metaphor, because man had to be chased out of paradise in order for the doors of his development to be opened. It brought a sense of awareness and thus, prevented him from being restricted to mere existence.

Writing about the Himba of Northern Namibia, Crandall D P has observed that the Himba believe that God (Mukuru) is the one who created the world. His original creation was tortoise, which gave birth to the Puff adder which, in turn, begot all other snakes and so the Himba hold the Tortoise and Puff adder in high esteem.

My own research among the Luhyia, Luo and the communities of Western Uganda reveal that the serpent is venerated. That is why no one can dare kill Omweri or Irihiri among these communities.

The attributes of the totem should be examined before Githii condemn it as a devil. Although limbless, serpents are excellent climbers. They slide into narrow dark openings and emerge out of them without warning. This ability identifies them immediately as messengers from the underworld. It is not far-fetched to say that our people associated the snake with fertility, life's creative force in the world. The shedding of a snake's skin may have signified renewal.

The serpent's exaggerated phallic shape makes it a symbol of male fertility. It is, for example, believed in most of our communities that one marrying from the family in which snakes are kept as totems, must receive one before the couple gets children. Failure to accept the snake would lead to sterility on the part of the couple.

Many communities share the same perception of the serpent. Among the Ourobos, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, a tail-devouring snake portrayed exactly the endless cycle of life, its completeness, rebirth and immortality.

Although a masculine symbol, because of its phallic shape, it is a strong feminine symbol for its power to tempt and devour. It is a symbol of sensuality, the libido or unconscious desire. As is the practice in some communities in Uganda, the royal snake is considered a supernatural being, an honoured reptile, which is fed and generally cared for.

To this day, it is believed that killing the puff adder would be followed by serious consequences even among those who do not keep them and who have converted to Christianity. When this snake dies, it is accorded burial rites fit for a human beings

Although other religions have been introduced into Africa such as Christianity and Islam, aspects of African religion and culture have remained glaringly visible. The royal snake is still a symbol of fertility, a totem that our people still venerate.

Perhaps Githii should know that among his flock, nothing is as attractive as learning of the future through other means other than the Bible. What is Christianity if it is not a bastardised religion?

Children need inspiration from the literary works

Betelheim Bruno, one of the most authoritative educational psychologists, has argued that there is nothing as fulfilling and enriching to a child as good literature.

In his phenomenal book, The Uses of Enchantment, he confesses that of all experiences he has gone through, nothing parallels the enchanting lessons he learnt through listening to fairy tales. To him, good literature has a therapeutic effect on the minds of children.

In view of Bruno’s assertion, I state there is no time the Kenyan child has needed literature of hope and reconciliation like now.

Let me explain: We are just emerging from the most traumatic period in our short history. Following the flawed last year’s elections, our children have been exposed to some of the most disturbing images. Some have actually been victims of post-election violence. In their innocence, the children are oblivious of the magnitude of hatred now harboured in adult minds and hearts, yet they are deeply affected by what they saw happening.

We can argue that our children are traumatised. What they witnessed is, to say the least, repugnant to their innocent sensibilities. The long-term effects are too painful to contemplate. That is precisely why mitigating factors are essential if we have to rehabilitate our children to lead normal lives and grow up as well adjusted individuals. They have to be taught to relate effectively to other people as human beings.

Children need not grow up harbouring hatred against other people. If they do, they will become maladjusted adults unable to respect human life and dignity. This is a recipe for future chaos. To guarantee our future and that of our children and grandchildren, concerted efforts must be made to restore order in children through literature.

We have to consciously provide literature that will present, to the child, images and models for emulation. We need to give children literature that will help them find meaning in life. It should be the kind that will help them restrain from violence or from instigating violence.

A cultured person is a balanced mind. Such a person hates cruelty, injustice and oppression wherever it is found. At the darkest hour, such a person does not swerve from a certain minimum standard of decency and fair play.

We have to provide good children’s literature, which will bring grace and wisdom to their hearts and enchant them. Our obligation is to provide literature that undermines stereotype and instils the spirit of reconciliation in them. Such literature would help inculcate a democratic spirit. It should help children recognise the infinite possibilities of human fallibility and implant the highest ideals of our age. It has to teach them that money appeals to selfishness and always tempts its owners irresistibly to abuse it.

Grace and wisdom

To me, the greatest challenge to publishers and creative writers is how to intervene in this crisis. We urgently need an ideological strategy. We have to produce books that will restore hope in children. These books, while reflecting on the reality and without duping the child about evils done, have to mirror their emotional landscape. The stories have to aim at instilling a sense of our common humanity and destiny.

My experience, while writing for children, informs me that good children’s literature does not just teach, but has, at the same time, to be entertaining and arouse curiosity in the children. It should aim at eliciting empathy and sympathy in the children. Besides, good children’s literature enriches children’s lives while stimulating their imagination. Overall, it helps the children develop intellect and clarify disturbing emotions.


We writers have to give full recognition to the children’s difficulties and suggest solutions to their problems within the creative realm. Our works have to reflect a clear ideological position that imparts values of peace, harmony, care, justice and reconciliation. We must help children gain confidence in their society and people. In order to do so, we have to give full credence to the crisis facing the country. The controlling thesis should be to promote confidence in children to face the future with hope.

While creating literature for children, we have to remember children are sensitive. They know good and bad literature. That is precisely why we need to be honest in depicting the crisis.

Also, we should not ignore the value of magic and fantasy in the making of children’s literature. It is this aspect that opens up possibilities in children’s imagination.

What I am postulating is not really something out of the ordinary. It can be done. Our publishers have, on several occasions, taken the initiative and become proactive in moments of crisis. They have produced a series of books that focus on various issues that affect society. At the moment, what is needed is literature of hope and reconciliation.

By Egara Kabaji

Books By Egara Kabaji


Some people don't want to be themselves. What happens when a chameleon decides to be a human being? How does God take this? You will laugh. Read on!


Any visitor to western Kenya has seen this phenomenal structure: The Crying Stone. Did you know that the crying stone is Kaliyesa, the greatest woman who ever lived. Read on!


What makes a leader? Who was Jomo Kenyatta? This is a story of a humble village boy who becomes the first president of the Republic of Kenya.


Did you know that fish talk to one another? Did you know the life that fish lead under the water? Do you know the name of their community? Read on!


Should we let children play and learn through it? Nothing is so important than play in a child's life. Experience the little nasty things that children do.


We should never underrate children. This is what a thief learns when a child reveals who the thief is. A good moral lesson for those who do not want to work hard.


We only understand the value of peace when we do not have it. What happens when two leaders realise that war is bad? Read this story that focuses on our recent history in Kenya.

This is the story of a mysterious bird that could change peoples lives. It is full of adventure and moral lessons.

EGARA KABAJI: To beat her enemies, Karua must now change strategy

Martha, I remember you as a fiery young lawyer going by the name Martha Njoka

Those days, you rattled powerful people in President Moi’s government. Your courage and audacity made many admire you.

I am happy to note that the fire in you still burns.

Now you have demonstrated that you are a real warrior by resigning as minister for Justice, National Cohesion and Constitutional Affairs.

Unlike other politicians who change once they taste power, you have remained steadfast.

You are bold, too bold for the powerful men in government.

They actually fear you, but because you are a woman, and you are making dangerous blunders, they will try their best to bring you down.

That is why I have some advice for you. To defeat your enemies, change your tactics.

It is good that you have declared interest in the highest office in the land. That is why you shouldn’t use the same tactics your competitors do. You are different.

Unlike a number of them, your upbringing resonates very well with the experiences of ordinary Kenyans.

You were not born with a silver spoon between your lips. As the daughter of peasant parents, you understand poverty very well.

You are fully aware of the pangs of hunger, the devastating effects of jiggers and the suffering of a mother who has nothing to feed her children.

Some of the people you worked with did not need to struggle for leadership as you did. Use this fact to move close to the ordinary Kenyans in every corner of the country.

No one can contest the fact that you are eloquent.

But you are not using this quality to enhance your image. In a number of cases, you have been involved in shouting contests with your colleagues.

As a good debater, use this quality to cajole, persuade and endear yourself to ordinary Kenyans.

Since you are going for the top seat in the land, don’t attack everyone. Spare your breath to expound on your philosophy, ideals, values and principles.

A good number of your competitors have been implicated in corruption scandals.

For that reason, you are ahead of them. As they try to clear their names, you should be marching ahead.

We all saw you putting up a formidable defence for your party during one of the most trying moments in our history.

You fought hard for your boss and your party, but look at what they are doing to you.

They have sized you and think you do not have the pedigree for the top position. They look at you just as a “mere stubborn woman”.

Most of those who see you in this light are from your native Central Province. They want to lock you out of that important voting block to neutralise you. That is why you need to change strategy.

Since they can only mobilise along ethnic lines, do not take the same path. Ethnic ideology, as you know, is bad.

You are the kind of person who can mobilise Kenyans along the lines of a new ideology. So what is your new ideology?

You seem not to have one. Evolve one immediately. We know you are fighting corruption, yes, but put this in a framework that can appeal.

Go national with the ideology. Once you have a sizeable following in other parts of the country, your home province will fall in place.

Martha, you have another weapon which you have never used. Do you know that it is good to be a woman?

Use the secrets of your femininity to charm Kenyans to declare they want to try a woman for the top seat. Do you know the secrets of femininity? Through self-effacing strategies, women rule the world.

Go for the hearts of Kenyans. Women disarm men using this tactic. Borrow heavily from this inborn quality.

Sometimes you should present yourself as a Cinderella in need of their support. Tell Kenyans that it is time for a Mama.

Use all means at your disposal to appeal to Wanjiku in every village.

Repair your image with the media. At the moment, I am sure you know that you have not strongly come out to defend the media. Free media will be useful to you.

Lastly, don’t take on everyone at the same time. Know when to retreat and when to attack. When you take on everyone at the same time, you give your enemies enough ammunition to neutralise you.

Before I forget, please Martha, get some little time and study Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power.

It will give you great insights into this game you are involved in. I wish you success.

Prof Kabaji is a Fulbright scholar in Residence based in Pennsylvania, USA. (egarakabaji@yahoo.com)

Why University Students Love Destroying Property

Within a few weeks, students in at least four of our seven public uni versities have, in varying degrees, demonstrated that they do not care about other means of resolving conflict except violence.
So far, students at the University of Nairobi, Egerton , and Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology have demonstrated that they have a warped understanding of reality. The latest and, indeed, shocking is Kenyatta University students' riots. The destruction left behind in the wake of the Kenyatta University riots beats them all: burning of a hostel, a students' centre, a multipurpose hall and vandalising of a laboratory.
What may not be acceptable are the reasons they posit for destruction of property. It is becoming more and more obvious that our students seem to find something heroic in wanton destruction. And this is a tragedy.
Without absolving the university administrations from blame for lack of foresight, inability to instill a sense of responsibility, communication flaws and, obviously, undemocratic practices, I want to say that a certain minimum sense of restraint is expected from university students. Univer sity students are being trained to be thinkers.
As thinkers, they are expected to engage university administration in dialogue and, when dialogue fails, strategise to drive their point home without jeopardising their future. What logic would drive one to burn a hostel and vandalise a laboratory which he or she hopes to use after calm has returned? These suicidal instincts can only be a product of an imprudent mind.
Other reasons not withstanding, the latest destruction at Kenyatta University, we are told, is as a result of students demanding to be registered for examinations at the last minute. It may be unfair for university administrators to fail to understand the strain that students go through in view of our economic conditions. Parents are struggling to pay fees; sometimes they only manage to complete payment when the semester is ending.
While it is understandable that universities all over the world operate by adhering to a strict calendar, surely rules are not cast in stone. Bending a rule for a better cause wouldn't cost us much. Negotiation and adjustment of the deadline should never have been too painful to the administration, especially in view of the struggling parent.
Egara Kabaji, USA.