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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?