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How the Maragoli Celebrate Christmas

Elders at the Maragoli Festival

By Correspondent Simbili M. M. in Kenya.

The Maragoli are a sub-tribe of the Abaluhya community of the Western province of Kenya. The majority of the Maragolis are found in Kakamega and Vihiga counties, with Mbale town in South Maragoli being their central meeting point. Mbale town is also where the Maragoli Cultural Festival takes place.

In Maragoli land, Christmas starts early. On the eve of Christmas, children are usually busy in the villages preparing for the following day. They get food to cook and clothes to wear. Also, most of them throng the churches for the final rehearsal of their Marago. These are songs which are sung in an inter-church singing competition on Christmas day. Also, the walls of their mud houses are usually smeared anew, sometimes with messages and wishes for the New Year stylistically expressed in impressive patterns. Flowery designs adorn most of these ‘repainted’ houses while the compounds are swept sparkling clean. Minutes before midnight the churches are usually full with people singing in praise of the newborn Jesus. However, due to security reasons, more and more people are opting to remain indoors.

On Christmas day, church members congregate in central places. A primary school may be used by five branches of a church (predominantly Quakers) for a short joint service and Marago competition. To win, a choir has to have a number of things in check besides the well rehearsed singing. For uniformity, children prefer wearing school uniforms from a certain school. If one does not attend that school, he/she has to borrow a uniform. They sing and dance in the best way to beat the competition. Usually, there are presents to be worn besides the coveted trophy which the overall best team wins. By noon, most of these competitions are over and people retire to the feasting at home. Children seem to enjoy the Christmas day celebration more than the adults. Even so, this is compensated on the following day: Boxing Day.

The Maragoli Cultural Festival is usually held on the 26th of December every year and organized by the Vihiga Cultural Society. Honorable Substone Moses Mudamba Mudavadi, the then minister for local government, is the founding patron. On his passing, his son, former Kenya Deputy Prime Minister Hon. Musalia Mudavadi, took over. The aim of the festival is to showcase and conserve the Maragoli culture and traditions. Initially it coincided with the coming out of jandoni, the seclusion of boys who had undergone initiation. After circumcision, initiates are usually secluded for some time to be educated on the society’s expectations on them. Long ago, it used to happen in a forest. With modernity things have changed slightly.

The initiates usually come out in public for the first time since seclusion. They perform some of the things they learnt in their seclusion. They are shaved and given a riika name. This riika is basically the age group. People of the same riika have a lot of respect for each other. Long ago they used to be circumcised using one knife. After their performance, other groups are also welcome.

There are many traditional dances on display. The Maragolis have songs for every occasion. However, they have some things which have a constant presence in the performances. The isukuti drum is central to their performances. It is a drum carved from a tree trunk and has a skin attached to it. It usually comes in different sets and each has a unique sound. They are hit at different tempos and rhythm. They all form a unique ensemble which has a song to march based on the message. The drumbeats are accompanied by metal gongs and sometimes a siriri (a one-stringed instrument played using a bow), a litungu (an eight-string instrument played by plucking) and whistles, among other instruments. The costumes were traditionally made from sisal and banana fibre. These days however, they are made from different colored pieces of cloth. The difference in the men’s, women’s and children’s songs are based on the rhythm and wording. This festival is also open to other luhya sub-tribes with whom the Maragolis are neighbors—for instance, the Tiriki, Isukha and Idakho. Also, the musical instruments are shared.

Among other activities done for fun are the tug of war and bull fighting. The bulls are usually raised specifically for fighting. They are given names and songs are composed in their praise. These songs are sung when escorting the bull to the ring and also while and after fighting, especially if the bull wins. The win gives the owner of the bull and his clan bragging rights for some time before the bull loses in a future duel.

Traditional foods and delicacies are also in great supply on that day. It is usually a big day for traders. Zisindu (quail) is specifically delicious after being prepared using mkerekha (traditional salt made from burnt maize cobs or bean pods, which are used for decantation of the salt in them by passing water through the ash and using the water as salt). Other traditional vegetables are also prepared. Above all, busaa (traditional beer made from fermented maize) is taken by the adults as they sum up the day in the evening till the wee hours of the morning. They dance to music from local bands and music systems they have.

Modernity and emerging issues like security have had an impact on the celebrations but a good part of it is still intact. At the end of the day, Christmas has been well celebrated and now people start striving for the few buses to make their way to the cities where many work, to prepare for the New Year and its challenges—and another chance to celebrate should God will it.

Simbili M. M.
I was born and raised in the western part of Kenya to Luhya parents. We were taken to the rural areas during the many Christmas holidays we celebrated as children. It was fun in its own way hence the article. Currently I teach English and literature in English in both high school and a university.

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