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September 18, 2013

Njung’wa Theology

by Admin

Ven. Dr. Ndung’u Ikenye, Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at St Paul’s University – Limuru, introduces a Kikuyu system for conversation and healing of community.


Njung’wa is a four-legged or four-footed Kikuyu stool which was traditionally used by Kikuyu male elders. Each elder took his stool to the elders meeting, “carried by important elders.”[1] The stool represented ethnic and cultural authority, respect and integrity given to the elders.

The stool was a symbol of serious discussion, leadership, and intended action by individuals, families, kinship and the community at large. Stools are used by Kenyan communities such as the Luo, Pokot, Turkana and the Masaai of Kenya. These ethnic communities use a three or two-legged stool, but the significance and seriousness of the conversations are the same. I use this notion of Njung’wa to bring out and shape the Kikuyu sense of holding dialogue, and their systems of listening and responding to serious issues that affected their common life. Kenyatta affirms that, there were two councils of elders where Njung’wa was used by male elders: Kiama kia mataathi, the council of peace and kiama kia maturanguru, religious and sacrificial council.[2]

To be a member of these two councils, “the man and his wife (or wives) are sworn to keep the secrets of the kiama, and never to reveal it to anyone who is not ritually initiated into the kiama.”[3]

The elders ceremoniously greeted each other, “wanyuwakine”, meaning, “my equals.” This meant that, members of these two councils were politically, religiously and socially equal. The council sat in the form of a circle, men on the Njung’wa and women on the soft skin, in a posture of speaking. The meeting always began with a prayer, beseeching God to give the council members blessing, peace, wisdom and prosperity. When the elders came to the meeting, they also brought “muthegi, staff of office and mataathi, a bunch of sacred leaves.”[4]

Both male and female in the Kiama kia Mataathi, as elders, had the responsibility of carrying these two symbols of peace, to remind them of the duty of peace-maker in the community. The members also pledged to be calm and peaceful during deliberations for the prosperity of the people. They were expected to be guided by reason and wisdom in all deliberations.

Basic Ingredients to the System of Conversation Among the Agikuyu

First, speakers, both male and female had authority given by the community. To be an elder among the Kikuyu, “muthuri wa kiama”, meant that you had given several goats to the council of elders and that you have been qualified by the council. You must also have demonstrated that you are good at listening carefully and that you care for the well-being of the community. You must be a Mumenyi, meaning that you are well-informed, knowledgeable, skilled and an expert in sorting things out.[5]

This quality of understanding, intelligence, intellect, and ability to know was required for all persons who sat on the stool. The women sat on a soft skin, mutumia ngatha, when in the council. They also had to have the same qualities as the men to participate.

You must also be a Mumenyereri, meaning, you must a guardian of the community.[6]

This quality or act was geared toward taking care for the welfare of all participants and those involved in the issues at hand. Guardianship was bestowed upon the elders, male and female, as persons who were going to be not only skillful, but also careful, thrifty and watchful.

Second, the rules of engagement were called ndeto cia ndereti, meaning that, they engaged in conversation, discussion; for the affairs, matters, and utterances of significance.[7] They exchanged views with the goal of reaching a consensus or a common understanding.

Third, the purpose of voice in the dialogue was for the communal good. Men and women who participated in the dialogue had an equal voice, “as long as they transcended individual agendas and reflected upon action within the reality of their historical narratives and extended kinship relations.”[8]

Fourth, the ethos of Njung’wa Theology, like any Kikuyu conversation is the reconstruction and transformation by promotion of understanding. The conversation brings a new vision, obligation, creating a new environment and re-circling of narratives.

In the final analysis, a new sense of belonging together, participating together, relating together creates a renewed soul. This new community invokes the presence and participation of the living, the living-dead, spirits and the Supreme Being, God. 

Fifth, the conversations in community bring friendship within the community at large. The Proverb: ndeto njega ni iria njirane, meaning: good words are those spoken of common accord; this is translated: friendship is friendship and business is business; and a word is enough to the wise.[9] Conversations build meaningful relationships among ethnic and kinship communities. Another proverb used during the conversation is Ndigure: Konyu kegura ni koimiria ikwa. Translated, “humble yourself: the inhabitants of Konyu were able to grow the yams after humbling themselves.”[10] Meaning that, he who makes a good of words, makes a good peace also. The people of Konyu, who had been at war with their neighbours in Mathira, both from the Kikuyu land, ceased to raid each other, and tilled their fields in peace, only by humility and submission.

Sixth, the conversations were held with rules of boundaries. There was no competition in the conversations. Time was of essence, and no one was hurried in the dialogue. The proverb: ndaya ikinyia, translated is: the long road arrives at the intended goal. Meaning, “fair and softly goes far in a day; a long but sure way is better than a short but dangerous one.” The long road in conversations, the elders would agree, will involve remembering, differentiation, search of the heart, and a commitment to development. The conversation was always a process, and mostly not a one time event.

Implications for the Indaba Project: Listening Process from a Kikuyu Perspective

Anglican leaders are community leaders, meaning that they are authorized and qualified by their communities of embeddedness, as well as the Christian community itself. Whether male or female, these leaders are respected as the voice of the people and those vested with the welfare of the community. They have the authority the see to welfare of both communities, with the caveat that, their personal interests and agendas must be put aside for the sake of the community. For the Agikuyu, the interest and well-being of the community took precedence over anything else. This is also biblical, in that we can learn from the council of Jerusalem. They met, talked and decided on the inclusive nature of the church.

Christian leaders must also be serious and intentional to discuss within and beyond their communities, hold dialogues to gather enough data on homosexual behavior,  and agree and disagree on these issues to reach the depth of what is involved. The two Kikuyu councils, kiama kia matathi (peace council) and kiama kiamaturanguru (religious and sacrificial council) spent days, weeks, and months to discuss the issues and to hear view points. These elaborate discussions were held in trust and confidence, and in a safe context to hear all sides. As Anglicans discuss homosexual behavior, there should be no theological arm-twisting, theological imperialism, economical ties of dictation in results, nor should democratization be given precedence against the inclusive nature of dialogue.

The conversations must be based on valuing each other, love and care for one another, respect of diversity, and equality. One of the things that has destroyed the quality of discussions on homosexuality and human sexuality has been condescending attitudes being exchange across tables and continents. Such trading of insults and disrespect would mean automatic disqualification from the Kikuyu councils.

Anglican leaders, informed by the Kikuyu ethos of knowledge of facts, need to be well informed on the debate. Human anthropology should be understood from biblical, psychological, cultural, theological and political perspectives. There is also a place for Church Tradition as handed down, within the Christian fraternity and Anglicanism. As I study the “Documents of the Church,” and the Catechism, I have also found useful resources. There is a place for reasoning together reasonably under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I have found prayer is a primary resource for all Kikuyu meetings. There is a place for listening to the antagonists of any viewpoint.

The Agikuyu gave voice to every person in the councils of elders, on the basis of commitment to the common good. The present debate has produced persons who are antagonizing, demonizing, looking down, devaluing and excommunicating, or breaking down communication and relationships. For the Agikuyu, debate was debate, with the goal of increasing knowledge to inform decision-making.

Equality on the table remains a bit problem in our times with the chains of colonialism hanging on the shoulders of some, while the others see themselves as colonial masters; and others are in the neocolonialist mentalities. These dynamics continue schew and pervert any healthy discussions. As equals, Anglican leaders and theologians must engage one another in the context of respect and integrity with the goals of reflection, remembrance, and care for one another, love living together in communion and with a commitment and loyalty to Christ live a life of self-control and restraint.

The councils of the Agikuyu were guarded by a commitment to relationships, in spite and despite of disagreement in the discussions. This commitment spoke to the fact that leaders were the guardians of the community. Where conformity, uniformity and consensus were important, maintenance of the community was a core value. In the context of homosexual behavior, there may not be uniformity, conformity or consensus in interpretation of texts and the implications for our common life, but maintenance of a united Anglican Communion is more important than the differences.

The scope of this dialogue is that the lines are drawn between liberals and evangelicals, and their viewpoints are clear. What can be achieved, agreed upon and sought is living together in relationship, in unity and diversity. The Covenant under circulation and discussion should help in coming to terms with our common life. Anglicans in this sense must learn to live side by side, restraining themselves, from hurting one another with words and actions. The goals of increasing understanding of issues and knowledge of one another in the contexts of cultural differences, must be given focus to allow discovery.

The world of our times is divided, conflicted and hurting in many areas. This atmosphere has been created by distrust as people drive their agendas home. Exploitation and abuse has been a legacy of the last century. The Anglican fraternity has to work hard against these vices. Mutual openness, loyalty and trust to Anglican mission and identity, in the context of meaningful relationships will hold the dialogical process in check. Building and supporting one another will increase understanding and knowledge and bear the fruits of spiritual peace and happiness for all sides.

The contexts, attitude and atmosphere of this listening process should be safe enough for all involved. All persons in the discussion must be given space and equal voice without intimidation or fear of rejection. All persons must be allowed and encouraged to express themselves and their viewpoints with courage, love, and acceptance of one another.

In doing research for this paper, and listening to the various viewpoints and eloquent presentations on the issues at hand, “fusion of horizons” may be our new paradigm of doing Anglican theology.[11] Anglicans may need to consider ontological issues against the back-drop of methodology and hermeneutics as a science of interpretation. The fundamental basis of Anglican identity and mission will be founded, not on interpretation, but the apprehensions of the Holy Spirit in the ways of being, as new beings in Christ. Paulos Gregorios reminds the Christian communities that they are the new humanity, “invisibly united with God in Christ, the new community is a mediating humanity – a humanity that reconciles and unites God and the world, (and I add, humanity and humanity).[12]

In conclusion, the Agikuyu accepted the notion of natural unity and diversity in apprehensions and viewpoints. The core of dialogue was to build and maintain community. As Anglicans engage in dialogue and conversation on human sexuality and its ends, the maintenance of Anglican identity and mission that define our life must be kept as the focus. Submission to the love and grace of Christ will bring meaning, reconstruction and transformation in our shared and common life. The ethos of incorporation of a new vision and obligation must remain an aspect of the dialogue. The African religious ontology, in which the sacred and secular fuse for a better life in community, must continue to inform our listening processes.

[1] S.V. “ Njung’wa”, Kikuyu-English Dictionary, Edited by T.G. Benson, Oxford University Press,  1964
[2] Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Traditional Life of the Gikuyu, Nairobi: Heinemann Educational Books, 1938, 1978, pp. 201-205.
[3] Ibid., p. 202.
[4] Ibid., 203.
[5] S.V.Kikuyu-English Dictionary, “ Mumenyi.”
[6] S.V. “ Mumenyereri.”
[7] S.V. “Ndereti.” ;  “Ndeto.”
[8] Ndung’u J.B. Ikenye, Decolonization of the Soul, p. 6.
[9] G. Barra, 1,000 Kikuyu Proverbs, Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1939, 1960, p. 80.
[10] Ibid., p. 81
[11] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Translated by David E. Linge, Philosophical Hermeneutics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, p. xix.
[12] Paulos Gregorios, The Human Presence: An Orthodox View of Nature, Geneva: WCC, 1978, p. 8.

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