How the Luo Balance Tradition and Modernity with Kit Mikayi. The growth of tourism in Kenya has attracted many outside visitors to all sorts of sites across Kenya. Kit Mikayi is one of many sites where tourists have visited in huge numbers, often without knowledge of the site’s local or national history and importance. This has led to revaluation of how to best present and preserve these sites in the face of growing tourism in Kenya.
The mixing of cultures can result in new practices, sometimes at the expense of long-held beliefs and traditions. Some groups, like the Luo in Kenya, seek to preserve and promote their traditional culture within the new, foreign culture expanding into their land. In seeking to preserve and promote their own culture, the Luo are trying to find a balance that allows them to take advantage of the benefits of foreign culture and expose their culture to foreigners, while at the same time maintaining as much of their traditional culture as possible. In modern Kenya today, the Luo, like other groups in Africa, are working out a balance between cultural preservation and connections to the wider, foreign modern world. These efforts can be seen in terms of an important site in Luoland: Kit Mikayi. How have the Luo managed or fared in exposing this important heritage site to the outside world while at the same time protecting the traditions and customs associated with the site? What are the challenges of holding on Kit Mikayi as an emblem of Luo tradition, and modernizing it so that the community can benefit from it?
Kit Mikayi’s legend and myth makes it a cultural icon among the Luo and an attractive site to see for tourists, as seen with the presence of posters showcasing Luo activities to tourists such as the one accompanying this essay. Kit Mikayi serves as a sacred site for the Luo with important knowledge and mythical stories associated with it. The 70-80 foot tall rock formation that makes up Kit Mikayi is located in the Kisumu West District, Kisumu County 18½ miles west from Kisumu city in western Kenya (Awiti, Kisumu Museum Document1).
The name “Kit Mikayi” comes from the Luo language, meaning the “Stone of the First Wife”. The traditional story from the Luo states that a long time ago there was an old man called Ngeso who loved to hang around this rocky landscape. He would wake early in morning and walk into the cave under the stones. He would stay for a long time every day under the the rocks, and so his wife was forced to bring him his breakfast and lunch each day at the place. Ngeso would spend long times in the cave and when his fellow elders came looking for him at his home, his wife would say that he had gone to his “mikayi”, meaning first wife, the rock. This led to the rocks being named Kit Mikayi, meaning “the stone of the first wife”. The rocks of Kit Mikayi are not just part of traditional Luo folklore, they also represent an important part of the Luo landscape and terrain.
The stones of Kit Mikayi are arranged in a way that eerily symbolizes the traditional Luo family. The stones are set up in a way that reflects the traditional polygynous nature of the traditional Luo community. Mikayi is the first wife’s house in the middle and the largest, as symbolized by the largest stone in the middle of Kit Mikayi. The first wife in Luo society is the most important wife whose first-born is often considered his father’s true heir (Awiti, “The place of the first wife in the Luo community”). The first wife enjoys power and privileges such as being the first to receive guests, being the first to have her field plowed and harvested, and even being able to have some input as to who else her husband can marry (Awiti). On the right side of Kit Mikayi is a smaller pillar of rocks representing the home of second wife, Nyachira, with another smaller pillar residing on left side representing the third wife Reru (Odege 2014). These smaller pillars represent the place of the other wives within the family, with the corresponding locations of their households in a Luo family compound, who are subordinate to both their husband and the first wife.
The Luo use Kit Mikayi as a gathering and ceremonial place as evidenced by community events and a photo of a sacred altar at Kit Mikayi (Souther, “Legio Maria Altar at Kit Mikayi 1”). The Luo perform their ceremonial dances at Kit Mikayi during burial as well as marriage ceremonies as way to show how they are embracing the marriage, though more and more have their marriage ceremonies conducted at a court of law.
Kit Mikayi is known to be a place where certain leaders within the Luo community officiate sacrificial rituals during the morning hours. These rituals are performed during calamities or natural disasters like drought, divorce, and separation cases in the community around Kit Mikayi as a way to alleviate the disasters. Many religious people come to Kit Mikayi during the months of May and July when “water comes out of rock.” These people say that the water heals all ailments and diseases. Religious leaders also come to drink the water or use it to heal sick people from their church. During times of drought, Luo elders would make sacrifices to the gods in the hopes that their prayers would result in better rains and better harvests. The Luo also note that Kit Mikayi can send visions to people as far as Alego, Kenya, including visions during dreams on what sacrifices to conduct during a meeting at Kit Mikayi (Okello, et al. 2017).
But, the Luo also know how important tourism is, and part of the Luo community is beginning to focus on increasing tourism to Luo sites like Kit Mikayi. There are obstacles and challenges to this. The Luo still live in a traditional lifestyle, but they face new challenges that threaten their way of life. Environmental resources are on decline, including fishing in nearby Lake Victoria.
The expansion of human settlements and growing population take up more and more land, hence sustainable livelihood is no longer guaranteed within the traditional way of living (Okello, et al. 2017). High poverty levels in the rural area are part of the challenges facing the community. The local people live in poverty, as evident in the kind of houses they live in, the high mortality rates, the lack of health faculties, the high malnutrition levels, the high unemployment rate, and the large decline in their environmental resources (Okello, et al. 2017). Fishing is also on the decline on Lake Victoria, and the expansion of human settlements has taken up more and more farmable land. The reliance on subsistence farming for many people is further worsened by the fact that they are not able to produce enough food for themselves due to bad weather conditions. Communities in the area are struggling to maintain their traditional lifestyles while labor reducing technology and higher paying jobs in the urban areas are attracting many to more to the cities to enjoy modern ways of living. There are therefore some people who believe that a pro-poor tourism strategy around Kit Mikayi can help unlock opportunities for the poor around the area, but the challenge is how to balance between culture and tourism. Is it possible to a tourism strategy focused on culture (Odege 2014)?
Cultural tourism has helped to improved the lives of many Luos, and has enabled them to overcome some of the challenges they have been facing. Creating self-employment along with income generating activities and improvement programs has enhanced local participation in tourism activities with a focus on cultural tourism. Cultural tourism is the movement of persons focusing on the celebration of culture such as study tours, performing arts tours, and cultural tours in exchange for some form of payment. This has led to the need for training and education of people within the local communities so as to produce a group of trained people able and willing to promote local sites and talk about them among tourists (Okello et al. 2017). The need to promote Kit Mikayi as a cultural site has become apparent to the government as well. The National Museums of Kenya (NMK) has worked to physically preserve Kit Mikayi and any information relating to it in the form of documents, oral traditions, and more as a national monument of Kenya while also working to promote Kit Mikayi as a tourist destination with tourist organizations, sponsors, and the local Luo community (Awiti, Kisumu Museum Document2). There have also been activities at the local level with the local community participating in preserving and promoting Kit Mikayi. There have been attempts to create open communication channels, proper consultations, and transparency with the local community members to take ownership of Ki Mikayi as their tourist site. (Okello et al. 2017).
Efforts to preserve and promote Kit Mikayi are part of an ongoing balancing act for the Luo. Being able to preserve the importance of Kit Mikayi while also incorporating it within the growing tourism industry is seen as a way to preserve traditional Luo culture and benefit the local community in the face of global forces and declining local resources. Navigating the issues can help the Luo preserve their culture and let outsiders learn and appreciate the culture while helping the Luo move beyond the economic challenges that may afflict members of the community today.
“Kit Mikayi: Between Tradition and Modernity | Macleki,” Macleki, August 26, 2018, https://macleki.org/stories/kit-mikayi-between-tradition-and-modernity/.