Utu and peace sustaining heritage of Africa South of the Sahara
by Sultan Somjee, PhD.
About Sultan Somjee
Working as an ethnographer in Kenya, Sultan Somjee collected material culture, staged exhibitions and trained young Kenyans. He also listened to the stories that emerged from the artifacts of Africans. In 2001 the United Nations listed Sultan as one of the twelve “Unsung Heroes of Dialogue Among Civilizations”.
In addition to articles such as this one, Sultan has published two guide books, Material Culture of Kenya and Stories from Things. He has also published a novel, Bead Bai, based partly on his PhD research and partly on stories he heard within the African diasporas.
The Ubuntu Stratagem for Peace in Africa
There are many distinct ethnic communities in Africa and while there are variations in their peace heritages, there are also common threads that have made negotiations and reconciliations possible across the vast and intricate network of village crossways over ethnic parameters (All Africa Conference on Principles of Conflict Resolution , Addis Ababa 1999; Somjee: 2000).
Traditional peace events were frequent before the advent of colonialism and even under colonialism they continued among groups with strong socio-political structures. However, peace building mechanisms weakened during and following the era of the Cold War that in Africa resulted in unstable modern states, dictatorships, internal wars and military governments.
In recent years, the traditional peace culture of the continent may even be totally absent in some regions as evidenced by post election ethnic centred violence in Kenya from December 2007 to February 2008.
Peace values are embedded in visual and oral traditions of largely non-literate societies of Africa (Duba et al: 1997).
Ubuntu pervades all aspects of human relationships and is in the consciousness of many African languages. It is umntu in Xhosa of South Africa and unhu in Shona of Zimbabwe.
There are five components that hold utu, a widely used peace concept across Sub Saharan Africa.
Utu is a Kiswahili word that comes from mtu, which means a human being and it stands for a set of humanistic values. Though the word itself has a Bantu base, the concept of utu is embodied in many non-Bantu as well as Bantu symbols and vernaculars. Secondly, over many generations utu has come to be rooted in Kiswahili, the most widely spoken connecting language ‘without borders’ South of the Sahara.
African Human values are ingrained in the fabric of Kiswahili as much as they are in ethnic languages sustaining peace metaphors, songs and stories. They are also read in peace symbols in nature and material culture. The oral and visual peace heritage comprises an ensemble of expressions of wisdom of Africa for societal welfare. Utu is the collective value of living that Archbishop Tutu calls ubuntu and has been a key concept in the post-apartheid hearings of Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa across racial and tribal divides.
Ubuntu pervades all aspects of human relationships and is in the consciousness of many if not all the African languages.
For example it is umntu in Xhosa of South Africa and unhu in Shona of Zimbabwe. Sometimes utu is explained philosophically as ‘I am because you are’. This is the philosophy that Professor Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace laureate from Kenya, refers to in her address. The idea of human relationships and inter-connectedness of people is intoned in a five sided referent to peace.
The Nilotic Turkana call the one who dreams a prophet because the dreamer is in communion with the ancestors and Ajuk speaks through dreams.
Peace, oral literature and performances
Utu values come from memories held by elders as shared heritage rooted in legends of origin such as the Legend of the Kap Sokomo family in the Great Rift Valley around Lake Bogoria in Kenya (Boruett: 1969).
The family is known as the peacekeeper among the Tugen of the greater Nilotic Kalenjin nation.
Utu ideals are found in fables and words of wisdom (e.g. in proverbs like ‘Hunger is better than war’ – Maasai), daily salutations (e.g. osotua in Maasai and mirembe in Abaluhya are greetings that mean peace) and they come in dreams.
The Nilotic Turkana call the one who dreams a prophet because the dreamer is in communion with the ancestors and Akuj (God) speaks through dreams (Barret:1998). Utu is expressed in performances of peace at rituals in rites of passage, blessings for rains, ending of diseases and closing of conflicts. Peace rituals at reconciliations happen in cyclic rotations. Like conflicts they are not a one-time event.
Utu values come from memories held by the elders as shared legends such as the Legend of the Kap Sokomo in the Great Rift Valley around Lake Bogoria in Kenya.
These performances excel in oratory, prayers, songs and dance and often end with sharing a meal of the sacrificial animal. The performances often touch emotions of participants.
One such an emotional ritual that closes the conflict is the Healing of the Earth.
Healing of the Earth also called Cooling or Calming of the Earth, is an African practice of cleansing the land after loss of human life or blood due to violence. In Kenya the Akamba call this sacrament kuseovya nzi, the Aembu refer to it as kuvorovia nthi. The Luo say it’s kweyo piny and the Keiyo of Kalenjin nation describe it as kesob koret.
Human blood is hot and alive and when it falls on the earth it angers it.
Milk and Blood
On the other hand human blood and milk are viewed as substances confirming inter-ethnic relationships.
Marriages are celebrated across ethnic divides to strengthen reconciliation agreements by ‘mixing blood’ and ‘becoming one’.
When violent conflicts erupted between Maasai and Sonjo the Prime Minister called the warring groups to breast-feed each other’s babies as a gesture of ending enmity.
Shenk (1997) writes that usually the Abaluhya, a Bantu group in Western Kenya, would consummate peace with their neighbours ‘by arranging several inter-societal marriages’. Shenk also writes about how inter-tribal suckling of babies affirms peace citing one such an event between Maasai and Luo. In late 1970s when violent conflicts erupted between the Maasai and Sonjo in Tanzania, the then Prime Minister of Tanzania, Edward Sokoine, called the warring groups to breast-feed each other’s babies as a gesture of ending enmity (Porokwa et al: 2004).
The Agikuyu face Mount Kenya in prayers seeking peace in its beauty and greatness.
Peace in nature
Utu is sensed in peace trees, peace animals and in the splendour and spirituality of native geography.
The Bantu Chagga who inhabit slopes of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania call the mountain Kibo or the ‘Divine Awe’.
Memories and dreams of utu are complimented in nature’s manifestations of greatness and beauty. The Agikuyu face Mount Kenya in prayers seeking peace because God inhabits in its beauty and greatness.
The Bantu Chagga who inhabit slopes of Kilimanjaro call the mountain ‘Divine Awe’.
There is an East African pastoralist proverb: ‘Where there is no beauty there is no peace’. Beauty, spirituality and peace are linked.
Evening Fire at Dusk and Dawn are the most beautiful and also the most peaceful phenomena of nature used symbolically for settlement of disputes by the four matrilineal groups in Southern Tanzania, namely the Wamakua, Wamwera, Wamakonde and Wayao (Hokororo: 2000).
Evening Fire at Dusk and Dawn are peaceful phenomena of nature used symbolically for settlement of disputes by the Wamakua, Wamwera, Wamakonde and Wayao.
Some societies look at the quality of calmness in animal behaviour.
For example the Munyoyaya, a Cushitic fishing and farming group on the River Tana in Kenya, show close relationship and respect to the tortoise.
A Cushitic fishing group on River Tana in Kenya, show respect to the tortoise.
Similar respect is given to the chameleon by Bantu cultivators, the Akamba.
The Waata, a forest hunter gatherer community in Kenya, look to the ants and the hedgehog to emulate peace.
Among these communities and many others, peace is also elicited from trees (Somjee: 2001). For many a community such as the Mijikenda of the East African coast, sacred groves are central to their identity, unity, spirituality and administration (Spear: 1978) as was the case among the Agikuyu of central Kenya before Christianity took hold (Castro:1995).
A celebrated example of a peace tree is the African Olive (Olea africana). It’s the supreme peace tree of traditional Africa.
The tree is one peace symbol that connects societies of diverse migratory origins.
Elders of the Bantu Abasuba offer prayers, sacrifices and discuss conflicts among other problems under the shade of Omukuyu peace tree (Ficus sycomorus) that they say represents oneness in society. This tree is one peace symbol that connects societies of diverse migratory origins.
For example the Cushitic Borana of Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya call this tree, Odda. To the Luo, a Nilotic farmer-fishing community around Lake Victoria this tree is Bongu which is also their tree of peace. Eders of Luo Abila Councils would sit under the shade of Bongu to deliberate on disputes and laws that govern the society to shape the land, maintain neighbourly relationships and keep justice. It’s this fig tree that is referred to as the sacred Mukuyu in the genesis of the Bantu Agikuyu so called after the tree’s strength and greatness.
Material Culture of Peace
Elders’ staffs are usually made from peace trees (e.g. muthegi – Agikuyu; ororo – Borana) and are prominently displayed at peace meetings demonstrating both the authority of the owner and intention of the assembly.
The staffs are placed in-between heated arguments for return to calmness as they are in-between warring fractions to stop confrontation.
The Cushitic Borana of Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya call the peace tree, Odda.
Examples of other objects of material culture used to prevent conflicts are the leather skirt olkila of the Maasai and the pregnancy belt leketyo worn by Pokot. Both are associated with mothers and the womb that carries life that is sacred. Both are placed in-between fighters to prevent further violence (L’Homme: 1999).
Turkana elders exchange their head stools ekicholong with other pastoralists to consolidate peace agreements over pastures and water rights.
Objects used to prevent conflicts include the pregnancy belt leketyo worn by Pokot.
There are formal institutions for settling disputes.
These Peace Institutions nourish utu and have existed for generations. In Burundi there is the traditional institution of Bashingantahe for hearing cases of conflicts, dispensing justice and ultimately restoration of harmony (ed Ntahombaye et al: 1999).
In the Nuba Mountains of Sudan there are ancient Arbitration and Reconciliation Councils held by a hierarchy of elders in command to deal with all the different levels of disputes.
A similar body of elders known as Cacaca exists in neighbouring Rwanda that research showed had an overwhelming popular support to resolve the difficult task of restitution of justice and reconciliation following the genocide of 1994 (Smith et al: 2001). Pain (1997) describes Mato Oput, the Acholi traditional institution of resolution of conflict in Northern Uganda as among the best found anywhere in the world.
In the Nuba Mountains of Sudan there are ancient Arbitration and Reconciliation Councils held by a hierarchy of elders in command to deal with different levels of disputes. There also exists the Council of Ajaweed or the Goodwill Committee that brings the conflicting parties together and advises them on how the differences could be resolved (Mansor: 1999).
A version of this article by Sultan Somjee has already been published by the Oxford Encyclopedia for Peace to which the above article is credited.
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The unreferenced material is developed from my field research between 1972 to 2002.
I acknowledge with gratitude community elders and all my field assistants during the period.
I am also grateful for research support from the University of Nairobi, the National Museums of Kenya, the Ford Foundation, Hans Sneider Institute and especially the Mennonite Central Committee.