The community that won’t chicken out

The community that won’t chicken out

A step-by-step peep at the cultural practices revolving around chicken fondly known as Ingokho among the Luhya community 

BY GAD WESONGA

Culture means characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people. It also involves identity fostered by social patterns unique to a group’s customs, laws, dressing, architectural style, food, religion, social standards and traditions. 

It is not surprising that culture is a social capital that requires preservation because in addition to its intrinsic value, it provides important social and economic benefits such as increased tolerance known to enhance the quality of life and increases overall well-being for both individuals and communities. 

Kenya’s cultural practices are evolving, with leading organizations opting to recognize them. In 2010, UNESCO considered culture as the Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development. Today, culture is essentially fluid and constantly changing. 

Indeed, while cultural change is inevitable, the past should also be respected and perhaps preserved. In line with this spirit, we take a step-by-step peep at the cultural practices revolving around chicken fondly known as Ingokho among the Luhya community.

While to the rest of the world chicken is just a delicacy, to the Luhyas, a Bantu speaking people, chicken is not just a meal, but a way of life. To them, life begins with chicken, life is lived with chicken both literally and figuratively, and life ends with chicken. People with Western Kenya origins would say “ingo”, which lightly means, “going home”. So where does the phonetic connection between “ingo” for home and “ingokho” for chicken begin? 

According to the Secretary General of Nabongo Council of elders Ali Wamanya, in Luhya community, when a young man wanted to move out of his father’s homestead and establish his own home, chicken was the key determinant. Mr Wanyama said that after identification of the site, a cockerel was caged in a traditional basket called “esikono” and left at the site overnight. 

“If a wild animal came over at night and ate the chicken, then a new location had to be sought, but if it was found alive the following day, then the site was safe for establishing a home,” said Wamanya. 

It was believed that to establish a home at a site where the cockerel had been eaten by wild animals would be disastrous since the place could previously have been a cemetery or planted with charms. It could also mean that the site have been used for performing rituals, thus unfit for establishing a homestead. The eating of the chicken by wild animals, therefore, signaled a warning by ancestors to their kin for protection.

Besides being the key prop in laying the foundation for a new home, the process of marriage where a man and woman unite to procreate and establish their own “home” too had chicken as a critical ingredient. On the day of marriage promulgation through dowry payment, a cockerel with a massive talon was slaughtered. 

“This chicken must be approved by the delegation sent to pay the dowry before preparation begins,” says Andrew Wabidonge, a Luhya elder.

Mr Wabidonge adds that if the talon was modest, the delegation would reject the chicken because it meant that they had been slighted. The interpretation was that the bigger the talon, the higher the respect accorded to the in-laws. Once approved, the chicken would be prepared and served whole. Only a small opening was made at the rear to extract the internal organs. The in -laws themselves have to cut it as they feasted.

Dowry payment

The crowning of the dowry payment process was also symbolized with yet another cockerel which was given to the visiting in-laws to take back home as a confirmation that they were well received. The talon had to be approved by the delegation before accepting the gift, which, as always, was delivered to the groom’s clan as a sign that their bride price offer had been accepted by the other clan. This chicken was slaughtered and shared out by the elders of the groom’s clan.

As husband and wife began to get children, the chicken shadow kept looming even larger. The naming of children involved chicken once more as the principal actor. Mathias Ogama, who is an engineer and a Luhya elder says that children were normally named after their ancestors but sometimes, two ancestors competed to be named. 

“In this case, guidance from a seer was sort and the ancestor identified,” says Mr Ogama.

ALI WAMANYA

Thereafter, a pair of chicken were identified and each named after the competing ancestors before being thrown on top of the roof where the child to be named would be lying and incessantly crying. The first chicken to come down the roof and enter that particular house signified that the ancestor whose name the chicken was bearing had triumphed over the competitor. The child would be named the triumphant ancestor, and he or she would (reportedly) stop crying.

In addition, the chicken that triumphed in the naming competition had its middle finger cut or a ring put around its neck to distinguish it from the rest. Normally, a chick that was used for this ritual was left to mature so that it is used in various other rituals later in life to ask for blessings for that particular child from (God) referred to as “Were”.

According to Austin Okuku, a teacher and traditional music composer, to foretell the future of children, a chicken came in handy. 

“Chicken was synonymous with life among the Luhyas such that even today, it is unthinkable for a home to be without chicken,” he says shaking his head in disbelief. “Young children used to visit their grandparents and be given chicks as a present. If the gift got lost or eaten by mongoose, then it foretold a bleak future for that child. However, if it matured and turned out to be a good breeder then it was a sign of a prosperous future for the child.”

Mr Okuku notes that sometimes a diviner could be consulted to predict the future of a society. At this point, the seer would study the side on which it has fallen in relation to the main gate to predict if the future was bright, or not. 

“In such a case, a particular chicken was identified, neck cut suddenly with a panga and the chicken left to swirl in the air before dropping dead. He would also examine the intestines arrangement of the dead chicken and foretell the future,” says Okuku.  

AUSTIN OKUKU

In moments of calamities, chicken was used for cleansing and petitioning. Before he passed on aged 95 years on May 24, 2017, Baraza Odenda of Ganjala, Busia County, indicated that feathers from a white chicken associated with “Were” were plucked and used to demarcate a shrine. The white feathers were used to sweep the site (clean) before prayer sessions were conducted. 

“You know Were means white and clean. After the praying session in the shrine called Omwera, this chicken was let free in the main house of the home,” Okuku says with a chuckle, adding that letting the chicken free in the house meant taking blessings to the house.

Gruesome style

At death, chicken once more featured. This time in a gruesome style since it was not slaughtered, but just hit repeatedly on the embers of firewood called “amakenga” until it dies – amakenga is a special fire place set in the middle of the compound when someone has died.

 It is used to warm mourners throughout the funeral arrangements. It is also here that people gather for some rights after the burial. The eldest male person around is the one who would kill the chicken. The carcass was then roasted, cut into pieces and intestines thrown on roof tops to be picked by Were. 

Smoke emitting from the roasting of such a chicken was believed to be escorting the dead to the creator. It is also interesting that at this time too, chicken for people who were involved in the grave digging process was also slaughtered. 

“For a lady, a hen was used while for man, it was a cockerel,” says 80-year-old Ms Namukutu Otia, who adds that chicken was slaughtered on the very day when death occurred in order to cleanse the late, close the world of the living and open the doors for the dead as he/she joins the ancestors.

Walk into a number of Luhya homesteads and you will find hens roaming around. Actually, a lot of importance is put on them. One Peter Omalo compares the importance of a cock to security. 

“It could give a shrill warming sign if an enemy passes by which was so useful at night. This could help those inside the house know that danger is outside for them to prepare adequately,” he says, adding that the crowing of the cockerel was also used to determine time. 

“It crows first at 3am in the morning which is referred to as first cock crow that wakes people up to begin work. The rest crowing is hourly. Since people in the past did not have clocks and watches, it was the most significant way of determining time… It was unthinkable for one to slaughter a cock that was used by the rest of the community for a radius of about 2 kilometers to determine time without informing them first so that they find an alternative time determiner,” says Mr Omalo. 

To Mr Okuku, a cockerel is a symbol of a man in a home. It protects other chicken by giving a shrill warning sign in case of danger just like a man protects a family. “It could also foretell misfortune by crowing at wrong time,” Okuku says.

Eat chicken

As delicacy, it was a must for any visitor to eat chicken. “Even today how can you fail to prepare any respectable visitor a meal of chicken?” marvels Francisca Mugasa, 70, a native of Funyula, Busia County. 

As part of Luhya traditions, if a man was away and chicken slaughtered in his household, some parts like gizzard were stored until he came back. If he would take long, the eldest brother around would be invited to eat but not children or women.

“Their work (referring to women) was only to prepare it for men but today we are mad, eating everything including the gizzard,” says Ms Mugasa. 

However, not any breed or species of chicken was prepared for meals, or given as gifts. “Black feathered chicken was used by witch doctors in their trade while white was associated with purity and worshipping” says Wamanya of Nabongo Council of elders. 

BARAZA ODENDA

Mr Nabongo warns that unless for evil intention, the black chicken was never prepared for a meal to be set before visitors. Additionally, a chicken breed with “rough feathers” was also used for witchcraft and therefore only kept by witch doctors – pun not intended.

“If feathers from such a chicken were burnt, it could create a fight in a gathering like a dance,” Nabongo says. 

While some cultural practices may no longer be actively practiced in Luhya land, the community’s closeness and fondness to chicken, is quite intriguing. The pattern of many travelers from Western part of Kenya in public transport to Nairobi dutifully clutching chicken with them has refused to fade. Subconsciously, this reflects the inherent attachment to the bird of many feathers for its many purposes among the Luhya community – raising the question: why would one buy “ingokho” from “ingo” rather than just buy one, at say, Nairobi’s Bama market?

“The one from home tastes sweeter, and it makes one feel close and attached to whoever has brought it as gift,” confides Peter Wandera, a Luhya man from Busia County who works in Nairobi.   

The writer is a freelance content creator with Unikkontent. To contribute to this segment please email: editor@nairobibusinessmonthly.com

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