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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


Chapter Eight

One God

Each morning, as a Maasai elder leaves his house, he prays, 'Enk Ai', God of our fathers, continue to look after us, to take care of our children, and to drive away diseases alike from men and cattle. Keep evil away from us. 'Each morning, as a Maasai woman milks her cows: 'Enk Ai, I pray you to give me life, children and food to support life.'

When accused of theft, a Marakwet may take an oath and say, 'Look on me, Chebet. O, tell me whether I stole this thing or am falsely accused.' If he wishes to let his flocks go untended for a day, he may say, 'It's Chebetýs turn to look after the stock today'.

Each morning, the senior wife in an Ankole homestead, before the others had risen, would take a dry spray of a plant which, in the vernacular, is called 'protection'. Sprinkled on the fire it gave a pleasant smell. Then she squeezed the leaves of another plant called 'good fortune' and, letting the juice fall in the fire, prayed to Ruhanga, 'Let me smile in good fortune. Let my children smile in good fortune. Let my home smile in good fortune. I do not eat what is not mine. I do not steal my neighbour's goods. I always wish good health to others. I am never in debt. He who hates is unjust. I am always smiling in good fortune.' Before making an offering to a ghost or spirit, the officiant, again using herbs to symbolise his meaning, would pray, 'Let my home be pure. Let this house be spared. Keep away my enemies.... These are yours, O Creator; and yours, O Giver; and yours, Lord of the Sun. O give me life'.

When Baganda children are playing, they sometimes sing, 'Don't count me. Katonda counted me long ago. Don't count me. The pied wagtail counted me long ago.'

These four societies differ from one another in many ways. The Maasai are a nomadic, pastoral people. Sorcery, both bad and good, is very common. There is no belief in ghosts or spirits. But in the beginning Enk Ai (which also means 'rain') set Maasinda on the earth. A leather rope stretched from sky to earth; and from its lower end Maasinda communicated with Enk Ai. His constant desire was for cattle; and they were sent down the rope. Enk Ai also spoke to him so that he became very wise. Of his four sons, Maasai alone inherited his love of cattle. The others became founders, respectively, of the forest hunters, the agriculturists and the smiths.

The Maasai migrated southwards and came to the precipitous escarpment of the Kerio river. After a long time of waiting and a hazardous ascent, only the strongest reached the top and lived to inhabit their new home; and Enk Ai is addressed, 'O thou who brought us up from Kerio'. In daily prayer he is addressed also, after two famous sections of the people at that time, as 'Enk Ai of Ilkitilik and Ilkuarri'. From Kerio they moved southwards to the modern Kitale and Kinangop, which provided fertile pastures; and, in the latter area, round a particular tree, they made their major sacrifices. In 1911 a treaty with the British confined them to an area further south but made specific provision for their access to the tree for religious purposes. After two or three visits, they discovered that Enk Ai could be worshipped at other trees in their new homeland. There are clear parallels here with Leviticus 19.36, Esodus 3.6 and Psalm 137.

Enk Ai is actively involved in their lives at every point. (The present tense is used because few Maasai are yet Christian). He preserves order and punishes injustice. Through him a generous man becomes more wealthy, one who is mean loses his property. From him comes the blessing which parents bestow on sons who care for them. He ensures that the curse of a dying parent is fulfilled on the careless. HIs chief intermediaries are the laibon (Chapter Six). But their numbers are few; travelling is difficult; and they can be consulted only on special occasions. Every man prays direct to Enk Ai.

The Marakwet are mainly agriculturists, though this may be only a recent development and related tribes are still pastoralists. One day Chebet (which also means 'sun') was lying on the ground, along with the Moon, Man and a number of animals. He became suspicious of Man; and he and Moon escaped to the sky. The other animals left it too late, till man sharpened a stone and killed one of them. Then the rest took refuge in the forest. Chebet is supreme, omnipotent, the omniscient arbiter of all things and the guarantor of right. As the sun shines on all people and all things, so Chebet sees everything that happens on earth and ensures its proper functioning. When cursing a thief, a man might say, 'Behold my case, O Asis (another name for Chebet). Friend Chebet, why do you let the children suffer? O horror! May Asis kill the thief.' Only in such cases was he addressed directly. Regular prayers were not said to him. Ilat (Chapter Seven) and the ghosts, various forms of sorcery and witchcraft, were much more likely to be invoked in everyday affairs. Nevertheless, there was a deep sense of his presence and of his ultimate responsibility for the well-being of all men.

This sense of an omnipotent God, creator of all things and all men, sustainer of social and natural order, who nevertheless is not directly concerned in affairs, comes out very forcibly in the case of Ruhanga of Ankole. The people of Ankole are a mixture of two groups, one agricultural, the other pastoral, with a centralised kingship in some ways similar to that of Buganda. They believed in sorcery, family ancestors and a number of spirits similar to those of Buganda. The last, in particular, demanded a great deal of attention if things were to go well, though their theoretical occupation was that of guardians of each homestead. It was these forces which were invoked to account for trouble or to give help in hazardous endeavours. In a case of sickness, where all other attempts at cure had failed, it might be said, 'Let Ruhanga heal him'; and, if the patient recovered, Ruhanga was given the credit. But, usually, the case was given up as hopeless. It was customary to draw his attention to any important activity. His presence could be felt in thunder and lightning, his fury in rainstorms and black clouds. Hailstones were his dung and water his urine. He was known as 'Creator', 'Giver', 'Lord of the Sun'. He was above all things, invisible, omnipresent, moving like the sun (and like Chebet of the Marakwet) across the whole earth. Tata Ruhanga was an exclamation of joy at the birth of a child. 'See how beautifully Ruhanga has made that little hill', an Ankole man might say. He gave new life, the blessings of worldly attainment and the daily needs of every man. He imposed the laws by which society was organised and preserved peace. Yet he was not thought to intervene directly in human life. The order which he had created might be thrown out of balance - a totem might be violated (Chapter Two). But the consequences were automatic, impersonal, like the swing of a pendulum restoring the balance. It was not possible to speak of offending him or to make him an offering. To say, 'These are yours....' was simply a statement of fact.

Finally, the Baganda in the nineteenth century recognised three spirits who may, at an earlier stage in their history, have been regarded as creator-gods. One was Ggulu, the spirit of the sky, who enters into the Kintu legend (Chapter Two) and was the father of Lightning and Death, Muwanga (which is the Buganda form of Ruhanga and means 'one who sets things in order') was said by some to be leader of the spirits and ruler over all things. He was frequently used by diviners as an aid in the diagnosis of trouble. Katonda means 'creator' and he was said to have created all things (notice the difference from Muwanga). The pied wagtail was his 'chief minister' and used to perch on the tops of houses to count those inside. But very little attention was paid to him. It may be that, at one time, all these three were recognised as creator, and given some sort of superiority, in different parts of the country. But, by the nineteenth century, they were being treated as rather minor spirits. The attitudes which other peoples have directed towards the creator god were reserved by the Baganda for their king.

Diagram 3 overleaf [below] tries to illustrate the shape of the societies described in Chapters Three to Eight.

Some students of early religious forms have thought that there was evolution from belief in ghosts or nature-spirits, through some form of 'polytheism', to belief in one God. Others have argued that, originally, all men believed in a single God and that belief in many psychic beings developed later. The four examples given show how very difficult it is to provide conclusive evidence for either of these views. All that can at present be said with any certainty is that different types of society seem to have different forms of 'religious' belief. For instance, it would be possible to make the following suggestions as a simple hypothesis to be tested by further observations:

(i) pastoral nomads, like the Maasai and the Jews in the desert, tend to

believe in one God, active in all the affairs of life;

(ii) settled, agricultural people, like the Baganda and the agriculturists

of Ankole and like the Canaanites of Palestine, tend to believe in

many spirits;

(iii) just as the Jews, when they settled to an agricultural life in

Palestine, bagan to practise the cults of the Canaanite spirits (and were rebuked by the prophets), so the Marakwet, having turned from a nomadic to a settled life, are beginning to develop a cult of many spirits, while still remembering their one God;

(iv) where, as in Ankole and Marakwet, a firm belief in one God

continues to exist side by side with a belief in many spirits, God

ceases to be regarded as actively concerned in day-to-day affairs;

(v) the development of a strong, centralised kingship may, as in

Buganda, direct attention from the one God to the king himself, who becomes, in effect, the focus of the most powerful religious emotions.

Common to all the attitudes seems to be a conviction that there is a stable social and natural order, guaranteed by a power which it is better to call 'supernormal' rather than 'supernatural'. This power is Enk Ai or Chebet or Ruhanga. In Buganda, the natural order does not seem to have been so important; but the social order was guaranteed by the kingship. In contemporary technological society the power is depersonalised and called 'the uniformity of nature'. But, whether it is the dynamic activity of Enk Ai, the largely passive but inescapable personality of Ruhanga, or the impersonal basis of all scientific activity, it is still an assertion of the primary conviction. To the very tentative five suggestions which have already been made, it is possible to add another.:

(iv) people who live in a technological society tend to disbelieve in any psychic forces outside the personality of individuals. Religious disbelief is related not so much to philosophical or scientific argument as to the nature of contemporary society.

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