Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Kilumi Rain Dance in Modern Kenya

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Kilumi Rain Dance in Modern Kenya

Article excerpt

"... Wakamba or Kenyans must have traditions as old as any area and perhaps older than most. They must have mastered their environment; otherwise they would be extinct." (1)


Dance is a source of power for Africans and African descendants worldwide; their dance expressions are often generalized as "black dance". (2) For centuries, Africans in Africa and the Diaspora have used dance ritual traditions to manage their ever-changing environment. Specifically, as described in the opening quote, traditions serve as the foundation for environmental management for Kenyans. These traditional environmental management skills have become more important over the last several decades because of unpredictable rain patterns throughout Kenya. The application of dance as a ritual and source of power is the focus of this study.

Across many miles in South Central Kenya, in particular, one can see cracked red earth, wilted mango trees, dry rivers, and airborne dust as a result of drought. (3) Without question, predictable rain is highly desired and needed. For many, this is accomplished through very specific dance rituals designed to formally request rain from the Gods. Rain dances are often regarded as outdated, backward, unused, and irrelevant practices. This position is logical for some who feel that in the modern era, the current application, need, use, and influence of dancing and drumming to summon rains are ludicrous. However, in Kenya these rites are a rational and relevant way to spiritually intervene and pray for rain. This study explores the historically, culturally, and socially complex topic of rain making in Kenya as a model for understanding the complexity of the Black dance experience.

In order to untangle the dynamics of rain making dance rituals and its importance to rain management, it is necessary to first explore the important relationship between modern rain making dances and droughts. The Kenyan drought in 2008-2009 impacted nearly 10 million people. (4) Yet, the unpredictable rainfall was not isolated to this particular moment in time. Kenya has endured a long relationship with drought and unpredictable rain for many decades. Despite the fragile conditions, as Kivuto Ndeti points out in the opening quote, Kenyans have deep-rooted and tried survival traditions. Through rain making dance traditions, this study examines how dance rituals are used at specific moments in time, by specific people, at a specific place, and for a specific purpose. The detailed treatment of rain dances provides insight into the multifaceted nature of black dance expression.

There is often the impression that rain dance practices have completely disappeared from Kenyan life. However, the dance rite is still embedded into the life of some Kenyans in the rural areas. Due to the persistent issues of rain unpredictability and lack of modern/Western solutions to prevent drought, Kenyans had to discover their own methods of managing the environment by invoking traditional customs. Rain dancing continues in modern Kenya because of the reoccurring drought; therefore, historically there has been a space for people to retain and memorialize the practice.

In December 2008, Ukambani, located in South Central Kenya, experienced one of the worst droughts recorded. But what is clear, even based on the 2011 drought in Kenya, is that the conditions are more frequent and longer with poor rainfall levels severely affecting the livelihood of Kenyans. In an article covering the 2008 drought in Kenya, Obadiah Ayoti states, "...despite the recurrence of droughts and their devastating effects on communities and the economy, Kenya lacks a comprehensive drought management policy." (5) The 2008 drought in particular forced community members to pull out drums, rattles, whistles, and special dance garbs to invoke the blessings of water spirits and deities. It is, in the essence of this particular moment, that this study is situated. …

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