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African traditional values - Interview with the Very Reverend Dr John G. Gatu

Summary & Comment: In this Wajibu interviews distinguished Christian Church leader, John G. Gatu weighs the responsibility the church to analyse values, customs, and practices of African culture and actively engage in an inculturation of the faith that restores and upholds Kenya’s varied culture and time-tested values. DN

Author: Njeri Kang’ethe Date Written: 19 January 2009
Primary Category: Kenya Document Origin: Wajibu
Secondary Category: Africas Image: Contemporary Issues Source URL:
Key Words: Kenya, African traditional values, John G. Gatu, Gĩkũyũ culture, Christianity,

African Charter Article #17: Every individual shall have the right to education, cultural life, and the promotion and protection of values. (Click for full text...)

Printable Version
Can African traditional values be revived?
 - Interview with the Very Reverend Dr John G. Gatu

The Very Reverend Dr John G Gatu, a renowned poet, author, mediator, theologian, motivational speaker, counsellor, ecumenist, and preacher, is a retired Presbyterian Minister. He has served in several leadership roles in national, regional, continental and global ecclesiastical organisations, including Chair, the National Council of Churches of Kenya, President of the General Committee of the All Africa Conference of Churches, as well as member or chair of various other African and international church bodies. For many years the Very Rev Dr John G Gatu, held the helm as the General Secretary and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. In retirement he continues to be active as a consultant.

WAJIBU:  In your book “Joyfully Christian + Truly African” you come through as one of the very few missionary educated Africans who has been able to live your faith in the context of your cultural identity. Can you share briefly how you have integrated your faith into your natural and cultural identity?

JGG: In my study of theology I was introduced to a God who is alive and is a Father to his children. This helped me right from the outset to understand that even though my ancestors did not know God in the person of Jesus Christ as we Christians know him today, he nonetheless was their God, and they were his children. I, therefore, did not have to be an American or a European to embrace the Christian faith and live it. This revelation gave me the confidence and courage to interrogate the Gospel of Jesus Christ a little deeper. I discovered that, although somewhat subsumed in the practices and cultures of the people, in many aspects the Gospel is implicated in traditional religions.

My Gĩkũyũ culture is a case in point. In a covert way, the cross seems to have a central place in the practices and customs of the Gĩkũyũ people. When a Gĩkũyũ medicine man (mũndũ mũgo) offered a sacrifice to Ngai (God), he would first of all point to the four mountains surrounding Gĩkũyũland, that is Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya), Kirimbiruiru (Ngong Hills), Kia Njahi (Kilimambogo) and Nyandarua (the Aberdares). To the keen observer this is symbolic of the sign of the cross.  When a Gĩkũyũ slaughters a goat, he cuts it from the mouth downs and across the shoulders to the legs, again, making a sign of the cross.

Ordinarily, the Gĩkũyũ travelled by foot. In their tradition, wherever paths crossed each other (magomano ma njĩra) a store (ikumbĩ ria Ngai) was constructed where those passing by would drop foodstuffs and water which would provide sustenance for the hungry and weary stranger passing by. This I believe was symbolic of the cross, a place where all our needs are met, our social or other status notwithstanding.

For me therefore, there is no dichotomy between my Christian faith and my Gĩkũyũ culture. Each edifies the other to the honour and glory of God.

Since we cannot turn the clock back, is there really any point in knowing about and studying our traditional values?

It is true indeed that we cannot turn the clock back, but we must hold onto the traditional values that are relevant and useful, and teach them to our children. For instance, the respect for older people is a cherished culture of the African people. In the Gĩkũyũ culture, a younger person greets an older one using words and gestures that portray deep respect - Wakia awa (for a man) and Wakia maitũ (for a woman). One is not allowed to address an older person by their name but by the respectful title of Nyina wa …(Mother of…), for a woman or Ithe wa … (Father of …), for a man. The only persons who are allowed to address each other by name are age mates.

Discipline is core to respect for older people. In the Gĩkũyũ culture, if an older person finds a younger person or a child behaving badly, it is the duty of the older person to correct the errant child first before reporting her or him to the parents. The Gĩkũyũ are firm believers in the ‘spare not the rod’ doctrine and the correction would invariably be in the form of a thorough whacking on the backside. Today, one risks arrest and prosecution if one dares to discipline a neighbour’s child in this manner. I hasten to mention here that there was an unwritten rule that correction would never degenerate into assault or battery or would in any way cause harm to the child. The essence of the cane was not to punish but to discipline.  

Traditional society was held together by the glue of common values: hard work, honesty, generosity, hospitality, justice, courage, respect for elders, a good reputation, and fear of God. Would you say that the loss of commonly agreed upon values is a main cause for the troubles that are plaguing our society?

Yes, indeed it is true that many of our problems can be traced back to our waywardness as a people. As I have stated before, we Africans are lucky in that positive values such as hard work, honesty, generosity, hospitality, justice, courage, respect for elders, a good reputation and fear of God are inherent in us. We must therefore, as a matter of necessity hold onto them and ensure that we inculcate them in our children. The Christian faith is a time-tested anchor in that it enhances the practice of these virtues in our lives.  

If this is so, in a society that is culturally and religiously as diverse as Kenya, is it possible to arrive at values that all citizens can be expected to adhere to?

It is difficult to harmonise diverse values but as I have said elsewhere, there is a benchmark against which values can be gauged. This benchmark is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. In Christ’s order of things, there is no Jew, no Gentile, no slave, no free person. All are equal in the eyes of God. Any value that counters this must be discarded.

In traditional society, age was a criterion for leadership, though it was not the only one. Elders were chosen on the basis of their wisdom, their impartiality in judgment and their upright behaviour. How can we arrive at a system where such values, rather than money or power will be the criteria by which we will both choose and judge our leaders?

We cannot talk about leadership in our context without looking at what the money economy has done to us as a people, and to our value system. In olden days, leaders were not paid. They were only given a token in expression of gratitude for what they had done for the community. This token was never demanded. The people knew that a good leader needed to be affirmed by word of mouth and by concrete appreciation. Money has changed all this, and leadership is no longer seen as a service to the community but as a cash cow. This attitude has an adverse impact on leadership and development.

On the one hand, those who aspire to positions of leadership will fight and or bribe their way into office. On the other hand, people will elect or select demagogues to office only on account of the candidates being rich, no matter how the wealth was acquired. Is it any wonder then that many of our leaders today are totally incapable of delivering on their pledges?

You are right indeed to say that age was a criterion for leadership but not the only one. While in our situation today we must recognise education, professional qualifications, and in some instances, faith as criteria, we must remember that virtues such as hard work, honesty, generosity, hospitality, justice, courage, respect for elders, a good reputation, and fear of God are of great importance.

Traditional society enforced behaviour that was in line with commonly held values through specific sanctions. In the Gĩkũyu society, these sanctions were administered by the family, by peer groups, and by the Council of Elders and included both ridicule and punishment, mostly in form of fines. Only when all else had failed was more severe punishment, such as ostracism, banishment from society or death meted out.

In our society there is a lot of impunity. In a democratic society, which organs/institutions should ensure that sanctions really work?

Traditional norms and institutions of justice have since time immemorial been the backbone of societal cohesion. It is a pity that unlike other communities like the Luo and the Kalenjin, the Gĩkũyũ have lost the concept of the Council of Elders. However, not too far from Gĩkũyũland, the Njuri Ncheke of the Meru community has acquired some national stature. Unfortunately, commercialisation and selfishness have distorted the mission of the Njuri Ncheke, and clawed back some of the gains it has made.

I wish it were possible to resurrect the institution of the Council of Elders in every community and every location. Unfortunately, as stated elsewhere, the money economy has distorted things and monetary compensation seems to be the rule for any societal undertaking. However, all is not lost because the church can fill the gap by providing an alternative and inculcating a sense of humanity in its members so that they live as a distinct community, the light and the salt of the earth in the midst of a corrupt world.

In the olden days, there was much more equality in society than we find to be the case today. If he rich did not take care of the genuinely poor (lazy people were not generally assisted), they were ridiculed in song or punished in various ways. For example, if a woman was not generous to young warriors, she would find her food mysteriously spoilt.

Today, we seem to have fostered envy for symbols of wealth: expensive cars, luxurious mansions, unbridled acquisition of property. How can we encourage respect, goodness, generosity, humility and a simple lifestyle in this age of diminishing resources?

This is a difficult question to answer, especially in the times we are living in, where, contrary to our culture, modern civilisation demands that we mind our own business to the exclusion of the needs of others. My advice is that we must practise true religion as prescribed by Saint Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi where he says, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility, count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.” (Phil:2:3-4).

Many will remember that our former President H E Daniel arap Moi never tired of reminding Kenyans to jali masilahi ya wengine (Kiswahili for: to be mindful of others’ welfare). Unfortunately, we only paid lip service to this exhortation and did not practise it. Perhaps we would be a different society today, if we had heeded this call.

A good reputation was highly valued in traditional society. What we seem to have lost on our road to ‘modernity’ is respect for a good reputation. How can we foster this respect once again?

It is true indeed that a very high premium was placed on a good reputation in virtually every African society. Unfortunately, modernity has overtaken many of our traditional institutions and ways of life. However, there is one institution that has withstood the test of time. The church of Jesus Christ remains a steadfast and solid refuge and solace in the storm of life. More importantly, it is the only society that is inclusive and calls all those who may, to come. The Bible says: “A good name is better than precious ointment.” (Eccl.7:1a). We must therefore practise what the church teaches for this is the only way we can foster respect for a good reputation.  

You have served in leadership roles in national, regional, continental and global ecclesiastical organisations including the National Council of Churches of Kenya, the All Africa Conference of Churches, World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches. For many years you held the helm at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), a church perceived to be euro-centric and extremely conservative. As a wrap-up, what in your view is the role of the church in Africa today in restoring our culture and time tested values?

During my watch as the General Secretary and later as the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) in the 60s and the 70s, we mooted the JITEGEMEA principle. This in essence was an attempt to rid the Church of the euro-centricity that one finds in theology, worship, and other practices of the Church - and in its place, introduce some of our cultural practices into liturgy. Unfortunately the spirit of JITEGEMEA was not well received in some quarters as it was revolutionary and threatened the symbiotic relationship between missionaries and some of the leadership of the Church in Africa. However, nothing can withstand the move of the Spirit of God and the Church has adapted aspects of our cultural heritage that enhance our Christian values.

In my view therefore, the church must take the responsibility of not only analysing values, customs and practices of our culture that are Christ centred and incorporating these into the life of the church, but must also actively engage in inculturation of the faith. This is the only way that the church will grow women and men of integrity, secure in their identity and faith.  Only then will Christians in Africa worship God in truth and in spirit.

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