103. An African Experience: Passing Wisdom to Future Generations

In my blog of February 4, Is there Life after This LifeHarold Miller responded as follows:

“We have lived in Africa for 50 years and have readily imbibed African understandings of ‘life after death.’

At death one joins the corps of the “living dead”; those who passed on earlier and now live in the memory of the living, thus providing a range of important reference points with regard to ethics, morals, and understandings about Creator God.

Such an understanding calls for maximum investment during a lifetime in relationships with people, with the environment, with all that is life-giving. It is such investment that constitutes the elements comprising the role(s) of the “living dead.”

I invited Harold to give more details about passing on the wisdom of the elderly to succeeding generations. In the following account, Harold recalls attending a ritual designed to do just that. I included a few African proverbs on wisdom that Harold sent with the blog.

Passing wisdom to future generations, by Harold Miller

Africans have a ritual—Itwika—to bequeath Wisdom and Responsibility to the Next Generation. The ‘itwika’ ritual is initiated by an elder among the Agikuyu people of Kenya as a conscious handing-over of accumulated wisdom and responsibility to the succeeding generation. Such a ritual can be convened by an elder who has met the qualifications: completing the prescribed puberty rites of passage, married and the father of children and the grandfather of grandchildren. The Agikuyu ‘itwika’ ritual will vary among other African people groups

Itwika – Bequeathing Wisdom and
Responsibility to the Next Generation

In May 2006, I attended an Itwika ritual performed for Rev. Dr. John Gatu.  Gatu, at eighty-one years of age, was celebrated with a two-day reflective seminar crowned by a church service on the third day. In his youth, he served with the colonial King’s African Rifles and, most remarkably, had taken a loyalty oath to support the Mau Mau rebel movement that eventually led to independence from British colonial rule.

A wise man fills his ears before he empties his mouth.
African Proverb

Over his lifetime, Gatu had been involved in a most remarkable range of ecclesial and political initiatives. Together with other senior Kenyan church leaders, he participated in the politically and ecclesially risky mission to visit the controversial Kenyan nationalist, Jomo Kenyatta in a British prison. Kenyatta later became Kenya’s first President. Gatu served as a minister in the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, eventually holding its highest office. He had held high positions in multiple continent-wide and worldwide organizations that crossed traditional ecumenical and theological boundaries. He was a participant in the widely-recognized Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization in 1974 and played vital roles in achieving peace in Sudan and the war in Biafra. This remarkable man had achieved much and acquired great wisdom.

Even when seated the wise old man sees far.
African Proverb

The itwika was organized as a conscious handing-over of accumulated wisdom and responsibility to the succeeding generation. During the seminar segment of the ‘itwika’ celebration, a Kenyan Baptist theologian presented the case for dynamic continuity between the African religious heritage (African Religion) on the one hand, and Christianity as received from western missionaries, as the other. “We have heard the voice of God continuously in both faith traditions.”

“Living Dead” defined

In African religious thought, “There is no distinction between the physical world and the spiritual world; the afterlife is regarded as simply a continuation of life on earth. . . . Death is regarded as part of man’s destiny, a departure in which the physical body decays but the spirit moves on to another state of existence. . . .  As long as there is someone alive who can remember a deceased person, that person is considered as part of the ‘living dead.’” (New World Encyclopedia.),

The “living dead” are those who have lived well, died well and are remembered well, a status aspired to by the living.

At appropriate moments throughout the three-day ‘itwika’ event, a properly qualified Agikuyu elder, ensconced in a discrete corner of the premises, was playing classic Kikuyu ‘gicandi’ music in a plain-song folk idiom, presented with appropriate gravitas. The musician, attired in colobus monkey skins, created a musical sequence by means of a rattle strapped to his leg—activated by thumping of his foot—and by the sustained hand shaking of a gourd covered by a loose network of cowrie shells. With this rhythmic beat background, the performer ‘sang’ carefully nuanced cultural messages, focused on Gatu’s specific characteristics and contributions. With this ritual, the singer was bequeathing Gatu’s achievements and wisdom to his son and grandchildren, all present at the event. Thus, the three-day ‘itwika’ event functioned as a rite of passage.

How do we pass on wisdom to future generations? Do we need a ritualized way to do that? Glen

Harold MillerHarold Miller was born in 1935 in Hartville, Ohio into an Amish family, later to become members of a Conservative Mennonite congregation and moving to Arthur, Illinois. At draft age, he joined the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) PAX program in Germany for three years. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite College and married Annetta Wenger who was born and raised as a missionary child in Tanganyika/Tanzania. Harold and Annetta served with Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions (EMM) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where he was assigned to the position of Secretary for Relief and Service in the Christian Council of Tanzania. After completing a MA in International Affairs, they were posted to Khartoum, Sudan where Harold served as logistics officer in the Sudan Council of Churches. Subsequent postings included to the National Council of Churches of Kenya as Secretary for Rural Development, administrative assignments for MCC in East Africa, and as staff person to the International Affairs Desk of the All Africa Conference of Churches, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Their final joint assignment before retirement was with MCC as reps to Sudan. They live in Nairobi, Kenya since their retirement in 2005.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *