The Nation (Nairobi)

5 May 2008

Kenya: What's in a Name? Goddesses Have Always Been Worshipped

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Nairobi — Last weeek, PCEA moderator David Githii banned the use of the word "harambee" - the national rallying cry popularised by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta - from his congregation's vocabulary and urged the rest of Kenyans to do the same.

Apparently, the pastor believes that because the word originated from an invocation to the Hindu goddess "Ambee", it is having a negative spiritual effect on the country's mostly Christian population.

According to folklore, in the days when the Uganda Railway was being built between 1896 and 1902, Hindu labourers would shout the words "Har Ambee" (much like the Catholic invocation Hail Mary) when pulling heavy loads together.

This act of "pulling together" is what gave the words new meaning in post-independence Kenya when Kenyatta would urge Kenyans to unite for the development of the country.

During this time, the word harambee was also used to fund-raise for several community-based projects around the country.

If the pastor had objected to the very concept of harambee, which got horribly twisted in the Moi era when it was used to extort money from people and was the vehicle through which many corrupt deeds were committed, I might have understood, but to say that the word itself carries negative connotations, is, to say the least, far-fetched.

Until I heard it from the Rev Githii, I had no idea that Ambee was a Hindu goddess. My main source of information on this Hindu deity was, ironically, a Christian online magazine that suggested that Kenya was disaster-prone because it worshipped a Hindu goddess, and that the USA was a superpower because the words "In God We Trust" appear on the US dollar!

The pastor has thus inadvertently revived a goddess that has mostly been forgotten by the people who once worshipped her.

While it is true that Ambee is a Hindu goddess, the word harambee (as pronounced, spelt and understood in Kenya) does not exist in the Hindu vocabulary.

Harambee may be rooted in Hindu mythology, but it is a word that has been adapted and adopted as a uniquely Kenyan slogan. It is as African as the Kiswahili word binadamu (which means "human being"), which originated from the biblical Adam.

Besides, history shows that goddess worship has been prevalent in most societies around the world, including Africa, since pre-history.

In most cultures that worshipped a female deity, goddesses were not only emblems of fertility and motherhood, but also symbols of the inter-connectedness of life and death.

IN THE HELLENISTIC WORLD, THE goddess Isis was described as "the mother of the universe". The Ibo in Nigeria believed that the cotton tree contained the earth goddess. In Cuba, Catholic female deities (such as the Virgin Mary) are worshipped alongside Yoruba goddesses, among them Ochun, the goddess of love.

Goddesses were invoked to nurture communities and protect them from evil or disaster. The Hindu goddess, Durga, for instance, is seen as the vanquisher of evil. The female warrior goddess was revered in societies undergoing calamity. But men have always sought to diminish the power of goddesses so that they could assert patriarchal monotheism on people.

It has been claimed, for instance, that the Roman Empire was on the verge of evolving into a goddess-focused society until the advent of male-centred religions such as Mithraism and Christianity.

When the Hebrews invaded the promised land of Canaan some time before 1200 BC, they found a thriving, fertile region occupied by Semitic people whose myths and religious practices were similar to those of Sumeria and Babylon. In the biblical book of Joshua, the invasion is described as a holy war against the false gods (and goddesses) of the Canaanites.

Chief among these were the "Mother of the Gods" Asherah, her daughter Astarte, and her son Baal. The father god, El, escaped the persecution of the Israelites largely because he was assimilated to their own god, Yahweh-Elohim

The Hebrew prophets waged a bitter battle against the Canaanite goddesses by blaming them for every disaster that befell them. Astarte, for instance, came to be referred to as Ashtoreth - a combination of her name and the Hebrew word for "shame". Later, Christian theologians resumed their attack on Astarte by demonising her and by defining the practice of offering her food or drink as an act of "devil worship".

The idea that females have divine power is apparently so threatening to most religions that they have sought to vilify female deities. I am inclined to believe that organised monotheistic religions have a deep fear of the power of women - and it is this fear that has driven male-centred interpretations of religious teachings.

This could explain why many women healers in Europe and the United States were labelled "witches" and burnt alive in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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