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One Woman’s Quest to Reclaim Her African Spirituality

By Laima Vincė

Photos by Laima Vincė

Muthoni Mahinda, Diani Beach, Kenya, February 2023

An enormous baobab tree grows on Muthoni Mahinda’s bone-dry land. It was because of this sacred tree that Muthoni scraped together her resources to buy this land several miles inland from Diani Beach on the Indian Ocean. The baobab is a prehistoric species, older than mankind, predating the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago. When you gaze upon a baobab you literally move back in time. Two other enormous baobab trees on neighboring land create a triangle with Muthoni’s tree at its vertex. Here Muthoni dreams of opening a center for African spirituality.

The baobab tree on Muthoni's land.

A riot of brittle branches interrupts the glare of the hot sun beating down on us as Muthoni and I stroll across her land. She moves across the landscape with ease, giving instruction to three hired laborers who’ve just completed digging a well by breaking through many levels of rock and hardpacked arid earth to coax forth first a trickle, then a stream of water, an absolute necessity to prepare the land for habitation, for spiritual work, and for community gatherings.

Muthoni Mahinda inspects the newly built well on her land.

Looking down into the well to find water, a precious commodity in Kenya.

Muthoni Mahinda was born August 2, 1962, in the vicinity of Mount Kenya, Central Province. When she was growing up her father worked for the government and the family moved around the country; however, they always maintained close ties with their ancestral village. As an adult, her travels brought her to the United States and Zimbabwe, but eventually drew her home to Kenya.

Muthoni Mahinda.

Muthoni is almost six feet tall, slender, elegant, with rich deep ebony toned skin. She admits that she has some Masai blood, and hence her height. Her hair is styled in a riot of braided extensions that stream down her back. She wears jewelry she has made from African

gemstones—Tiger’s Eye and amethyst. Crafting jewelry and selling it at the local market is her means of supporting a son and daughter, and paying for the endless labor and construction needed to make a reality her dream of sharing her land with all who are seeking to embrace African spirituality. As we walk, Muthoni tells me about African spirituality.

Muthoni Mahinda's jewelry, ready to be sold at the local market.

“African spirituality is very connected to nature, to the mountains, the rivers, the forests,” Muthoni says. “The forests are hugely important in African spirituality. So are the rocks and anything that is natural, including animals. The belief system is very nature oriented. Most of the sacred sites that you find will be in one of those places. A lot of the sites in Africa are hidden because of the past history of plunder and sacred objects being stolen. You will therefore find that a lot of sacred sites are not known to the public, but now people are allowing some of their sacred areas to be visited and are sharing their history.”

Muthoni points at the baobab tree on her land.

 We pause to rest in the shade of her baobab tree. My pale northern European skin is hopelessly inadequate for the climate and no amount of sunscreen prevents me from burning.

“Why is it important to maintain a connection with ancestor spirits?” I ask.

“The ancestor’s work hand in hand with us. They are our guides and our protectors. They are also our messengers into the spirit world. We do not look at them as gods, unless you want to call them gods with a small “g”. They are just like spirit guides. If an ancestor had something traumatic happen to them, they could choose somebody from within their bloodline to heal that trauma. They approach us spiritually, which they do all the time, only we do not hear them. The easiest way for them to communicate with us is through channeling. Sometimes they communicate through dreams. When they do come to us, they may guide us through rituals. They may ask us to find certain herbs or go to a specific river where we wash our bodies and repeat certain words as we cleanse generational traumas. As physical beings, through rituals we clean out ancestral traumas that have been going down the family line. The ancestors need us to acknowledge them and to accept them and to welcome them into our lives so that they may work with us properly. Otherwise, if we ignore them, if we don’t notice them, recognize them, they step away from us and we are left with gaping wounds that are not healed, and those wounds move down the generations.”

“Does that mean we need to know who our ancestors were when they were living? Or is it enough just to call out to ancestors? My African American students and friends have talked about how they don’t know what African country their ancestors came from and have lost that part of their heritage. They feel a lot of pain because of that.”

            “It’s true that African Americans have lost their knowledge of their African ancestors,” Muthoni acknowledges, “but through channeling and meditation they can still connect with them. It is  good to know who your great great grandparents were, but it is not necessary when you are dealing with African spirituality because there is a lot of channeling involved. So, if there is a great great grandmother in your bloodline, she will come down to you through a channel. They could come through you or through somebody else and communicate with you. They will introduce themselves to you. They will tell you who they are and what your connection is and what your traumas are. Channeling works very well because you can go back generations. You might have a great great great grandmother come to heal a child who is in her bloodline. She too may come back to a great great great grandchild to ask for help to heal something that was never healed in her lifetime.  So, that’s why they also need us as much as we need them. Even though they are in the spiritual realm, they are still trying to be freed of energies that they have carried with them from their lifetimes.”

Wood carver on Dinari Beach selling his assortment of carved animals.

“So, if an ancestor experienced a strong trauma and they died before the trauma was resolved, they will find a descendant and work with the descendant to go back and resolve the trauma?” I wonder out loud, trying to understand.

“Exactly! Yes, that is how it goes. The ancestors also need us to heal traumas that may be blocking them from moving into higher realms. And the only way to do that is to work with their bloodline descendants to heal the trauma. Within African spirituality you can heal karmas by working with your ancestors.”

“In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition there is a belief that souls travel through incarnations in family groups. Is that also true in African Spirituality?” I ask.

“You could have belonged to a different bloodline, although we tend to reincarnate in one lineage. Your soul can move. In fact, your spirit could be split. You could be here and somewhere else. You could be in Africa and at the same time you are somewhere in India. Another part of your spirit may be in another place. But when an ancestral spirit is channeled and comes down to communicate with you from your bloodline, it means that the specific ancestral spirit is interested in working with you. You can imagine how many ancestral spirits somebody has. Your soul has been around for a very long time.”

Muthoni Mahinda explaining African spirituality.

We have talked so long while resting under the baobab that it is now late afternoon, and the sun has begun its descent and the air is cooling. Muthoni and I head back to the dirt road and climb into her old Toyota. She throws the stick shift into first, then second, then third gear, driving us over potholed dirt roads to her temporary rented home in a nearby village.

Dusk falls on the baobab.

Muthoni Mahinda and the triangle of baobabs.

We enter the tall traditional Kenyan house with its thatched roof and high ceilings designed to keep the air cool.  We climb the stairs up into an airy spacious loft where Muthoni has set up a studio for jewelry making. Muthoni carries upstairs with her our meal of traditional African spicey meat, vegetables, and rice, which was prepared by her helper in the kitchen. She has also prepared a thermos of a special blend of tea brewed with ginger, turmeric, lemon, garlic, and honey. We settle down on the couch.

Traditional Kenyan architecture.

           As we share the delicious meal and sip tea, I ask Muthoni, “When you were growing up and your family returned to the village, did your elders teach you about African spirituality?”

No,” Muthoni shakes her head and says, “and that’s because almost everybody had turned Christian, and nobody wanted to hear about African spirituality. Fellow Africans looked down at African spirituality in a negative way. They thought it was demonic and backwards. In fact, they said that according to Christianity, they were told they should not practice any other religion.”

“Kenya became an independent nation in 1963, when you were a one-year-old baby. Do you think that this view that African spirituality was demonic may have been brought by the British colonizers?”

“Yes, these views of African spirituality were definitely brought to Kenya by the British colonizers. That’s because when they came, they said that people were worshipping demons. They told us that now there was a new way. You can go directly to God. You don’t need spiritual leaders to guide you. Everyone was introduced to this sweet loving Jesus, and women were the most attracted to him. In general, African women are very spiritual. A lot of them were attracted to this white man who talked about love and compassion, and they believed that through Christianity they were going directly to the source.”

Local people at the market.

“How did you discover African spirituality then?”

“I first learned about African spirituality in the United States. I was in my twenties in the 1980s, and I felt pulled by America. I wanted to check it out. I was there ten years. I started out in Patterson, New Jersey and then from New Jersey I went to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then I moved to Maryland. In America I was attracted to a New Age crowd, and I was reading a lot of books. The book that opened me the most to African spirituality was Of Water and Of Spirit by Malidoma Some. I was completely hooked. That started me off on the search for more and more. I realized that African spirituality was such a beautiful thing, so mystical, so empowering. It created a feeling of belonging for me. While I educated myself on African spirituality, I also looked into other teachings, like siddha yoga and Tibetan Buddhism. I went to Zimbabwe in the late nineties. My daughter, Mumbi, had been born in the United States and I brought her back to Africa, so that she would know where she comes from. I chose Zimbabwe because it is a spiritual place and by that point I was very interested in African spirituality."

Zebras in the nature reserve.

"After two years, I felt connected to the spirituality of Zimbabwe. Of course, the first time I went there I just enjoyed the country and the people. Then in the year 2000, a friend of mine invited me to go to the Chipinge area to visit a friend of hers who lived close to a mountain. This lady was a Sangoma, a spiritual medium and healer. But the most interesting part is that Sangomas are from South Africa, but she was a European Sangoma. When we went to visit her that New Years Eve, she channeled different spirits who communicated with us. The next day she told me that my ancestors were trying to connect with me. I showed her a sore on my foot that was disturbing me and asked her, ‘What is this about?’ She said, ‘It is their way of calling you.’ So, you see, they’d been trying to communicate with me for a long time, but I couldn’t hear them. Even my father was trying to communicate with me, but I didn’t hear him. She said, ‘Now your dad is here and he’s telling you that you have forgotten him.’

“Did you forget him?”

“It wasn’t like I had forgotten, but he wasn’t really a part of my life that I was thinking about. Then she told me that my dad was saying that our family has become too scattered, as we are everywhere and not united. That is not a good thing. This was true. Nobody was staying in the same town, and we rarely got together. She told me that I needed to connect with our ancestors as they were trying to reach me.”

“How did you connect with your ancestors?”

“When me and my friend Heather left the Chipinge area and went back to Harar she took me to the Tibetan Buddhist Center. When we arrived, this tall African dreadlocked man walked out of the building towards us. I felt an instant connection with him. I just stepped out of the car and walked straight towards him. After we introduced ourselves to each other, the first thing I asked him was ‘Do you know anything about African spirituality?’ And he told me, ‘You have come to the right person.’ He was the perfect person to guide me through African spirituality. He became my teacher. He carried the spirit of one of their main ancestral spirits. I asked him how I could learn more, and he told me that he and his family were about to travel to the mountains to meet their African guru. I asked if I could join them, and he said yes. We called the man I met that day Baba G, that was his nickname.”

“What happened then in the mountains of Zimbabwe?”

“My daughter and I joined Baba G and his family in the mountains to see Sekuru Mutota, who was their guru and the ancestral father spirit and god of the underworld. According to them, under the earth there are other life forms. When we say underworld it’s not anything negative but another dimension with spirits, souls, and other life forms that live inside the earth. The ancestral spirit that he channeled came from the North. We walked deep inside the village where we were all going to stay in one round hut. In this hut, we divided ourselves with women sleeping on one side and men on the other side. Everyone had to carry their own mat and blanket. In the middle of the hut was a fire pit where we cooked for ourselves and shared stories. But before that, we were introduced to Sekuru Mutota. I was amazed, because the man that was channeling Sekuru Mutota’s spirit was a young man, maybe in his early forties. He was also now called Mutota. Nobody called him by his birth name. He was just called by the name of the spirit he channeled. After we had spent time with him, we went back to the hut where we were going to sleep. It was such a beautiful place with an amazing energy, so pure, so clear. The air was so fresh because it was deep in the forest. We sat around and told stories. Whoever felt like sleeping would just fall asleep. Suddenly, they all removed their instruments from their cases and started playing music. The people began singing, playing music, and dancing around the fire. I was totally mesmerized. Some of them ended up becoming channels, not channels that talk, but channels that dance.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

            “Sometimes the spirits would take over some of the bodies as they were dancing. The first night nothing major happened. Not until we all fell asleep. Then early in the morning around five, I woke up to find two people conversing, only to realize that the people communicating were not  themselves, but spirits they had channeled. The spirits were speaking to each other. As I sat there, others started waking up as channels for specific spirits. Before I knew it, almost everyone in there was channeling.”

“Were you channeling?”

“No, me and my daughter were just observing. What we were witnessing was an expression of spirits that work together. Even the physical people who were there were either family members or they worked together. It was a family group of spirits. Practically everyone there became a channeler and the spirits were having very intense conversations.”

“What were they talking about?”

“They talked about family issues, and they also went into national issues. I couldn’t follow a lot of it because they were speaking in their own language. Everything had to be translated into English for me.”

“So, when the spirits begin to speak, they speak in their own language?” I ask.

“Yes, in their own language. The spirits would not translate for me. Someone who was not channeling had to translate for me. I could communicate with the spirits in my language, but someone from their group would need to explain the spirit’s response to me. Of course, as we stayed in Zimbabwe longer, my daughter started speaking in their language. We went there when my daughter was very young, so she learned to understand the Zimbabwean language and culture.”

A traditional African mask.

Mumbi comes upstairs and joins us. She had recently returned after living a few years in the United States. She tells me that she felt more connected with her African heritage and realized that Kenya was where she wished to build her life. She is helping her mother create the center for African spirituality.

“Our daughters are our teachers now,” Muthoni says, smiling indulgently at Mambi. “The young people are tapped into a depth of spirituality that we did not have at their age, and so they will lead their elders.”  

“Can you tell me about some of the sacred sights of Africa?” I ask.

“Almost every tribe has its own shrine, and many shrines too. Some of the shrines are secret because they had to be kept safe. I can tell you about the shrines that are open to the public. Also, we have shrines that have been taken over by the Catholic Church. There is one such sacred area in a rich natural area where there is natural spring water that has healing powers. The area is very beautiful with fresh and pure drinking water. This sacred area is now owned by the Church and is dedicated to Mother Mary. It’s commonly known as the Shrine of Mary. Another area taken by the Catholics is in the Kitui area high up in the hills and is called the Museve shrine.

“Where I live the closest sacred site is called Kinondo Forest," Muthoni continues. "The Digo tribe are the custodians of that forest. This indigenous forest has many fruits, trees, and herbs. A long, long time ago the Kaya Forest had a village in it. The spirits of those villagers are believed to still inhabit those forests. We also have very large indigenous trees. There is one tree we have in the Kaya that you can hug and feel the energy. It is healing and comforting when you go to that forest. Total respect is expected when visiting and one cannot remove any plants from this area. A black cloth is tied around the guests. It’s an ancestral way of giving respect. Although a lot of Digos have converted to Islam, they still have a lot of reverence for their culture and ancestors. So, they are the people who have sought protection for the Kaya Forests. Here in Kenya the sacred forests are even being protected by the government, which is good.

            “Another Kaya Forest is the Mepoho Kaya, which is in Kaloleni of the Giriyama people. The Mepoho Kaya is a very sacred place. To visit it, a man has to have stayed away from sex for five days and a woman for three days. Also, a woman may not go there within three days of having her period.  You must remove your shoes when entering. This Kaya Forest has an amazing story of a woman called Mepoho.”

            “Who was Mepoho?”

            “She was collected from a river called Game when she was a baby. No one knew who her parents were. She was found at the river by a lady called Luvuno who had a small baby of the same age as Mepoho. One interesting thing about Mepoho is that she had no belly button, so she was not born of a woman. The woman who found her breastfed her together with her own child and raised her as her own until she was a young lady. Growing up as a child, Mepoho prophesied a lot, but no one took her seriously, not until she became a teenager. She protected her mother and would cry if she sensed danger when they traveled. She also protected her sister from men who she felt were not good for her. Around the age of 16 years Mepoho disappeared into the forest for seven days where she communicated with nature, the animals, and the plants. When she returned, she collected firewood and lit a huge fire, calling all the people to come to her. She told the people to create large drums, and they built them for her. These flat drums were used as a means of communication. Then she started to educate the people about herbs and cured their illnesses. This was the beginning of her role as a spiritual leader. At this point, she was already channeling a great spirit. So even if she had the body of a young lady, people gave her respect. The large drums that were built became her way of calling the people. At the same time, she would also light a huge fire. The drums are also used to communicate with higher beings and ancestors. People would come from all the Mijikenda tribes with their spiritual elders who recognized her as the head prophet. She was the top prophet out of all the Mijikenda tribes, and there were nine tribes. When they came to her, she healed the people with herbs. She diagnosed and healed many diseases, like epilepsy, malaria, mental illnesses, impotency—different kinds of diseases. She had a lot of helpers working around her who honored and respected her. She lived in a place called Gomeni, which was later on called Kaloleni.”

            “Why did the name change?” I ask.

            “Mepoho prophesied for a long time, until one heart breaking day when she called the villagers from all over the Mijikenda area. For three days they beat the drums. During this time when the drums were beating, she taught the people around her about different protective herbs. Then she stopped the drums and told them to listen very closely to her.

“She said, ‘I see something in our skies coming very fast with foreign people. I see something big on land coming very fast towards our people. I see a huge vessel in the ocean with foreigners coming towards our people.’ And then she said, ‘These people coming to visit us have their own culture and ways. When they come, our culture and ways shall slowly be destroyed.’

  “She told the people, ‘Your means of spirituality and your means of healing will change.’ After her speech, she asked them to resume the beating of the drums. As the drums continued beating, she told them she did not want to live there when the foreigners came. She did not want to see the changes. As she spoke, she started to sink into the ground while seated on her small three-legged stool. She placed her short cane, called a fimbo, down on the ground in front of her and it disappeared in front of the people, which was shocking to them. Then she said that the cane has not truly been lost but will come back in the hands of the one who will be sent to help after her. She said somebody else will be sent in her place with the same cane. She continued to sink slowly, holding her kalabash. She asked them to keep playing the drums, and to play her favorite rhythms. As the people looked on with astonishment, she sunk completely into the ground. And then the ground closed up and she completely disappeared. That was when people changed the name of the town from Gomeni to Kaloleni, which means, ‘to see.’ This was because people would say, ‘Come and see where Mepoho disappeared.’ This area where Mepoho disappeared is a tourist attraction in Mombasa today. It is now a sacred place too. Mepoho’s spirit still communicates with the people. Her spirit still comes through.”

“Isn’t the port city of Mombasa one of the places where the slave trade brought Africans to be shipped across the ocean.”

“Yes, that is Mombasa, Fort Jesus.”

“So, her prophecy was about the slave trade…”

Muthoni nods solemnly.

The enormity of sorrow brought to Africa through the slave trade is staggering. The story of Mepoho, the spirit-girl who prophesized the demise of Africa through colonialization, reminds Kenyans of this terrible legacy.

A street in Mombasa.

Outside the loft’s windows the first stars poke through the deep blue curtain of late evening. Muthoni’s soft deep voice fills the night as she continues to share her stories.

“On the way to Nairobi there is an area that belongs to the Kamba people in the Kitui area. That is where the sacred Nzambani rock is located, which is named after a girl called Nzambani. As she was collecting firewood, she came across a stone that was good for grinding tobacco. She wanted to give the stone to her parents as a gift. She picked it up and placed it against her breast under her cloth.  As she collected the firewood, she felt the stone sink inside her breast. Soon the rock was inside her body and her friends could not remove it. Then she herself started to swell. Her friends ran to the village and called for help. But nobody could do anything for Nzambani. She continued to swell until finally she turned into a rock herself. This rock is now called Nzambani rock and is shaped like two breasts. People believe if you go around the rock seven times you will become younger or you can change your gender. It takes 45 minutes to go around once. It’s not easy to go around even once because the landscape is so rocky. You must do the seven rotations in one go. There is a story of a determined man who went around seven times and changed into a woman and got married in one of the villages.”

“I find that amazing that this story alludes to the possibility of changing your gender,” I observe.  

Muthoni nods in agreement. “So modern in a way.”

Night falls and the land grows still. It is time for me to return to the house where I am staying on Diani Beach. I will be leaving Africa soon. I promise Muthoni that I will write about her dream of creating a center for African spirituality where Africans may gather and reclaim their indigenous belief system and practices.  Here Muthoni’s journey will be complete.

By Laima Vincė

All photos by Laima Vincė

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