Chicken as an ancient reading material for Bukusu and other Luhyia communities of Western Kenya
Written by Timothy Makokha
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Chicken market in Kimilili.
When the noun chicken is mentioned anywhere in this country, people think of Luhyias first since people have been made to associate chicken with Luhyia. It’s like the word chicken is a synonym of Luhyias. Whenever I visit Machakos country bus in Nairobi, I never fail to see buses from Western Kenya carrying chicken. Any bus travelling from western to Nairobi or beyond must have a chicken as part of the luggage.
Initially before the art of writing was introduced, chicken was like a book to the Bukusu people. When a chicken was slaughtered, elders would check particular section of intestine (chimbochi) to read what is likely to occur in their environment or to know what is going on in their neighborhood. Depending on the shape, coloration, and amount of air in the intestine will tell whether there was a problem or not. For example if there is a funeral of a close relative, it was read on the intestines of a chicken.
A leg of a slaughtered chicken was also looked at keenly to read some signs about the home or community. The toes of a slaughtered chicken were supposed to stretch out but when they were closed up it was understood that there was a problem in the vicinity.
Occasionally, hens and cocks would bend low and put their heads together. If they put heads together and then disperse without fighting it means there is peace but when they fight afterwards it means lack of peace in a home.
Chicken was used for assessing the life of an individual in a clan/community. When there was a disagreement between a wife and husband and a wife returns to her matrimonial home, elders would assess the situation and give her a cock to take to her husband as a sign of peace and re-union of the couple.
Most cultural sacrifices among the Bukusu people were successful when a chicken was used. For this reason elders were rearing chicken for sacrificial purposes. For example for child naming, arresting of unwanted spirits, appeasing some gods, some kind of traditional worship (khukhwesaya) and marriage ceremonies. Black, white and brown chicken were associated with such rituals. There were specific rituals that were to be performed using a white hen but not just a hen of any other colour.
When visitors come in a home in company of a child, on their departure the baby was given a chick to take home. That chick was meant to assess the life of that child. When that chick grows to produce many chicken it was interpreted that the child is likely to be successful in life. In case that chick is picked by a hawk or mongoose or get lost, it meant that the child may encounter many problems in life.
If it turned out that the chick that was given to a child was a cock, it was supposed to be exchanged with a hen. This is because, a cock meant for a child was not supposed to crow in the homestead as it was seen as an abomination.
After initiates undergoing a pass out ceremony (khukhwalukha) from a special hut for initiates (likombe), they would move around to collect chicken from homes of immediate relatives. The chicken given to them was meant to assess the life of the graduated initiates. If the chicken is eaten by predators it meant the initiate is likely to undergo problems in his life.
When a hen/cock stands on one leg at the door step, it means bad omen in the house. It is even worse when it stands on the left leg and defecates at the door step. Such a chicken was to be slaughtered immediately and a medicine man invited to give directives on what to do.
It was an abomination for a hen to crow most likely in the evening. Such a hen was to be slaughtered immediately (yeluswa bera eng’ene). A cock is not supposed to crow when it is covered in a basket. If such a thing happens, the cock is to be slaughtered immediately.
A cock is the most accurate natural clock that has been relied on since time immemorial. At 2am, a cock would move from the rest of the flock and vigorously shake its wings without crowing and then goes back to join the rest of flock to sleep. At 3am, the cock would on average crow twice. At 4am it will crow more twice. At 5am it crow several times at an interval of about 15 minutes. At 6am, the cock crow several times at a more regular interval.
In the traditional society, men valued a cock more than any other person. This is because it acted as a reminder for them to wake up and become intimate with their wives very early in the morning before embarking on daily chores. Intimacy in the morning was highly valued as it enabled them to produce many children. Contrary to the evening one which is done when a couple is exhausted after tiresome activities of the day.
In case of an emergency fight that involved bloodshed in a home, a hen was used to appease the gods responsible for bloodshed. A hen was rotated several times above the head of the bleeding victim before it is roasted and eaten by all members present as a sign of peace restoration.
Chicken was as well seen as a symbol of wealth in a home as it formed a starting point for livestock and poultry rearing in a home. A typical person was expected to have chicken which in turn was exchanged with a goat/sheep, then later the sheep/goat was exchanged with a cow and then from there it is believed someone had become rich beginning with an egg/chicken.
Men originally associated the chicken with some spiritual powers that‘s why Bukusu women were not allowed to eat chicken in the past. Women were only meant to cook and prepare chicken stew for their husbands and other man of the clan.
Many comedies/jokes have been performed about Luhyias and chicken to amuse crowds of people. As luhyias, one should feel proud to be associated with chicken as it is bird that is of great value to us not only in terms of diet but also as a sign of wealth and for cultural reasons. Once again I encourage all to keep chicken and enjoy the benefit associated with it.