Local liquor (kwete) a unifying factor among the Bukusu people of Kenya
Written by Timothy Makokha
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Kwete, the local brew that was a key factor for unity among the Bukusu community. Used by elders during dialogues.
Elders could read the behavior of the shape of top foam of kwete to interpret matters affecting the clan and community, for example by looking at the top foam produced by kwete they would know matters to do with rain, drought, hunger, and availability of peace. That’s why traditionally; Bukusu elders would recommend the preparation of local liquor (kwete) in each cultural practice.
There were various sizes of pots that were specifically meant for brewing kwete among Bukusu people. Enjikha was the largest brewing pot; esachi was a small pot while sipanga was slightly large.
The sitting arrangement during local beer drinking parties was specific in the sense that the eldest member in the group sit near the entrance. Monogamous men were also expected to sit closer to the door as opposed to men with many wives who sit at the furthest corner of the house.
This local liquor was siphoned using special straws made from particular climber shrubs that grow naturally in the bushes. These natural straws were called chisekhe nabiili (grows on hills).
At the end of lusekhe (the straw) they were putting a special woven sieve called sikoto sie chinyamwe. Sikoto sichingamwe was made from a nabikoto tree. Unlike currently where people use artificial metallic sieves to put on beer drinking straws.
Before embarking on the beer drinking exercise, warm water was brought to clear chisekhe just in case there was dust or insects (namusiekhele) hiding in the chisekhe.
The pot for kwete drinking was usually set or strategically positioned in the drinking place by two men, most likely bakoki to one another ( Bakoki we lucho and bakoki we kumwiro). Bakoki we lucho is the one who was circumcised one year ahead of the bakoki we kumwiro but the two can share lubaka.
Before putting the pot at the right place for the drinking exercise, a round ring (engara) made of grass (lukhafwa) is prepared and put down first to support the drinking pot. Engara was usually prepared by bakoki we lucho which is then set or put down by bakoki we kumwiro. Bakoki (we lucho) is the one to bring the local liquor which is then poured in the pot by bakoki we kumwiro (olekhela engubo).
When pouring kwete or when adding water to the pot, the rule is that one is expected to pour water or beer a little at a time not just pouring in the whole of it continuously. This is meant to make people who are drinking from that pot to continue drinking more beer for more days and live longer. If it is a woman who is adding the water or beer to the pot, she should slightly bent and stamp her right leg on the ground as a sign of respect.
The local liquor featured more during circumcision period. The Bukusu national anthem sioyayo was sung five times during the initiation of a person. The first sioyayo was sung omwana ne achukhila, where the initiate to be pours water in the pot containing kwete, two days before the circumcision day.
The second sioyayo is sung when the uncles put luliki around the neck of the initiate to be at his unless home, a day before the real circumcision day. The third sioyayo is sung in the evening of the day before circumcision when a close relative from the father’s side puts a piece of bull’s rumen (lisombo) around the neck of the initiate to be.
The fourth sioyayo is sung by bakoki (people who were circumcised at the same time) to the father of the initiate to be at night before mid-night as the initiate prepares to go and rest and prepare for the cut the following morning. The final sioyayo is sung in the morning as the initiates to be are taken from the river to come for the cut at home.
Luliki being put round the neck of the initiates to symbolize the union between the mother and father during conception.
The reason for putting luliki around the neck of the circumcision candidates around the neck is to symbolize how his father was sleeping with the mother of the initiate in the process of making a child. Luliki is normally a piece of meat from the belly of a bull right from the chest up to the hind legs, sometimes the reproductive organs of the bull can be part of luliki which hang in front as the initiate walks and escorted to his father’s home from the maternal uncle’s compound.
The reason for putting lisombo (part of the rumen of a bull), around the neck of the circumcision candidates is to make the initiate gain wealth in his life. Lisombo lisomba kimiandu (bull’s rumen brings wealth) from all directions, from likwe (East), mumbo (West), ebunaswa (North), mundoli (Southwards), and mufubo(South).
It was the responsibility of the uncles (brother to the mother of the child) and other relatives from the mother’s side to take the circumcision candidates to the river for washing and smearing them with mud. Members from the father’s clan could only escort and direct where necessary. On nearing the homestead, the initiates were handed over to the father and his clan members.
Just before the initiate reaches at the front of the house (khuluyhia) for the cut, a sister to the father of the initiate to be smears the cheek of the initiate with a cooking stick (kumukango) that has been dipped into the local liquor (kwete nabukimbi). The reason for this is that it symbolize end of childish behavior (omusinde alekhe embelekeu).
The aunt welcoming the initiate with a cooking stick also means the boy should grow up and marry wife/wives who will use the cooking stick to prepare meals for relatives and friends.
It is the role of the father and men who are in the same age set with him and/or clan elders to welcome the initiate and bring him to the initiation point (etiang’i).
As the father moves forward to welcome the child for the cut, the mother usually sits down (balambisia bikele munju amukhe) in the house and other a few women to wait until the cutting procedure is over. After the sound of a whistle that means the cut is successful the mother to the child comes out of the house ululating as she moves to see the cut. The mother to the initiate was not allowed to witness the cutting process out of fear that a mother is likely to induce fear in the initiate.
Traditionally the first born child was only circumcised at his grandfather’s home and not at any other place as it was believed the first son in a home belongs to his grandfather.
The local beer was not just taken anywhere anyhow by anybody. This is contrary to what is happening currently where children and the old drink from the same pot.
On rare occasion would elders be seen taking kwete for leisure. In such cases a person would invite friends and serve them kwete for free (kesiyotelo). Some people would prepare kwete ke bukengele (drinking for celebration).
Circumcision was the most honored practice among the traditional people, for this reason beer was sprinkled to welcome ancestral spirits in the ceremony. In fact it is believed that the courage that initiates poses during circumcision period is as a result of ancestral intervention.
Two days before the actual circumcision day, the candidate for circumcision is supposed to bring water from a well and pour it in a pot (esachi) containing kwete in an exercise called khuchukhila. This is normally seen as covenant between the candidate and the ancestors meaning he must be circumcised under all circumstances.
One month before the circumcision season, the circumcisers normally hold a meeting and take kwete (ke khubita lukembe) to bless their knives with kwete before embarking on the cutting exercise. It is at the same time they receive blessings and lubito (informal education) from elders for them to circumcise children well. In such ceremonies where all circumcisers meet, a goat is usually slaughtered and celebrate under namwima (small sacred hut) with esesi ya nang’osi (a rough half gourd) for sprinkling goat’s blood munjeko (a pole at the centre of namwima).
After circumcision villagers put their resources together and prepare kwete (kamalwa ke kamatasi) meant for giving away clothes that initiates were using before circumcision. It was the same time that villagers would use to throw away the cut foreskin in a secret place where ill intentioned people could not find access.
Before the pass out ceremony for initiates, the elders would prepare kwete (kamalwa ke lubito) to be drunk as the initiates receive informal education on serious matters of the society. At such a time, the graduated initiates would receive ‘lubito’ as elders spit the local liquor on the ground as a kind of covenant for the initiates with elders and ancestors in the transition process from childhood to adulthood.
The kwete residue (kamasifwa) was very basic for any cultural activity. For instance, old people would spit a little kwete on the ground or floor of the house before continuing drinking the local liquor.
In celebration of a life of a departed hero in community, kwete was prepared and drank and part of it is sprinkled round the grave as a sign of last respect.
During planting season, elders would prepare kwete and bless the planting material before going to the field to plant. The same happens during harvesting where a cultural practice known as ‘khukhwesulusia’ was done involving the local liquor and some prepared charm to bless the harvested crop before they are free to continue feasting on the harvest.