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Sakuye community: A rich heritage blending tradition and mystique

By Jacob Walter

Marsabit County is home to so many bizarre, wonderful, unique cultural traditions, sacred practices and sites.

It is also home to plenty of spectacular shrines and traditional worship places, plenty of peculiar, and eclectic sacred hubs and soil.

The Sakuye community in Marsabit, like many other African communities, has venerated sacred sites, solely conserved and preserved as part of their cultural traditions and symbols of charisma.

Religion has always been a major influence on the culture of the Sakuye community.

The two most popular religions, the indigenous religion and Islam, have had an impact on everything from daily way of life to politics.

Sitting at the heart of Dabel Location, about 300km away and a little south of Marsabit town and south west and about 60km away from Moyale town, is where you find the semi-hidden five  “Gamo’’– a Sakuye word for shrines.

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Easily accessed

Thanks to its central location, the Gamo Shrines can be easily accessed from anywhere at Dabel shopping centre.

It is flanked by lush shrubs and trees, giving it a sense of tranquillity.

The Gamos are dedicated to Sorio Waqa, a deity believed to have personally designed the shrines in their unique architectural designs 100 years ago.

The Gamos have a monastic caretaker known as Abbaganna, a position which is hereditary only to the lineage of the Abbagannas from generation to generation.

The Abbaganna is the community’s seer or prophet whose prophecies are completely relied on by the adherents.

Camels donation

The Abbaganna is held in high regard by the community to the extent of having the members donating 100 camels to him in case he is not wealthy enough to befit the status of that sacred position.

The Gamos are five in number but differing in sizes and magnitude of the sacredness.

When you approach the first Gamo, your eyes will be drawn by a unique whitish and salty soil known as “jawwar’’ which shines and glistens in the sun. It is only found on the first shrine at the entrance as opposed to the general surrounding which is dominated by brownish loamy soil.

According to the Sakuye community peace community leader Alio Tepo, the Gamos are considered so sacred that no one is permitted to set foot on the shrines without the blessings and guidance of the Abbaganna. The shrines are surrounded by neatly layered boulders ring-fencing them.

It is also mandatory to remove your shoes before entering any of the shrines.

“This sacred site came into existence supernaturally and still plays crucial roles in our cultural practices,’’Mzee Tepo said.

No-go zone

The shrubs or trees within the shrines are no-go zones. Even herders are prohibited to graze their livestock within the vicinity of the Gamos.

Mzee Tepo related how one stiff-necked villager gained entrance into one of the shrines in complete defiance of the guidelines, only to have all his cattle perish. He also disappeared mysteriously.

The restrictions and the do’s and dont’s make the Gamos an alien world.

When you approach the entrance of the Gamo grounds, your eyes will be drawn to the entrance of the first shrine which is endowed with a unique whitish and salty soil known as “jawwar’’ which shines and glistens in the sun.

Jawwar has been used for healing of different maladies, both in animals and humans, over the years when smeared on the ailing part of the body.

Another shrine has four rocks which are believed to have once been bodies of an elephant and rhino which conspicuously manifest through the rituals performed by the Abbaganna.

Medicinal water

Mzee Tepo said one of the shrines had a borehole whose water had medicinal value and is not used for domestic purposes such as cooking, laundry and drinking.

The water is believed to boost the immune system and has the power to ward off diseases.

All the Sakuye communities across Kenya travel to the site once every mid-year to pay pilgrimage on the sacred grounds.

Hussein Intalo, 65, one of the community’s elites, said that whenever they are faced with challenges, calamities, catastrophes, pandemics, droughts, floods or attacks, human and animal disease outbreaks, they rush to the shrines to seek refuge and protection from Sorio Waqa where they get their prayers answered.

Occasionally, the practitioners of this tradition sing special songs in the evenings, known as ‘‘headhar”, in praise of Sorio Waqa.

During such occasions, the Abbaganna asks the believers to donate an animal for sacrifice. In the case of prayers for rain, several camels are slaughtered.

A coffee ceremony known as ‘Bunna’ is also conducted within the Gamo grounds. ”Kumbi” and ”lubadin” traditional incense is burnt in a local burner (idina).

Barren women

Barren women also go to the Abbaganna to pray for children. In such an instance, Abbaganna asks for an animal, which is slaughtered, the meat cooked and distributed among the attendants.

A group of people — women accompanied by selected men (Sheiks) — undertakes the ceremony, which starts with the group asking for donations to buy the requisite items such as fat sheep, rice, spices, tea leaves, milk, incense and sugar among others.

Gamos also remain a place of outstanding historic and cultural significance – whose reconstruction is seen as a metaphor for the community’s rebirth following their exile to Somalia by the colonialists.

Much of this functioning Gamo complex is also open to politicians who seek blessings when they are heading to electioneering periods.

Mzee Intalo said that the majority of the current and former political leaders who sought blessings in Gamos all emerged victorious.

Visitors and tourists are also encouraged to enjoy exploring the sites.

Full moon ceremonies

At the heart of this community’s sacred practices also lies the “Sara Gobana” full moon ceremonies which are purposely held for special interventions during impending attacks from enemies, drought, famine, floods and barrenness.

Many Muslim followers in the area still hold firm to the traditional beliefs.

Some of the biggest fig trees considered as Sakuye shrines, known as ”Dimbi” (Ficus Mammigera), are found in Karantina Location in Marsabit Central and another at the foot of Mt Marsabit.

However, since Islam has gained root among the Sakuye community in the last three decades, many Sheiks or Muslim leaders have been seen to oppose these practices.

Minority and Marginalised Community Affairs Head of Department Amos Olempaka, during his visit to the site last Friday, asked the government and all the stakeholders to join hands in preserving such rich cultures.

Safeguard culture

He also asked the Senate and the National Assembly to enact legislation and policies for the sake of such communities.

“It’s my appeal to the Senate and National Assembly to enact laws to safeguard such rich cultures,” Mr Olempaka said.

Since October 2019, the shrines have been a Unesco World Heritage Site due to their history, beautiful and harmonious architecture, and impact on the Sakuye culture.

Visit the most beautiful and historic shrines and top 10 temples in Dabel and immerse yourself in the culture and history of these great sites.

Courtesy of the “The Nation Africa” Newspaper.

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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