Walking Deep into the Indigenous Heart of East Africa
to Find the Source of Peace
In partnership with Jonathan Shirland, Associate Professor of Art History, Bridgewater State University & VT Advisory Board
Banner Art detail: Sadiq Somjee, "Rythym"
Virtual International Solo Exhibition in Two Parts
This exhibition concept takes from Utu. Utu is the East African philosophy guiding ethics of life, practice of Humanity and expression of arts. Utu comes from mtu meaning a Human Being in Swahili. At reconciliation meetings, the five aspects of Utu are either called upon to witnesses or addressed directly: The Supreme Being, Ancestors, Nature, Elders and Community. Reconciliation rituals position on transformation of the body through the effects of senses. The body when walking, singing, dancing, making art or listening to stories is thus the central medium of transformation from turbulence to calmness.
“Language of the Land makes Rhythms of Peace”
In the winter of 2020 I began reading Sultan Somjee’s epic novel One Who Dreams is Called a Prophet and was transported from the deprivations of Covid-19 lockdown to the warmth, color, and open spaces of East African landscapes and cherished memories of my visits with indigenous communities near the Tanzania/Kenya border. As I was drawn further into the 600+ pages, a dazzling demonstration unfolded of the transformative power of art, storytelling and relational exchange to mediate and foster alternatives to violence in its myriad forms. As such, the book embodies for me many of the core beliefs of the Violence Transformed project. This is the first of two linked exhibitions that share some of the wisdom Dr. Somjee has accrued through four decades of work living with, and curating the material cultures, stories and rituals, of indigenous communities in East Africa. My hope is that they further diversify the global range of artistic practices Violence Transformed embraces and inspire you as much as they have me.
A forthcoming exhibit will focus on the work of the Peace Museums Somjee has established in East Africa and will bring together the voices of their directors who use the objects and stories collected in peace and reconciliation work rooted in the traditions of the communities that continue to live and move through the land. But this first exhibit focuses on the book and subsequent graphic novels that tell the story of Alama, a pastoralist elder who is compelled to undertake an arduous and epic walk in search of peace.
"Where there is Beauty there is Peace”
Alama’s journey deep into the living history, expansive environments, communality and conflicts in East Africa is one also travelled by Dr. Somjee himself who lived among various pastoralist communities during his fieldwork at the University of Nairobi and the National Museums of Kenya from the 1970s to 2000. He helped to introduce material culture into the Kenyan school curriculum as part of the 1985 educational reforms, served as Head of Ethnography at the National Museums of Kenya (1994-2000), and from 1994 established sixteen village peace museums based partly on principles derived from the acclaimed Kamirithu Community Theater and Education Center that was destroyed in 1977. This project has evolved into the Community Peace Museums Heritage Foundation (CPMHF) and has spread from Kenya into Uganda and South Sudan. The museums affirm the role indigenous languages and the visual arts play in establishing peace in and across communities.
In 2001, the United Nations named Dr. Somjee as one of twelve ‘Unsung Heroes of Dialogue Among Civilizations’ worldwide in recognition of his work and in 2002, he was appointed to the Global Advisory Board of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies.
One Who Dreams is Called a Prophet was written over a period of thirteen years and shares connections to Somjee’s other historical novels Bead Bai (2012) and Home Between Crossings (2016) even though its origins precede them. All the books highlight the fundamentally relational nature of the aesthetics of personal adornment, and stress that beauty is experienced communally as well as bodily. Somjee’s writing interweaves personal memory, parable, history, fiction and poetry in a style that oscillates between sparse and dense, poetic and prosaic, gentle and incantatory. It is a potent mixture for illuminating the material culture of East Africa including bandhani, emankeeki and kanga. One Who Dreams provides particular insights into the potency of leketyo (beaded waist belts that support pregnancies). Made by the Kalenjin (called the ‘Kot’ in the book) leketyo are symbols of the sacredness of motherhood and of the earth itself. When dropped between fighting individuals, the violence instantly stops. Indeed, as Somjee has explained, in several Kalenjin communities, the word for peace is leketyo.
The story is structured around the exchange of ten walking sticks representing different cultural groups in the region that are carried during Alama’s journey. The walking sticks are also peace staffs, carved from sacred trees (such as the fig, African olive, and sand paper trees), and are agents of the five-sided relational embodiment necessary to have “utu” and thus be “mtu” or fully human that Somjee explains further below. One of the ways Somjee worked on the book was to go walking whilst holding one of the sticks described in the book, and the ambulatory cadence in his writing affirms not only how intrinsic walking is to pastoralist ways of life but also the healing power of the rhythms of the body when in motion and in tune with the natural world.
The images selected for this exhibit are from the graphic novels that adapt Alama’s story, fusing passages of text from the novel with illustrations by Sadiq Somjee, the writer’s brother. Sadiq’s task was daunting: how to translate into visual form the rich diversity of Somjee’s prose, the epic length of Alama’s walk, and the subtle enunciations of East African peace traditions. It is a challenge he is still working on: two of the graphic novels have recently been published and the concluding book should be ready next year. But Sadiq has already created a graphic language that makes the story accessible to different audiences and ages. Richly saturated colors and subtle notational systems convey the beauty of the environment, and Alama’s physical and mental trials are combined with evocations of the passage of the day understood through ‘Swahili time’, and the symphony of animals, acts of kindness, and expressions of dignity and healing he encounters. We have selected a sampling of illustrations from the first two books for this exhibit, organized into groupings representative of some key themes in the original novel: storytelling; healing the earth; beauty in material culture; the walking sticks; peace animals; peace drawn from the greeting of dawn, walking as a transformative ritual; peace is sharing with strangers and the enemy.
The timing of this exhibit is designed to coincide with the Kenyan elections, a period that has often escalated violence and ethnic tensions in the country. Educators trained by Somjee are currently working in some of the poorest urban areas of Nairobi, using materials derived from the books and the material culture in the Peace Museums to transform enmity into understanding. The instrumentality of these words and images to transform violence in both urban and rural communities in East Africa today testifies to the enduring efficacy of indigenous peace and reconciliation rituals and to the wisdom of Somjee’s faith in art and storytelling. It is a privilege to help share them with you.
Associate Professor of Art History at Bridgewater State University &
Violence Transformed Advisory Board Member