Although it is not purely a preserve of the Gikuyu community, guturamira, the act of cursing someone by stripping is arguably one that has featured across the cultures of several African communities albeit expressed in different diction. At least, I have encountered its equivalent being discoursed about amongst the Akamba community in a number of contexts. In Kĩkamba it is commonly referred to as ngumbe.
Word has it that this curse is executed by a woman against someone who has irked her enormously or towards someone who has immensely acted against the norms and values of the community. It can be enacted singularly, meaning that it can involve the act of ngumbe or guturamira by an individual woman or it can be collectively executed by a group of women. Whichever the case, the woman/women are generally expected to be child bearers who demand respect owing to the stature that motherhood and other responsibilities have bestowed upon them.
Ngumbe or Guturamira is considered to be a powerful curse, indeed the ultimate curse because it involves being exposed to a mother’s genitalia. The woman would face away from the victim, exposing her back then strip stark naked and bend backwards! It is an anathema which only few people in Kenyan communities can attest to having been witnesses to/of. Henceforth, the accursed victim is occluded from social events or activities of the given community – excommunicated!
There are many postulations regarding why the curse is despicable but it appears that as an adult it is excruciatingly painful to be compelled to witness the nakedness of your “mother”. It is a brutal act that violates ethics at its core. In this case the mother figure emblematises anyone whose age and social standing reflects the equivalent of someone’s biological mother. I can posit that perhaps a woman recoils into her maternal instinct so that when she is at the end of her wits she reaches for the life birthing tool to curse a person to damnation. It is a complete cycle – whatever gave birth to you ironically becomes a source of death so to speak – social death in this instance!
Although not commonly referred to, there are instances where old men have been implicated in ngumbe or guturamira. My knowledge on this is limited but I am privy to discussions amongst elderly men in my community who have hinted that an old man can also use his genitalia to curse. For the men, the stripping and exposure of genitals does not involve showing the back rather, they would do the act whilst facing the person one on one. However, the fact that this is uncommonly spoken about intimates that is not as prevalent as that by the women.
Historically, during the arrest of Harry Thuku in 1922, a woman by the name Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru was shot dead by colonial agents who might have been out of touch with probably “primitive acts and practices!” during a rebellious act of guturamira to resist Thuku’s arrest. But during the struggle for multiparty democracy in Kenya, guturamira served the purpose because the police recognised the cultural dynamics at play when the women, cornered and helpless, decided to invoke it as a means of self-defence and as a mechanism for survival and self-preservation.
However, the incumbent president, Moi, chose to read the act as a barbaric behaviour by women who had lost their minds. Never mind that his anger might have been specifically directed at the late Nobel Peace recipient – Wangari Maathai. In the end the women, whose sons were political prisoners, won their battle to have them released from political detention amongst them Koigi wa Wamwere. Naturally pressure from human rights groups such as RPP (Release Political Prisoners) and other international bodies helped to exert pressure on the government.
Therefore, the ngumbe or guturamira is a cultural practice whose invocation should spell doom and elicit dread. Am reminded of a cultural belief from a remote part of Ukambani where if an old man is extremely angry with you he chooses to point his finger towards anything else but the victim. I cannot substantiate the truth but rumour has it that if he points towards a tree, it dries up within days! Indeed we need to guard against behaviour and other acts that violate cultural norms so as to preserve ourselves against the shortfalls of ignorance and human fallibility.