Challenging old practices, cultures and beliefs in East Africa  

Wednesday January 13 2021
By Martha Nkya

East Africans are blessed with rich history; a number of kingdoms, vital trade networks between each other, and an eventful time all the way to and through Independence.

Times have indeed changed; these many kingdoms and their cultural practices are no longer as pronounced as they were, and the region has since been partitioned into six countries.

However, there still remains several common threads that run through the region until today; uniting East Africans via a shared heritage of colonialism, Islamic conquest and eventually, independence.

In this article, I explore the multi-faceted East African cultures that make a trip through the region incredibly worthwhile and infinitely memorable. 

The population comprises some 200 more or less distinct societies, each defined by its own language and sense of identity, its own traditional territory and political structure, and its own system of family relations, marriage, and religious belief and practice. 

In most of the areas in the region, religion and marriage are inseparable. While Christianity, for example, advocates for monogamy, Islam is pro-polygamy. 


A good example is a 28-year-old Christian girl I met in Lamu, Kenya. She is married to a 30-year-old Muslim man. While she was aware that Islam is pro-polygamy when she fell in love with him, she didn’t envisage that he would one day want to take a second wife.

Now that it is happening, and she already has a son with him, she is distraught and clueless on what to do. She is not comfortable sharing her man with other women, and considers polygamy archaic. 

Spiritual leaders and family elders in the community have tried to intervene to save the marriage, but no much progress has been made. 

Religion aside, I met Ndugu Mwasha, from the Masai tribe in Arusha, Tanzania. The 69-year-old man has used all means at his disposal for his daughter, who is studying abroad, to return and undergo female genital mutilation
She escaped ‘the knife’ when she was 24, and is reluctant to return to attend the ceremony despite the fact that her father has since stopped funding her studies. 
“We are waiting for her. This time, she must return. She must be circumcised, regardless of the situation. She will have to choose, between living while circumcised, or else no life. There is no room for a dirty and uncircumcised woman in our tradition and in our tribe,” Mwasha charged. 

When I was in Uganda back in 2019, I was privileged to visit the northern part of the Karamojong Sub-region, where I was informed by traditional leaders there that there are many girls and boys who have run away because of their disbelief in the tradition of mouth and ear piercing and stretching.
“Western education has robbed us of our tradition and culture,” cried Sebei Nyakway, one of the chiefs in Kuman village.

When I reached out to Mr Albert Sebei, his son, who lives in Kampala, he insisted that Karimojong traditions are out of date and must be abandoned. 

“I have gone through Western education, in a Christian community and now living in Kampala. There is no way I can go back to Kuman village [in Sebei Sub-region] and start piercing my mouth, my ears and elongate them. No way,” he said.

Despite the fact that our traditions and beliefs have been shaken by modern times, they are still tightly knit within our cultures. 

Tight enough to impact our communities, formal education and even government decisions. 

Governments, on the other hand, have encouraged religious groups and other traditional communities to view cultural diversity as a vehicle for national strength, unity and integration, rather than a source of strife and disarray.

Ms Nkya works with SACHITA, an NGO that advocates 
for human rights in rural areas of East Africa.