Our visit to the research spaces of the University, took us to the museum of the Institute of Anthropology, Gender, and African Studies (IAGAS).
The little-known facility is tucked away in the basement of Education Building on the Main Campus. It is easy to miss the museum in this building, which houses mainly lecture rooms and offices. You require prior knowledge of the museum's existence in order to find it. Once you are inside Room 12, however, you encounter an interesting setup consisting of a collection of materials from different cultures in Kenya. Only one hour spent in this room gets you asking why you had not visited earlier because there is plenty to learn about Kenya's rich cultural heritage.
We visited the museum on the invitation of Prof. Wilfred Subbo who teaches cultural anthropology at IAGAS. He calls it a laboratory for students of cultural anthropology. The materials in the museum offer a practical and convenient way for students to experience the diverse cultures of the Kenyan communities. It is a useful resource particularly for those studying material culture, which delves into the tangible aspects of people's way of life as opposed to ideologies and philosophies.
“There is a story behind every item you see here,” is Prof. Subbo's welcoming statement as we take in the sight of the materials displayed on raised benches.
During our interaction with Prof. Subbo and Mr. David Madanji, the museum curator, we are able to pick out two equally compelling stories about every displayed item. One story narrates the cultural origins of the materials and virtually all the Kenyan cultures are represented here.
The second story describes the manner in which the items were acquired. Some of the materials were bought from the local communities across the country following a process of research. The selection was based on cultural value, function, and aesthetics. Some items were acquired as donations by individuals. For example, the museum has a “nyatiti” musical instrument from the Luo culture and other materials donated by Prof. Florida Karani who was at one time the Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of academic affairs. The interaction with our hosts also revealed that even after keeping these materials for a long time, they still describe them with the fresh excitement of someone seeing them for the first time. Mr. Madanji has worked in the museum for 16 years. The museum's last addition to the collection is a cowbell from Nyeri acquired in 1988.
“These items provide an in-depth understanding of people's way of life, and especially the fact that the Africans have always been advanced technologically”, says Prof. Subbo who also teaches comparative ethnography and development anthropology among other courses. The collection in the museum includes various types of materials, which served different purposes in the traditional setting. There is something to take care of practically every aspect of life. In order to make it easier for visitors to make sense of what they are seeing, the displayed items are categorised on the basis of function. The museum has containers, tools, ornaments, body covers, amazing pieces of furniture, and materials for shelter. Our hosts explained that the materials found in the museum offer evidence of ingenuity or innovativeness in thinking.
According to Prof. Subbo, different cultures had their own distinctive ways of ensuring that their people lived fulfilled lives. The items were crafted to suit the needs of the different cultures based on such considerations as environment, logic, function, and precision. At a glance, therefore, a visitor is able to compare how people from different cultures were able to fashion items meant for the same purpose in their own unique ways to suit their circumstances. For this reason, no one culture can be considered as inferior to another one. The museum has agricultural, dental, surgical, and manufacturing tools as well as weapons. I was attracted to the dental and surgical tools, especially given the advancement in medical technology today. It was difficult to imagine having my tooth extracted using one of the instruments shown here. The museum also has a collection of the traditional surgical tools, which were used for circumcision and what is today referred to as “female genital mutilation“.
These materials may look crude by today's standards, but they served their purpose adequately at the right point in time”, explains Prof. Subbo. The museum has containers of different shapes and sizes reflecting both origin and function. Some of these containers were used for transporting materials while others were used for storage. The Luhya, Kisii, and Luo communities used pots with a narrow neck and relatively small mouth for the storage of drinking water, but the cooking pots had a wide mouth. Some of the items had multiple uses. The Turkana men, for example, carried this tiny piece of furniture (ekichorong) which served as a head rest when relaxing out in the fields, as a stool during meetings, and as a weapon when one was required.
An interesting feature that we learned about the Samburu community is that it was taboo for women to sit on the men's stool (lorika) and a cleansing ritual had to be performed in the event of a breach of this rule of separation. On environmental considerations, Prof. Subbo indicates that it was no coincidence that the Kikuyu built their houses using timber, the coast people used “Makuti”, the Maasai used dung, and the Luo constructed grass thatched roofs. The mud houses could accommodate all kinds of weather. The building materials were obtained from the local environment, but of utmost importance was the need for environmental adaptation. For example, the sandals used by the Bajun community in the coastal region were markedly different from those worn by the Turkana in the northern part of the country. The element of discipline is also seen in the small drinking containers that were used by some of the communities.
According to Prof. Subbo, in the traditional setting the local brew was taken with a purpose and the elders needed to remain alert “to conduct business”. Getting drunk was frowned upon. The museum collection is a result of a collaborative project undertaken from 1978 between the Institute and the then Ministry of Planning and Economic Development. Researchers visited different parts of the country to identify and acquire the materials. The project also included the publishing of district-by-district socio-economic profiles in which about 15 districts were covered. According to Prof. Subbo, the entire exercise was useful for the country's economic development in addition to the preservation of Kenya's cultural heritage. The museum is used by students of anthropology, archaeology, architecture, design, and geography. The facility is also open to exchange students from other parts of the world and has hosted students from one Japanese institution under this arrangement. According to Professor Subbo, the museum's potential as a centre for research collaboration should be exploited for the development of the University.