Snuff and the Great Discussion

It is 7 pm at the twilight of night, Kahuaini, and  Wanjohi, a man of about 52 years is visiting with his age-mate neighbor, Mugo. As he passes under the gate, thome, of Mugo’s homestead he feels the sharp night air and shrugs drawing his goat-skin githii closer to himself. He holds a walking stick and pauses when he hears some whispering behind a banana glove, and then smiles to himself and proceeds.

Immediately on his left is Mugos Thingira and though the entrance is shielded by bushes he can see faintly the hints of a fire from inside. He is elated and he chuckles in appreciation knowing his trip was not in vain and proceeds. This is a very important meeting for him. On his right are two granaries and the cattle krall and he can tell that the animals were brought in early as most of them are lying down. Beyond the granaries are the five huts and more granaries of Mugo’s five wives. Smoke is bellowing from the thatched roofs of each and there is an air of peace and tranquility in it all made perfect by the half moon throwing its soft mystical shadows.

He bows almost to his knees under the grass thatch and straightens himself at the doorway. He stands just for an instance to adjust his eyes to the dim light and steps carefully down the slight step into the hut. He can see the silhouette of his friend behind the fire slightly to the right and he nods, “Wanyua?”  Mugo replies, “Wanyua, Wakini.” Silence. Wanjohi draws a stool from the far end of  the wall directly opposite the door and sits near the fire facing his friend. Silence.

The visitor ruffles his githii and from his belt unhooks a snuff box. (not much different from reaching for his mobile phone today) He holds it with his left hand and taps it with his right thumb, opens it and unconsciously shifts the snuff box into his right hand and with great deliberation measures out some onto his left palm. After manipulating the closing of the snuff box and letting drop into his lap, he pinches the snuff with his thumb and forefinger and sniffs with a whistling sound into his nose. After three sniffs he utters a satisfied haaa! and adjusts himself on his stool. All this time Mugo has been watching the fire in total silence. They sit looking at the fire and occasionally making guttural noises. One can hear the silence of the night as the two men sit at the edge of the eternity of silence.

Suddenly we hear the kum kum kum of approaching footsteps and one can easily gauge from their sound that they are the steps of a child and she suddenly looms and is silhouetted in the backlit doorway. She pauses and then enters without a word and places a calabash with food at her father’s side and without looking up turns to move out. “Ni Wairimu.”  “It is Wairimu.” Mugo murmurs. It  is a half questioning, half affirmation and half an unnecessary utterance. She murmurs something inaudible and dashes out. The two men are left alone in their wonderful silence. That was Wairimu, the 10 year old daughter of the second wife of Mugo and she had begged her mother for the honour of taking the supper to her father tonight. She crosses the dark compound in a dash and enters her mothers hut panting like the famous “Hyena at Thiaka’s” was after her.

Mugo takes a large lump of Irio food in his hand and places the calabash between himself and his guest. They eat in silence and soon the calabash is empty. Another child appears and like a rewound video the whole food thing is repeated only this time even the name of the child is not uttered. The men sit for what seems another eternity, with the silence only broken by their exchange of snuff boxes and their noisy sniffing of tobacco. Mugo also makes sounds of approval at the quality of his friends snuff but that’s about all the sound there is between them. Occasionally one of them pokes the fire with a piece of firewood and the sparks flare up against the dark background illuminating their faces.

Suddenly and without warning Wanjohi collects himself and swings around on his stool and gropes for his walking stick as he says,  “Because Gikuyu said, one finger does not kill a louse and nobody shaves himself and since friendship is in the journey, let me pick up my feet.” Mugo replies, “Ni guo” “It is so. The one who milks the cow is not the same one who holds the calf”. Wanjohi is now on his feet and he begins to leave and he reaches for the doorpost to lift himself onto the higher level of the outside. He lifts himself and disappears into the moonlight.

Mugo sits alone and contemplates the fire going over the great responsibility and honour that has been placed on his shoulders and thinks, “well, well well, It will all go well”. He stands up and goes outside to relieve himself past the bushes and sees the moving form of his friend disappearing into the shadows far past the entrance gate. After making several loud guttural noises and more noisy blowing of his nose he returns into the hut and prepares to wait for his sword.

The night has come and I need to greet my tobacco container. This lower part of the tobacco container is called the vagina. I told you about tobacco and women. Not everyone is supposed to touch the vagina of your container. Only respected age-mates. Your enemy should never touch it. Elders also refer to it as the vagina of the tobacco. During courtship, a man offers tobacco to the lady, asking; ‘Can you please hold my container?’ Tobacco and women respect each other a lot. Night is a thick forest. Sleep well and remember we have only two more days of sitting down, I need to go visiting my grandchildren several ridges in that direction.

Traditional Gikuyu ivory snuffbox

– Kariuki wa Thuku, The Sacred Footprint, a Story of Karima Sacred Forest. Porini Publications, Undated

What is going on here?

Kakuzo Okakuro in ‘The Book of Tea’ attempts to explain that “definition is always limitation” I say attempt because such a statement has an elliptical catch 22. How can he hope to fully explain what he wants to mean by that statement? According to that statement any utterance attempting to explain it can only be an attempt and an approximation of the fact. In trying to explain the silent communication between Wanjohi and Mugo we fall into the same dilemma of trying to put into words what was never meant to be uttered. But we can approximate like Okakuro and in so doing shed some light on the mystical subject of silent communication.

Susan Sontag in an article, ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’  writes that “As language always points to its own transcendence in silence, silence always points to its own transcendence — to a speech beyond silence.”

Traditional Gikuyu were wonderful when it came to understatement. They had a saying that ‘mundu mugi ndari muhere wa uhoro’ or a clever person understands without being told. It is very like the Lao Tzu put it in the “Tao Te Ching’.

Without stirring abroad
One can know the whole world;
Without looking out of the window
One can see the way to heaven.

The further one goes
The less one knows.

Therefore the sage knows without having to stir,
Identifies without having to see,
Accomplishes without having to act.

In the case of Wanjohi and Mugo in, Wanjohi in a string of saying and proverbs verbalizes his mission to his host only at the end of the visit. The bulk of the discussion had been done in silence. Mugo, not being a fool says he understands everthing and agrees on all points with his visitor.

The purpose of the visit was thus. Wanjohi’s daughter was in the process of getting married and the young man’s relatives were coming to visit in two weeks time. He had come to request his friend to be the proxy father as in all such matters the proxy is the one who leads the negotiations. A man does not shave himself as they say. Wanjohi’s second wife had all along been deeply involved in the entire process of the impending wedding as she has been acting as the proxy mother and so Mugo knew without having to be told that the time had come for his services to be required. It was that simple and knowing the context of the story makes it clear. Mugo had kept himself abreast of everything to do with the impending wedding by keeping his ear to the ground. Mostly he had sensed each move and was not in the least surprised at his friends visit and eloquent presentation of the facts.

I am inviting you dear reader to begin to read the architecture of the Gikuyu homestead from these stories. The imaging and figuration necessary to a proper reading of the Architecture (with a capital A) must be extracted from these stories, photographs, sketches, that will be presented here but a lot of the knowledge must of necessity be extracted from what is not said. Listen carefully. “Mundu mugi ndari muhere wa uhoro” or in other words, a clever person is easy to inform.

7 thoughts on “Snuff and the Great Discussion

  1. Reminds me more of the “Tao Te Ching”, that, “Those who know do not speak; Those who speak do not know… This is called the mysterious levelling…”
    It’s amazing that the Ancient Wisdom and its great sages never contradict or step on each other no matter the tradition, even though it may seem like they do at times to the uninitiated.

    Great post!


  2. It is with much chagrin that I come to the bare truth of my naivety today as compared to the man of them olden days. “Communication in silence”? I have never heard of such wisdom. It seems we are so careless with our words, not to mention with ourselves too!
    Who will teach us this wisdom, this art?


    1. Mūriūki it is good you have been challenged to the point of chagrin. This is the purpose of this site. To go beyond mere words. Kīrīra or the impartation of wisdom is an internal journey. Many of us seek it from without but being a fragment Mwene Nyaga means that all wisdom is stamped in our hearts. The great teacher of the Jews said so too – “The Kingdom of heaven is within you” I agree with him.


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