Traditional Pokomo Dances and Their Purposes

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A politician being welcomed to a village with a kitoko dance

The Pokomo were, and remain, very good dancers, singers and composers. In September, 1960, the then colonial District Commissioner, P.T.W. Powell, in a letter addressed to the Regional Controller of Kenya Broadcasting Service, Coast Province, acknowledged and confirmed that the singing of the Pokomo children was one of the finest he had ever heard in Kenya. So excited was Powell that he instructed the Tana-River African Education Officer, Joseph Reuben Bahola to contact him so that he could provide each primary school along the River Tana with a radio.

This was not a wonder or a coincidence. It is instructive to note and emphasise that the tune of the National Anthem of Kenya originated from a Pokomo lullaby titled mdondo (animal). The lullaby itself went as follows:


Mdondo, mdondo Oh! animal, Oh! animal
Mwana kakuiyani The child is crying
Nzoo umudye Come and eat him
Mdondo wangu Oh! my dear animal
Ana kitswa Which has a head
Ana muchia And a tail

The Pokomo danced on various occasions. People danced throughout the night during big festivals. This was especially so when there was a clear moonlight. Meat was roasted and eaten to the satisfaction of the people. The older men stayed near the dancing arena in groups sipping honey beer while exchanging tales and stories of the past. For instance, boys and girls danced kitoko when welcoming another party of youngsters from another village. They met the visitors at the out-skirts of the village and led them to the arena of the village (moro) which was a space specifically reserved for dancing. The men and women joined them. They formed a circle and the drum-beats were accompanied by clapping and singing.

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The kitoko, on the other hand, was a slow dance. A man and woman entered the arena to dance. The woman danced with the left leg in front of the other and the head bent on one side. She thrust her hands forward and sideways majestically as she swayed her hips. The man danced with his left hand on his chest which he thrust forward deliberately. His right hand swayed forwards and backwards while his left leg thundered on the ground in unison with the beats. The man and the woman started dancing from two opposite ends of the arena towards each other. When they reached the centre, they kissed and another pair took over immediately.

Kitoko is one of the most popular dances among the Pokomo. Many songs composed for heroes, known events, and other day to day activities were sung during kitoko dances. Other songs were composed in order to warn people of bad deeds, to praise, to despise, to air out feelings or anger, to educate, etc. There were many other instances when people danced kitoko, for instance, when welcoming visitors, when bidding them farewell or celebrating the success of a person. May be he was the first to spear an animal in a hunting expedition; he might have killed a python which had swallowed one of the hens, or just having a bumper harvest was enough to stage a kitoko dance.

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There was also another faster dance called kubfanga. It was mainly a woman’s dance though men could take part. After forming a circle, a man and a woman or two women danced by jumping in an ecstatic manner all over the arena in unison with the fast beating of the drum accompanied by clapping and singing. In order to provoke the partner to be more ecstatic, they danced while shouting, “Haa Haa Haa” then shout “Heeee” very loudly in the partner’s ear. When people got tired of the fast dance, they changed over to the slow kitoko dance. The kubfanga dance was staged alone after the birth of a baby and during punishments to be meted out by the women.

Then there was the fast beat of miri and mwaribe which were very common among the Upper Pokomo. Here, men and women took turns to dance. The men spinned on one spot while the women pranced in front of the drums and the line of men.

In general, dancing occasions were very important to the community. It was on such occasions that good dancers were noticed and praised. People even composed songs for exceptionally good dancers. Young initiates found it as one of the best opportunities for getting future wives. Boys and girls got to know one another more at such places since they mixed freely. For those who were betrothed, it was a great opportunity to meet in private, though sex before marriage was not permitted.

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There were two other dances which were special. After the burial of the dead, the Pokomo danced kitoko in order to keep company with the family of the deceased for at least two days. This type of dance staged after the burial of the dead was called nyambura (plural: madzambura). Such mourning periods were revered and it was a taboo to discuss matters relating to sex openly. Nor could couples use such occasions to meet secretly.

The second special dance was called kiroo or ganga. This was a kitoko dance for the medicine men. During this dance, they shaved and covered their heads with ochre. They put a cap of clay on the forehead where they stuck three large bird plumes. They danced naked with an exception of a piece of loin cloth tied tightly round the waist and thighs like an under-pant. They had with them long clubs and the dance was usually performed on moonless nights when it was dark lest the rest of the community see them. This dance was strictly for the medicine men and it was organised by their leader known as makuula. Other people were not only restricted but they also feared going near a kiroo dance. People believed that seeing such a dance brought evil and bad luck to one’s family.

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Edward M. Yesse is a Pokomo from Ngao. He was born on 18th December, 1957. He passed through Ngao Primary School, Tarasaa High School and the University of Nairobi where he graduated with an Upper Second Class Bachelor of Arts Honours degree in Public Administration in 1986. In addition, he has a First Division Diploma in Constitutional Law and a First Division Diploma in Parliamentary Institutions and Procedure from the Institute of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies, New Delhi, India, which he obtained in 1990. He is also a Parliamentary Fellow from the same Institute. He passed the Administrative Officers' Examination administered by the Public Service Commission in 1990. He obtained a Diploma in Business Management from the Kenya Institute of Management (KIM) in 2003. He attended numerous other courses. He is currently pursuing his MBA. He opted for an early retirement in June, 2013 as Regional Manager with the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) due to personal reasons. E-mail: edwardmyesse@yahoo.com Mobile No: 0722647327 or 0733860825

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