Vivango - Grave markers of the Giryama

VivangoThe vigango (sing. kigango) of the Giryama are not necessarily grave-markers, although there has been much confusion over this in the literature: vigango are sometimes placed on the site of graves, but normally not. Their role is not to indicate the location of physical remains but to provide a new abode - a new body, indeed - for the spirit of the deceased. Like the smaller and less elaborate koma pegs, together with which they form a sort of genealogical map for the household, vigango are erected some time after the death of an individual, usually only when the spirit of the deceased indicates discontent with its lack of a body by appearing in a dream to some living relative.
Among the Giryama (but perhaps less so among some neighboring groups, such as the Jibana, Chonyi and Kauma, who also erect vigango) koma and vigango often stand in the men's conversation hut in a homestead, readily accessible to the elder male of the homestead, whose prerogative it is to pour palm wine into small coconut-shell cups set at the base of these ancestral memorials. This is done at regular intervals. If dreams or misfortune recommend it, the elder male may also slaughter a chicken or goat by the memorials, so that the blood goes to nourish the spirits. Generally, it is only the ancestors of the male head of the homestead who are so embodied within the homestead; his wife or wives will not usually have vigango or koma for their ancestors, and if they do these are not prominently placed.

Giryama PostThere is some debate about the distinction between the koma pegs and these vigango, and what this signifies. Physically, the differences are readily apparent. Koma are small soft-wood pegs, standing only about 30 cm out of the ground, and carved in the most rudimentary way, with a slight waisting (possibly phallic) indicating that the koma is that of a male ancestor; they are occasionally 'dressed' with strips of cloth. Vigango are much taller, standing 130-200 cm out of the ground, and are carved from hardwood (which resists the attentions of termites); they are evidently anthropomorphic, usually decorated with incised triangles and often also originally painted with red, white and black. In the 19th century some had silver dollars in place of eyes. They are much more expensive, elaborate and enduring. Although they are rather rarely made now, some relatively recent examples exist.

GiriamaThe difference - the fundamental question of to whom a kigango may be erected, and to whom only a koma - is partly one of gender: there seem to be no vigango for women. But not all men get them either. Some suggest that this has to do with membership of one of the several societies that structure Giryama life in important ways. Vigango, some would argue, are erected only for members of the gohu society, which is essentially concerned with the conspicuous consumption of wealth; admission to membership of it is similarly a sign of wealth. Even if they are not solely associated with gohu members, it would seem that only the wealthy would be likely to get vigango, as the rituals involved in the erection of a kigango are very much more costly than those for a koma peg. The very name vigango, which comes from a verbal root referring to 'binding, splicing', suggests the special power of wealthy elder males and the healing force which that power may have when used by the spirits of the deceased.

There are, however, suggestions that the difference Komabetween koma and vigango essentially relates to mobility (and perhaps reproducibility), and that there is a historical process of change. Vigango may be moved at most once from their original position, whereas koma may be more mobile, or may be replaceable (although there is some variation in practice over this). Since the early 19th century, the Giryama population has expanded both numerically and geographically: from being a relatively small group centered on the kaya ritual centre a little way inland from Mombasa, with a mixed farming economy that emphasized cattle pastoralism, the Giryama have multiplied and spread to areas some way north of the kaya and as far east as the coast, relying heavily on rather marginal maize farming and on involvement in the tourist economy of the Kenya coast. As part of this process, homesteads have tended to become smaller, as men leave those of their fathers rather earlier to establish their own - and therefore may seek to erect their own ancestral memorials. As the population has expanded and dispersed, so it might be argued that koma have become more common than the more static vigango.

In either case, these wooden bodies for spirits have a limited period of use. Just as they are erected only when the spirits of the deceased make themselves remembered, so they are neglected once the spirits begin to be forgotten. This restricted sense of genealogy is emphasized by the fact that the Giryama alternate their names between generations, which tends to blur more distant ancestors into a stereotyped succession of names. Once an individual ancestor is forgotten, their koma or vigango are forgotten too - the soft-wood koma rot away, and after a time the more enduring vigango are left behind as homesteads move, no longer important because their spirits have faded from memory.

These four examples all have particularly carefully carved heads, whereas on many vigango the heads are essentially two-dimensional, and in some cases a geometric pattern is carved, no effort being made to represent human features. Two of them have the characteristic incised triangles, which perhaps represent human ribs, as well as the circular decorations that are common. The other two are predominantly incised with the rather less common rectilinear forms, and one is unusual in that the notches cut into the body serve as part of the pattern rather than terminating it.

While there are apparent similarities between these pieces and grave-markers of the Oromo, and some from Madagascar, no historical link has ever been demonstrated.