Comparative Studies in Society and History

Changing Tradition

“We’ve Always Done It Like This …Except for a Few Details”: “Tradition” and “Innovation” in Okiek Ceremonies

Corinne A. Kratza1

a1 University of Nairobi and Smithsonian Institution

How does any practice become canonized as tradition? What counts as tradition and what does not and to whom? What temporal continuity is required and how is it defined? This essay is about African initiation ceremonies, in particular the practices of the Okiek people in Kenya. Considering the many papers spawned by Hobsbawm and Ranger's book on the “invention of tradition” (1983), it may not be surprising that Okiek also construct their ceremonies as traditional. Despite the attention devoted to the topic, few essays evaluate their own definition of tradition or consider the concept critically and comparatively. An unexamined premise thus incorporated into them takes one of two forms: either the notion of tradition is more or less the same throughout the world, and cross-cultural differences are of no consequence; or some societies (traditional ones) do not have notions of tradition. This essay argues that tradition itself must be explored as an indigenous cultural concept which shapes and is shaped by different perspectives and processes, as shown by the ways Okiek endow their images of tradition on ceremonies to spin their notions of history and identity.