Friday, November 30, 2012

KIKUYU PEOPLE: THE KENYAN LARGEST AND A WARRIOR TRIBE




The Kikuyu tribe, also spelled as Gikuyu, is the largest ethnic group in Kenya, making up about 22% of the countries total population.The Kikuyu came into Kenya during the Bantu migration and nowadays make up Kenya's most populous ethnic group (7.5 million).
Traditionally, the Kikuyu are farmers; their homelands in the foothills of Mount Kenya are some of the most intensively farmed areas of the country. Many of Kikuyu have also become involved in business and politics (the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, was actually a Kikuyu). 

                             Kikuyu man in traditional warrior dress holding a spear


The ancestors of the Kikuyu can be said with some certainty to have come from the North, from the region beyond  the Nyambene Hills to the northeast of Mount Kenya (Kirinyaga), which was the original if not exclusive homeland of all of central Kenya’s Bantu-speaking peoples, viz. the Meru, Embu, Chuka, Kamba and possibly Mbeere. The people are believed to have arrived in the hills as early as the 1200s.

              Kikuyu traditional dancers
From where they came, though, is a matter subject to a lot of controversy (ie. speculation based on few facts): one theory argues that they came from Axum(Ethiopia) migrating when the Aksumite Empire or Axumite Empire fell, another  the mythical ‘Shungwaya’, presumably in Somalia, from which the nine tribes of the coastal Mijikenda also say they came. The other main theory posits that they came from the west, having split from the proto-Bantu of central Africa. Whatever their early origins, it is generally accepted that starting from around the 1500s, the ancestors of the Kikuyu, Meru (including the Igembe and Tigania), Kamba, Embu and Chuka, began moving south into the richer foothills of Mount Kenya. By the early 1600s, they were concentrated at Ithanga, 80km southeast of the mountain’s peaks at the confluence of the Thika and Sagana rivers.

  Kikuyu woman in traditional dress

As Ithanga’s population increased, oral traditions of all the tribes agree that the people began to fan out in different directions, eventually becoming the separate and independent tribes that exist today. The theory that the Chuka, Embu, Mbeere, Gicugu and Ndia ‘broke away’ from the main Kikuyu group before arriving at Ithanga is plausible, but is contradicted by the oral traditions of various tribes, many of which include Ithanga in their histories.The Kikuyu themselves moved west to a place near present-day Murang’a, from where the Kikuyu creation myth picks up the story.

                                             Kikuyu  People

The actual point at which the Kikuyu became a separate and independent people with their own and unique sense of identity is fairly clearly stated in oral tradition, which says that the founder of the Kikuyu was a man named Gikuyu.One day, Ngai (God) gave him a wife called Mumbi, and commanded them to build a homestead near Murang’a, to the southwest of Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya). Some versions of the myth say that Ngai first took Gikuyu to the top of Kirinyaga to behold the land that he was giving them.[ *Please note that the Bantu,Cushites Nilotes & Semites worshiped the same God]  Europeans by then where still worshiping idols]
                                                      Kikuyu people

The place that Gikuyu and Mumbi settled in was full of wild fig trees (sacred among many Kenyan peoples, not just Bantu), and was called Mukurue wa Gathanga, which loosely translated means ‘Tree of the Building Site’, and even more loosely ‘the Kikuyu Garden of Eden’. The location is still sacred, even though the fig tree – which was believed to have been as old as the Kikuyu themselves – disappeared a few decades ago.Mumbi bore nine daughters, who married and had families, and which eventually became clans. Ngai gave them the highly fertile lands to the southwest of the mountain to live in. These clans – the true ancestors of the Kikuyu – are actually called the ‘full nine’ or ‘nine fully’ (kenda muiyuru), for there also was a tenth daughter, who descended from an unmarried mother in one of the other nine clans (which suggests the later amalgamation of at least one other people into the Kikuyu). Until recently, it was a common taboo for anyone to give the exact number of their children; violating the taboo – any taboo – would portend a bad omen.Virtually every Kikuyu woman is named after one of the ‘nine’ daughters of Mumbi, and the creation myth – like many others among Bantu-speaking people – suggests that ancient Kikuyu society was originally matriarchal. According to some, the men grew tired of their treatment by the women and rebelled.
Making Muratina - Kikuyu traditional brew
The mythological origin of Kikuyus:

The Kikuyu is formed into nine clans. According to the tribe’s traditions, these clans are the descendants of each of Gikuyu’s nine daughters, reflecting a history where the tribe had always been matriarchal. But by the time, the colonialists installed Wangu Wa Makeri as location head in Weithaga Muranga the tribe had become patriarchal.

The fable goes that one day, Ngai called Gikuyu up to Kirinyaga the religious mountain and from that high point Ngai showed Gikuyu the beautiful earth he had created.“ I will give you whatever land you ask for...” Gikuyu picked an area that had many Mugumo (fig trees). So Ngai let him build his home there. He called the place where the Mugumo trees grew Mukurwe wa Gathanga. This translates loosely as 'Tree of the Building Site', or more loosely still as 'the Kikuyu Garden of Eden'.

The site still exists today, to the south-west of Mount Kenya, as the present day Murang’a town.

Then Ngai said: “You will at times be in need of my help, when the time arises, slaughter a goat for sacrifice, then raise your hands towards Kirinyaga. I Ngai will come to your help.” When Gikuyu went to the chosen spot, he found a beautiful woman whom he took as his wife. He named her Mumbi (Molder or Creator). Ngai gave them nine daughters.

Now Gikuyu went to Ngai seeking sons to marry his daughters. Ngai said: "Go, take a lamb and a kid. Kill these under the big Mugumo tree near the homestead and the blood and the fat pour them on the trunk of the tree. Let the family make a big fire under the tree. The meat will burn as a sacrifice to me. When you take your wife and daughters home, go back alone to the Mugumo tree. There you will find nine very handsome men who are willing to marry your daughters. Then your people will increase and multiply and fill all the land."

Kikuyu woman at her hut, Ngomongo village, Kenya

These nine daughters became the nine clans of the Kikuyu tribe. They were known as kenda muiyuru or the full nine. Legend goes that there was a tenth daughter who was born of an unmarried mother in one of the other nine clans. This tenth daughter is thought to have been the Kikuyu’s way of fusing another tribe into the fable, and their historical line. As a legend, it left behind it, a cultural twist too. The Kikuyu consider it a taboo and bad omen to tell anyone the exact number of children you have.

The matriarchal traditions of ancient Kikuyu society were history when Wangu wa Makeri a woman leader who was being overthrown by the men of the Kikuyu.
                                                Kikuyu woman

However, the daughters’ names live on, through every generation. The first-born daughter is named after the father’s mother. The second-born daughter is named after the mother’s mother.

The names of the nine daughters were Wangui, Wangari, Wambui, Waithira, Wanjiku, Waceera, Wanjiru, Wangeci and Wamuyu.

The Kikuyu clans are borrowed from these nine names, Angui, Angari, Aithera or aitherando, Anjiku, Aceera, Anjiru, Angeci, and Aicakamuyu.

Once a Kikuyu woman is married , she moves to her husband’s clan and all their children also belong to the same clan until they get married.


                 Kikuyu warrior with a huge feathered headdress - Kenya


Consolidation and Expansion

As can be guessed from the above, the early history of the Kikuyu is certainly not simple, and things become further complicated for historians and anthropologists with the inevitable intermarriage and interaction that occurred (and still occurs) between the various tribes and groups that had parted ways at Ithanga, and which continued as the Kikuyu spread out from Mukurue wa Gathanga to cover their present terrain.

    Kikuyu girl carrying water The rural highlands of Kenya's Central Province, 1994.


The Kikuyu have always been happy to adapt and, in terms of territorial expansion, were by far the most successful of the groups that had originally migrated south from the Nyambene Hills, relying on a combination of land purchases, blood-brotherhood (partnerships), intermarriage with other people, and their adoption and absorption. Only occasionally did warfare figure in this expansion, such as in the early 1800s when a combined Kikuyu, Maasai and Athi force defeated (annihilated?) the hunter-gathering Gumba (or Agumba), a people which one Kikuyu legend refers to as pygmies.

    Kikuyu women circa 1910

The original inhabitants of Kikuyu-land, it is said, were the Thagicu, who practised iron-working, herded cattle and sheep and goats, and hunted. The similarity in name between Thagicu and Gikuyu would suggest that they were in fact the Kikuyu’s earliest known ancestors, if not their primary lineage. They may indeed have been the ‘tenth’ of the ‘fully nine’ clans, though I admit that that is merely speculation. Sources differ on the ethnic identity of the Thagicu – some say they were Bantu-speaking, others that they came from Cushitic peoples.(It would be interesting to do a complete DNA analysis of  the modern Kikuyu)

As the land was fertile and ideally suited to agriculture, the population increased rapidly, causing further waves of migration which lasted until the eighteenth century: west into the Aberdares (Nyandarua Mountains), south to the present site of Nairobi, and north to the Nyeri plains and the Laikipia Plateau, where the Kikuyu came into contact with the cattle-herding Maasai (who were evicted from the area by the British early in the twentieth century). Unusually in contacts with the Maasai, the Kikuyu were neither conquered nor assimilated by them, but instead engaged in trade (as well as sporadic cattle raiding), which led to a deep and long-lasting social interaction which especially affected the Kikuyu. During the Maasai civil wars at the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of Maasai refugees were taken in and adopted by the Kikuyu, particularly those in Kiambu.


In consequence, Nilotic(Plain not River-lake Nilotes) social traits such as circumcision clitoridectomy and the age-set system, were adopted; the taboo against eating fish was also accepted; and people intermarried, so much so that more than half of the Kikuyu of some districts are believed to have Maasai blood in their veins (including Jomo Kenyatta himself, whose paternal grandmother was Maasai). From other peoples came loanwords for ceremonial dances, plants and animals, and the concept of irrigation as an agricultural technique.

Although the Kikuyu were a formidable fighting force, the agricultural nature of their lives meant that violence was generally only used for defence, for they lacked the mobility of pastoralists such as the Maasai and Samburu, who lived to the north and west.

Geographically, the Kikuyu were relatively well protected, with the Ngong Hills so the south, the Nyandarua Mountains to the west, and Mount Kenya to the northeast. To the east, also, were the related Meru, Embu and Kamba people, with whom relations were generally friendly, replying as they did on their trade with the Kikuyu. Defence was thus a primary concern only in the west, where the Kikuyu were wary of settling or venturing out onto open plains for fear of the Maasai, who were interested in controlling the widest possible areas for their herds.


Greater defence was necessary only close to the Maasai border, with the result that villages there were in effect forts and were built for maximum protection. Generally, only those family groups (mbari) with “many warrior sons” or which had attracted a clientele of fighting followers could muster the defence necessary to settle these new areas.(Explains why Kabete Kikuyus(kikuyus from kiambu) have large families .These villages were also well concealed: Europeans found they could be walking only metres from a settlement without knowing of its existence.

Trade

        The Kikuyu Karatina Market is one of the largest in Kenya.


Economically, the Kikuyu were blessed with some of the most fertile land in Kenya, their ‘work ethic’, and their willingness to adapt and adopt to new situations. This made them ideally suited as traders, so much so that the majority of Kenyan businesses today are run by Kikuyu.


Having settled in an environment ideal for agricultural pursuits, the Kikuyu exploited it to the full, producing food far in excess of what they needed to feed themselves. This was in stark contrast to the Embu, Mbeere, Chuka, Kamba and the hunter-gathering Okiek (Ndorobo), whose lands were far less fertile, and were prone to drought and famine. At those times, when trade became a necessity for their survival, it was to the Kikuyu that they turned. In return for supplying food, the Kikuyu received all manner of goods, ranging from skins, medicine and ironwork from the Mbeere, livestock and tobacco from the Embu, and salt and manufactured trade goods brought up from the coast by the Kamba, with whom the Kikuyu had their most important trading relationship. Trade also occurred with the Maasai, who may well have introduced elements of cattle culture to the Kikuyu. Even as the men were engaged in raiding each other’s livestock, Kikuyu women continued to trade with Maasai women.

             Kikuyu tribes women in traditional dress
Local markets proliferated in populated areas, as they do today. Women transported barter goods in caravans and were generally safe under the protection of middlemen (hinga), who represented the group with whom they intended to trade. By the nineteenth century, the Kikuyu had become so adept at trade that they became involved in supplying the Swahili ivory and slave trade with food, eventually – as the Kamba trade declined – usurping the role of the Kamba as intermediaries between the coast and the hinterland.

Judiciary & Customary Law

Every household head, the man of the house acted as the first instance in disputes arising around his homestead. If there was a big dispute, then he called on heads of the family within his family unit, mbarĩ. If this failed then it was time to move to the highest court of the land.

  Kikuyu Medicine man

The highest court of the land consisted of the elders of three stages, junior elders called kiama kĩa kamatimo, who were mainly there as trainees of law and had such functions as to fetch firewood and water and light fires. They could not yet judge a case. The next council of elders kiama kĩa mataathi were the main judges. Other than that there was a council of elders called kiama kĩa maturanguru who were the eldest and most experienced and were called upon to assist in intricate parts of the law. A man entered this council when practically all his children were circumcised and his wife or wives were past child bearing age.

Cases brought before the council of elders were heard in the meeting space also known as kĩhaaro( today nicknamed Hague-see story on Mungiki membership trials in Kirinyaga). The elders heard from both parties. In making a case the concerned parties would use twigs given to the elders after each concrete complaint was made. After the arguments were made, an open session followed in which elders expressed their opinions for or against either party. At the end of this a special committee, ndundu, was formed that would deliver judgement. This retired to a place where no one could here their deliberations and only came out when a decision was reached. An appeal was possible if one of the parties didn’t agree with the ruling.

Oaths played a significant part in the judicial process. Fear of breaking the oath and the misfortunes that would befall one prevented people from giving false testimonies, as well as brought defenders to justice by means of a guilty conscience and confession. Curses acted as good deterrents against crime. Most cases heard by the kiama involved debts resulting from transactions of sheep, goats or cattle, exchanged in buying land or paying marriage insurances (rũracio). There were also a few criminal cases involving murder, trespass, assault, theft and witchcraft. The last two were the worst crimes. Theft for first time offenders was not serious but perpetual offenders would face death just like proven witch-doctors.

Fees to the council was a ram. Beer would also have to be brewed and offered when a case was being opened. Interestingly for murder cases the compensation for a mans life and a womans life varied greatly. The loss of a mans life was fixed at one hundred sheep or goats or ten cows. That of a womans life was fixed at thirty sheep or goats or three cows

Kikuyu - Religion and Expressive Culture

             Kikuyu dancers

In the traditional religion of the Kikuyu, the elders, or the older people within a clan, were considered to be the authority of God (Ngai). They used to offer to Ngai propitiatory sacrifices of animals, in chosen places that were considered sacred, usually near a fig tree or on the top of a hill or mountain. Even today there are large sacred trees where people sometimes gather for religious or political meetings or particular feasts. Mount Kenya, especially for the clans who live on its slopes, is considered the home of God.
Kikuyu Witch Doctor and His Assistant, Nyahururu, Kenya
   Kikuyu Witch Doctor and His Assistant, Nyahururu, Kenya

The medicine man was a powerful person in traditional Kikuyu society. People would come to him to learn the future, to be healed, or to be freed from ill omens. The primary apparatus of the medicine man consisted of a series of gourds, the most important of which was the mwano, or divination gourd. It contained pebbles picked up from the river during his initiation, as well as small bones, marbles, small sticks, old coins, pieces of glass and any other object that might instill wonder in the eyes of his patients.
                             Heading for the first image. Mundu mugo (medicine men) of the Kikuyu tribe.

With European contact and the arrival of missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century, conversion of the Kikuyu to Christianity began with the establishment of missions throughout Kenya. Conversion was slow for the first thirty or forty years because of the missions' insistence that the Kikuyu give up a large part of their own cultures to become Christians. Although many Kikuyu became Christians, resistance to changing their customs and traditions to satisfy Western religious standards was very strong. Many Kikuyu took a stand over the issue of female circumcision. Missionaries insisted that the practice be stopped, and the Kikuyu were just as adamant that it was an integral part of their lives and culture. The issue eventually became tied to the fight for political independence and the establishment of Kikuyu independent schools.
                      Kikuyu dancers wearing traditional costumes sitting under tree, Kenya.

The Kikuyu have no unique written language; therefore, much of the information on their traditional culture has been gleaned from their rich oral traditions. The oral literature of the Kikuyu consists, in part, of original poems, stories, fables, myths, riddles, and proverbs containing the principles of their philosophy, system of justice, and moral code. An example of Kikuyu music is the Gicandi, which is a very old poem of enigmas sung by pairs of minstrels in public markets, with the accompaniment of musical instruments made from gourds.

Birth

Shortly after having given birth, the mother announces the child by screaming: four times if the child is a girl, and five times if it is a boy. The numbers are no coincidence, for they total nine, which is the sacred number of the Kikuyu, and they appear again in the preparations made immediately after birth, when the father of the child cuts four sugar canes if the child is a girl, or five if it is a boy. The juice from these sugar-canes is given to the mother and child; and the waste scraps from the sugar-cane are placed on the right-hand side of the house if the child is a boy, or left-hand side if it is a girl. Right is the symbol of man, and left of woman.

Kikuyu Woman with Traditional symbols of power -Muthigi (stick)signifying power to lead and Itimu (Spear)-power to call people to war*Before the overthrow of Wangu wa Makeri women could carry both.

   The placenta and umbilical cord are powerful symbols of the child's attachment to the mother, and are therefore the object of special treatment in most African societies. The Kikuyu deposit the placenta in an uncultivated field and cover it with grain and grass, symbolizing fertility. The uncultivated field itself is also a symbol of fertility, strength and freshness; and using it is like a silent prayer that the mother's womb should remain fertile and strong for the birth of more children.

                          Kikuyu women in traditional dress, sitting in front of hut.

   After the birth, the child is then washed and oiled. If the birth has been difficult, the father sacrifices a goat and a medicine-man is called to purify the house. The mother and child are kept in seclusion for four days if the child is a girl, or five days if it is a boy. During seclusion only close women relatives and attendants may visit the house, and for the duration of seclusion no member of the family is allowed to wash himself in the river, no house is swept, and no fire may be fetched from one house to another. Seclusion symbolizes the concept of death and resurrection: death to one state of life, and resurrection to a fuller state of living. It is as if the mother and child 'die' and 'rise again' on behalf of everyone else in the family.
   When the period of seclusion is over, the mother is shaved on the head, and the husband sacrifices a sheep in thanksgiving to God and the living-dead: this ceremony was called Kumathithia mwana.
   The shaving of the mother's hair is another act symbolizing and dramatizing the death of one state and the rising of another. The hair represents her pregnancy, but now that this is over, old hair must be shaved off to make way for new hair, the symbol of new life. She is now a new person, ready for another child to come into her womb, and thus allow the stream of life to continue flowing. The hair also has the symbolic connection between the mother and child, so that shaving it indicates that the child now belongs not only to her but to the entire body of relatives, neighbours and other members of the society. She has no more claims over the child as exclusively her own: the child is now 'scattered' like her shaven hair...
   When seclusion is over, the mother pays a symbolic visit to the fields and gathers sweet potatoes. Thereafter normal life is resumed by everybody in the village, renewed, it is revived and revitalized.

  PJomo Kenyatta, The founder of Kenya is a kikuyu

Child naming

This is not however the end of the rituals concerned with childbirth. While the child is still small, they perform other rites which they consider necessary before the child can be a full member of their society.

The Kikuyu observe a unique ritual pattern of naming children, still followed strongly today. The family identity is carried on in each generation by naming children in the following pattern: the first boy is named after the father's father, the second boy after the mother's father. The first girl is named after the father's mother, the second after the mother's mother. Subsequent children are named similarly after the brothers and sisters of the grandmother and grandfather, from eldest to youngest, alternating from father's to mother's family. This pattern also serves to incorporate new lineages as refugees are accepted into a clan or as young people now more commonly marry spouses from other tribes.
   The naming ritual intimately involves the father, whose status is enhanced by proper naming of the child. The father would place a small wristlet made of goatskin on the child's arm, which symbolized the bond between the child and the entire nation: the wristlet is a link in the long chain of life, linking the child with both the living and the departed. It is a sacred link which must never be broken.


Ear-piercing and the second birth

Around the age of five or six years, another rite is performed, gutonywo matu, which involved piercing the child's ears, which were subsequently fitted with decorations in a ceremony called gutonywo ndurgira. This entitled the child to start looking after goats.
Kikuyu tribeswoman
      Kikuyu tribeswoman

A few years later, generally between the ages of six and ten but before the child is initiated into adulthood through circumcision, another rite was performed. Known as 'the second birth' (kuciaruo keri, literally 'to be born twice'), or 'to be born again' (kuciaruo ringi), or 'to be born of a goat' (kuciareiruo mbori), the child metaphorically returns to the womb to be born again. Unless the child has gone through this 'second birth', he or she cannot participate fully in the life of the community. They will be forbidden to assist in the burial of their own father, to be initiated, to get married, to inherit property and to take part in any ritual.

                            Kikuyu wedding brides

   During the rite, the child is placed between the legs of its mother, and is bound to her by a goat intestine. If the mother is deceased, another woman is substituted, and will henceforth be regarded as the child's mother. Then, the intestine is cut through, and the child imitates the cry of a baby. The mother is shaved, her house is swept and she visits the fields to collect food, just as she did after the period of seclusion that followed the physical birth.

Traditional young Kikuyu women. Note the fabric is leather (Circa 1910)

   The rite brings with it a conscious awareness in the child of its own birth, and ends the child's 'babyhood'. Now the child is ready to enter the stage of initiation: it has passed from a state of ignorance to one of knowledge, from the state of being a passive member of society to being an active and responsible member.

The idea of 'rebirth' appears to be similar to the Turkana practice of ratifying marriages when when the first child reaches walking age (see under Turkana Marriage).
   The idea that a child is not quite alive until then is prevalent throughout Africa, and seems to stem from the fact that fatal diseases were much more likely to claim a child at an early age than later. The rebirth ceremony appears to be a similar passage.

               Mother and daughter from Kikuyu tribe

   'Rebirth' is now condemned by the church, who of course prefer their own versions of the rite (whether baptism, or being 'born again' by evangelical Christians).


Elderhood

    Kikuyu elder

After their period of warrior-hood, men became eligible to become members of the council of elders (kiama), to which women could also be admitted.
   Traditionally, the elders served as the custodians of ancestral land and, by extension, as the keepers of social cohesion within the community. The kiama also deliberated over judicial, religious and political matters, although their rule was limited to the length of their respective age-sets. Their eligibility was dependent on their having raised children, and on at least one of their children having successfully married. The council settled disputes, and with those that it could not resolve the outcome was determined by the "ordeal of the hot knife", the extent of blistering on the tongue being used to determine guilt or innocence. Alternatively, an oath was taken on the githathi stone (this appears to be similar to the 'white stone' in this article about an Mbeere sacred grove), although nowadays the entire concept of oathing is treated with grave suspicion by the government, which is keen to avoid a re-run of Mau Mau in post-independence Kenya (see the article about theMungiki sect for a modern parallel).
                                 Samuel Kamau Wanjiru made a Kikuyu elder
   A further stage to their membership was to become a member of a secret council called njama (a word deriving from the Kiswahili, and in turn from the Arabic word jamma). For these purposes, the candidate would be approached by community leaders and other regional elders who had polled community opinion as a basis for his eventual appointment to the role of 'regional elder', virtually the highest level of Kikuyu elderhood today. An ideal elder was known as a muthamaki, derived from the word guthamaka, meaning to choose, to reign and rule distinctively. His qualities would include the ability to listen, the ability to keep secrets, and the ability to make decisions on behalf of the people in a manner reflecting consensus and serving the well being of all.
      Kikuyu elders
   In the past, a paramount or senior Kikuyu Council of Elders was formed on the basis of representation from the nine (or ten) clans. This no longer functions today, and today's "council of elders" functions as an informal collectivity of regional elders who confer with each other on issues of broad concern. "Governorship" is no longer permitted by the post-independence constitution of Kenya, and the role of the Kikuyu elder is perceived to have been restricted. Nonetheless, it has been estimated that 90 percent of Kikuyu Catholic priests in the Nairobi Diocese, for example, have been consecrated as Kikuyu elders: the system of elderhood may have changed, but it seems that aspects of their leadership .
 
Kikuyu elders drinking beer. Three Kikuyu elders squat on the ground as they drink beer from hollow bullock horns, a privilege granted only to tribal elders. South Nyeri, Kenya, 1936. Nyeri, Central (Kenya), Kenya, Eastern Africa, Africa. 



Kikuyu Rite of Passage


Kikuyu warrior

Male circumcision

Traditionally, there was a circumcision ceremony for boys organised by age-sets of about five-year periods. Although boys could be circumcised throughout that period, they would become part of the same age-set, and all the men in that circumcision group would take an age-set name. Times in the history of Kikuyu society could be gauged by age-set names.

   Circumcision was traditionally a public affair, which only added to the anxiety - and determination - of the boys to pass the ordeal without showing the slightest trace of fear. The practice of circumcision is still followed, although is nowadays more likely to be performed in hospitals. Traditionally, boys who underwent circumcision became warriors (anake), although this institution is now defunct. As in so many societies all over the world, sex was seen as a weakness, both spiritual and physical. For this reason, junior warriors were barred from sexual relations, though in compensation they were also given a lot of food to make them strong. Only senior warriors, who were preparing to leave warriorhood, were allowed to marry and raise children.
Kikuyu, Kenya  by Rita Willaert

Female circumcision

Although still widespread (around 30% of Kenyan women are thought to have been circumcised), the practice of female circumcision is gradually becoming less common, especially as traditional social structures break down and women gain increasing access to modern western education, and indeed the cash economy.
                 Kikuyu Tribe doing the dance of the female circumcision. 


   Nonetheless, clitoridectomy is far from eradicated, and as long as the antagonistic attitude from outsiders against it prevails, it seems likely - somewhat perversely - that it will survive - for to attack clitoridectomy is, for many, an attack on their own society as a whole.
Among the Kikuyu, as among all the tribes which practice it, clitoridectomy marks a girl's transition from childhood to womanhood. With it comes the lifting of the taboo on pregnancy, and usually marriage is swift to follow.
   A sexual as well as a social act (although the circumcision itself is done in private), the circumcision marks a woman's assumption of her female identity, allowing her both to procreate, and to take part in traditional rituals and traditional governing councils. It is also the time when initiates are instructed in the rules and regulations of their society, and their responsibilities within it.
Kikuyu traditional dancers ready to do their thing
                                  Kikuyu traditional dancers ready to do their thing

Christian missionaries and other Westerners have invariably looked down on circumcision, of both men and women but especially of women, as being repugnant. Given the Christian belief that the body is the temple of God, this apparent act of mutilation was seen - and still is seen - as sacrilege. And thus, with their typical open-mindedness, the ceremonies that surrounded circumcision were condemned by the missionaries to be heathen and anti-Christian.
   It was not so much the cutting of the clitoris that outraged them, but the excision of the labia and other parts which were prevalent before colonisation, and which were viewed as being abhorrent and barbaric in the extreme, and as an unwarranted mutilation of a woman's body. The term female genital mutilation itself (FGM) bears this up, as does the paradoxical absence of the term 'male genital mutilation'.
Mama Wangari Maathai - the beautiful Kikuyu
Late Dr Mama Wangari Maathai - the beautiful Kikuyu and the first African female Noble laureate


Kikuyus like to make speeches by using proverbs often. A Kikuyu cannot make complete a full conversation without making use of proverb. 
Kikuyu Proverbs:
1. Agikuyu moi kuhitha ndia, matiui kuhitha uhoro
The Kikuyu know how to conceal their quiver, but do not know how to conceal their secrets.
The Kikuyu, though very clever in concealing their arms, cannot keep secrets from the members of their tribe.
2. Ageni eri matiri utugire
Two guests (at the same time) have no welcome.
3. Ageni eri na karirui kao
Two guests love a different song.
When you receive two visitors at the same time, you cannot treat them in the same manner, because they have different tastes.
Every man has his hobby horse.
4. Aikaragia mbia ta njuu ngigi
He is a man that looks after money as ‘njuu’ looks after locusts.
‘Njuu’ is a bird which accompanies migrating locusts to feed on them.
Much wants more
5. Aka eri ni nyungu igiri cia utugi
Two wives are two pots full of poison
The more women you have in your house, the more troubles you must expect
Women’s jars breed men’s wars.

       Kikuyu tribesmen

Collapse of  Traditional Political Structure

The ruling generations [riika] according to historians can be traced back  to the year 1512 or there abouts and were as follows: Manjiri 1512 – Mamba 1547 – Tene 1582 – 1616  Agu 1617 – 52. Manduti 1652 – 86 Cuma 1687 – 1721 Ciira 1722 – 56 Mathathi 1757 – 1791 Ndemi 1792 – 1826 Iregi 1827 – 1861  Maina 1862 – 97 Mwangi 1898 .The last Ituĩka ceremony where the riika of Maina handed over power to the Mwangi generation, took place in 1898-9 [Hobley]. The next one was supposed to be held in 1925 – 1928 [Kenyatta] but was thwarted by the colonial government. And one by one Gĩkũyũ traditional political structures and institutions crumbled.Each generation ruled for a period of 30 or so years.Responsibility was staggered between age sets.A member of the Tene generation could have held a junior apprentice  elders position called kiama kĩa kamatimo during the earlier Mamba generation reign.That way smooth transitions were ensured.


                                  Body painted Kikuyu warrior


Why Mau Mau Fought
Source: I Refuse to Die, My Journey for Freedom by Koigi Wa Wamwere
For Africans, land meant more than food and a house. It was their permanent residence before, during and after life. To fight for land and freedom, Mau Mau was trying to secure their eternal existence. Refusing to understand this, the British subjected them to a great misrepresentation. They called the itoi (rebels), imaramari ( terrorists), washenzi (primitive people), as we well as atavistic, cannibalistic and beastly. In the minds of the British, Mungai and his comrades were not fighting for freedom. Africans knew of no freedom. They were fighting to return to a past of primitiveness, darkness, death and evil. The British accused Mungai and his comrades of foolishly sacrificing their lives for death.

An Evening with Ngugi wa Thiong’o



Mungai went to the forest not to lose his own life, but to protect African life from being snuffed out by British colonialism. He went to the forest not because he loved going for days without food as a guerilla, but because he wanted to recapture stolen lands and end hunger for himself and other Kenyans…
Contrary to British propaganda, Mungai did not love the cold and rain of forest life. He went to the forest because the cold of colonial racism and the color bar was greater. He was willing to freeze in the jungle to end the cold and rain of racial discrimination, unemployment and the hunger of the perennially underfed Africa child. Like other young men, Mungai was married and wanted to have a family but he did not want to be a father whom white people called mboi, a boy, and humiliated before his own children. He did not want to be a father and a husband who begged the white man for the food of his family. He died for the security of his wife and children against colonial rape and assault. He went to the 
forest to fight for human rights of his people. . . . 

Burial of a Mau Mau legend Family members and former Mau Mau leaders carry the casket of General China to its burial on his Kenyan farm, May 1993.


The Second World War had taught Africans two lessons: With guns, they could kill white people. If the German Hitler could be fought, so could the British Hitler. After the war, British soldiers 
had come to Kenya to be rewarded with land. African soldiers had returned home, not to be given land, but for the lucky ones to be hired as laborers of those who fought with them in the same 
trenches in Europe and Burma. This was the injustice that had driven Mungai and the Mau Mau to the forests.

                 Kikuyu boys

Mau Mau Rebellion: Caroline Elkins on Abuse in Colonial Kenya

Faculty insight with a Harvard historian

Caroline Elkins, a professor of history at Harvard, talks with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast about the Mau Mau rebellion and the evidence she unearthed of human rights violations against the Kikuyu people by British authorities in Kenya.

Video interview with Caroline Elkins on the Mau Mau uprising

Harvard historian Caroline Elkins is a Pulitzer Prize winning author, chair of the African studies department at Harvard, and an instructor at Harvard Extension School. Her book, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britains Gulag, details the abuse and torture of Mau Mau prisoners by the British in the 1950s.
The Mau Mau were a part of the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. They started an uprising in 1952 in an attempt to reclaim their “land and freedom.” Elkins and her supporters refer to her book as revisionist history, and it has played a role in changing how people think about the end of the British Empire.

HotSun Films ‘The Oath’-Behind the Scenes



The Mau Mau have been portrayed as vicious people guilty of torture and abuse. According to Elkins, the British were actually responsible for such atrocities in the detention camps. The British detained almost the entire Kikuyu population and deprived the detainees of food, almost to the point of famine. Elkins says the British authority used such tactics to maintain control and restore their mission of civilizing the population.
Mau Mau funeral A former General in the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule stands beside the gravesite of General China, during a funeral at his farm in Kibiriri, Kenya, in May 1993.

Elkins started the book when she was still a graduate student at Harvard. She was going to do her dissertation on the success of British liberal reform in the detention camps in Kenya. During her fieldwork, she found that details were not adding up and files were missing. Elkins conducted interviews with survivors of the camps and other witnesses of the Mau Mau rebellion. Elkins maintains that this is a story of murder, torture, and massive cover-up.
Elkins is also an expert witness in a landmark case about the Mau Mau uprising. The victims are seeking reparations from the British government. This is the first time Britain has been sued by a former colony. Key documents surfaced that help the case and also support much of Elkins work, but also show Britain was complicit in the hidden history of the Mau Mau uprising.

                     Kikuyu story telling time in a village,1910   Kikuyu Mourner A mourner at the funeral of Mau Mau leader General China, May 1993.
                                 Kikuyu girl and her sister

                                                   Kikuyu boy

   Kikuyu teenage girl (rescan)Carrying grass for livestock, in the rural highlands of Kenya's Central Province, 1989.


1 comment: