The Kikuyu are a Bantu ethnic group inhabiting 3 countries: (Peoplegroups.org, 2023)
The term Kikuyu is derived from the Swahili form of the word Gĩkũyũ. Gĩkũyũ means "large sycamore (mũkũyũ) tree". Hence Agĩkũyũ in the Kikuyu language translates to "children of the huge sycamore". The alternative name Nyũmba ya Mũmbi translates to House of the Potter or Creator. Agĩkũyũ can also be a shortened form of Mũũgĩ (wise) kũrĩ (than) ũyũ (him/her), hence "one who is wise to others".
“Kikuyu is a land of great natural fertility, although soil deterioration has caused serious problems. The soil is usually deep and rich, derived from soft volcanic tuffs that supported dense forest down to the time of the incoming Kikuyu. It is retentive of moisture on account of its fine-grained texture, and remains moist even in time of drought: it is also light to work.” “Before the Kikuyu spread over their present lands the area was densely forested, but today almost the only forest left is an almost continuous fringe, eight to fifteen miles in width, on the lower slopes of Mount Kenya…Most of the country of the Kikuyu is deforested.”
“The country of the Gikuyu…is in the central part of Kenya. It is divided into five administrative districts: Kiambu, Fort Hall (Murang’a), Nyeri, Embu, and Meru. The population is approximately one million. Owing to the alienation of agricultural and pastoral land, about 110,000 Gikuyu live mostly as squatters on farms on European land in various districts of Kenya. The rest of the population inhabits the Gikuyu Reserve and the towns. The Gikuyu people are agriculturalists; they herd flocks of sheep and goats, and, to a less extent, cattle, since their social organization requires a constant supply of stock for such varied purposes as “marriage insurance,” payments, sacrifices, meat feasts, magical rites, purification ceremonies, and as means of supplying clothing to the community.” (1pxv-xvi)
Gĩkũyũs speak the Gĩkũyũ language as their native tongue, which is a member of the Bantu subgroup of the Niger–Congo language family. Additionally, many speak Swahili and English as lingua franca, the two official languages of Kenya.
The Gĩkũyũ are closely related to some bantu communities due to intermarriages prior to colonization. These communities are the Embu, Meru, and Akamba people who also live around Mt. Kenya. Members of the Gĩkũyũ family from the greater Kiambu (commonly referred to as the Kabete) and Nyeri districts are closely related to the Maasai people also due to intermarriage prior to colonization. The Gĩkũyũ people between Thika and Mbeere are closely related to the Kamba people who speak a language similar to Gĩkũyũ. As a result, the Gĩkũyũ people that retain much of the original Gĩkũyũ heritage reside around Kirinyaga and Murang'a regions of Kenya. The Murang'a district is considered by many to be the cradle of the Gĩkũyũ people and as such, Gĩkũyũ's from the Murang'a area are considered to be of a purer breed.
“The chief occupations among the Gikuyu are agriculture and rearing of livestock, such as cattle, sheep and goats. Each family, i.e. a man, his wife or wives and their children, constitute an economic unit. This is controlled and strengthened by the system of division of labour according to sex. From the homestead to the fields and to the tending of the domestic animals, every sphere of activity is clearly and systematically defined. Each member of the family unit knows perfectly well what task he or she is required to perform, in their economic productivity and distribution of the family resources, so as to ensure the material prosperity of the group.” (1p52)
Main carbohydrate staple(s): The main carbohydrate staples are yams, sweet potatoes, maize, millet, and various kinds of beans. (1p53)
Main protein-lipid sources: The main protein-lipid sources are sheep and goat, but occasionally bull and oxen.
Weapons: “ The most important weapons are: (1) spears; (2)swords ;(3) bow and arrows ;(4)shields ;(5)a variety of clubs and knobkerries; and (6) slings.” (1p82) “…the chief use for the weapon is hunting, and in former days it was used in tribal wars.”
Food storage: Food and cattle is stored in the hut of wife/wives. o “…the woman’s hut is strictly used for her private purposes and family matters.”
“According to the Gikuyu customary law of land tenure every family unit had a land right of one form or another. While the whole tribe defended collectively the boundary of their territory, every inch of land within it had its owner.”
Buying and Selling Land: “After land was bought from Ndorobo, any man who held such land, through purchase or inheritance, had full rights to sell it outright or give it to any one as he liked without consulting any one, except the elders who acted as the ceremonial witnesses in all land transactions. By inheritance we mean a single son inheriting the land from his father who had no other relatives.”
Land Inheritance: “After the death of the father the land passed on to his sons, the eldest son took his fathers place. At this juncture the system of land tenure changed a little, there was no one who could regard the land as ‘mine.’ All would call it ‘our land.’ The eldest son who had assumed the title of moramati (titular or trustee) had no more rights than his brothers, except the title; he could not sell the land without the agreement of his brothers who had the same full cultivation rights on the pieces of land which they cultivated as well as those which were cultivated by their respective mothers.”
Ceremony of Marking the Boundary: “In analysing the Gikuyu system of land tenure the most important aspect and deciding factor as to the ownership of land is the ceremony of marking the boundary…It was only when the purchaser had paid or agreed to pay the number of sheep and goats required as the price of the land, that the two parties concluded an agreement in the form of a ceremony. This was done in the presence of the principal elders of the district who acted as witnesses.”
In the pottery industry all the work, from start to finish, is done by women; the digging of the clay, beating and softening it, the moulding and drying, the burning of the pots, and finally, marketing- all these are entirely the tasks of women. Men are debarred by custom from approaching the moulding-place, especially when the work is in progress. Men are not allowed to touch any material associated with this work. The presence of a man at the moulding-place is said to have a bad effect on the articles and causes the pots to break when they are put on the fire.” The pottery industry is not carried all the year round, but is restricted to certain seasons. The most favourable time for making earthenware vessels is during the time when crops are nearly ripe, and again after the harvest…The industry is carried on with two purposes in view: firstly, to satisfy the family’s wants; and secondly, for marketing. The latter is the most important and deciding factor as to whether pots are to be manufactured or not, for unless the potters are satisfied that there is a good market for their articles they will not undertake the task.”
“Sexual intercourse must not take place…whilst food is being cooked, or the food will have to be thrown away, for an act of this nature renders the food unclean and unfit for human consumption. Anyone eating such food will have thahu (defilement), and will have to be cleansed by a mondo mogo (witch doctor), for it is feared that unless this is done, disaster will befall such a man.”
Until 1888, the Agikuyu literature was purely expressed in folklore. Famous stories include The Maiden Who Was Sacrificed By Her Kin, The Lost Sister, The Four Young Warriors, The Girl who Cut the Hair of the N'jenge, and many more.
When the European missionaries arrived in the Agikuyu country in 1888, they learned the Kikuyu language and started writing it using a modified Roman alphabet. The Kikuyu responded strongly to missionaries and European education. They had greater access to education and opportunities for involvement in the new money economy and political changes in their country. As a consequence, there are notable Kikuyu literature icons such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Meja Mwangi. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's literary works include Caitani Mutharabaini (1981), Matigari (1986) and Murogi wa Kagogo (Wizard of the Crow (2006)) which is the largest known Kikuyu language novel having been translated into more than thirty languages.
Traditional Kikuyu music has existed for generations up to 1888, when the Agikuyu people encountered and adopted a new culture from the Europeans. Before 1888 and well into the 1920s, Kikuyu music included Kibaata, Nduumo and Muthunguci. Cultural loss increased as urbanization and modernization impacted on indigenous knowledge, including the ability to play the mũtũrĩrũ - an oblique bark flute. Today, music and dance are strong components of Kikuyu culture. There is a vigorous Kikuyu recording industry, for both secular and gospel music, in their pentatonic scale and western music styles such as "Mathwiti Maigi Ngai!".
Typical Agĩkũyũ food includes Yams, sweet potatoes,Gītheri (maize and beans, after corns was introduced to Africa), Mūkimo (mashed green peas and potatoes), Kīmitū (mashed beans and potatoes), Irio (mashed dry beans, corn and potatoes), Mūtura (sausage made using goat intestines, meat and blood), Ūcūrū (fermented porridge made from flour of corn, millet or sorghum) roast goat, beef, chicken and cooked green vegetables such as collards, spinach and carrots.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
In April 2018, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa made a resolution to prohibit its members from the Kikuyu cultural rite known as “Mburi cia Kiama” and this triggered disturbances among devotees in the region of Mount Kenya. The “Mburi cia Kiama” entails the slaughtering of goats and advising men on how to become respected elders. When this process is over, they join different “kiamas” (groups). It is in these groups that they are given advice on issues like marriage, the Kikuyu culture and community responsibilities. Members of the church were given the ultimatum to renounce the cultural practice or to leave the church’s fold.
Missionaries: o “Among ourselves, a large part of the character and moral training of our children is considered to be among the nomal duties of the parents – and long may it remain so. There are, too, many Kikuyu parents, especially among the genuine Christians and among those who still retain faith in their ancient beliefs who try to train their children to become fit members of the adult community. But there are countless other Kikuyu children today for whom ‘education’ means only book learning and who are growing up without any real preparation for good citizenship and the responsibilities of modern life. On this failure of the education system that we have introduced, in place of the old tribal one, a heavy responsibility for the troubles of today must rest.” (2p77)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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).
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 the Mungiki sect for a modern parallel).
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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'.