The Tharaka are a Bantu-speaking ethnic community in Kenya. They are a sub-community of the Ameru, and their origin is connected to the culture of the Chuka, Mwimbi, Imenti, Tigania and Igembe communities. The language of the Tharaka is Kiitharaka. The larger Tharaka community is located on the low plains between the slopes of Mount Kenya in the west and the upper Tana River in the east, Tharaka-Nithi County.
The large Tharaka community occupies the low plains between the slopes of Mount Kenya in the west and the upper Tana River in the east.
Their history of migration dates back to the spread of the Bantu people from Congo, where the Tharaka remained near the river and the rest settled in the Meru County. About one-tenth live in towns, the rest in villages. Village life is considered the superior lifestyle as it preserves their tradition and culture.
They are farmers, keeping cows, goats and sheep and growing cereal crops, cotton, and sun flowers. They trade with people all over the nation and the economy has developed quickly in recent years.
A sense of belonging is an important aspect of life among the Tharaka people. The most respected person is a "mukuru" (elder), who gives advice and settles disputes in the community. A man has to go through several stages in life and education before reaching this highest state.
Marriage brings the woman's family into close relation with the man's and involves a high bride price paid by the husband's father to the wife's father. During the ceremony itself there is a lot of celebrating and beer drinking. Other celebrations take place during circumcision ceremonies, on the birth of a child and in the harvests of June and January.
The historical origin of the Tharaka is enshrined in the Ameru legends and folklore. A notable legend is that of a person called Kibuka.
According to legend, Kibuka was the Tharaka’s spiritual leader – a medicine man, diviner and rain maker. He provided the Tharaka warriors with charms in wars to protect them from enemies during combat. His eldest son led the Tharaka battalions in every war. In several instances the son was killed, but was resurrected by the power of charms marked on his abdomen by his father.
The magic horn and Kibuka's shrine
One time, a Tharaka traitor revealed to the enemy the power of the charm on the son’s abdomen. When the enemy killed him, they gouged out the charm from the abdomen, killing him completely. The charm was a magic horn (rugoci).
The murder of his son enraged Kibuka so greatly that he cursed the Tharaka and left his residence, a shrine. The shrine is said to be near Kibuka Primary School in Tunyai, Tharaka County.
The Tharaka social structure was based on the clan system. Members of a particular age-set, circumcised at the same time, were given a rank in the age groupings. The rank defined the behavior of individual members and their behavior toward members of other age groups, both younger and older. The older an age-set became, the more respect it was given.
The council of elders
The council of elders (kiama) was the judicial authority of the community. They were responsible for ensuring law and order, decision-making, religion, and administration.
The Tharaka also believed in the power of the witch doctor. They were considered elite and believed to possess knowledge of medicines and spiritual matters. People would come to them to foretell the future, and for healing. They also had the power to cause misfortune to others, which only another witch could cure.
The primary apparatus of the witch doctors consisted of a series of gourds/calabashes, roots, barks and leaves, cow horns, charm ornaments, totems of snail and sea shells and, the most common, the fly whisk.
Circumcision: the pathway to marriage and adulthood
Among the Tharaka, circumcision was an important event in every young person's life. Boys and girls were circumcised at the onset of puberty. They were circumcised and categorized according to seasons. Boys circumcised in the same season were considered “muntu wa nthuke yeetu” (a fellow initiate of the same season).
From boy to warrior
After the boys had been circumcised, they would be deemed ready for war and marriage.
Marriage and courtship
Marriage was an important and long ceremonious process for the Tharaka. A young man who wished to marry informed his parents, who would then take honey beer (uki bwa kuromba mwariki) to the girl’s parents to express their interest. If the girl’s parents accepted the beer, then the courtship and engagement process began.
Traditionally, a bride was required to be a virgin and stay in the mother-in-law's hut for at least four months of the engagement period before moving in with the groom. The purpose of this was to find out if the girl was of sound moral standing by observing her.
The price of the bride
Traditionally the Tharaka were polygamous. The bride price constituted five cattle or sixty goats for the first wife; three cattle or thirty goats for the second wife. After the bride price has been calculated and paid to the bride’s father, the marriage was celebrated with a feast at the husband’s home.
The bride would wear a triangular leather apron embroidered with cowrie shells and suspended from the neck, reaching the waist, during her wedding ceremony.
Nthuku worn by married women
Nthuku were armlets worn above the elbow by married women who have delivered their first born. A special man ('mutungi') would wind this around a woman's arm.
The Tharaka were mainly agro-pastoralists who relied on the subsistence farming of crops such as maize, beans, sorghum, millet, sweet potatoes, yams, cabbage and fruits. They kept cattle, goats and sheep, and were known for bee-keeping.
Gonia is a cowbell made by a local blacksmith. It was tied around a cow's neck when the herders go to graze. The sound it produced helped the Tharaka herders to track the location of the cattle when they went astray.
Murigi is a rake used in the fields. It was made from wood of the uthigira tree. The fork end was used to toss away brushwood while the hook on its end was used for pulling.
Pogoro is a stick cut and used by men for hanging bee hives up on trees.
Many of the cultural practices of the Maasai are still embraced today, but have been influenced by the changes in society. The heritage and culture of the Tharaka community, along with the more than 44 communities in Kenya, continues to fascinate and inspire. The National Museums of Kenya invites everyone to celebrate the intangible cultural heritage of all communities which makes up this great nation.