Kikuyu Culture

Kikuyu Man

According to Kikuyu mythology, all of creation began at the summit of Mount Kenya. The icy peak was the realm of Ngai, the Supreme Creator, who descended from the heavens to his mountainous throne to survey his newly created lands. The mountain became Kirinyaga, his resting place, and it was from here that he called forth Gikuyu, the father of the Kikuyu people.

Ngai told him that all of the lands around Kirinyaga would be the home of Gikuyu and his children forever. He sent Gikuyu to grove of Fig trees, where he found a woman called Mumbi. This grove would become known as ‘Mukuru wa Nyagathanga’, the birthplace of all Kikuyu, still revered as a sacred place.

Among the fig trees, Gikuyu and Mumbi produced nine daughters – Wanjiku, Wanjiru, Wanjeri, Wambui, Wangari, Wacera, Waithera, Wairimu, and Nyambura (traditionally all Kikuyu girls should be given one of these names). The girls grew into beautiful young women, who each full moon wandered the lands around Kirinyaga in search of men so that they could bear children. They begged their father to appeal to Ngai for help. Finally he bowed before the Mountain, and Ngai commanded him to make sacrifice among the figs and light a fire.

The sacrifice of a goat beneath a fig tree is still considered a way to call rain in times of drought, but in this first case it was a different form of life sustaining rain that Gikuyu sought. After the sacrifice he plunged nine sticks into a fire, and prayed. The fire erupted into an inferno, from which nine strong young men emerged. Giving thanks, Gikuyu took them back to his daughters, and the nine marriages were blessed by Ngai.

Each of the daughters made her own homestead, and nine separate clans of the Kikuyu were born. the unity of these clans was known as the Nyumba ya Mumbi, in honour of their Mother. The peak of Kirinyaga has since remained the sacred home of Ngai. All Kikuyu homesteads were traditionally built to face this Holy Mountain.

In reality, the traditional Kikuyu lands (from Mt Kenya south through the Aberdares and towards present day Nairobi) have indeed been long inhabited by the Kikuyu, but their exact origins are uncertain. The most widely held theory is that they descended from a now extinct group known as the Thagicu, who are considered the linguistic ancestors of the Kikuyu, Kamba, Meru, Tharaka and other tribes. Some Kikuyu lore also speaks of the Gumba, a tribe of pygmy hunter gatherers who lived in holes under the ground, being absorbed by the early Kikuyu.

Regardless, the Kikuyu were traditionally an industrious people who quickly expanded throughout the central highlands. They came into close contact with the Maasai, with whom they shared some traditional practices and elements of dress, and intermarriage was common. This resulted in some Maasai clans being absorbed into the Kikuyu.

The Kikuyu culture has always remained bound by strict and strong ties of clan loyalty and an even stronger sense of tribal unity – still devoted to the original Nyumba ya Mumbi. There was an age set system among young men, known as Mariika, but all clans and villages (itura) always paid deference to the wisdom and law of the tribe. There were many tribal councils of elders known as Kiama.

There was a structured system of Chiefdom, with all powerful ‘Paramount Chiefs’ ruling entire areas. Society was strongly patriarchal – with one surprising exception. In the mid-19th century, a Paramount chief appointed a woman, Wangu wa Makeri, as Chief of an area near modern day Muran’ga.

She proved to be a very powerful and authoritarian ruler. Rigid order was maintained, and she was widely supported by the female population. The men however, felt differently. She was known to treat her male subjects harshly, and it is believed that she even used to require men to kneel on all fours so that she could sit on their backs. Dissent among the male ranks grew, and a very unique political coup was hatched.

All of the men plotted to impregnate their wives at around the same time, knowing that in nine months the majority of Makeri’s supporters would be physically disabled. This actually worked, and a wave of planned pregnancies (including Makeri herself) swept her from power. The men easily assumed control as the female population, almost entirely heavily pregnant, in childbirth or nursing, were powerless to stop this unusual, bloodless coup.

The Kikuyu were widely effected by the coming of European settlement. The Mountain was first described by the German explorer Krapf in 1849, though his stories of snow on the equator were mostly dismissed as ridiculous. The British found the highlands of Kenya to be ideal for settlement and farming and the Kikuyu were widely displaced. Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa is an interesting European perspective of the initial relationship between settler and Kikuyu on her coffee plantation just outside Nairobi.

The British were shocked to find that Kikuyu elders were sometimes found high on the snowline of the mountain, making pilgrimages to their god. Such climbs seem to have been a regular custom. Whether or not they ever actually achieved the summit is still unknown. The first recorded ascents by European climbers were made in 1899 and 1928.

Meanwhile the industrious nature and opportunism saw the Kikuyu quickly take advantage of the arrival of the colonial settlers, and the Kikuyu quickly became some of the first western educated local authorities and business men.

At the same time, resentment at the loss of land and imposition of colonial restrictions grew. The Kikuyu the driving force behind the Independence movement, and the inevitable initial stakeholders in Kenyan politics and business. Today, the Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest tribe.

Some may consider that the Kikuyu were quick to abandon tradition and embrace Western values, but Kikuyu loyalty remains very strong, and traditional beliefs hold strong in many communities. Rites of passage, especially initiation and marriage, remain very important and widely celebrated events.

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